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March 28, 2020

Rounding up some tales of crime amidst COVID lockdowns

I have seen a number of recent headlines discussing crime realities as we complete another week of shuttered cities battling the coronavirus.  Here is a sampling from major news sources:

From the Associated Press, "Coronavirus-related crimes are on the rise"

From the Chicago Tribune, "Chicago joins New York, Los Angeles with drops in crime as coronavirus and shelter order take hold"

From the Los Angeles Times, "Coronavirus restrictions caused crime to fall sharply, LAPD and sheriff report"

From The Marshall Project, "As Coronavirus Surges, Crime Declines in Some Cities"

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Despite concerns of lawlessness, Philadelphia crime drops in first week of social distancing"

From the Wall Street Journal, "Coronavirus Pandemic Changes Policing, Including Fewer Arrests: As crime falls, police focus on keeping social order, enforcing social distancing"

From the Washington Post, "New York City’s crime rate plummets amid coronavirus shutdown"

March 28, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Five ways the criminal justice system could slow the pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this great new report from the Prison Policy Initiative.  Here is how the report gets started and its listed "five ways":

The United States incarcerates a greater share of its population than any other nation in the world, so it is urgent that policymakers take the public health case for criminal justice reform seriously and make necessary changes to protect people in prisons, in jails, on probation, and on parole.

Below, we offer five far-reaching interventions that policymakers can use to slow the spread of the virus in the criminal justice system and broader society. We previously published a list of common sense reforms that could slow the spread of the virus in jails and prisons.  In light of the rapid spread of COVID-19 throughout the U.S., and specifically in prisons and jails, we found it necessary to update these recommendations with more detail about who has the power and responsibility to enact policy change, and how to reform the criminal justice system in the midst of a public health crisis.

Quick action is necessary for three reasons: Correctional staff and incarcerated populations are already testing positive, the justice-involved population disproportionately has health conditions that make them more vulnerable, and the staffing resources required to make policy changes will be depleted long before the pandemic peaks.

The incarcerated and justice-involved populations contain hundreds of thousands of people who may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, including those with lung disease, asthma, serious heart conditions, diabetes, renal or liver disease, and with other immunocompromising conditions. Protecting vulnerable people will not only improve outcomes for them, but will also reduce the burden on the healthcare system, protect essential correctional staff from illness, and slow the spread of the virus....

The final reason to move quickly is that, even under normal circumstances, establishing and implementing new policies and practices is something that the government finds challenging to do on top of its other duties.  Now that the number of COVID-19 cases is higher in the U.S. than any other country, we know that more people will continue to be directly impacted by illness, including policymakers and government leaders.  With the possibility of up to 40% of government lawyers and other policymakers getting sick or taking care of sick relatives, making policy change is going to be much harder and take far longer.  If the government wants to protect both justice-involved people and their already overstretched justice system staff from getting the virus and spreading it further, they need to act now.

Here are five places to focus:

1. Reduce the number of people in local jails....

2. Reduce the number of people in state and federal prisons....

3. Eliminate unnecessary face-to-face contact for justice-involved people....

4. Make correctional healthcare humane (and efficient) in a way that protects both health and human dignity....

5. Don’t make this time more stressful for families (or more profitable for prison telephone providers) than absolutely necessary....

March 28, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Just a few governors starting to (barely) address looming prison and jail COVID crisis

I am pleased to see more and more advocates and groups in more and more states making more and more urgent pleas to governors and other public officials to address the looming public health problems posed by modern mass incarceration.  For example, here are reports of recent decarceration pitches in Alabama, Connecticut, Nevada, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas.  In this vein, I am hopeful that Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who has been an effective and inspiring leader during these trying times, might soon respond to this thoughtful plea from a coalition of Ohio public policy groups to take aggressive steps to reduce prison and jail populations in the Buckeye State to advance our public health interests.

With this new report from Georgia of a 49-year-old inmate dying from the coronavirus and many other state prisoners and staffers testing positive, it seems to be only a matter of time before every state chief executive comes to understand the lurking public health problems posed by the combination of mass incarceration and COVID-19.  Late yesterday, I am glad to report, a couple of governors acted (in relatively small ways) to address these issues:

California: "Gavin Newsom commutes prison sentences for 21 California inmates, pardons 5 more"

New York: "Cuomo orders 1,100 parole violators released from jails over coronavirus concerns"

Though we should always welcome and praise governors who do something rather than nothing on these issues, we are going to need a lot more something from a lot more governors to head off a lot more public health problems.

A few of many prior related posts:

March 28, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 27, 2020

Hundreds of former DOJ officials and federal judges urge Prez Trump to commute sentences and create emergency advisory group to respond to COVID-19 challenges

The folks at Fair and Just Prosecution has this new press release discussing a notable new plea for more action from Prez Trump to address COVID-19 challenges in our nation's criminal justice system.  From the start of the press release (with bold in the original):

Today 405 former DOJ leaders, attorneys, and federal judges — including 35 former United States Attorneys who served under both Republican and Democratic Administrations —issued an open letter to President Donald Trump asking him to take immediate action to reduce the population in federal detention and correctional centers to prevent the catastrophic outbreak of COVID-19 in these facilities.  In the letter, they urge the President to support efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 among those held in federal custody — as well as the many individuals who work in these facilities and return to their community at the end of each shift — by:

  • Using his executive power to sensibly commute sentences for the elderly, those who are medically vulnerable and individuals who have already served most of their sentence, provided that they do not pose a serious risk to public safety;
  • Encouraging and establishing policies to promote the limitation of new custody to only individuals who present a serious and demonstrable risk to public safety;
  • Creating a bipartisan emergency advisory group to quickly guide this process and ensure the most vulnerable are protected;
  • Urging the Bureau of Prisons to take measures to ensure correctional staff receive regular testing as well as health care support, including full pay if they become sick with the virus; and
  • Supporting emergency funding for prevention, treatment, reentry support, and incentivizing state and local governments to address the public health concerns in their own jails and prisons.

I like all these recommendations, and I especially see value in creating some kind of special working group to focus on a range of federal and national criminal justice administration issue.

UPDATE: I have also now seen this additional letter that dozens of leading public health experts has sent to President Trump.  Here is this letter's chief clemency recommendations (with bold in the original):

First, we ask that you commute sentences for all elderly people.  While the SARS-CoV-2 virus infects people of all ages, the World Health Organization (WHO) is clear that older people are at a higher risk of getting severe COVID-19 disease and dying.  In fact, the risk of severe disease gradually increases with age starting from around 40 years.  Also, older people who are released from prison pose little risk to public safety.

Second, we are also asking that you commute sentences for the medically vulnerable population including persons suffering from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, or cancer.  In addition to older people, WHO has identified persons with these underlying medical conditions to be at greater risk for contracting severe COVID-19.  While there is little known yet about the effects of COVID-19 on pregnant women, the CDC explains that with viruses from the same family as COVID-19, and other viral respiratory infections such as influenza, pregnant women have had a higher risk of developing severe illness.

Third, we are asking that you commute sentences for all persons who have one year or less remaining on their sentence.  This measure will limit overcrowding that can lead to further spread of COVID-19 and free up beds that will be needed to care for the sick who should be housed separate from others.

March 27, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Federal inmates and staff all around the nation now testing positive for coronavirus

In this post yesterday, I noted a press piece which reported that Attorney General William Barr had said that a "total of six inmates and four prison staffers have tested positive for COVID-19."  Because my post was done after 3pm yesterday, I was able to then report that, as of March 26, the BOP was reporting 10 federal inmates and 8 federal prison staffers had tested positive for COVID-19.  It is now after 3pm on March 27, and the BOP's COVID-19 Update page is now reporting that 14 federal inmates and 13 federal prison staffers have tested positive for COVID-19.  Here is where those numbers come from:

(Inmate) 3/27/2020 - MDC Brooklyn; FCC Oakdale (5); USP Atlanta (2); MCC New York (2); RRC Phoenix; RRC Brooklyn (3). (Note: Symptomatic inmates are isolated in accordance with CDC guidelines.)

