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May 8, 2021

"Enjoined and Incarcerated: Complications with Incarcerated People Seeking Economic Relief under the CARES Act"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Mitchell Caminer now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Congress passed the first round of checks as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) in late March 2020 to infuse more than $2 trillion into the national economy and address the overlapping medical and economic emergencies stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.  But incarcerated individuals were initially excluded from receiving stimulus checks, despite being eligible to receive them.  This delay in delivering immediate cash assistance through the CARES Act to incarcerated individuals exposes the inadequacy of the tax administrative doctrine in resolving emergency relief disputes and how exclusionary measures embedded in the tax system and other economic policies inhibit the rehabilitation prospects of incarcerated people.

Millions of Americans made personal and financial sacrifices in 2020 to aid the public health efforts, including incarcerated individuals.  In return, those who were denied economic relief on an arbitrary basis by the government should not have to wait until the following tax year to seek a legal remedy.  In other words, the legal framework for challenging tax decisions is too unsympathetic toward many taxpayers that rely on policies embedded in the tax code for immediate economic relief.  Further, by providing nearly universal economic stimulus, Congress recognized the plight of incarcerated individuals during a pandemic and moved away from the exclusionary stimulus measures enacted in prior economic crises.  Providing economic stimulus to those in incarceration is sound economic stimulus policy so long as punitive measures for individuals in and exiting incarceration are embedded in tax and economic policy.

May 8, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noting how carceral craziness and foolhardy finality fixations result in cases like Tarahrick Terry's

As highlighted in this post following this past week's SCOTUS oral argument, the questions from the Justices strongly suggest that the Supreme Court will soon rule that Tarahrick Terry is not entitled to seek a resentencing under the FIRST STEP Act provision making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  Over at SCOTUSblog, Ekow Yankah has this effective review of the Terry argument which spotlights a portion I found especially notable toward the end:

One dissonant note came late in the morning, when Justice Brett Kavanaugh embarked on an extended exchange with Mortara.  Rather than a sharp set of questions, Kavanaugh ruminated on, among other things, the history that led to the sentencing regime Congress sought to fix.  He recalled the 1986 death of college-basketball star Len Bias from a cocaine overdose that shocked the nation and brought cocaine use squarely into the spotlight.  Recalling that Bias was only a year older than him and that he looked up to him, Kavanaugh (himself an avid basketball player and coach) mused that Bias’ death had motivated congressional action to impose harsher penalties on cocaine use, noting only casually that Bias died after using powdered cocaine.  It was, to this observer, a cringe-worthy moment of naivete; to draw a clear path from the traumatizing death of Bias to harsher punishment of crack cocaine is to ignore a sea of racial politics.  Len Bias’s death did not lead Congress to hammer down on Wall Street bankers doing coke.

Yankaw is right to spotlight generally how ugly racial realities were largely ignored throughout the Terry argument.  But even more "cringe-worthy" has been the way Congress, the US Sentencing Commission, the Department of Justice and the courts have created and sustained crazy carceral approaches to drug offenses for many decades even as the illogic, inefficacy and injustice of lengthy federal prison sentences in response to drug issues have been so plainly evident.  Apologies for a bit of a rant, but what follows is actually a reserved accounting of what strikes me a stunningly ugly (and still continuing) example of systemic injustice. 

For starters, what basis did Congress have back in 1986 to think that harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for any drugs (let alone for crack) would be a sound and sensible way to respond to either the overdose death of a basketball superstar or societal concerns about a new drug problem?  The history of alcohol Prohibition certainly is not a rousing tale of the efficacy of criminal justice responses to substance use, and racial disparities in other drug panics have marked US policies and practices for eons.  Moreover, not long before in 1970, as noted in this article, Congress repealed most drug mandatories with then-Texas Rep. GHW Bush saying doing so would result in "better justice and more appropriate sentences."  

Critically, the carceral craziness of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 goes even further than Congress deciding to re-embrace federal mandatory minimum provision for drug offenses.  Congress in 1986 had the even crazier idea to tether its harsh prison mandatory minimums to precise drug quantities rather than to offense role or violent acts or any other sounder sentencing factors.  And Congress further decided that just five grams of crack cocaine — the weight of a single nickel — would be enough to trigger five mandatory years in federal prison (while a full pound of the same stuff in powder form would not).       

As I highlighted in this recent post, in 1991 the US Sentencing Commission wrote a lengthy report to Congress detailing how misguided and racially disparate all mandatory minimum provisions were in operation; in 1995, the USSC wrote another report documenting the extreme racial disparities resulting from the 100-1 crack/powder ratio.  I had the honor in 1995 to still be clerking for Second Circuit Judge Guido Calabresi who wrote at that time in United States v. Then, 56 F.3d 464 (2d Cir. 1995), that, if Congress failed to respond to the USSC's expert analysis, "equal protection challenges based on claims of discriminatory purpose might well lie" or the USSC's reports "might nonetheless serve to support a claim of irrationality." Id. at 468 (Calabresi, J., concurring).

Aggravatingly, Congress did not do anything to address the 100-1 ratio for 15 more years until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, during which time tens of thousands of disproportionately black persons received disproportionately severe statutory and guideline sentences for crack offenses.  Critically, the USSC, the DOJ, and the courts ought also be faulted for carceral craziness in this period: the USSC refused for over a decade to even try to change the crack guidelines while awaiting congressional action, the DOJ (under both Prez Clinton and Prez Bush) was generally opposition to any major sentencing reforms, and courts consistently rejected any and all challenges to this racially disparate and irrational sentencing structure. 

Interestingly, the Booker case merits mention in this history not because it happened to be a crack case, but because some federal judges started using their new post-Booker discretion to do better in crack cases and the USSC advanced some modest (but still meaningful) crack guideline amendments as a result.  But, tellingly, DOJ still largely opposed district judges going below the crack guidelines after Booker (which required SCOTUS to issue the important Kimbrough decision), and many district judges still readily and regularly sentenced within the severe 100-1 crack guidelines even after Booker and Kimbrough made clear that they had broad authority to effectuate the USSC's expert analysis that the crack guidelines produced racial disparities and generally recommended prison terms that were much "greater than necessary." 

Of course, in August 2010, we finally get the Fair Sentencing Act from Congress.  Notably, the FSA did not unwind the key carceral craziness of tethering harsh mandatory prison minimums to precise drug quantities, nor did it provide for treating crack and powder offenses similarly.  Rather the FSA simply says it now takes 28 grams grams of crack — the weight of five quarters — to trigger five mandatory years in federal prison (though a full pound of the same stuff in powder form sill will not).  The US Sentencing Commission amends the crack guidelines downward accordingly as instructed by the FSA, and thankfully the federal sentencing world gets just a little bit less carceral crazy going forward for some crack cases. 

But even as the carceral craziness recedes a bit after the FSA of 2010, foolhardy finality fixations kick into high gear.  Notably, as noted in this post, international human rights law generally provides that, when legislators pass a new law to lighten sentences, offenders have a right to benefit from it retroactively.  But the Obama Justice Department argues in 2010 that federal law required that even crack defendants who had not yet been sentencing when the FSA was enacted still had to be subject to the 100-1 ratio for pre-FSA conduct even through everyone agreed that pre-FSA sentences for crack were unfair, excessive, ineffectual and produced extreme racial disparities.  The Supreme Court in the 2012 Dorsey case — by only a 5-4 margin — decides sentencing courts did not have to keep applying a misguided and suspect sentencing scheme in these pipeline cases.  But all the while the USSC, the DOJ and the courts all readily accept that nobody should get any retroactive benefit from the FSA statutory change simply because Congress did not say expressly that it wanted people still in prison still enduring the 100-1 ratio's carceral knee on their necks to have a chance to argue they should get to sooner breathe the air outside prison walls.           

