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July 13, 2021

Interesting (but unclear) local report on federal sentencings in NYC impacted by COVID realities

The New York Daily News has this interesting (but less-than-clear) article discussing some federal sentencing issues under the headline "Brutal conditions in NYC jails during COVID pandemic caused federal judges to impose lighter sentences: analysis."  Here are excerpts:

Federal judges handed down dozens of lighter sentences due to brutal conditions in New York City’s federal jails during the coronavirus pandemic, new statistics obtained by the Daily News show.

A Daily News analysis of 43 cases involving people who could not afford their own attorneys shows that judges in Manhattan and Brooklyn federal courts imposed sentences that were on average 58% lower than what federal guidelines recommended.  In nearly all of the cases, judges either cited coronavirus conditions behind bars in their sentences, or attorneys emphasized the conditions in legal briefs.

In one case in July 2020, Judge Paul Engelmayer noted that punishment for Juan Carlos Aracena De Jesus’ illegal reentry into the U.S. after being deported was never supposed to include catching coronavirus. “I am mindful ... that you have served most of your time in prison so far during the worst pandemic in this country during the past 100 years,” Engelmayer said. “I’m mindful that your experience in prison as a result of the pandemic, the preceding lockdown, the ensuing lockdown, and your own illness was frightful. Prison is supposed to be punishment, but it is not supposed to be trauma of that nature or close.” While the sentence guidelines in the case was for 30-37 months, Engelmayer sentenced Aracena to time served.  He had spent six months at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan.

Judge Paul Oetken went so far as to come up with a formula for how much credit inmates should receive toward a sentence if they were behind bars during the pandemic. “I do believe that because it’s been harsher than a usual period that it’s more punitive, that it’s essentially the equivalent of either time and a half or two times what would ordinarily be served,” Oetken said on April 2 while sentencing a low-level crack dealer.  The sentence amounted to time served for the dealer, Daniel Gonzalez, who said he has a recurring foot infection due to unsanitary showers at MCC.

In all the cases, COVID was not the sole factor judges used to determine sentences.  Judges also considered an inmate’s health, the nature of the crime and other factors.  For Victor Marmolejo, 47, the risk of deadly consequences from his diabetes resulted in him receiving an 18-month sentence when prosecutors had asked for up to four years....

Lawsuits have alleged that coronavirus ravaged the MCC in Manhattan and the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn and that staff failed to implement commonsense preventative measures. Inmates, meanwhile, were kept in lockdown and had limited or no access to family and their attorneys.  Judges have become unusually outspoken about problems at the MCC and MDC since the pandemic began....

The head of the Federal Defenders in Brooklyn, Deirdre Von Dornum, said the cases where incarcerated pretrial detainees received shorter-than-guidelines sentences based on medical and jail conditions were “far more” than they usually get.  “COVID-19 did not change the sentencing calculus.  Consistent with governing sentencing law, judges have always taken medical conditions and medical risks into account.  What changed was the breadth and depth of this medical crisis and the clear inability of MDC and MCC to protect those in their custody and care who had pre-existing medical conditions,” Von Dornum said.

I am not at all surprised to hear accounts of federal judges taking COVID-related matter into account at sentencing.  Indeed, the instructions Congress has set forth for sentencing judges in 18 USC § 3553(a) really mandates consideration of factors that COVID realities can impact in various ways.  So, what is most notable and important is not just how, but really how much, judicial sentencing decision-making is being impacted by COVID matters.

Unfortunately, this Daily News report, which the article describes as an "analysis of 43 cases involving people who could not afford their own attorneys" in Manhattan and Brooklyn federal courts, is too opaque to provide a clear picture of COVID-era sentencing realities.  During the COVID era, there have probably more than 1000 cases sentenced in Manhattan and Brooklyn federal courts, so the 43 cases analyzed by the Daily News are likely not truly representative.  Moreover, even before COVID, judges in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York typically imposed within-guideline sentences in only about 25% of all cases.  So lots of below-guideline sentences for lots of reasons was the norm even before COVID.

That all said, the impact of COVID on sentencing practices presents critical and hard questions that I am pleased to see this local newspaper discuss.  I hope more media, as well as federal agencies and academics and many others, will keep seeking to explore these important issues.

July 13, 2021 at 10:19 PM | Permalink

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