(Staff) 3/27/2020 - Grand Prairie, TX; Leavenworth, KS (no inmate contact); Yazoo, MS (2); Atlanta, GA; Danbury, CT; Butner, NC; Ray Brook, NY; New York, NY (2); Chicago, IL (2); Brooklyn, NY.

In addition to wishing all these individuals well, I am also wishing that everyone expects and acts as if these numbers are likely to grow exponentially in the days and weeks to come. Public official have the power, and now that power must be used, to avoid turning far too many prisons sentences into essentially death sentences.

A few of many prior related posts:

March 27, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Four Things Every Prison System Must Do Today"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Slate piece authored by Margo Schlanger and Sonja Starr. I highly recommend this piece in full and here are excerpts:

As COVID-19 spreads rapidly throughout the United States, it has begun to enter our prisons and jails, which confine more than 2 million people. We are on the verge of catastrophe — for incarcerated persons, staff, and their families, obviously, but also for the general public. Some officials have been sounding the alarm, and we’re beginning to see some action — but not nearly enough, and not fast enough....

Per capita, the incarcerated population in the United States is several times larger than that of nearly every other country in the world. That renders us uniquely vulnerable to this disease vector.  It is nearly inevitable that this virus will hit our prisons and jails hard and soon.  Indeed, it’s surely already in more of them than we know.  The only question is how bad the damage will be.  We can mitigate it only with swift and aggressive action.

The only way to really limit this catastrophe is by quickly reducing the number of people incarcerated. If we can get everyone out who doesn’t have to be there, it will also produce some critical space that institutions will need to enable social distancing and to isolate the sick, and might even make it possible to operate with reduced staff.  And although some are already infected, there will be a smaller number if we act today than there will be if we act tomorrow, or next month. Moreover, we can minimize the risk those already infected pose to the community by ordering that those released stay at home for two weeks or more.

Governors of many states have the authority, under emergency powers and/or their ordinary clemency powers, to order quite sweeping steps. Courts can implement others  (here’s a catalog of state Supreme Court orders so far, and also of litigation seeking emergency prisoner releases), and local prosecutors can be crucial actors as well.  There are several key steps that states (and the federal system) should take:

1. Delay new sentences, except as absolutely necessary. Sentence start dates, sentencing hearings, plea hearings, and trial dates can be deferred until after the emergency....

2. Sharply limit pretrial detention....

3. Commute all sentences due to end within a year....

4. Release older and chronically ill individuals....

Some of the steps proposed here might seem radical in ordinary times. But these are extraordinary times. Throughout the country, governors and other public officials are taking sweeping, dramatic actions to protect the public from COVID-19. Ordinary Americans are upending our lives in ways we could not have imagined just a week or two ago. If we don’t think at the same scale about the brewing crisis in prisons and jails, we will all suffer the consequences.

March 27, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Assembling some COVID criminal justice resource pages

I have previously posted here and elsewhere about some collected resources on coronavirus issues, but I have now decided to try to put some of these resources more permanently on my left sidebar.  Here are the links I have assembled so far, and I welcome suggested additions.

 

UPDATE: A helpful reader from Down Under wrote to me to suggest a bunch of additional terrific COVID-19 resource pages, including a number of international sites:

March 27, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Guest post/question: "Will home confinement become a more (or less) attractive alternative to incarceration?"

6a00d83451574769e201b7c9134b4d970b-320wiA thoughtful and insightful colleague wrote to me this morning to pose the question in the title of this post.  I asked for a fuller write up of the query for posting, and here it is:

Section 5F1.2 of the federal sentencing guidelines defines “home detention” this way —

"Home detention” means a program of confinement and supervision that restricts the defendant to his place of residence continuously, except for authorized absences, enforced by appropriate means of surveillance by the probation office.  When an order of home detention is imposed, the defendant is required to be in his place of residence at all times except for approved absences for gainful employment, community service, religious services, medical care, educational or training programs, and such other times as may be specifically authorized.  Electronic monitoring is an appropriate means of surveillance for home detention. However, alternative means of surveillance may be used if appropriate.

For most of us, the last two weeks have genuinely been a period of home detention.  For me, I’ve been supervised in my confinement not by a probation officer, but my wife and daughters, who, should I venture out too far or too long, are quick to send me an electronic message to return home.  [I think this meets the term “alternative means of surveillance” as used in 5F1.2.]  And of course, I am not approved for absences for gainful employment (telework), religious services (cancelled), or educational or training programs (Zoom).

Later today, the House of Representatives will pass legislation that will expand the use of home confinement for federal prisoners to address the current COVID crisis, and Attorney General Barr has already issued a directive to the Bureau of Prisons to expand its use (see earlier posts here and here).  Many of us for years have advocated for the expanded use of home confinement and electronic monitoring as alternatives to imprisonment and to reduce the nation’s reliance on imprisonment for punishing convicted offenders.  I’m not sure, though, now that we all have experienced home confinement, whether it will be a more — or less— attractive alternative to incarceration.

Doug — What do you think?   

Readers — What do you think?

My first-cut answer to this great question is an answer I have been trotting out a lot these days: "Who the heck knows, but I am eager to find out."

I am certain many people are not enjoying their personal "home confinement," and will be finding it more and more burdensome in the weeks to come.  But I also know that personal "home confinement" still likely would be, and surely should be, seen as much less burdensome than actually being incarcerated. (A recent Marshall Project speaks to this reality: "No, Your Coronavirus Quarantine Is Not Just Like Being in Prison.")   I fear that many persons may be inclined to say, after the pandemic resolves, some version of "Criminals should always face a harder experience than I did during COVID."

That all said, so much of the reality of criminal justice administration can be shaped by economics, especially at the state level where incarceration costs take up a much larger percentage of overall state budgets.  Home confinement surely will always be much cheaper than imprisonment, and finding cheaper punishments may become extremely important (for states in particular) if we are facing a long recession that makes limited state resources even more scarce. 

Last but certainly not least, if some states moved a significant number of current prisoners into home confinement while others do not, we will be starting an interesting and important "natural experiment" on the efficacy of home confinement relative to imprisonment.  Though this "natural experiment" will not be able to give us conclusive data on whether home confinement serves public safety as well as imprisonment, advocacy for decarceration are likely to highlight this experience if we do not see a huge spike in crime in those states that have decarcerated more.

March 27, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Colorado Gov issues big executive order to address the impact of coronavirus on criminal justice administration

As reported in this local article, the "signing of two new executive orders by Gov. Jared Polis to combat coronavirus were announced Thursday [including] one to limit COVID-19 in prisons." Here are the basics:

Executive order D 2020 016 concerns “protocol for state prisons and community corrections facilities,” the release said.  Directives of the order include:

  • Colorado Department of Corrections can temporarily limit the amount of prisoners it accepts, based on certain criteria, keeping offenders in pre-transfer facilities.
  • DOC can award “earned time credits” to reduce the current prison population.
  • Qualifying inmates can be referred to a “Special Needs Parole” program.
  • A $17 daily subsistence payment required from community corrections clients will be suspended.

“The potential spread of COVID-19 in facilities and prisons poses a significant threat to prisoners and staff who work in facilities and prisons, as well as the communities to which incarcerated persons will return,” the release said.

The governor’s order also calls for making 650 beds available in the DOC’s East Cañon Complex, Cañon City, to “house persons of mixed classification for operational needs related to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who has worked extensively on prison issues, supports the order. “The Executive Order is a critical recognition that something needs to be done to contain COVID-19 in our prisons and community corrections. The virus will strike there, as it will all of our communities, and I’m encouraged that the governor recognizes this fact and is taking important steps to contain its spread,” Herod said. “This is vital and I support it. We must keep offenders and our correctional officers safe and as healthy as possible.”

Dean Williams, executive director of CDOC, also applauded and supports the order. “This Executive Order from the Governor allows us to pursue potential options to manage our prison population without jeopardizing safety during this crisis,” Williams said in a statement. “We will be working diligently over the coming days and weeks to put into action the directives from the order in a thoughtful and measured way.”

Though I am not familiar enough with Colorado law to assess all the particulars of this executive order, which is titled "Temporarily Suspending Certain Regulatory Statutes Concerning Criminal Justice," I am familiar enough with the challenges that COVID is creating that I can praise Gov Polis for being proactive in this arena. 