Critically, as just suggested, retroactivity of lower crack sentences (or any other sentencing changes) in the federal system has never been automatic.  Persons in prison, even if permitted under applicable laws to get to court for resentencing, generally have to prove to a judge that public safety concerns and other equities weigh in favor of a lower sentence.  That is, for Tarahrick Terry and so many others, they are not actually arguing for resentencing, they are arguing that they should just have a chance to argue for discretionary resentencing.  In a law review article some years ago, "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," I contend it ought to be a lot easier for a defendant to get access to court seeking resentencing because "the conceptual, policy, and practical reasons [that may justify] limiting review and reconsideration of final convictions are not nearly as compelling when only sentences are at issue."  I find it so frustrating discretionary resentencing for crack offenders remains so contested even when each and every federal policy-maker in the three branches of the federal government — Congress, the Prez and his Justice Department, and the US Sentencing Commission — have all expressly and formally declared that all 100-1 ratio pre-FSA crack prison sentences were unfair, excessive, ineffectual and produced extreme racial disparities.

Of course, Congress voted almost unanimously for the FIRST STEP Act, which is a huge bill designed to help reduce a lot of federal sentences and which included a provision making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  But, given the SCOTUS argument in Terry, it appears that because Congress did not use just the precise kind of magic words in that statutory provision, the lowest level of all crack offenders are to be categorically excluded from securing even a chance to argue for resentencing.  Sigh.  Injustice must sometimes be one of those turtles going all the way down as carceral craziness and foolhardy finality fixations persist circa 2021.  There are some heartening indications that we all know we can and should be doing a lot better in federal sentencing and elsewhere, but Terry is perhaps a useful reminder that the myriad sentencing and racial injustices of the past are never dead, and they are not even past.

Prior recent related posts on Terry:

May 8, 2021 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Encouraging Desistance from Crime"

The title of this post is the title of this extended literature review authored by Jennifer Doleac and now available via SSRN discussing lots of empirical research that may not be familiar, but should be of great interest, to lawyers and advocates.  Here is its abstract:

Half of individuals released from prison in the United States will be re-incarcerated within three years, creating an incarceration cycle that is detrimental to individuals, families, and communities.  There is tremendous public interest in ending this cycle, and public policies can help or hinder the reintegration of those released from jail and prison.  This review summarizes the existing empirical evidence on how to intervene with existing offenders to reduce criminal behavior and improve social welfare.

May 8, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Detailed sentencing data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 7, 2021

Notably advocacy for Prez Biden to use his clemency power to ensure those released into home confinement need not return to prison

Alice Marie Johnson and Ja’Ron Smith have this notable new USA Today opinion piece headlined "COVID-19 concerns sent thousands of inmates home. Give clemency to those who deserve it." The subtitle of the piece captures its themes: "Nearly 5,000 inmates may be sent back to prison. After rebuilding their lives, and being contributing members of society, how is being returned justice?". Here are excerpts (links from original):

This spring, as more Americans are able to get vaccinated, there’s hope the pandemic is nearing its end and life is slowly returning to normal.  But for 4,500 Americans, the end of the pandemic could instead mean returning to prison. 

The March 2020 CARES Act allowed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to expand the period of home confinement, which usually comes at the end of a sentence.  As a result, thousands of incarcerated individuals convicted of nonviolent crimes were released from prison – where COVID-19 swept through cramped facilities – to home confinement. Many were able to reunite with their families and find jobs.   

But earlier this year, the Justice Department ordered that individuals under home confinement due to COVID-19 must return to prison when the emergency is lifted, putting 4,500 lives in limbo, awaiting an uncertain date when their return to normalcy is taken away.  Inmates near the end of their sentence may be able to stay home if the Bureau of Prisons grants permission, according to a recent USA TODAY report.  And while the Biden administration extended the length of the COVID emergency declaration, that still might not help people with years left to serve.   

The administration could get into a legal back-and-forth over the interpretation of the CARES Act.  But a simpler path would be for President Joe Biden to grant clemency to those on home confinement who pose no threat to public safety.  Reviewing the cases will be another step toward reducing unnecessary incarceration in America, which imprisons more people than any other democratic country with no added benefit to public safety.  

The two of us experienced the justice system, and clemency in particular, up close.  One of us worked as a senior adviser to former President Donald Trump on criminal justice and other policy issues.  The other served nearly 22 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense before returning home after Trump granted clemency, and later a pardon.  Through these experiences, we have come to know people from diverse backgrounds who have made mistakes, but still have much to offer their families and our society. That is what we are seeing with many of the individuals under home confinement due to COVID-19....

To prevent individuals like these from being sent back to prison, a congressional coalition wrote a letter to Biden, urging him to review their cases for clemency.  The letter notes that the CARES Act did not require individuals on home confinement be sent back to prison, and that the Justice Department can modify the guidance issued by the last administration.  But clemency would allow rehabilitated individuals to move on with their lives rather than serving home detention for the rest of their sentences.   

Clemency should be carefully and fairly considered.  But all the people under home confinement were released because they were determined to be safe, making them strong candidates.  The moral issue goes beyond these 4,500 Americans.  In recent years, a diverse coalition from across the political spectrum has united for criminal justice reforms. Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act in 2018, reducing some excessive sentences and creating more opportunities for rehabilitation.  

Biden ran on a platform to build on these criminal justice reforms. As he said in a proclamation commemorating Second Chance Month, “We lift up all those who, having made mistakes, are committed to rejoining society and making meaningful contributions.”  Biden should now extend that commitment to people under home confinement.  Reviewing these cases for clemency will not only help transform the lives of thousands of Americans, but also continue the momentum toward a more sensible and fair criminal justice system. 

Some prior recent related posts:

May 7, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Life 'With' or 'Without'?: An Empirical Study of Homicide Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new empirical paper authored by Michael O'Hear and Darren Wheelock now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The number of Americans serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole (“LWOP”) has grown rapidly over the past generation and now exceeds 50,000.  Yet, little empirical research has been conducted on the determinants of LWOP sentences.  The dearth of research on LWOP sentencing stands in sharp contrast to the many dozens of studies that have been conducted on the determinants of death sentences — studies that have consistently found that race, gender, and other questionable factors may influence sentencing outcomes.  The present study is the first to employ a similar methodology to identify both case- and county-level variables that are correlated with the imposition of discretionary LWOP sentences.

More specifically, we have assessed the relationship between fifty different variables and LWOP decisions in 450 homicide cases in Wisconsin between 2001 and 2018.  In our final model, we find seven variables that are correlated with sentencing outcomes.  Of particular note, we find that judge and prosecutor personal characteristics are statistically significant correlates of LWOP decisions.  We also find a significantly greater likelihood that LWOP sentences will be imposed in counties that are more Republican.  We conclude with a proposal for a new LWOP sentencing process that may help to ensure that this very severe sentence is reserved for the most serious crimes committed by the most dangerous defendants.

May 7, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split(?) Sixth Circuit panel clarifies disparity between actual sentence and sentence under current law can be proper compassionate relief factor

I have been pleased to be able to blog about a significant number of significant circuit rulings on the reach and application of the sentence modification provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts, I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing 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, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced on a variety of grounds. 

