Wednesday, May 25, 2022

New Executive Order from Prez Biden, though mostly on policing, includes some sentencing and corrections matters

This new "FACT SHEET" from the White House, titled "President Biden to Sign Historic Executive Order to Advance Effective, Accountable Policing and Strengthen Public Safety," provides an overview of what the latest presidential EO will cover in the criminal justice space. Though focused mostly on policing issues, I was intrigued to see this passage at the very end of the fact sheet:

Reforms Our Broader Criminal Justice System

Directs a government-wide strategic plan to propose interventions to reform our criminal justice system.  A new committee with representatives from agencies across the federal government will produce a strategic plan that advances front-end diversion, alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation, and reentry.  The Attorney General will also publish an annual report on resources available to support the needs of persons on probation or supervised release.

Improves conditions of confinement. The Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, will update procedures as necessary to increase mitigation of Covid-19 in correctional facilities; expand the publication and sharing of vaccination, testing, infection, and fatality data disaggregated by race, ethnicity, age, sex, disability, and facility; and to identify alternatives to facility-wide lockdowns and restrictive housing to reduce the risk of transmission.  The Attorney General will also report to the President on steps to limit the use of restrictive housing and improve conditions of confinement, including with respect to the incarceration of women, juveniles, and persons in recovery.

Requires full implementation of the FIRST STEP Act. The Attorney General will update DOJ policy as necessary to fully implement the FIRST STEP Act and to report annually on implementation metrics, including an assessment of any disparate impact of the PATTERN risk assessment tool and steps to correct any such disparities.

UPDATE: Here is the full detailed "Executive Order on Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices to Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety" from the Biden White House.

May 25, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, May 01, 2022

An (incomplete) account of the dynamic state of federal criminal justice reform politics

This new Politico article, headlined "Trump’s criminal justice reform bill becomes persona non grata among GOPers," provides an interesting (but I think incomplete) account of the current state of federal criminal justice reform politics.  I recommend the full piece, and here are some excerpts:

The First Step Act was not just hailed as a rare bipartisan achievement for the 45th president but as the beginning of a major shift in GOP politics, one that would move the party past the 1980s tough-on-crime mindset to a focus on rehabilitation, racial fairness and second chances.

Three-and-a-half years later, few Republicans — Trump included — seem not at all interested in talking about it. With spikes in crime registering as a top concern for voters, Republicans have increasingly reverted back to that 1980s mindset. Talk of additional legislation has taken a back seat to calls for enhanced policing and accusations that Democratic-led cities are veering toward lawlessness....

For some advocates, the Republican Party’s cooling to criminal justice reform confirms the belief the interest wasn’t ever sincere. But for lawmakers and advocates on the right who worked on the First Step Act, the shift has been similarly disconcerting, raising concern it freezes political momentum for further reform.

“I personally think there’s just as many people that want to do criminal justice reform as the last several years, but I think their voices are quiet now, and those that are opposed to the First Step Act are still opposed and have gotten louder,” said Brett Tolman from the conservative group Right on Crime.  Tolman added that much work continues behind the scenes. “It feels like we just have to bide our time a bit and get past when the emotion of all of the political rhetoric is at the forefront.”...

Republicans who support reforms say the party can be both in line with that vision and adopt a tough-on-crime posture — that voters will be able to differentiate between crackdowns on violent crime and accountability in the justice system. “Reform and calling out truths can coexist. It’s not a binary decision.  And there are achievable solutions available,” said Zack Roday, a Republican political strategist.

But trends aren’t helping the reformer’s cause. In the past year, violent crime rates have risen dramatically, with at least 12 major U.S. cities breaking annual homicide records in 2021.  Recent polling reflects public concerns about rising crime rates and dissatisfaction with how public leaders are addressing the problem.  Republicans pointed to the trends as evidence of a Democratic failure....