March 27, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 26, 2020

Will thousands of federal prisoners be eligible for home confinement under AG Barr's new guidelines?

Attorney General William Barr's new directive and guidelines to the Bureau of Prisons to prioritize home confinement for certain at-risk inmates can be seen as a small response to a big emergency.  This CBS News piece notes one response along these lines:

The announcement comes after calls from criminal justice advocacy groups to reduce prison populations nationwide in order to avoid what could be a disastrous and dangerous spread of the virus.  Kevin Ring, the president of Families against Mandatory Minimums, told CBS News his concern is that inmates will die unnecessarily if the bureau does not take "bolder" actions.  Ring says officials should consider other avenues like compassionate release.  "I don't think it's enough," Ring said.  "I think it's a small step in the right direction, but I think it's a peacetime move in a time of war."

Though I share the view that even bolder action is warranted, the extraordinary size and relatively low-risk profile of the federal prison population might still well mean that many thousands of federal inmates could be moved out of prison if BOP robustly implements AG Barr's guidance. The CDC states that "older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions may be at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19," and possibly as much as 20% of the 175,000+ inmates might reasonably claim to be a-risk under CDC criteria and also claim to meet the other home confinement criteria set out by AG Barr.

Even assuming that only a very small percentage of prisoners, say, only 1 out of every 15 current federal prisoners, meet the home confinement criteria, that would still mean that well over 11,000 federal prisoners would be eligible to head home to serve out the rest of their sentences.  Because BOP has a well-earn reputation for being unwilling or unable to help prisoners get out of federal facilities early, I am not so confident that we will soon be seeing thousands of federal prisoners heading home.  But the directive from AG Barr now would seem to make that more of a possibility.

Prior related posts:

March 26, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

"Correctional Facilities In The Shadow Of COVID-19: Unique Challenges And Proposed Solutions"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy and comprehensive new posting at the Health Affairs Blog.  I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here is how it gets started:

As the global COVID-19 pandemic accelerates, it is critical to note that incarcerated people in the U.S. have a constitutional right to healthcare services that meet community standards, and that older adults and those with chronic and/or serious medical conditions in prisons and jails are at grave risk of experiencing serious illness and death due to a COVID-19 infection -- just as they would be in the community.

Given the rate and spread of infection in the U.S., direct impact in many if not most U.S. correctional systems is inevitable.  Failure to mount an adequate response to potential COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the nation’s jails and prisons has the potential to devastate the health and well-being of incarcerated Americans, the nation’s correctional workforce, and people living in the thousands of communities in which our jails and prisons are located.  As the epidemic rapidly worsens, the narrow window of opportunity to implement effective prevention and mitigation strategies on behalf of people living and working in U.S. jails and prisons is quickly closing.  Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) called upon correctional systems worldwide to take action, issuing interim guidelines for responding to the pandemic in jails, prisons, and other places of detetion, while protecting the health, safey and human rights of incarcerated people and correctional workforces. 

While coordinated action over the coming days and weeks is critical, there are many reasons that responding to COVID-19 in U.S. jails and prisons is uniquely and extraordinarily challenging.

And here is just some of the additional commentary I saw today in this same vein:

"COVID-19 gives us an urgent argument for compassionate release"

"How mass incarceration will lead to mass infection — and how to avoid it"

"‘The Only Plan the Prison Has Is to Leave Us to Die in Our Beds’"

"What Cuomo Hasn’t Done"

"Larry Hogan can lead by addressing covid-19 in prisons and jails"

"Families Fear The Worst As Coronavirus Spreads In Prisons"

March 26, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

"U.S. attorney general seeks to expand home confinement as coronavirus spreads in prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Reuters piece, and here are the details:

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said Thursday he has directed the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to expand its use of home confinement for inmates in appropriate cases, as the coronavirus has continued to spread in the federal prison system.

A total of six inmates and four prison staffers have tested positive for COVID-19, Barr said, adding that several federal facilities including two in New York City are now on lock-down as a result.

The First Step Act, signed into law by U.S. President Donald Trump in late 2018, expanded the BOP’s powers to maximize the amount of time that lower-risk inmates can spend in home confinement, when possible. “I’ve asked and issued a memorandum just today to the Bureau of Prisons to increase the use of home confinement,” Barr told reporters during what Barr said was the department’s first-ever “virtual” press conference in order to practice social-distancing.

“One of the things we have to assess is whether that individual...will be more safe in the particular circumstance in which they are going to find themselves. And in many cases, that may not be the case.” He added that any inmate released on home confinement will still face a 14-day quarantine.

Notably, since this article was published, the BOP has updated here its data on positive tests to report that there are now 10 federal inmates and 8 federal prison staffers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

UPDATE:  A helpful colleague provided me with a copy of the two page memorandum titled "Prioritization of Home Confinement As Appropriate In Response to COVID-19 Pandemic."  Here it is:

Download BOP Memo.Home Confinement

March 26, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

FAMM urges AG Barr to use new pending CARES Act provision to move federal prisoners into home confinement

I have not yet seen the exact language of the provision in the sure-to-pass federal CARES Act that expands the authority of the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prisons to move more persons from federal prison into home confinement.  But I have seen this new press release from FAMM, which starts this way:  

FAMM President Kevin Ring sent a letter today urging U.S. Attorney William Barr to immediately use his authority to release eligible people to home confinement as soon as the CARES Act becomes law.  The CARES Act, which was passed by the Senate last night and is expected to be approved by the House and signed by the president, permits the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to lengthen the maximum amount of time that a prisoner may be placed in home confinement, if the U.S. Attorney General finds that emergency conditions will materially affect the functioning of the BOP.

“In order to prevent unnecessary deaths and suffering, the BOP needs to get as many people out of prison as it safely can and get them to home confinement immediately,” Ring said.  “Congress is giving the attorney general the authority to make that happen.  We urge the attorney general to act the moment this bill is signed into law.  Lives are at stake.”

Ring said the use of home confinement would also ease the burden on halfway houses, in which movement has been restricted, employment opportunities have been halted, and people are confined in tight quarters.  As with people in prison, halfway house residents cannot comply with CDC guidance regarding social distancing and good hygiene.

March 26, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Documenting early federal court COVID jurisprudence in response to various release requests from federal defendants and inmates

In this post on Monday (March 23), I documented some recent pre-coronavirus cases in which federal prisoners secured sentence reductions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).   I expect we will see more and more of these cases in the weeks ahead, especially as FAMM and NACDL and other groups look to support efforts to move vulnerable federal inmates out of unhealthy prison facilities via this avenue.

In doing Westlaw research this morning, I thought it might be informative to look more generally at how federal judges are responding to COVID-19 related claims and issues in criminal cases.  As is always the case, there is not a predictable pattern as to which opinions show up in Westlaw and which ones do not, so Westlaw searches alone cannot serve as a form of reliable comprehensive research.  Nevertheless, a search in the "Federal District Court" database for "covid prison" returned nearly 30 federal cases from just the last two days(!), and here is a small sampling of what courts are considering and saying in written opinions that now appear on Westlaw:

United States v. Clark, No. 19-40068-01-HLT, 2020 WL 1446895 (D. Kansas March 25, 2020) (responding to defendant detailed pending trial: "On balance, Mr. Clark has not established compelling reasons sufficient to persuade the court that temporary release is necessary. He has established only that his status as a diabetic puts him at an increased risk for experiencing severe illness if he were to contract COVID-19. His arguments regarding the risk of an outbreak at his facility is speculative. Furthermore, he has not established that his proposed release plan would necessarily alleviate his overall COVID-19 risks.")

United States v. Eberhardt, No. 13-cr-00313-PJH-1, 2020 WL 1450745 (N.D. Cal. March 25, 2020) (responding to most for a reduced sentence: "Furthermore, defendant fails to show that concerns about the spread of COVID-19, without other factors to consider in his particular case, present extraordinary and compelling reasons that warrant modification of his sentence and immediate release from custody pursuant to § 3582(c)(1)(A).")