The Second Circuit back in September was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, quite rightly in my view, that district courts have now broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A).  Since then, there have been somewhat similar opinions from the Fourth, Fifth Sixth, Seventh, Ninth and Tenth Circuits issued generally recognizing that district courts now have broad authority after the FIRST STEP Act to determine whether and when "extraordinary and compelling" reasons may justify a sentence reduction when an imprisoned person files a 3582(c)(1)(A) motion (see rulings linked below).  And, yesterday a split(?) Sixth Circuit issued another ruling in this line of important precedents with US v. Owens, No. 20-2139 (6th Cir. May 6, 2021) (available here), which gets started this way and thereafter makes key observations on the way to reaching its holding:

Ian Owens appeals the district court’s order denying his motion for compassionate release because it concluded that the disparity between his lengthy sentence and the sentence that he would receive following the passage of the First Step Act was not an extraordinary and compelling reason to support compassionate release.  For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we REVERSE the district court’s order and REMAND for reconsideration of Owens’s motion for compassionate release consistent with this opinion....

Many district courts across the country have taken the same approach as McGee and Maumau and have concluded that a defendant’s excessive sentence because of mandatory minimum sentences since mitigated by the First Step Act may, alongside other factors, justify compassionate release. [cites to more than a dozen notable district court rulings modifying sentences]... 

As explained above, Owens presented three factors that he asserted together warranted compassionate release.  The district court here did not consider two of the factors Owens asserted and should have determined whether the combination of all three factors warranted compassionate release.  In accordance with our holding that, in making an individualized determination about whether extraordinary and compelling reasons merit compassionate release, a district court may include, along with other factors, the disparity between a defendant’s actual sentence and the sentence that he would receive if the First Step Act applied, we remand to the district court for further proceedings.

I keep putting a question mark next to the notation "split" with respect to this panel decision because here is the (seemingly peculiar) start to the opinion in Owens:

MOORE, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which DAUGHTREY, J., joined. THAPAR, J., will deliver a separate dissenting opinion that will be appended to the majority opinion at a later time.

Until Judge Thapar appends his dissenting opinion, I am not sure if he disagrees with the main holding of the panel majority or if he has some other concern with this decision.  I presume he is dissenting on the merits, but the idea that sentencing disparities can be at least a factor in considering compassionate release motions does not seem to me to be a particularly controversial proposition since the text of the applicable statute does not expressly provide for any excluded factors concerning what can serve an "extraordinary and compelling reason" to support a sentence modification.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

May 7, 2021 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Marijuana legalization and expungement in early 2021"

Marijuana-Record-Relief_for-socialThe title of this post is the title of this great new report authored by David Schlussel that was assisted in various ways by folks at Collateral Consequences Resource Center and Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.  Here is the abstract to the report:

Early 2021 was an unprecedented period for policymaking at the intersection of marijuana legalization and criminal record reform. Between February and April, four states enacted legislation legalizing recreational marijuana.  In conjunction with legalization, these states (New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia) also enacted innovative criminal policy reforms — including the automatic expungement of an exceptionally broad array of past marijuana convictions — along with a variety of social equity provisions.

These new laws mitigate past harms of the legal system while also supporting economic and social opportunity for people with a record in several ways.  First, in all four states, expansive automatic expungement provisions will remove the burden of a criminal record from many individuals, while raising the bar on standards for marijuana record relief nationwide.  These states also incorporated more general criminal record reforms into legalization, benefiting people with different types of criminal records in their efforts to reintegrate into society.  Finally, these four states specifically addressed racial disparities in marijuana criminalization by directing tax revenue and business opportunities for legal marijuana to individuals and communities disproportionately affected by criminal law enforcement.  This report and an accompanying infographic summarize the groundbreaking criminal reforms enacted this year as part of marijuana legalization and situate them in the national context. 

The infographic referenced here as well as other links and materials related to this topic can also be found in the report pages for both DEPC here and CCRC here.  In addition, this recent PBS News Hour piece, headlined "As more states legalize marijuana, people with drug convictions want their records cleared," discusses these issues further.

A few recent related posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

May 7, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 6, 2021

Spotlighting effectiveness of home confinement under CARES Act and concerns about OLC memo disruption

USA Today has this lengthy new piece highlighting the administration of home confinement in the federal system during the pandemic and the worries about a Justice Department memo which could return offenders to prison. I recommend the piece in full, which is headlined "Inmates sent home during COVID-19 got jobs, started school. Now, they face possible return to prison." Here are some excerpts:

In the weeks and months since he was sent home, RJ Edwards found a job, bought a car, got an apartment for him and his mother and started working toward a bachelor’s degree in computer science....

Edwards, 37, is among the more than 24,000 nonviolent federal prisoners who have been allowed to serve their sentences at home to slow the spread of COVID-19 inside prisons. But a Justice Department memo issued in the final days of the Trump administration says inmates whose sentences will extend beyond the pandemic must be brought back to prison.

Advocates urged the Justice Department to rescind the memo, which was issued by the agency's Office of Legal Counsel. They say it defeats the whole idea of rehabilitation and contradicts President Joe Biden's campaign promise to allow people with criminal pasts to redeem themselves. "They let us go, and we reintegrate, and then it feels like nothing matters. All the hard work you put in, it doesn’t matter. We’re just a number to them," said Edwards, who has five years left to serve.

During a congressional hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, raised concerns about sending people back to prison, especially those who have been following the rules. Of the 24,000 prisoners who were allowed to go home, 151 – less than 1% – have violated the terms of their home confinement and three have been arrested for new crimes. "This highlights how effective home confinement can be," Grassley said....

Reincarcerating people who, for the past year, have been law-abiding would disrupt their rehabilitation and would do little to improve public safety, according to a letter more than two dozen groups sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland last month.  "Establishing community ties and deepening family connections are known to be significant positive factors for reducing recidivism," according to the letter. "Disrupting that process would mean disrupting safe re-integration into society and damaging networks that are vital to improving public safety."

Keeping people behind bars is also costly.  In 2018, the annual cost of housing just one federal prisoner was about $37,000 or $102 per day....

In the past year since they were sent home, the majority of these inmates have finished their sentences or have met the criteria to stay on home confinement.  As of mid-April, 4,500 inmates on home confinement would not have qualified if not for the pandemic, although many of them are likely to meet the criteria in the next months.  About 2,400 have more than a year left in their sentence, [BOP Director Michael] Carvajal told lawmakers.

A little more than 300 have five years left to serve.  That includes Edwards, who was sentenced to 17 years for wire fraud.  He was sent home in July.  By August, he found a job.

Prior related post:

May 6, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Covering some interesting developments in some Capitol riot prosecutions

I have previously noted that the high-profile Capitol riot prosecutions provide an interesting lens on how a set of distinctive cases work their way through the federal criminal justice system.  And today I noticed a bunch of recent press pieces with interesting accounts of certain parts of this federal case processing story for certain defendants.  Here are links and headlines:

From BuzzFeed News, "They Said Trump Told Them To Attack The Capitol. Judges Are Keeping Them In Jail Anyway."

From CNN, "Justice Department preps plea deals for rioters from viral video of cops trapped in Capitol tunnel"

From Law & Crime, "Federal Appeals Court Upholds Decision to Keep Proud Boy Behind Bars Ahead of Trial for Pepper Spraying Police"

From NBC News, "FBI still after 'worst of the worst' in Capitol riot as new arrests come at steady pace"

From the New York Times, "‘There Was a Big Battle in Here’: Lawyers Tour Capitol as a Crime Scene"

Prior related posts:

May 6, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"What’s Really Wrong with Fining Crimes? On the Hard Treatment of Criminal Monetary Fines"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new paper authored by Ivó Coca-Vila now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Among the advocates of expressive theories of punishment, there is a strong consensus that monetary fines cannot convey the message of censure that is required to punish serious crimes or crimes against the person (e.g., rape).  Money is considered an inappropriate symbol to express condemnation. In this article, I argue that this sentiment is correct, although not for the reasons suggested by advocates of expressivism.  The monetary day-fine should not be understood as a simple deprivation of money, but as a punishment that re-duces the offender’s capacity to consume for a certain period of time.  Conceived in this manner, I argue that it is perfectly suitable to convey censure.

