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December 30, 2022

President Joe Biden closes out 2022 by granting full pardons to six people

I was pleased to learn this afternoon that President Joe Biden took out his clemency pen on the last working day of 2022 and granted full pardons to six individuals.  The list of recipients is set forth in this official "Clemency Recipient List," and here are the basics from that list:

Gary Parks Davis – Yuma, Arizona
Gary Parks Davis is a 66-year-old man who pleaded guilty to use of a communication facility (a telephone) to facilitate an unlawful cocaine transaction at age 22....

Edward Lincoln De Coito III – Dublin, California
Edward Lincoln De Coito III is a 50-year-old man who pleaded guilty to involvement in a marijuana trafficking conspiracy at age 23; his involvement was limited to serving as a courier on five or six occasions....

Vincente Ray Flores – Winters, California
Vincente Ray Flores is a 37-year-old man who, at approximately age 19, consumed ecstasy and alcohol while serving in the military; he later pleaded guilty at a special court-martial....

Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas – Columbus, Ohio
Beverly Ann Ibn-Tamas is an 80-year-old woman who was convicted of murder in the second-degree while armed for killing her husband. Ms. Ibn-Tamas, 33 at the time of the incident, was pregnant and testified that before and during her pregnancy, her husband beat her, verbally abused her, and threatened her....

Charlie Byrnes Jackson – Swansea, South Carolina
Charlie Byrnes Jackson is a 77-year-old man who pleaded guilty to one count of possession and sale of distilled spirits without tax stamps. The offense, which occurred when Mr. Jackson was 18, involved a single illegal whiskey transaction, and resulted in nominal loss to the government....

John Dix Nock III – St. Augustine, Florida
John Dix Nock III is a 72-year-old man who pleaded guilty to one count of renting and making for use, as an owner, a place for the purpose of manufacturing marijuana plants. 

December 30, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Oregon Supreme Court gives retroactive effect to Ramos Sixth Amendment jury unanimity rule (two months after Louisiana Supreme Court refused to do so)

An opinion from the Oregon Supreme Court on this last working day of 2022 provides a notable bookend to the echoes of the Supreme Court's 2020 Ramos holding that the Sixth Amendment requires that a jury reach a unanimous guilty verdict to convict a defendant of a crime.  This local article reports on the basics and its import: 

Hundreds of felony convictions became invalid Friday after the Oregon Supreme Court struck down all non-unanimous jury verdicts reached before the practice was banned two years ago.

The retroactive ruling applies to all split-jury convictions reached during the 86-year stretch when Oregon was one of only two states, alongside Louisiana, to allow such verdicts.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Pro Tempore Richard Baldwin described the authorization of 10-2 and 11-1 jury verdicts in 1934 as a “self-inflicted injury” that was intended to minimize the voice of nonwhite jurors.

“We must understand that the passage of our non-unanimous jury-verdict law has not only caused great harm to people of color,” Baldwin wrote. “That unchecked bigotry also undermined the fundamental Sixth Amendment rights of all Oregonians for nearly a century.”

Voters approved Oregon’s non-unanimous jury system after a jury handed down a light sentence in a 1933 gangland murder trial, spurring racist and xenophobic newspaper coverage that blamed the compromise verdict on immigrant jurors, The Oregonian/OregonLive previously reported.

The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed divided verdicts in its landmark Ramos v. Louisiana decision in April 2020, but the order only applied to open cases and convictions that were actively being appealed when the ruling came down.

The ruling left the door open for states to make their own laws applying it retroactively. The Oregon legislature did not take that action, but people convicted by split juries began pursuing a retroactive ruling at the Oregon Appeals Court last year.

The Oregon Department of Justice says the Ramos ruling vacated more than 470 convictions with active appeals, meaning that prosecutors were required to essentially reboot each case from the beginning and either pursue a new trial, cut a plea deal or dismiss the charges.

The new state Supreme Court ruling means county district attorneys will have to make a similar decision for cases where the defendant had already exhausted a final appeal.

There are approximately 300 people, mostly in state prison, with exhausted appeals who have filed new litigation because they were convicted by a non-unanimous jury before the Ramos decision, according to Aliza Kaplan, a Lewis & Clark law professor and leader of the Criminal Justice Reform Clinic.