United States v. Garlock, No. 18-cr-00418-VC-1, 2020 WL 1439980 (N.D. Cal. March 25, 2020) (sua sponte deferral of prison report date: "To avoid adding to the chaos and creating unnecessary health risks, offenders who are on release and scheduled to surrender to the Bureau of Prisons in the coming months should, absent truly extraordinary circumstances, have their surrender dates extended until this public health crisis has passed.")

United States v. Fitzgerald, No. 2:17-cr-00295-JCM-NJK, 2020 WL 1433932 (D. Nevada. March 24, 2020) (responding to habeas application: "Defendant argued for the first time in reply that he faces an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 if he remains in custody.... Defendant’s argument, however, applies equally to anyone in custody or, for that matter, at the halfway house or anywhere else in this community or any other. Defendant’s argument applies equally to every detainee in detention; however, the Court cannot release every detainee at risk of contracting COVID-19 because the Court would then be obligated to release every detainee.")

United States v. Williams, No. PWG-13-544, 2020 WL 1434130 (D. Nevada. March 24, 2020) (responding to emergency motion to reconsider setting bond: "The Court has reflected on all of the considerations and factors in play at the detention hearing held on February 11. Even with the pandemic that has befallen us, it does not change the calculus of detention here.... Defendant has still failed to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that release is appropriate. The existence of the present pandemic, without more, is not tantamount to a “get out of jail free” card. Not even for the older person being detained. While there has been a change in conditions as a result of the pandemic, there has not been enough change to justify the release of Mr. Williams.")

March 26, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 25, 2020

"You’re going to see devastation that’s unbelievable" says former director of Colorado Department of Corrections

The quote in the title of this post jumped out at me as I reviewed this lengthy new Stateline piece headlined "‘Prisons Are Bacteria Factories’; Elderly Most at Risk." Here is context and excerpts from the piece:

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps the globe, prisoner advocates are warning of the potential for a disastrous outbreak among inmates.  The elderly are most vulnerable, and the U.S. inmate population is aging.  Jails and prisons, crowded places where social distancing is nearly impossible, are breeding grounds for contagious disease.

“These prisons are bacteria factories,” said Rick Raemisch, a consultant and former executive director at the Colorado Department of Corrections. “I don’t think people understand the gravity of what’s going to happen if this runs in a prison, and I believe it’s inevitable.  “You’re going to see devastation that’s unbelievable.”...

While state prisons have resisted calls to release inmates, several large county and municipal jurisdictions have freed hundreds of jail inmates deemed low-risk, including seniors and those in poor health.  New Jersey plans to release as many as a thousand people from its county jails, including inmates jailed for probation violations and those sentenced for low-level offenses.  Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that New York City may release more than 200 inmates, according to news reports.  Los Angeles County and Ohio’s Cuyahoga County also have released prisoners.

Prisoner advocacy groups in more than a half-dozen states, including Texas, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Michigan, have called on governors to release state prisoners, especially elderly inmates, through compassionate release or medical furlough....

State prison systems so far have sidestepped requests to release inmates. Instead, they are disinfecting more frequently and tightening screening at prison entrances, among other measures....  The prison system is emphasizing hand-washing and doing what it can to promote social distancing despite the obvious limitations in a prison environment, said Jeremy Desel, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “We’re doing everything we can in our power to socially distance folks as much as possible by slowing down offender movements and various other techniques,” he said, “but given the circumstances there will be times when there will be more people in one place than anybody would like.”...

Long before the emergence of the coronavirus, prison officials and state lawmakers across the country were concerned about elderly prisoners.  Patrick O'Daniel, chairman of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, told board members in late February that the number of Texas inmates 55 or older is growing by nearly a thousand a year and has doubled over the past decade.

The aging baby boomers now comprise nearly 15% of the more than 140,200 men and women in Texas prisons. Nationwide, nearly 12% of inmates in state and federal prisons are older than 55.  Like their counterparts on the outside, elderly prisoners make up the lion’s share of health care costs, putting intense pressure on government budgets.  Over a 10-year period ending in 2019, health care costs for the elderly in Texas prisons increased from $51.8 million to $114.7 million, encompassing often complicated and costly treatments for illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, hepatitis and a whole host of other aging-related ailments.

Prior coronavirus posts highlighting need for urgent action on imprisonment amidst epidemic:

March 25, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Headlines and news stories from jails and prisons in every part of the United States

I fear that I will not have the time and energy this morning to capture a recent headline and story about the coronavirus impact on jails and prison from every single US state.  But, aided greatly by a round-up this morning in The Opening Statement from The Marshal Project, I think I can at least hit every part of our great nation:

National: "'Disaster waiting to happen': Thousands of inmates released as jails and prisons face coronavirus threat"

Federal: "Sick Staff, Inmate Transfers, and No Tests: How the U.S. Is Failing Federal Inmates as Coronavirus Hits"

 

Arizona: "Concern spreads over potential COVID-19 outbreak in state prisons"

California: "1,700 inmates released from Los Angeles County in response to coronavirus outbreak"

Connecticut: "The DOC, with a first COVID-19 case, still hasn’t announced a plan for inmate release"

Florida: "Florida prison employee tests positive for COVID-19"

 

Georgia: "DeKalb Jail inmate, employee test positive for COVID-19"

Kentucky: "Chief justice pleads for Kentucky inmate releases ahead of COVID-19, but progress slow"

Louisiana: "More positive coronavirus cases for New Orleans jail staff as inmates await results"

Iowa: "Iowa’s prisons will accelerate release of approved inmates to mitigate COVID-19"

 

Massachusetts: "COVID-19 cases at Bridgewater prison facility up to 10"

New Jersey: "Inmate at Morris County Jail tests positive for COVID-19"

New York: "New York to release 300 nonviolent Rikers inmates amid pandemic"

Oklahoma: "Over 200 nonviolent offenders released from Oklahoma County jail to limit COVID-19 spread"

 

Pennsylvania: "Prison guards protest transfers of prisoners from covid-19 hotspots to central PA"

South Dakota: "8 inmates leave S.D. prison after another prisoner tests positive for COVID-19"

Tennessee: "25 People Released From Davidson County Jail in Anti-Outbreak Effort"

Texas: "Coronavirus hits Texas prisons with first inmate case confirmed"

Washington: "14 inmates escape from Washington jail amid COVID-19 shelter-in-place order"

 

All these headlines, capturing developments nationwide and in 17 states, surely captures only a tiny slice of everything going on these crazy days in incarceration nation. Whew.  Sigh.  Sniff.

March 25, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

March 24, 2020

"Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020"

WholePie_130The Prison Policy Initiative has today posted the latest, greatest version of its remarkable incarceration "pie" graphic and associated report on the particulars of who and how people are incarcerated in the United States.  The extraordinary pies produced by PPI impart more information in one image than just about any single resource, and at this moment it is especially valuable to know about just who is behind bars and for what.  Here is part of the report's introductory text and the concluding discussion:

Can it really be true that most people in jail are being held before trial? And how much of mass incarceration is a result of the war on drugs? These questions are harder to answer than you might think, because our country’s systems of confinement are so fragmented. The various government agencies involved in the justice system collect a lot of critical data, but it is not designed to help policymakers or the public understand what’s going on. As public support for criminal justice reform continues to build, however, it’s more important than ever that we get the facts straight and understand the big picture.

This report offers some much needed clarity by piecing together this country’s disparate systems of confinement. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories. This report provides a detailed look at where and why people are locked up in the U.S., and dispels some modern myths to focus attention on the real drivers of mass incarceration, including exceedingly punitive responses to even the most minor offenses.

This big-picture view allows us to focus on the most important drivers of mass incarceration and identify important, but often ignored, systems of confinement. The detailed views bring these overlooked systems to light, from immigration detention to civil commitment and youth confinement. In particular, local jails often receive short shrift in larger discussions about criminal justice, but they play a critical role as “incarceration’s front door” and have a far greater impact than the daily population suggests.