However, the practical impossibility of ensuring that the person who pays the fine is the same person who has been convicted of the offense seriously undermines the acceptability of the monetary fine as an instrument of censure.  Minimizing the risk of the fine’s hard treatment being transferred to third parties is a necessary condition for the monetary fine to be considered a viable alternative to lengthy prison sentences.

May 6, 2021 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal prison population holding steady at just over 152,000 through first 100 days of the Biden Administration

The day after Joe Biden was inaugurated as President, I authored this post posing a question in the title: "Anyone bold enough to make predictions about the federal prison population — which is now at 151,646 according to BOP?".  That post highlighted notable numerical realties about the the federal prison population (based on BOP data) during recent presidencies: during Prez Obama's first term in office, the federal prison population (surprisingly?) increased about 8%, climbing from 201,668 at the end of 2008 to 218,687 at the end of 2012; during Prez Trump's one term in office, this population count (surprisingly!) decreased almost 20%, dropping from 189,212 total federal inmates in January 2017 to 151,646 in January 2021.

Of course, lots of factors play can and do play lots of different expected and unexpected roles in shaping federal prosecutions and sentencings, and these case processing realities in turn can have unpredictable impacts on the federal prison population.  Consequently, I was disinclined in this January 2021 post to make any bold predictions about what we might see in the Biden era, though I suggested we should expect the federal prison population to be relatively steady at the start because it could take months before any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any big policy changes start impacting the federal prison population.  

Sure enough, we are now well past the "100 days" milestone for the Biden Administration, and the prison population numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage show little change.  Specifically, as of May 6, 2021, the federal prison population clocks in at 152,085. 

Given that the federal prison population has not been anywhere near 150,000 in over two decades, folks troubled by modern mass incarceration should perhaps be inclined to celebrate that the considerable yearly population declines that got started in 2014, and that kicked into a higher gear during to the pandemic, may now have set something of a "new normal" for these population totals.  But, few should forget that, in historical and comparative terms, the modern federal prison population is still quite massive, that almost half of this population is incarcerated for a drug offense, that almost a third of this population has "little or no prior criminal history," and that only around a quarter of this group is "serving a sentence for an offense involving weapons" (details drawn from this USSC quick facts as of June 2020).

A few prior related posts:

May 6, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 5, 2021

New Urban Institute resources on FIRST STEP Act prison particulars

I learned today via email about two notable new resources from the folks at the Urban Institute engaging with some of the intricacies of the prison reform elements of the FIRST STEP Act. 

First, this posting by Emily Tiry and Julie Samuels, titled "Three Ways to Increase the Impact of the First Step Act’s Earned Time Credits," suggests how this piece of the Act could be improved. Here is a snippet:

The 2018 First Step Act—the first major federal criminal justice reform legislation in nearly a decade—established earned time credits (ETCs) to provide early release opportunities for people incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

But to date, implementation of the ETC program has fallen short of expectations. No one has been released early via ETCs, it remains unclear how many — or if any — have actually received any ETCs, and BOP’s proposed rules for accruing and applying credits are restrictive and incomplete.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has interfered with ETC implementation plans by severely disrupting available programming, without changes now, the outlook for ETCs having a meaningful impact on opportunities for early release is bleak....  Although the progress so far has been disappointing, we suggest three ways to maximize the ETC system’s impact. The first would require congressional action; BOP could make the other two changes on its own. 

Second, this new resource, titled "The First Step Act’s Risk Assessment Tool: Who is eligible for early release from federal prison?," walks through the risk assessment instrument now applied to all federal prisoners. Here is how the resource is set up (links from original):

The First Step Act offers people incarcerated in federal prison the opportunity to earn credits toward early release.  To help determine who is eligible (after excluding people with certain prior offenses), the US Department of Justice created the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN), a risk assessment tool that predicts the likelihood that a person who is incarcerated will reoffend.  This interactive version of PATTERN shows how each risk factor raises or lowers a person’s risk score and can estimate whether they qualify for early release.

May 5, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Might Prez Biden use his clemency power relatively soon?

The question in the title of this post is promoted by this notable new Hill article headlined "Biden set to flex clemency powers."  The headline is a bit more encouraging than the full article for those eager to see some action on this front, and here are some of the details:

White House officials are signaling that President Biden is prepared to flex his clemency powers as officials wade through a large backlog of requests behind the scenes, according to advocates with whom the White House has consulted on criminal justice reform.  The White House held a Zoom call last week to discuss criminal justice reform with advocates and formerly incarcerated people, some of whom are pressing Biden to use his powers to free people jailed on drug offenses and sick and elderly people who pose no threat to society.

While the White House did not signal any imminent moves, officials indicated that Biden will not hold off until later in his term to issue pardons or commutations.  “It was clear that they are working on something,” said Norris Henderson, founder and executive director of New Orleans-based Voice of the Experienced, who participated in the call.  “They are looking at that right now as an avenue to start doing things.”

The White House declined to comment for this report when asked about Biden’s plans for clemency grants or his timeline.  Asked at a briefing Wednesday whether the Biden administration has a timeline for pardons or commutations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki answered: “I don’t have any previewing of that to provide and probably won’t from here.”

Biden disappointed some advocates by not granting clemency to anyone in his first 100 days in office and has faced pressure to take action to reform the criminal justice system and address racial injustices.  Given Democrats’ slim majorities in Congress, the broad clemency powers afforded to the president could be an attractive way for Biden to show he is taking action on reforming the justice system.  The Justice Department faces a backlog of some 15,000 petitions for clemency.

DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, said officials communicated on the call last week that Biden is “not waiting until the end of his presidency” to issue pardons or commutations. “It was very promising because he already, from the White House perspective, has staff working on this,” Hoskins said....  Vivian Nixon, executive director of the College & Community Fellowship, described the White House as more noncommittal, saying there was not a “promise to do anything” but that officials acknowledged “that they are looking at this issue very closely.”

Biden’s record on criminal justice is mixed.  He has faced backlash for his role in passing the 1994 crime bill that critics say contributed to mass incarceration and had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.  As part of the criminal justice platform he unveiled on the campaign trail, Biden promised to use his clemency power to “secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes” if elected....

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls spearheaded a campaign to pressure Biden to grant clemency to 100 women in his first 100 days in office, but that milestone came and went last week without action from the White House.  The American Civil Liberties Union has petitioned Biden to grant clemency to 25,000 people as soon as possible, calling mass incarceration a “moral failure” and “racial justice crisis.”

White House officials including domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, senior adviser Cedric Richmond and counsel Dana Remus convened the call last Friday to hear criminal justice reform recommendations from advocates, and clemency was among the topics discussed....

“One thing that was very clear from the conversation was there will be a process,” Desmond Meade, president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said of Friday’s White House call. “At the end of the day, they know that there are changes that should be made, but there should be a process there that makes it fair for everyone.”...

Friday’s call was the first in what is expected to be a series of White House engagements with criminal justice reform advocates and individuals who have been directly impacted by the prison system.... Participants expressed optimism that the White House is serious about addressing criminal justice reform and giving those who have been impacted by the justice system a seat at the table.

A few of many recent related posts on Prez Biden and clemency:

May 5, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2021"

The title of this post is the title of this notable, timely new briefing from the Prison Policy Initiative authored by Wanda Bertram and Wendy Sawyer.  Here is how it gets started (with links in original): 

This Mother’s Day — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put people behind bars at serious risk — nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children.  Over half (58%) of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.