The full opinions from the Oregon Supreme Court in Watkins v. Ackley are available here.

Notably, Louisiana was the only other state with a history of non-unanimous criminal jury verdicts, and a couple of months ago its state Supreme Court decided against giving retroactive effect to Ramos (as this local press piece details).  The full opinion from the Louisiana Supreme Court in Louisiana v. Reddick are available here.

December 30, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Federal Justice Statistics, 2021"

This week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released this big data report titled simply "Federal Justice Statistics, 2019." This press release about the report provides these highglights (which are only a small sample of data reported):

The study found that arrests by federal law enforcement agencies declined 35% from fiscal year (FY) 2020 to FY 2021, reaching the lowest level over the past two decades.  Due to the coronavirus pandemic, federal arrests declined 81% and cases charged in federal court declined 77%, from March to April 2020, with an additional decline of 25% in arrests and 20% in cases charged, from October 2020 to February 2021.

About 6 in 10 federal arrests in 2021 were for immigration, drug, or supervision violations (48,257).  The largest percentage decrease in arrests from FY 2020 to FY 2021 was for immigration offenses (down 72%), from 51,723 to 14,446 arrests.  Arrests for property offenses increased 11% during this time.

While federal arrests declined substantially from FY 2020 to FY 2021, the number of persons charged with a federal offense in U.S. district court decreased less than 1%, from 66,059 to 65,880.  During that period, the number of persons charged with violent offenses increased 18% and the number charged with public order offenses increased 13%, while the number of persons charged with immigration offenses decreased 18%....

Of the 63,380 defendants adjudicated in federal district courts in FY 2021, about 9 in 10 were convicted.  Among those convicted, nearly three quarters (74%) were sentenced to prison.  The median prison sentence for persons convicted was 37 months.  Among persons sentenced to prison, both white and black defendants were sentenced to a median of 60 months.

The type of sentence imposed in FY 2021 varied by sex, race or Hispanic origin and age of defendants.  Convicted males (77%) were sentenced to prison more commonly than convicted females (59%).  Those sentenced to prison had a median age of 35 years, while those sentenced to probation had a median age of 38 years.  A greater percentage of blacks (85%) and American Indians or Alaska Natives (82%) who were convicted were sentenced to prison compared to convicted persons who were white (77% ), Hispanic (71%) or Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (69%).

For the 10-year period from fiscal yearend 2011 to 2021, the number of persons under federal correctional control declined 15%, from 410,887 to 350,543.  The proportion in confi nement or community supervision did not change during that period.  Approximately 3 in 5 of these persons were in secure confinement and 2 in 5 were on community supervision in each year.

December 30, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 29, 2022

"Remorse, Relational Legal Consciousness, and the Reproduction of Carceral Logic"

The title of this post is the title of this paper authored by Kathryne M. Young and Hannah Chimowitz now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

One in seven people in prison in the US is serving a life sentence, and most of these “lifers” will someday be eligible for discretionary parole.  But little is known about a key aspect of parole decision-making: remorse assessments. Because remorse is a complex emotion that arises from past wrongdoing and unfolds over time, assessing the sincerity of another person’s remorse is neither a simple task of lie detection, nor of determining emotional authenticity. Instead, remorse involves numerous elements, including the relationship between a person’s past and present motivations, beliefs, and affective states.

To understand how parole board members make sense of remorse, we draw on in-depth interviews with parole commissioners in California, the state with the largest proportion of parole-eligible lifers.  We find that commissioners’ remorse assessments hinge on their perceptions of lifers’ relationships to law and carceral logic.  In this way, relational legal consciousness — specifically, second-order legal consciousness — functions as a stand-in for the impossible task of knowing another person’s heart or mind.  We distinguish relational from second-order legal consciousness and argue that understanding how they operate at parole hearings reveals the larger import of relational legal consciousness as a mechanism via which existing power relations are produced and reproduced, bridging the legal consciousness and law and emotion literatures.