While this pie chart provides a comprehensive snapshot of our correctional system, the graphic does not capture the enormous churn in and out of our correctional facilities, nor the far larger universe of people whose lives are affected by the criminal justice system. Every year, over 600,000 people enter prison gates, but people go to jail 10.6 million times each year. Jail churn is particularly high because most people in jails have not been convicted. Some have just been arrested and will make bail within hours or days, while many others are too poor to make bail and remain behind bars until their trial. Only a small number (about 160,000 on any given day) have been convicted, and are generally serving misdemeanors sentences under a year. At least 1 in 4 people who go to jail will be arrested again within the same year — often those dealing with poverty, mental illness, and substance use disorders, whose problems only worsen with incarceration....

Now that we can see the big picture of how many people are locked up in the United States in the various types of facilities, we can see that something needs to change. Looking at the big picture requires us to ask if it really makes sense to lock up 2.3 million people on any given day, giving this nation the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Both policymakers and the public have the responsibility to carefully consider each individual slice in turn to ask whether legitimate social goals are served by putting each group behind bars, and whether any benefit really outweighs the social and fiscal costs.

Even narrow policy changes, like reforms to money bail, can meaningfully reduce our society’s use of incarceration. At the same time, we should be wary of proposed reforms that seem promising but will have only minimal effect, because they simply transfer people from one slice of the correctional “pie” to another. Keeping the big picture in mind is critical if we hope to develop strategies that actually shrink the “whole pie.”

March 24, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Broad coalition urges Prez Trump to commute the federal sentences in response to coronavirus crisis

A whole bunch of public policy and civil rights groups have just sent this short letter urging Prez Trump to utilize his clemency power to commute the federal sentences of those "who could benefit from compassionate release, and other populations that are exceptionally vulnerable to coronavirus."  The letter details the COVID-19 emergency emerging in prisons and jails and closes with this ask:

We call upon you to commute the federal sentences of individuals who could benefit from compassionate release, including those who: 

  • Are older and elderly; 
  • Have a terminal medical condition; 
  • Have a debilitated medical condition; 
  • Suffer from a chronic medical condition; or 
  • Have suffered a death of a family member who is a primary caregiver to a child of the person incarcerated.

In addition to commuting the federal sentences of individuals who could benefit from compassionate release, we call upon you to use your clemency power to release those incarcerated at the federal level who are elderly and/or particularly vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including: 

  • Blood disorders; 
  • Chronic kidney disease; 
  • Chronic liver disease; 
  • Compromised immune system (immunosuppression); 
  • Current or recent pregnancy; 
  • Endocrine disorders; 
  • Metabolic disorders; 
  • Heart disease; 
  • Lung disease; 
  • Neurological and neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions; and 
  • Hypertension.

As we work to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, it is essential that we not forget about the millions of Americans currently incarcerated and working in jails, prisons and detention centers, and that we take action to protect those who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Again, we ask you to commute the sentences for those populations at the federal level most vulnerable to coronavirus.

UPDATE: It is worth noting here that this call to Prez Trump to use his clemency powers to move people out of federal prisons could and should also be directed, on similar terms, to Governors across the nation.  Helpfully, I just got word from Margy Love that the Collateral Consequences Resource Center has a new resource on state clemency posers. This CCRC post provides the details and other helpful links:

At this time of pandemic, we have been following the discussions of how jail, prison, and immigration detention conditions are highly concerning, including the very useful collection of links provided by Professor Doug Berman, the demands published by advocacy organizations, and the collection of policy responses by the Prison Policy Institute.  We agree that every available legal mechanism must be enlisted to secure the release of prisoners and detainees who pose little or no threat to public safety, and whose health and safety are themselves severely threatened by their enforced captivity.  This includes the great constitutional powers given to governors and pardon boards.  We therefore commend our newly revised pardon resources to advocates and policy makers to support their advocacy and action.

While our pardon-related research focuses primarily on how the power is used to restore rights and status to those who are no longer in prison, much of our information about how the pardon process is structured and operates is relevant to how the power might be used (or is already being used) to commute prison sentences during the pandemic.  Our revised pardon resources are part of a major revision of the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project, not only to make sure its information is current in light of the many recent changes in the law, but also reorganizing and revising its resources for clarity and easier access.  In the process, we have updated and revamped our state-by-state material on how the pardon process operates in each jurisdiction, noting that the process has become more regular and productive in a few states in the past several years.

Our 50-state pardon comparison is organized into four sections:

  • Section 1 provides a chart comparing pardon policy and practice across jurisdictions.
  • Section 2 lists jurisdictions by frequency and regularity of their pardon grants.
  • Section 3 sorts jurisdictions by how the administration of the power is structured.
  • Section 4 provides state-by-state summaries of pardon policy and practice, with links to more detailed analysis and legal citations.

March 24, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"How Coronavirus is Disrupting the Death Penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Marshall Project piece highlighting some topics I have been tracking recently.  Here are excerpts:

With a signature from Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado on Monday became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty. But the governor’s long-planned intervention comes at a moment when capital punishment is already at a standstill across the nation for a very different reason: coronavirus.

The growing global pandemic—reaching 163 countries and more than 15,000 deaths—has at least temporarily saved two condemned men from execution in Texas, with more delays sought elsewhere. The pandemic has also stopped trials in which the death penalty was being sought. It has even upended the process for defense attorneys to try to exonerate their clients facing capital punishment.

“Almost every aspect of legal representation is at a halt in the judicial system,” said Amanda Marzullo, a consultant with the Innocence Project. “People are effectively unable to prepare and investigate their cases.”...

Executions are frequently put on hold due to Supreme Court decisions and lethal injection drug shortages, but rarely do natural events play such a disruptive role. One example was in 2017, when Juan Castillo’s execution was delayed after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. (He was executed the following year despite his long-standing claims of innocence.)

And more stays may be coming. Last week, lawyers for Oscar Smith asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to delay his June 4 execution. They said they plan to ask Gov. Bill Lee for clemency but cannot put together an application “without putting themselves and others at risk” of contracting the virus. Executions are also scheduled for May in Missouri and June in Ohio, although the latter state lacks lethal injection drugs. Several other defense lawyers told The Marshall Project they plan to ask for delays.

With trials halted around the country, the number of new death sentences will drop, at least temporarily. Even before Colorado’s governor signed the abolition bill, a judge in Adams County postponed the trial of Dreion Dearing, who was facing a death sentence for the murder of Deputy Heath Gumm in 2018. (Dearing can still face death despite the repeal due to the timing of his charges, according to the Denver Post.) Judge Mark Warner had previously been criticized by defense lawyers for pushing the trial forward and having 250 potential jurors gather at one time, even as other courts were closing down. In Texas, jury selection for a death penalty trial in San Antonio was halted for 30 days.

In Tarrant County, Texas, prosecutors agreed to postpone the trial of Reginald Kimbro, who faces a potential death sentence if he’s convicted of the rapes and murders of two young women in 2017. Kimbro’s lawyer Steve Gordon said many jurors were elderly, and witnesses were slated to travel from Arkansas....

The slowdown caused by the COVID-19 crisis is even affecting cases that would not go to trial for months. People who face a death sentence typically work with a defense investigator whose job is to gather information to sway the jury towards mercy. These specialists do most of their interviewing in person, because it allows them to gain sensitive information about mental health issues and trauma. “If you knock on somebody’s door during a pandemic, you’re creating more barriers to relationship-building,” said Elizabeth Vartkessian, who oversees investigations for the non-profit Advancing Real Change, Inc.

There is at least one notable exception to this slowdown, which will test how long the disruption may last. Last week, a judge in Corpus Christi, Texas, approved a request from the Nueces County District Attorney's office and set an execution date for John Ramirez, who was convicted of fatally stabbing a man during a 2004 robbery. Ramirez is scheduled to die on Sept. 9.

Prior recent related posts:

March 24, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bipartisan group of Senators write to DOJ and BOP to urge taking "necessary steps" to protect "most vulnerable" prison staff and inmates

Late yesterday, fourteen US Senators (including some from both political parties) wrote this short letter to Attorney General William Barr and BOP Director Michael Carvajal urging action to protect vulnerable federal prison staff and inmates at this time of the coronavirus outbreak (also available here).   Though the letter runs only five substantive paragraphs, nearly every passage includes language that lawyers might want to utilize in any filings seeking to keep defendants from going in to, or seeking to get inmates out of, federal facilities.  Here is the full letter (with key phrases bolded):

On March 13, 2020, President Trump declared a state of emergency concerning the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak. We write to express our serious concern for the health and wellbeing of federal prison staff and inmates in Federal custody, especially those who are most vulnerable to infection, and to urge you to take necessary steps to protect them, particularly by using existing authorities under the First Step Act (FSA).