Most of these women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses.  Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support.  And these numbers don’t cover the many women who will become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.

May 5, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 4, 2021

SCOTUS argument in Terry suggests low-level crack defendant unlikely to secure resentencing based on FSA retroactivity

On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Terry v. United States, and the full oral argument is available here via C-SPAN.  The full argument runs nearly 90 minutes and the quality of the advocacy makes it worth the full listen.  But one can get a much quicker flavor of the tenor of the discussion from just a scan of the headlines of these press accounts of the argument:

From the AP, "Supreme Court skeptical of low-level crack offender’s case"

From Bloomberg Law, "Biden Switch Unlikely to Save Crack Offenders at Supreme Court"

From Law & Crime, "Biden Administration Flip-Flopped Its Position in Case Over Crack Cocaine Sentences. SCOTUS Did Not Seem Pleased."

From Reuters, "U.S. Supreme Court skeptical of expanding crack cocaine reforms"

From USA Today, "Supreme Court skeptical of applying Trump-era criminal justice law retroactively for small drug offenses"

From the Washington Post, "Supreme Court seems skeptical that law helps all convicted of crack cocaine offenses"

All the "skeptical" questions from the Justices certainly leaves me thinking that the Supreme Court will rule that Tarahrick Terry is not entitled to resentencing under the FIRST STEP Act provision making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  That may not ultimately be such a big loss for Mr. Terry since, as the Acting SG explained to SCOTUS back in March, he is already finishing up his prison sentence through home confinement and that term is to be completed in September.  I am hopeful that the relatively small number of similarly situated defendants who would be adversely impacted by a Terry loss would have some similar silver lining.

Prior related posts:

May 4, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

New federal defender laments BOP's response to COVID and the FIRST STEP Act

The Federal Public and Community Defenders sent this new letter today to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders to follow up on the April 15 oversight hearing concerning the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  The 16-page letter covers a lot of ground, and here are excerpts:

For too long, DOJ and BOP have ignored congressional directives to prioritize the safety and rehabilitation of individuals in its custody, and left tools provided by Congress unused. These failures have been exacerbated by a culture that bends towards opacity and against accountability.  We urge Congress to intervene.  At minimum, it must strengthen and increase its oversight of DOJ and BOP to help ensure that federally incarcerated persons remain safe and that Congress’ vision for sentencing and prison reform is realized.  At best, it will enact legislation to smartly and swiftly lower prison populations and to move vulnerable individuals to a place of relative safety.

For the past 13 months, COVID-19 has torn through BOP facilities.  Meanwhile, BOP has failed to take the necessary steps — or to use available resources — to remediate the pandemic’s risk. Even now, despite the increased availability of vaccines across the country, COVID-19 remains a lifethreatening risk to those in BOP custody.  The death count of incarcerated individuals continues to mount, and conditions in federal detention facilities remain dire....

BOP and DOJ have failed to use the tools Congress gave them to safely lower prison populations.  The failure by DOJ and BOP to use tools to move vulnerable individuals to a place of relative safety — either by transferring them to home confinement or by seeking their release through compassionate release — has exacerbated the consequences of substandard medical treatment and care in BOP....

The First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) was intended to shorten certain federal prison sentences and to reorient the federal prison system away from pure punishment and towards rehabilitation.  The FSA’s ameliorative sentencing provisions have made significant strides: as of September 28, 2020, BOP has released 2,509 individuals who qualified for retroactive Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 relief. 

But since the FSA’s enactment, little has been done to advance the Act’s core prison reform: a system designed to reduce recidivism risk by offering individuals incentives in exchange for their participation in evidence-based programming and productive activities.  To create that system, the FSA directed the DOJ to dramatically expand programming in BOP facilities, and to develop a risk and needs assessment system (“RNAS”) that could determine “the recidivism risk of each prisoner” and “the type and amount of evidence-based recidivism reduction programming for each.”  Unfortunately, DOJ and BOP have failed to meet the programming or RNAS mandates and have undercut the promise of the FSA by promulgating restrictive policies behind closed doors....

Even prior to the pandemic, BOP had a long history of not providing sufficient programs.  Because the recidivism-reduction efforts of the FSA are meaningless without adequate programming, and in light of the IRC’s warning, we are deeply concerned that BOP does not have a plan of action to comply with the FSA requirement that BOP “provide all prisoners with the opportunity to actively participate in evidence-based recidivism reduction programs or productive activities according to their specific criminogenic needs, throughout their entire term of incarceration.”  BOP’s past performance, with inconsistent access and quality across institutions, makes it difficult to have confidence that BOP will meet its statutory obligations in this regard.  We hope that Congress will continue to closely oversee BOP’s efforts on this front, and to appropriate sufficient funding to support adequate programming.

May 4, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable NY politician gets furlough from BOP as he is "considered for home confinement"

When I saw the headline of this new New York Post piece, "Sheldon Silver released early on furlough after less than a year in prison," I thought the paper was misusing a term because furloughs from federal prison seem extraordinarily rare. But the story explains it has the right term:

Disgraced former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has been sprung from federal prison early on furlough — while he awaits a decision from the agency on whether he can serve out the remainder of his term in home confinement, a report said Tuesday.

Silver — who has served less than a year of his 6 1/2-year sentence — was cut loose from Otisville Prison, in Orange County, New York, and released to his home while awaiting the decision, a source familiar with the matter told the Associated Press.

The 77-year-old crooked former pol was released under DOJ’s expanded powers to grant inmates release amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the report. In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons said Silver is still “designated” to Otisville Prison, but added that it has the power to transfer inmates to their home on furlough.

“We can share that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has authority to transfer inmates to their home on furlough for periods of time while they may continue to be considered for home confinement designation,” a spokesperson said.

The BOP recently notified prosecutors in the Southern District of New York that it was considering cutting Silver loose on home confinement, a spokesperson for the district told The Post. n an email response sent yesterday, the prosecutor’s office — which secured a guilty verdict against Silver for corruption-related crimes during his run as an Albany power broker — stressed that it ardently opposes the move, the spokesperson said.

In a memo last year, former Attorney General Bill Barr gave the director of BOP expanded discretion to release vulnerable inmates from federal lockups amid the pandemic. BOP officials need to take into account a host of factors when determining if an inmate qualifies for home confinement, including “age and vulnerability of the inmate to COVID-19,” according to the memo. In addition, a BOP medical official is supposed to sign off on home confinement releases based on risk factors for a specific inmate, according to the memo....

Silver was sentenced last summer after avoiding lockup for more than five years after he was first convicted. At his sentencing, Judge Valerie Caproni admonished the crooked politician, who was convicted of illegally using his office to benefit two real estate developers in exchange for cash.

“This was corruption pure and simple,” Judge Caproni told the disgraced ex-speaker, whom she had already sentenced twice. “The time, however, has now come for Mr. Silver to pay the piper,” Caproni added.

Because there is always much mystery around the working of the BOP, I have no notion of whether any lower-profile prisoners might get similar treatment.

May 4, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Tip of the Iceberg: How Much Criminal Justice Debt Does the U.S. Really Have?"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Fines and Fees Justice Center.  Here are some excerpts from the report's "Introduction and Executive Summary":

Over the past two decades, advocates, researchers, government agencies and the media have drawn increasing attention to the dangerous effects of fines and fees, particularly on communities of color and low-income people.  While those moving through the criminal justice system often experience fines and fees as a single, ongoing burden, there are key distinctions between how each of these revenue sources are assessed and imposed.