Despite the changing political winds, reform advocates still say they are optimistic that Congress will pass the EQUAL Act, which would end federal sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine offenses.  Supporters of the bill, which the House passed in September with the support of some of the most conservative members, say it would address racial disparities, noting 90 percent of those serving federal time for crack offenses are Black....

So far, the bill has the support of 11 Republican senators, the National District Attorneys Association, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the American Civil Liberties Union.  But congressional aides warn the legislation is not a slam dunk, especially without the support of Grassley, now the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.  This week, the senator introduced a separate bill tackling crack and cocaine sentencing disparities.  And in a midterm election year when public focus is on rising crime in communities, some conservatives say they do not see a path forward for federal reforms.

“From the federal government I don’t see anything passing this year on criminal justice reform, I think they’re done. I think the politics of it are too difficult,” said Charles Stimson, a crime expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “People will probably be motivated in the fall to vote for folks who take the law and order approach and they’re not going to believe people who say they don’t have a crime problem.”

Though covering a lot of ground well, this Politico piece seem to me to fail to highlight how much crime and punishment had become a part of this era's broader culture wars.  Of particular note, I think George Floyd's murder, which brought "defund the police" to the forefront of the political arena, served to derail some of the bipartisanship that got the FIRST STEP Act to the finish line.  And thereafter with rising crime concerns, the GOPs recent affinity for a certain brand of populism makes it ever more likely for a return to the classic tough-on-crime tune.  (It also bears noting, in this context and others, that while Prez Trump leaned into prison reforms all through 2018 and actively helped get the FIRST STEP Act done, Prez Biden has made no public effort to push criminal justice reforms others than politically-fraught policing reforms.) 

And yet, adding ever more nuance to a complicated political story, there still seems to be persistent bipartisan energy for not just the EQUAL Act, but also for other smaller reforms. For example, as noted here, just six weeks ago, the US House overwhelmingly voted, by a margin of 405-12, for the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021.  And various modest proposed marijuana reforms, such as the SAFE Banking Act and a variety of bills to enhance research or expand expungements, are garnering bipartisan support in one form or another.     

Stated differently, I share Brett Tolman's general view that there are still plenty of folks on both sides of the aisle that are considerably interested in considerable criminal justice reforms.  But, critically, as political and criminal justice realities on the ground have changed, leaders of Congress must change their vision of the possible circa May 2022.  More modest bills may have to get more attention, and the "best" cannot be the enemy of the "good enough."   Small reform victories are still victories, and I would hope that the type of criminal justice reform bills that pass by a margin of 405-12 in one chamber should be able to make some progress in the other.  But hoping for Congress to do better obviously does not mean it will anytime soon.  

May 1, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Prez Biden finally uses his clemency pen to grant three pardons and 75 commutations

Because I always am inclined to say better late than never, I was quite pleased to wake up to the news that President Joe Biden is finally starting to make good on his  campaign promise to "broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes."  This USA Today piece, headlined "Biden to pardon three felons, commute sentences of 75 others, in first grants of clemency," provides these details:

The nation's first Black Secret Service agent on a presidential detail, now 86 years old living in Chicago, who has worked decades to clear his name for a crime he has said he didn't commit. A 51-year-old woman from Houston who served seven years in prison for attempting to transport drugs for her boyfriend and accomplice – neither of whom faced charges. And a 52-year-old man from Athens, Georgia, who partners with schools to employ youth at his cellphone repair company, two decades after he was charged for letting pot dealers use his pool hall to sell drugs.

Three convicted felons – Abraham Bolden Sr., Betty Jo Bogans and Dexter Eugene Jackson – are receiving presidential pardons from President Joe Biden, along with 75 others whose sentences the president is commuting Tuesday, in the first use of clemency power of the Biden presidency.  All of Biden's commutations target individuals serving sentences for low-level drug offenses, some of whom have served on home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many are Black or brown, and the White House said each has displayed efforts to rehabilitate themselves.