We have reviewed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) COVID-19 Action Plan, which covers health screening, limits on outside visits, staff travel, and inmate transfers, but notably does not include any measures to protect the most vulnerable staff and inmates.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidance indicating that adults over 60 years old and individuals with chronic medical conditions, such as lung disease, heart disease, and diabetes, are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and suffering more severe illness and death.  The CDC has advised these individuals to avoid crowds and stay at home as much as possible.  Conditions of confinement do not afford individuals the opportunity to take proactive steps to protect themselves, and prisons often create the ideal environment for the transmission of contagious disease. For these reasons, it is important that consistent with the law and taking into account public safety and health concerns, that the most vulnerable inmates are released or transferred to home confinement, if possible.

COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis for our nation, including our inmate population.  However, Congress has equipped BOP and the Department of Justice (DOJ) with tools to use to maximize their efforts to overcome these daunting times.  For example, the FSA reauthorized and expanded the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program to place eligible elderly and terminally ill inmates in home confinement.  This pilot program permits the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to transfer nonviolent offenders to home detention if they are sixty years or older and have served 2/3 of their term of imprisonment, among other requirements.  We call on BOP and DOJ to review and expedite the current cases where the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program would allow for an early transfer – where appropriate – of terminally ill and eligible elderly inmates to home confinement.  Since elderly offenders are the most vulnerable to infection and the least likely to reoffend, we urge BOP’s speedy review and processing of these cases for early release.

In addition, the FSA reformed the compassionate release program for people facing “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. However, since enactment, BOP has opposed the vast majority of petitions.  According to a report recently filed by BOP, in 2019, 1,735 requests for release were initiated by or on behalf of inmates, of which 1,501 were denied by wardens and 226 were forwarded to the BOP Director.  Of these 226, BOP approved only 55 requests and denied 171 requests.  We urge you to immediately issue guidance requiring that “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances be interpreted more broadly and clarify that such circumstances include vulnerability to COVID-19.

Finally, Section 602 of the FSA directed BOP, to the extent practicable, to transfer lower-risk inmates to home confinement for the maximum amount of time permitted under the law, which is the shorter of 10 percent of the term of imprisonment or six months.  Given the current state of emergency, we urge you to consider the use of this authority to quickly transfer non-violent offenders who are at high risk for suffering complications from COVID-19 to home confinement.

March 24, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission published its 2019 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics

I have been a bit disappointed, but not at all surprised, that the US Sentencing Commission has not yet put out any data or statement about the coronavirus outbreak that is roiling the federal criminal justice system.  The USSC is not really geared up for producing real-time data even under the best of circumstances, and these are not anywhere close to the best of circumstances.  Nevertheless, I hope that, before too long, the USSC might be able to provide some kind of real-time updates on just how many sentencings are now being conducted in federal courts and/or providing updates to regular data set like Offenders in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Still, it is somewhat comforting to see that the USSC has been able to complete some of its usual major data undertakings even amidst all the virus turmoil.  Specifically, yesterday I received this news via email from the USSC:

[Monday] the U.S. Sentencing Commission published its 2019 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics.

The Annual Report presents an overview of the Commission's work in fiscal year 2019.

The Sourcebook presents information on the 76,538 federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2019 — a sentencing caseload that increased for the second consecutive year. 

Fast Facts

  • The federal sentencing caseload increased by more than 7,000 cases from FY18, returning to a size similar to the caseloads of FY14 and earlier. 
  • Immigration offenses increased by more than 5,000 cases from the previous year and accounted for the largest single group of federal crime — a position held by drug offenses in FY17. 
  • Drug trafficking and firearms offenses also increased by approximately 1,000 cases each.  
  • Methamphetamine offenses, the most common drug type in the federal system, continued to rise (up from 31% of drug offenses in FY16 to 42% in FY19).
  • Methamphetamine trafficking continued to be the most severely punished federal drug crime (average sentence of 95 months). 
  • Three-quarters of federal offenders were sentenced under the Guidelines Manual in FY19.

I find a bit jarring this final statement that only "three-quarters of federal offenders were sentenced under the Guidelines Manual in FY19." In the Annual Report, the USSC more clearly explains that what they mean by this phrasing is "that the sentence was within the applicable guidelines range, or was outside the applicable guidelines range and the court cited a departure reason from the Guidelines Manual."

I hope to find time in the coming days to review these reports to flag some additional interesting data points about federal sentencing in FY19 (which ran from October 1, 2018, through September 30, 2019). Among other virtues, these data provide a useful baseline on what the federal sentencing system looked like in the year before the new coronavirus shock.

March 24, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

March 23, 2020

Notable recent (pre-COVID) grants of sentence reductions from coast to coast using § 3582(c)(1)(A) ... as FAMM urges thousand more filings in response to coronavirus

As regular readers know, in lots of prior posts since enactment of the FIRST STEP Act, I have made much of a key provision that Act which allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have long considered this provision a big deal because I have long thought that, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.

A few weeks ago before the COVID-19 outbreak became the most urgent of stories, I was starting to notice on Westlaw a growing number of rulings granting sentencing reductions using 3582(c)(1)(A).  I was drafting a detailed post on this topic when COVID started taking up all of my attention, but it now seems wise to just list some of the positive cases from the last few weeks:

United States v. O’Bryan, No. 96-10076-03-JTM, 2020 WL 869475 (D. Kan. Feb 21, 2020)

United States v. Mondaca, No. 89-CR-0655 DMS, 2020 WL 1029024 (S.D. Cal. March 3, 2020)

United States v. Young, No. 2:00-cr-00002-1, 2020 WL 1047815 (M.D. Tenn. March 4, 2020)

United States v. Davis, No. PJM 00-424-2, 2020 WL 1083158 (D. Md. March 5, 2020)

United States v. Perez, No. No. 88-10094-1-JTM, 2020 WL 1180719 (D. Kansas March 11, 2020)

United States v. Redd, No. 1:97-cr-00006-AJT 2020 WL 1248493 (E.D. Va. Mar. 16, 2020)

I felt compelled to post this list tonight because of notable news from FAMM detailed in this press release titled "FAMM urges most vulnerable people in federal prison to immediately apply for compassionate release":

 In response to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, FAMM sent a letter to nearly 40,000 federal prisoners today encouraging all federal prisoners who are most vulnerable to immediately apply for early release.  FAMM is working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs to assist those who apply.

“There are thousands of sick and elderly people in federal prison whose continued incarceration serves no public safety purpose.  This same population is the most vulnerable to coronavirus,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring.  “They were not sentenced to death, and they should be released immediately.”

Ring noted that people in prison cannot take the same precautions that health experts have recommended to avoid contracting the virus.  People in federal prison can’t practice social distancing.  Moreover, the prisons are not clean and many do not have adequate medical care.

The Centers for Disease Control consider the most vulnerable to include people over 65 years old, and people with a condition that affects their lungs, heart, kidney, immune system, or who have another serious chronic medical condition.  There are more than 10,000 people in federal prison who are over 60 years old.  Many are in poor health.

FAMM worked with Congress to expand the compassionate release program in the First Step Act.  One of the most important reforms gave people in prison the right to go to federal court and ask a judge to grant compassionate release if the Bureau of Prisons either denies a request or does not answer a request within 30 days.

“We are urging at-risk people to make the request to their wardens immediately.  That starts the clock.  If Congress and the president don’t act before then, the courts will have the chance to do the right thing,” said Ring.

March 23, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Colorado death penalty repeal official, and Gov commutes three capital sentences as he signs repeal

As reported in this local article, "Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill Monday making Colorado the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty, and he also commuted the sentences of the three killers on death row."  Here is more:

They will instead serve life sentences without the possibility of parole, Polis said.  “The commutations of these despicable and guilty individuals are consistent with the abolition of the death penalty in the State of Colorado, and consistent with the recognition that the death penalty cannot be, and never has been, administered equitably in the State of Colorado,” he said....