Fines are monetary sanctions imposed for violating the law. Fees (also known as costs, assessments and surcharges) are additional charges imposed to fund the criminal legal system and other government services.  Fines and some fees are imposed by courts when a person is convicted of a criminal or traffic offense or a municipal code violation. Typically, these fines and fees are owed to the court.  Fees are also often imposed by local governments or their agencies both before and after a person is convicted.  For example, probation fees may be imposed by a local probation department either before trial or after a conviction.  These fees are typically owed to either a city or county government.

Considerable research has uncovered the financial burden and unintended consequences wreaked on the people charged with paying fines and fees.  Yet there has been little, if any, investigation into how much debt is outstanding or delinquent nationwide.  One of the few studies to address the issue found that none of the eight jurisdictions studied had a central repository where information on the total amount of fines and fees owed could be found.  Understanding the full scope of our nation’s criminal justice debt problem is vital to the task of creating an equitable justice system.  Without this information, we cannot accurately evaluate the true impact of fines and fees as a source of government revenue or, more importantly, as a financial burden on those who owe court debt.  The absence of data also results in the absence of accountability for policymakers and justice system stakeholders who support and enact harmful fines and fees policies.

This report addresses fines and fees imposed at conviction in felony, misdemeanor, traffic and municipal ordinance violation cases.  We refer to these fines and fees as “court debt” because it is debt imposed by the court and typically collected by courts or private collection agencies working on a court’s behalf.

This court debt is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to monetary sanctions in the criminal justice system.  Depending on the jurisdiction, the fines and fees imposed at conviction can be just a fraction of the total amount of unpaid fines and fees owed by people who are or were involved in the criminal legal system.  California, a state which maintains relatively robust data on fines and fees, serves an example — outstanding debt owed to California from the fines and fees imposed at conviction is equal to roughly $10 billion; roughly $16 billion is owed to the state’s counties for one or more of the 23 administrative fees that counties are authorized by state law to impose; and approximately $360 million was owed to counties in juvenile fees.

We chose to focus our investigation on court debt because courts keep a record of every case, and those records should specify the amount of fines and fees imposed at conviction.  We assumed that courts routinely aggregated that data, allowing them to determine the amount of fines and fees assessed.  We also assumed that courts would track how much of those fines and fees were actually collected.  In an effort to obtain this critical information, the Fines and Fees Justice Center contacted judicial offices and government agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia that might have data related to outstanding court debt. In a few states, the information related to the data request was already publicly available, but for most of the jurisdictions, a formal request was submitted....

But for half the country ... the full extent of our nation’s problem with court debt is shockingly untraceable and unknown.  And it’s not just the numbers that matter.  If states do not have the means (technological or otherwise) to determine how much money they are owed, there is a strong possibility that reliable data about who holds that debt may also be out of reach.  Without this vital information, stakeholders cannot appropriately weigh other socio-economic factors (apart from poverty) that may correlate with an inability to settle one’s court debt. How can we intelligently assess policy solutions when we can’t obtain a complete view of the problem?...

Knowing how much court debt exists will also allow us to accurately assess whether government resources are being wasted trying to collect debt that people will never be able to pay.  According to a report published by the Brennan Center for Justice, it costs New Mexico’s largest county, Bernalillo, at least $1.17 to collect every dollar of revenue it raises from fines and fees.  The report also found that some Texas and New Mexico counties spend 121 times what the IRS spends to collect taxes on fines and fees collection efforts.  These are valuable funds that could be invested in our communities....

Based on the information that was received, we can document that at least $27.6 billion of fines and fees is owed across the nation.  This figure grossly understates the amount of court debt that people living in the U.S. cannot afford to pay because only 25 states provided data, and the information that many provided was incomplete.  Information concerning the debt totals for the remaining 25 states and the District of Columbia could not be provided or was not available. 

May 4, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

May 3, 2021

Terry v. US, the final SCOTUS argument of Term, provides yet another reminder of the persistent trauma and drama created by the 100-1 crack ratio

It was 35 years ago, amid intense media coverage of a "crack epidemic" and the overdose death of basketball star Len Bias, when Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 with the 100-to-1 powder/crack cocaine quantity ratio defining severe mandatory minimum sentencing terms.  As the US Sentencing Commission explained in this 1995 report, Congress "dispensed with much of the typical deliberative legislative process, including committee hearings," when enacting this law, and "the abbreviated, somewhat murky legislative history simply does not provide a single, consistently cited rationale for the crack-powder cocaine penalty structure."  Though the 100-to-1 ratio lacked any sound rationale in 1986, thousands of disproportionately black persons started receiving disproportionately severe statutory and guideline sentences for crack offenses in the years that followed.

Not long thereafter, in 1991 the US Sentencing Commission detailed to Congress that "lack of uniform application [of mandatory minimums] creates unwarranted disparity in sentencing" and that data showed "differential application on the basis of race."  Giving particular attention to cocaine sentencing, in 1995 the US Sentencing Commission explained to Congress that there was considerable racial disparity resulting from the 100-1 quantity ratio and that sound research and public policy might "support somewhat higher penalties for crack versus powder cocaine, but a 100-to-1 quantity ratio cannot be recommended."  In other words, three decades ago, an expert agency told Congress that mandatory minimums were generally bad policy and created racial injustice; over a quarter century ago, that agency also told Congress that crack minimums were especially bad policy and created extreme racial injustice.

In a sound and just sentencing universe, these reports and recommendations would have prompted immediate action.  But it took Congress another full 15 years to even partially address these matters.  After tens of thousands of persons were sentenced under the 100-to-1 ratio, Congress finally in 2010 passed the Fair Sentencing Act to increase the amount of crack need to trigger extreme mandatory minimum sentences.  The FSA did not do away with any mandatory minimums, and it still provided for much smaller quantities of crack to trigger sentences as severe as larger quantities of powder, but it still bent the arc of the federal sentencing universe a bit more toward justice.  However, it did so only prospectively as Congress did not provide for retroactive application of its slightly more just crack sentencing rules in the FSA.

Eight years later, Congress finally made the Fair Sentencing Act's reforms of crack sentences retroactive through the FIRST STEP Act. But, of course, no part of this story lacks for drama and racialized trauma, as the reach of retroactivity remains contested in some cases.  So, the Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument on Tuesday, May 4 in Terry v. US to determine if Tarahrick Terry, who was sentenced in 2008 to over 15 years in prison after being convicted of possessing with intent to distribute about 4 grams of crack cocaine, can benefit from the FIRST STEP Act's provision to make the Fair Sentencing Act reforms retroactive.

All the briefing in Terry is available here at SCOTUSblog, and Ekow Yankah has a great preview here titled "In final case the court will hear this term, profound issues of race, incarceration and the war on drugs." Here is how it starts:

Academics naturally believe that even obscure cases in their field are underappreciated; each minor tax or bankruptcy case quietly frames profound issues of justice.  But, doubtful readers, rest assured that Terry v. United States — which the Supreme Court will hear on Tuesday in the final argument of its 2020-21 term — packs so many swirling issues of great importance into an absurdly little case, it can hardly be believed.  The national debate on historical racism in our criminal punishment system?  Yes.  Related questions of how we address drug use with our criminal law rather than as a public health issue?  Undoubtedly.  Redemption after committing a crime? Of course.  The ramifications of a contested presidential election?  Sure.  The consequences of hyper-technical statutory distinctions on the fate of thousands?  Goes without saying.  A guest appearance by a Kardashian?  Why not.

Henry Gass at the Christian Science Monitor has another great preview piece here under the headline "On the Supreme Court docket: Fairness, textualism, and crack cocaine."  Here is an excerpt:

Mr. Terry’s punishment followed war-on-drugs-era federal guidelines that treated a gram of crack cocaine 100 times worse than a gram of powder cocaine.  The sentencing disparity has come to be viewed, by critics spanning the political spectrum, as one of the great injustices of the war on drugs.  It’s been one of the key drivers of mass incarceration, those critics say, in particular subjecting thousands of low-level offenders — the vast majority young people of color – to long prison terms.