December 29, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (12)

December 28, 2022

Fingers crossed that SCOTUS might review acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements

Regular reader may vaguely recall some of my prior posts about the McClinton case before the US Supreme Court raising issues about the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing.  As I have detailed in posts months ago (and linked below), over the summer I had the pleasure of working with great lawyers at Squire Patton Boggs to file an amicus brief on the acquitted conduct issue in support of petitioner Dayonta McClinton.  (I blogged here about McClinton's case after the Seventh Circuit affirmed his 19-year sentence that was based heavily on the judge's determination that McClinton was to be held responsible for a murder even after a jury had acquitted him of that killing.  As detailed in this SCOTUS docket sheet, a number of notable interest groups have also filed amicus briefs in support of cert in this case.)

After various delays, it appears that this case will finally be considered at next week's SCOTUS conference.  And that reality likely account for this new AP article headlined "Supreme Court asked to bar punishment for acquitted conduct."  Here are excerpts:

A jury convicted Dayonta McClinton of robbing a CVS pharmacy but acquitted him of murder. A judge gave McClinton an extra 13 years in prison for the killing anyway. In courtrooms across America, defendants get additional prison time for crimes that juries found they didn’t commit.

The Supreme Court is being asked, again, to put an end to the practice. It’s possible that the newest member of the court and a former federal public defender, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, could hold a pivotal vote. McClinton’s case and three others just like it are scheduled to be discussed when the justices next meet in private on Jan. 6.

Sentencing a defendant for what’s called “acquitted conduct” has gone on for years, based on a Supreme Court decision from the late 1990s. And the justices have turned down numerous appeals asking them to declare that the Constitution forbids it.

The closest the court came to taking up the issue was in 2014, when Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg provided three of the four votes necessary to hear an appeal.... Scalia and Ginsburg have since died, and Thomas remains on the court. But two other justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, have voiced concerns while serving as appeals court judges.

I am hopeful, but still more than a bit pessimistic, about the possibility of 2023 being the year for SCOTUS to take up acquitted conduct sentencing.  If enough Justices are sincerely committed to orignalist principles, perhaps this issue will get to the Court's docket this coming year.  But I am certainly not holding my breath. 

A few recent of many, many prior related posts:

December 28, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (31)

Notable ruling on meth sentencing guidelines by a notable federal sentencing judge

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss a notable little new ruling from federal judge in Mississippi in US v. Robinson, No. 3:21-CR-14-CWR-FKB-2 (S.D. Miss. Dec. 23, 2022) (available here).  The ruling addresses the calculation of the federal sentencing guideline range in meth cases, and here are some excerpts (with lots of cites omitted):

The issue is fairly straightforward. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines use drug purity as a proxy for a defendant’s culpability....  As a result, the Guidelines make a distinction between “methamphetamine” and “actual methamphetamine.”   All else equal, defendants caught with actual methamphetamine get longer sentences than defendants caught with methamphetamine mixture....

The distinction is significant to Mr. Robinson.  Because he possessed 214.4 grams of especially pure methamphetamine, the Guidelines indicate that he should have a “base offense level” of 32.  In contrast, if Mr. Robinson was deemed to have possessed 214.4 grams of methamphetamine mixture, the Guidelines indicate that his base offense level would be 26....

At the outset, the Court appreciates the parties for pointing to Judge Bennett’s decision in United States v. Nawanna, 321 F. Supp. 3d 943 (N.D. Iowa 2018).  In that case, the United States conceded that there is no empirical basis for the Sentencing Commission’s 10-to-1 weight disparity between actual methamphetamine and methamphetamine mixture. Other courts have found the same....

On review, the undersigned agrees with these colleagues.  The Guidelines use drug purity as a proxy for culpability.  But national experience suggests that is no longer true for methamphetamine.  The DEA data show that most methamphetamine confiscated today is “pure” regardless of whether the defendant is a kingpin or a low-level addict....

Given the on-the-ground reality in methamphetamine cases, the better way to determine culpability is to examine all of the circumstances of the defendant’s case and life -- seeing the defendant as a “whole person,” as the Supreme Court just instructed in Concepcion. 142 S. Ct. at 2395.  There are sentencing enhancements available for leaders, organizers, or managers of criminal enterprises.  If the defendant’s case warrants, those enhancements should be applied.  In the context of methamphetamine, though, purity is no longer probative of the defendant’s culpability.

This ruling is notable on its own terms, but it seemed especially blogworthy because of the opinion's author: US District Judge Carlton W. Reeves. Judge Reeves, as some readers likely know, is the new Chair of the US Sentencing Commission.