The clemency announcements, which coincide with national "Second Chance Month," come as Biden will also announce new actions aimed at improving outcomes for felons who reenter society. That includes $145 million for a federal program to train the incarcerated for future employment and the removal of criminal history in applications for Small Business Administration grants.

"America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation," Biden said in a statement. "Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities. During Second Chance Month, I am using my authority under the Constitution to uphold those values by pardoning and commuting the sentences of fellow Americans."...

The individuals granted clemency came at the recommendation of the Department of Justice's pardon attorney, according to senior Biden administration officials who briefed reporters about the announcement. It marks a return of a practice that was largely bypassed by former President Donald Trump, whose clemency requests often came through close aides. Biden said the three people pardoned have each "demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation and are striving every day to give back and contribute to their communities."...

Nearly one-third of the 75 commutation recipients would have received lower sentences if they had been charged today under the Trump-era criminal justice law, the First Step Act, according to senior Biden administration officials. They have served an average of 10 years in prison and have "shown resilience" in seeking a productive path forward, a White House official said.

The official statement from Prez Biden on these grants is available at this link, and its start provides links to all those granted clemency and other executive action on the reentry front:

America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities.  During Second Chance Month, I am using my authority under the Constitution to uphold those values by pardoning and commuting the sentences of fellow Americans.

Today, I am pardoning three people who have demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation and are striving every day to give back and contribute to their communities.  I am also commuting the sentences of 75 people who are serving long sentences for non-violent drug offenses, many of whom have been serving on home confinement during the COVID-pandemic — and many of whom would have received a lower sentence if they were charged with the same offense today, thanks to the bipartisan First Step Act.  

My Administration is also announcing new steps today to support those re-entering society after incarceration.  These actions include: a new collaboration between the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor to provide job training; new grants for workforce development programs; greater opportunities to serve in federal government; expanded access to capital for people with convictions trying to start a small business; improved reentry services for veterans; and more support for health care, housing, and educational opportunities. 

Though I am still a bit salty that it took Prez Biden 15+ months in office before using his clemency pen, I am pleasantly surprised to see a large number of grants and many commutations to persons serving lengthy terms terms for drug offenses.  From a quick scan, it looks like perhaps more than a third of those who received commutations are women, which reminded me of the statements of Prez Trump clemency recipient Alice Marie Johnson that there were thousands of persons like her in prison who deserved commutation.  (BOP data show the federal prison population is comprised of less than 7% women, though I sense that much more than 7% of the most mitigated cases involve women.)

A few of many prior recent related posts:

April 26, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

With SCOTUS nominee now on path to confirmation, time to fret again about the lack of USSC nominees from Prez Biden

As we approach a full 15 months into the Biden Administration, I must yet again return to expressing my frustration that there has not yet been any nominations to the US Sentencing Commission.  As I have noted in a number of prior posts (some linked below), due to a lack of Sentencing Commissioners, the USSC has not been fully functional for the better part of five years, and the USSC has not had complete set of commissioners in place now for nearly a decade.  The USSC staff continues to produce lots of useful research and reports, but the FIRST STEP Act's passage in December 2018 makes it particularly problematic for the USSC to have been completely non-functional for now three+ years since that law's enactment.

Though I harped on this front a lot last year, I did not complain too much recently about the persistent lack of nominees while the Biden Administration was selecting and seeking the confirmation of a replacement for US Supreme Court Justice Breyer.  But, after yesterday's developments (news here), it seem quite clear that Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will be confirmed to replace Justice Breyer.  So, with this SCOTUS transition now seemingly settled, I will return to full-time fretting about the lack of USSC nominees from Prez Biden.

I have heard buzz from a variety of sources leading me to believe a slate of nominations could be imminent.  These nominations cannot come soon enough, especially given that already three month have passed since Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Barrett, issued a statement respecting the denial expressing "hope in the near future the Commission will be able to resume its important function in our criminal justice system."  As all my posts below detail, I have shared this hope, so far still unfulfilled, for quite some time.