In the past decade Congress has reduced almost all of those sentences — all except for Mr. Terry, and thousands of low-level crack offenders like him.  It’s a deferral of justice that has brought him into an unlikely alliance with congressional leaders from both parties, as well as former federal judges, prosecutors, and, latterly, the Biden administration.

On Tuesday it will bring him to the U.S. Supreme Court, when the justices will hear arguments on whether this vestige of the tough-on-crime era should be eliminated.  His case is relatively narrow and technical, but in a country — and a Congress — that has come to roundly condemn drug policies like the crack powder sentencing disparity, it’s significant.

May 3, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Another round of early (mostly critical) commentary on Jones

I shared in this post some of my first thoughts about the Supreme Court's new Eighth Amendment juvenile LWOP decision in Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259 (S. Ct. April 22, 2021) (available here), and then I rounded up a few days later in this post some notable initial critical commentary.  Just over a week later, I have seen a number of additional notable takes on the ruling, and here is another abridged round up: 

From Andrew Cohen, "Supreme Court: Let’s Make It Easier for Judges to Send Teenagers to Die in Prison"

From Brandon Garrett, "Justices' Life Sentence Ruling Is A Step Back For Youth Rights"

From Jack Karp, "Jones Marks Shift In High Court's Juvenile Justice Rulings"

From Marc Levin, "Supreme Court Puts Onus on Lawmakers to Provide Second Chances for Kids"

From Christine Sarteschi and Daniel Pollack, "Life Without Parole for Minors: The Supreme Court and the Statistics"

From Kent Scheidegger, "Dumping a Dishonest Precedent Less Than Honestly — Part I"

From Beth Schwartzapfel, "Supreme Court Conservatives Just Made It Easier to Sentence Kids to Life in Prison"

Some prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: I just noticed this notable observation from Kent Scheidegger over at Crime & Consequences concerning action by the Justices in related cases via the May 3 order list:

The U.S. Supreme Court released its regular Monday orders list today.  Not surprisingly, there were several wake-of-Jones orders in cases that had been on hold for that decision.  Oklahoma v. Johnson, No. 19-250, and United States v. Briones, No. 19-720, were sent back for reconsideration.  These were cases where the lower court decided in an under-18 murderer’s favor based on a broad interpretation of Montgomery v. Louisiana.  Cases where the lower court ruled against the defendant based on a narrow interpretation of Montgomery were simply denied, including Newton v. Indiana, No. 17-1511, and Garcia v. North Dakota, No. 19-399.

May 3, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Interesting and critical accounting of Biden Administration's criminal justice work over first 100 days

Biden-thermometer-2This new lengthy Law360 piece, headlined "Biden Falls Short On Criminal Justice Reform In First 100 Days," provides a fittingly critical review of the Biden Administration's criminal justice work over its first 100 days in office.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are some highlights (along with an interesting graphic):

President Joe Biden made a slew of campaign promises on the criminal justice reform front that he has made little progress on in his first 100 days in office, disappointing some advocates who believed he would prioritize criminal justice reform.

Advocates say that even though Biden entered his presidential term with a full plate of pressing issues to tackle, including the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, he could have easily taken more steps to advance criminal justice reform at the beginning of his administration.

Kara Gotsch, deputy director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research organization seeking to reduce incarceration rates, said she is especially disappointed with the Biden administration because it supported renewing a policy that subjects individuals to mandatory minimum sentences for having trace amounts of fentanyl in their systems.

The policy was enacted under former President Donald Trump and goes against Biden's campaign promise to end mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses, according to Gotsch.  Gotsch said she is outraged that Biden's administration ignored advice from lawmakers, the legal community and criminal justice organizations to not support the policy when Congress was weighing whether or not to re-up the rule. Congress voted last week to renew the policy. "It's just mind-boggling that we are having this conversation that is a repeat of conversations that I personally have been having for decades," Gotsch said.

Biden supports criminal justice reform in his speeches and public statements, which sets an important tone for his administration, but his words are not leading to action on criminal justice reform, advocates say.

In Biden's March proclamation about "Second Chance Month" in April, he said his administration supports giving second chances to people by "diverting individuals who have used illegal drugs to drug court programs and treatment instead of prison" and "eliminating exceedingly long sentences and mandatory minimums that keep people incarcerated longer than they should be."

"So why are we literally doing the opposite, which is to expose more people to the harshest mandatory minimums on the books?" Gotsch said.

One of the biggest actions Biden took was issuing an executive order in his second week of office ending the use of privately operated federal prisons.  That move reinstated an order first issued by former President Barack Obama, which Trump had reversed.  Even that action from Biden, however, didn't go far enough to reform the criminal justice system, advocates say.

Brandon Buskey, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Criminal Law Reform Project, explained that one of the problems with Biden's order is that it doesn't immediately end federal prison contracts with private operators. Instead, the order phases out these contracts, which are usually for five to 10 years, by preventing them from being renewed when they expire, he said....

Advocates also say that Biden should have extended his executive order to privately operated civil immigration detention centers rather than limiting it to criminal detention facilities under the purview of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Biden's inaction so far doesn't mean that he won't keep his criminal justice reform promises though, scholars say. Professor Andrew Sidman, chair of the political science department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it is common for modern presidents to overpromise during their presidential campaigns and underdeliver in their first 100 days in office and beyond.  But Sidman said he believes that Biden will eventually get to criminal justice reform during his time in office....

When Law360 asked the White House about Biden fulfilling his criminal justice reform promises, a spokesperson pointed to several public statements that press secretary Jen Psaki has made about the president still being committed to criminal justice reform.  Psaki has said that Biden is waiting on Congress to pass reform legislation.

But Biden could have easily granted clemency to hundreds of incarcerated individuals serving lengthy sentences for minor drug offenses, commuted the sentences of federal inmates on death row and issued a moratorium on federal executions — all actions that he promised to take during his presidency — within his first 100 days without Congress, experts say....

Insha Rahman, vice president of advocacy and partnerships at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization, said that Biden immediately addressing the pandemic was important for criminal justice reform.... Ann Jacobs, executive director of the John Jay College Institute for Justice and Opportunity, added that prioritizing public health and the economy are crucial for crime prevention because research shows that people are more likely to commit crimes when they are desperate or unemployed.

Jacobs said that Biden has created a solid foundation for criminal justice reform within his 100 days by appointing top officials within the departments of Homeland Security, Education and Justice who understand criminal justice reform....

Rahman said the next six months will be a better indicator of how the Biden administration is doing on criminal justice reform.  The administration has lots of upcoming opportunities to reaffirm its commitment to criminal justice reform, including by not sending individuals released on home confinement during the pandemic back to prison and allocating money from the American Rescue Plan to reform efforts, she said.

Congress allocated $1.5 billion in the American Rescue Plan to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for community-based mental health services that could be used as alternatives to incarceration and would be a substantial investment in criminal justice reform, Rahman said. "The devil is in the details, and truly, it's an opportunity for the administration to put money where their mouth is on criminal justice reform," Rahman said.

A few prior recent related posts:

May 3, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

May 2, 2021

With new good behavior rules, is California on track to achieve historic "cut 50" in its prison population?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article, headlined "76,000 California inmates now eligible for earlier releases," though it also picks up on a broader, decades-long prison reform story in the Golden State. First, from the AP:

California is giving 76,000 inmates, including violent and repeat felons, the opportunity to leave prison earlier as the state aims to further trim the population of what once was the nation’s largest state correctional system.