The historic end of executions in Colorado comes after about 36 hours of debate at the legislature this year and a push by Republicans to instead put the issue on the 2020 ballot. Proponents called the death penalty “cruel and unusual punishment.”  They said its use in cases is uneven, and the litigation surrounding it is not only costly to taxpayers but forces families to relive their loved ones’ killings. Only one person has been executed in the state since 1976....

Arapahoe District Attorney George Brauchler, however, called the signing a win for criminals.  “The decision to pass and sign the death penalty repeal bill should bring a smile to the faces of future serial killers, terrorists, cop killers, mass murderers, child killers, and those in prison who decide to kill again,” he wrote in a statement.  “We have also reduced the protections for witnesses to crime by lowering the bar for their murders.  Colorado’s pro-offender legislature and its current governor have signaled that those lives are worth more protection than those of their victims.

The newly signed bill specifies that the death penalty can’t be used in cases for crimes committed on or after July 1, and currently, at least one defendant in Adams County is facing trial in a case that could result in the death penalty.  Dreion Dearing is accused of killing Adams County Deputy Heath Gumm.  “For all intents and purposes, the death penalty in Colorado is now a thing of the past,” said Jim Castle, the attorney for Sir Mario Owens, one of three men on death row.

Robert Ray and Owens were convicted of fatally shooting Gregory Vann, 20, at a 2004 party in Lowry Park. Javad Marshall-Fields was wounded in the shooting, and he and his fiancee Vivian Wolfe were planning to testify about the shooting before Ray ordered that they be killed. Owens was convicted for their 2005 murders in Aurora. They were 22 years old.

The other man on death row was Nathan Dunlap who was convicted in 1993 of fatally shooting employees who were closing for the night at Chuck E. Cheese in Aurora. He killed Ben Grant, 17; Sylvia Crowell, 19; Colleen O’Connor, 17; and Margaret Kohlbert, 50.  Bobby Stephens survived.  Dunlap received a temporary reprieve from former Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2013.  The three black men went to the same high school in Denver at different times....

The issue of the repeal doesn’t follow strict party lines.  A handful of Democrats opposed the measure while a few Republicans backed it. “As the death penalty has been a failure in several aspects, I felt compelled to fight for its repeal,” said Colorado Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican and sponsor of the Colorado bill.  “I applaud the governor’s leadership in signing this bill and moving Colorado towards a system that produces justice for all.”...

Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, joined opponents against the bill because of the killing of her son, Marshall-Fields, and his fiancée Wolfe — their killers were two of three men on death row in the state. Similarly, Aurora Democrat Rep. Tom Sullivan fought against the bill.  His son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater shooting.

Relatedly, the one on-going capital trial in Colorado, which moved forward last week, has now wisely been put on hold due to COVID-19 concern.

Prior recent related posts:

March 23, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

With lives at stake, when will we start to see mass clemency and compassionate release?

I have been pleased to see some considerable action at the local level to try to reduce the jail population amidst the coronavirus crisis (most notably now via state Supreme Court mandate in New Jersey).  But, because everyone should realize that it is essential for the health of prison staff and their families, as well as for prisoners, for there to be smart efforts to reduce prison populations amidst this global pandemic, I am troubled that we are yet to see any mass clemency and compassionate release activity at either the federal or state level.  Because our nation's criminal justice system is defined by mass incarceration, the current public health crisis demands mass clemency and compassionate release.

Of course, if releasing elderly and unhealthy at-risk prisoners posed a major public safety concern, I could understand slow and deliberative action on these fronts.  But, a few years ago the Brennan Center examined our prison populations and reached the conclusion in this big report that "nearly 40 percent of the U.S. prison population — 576,000 people — are behind bars with no compelling public safety reason."  I am urging "big-time" clemency and compassionate release activity at every level of government because that's what it will take to even get a small percentage of this population home in short order so that they do not continue to contribute to the public safety hazards created in prisons where social distancing is impossible.

Helpfully, I am not the only one urging mass clemency and compassionate release activity, and here are a couple recent op-eds focused on specific (hard-hit) states:

From Jose Saldana, "Clemency is needed for incarcerated New Yorkers vulnerable to coronavirus"

From Nancy Gertner and John Reinstein, "Compassionate release now for prisoners vulnerable to the coronavirus"

For those new to these issues, this lengthy new Quartz piece, "Coronavirus risk looms large for America’s elderly and sick prison population," provides a terrific short overview of some of these issues with an emphasis on our graying prison population and the costs and challenges elderly offenders present even without the COVID-19 disaster.

Wonderfully, NYU's Center on the Administration of Criminal Law has created a great new clemency resource here to highlight that every jurisdiction has the means to address these matters using historic and existing clemency powers.  Here is the NYU discussion of its resource and a link:

Because of the crowded nature of correctional facilities and the limited resources available there, people incarcerated in jails and prisons are exceptionally vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Many facilities house significant elderly populations as well as other people with underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to serious complications and/or death from the virus. 

One way to mitigate the mounting crisis in correctional facilities is by using executive clemency. Many state constitutions vest the governor with broad authority to grant relief without the need for legislation or other actors.  While governors can grant pardons or commutations that would have a permanent effect, they can also choose to issue reprieves, which are temporary delays in the imposition or resumption of a sentence.  By using reprieves to temporarily release people from prison, we may spare them from potentially life-threatening illness without affecting the length of their sentence.  It allows the system to press pause on a sentence until the danger passes. 

The Center has assembled a working document that catalogues the legal authority to grant reprieves in all fifty states.  We encourage anybody with state-specific knowledge to provide feedback, suggestions, or additions regarding the process of granting reprieves in a given jurisdiction by emailing us at prosecutioncenter@nyu.edu. 

Prior coronavirus posts highlighting need for urgent action on imprisonment amidst epidemic:

UPDATE: After completing this post, I just happened to come across these two additional recent op-eds on this front:

From John Mills, "Release prisoners to address the COVID-19 crisis"

From Clem Murray, "To flatten the curve, Philadelphia should release all non-violent prisoners now"

March 23, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ruling 6-3, SCOTUS holds that Due Process does not compel a state to provide a traditional insanity defense in its criminal laws

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its opinion in the fascinating case of Kahler v. Kansas, No. 18-6135 (S. Ct. March 23, 2020) (available here). Justice Kagan authored the opinion of the Court, which starts this way:

This case is about Kansas’s treatment of a criminal defendant’s insanity claim.   In Kansas, a defendant can invoke mental illness to show that he lacked the requisite mens rea (intent) for a crime. He can also raise mental illness after conviction to justify either a reduced term of imprisonment or commitment to a mental health facility.  But Kansas, unlike many States, will not wholly exonerate a defendant on the ground that his illness prevented him from recognizing his criminal act as morally wrong.  The issue here is whether the Constitution’s Due Process Clause forces Kansas to do so — otherwise said, whether that Clause compels the acquittal of any defendant who, because of mental illness, could not tell right from wrong when committing his crime. We hold that the Clause imposes no such requirement.

Notably, in her opinion for the Court, Justice Kagan at various points stresses the fact that defendants in Kansas still can use mental illness matters as mitigating arguments at sentencing. For example:

In sum, Kansas does not bar, but only channels to sentencing, the mental health evidence that falls outside its intent-based insanity defense.  When combined with Kansas’s allowance of mental health evidence to show a defendant’s inability to form criminal intent, that sentencing regime defeats Kahler’s charge that the State has “abolish[ed] the insanity defense entirely." Brief for Petitioner 39....

If a mentally ill defendant had enough cognitive function to form the intent to kill, Kansas law directs a conviction even if he believed the murder morally justified.  In Kansas’s judgment, that delusion does not make an intentional killer entirely blameless.  See Brief for Respondent 40.  Rather than eliminate, it only lessens the defendant’s moral culpability.  See ibid.  And sentencing is the appropriate place to consider mitigation: The decisionmaker there can make a nuanced evaluation of blame, rather than choose, as a trial jury must, between all and nothing. See ibid.