One of many reasons sentencing fans should now hope for imminent nominations for the US Sentencing Commission is the inherently uncertain (and political) nature of the confirmation process.  I am hopeful that, because nominations to the USSC have to be bipartisan, there will be Senators from both parties eager to move the eventual nominees through the confirmation process efficiently.  But I am perhaps naive to believe that good government functioning could come before possible political opportunism in this setting (especially during an election year).  Moreover, even if the confirmation process goes quickly and smoothly, the process is still likely to take months, while more than a thousand federal defendants are getting sentenced in federal courts every week. 

A few of many prior related posts:

April 5, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 31, 2022

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's distinct criminal justice background garnering attention as she tops SCOTUS short list

Long-time readers may recall that, six years ago after the surprise death of Justice Antonin Scalia, I started to talk up then-US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as my favorite SCOTUS short-lister.  Though Judge Jackson was only 45 years old back in 2016 and had then served only three years as a federal district judge, I felt that her impressive professional history and especially her criminal justice experiences — as a federal public defender, as a member of the US Sentencing Commission, and as a sentencing judges — would make her an especially valuable addition to the Supreme Court.

Fast forward six years, and I still think now-US Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson would be a great pick for an open seat on the Supreme Court.  And because Judge Jackson now is on the very top of nearly every SCOTUS short list, major papers are already robustly covering her criminal justice experiences.  Specifically, this past weekend brought these two notable pieces:

From the New York Times, "For Ketanji Brown Jackson, View of Criminal Justice Was Shaped by Family; The story of an uncle’s cocaine conviction formed only part of Judge Jackson’s understanding of the system’s complexities; She is now seen as a contender to be President Biden’s Supreme Court pick"

From the Washington Post, "Possible Supreme Court nominee, former defender, saw impact of harsh drug sentence firsthand"

Both of these pieces focus a bit more on the personal than on the professional, but I suppose that is inevitably the main currency in these sorts of pieces.  I will be interested to see, in the weeks leading up to Prez Biden's selection and especially if Judge Jackson gets the nomination, how her professional history as a federal public defender and as a member of the US Sentencing Commission garners additional attention.  Interesting times.

January 31, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, January 24, 2022

Brennan Center reviews "Criminal Legal Reform One Year into the Biden Administration"

I received via email news this morning that the Brennan Center for Justice had published this notable new short report titled "Criminal Legal Reform One Year into the Biden Administration." Here is the first part of the email, which serves as an overview of the report's coverage:

During his campaign, President Biden pledged to “strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.” Brennan Center experts conclude that, after his first year in office, some progress has been made — but significant missed opportunities remain.  They identify eight key federal reform measures that the administration could achieve easily, in many cases without needing to rely on Congress, and detail the progress that has been made (if any), ranking them as follows:

Little or no progress

  • Overhauling federal clemency process
  • Empowering the U.S. Sentencing Commission

Limited policy changes

  • The First Step Act and the Bureau of Prisons
  • Federal death penalty
  • Private, for-profit prisons and detention centers

Notable progress

  • Federal home confinement
  • Nominations for U.S. Attorney positions and federal judgeships
  • Commitment to funding community anti-violence programs

January 24, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 10, 2022

Advocacy groups giving poor first-year grades to Prez Biden on criminal justice reform

This new Law360 piece, headlined "At 1-Year Mark, Groups Discontent With Biden Justice Reform," reports on an interesting effort to "grade" the Biden Administration for its criminal justice record at the end of its first year. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

President Joe Biden's progress on criminal justice reform after nearly one year in office has dissatisfied some advocacy leaders who were once hopeful that the president would prioritize this reform.

During Biden's presidential campaign, he made more than 100 criminal justice reform promises, including to end mandatory minimum prison sentences, stop use of the death penalty and eliminate cash bail. However, the president hasn't fulfilled these reforms or many of his other justice campaign promises, advocates say.