More than 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes will be eligible for good behavior credits that shorten their sentences by one-third instead of the one-fifth that had been in place since 2017.  That includes nearly 20,000 inmates who are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole.

The new rules take effect Saturday but it will be months or years before any inmates go free earlier. Corrections officials say the goal is to reward inmates who better themselves while critics said the move will endanger the public.

Under the change, more than 10,000 prisoners convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense under the state’s “three strikes” law will be eligible for release after serving half their sentences.  That’s an increase from the current time-served credit of one-third of their sentence.  The same increased release time will apply to nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers, the corrections department projected....

The changes were approved this week by the state Office of Administrative Law. “The goal is to increase incentives for the incarcerated population to practice good behavior and follow the rules while serving their time, and participate in rehabilitative and educational programs, which will lead to safer prisons,” department spokeswoman Dana Simas said in a statement.  “Additionally, these changes would help to reduce the prison population by allowing incarcerated persons to earn their way home sooner,” she said....

Simas said the department was granted authority to make the changes through the rulemaking process and under the current budget.  By making them “emergency regulations” the agency could impose the new rules without public comment.  The department now must submit permanent regulations next year. They will be considered a public hearing and opportunity for public comment.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation that represents crime victims, said the notion that the credits are for good behavior is a misnomer. “You don’t have to be good to get good time credits. People who lose good time credits for misconduct get them back, they don’t stay gone,” he said. “They could be a useful device for managing the population if they had more teeth in them. But they don’t. They’re in reality just a giveaway.”...

California has been under court orders to reduce a prison population that peaked at 160,000 in 2006 and saw inmates being housed in gymnasiums and activity rooms.  In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court backed federal judges’ requirement that the state reduce overcrowding.

The population has been declining since the high court’s decision, starting when the state began keeping lower-level felons in county jails instead of state prisons.  In 2014, voters reduced penalties for property and drug crimes.  Two years later, voters approved allowing earlier parole for most inmates.  Before the pandemic hit, the population had dropped to 117,00 inmates. In the last year, 21,000 more have left state prisons — with about half being held temporarily in county jails.

This blog has long followed the many remarkable chapters in California's prison reform story (see a sampling below).  I particularly recall amusing myself with this post and title, "Hasta la vista, prison overcrowding!", when Gov Schwarzenegger 15 years ago issued a proclamation calling the California Legislature into special session to address prison crowding issues.  The state prison population was actually well over 170,000 around that time.  Some population reductions started around the Plata litigation — the SCOTUS ruling noted that, at "the time of trial, California’s correctional facilities held some 156,000 persons" — and further prison population reduction efforts kicked into high gear in the years following the Supreme Court's important Plata decision.

As this AP article notes, before the pandemic, the California prison population was under 120,000.  But as of last week, as detailed in this state weekly population report, the population now stands at 95,817.  If these new good behavior rules could possibly result in another prison population reduction of around 10,000 — and that is probably a very big "if"  — then California will have achieved a remarkable decarceration milestone.  If it can get down to around 86,000 prisoners, the state of California — which not so long ago had the largest state prison population within a country with the largest prison populaion in the world — will have cut its prison population by 50%.  I would surely call that a golden achievement for the Golden State. 

A few of many prior related posts about California prison populations and reforms:

May 2, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Another effective (but still incomplete) look at possible sentencing outcomes for those prosecuted for Capitol riot

This new AP article, headlined "Charged in Jan. 6 riot? Yes, but prison may be another story," reviews potental sentencing outcomes for their role in the January 6 Capitol riot.  Here are some excerpts, to be followed by a bit of contextual commentary:

More than 400 people have been charged with federal crimes in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.  But prison time may be another story.

With new defendants still flooding into Washington’s federal court, the Justice Department is under pressure to quickly resolve the least serious of cases.  While defendants charged with crimes such as conspiracy and assaulting officers during the insurrection could be looking at hefty sentences, some members of the mob who weren’t caught joining in the violence or destruction could see little to no time behind bars.

“The people who were just there for the ride and somewhat clueless, I think for most of them they probably will not get prison time. And for what it’s worth, I think that’s appropriate,” said Rachel Barkow, a professor at the New York University School of Law. “Having a misdemeanor on their record, going through all this is probably a pretty big wake-up call for most of the folks,” she said.

The siege was like nothing the country had ever seen, as the mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump descended on the Capitol to stop the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s election victory.  But in the months since, Trump loyalists have worked to minimize the assault, while Democrats and others want justice for what they saw as a crime against democracy and the rule of law....

It’s a formidable task for lawyers and judges alike to determine the appropriate punishment to seek and hand down. Many defendants had steady jobs and no criminal records, factors typically rewarded with leniency in the criminal justice system.  As plea negotiations ramp up, the Justice Department must work to differentiate between the varying actions of the members of the mob that day without making it seem like some are getting away with mere slaps on the wrist....

Of the more than 400 federal defendants so far, at least 100 are facing only lower-level crimes such as disorderly conduct and entering a restricted area that do not typically result in time behind bars for first-time offenders.  Hundreds more were also charged with more serious offenses — like conspiracy, assault or obstruction of an official proceeding — that carry hefty prison time of years behind bars, but theses defendants could take pleas that would wipe those charges from their cases. Prosecutors have said they expect to charge at least 100 more people.

It’s going to be a test of racial fairness. The majority of the defendants are white.  Black and Latino defendants tend to face harsher sentences for the same crimes, and from the moment the mob marched on the Capitol, there were questions about whether the law enforcement response would have been different had the rioters been people of color....

If prosecutors seek stiff sentences for the lowest level Capitol riot defendants, they could lose their credibility with judges, said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Loyola Law School.  And if they set the standard too high, they’ll be juggling hundreds of cases going to trial instead of focusing on the major offenders. Those most serious cases are where prosecutors can and should send a strong message, Levenson said. “If there’s any pressure on the Justice Department, it’s to deal with these cases in a way so that you never have to see them again,” she said. “And if people think that the price isn’t too high, who knows?”

At least one judge has expressed frustration at the pace of the prosecutions, which have overwhelmed the federal court already backlogged because of pandemic-related delays. On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper ordered the pretrial release of a man who was photographed sitting with his feet on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. The judge expressed concern that the case is moving too slowly.

Cooper noted that Richard Barnett has been jailed for nearly four months and questioned whether his time behind bars while the case is ongoing could exceed a possible sentence should Barnett plead guilty. The prosecutor estimated that the government would recommend a prison term ranging from nearly six years to 7 1/4 years if Barnett is convicted, though he could get credit for accepting responsibility if he pleads guilty.

All high-profile prosecutions, particularly when they involve persons without significant criminal histories, provide interesting settings to explore sentencing purposes and practices. These Capitol riot prosecutions have the added political intrigue of having those who usually advocate for harsher forms of justice likely being much more sympathetic to these defendants, while at least some usually most troubled by harsh sentencing may be more supportive of prison terms this unique setting.  And, as this AP article rightly notes, there overarching surely concerns about racial and social equity in light of historic patterns of prosecution and sentencing practices.

But the equity issue leaves me eager to see more comprehensive and consistent coverage of punishments being handed out to others involved in criminal behavior during other protests through 2020.  For example, consider these sentencing reports from local press in recent weeks:

I am certain that this is NOT anything close to a thorough accounting of the sentences that have been already handed down to persons who have engaged in criminal activity during protests and riots (e.g., here is a press report from Dec 2020 of a few case outcomes in Oregon).  I am even more certain that it could provide incredibly valuable for ultimately examining and assessing Capitol riot outcomes to have some kind of thorough overview of outcomes in these other (similar?) cases.   

Prior related posts:

May 2, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8)