Justice Breyer authored a dissenting opinion, which Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor joined, and it gets started this way: 

Like the Court, I believe that the Constitution gives the States broad leeway to define state crimes and criminal procedures, including leeway to provide different definitions and standards related to the defense of insanity.  But here, Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense.  Rather, it has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries: that the defendant, due to mental illness, lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy.  Seven hundred years of Anglo-American legal history, together with basic principles long inherent in the nature of the criminal law itself, convince me that Kansas’ law “‘offends . . . principle[s] of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.’” Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 798 (1952) (quoting Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105 (1934)).

I am disinclined to pass judgement on these opinions before I get a chance to read them closely. But because I have long thought that so-called "excuse" defenses like insanity were more properly considered at the sentencing stage than the guilt stage, I am not inherently troubled by the essential of this ruling.  That said, it is worth noting here that if and when a defendant is subject to a severe mandatory minimum sentencing term (as is often the case for more serious crimes), Justice Kagan's assertion that a "decisionmaker [at sentencing] can make a nuanced evaluation of blame"  will not really be accurate.  And so I am going to be eager to try to (over)read Kahler as a statement that allowing a decisionmaker sentencing discretion is an important Due Process consideration (and this principle also finds expression in the Eighth Amendment in cases like Lockett and Miller).

March 23, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Notable SCOTUS summary reversal on plain error review and brief statement on successive federal 2255 review

This mornings order list from the US Supreme Court has a brief summary reversal and an even briefer statement respecting the denial of certiorari.  The per curiam decision summary in Davis v. United States, No. 19–5421 (S. Ct. March 23, 2020) (available here), is a swift smack-down of the Fifth Circuit that substantively concludes this way:

In this Court, Davis challenges the Fifth Circuit’s outlier practice of refusing to review certain unpreserved factual arguments for plain error. We agree with Davis, and we vacate the judgment of the Fifth Circuit.

Rule 52(b) states in full: “A plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the court’s attention.”  The text of Rule 52(b) does not immunize factual errors from plain-error review.  Our cases likewise do not purport to shield any category of errors from plain-error review.  See generally Rosales-Mireles v. United States, 585 U. S. ___ (2018); United States v. Olano, 507 U. S. 725 (1993).  Put simply, there is no legal basis for the Fifth Circuit’s practice of declining to review certain unpreserved factual arguments for plain error.

In Avery v. United States, No. 19–633, Justice Kavanaugh issued this statement respecting the denial of certiorari, which wraps this way:

The text of that second-or-successive statute covers only applications filed by state prisoners under § 2254.  Yet six Courts of Appeals have interpreted the statute to cover applications filed by state prisoners under §2254 and by federal prisoners under § 2255, even though the text of the law refers only to § 2254....

After Avery’s case was decided, the Sixth Circuit recently rejected the other Circuits’ interpretation of the second-or-successive statute and held that the statute covers only applications filed by state prisoners under § 2254. Williams v. United States, 927 F. 3d 427 (2019).

Importantly, the United States now agrees with the Sixth Circuit that “Section 2244(b)(1) does not apply to Section 2255 motions” and that the contrary view is “inconsistent with the text of Section 2244.”  Brief in Opposition 10, 13.  In other words, the Government now disagrees with the rulings of the six Courts of Appeals that had previously decided the issue in the Government’s favor.

In a future case, I would grant certiorari to resolve the circuit split on this question of federal law.

March 23, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

High-profile inmate and New Jersey release order highlight another remarkable night for the coronavirus

I decided to try to mostly get off line Sunday night, and these days this means I have lots to catch up with on Monday morning.  I do not have time to provide another review of all the big prison and prisoner headlines, but these two seemed the most notable of the bunch:

The average person is likely to be most interested in the first of these stories, but here are excerpts from the second piece (which is a press release) highlighting its importance:

Late in the evening Sunday, March 22, New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner signed an order that had been negotiated by criminal justice stakeholders, including the ACLU-NJ.  All people serving sentences in county jails across the state are subject to the order, although prosecutors can challenge the release of specific individuals where they contend there exist significant risks to the person being released or to public safety.  The order could impact up to 1,000 people incarcerated in county jails.

The order does not commute people’s sentences, but instead orders their temporary release during the COVID-19 public health crisis.  At the conclusion of the emergency, judges will determine whether any sentences should be commuted.  The order takes extraordinary steps to prevent unnecessary incarceration or superfluous interactions with the criminal justice system altogether during this time, such as suspending most outstanding warrants and preventing in-person reporting to probation officers.

This order from the Supreme Court of New Jersey runs 14 pages and is available at this link.

March 23, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Who in Trump Administration is involved in "actually looking at" using executive action to release "totally nonviolent prisoners"?

At last night's press briefing, I was thrilled to see a reporter ask about whether Prez Trump was considering executive action to release some "elderly nonviolent prisoners."  This press report notes the exchange and quotes Prez Trump's full comments on the issue:

President Donald Trump said his administration was considering an executive order to free elderly, nonviolent prisoners from federal prisons amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Trump was speaking during a Sunday evening press conference on the federal government's ongoing response to the pandemic, which has been identified as a particular threat to prison populations, where individuals are in close proximity to each other.

"We have been asked about that and we're going to take a look at it.  It's a bit of a problem," Trump said, when asked about the potential order.  "We're talking about totally nonviolent prisoners, we are actually looking at that, yes."

As readers of this blog know, I think it is more than just "a bit" of a problem to have lots of low-risk vulnerable prisoners locked up together during this pandemic. But, as the question in the title of this post highlights, I cannot help but wonder just who right now is "actually looking at" using executive action to release "totally nonviolent prisoners."

Given the significant role that Jared Kushner has played in criminal justice reform in the past (see, e.g., here and here), I would expect that he is likely to be playing some role in this discussion.  But how about high-profile folks who have had Prez Trump's ear when it comes to clemency grants like Kim Kardashian-West and Alice Marie Johnson?  Is Prez Trump and his inner circle hearing from and/or likely to listen to advice from folks at the Justice Department or the Bureau of Prisons?

Speaking of the BOP, this BOP COVID-19 webpage reports, as of early morning on March 23, that there are three inmates and three staffers who have already tested positive for the coronavirus.  It will be interested to keep an eye on those numbers as the Trump Administration continues "actually looking at" using executive action to release "totally nonviolent prisoners."

March 23, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

March 22, 2020

Might COVID-19 ultimately bring an end to the death penalty in the United States?

Upon seeing this new story, headlined "U.S. Coronavirus Lockdown to Last 10-12 Weeks, Top Trump Official Says," I am now thinking it may not be too early to start wondering if one echo effect of this global pandemic could be the functional or formal end to the death penalty in the United States.  Texas has already postponed two executions (links below), and that furthers my thinking that there is now a real possibility we might not end up having any more executions in 2020.  Moreover, I would be surprised if any new executions get scheduled for 2020 even if some existing executions dates stay in place later in the year.  Consequently, the US would seem to now be on pace for its lowest number of executions in nearly four decades.

Further, at this time of extraordinary uncertainty and disruption and social distancing, it is essentially impossible to conduct a fair and orderly capital trial.  As courts struggle to figure out how to keep functioning at all during this period, on-going capital trials should and likely will be suspended (and perhaps resolved via pleas).  New capital cases are unlikely to be brought, and I see now a real possibility that we might not end up having any more capital sentences imposed in 2020.  This DPIC fact sheet details that we had 34 death sentences in 2019; I will be surprised if we end up with more than 10 in 2020. 

We will get back to some form of normal before too long, I hope.  But the likely economic woes the country will be facing as we rebuild necessarily means we are going to need to be more efficient and effective in our use of limited government time and resources.  As those who work in capital systems know well, modern death penalty administration is the antithesis of efficient and effective use of government time and resources.  Whatever happens with the death penalty while we deal with COVID-19, I think there will be very strong arguments that this punishment is a kind of "legal luxury" that we really cannot and ought not invest resources in while we try to rebuild after COVID-19.

Prior related capital COVID posts:

March 22, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (3)