In a recent Law360 poll of 13 organizations, seven organizations gave Biden a grade of "D" or "F" for his policy and legislative actions in his first year, and the majority of respondents reported being "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with his reform progress....

The 13 organizations were mixed about Biden's rhetoric on criminal justice reform. Roughly half of them gave the president a grade of "A" or "B" and the other half gave him a grade of "D" or "F." One organization gave his rhetoric a grade of "C."

But the majority of organizations gave Biden's overall progress on criminal justice reform in his first year a grade of "D" or "F." Three organizations said his overall progress was "above average" or "very good" and two groups said his progress was "average."

In the early days of Biden's administration, the president did take quick action on justice reform by issuing an order phasing out the use of privately operated prisons. Later, he also restored the U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Access to Justice, implemented restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement and opened up access to re-entry services for people who were formerly incarcerated.

After much pleading from criminal justice reform groups, Biden's Justice Department reversed course on a previous decision and said in December that individuals who were released on home confinement because of the COVID-19 pandemic could stay out of prison.

Advocates, however, say that in Biden's first year, the president missed several opportunities to make key reforms including ending unjust prison sentences through the clemency process and dispelling the narrative that justice reforms will lead to more crime....

A spokesperson for the White House did not respond to a request for comment about Biden's progress on criminal justice reform.

According to Law360's poll, the majority of respondents were "hopeful" or "very hopeful" that when Biden first took office, he would prioritize criminal justice reform. However, after Biden's first year in office, only three organizations reported that they were "hopeful" or "very hopeful" the president would prioritize justice reform during the rest of his administration....

Not all advocates have lost hope though. Miriam Krinsky, a poll participant and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, told Law360 that she remains hopeful because of the people that Biden has appointed to be federal prosecutors, sit on the federal judicial bench and lead the DOJ. "I think [Biden] is taking seriously the need to reset the legal system, and putting people in place in criminal justice positions that are thinking differently," Krinsky said.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

January 10, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Senator Cotton criticizes new OLC opinion on CARES home confinement and asks AG Garland lots of follow-up questions

Though the season of the Grinch may be over, US Senator Tom Cotton is starting the new year full of grinchy grouchiness about various criminal justice issues.  I noted here his recent foolish op-ed fretting about a "jailbreak" and an "under-incarceration crisis," and now a helpful colleague made sure I did not miss this press release from the Senator's office titled "Cotton Demands Answers from DOJ About Releasing Criminals to Home Confinement."  Here is how the release starts:

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) today wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland regarding the Department of Justice’s recent decision to ignore the clear limits placed by Congress on pandemic-related home confinement of convicted federal criminals.

In part, Cotton wrote, “The Department’s Office of Legal Counsel correctly concluded in January 2021 that the only tenable reading of the CARES Act is that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could only exercise expanded home confinement placement authority during the coronavirus national emergency, and that the law requires that the BOP return such inmates to prison and follow the limits of longstanding federal law following the end of the emergency.”

“Unfortunately, it seems that you have now decided to bow to the pressure from political activists rather than do your job.  The Office of Legal Counsel, at your direction, issued a slapdash opinion reversing itself in December 2021.  That new opinion is not based on the law, but rather on the policy goals of criminal leniency,” Cotton continued.

The full three-page letter may be found here at this link, and there is more Tom Cotton "tough and tougher" bluster at the start of the letter.  But the questions that make up the heart of the letter are intriguing on a number of fronts, and I would be especially interested to see if and how AG Garland and his team responds to these closing queries:

Please provide a list of all inmates who are currently placed on home confinement under the temporary authority granted by the CARES Act, broken down by primary offense, total sentence length, and the number of months remaining under their sentence. 

How many inmates who were placed on home confinement under the temporary authority granted by the CARES Act have had their home confinement rescinded or have been rearrested for a new offense?  Please provide a description of the offenses for which any such inmates have been rearrested, or the reasons for which their home confinement was rescinded.