December 28, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

December 27, 2022

Federal judge sentences Michigan man who plotted to kidnap Gov to 16 years despite feds seeking LWOP ... and thereafter give other leader 235 months

As reported in this NBC News piece, headlined "Man sentenced to 16 years for plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer," a high-profile case reached a sentencing outcome this morning in Michigan federal court. Here are some of the notable details:

A federal judge on Tuesday sentenced a man to 16 years in prison for his role in a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — opting against the prosecution's bid for life behind bars.

Adam Fox, 39, was convicted in August of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and to use a weapon of mass destruction to attack Whitmer, who had drawn the ire of far-right groups for her efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 in 2020. Jurors in April failed to come to verdicts against Fox and co-defendant Barry Croft, forcing a judge to declare a mistrial before a second trial proved decisive.

U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker questioned whether Fox was a true "natural leader" of the plot, worthy of a life sentence.  "I don't think life is needed to achieve the important public deterrent factors," Jonker said in Grand Rapids, explaining the 192-month sentence.

While a terrorism enhancement set up Fox for a possible life term, Jonker said that harshest sentence isn’t automatic and that he had to carefully consider other factors.  Jonker said he leaned heavily on a 2018-19 Northern California case where U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, brother of retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, sentenced ISIS sympathizer Amer Alhaggagi to 188 months in prison, more than 15 years short of the 33 years sought by prosecutors.

“You have to calibrate, as judges, the overall seriousness of wrongdoing and the overall seriousness of the defendant’s history," Jonker said. “I see nothing in the record ... nothing that makes me think he’s (Fox) a natural leader and nothing that makes me think he’s the kind of person that anybody involved in this group was naturally going to follow.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler had said Fox was out to spark an all-out war and needed to be put away for life. “They wanted a second Civil War or a revolution,” Kessler told the court on Tuesday.  "They wanted to ruin everything for everybody."  Kessler warned that Fox will still be a dangerous man when he someday walks free. “The problem is this defendant, he’s going to go into jail and probably emerge more radicalized than when he went in and will remain a danger to the public, your honor," the prosecutor said.

The plot was hatched in response to Whitmer's actions during the start of the pandemic in 2020 when she ordered various lockdowns aimed at curbing the spread of Covid. Far-right groups blasted Whitmer, and then-President Donald Trump appeared to back that opposition in an all-caps tweet.

Defense attorney Christopher Gibbons argued on Tuesday that a life sentence would have been too much.  "That overstates the reality of the conduct that has been alleged and that was actually accomplished by Adam Fox in summer of 2020," Gibbons said.

Based on various press reports, I surmise a terrorism enhancement under the federal sentencing guidelines led to a guildeine-recommended sentencing of life, which is turn served as a key basis for federal prosecutors to advocate for an LWOP term. But it seems Judge Jonker concluded that a 16-year prison term would be "sufficient but not greater than necessary" to serve the purposes set forth by Congress in 18 USC 3553(a)(2).

UPDATE:  On Wednesday (Dec. 28), another kidnapping plot leader was sentenced by the same judge as detailed in this Fox News account:

The other co-leader convicted of conspiracy charges in the foiled plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2020 was sentenced Wednesday to nearly 20 years in prison.

Barry Croft Jr., who prosecutors recommended a life sentence, learned of his punishment a day after key ally Adam Fox was sentenced to 16 years. Croft was sentenced to 19 years and seven months.

Fox, 39, and Croft, 47, were convicted on two counts of conspiracy at a trial in August. Croft also was found guilty of possessing an unregistered explosive.  The conspirators were furious over tough COVID-19 restrictions that Whitmer and officials in other states had put in place during the early months of the pandemic, as well as perceived threats to gun ownership.

Croft, a Delaware trucker, regularly wore a tri-cornered hat common during the American Revolution and had tattoos on his arms symbolizing resistance -- "Expect Us" -- as he traveled to Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan to meet with like-minded extremists, according to the Associated Press. "Although he may not have had hierarchical control over all the other participants, he coordinated and pushed the implementation of the conspiracy from its inception to its final stages," Assistant U.S. Attorney Nils Kessler said in a court filing....

"The abduction of the governor was only meant to be the beginning of Croft’s reign of terror," Kessler said. "He called for riots, ‘torching’ government officials in their sleep and setting off a ‘domino’ effect of violence across the country."

A key piece of evidence showed Croft, Fox and others traveled to see Whitmer's vacation home in northern Michigan, with undercover agents and informants inside the cabal. At one point, Croft told allies, "I don’t like seeing anybody get killed either. But you don’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, you know what I mean?"

Croft's attorney tried to soften his client's role. In a court filing, Joshua Blanchard said the Bear, Delaware, man did not actually have authority over others and often frustrated them because he "just kept talking." Croft was smoking 2 ounces of marijuana per week, Blanchard said. "Simply put, to the extent that the jury determined he was a participant, as they necessarily did, he was a participant to a lesser degree than others," Blanchard insisted.

Two men who pleaded guilty and testified against Fox and Croft received substantial breaks; Ty Garbin is already free after a 2 1/2-year prison term, while Kaleb Franks was given a four-year sentence.

In state court, three men recently were given lengthy sentences for assisting Fox earlier in the summer of 2020. Five more are awaiting trial in Antrim County, where Whitmer’s vacation home is located.

December 27, 2022 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Some early commentary on notable end-of-year federal criminal justice reform developments

I hope and expect that the new charging and sentencing memos issued by AG Garland (basics here), as well as the failure of the out-going Congress to pass any significant criminal justice reforms, will garner extended attention and analysis in the weeks and months ahead.  Usefully, I have already seen some first-cut accountings from a variety of sources:

From Filter, "The Limits of AG’s Guidelines Against Crack-Powder Sentencing Disparity"

From LISA-Legalinfo, "Blue Christmas for Criminal Justice Reforms"

From MSNBC, "Racist war on drugs is the real winner of Congress’s massive spending bill"

From Reason, "The Failure To Enact Marijuana Banking and Crack Sentencing Reforms Is a Window on Congressional Dysfunction"

From San Diego Union-Tribune, "Creating different punishments for crack and powder cocaine never made sense, unscientific"

Looking forward, the practical impact of AG Garland's charging and sentencing memos, the continued implementation of the FIRST STEP Act, and especially the coming work of the newly, fully-staffed U.S. Sentencing Commission will be topics to watch closely in the weeks and months ahead.  So, I am tentatively hopeful that the lack of much lasting federal criminal justice reform in 2022 is just a precursor to a big 2023 ahead.

December 27, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

December 26, 2022

"Felony Sentencing in New York City: Mandatory Minimums, Mass Incarceration, and Race"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Center for Court Innovation authored by Fred Butcher, Amanda B. Cissner, and Michael Rempel.   The full report runs over 30 pages, but this CCI webpage provides this two-page summary which includes this brief accouting of the report's findings:

Of the more than 65,000 such arrests in 2019, we found a third of people arrested were potentially subject to a mandatory minimum.  That doesn’t mean everyone ultimately received a minimum prison sentence, but the wide eligibility confers outsized power on prosecutors; in plea negotiations, prosecutors can wield the threat of a higher charge with guaranteed, generally lengthy, prison time against someone hesitant to accept a plea.

Arrests, and with them exposure to charges eligible for a mandatory minimum, are the formal entry-point to the criminal legal system.  Our analysis found Black people accounted for 51% of people arrested on a felony in New York City in 2019, more than double their representation in the general population; for white people, the figure was 11%. For arrests with exposure to a mandatory minimum, the disparity was even more striking: Black and Hispanic/Latinx New Yorkers combined to make up 91% of such arrests; for white people, the proportion was only 7%.

Looking at the subgroup of those convicted of a felony, Black people were also more likely to suffer imprisonment and almost six of ten convictions carrying a mandatory minimum sentence went to a Black person.

Indeed, while race was a significant predictor of whether someone convicted of a felony received a prison sentence — 58% of Black versus 43% of white people — an even stronger predictor was a prior felony conviction. Here the overlap — or, for people of color, doublebind — is considerable.  Systemic issues such as underinvestment paired with over-policing of Black and Brown communities increase the likelihood that members of these communities will acquire the kind of criminal history that can trigger, not only a sentence of incarceration, but also exposure to a mandatory minimum (whether actualized or used against them to leverage a less favorable plea).

December 26, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (6)