Just a few of many prior related posts:

January 4, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Might we celebrate this Festivus with a polite airing of sentencing grievances?

I am not quite sure if Festivus is still something in the pop culture ether, but I am sure that I still get a kick out of reviewing the faux-holiday's grand traditions,   And I am especially sure that, thanks to a seemingly endless pandemic and a toxic political environment, the Festivus tradition of airing grievances seems to be now an almost daily ritual for many. 

That all said, especially as another notable sentencing year winds down, I am eager to yet again welcome and encourage any and all readers eager to air their sentencing grievances in the comments.  As the title of this post suggests, I urge everyone to make extra efforts to be extra polite in any Festivus grievances being aired.  I hope that is not too much to ask in a holiday season.  

I will try to set the tone with a grievance that will be familiar to regular readers: I am disappointed we did not get nominations to the US Sentencing Commission in 2021.  But I am quite optimistic that we will be getting nominations in early 2022, and I am hoping a new USSC will demonstrate all sorts of "feats of strength" as it gets to work on long overdue federal sentencing reform projects.

Others?

December 23, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (14)

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Two new NPR pieces spotlight frustrations with Biden Administration among criminal justice reform advocates

This weekend has brought these two versions of NPR coverage of a topic familiar to readers of this  blog, namely the failure to see much tangible criminal justice reform action from the Biden Administration so far:

"Criminal justice advocates are pressing the Biden administration for more action"

"Activists wanted Biden to revamp the justice system. Many say they're still waiting"

Here are excerpts from the second piece:

People working to overhaul the criminal justice system say they're frustrated with the Biden administration after they've waited nearly a year for the White House to take major steps on clemency and sentencing reform. "I think we're at a point where we're saying, mere lip service isn't enough," said Sakira Cook, senior director of the justice reform program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "We want to see some concrete action."

For them, concrete action could include granting clemency to the few thousand people who were released to home confinement by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic. President Biden could ensure those people remain free with the stroke of a pen. But he hasn't done that yet, despite months of pressure....

Michael Gwin, a White House spokesman, told NPR in a written statement that the president has taken steps to reform the system "since his first day in office." "This includes restoring the Department of Justice's Office for Access to Justice, implementing new restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement, ending contracts with private detention facilities, and expanding access to re-entry services for formerly incarcerated individuals," Gwin said.

The advocates say they're happy to give credit where it's due.  They praised the Justice Department for rescinding a Trump-era memo that directed prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges they could for any crime. And they're happy the DOJ has launched four big civil rights investigations of police departments.

But they've also taken note of this fact: the federal prison population has increased by some 5,000 people during Biden's tenure, according to Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a researcher at the Sentencing Project....  While homicides and shootings have increased in many parts of the country, the vast majority of those crimes are handled by state and local authorities, not the federal government.  Most people in federal prison are there for breaking drug or immigration laws, Ghandnoosh said.

Ghandnoosh had expected to see more than "small tinkering" by the new team in Washington. "We would expect to hear from the attorney general and the president very vocal and unequivocal support for federal sentencing reform that's being considered right now and that could help to give those initiatives an important boost," she added.

Another criticism is about personnel.  The White House hasn't taken any action to fill vacancies on the Sentencing Commission, which sets federal sentencing guidelines for many crimes.  "In the past, some of the best reforms [that] have been achieved in the last 10 years have been at the Sentencing Commission and they haven't even nominated people to fill this vacant body," said Ring of FAMM.

Meanwhile, key allies of the White House, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., are going public with their demand that the Justice Department fire the head of the federal prison system.  They say the Federal Bureau of Prisons mismanaged the pandemic and that there are several other serious problems in the system.

Democrats control both chambers of Congress with small majorities.  But the administration hasn't used the bully pulpit to promote the EQUAL Act, a bill that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine.  Those laws have punished Black people more harshly than white people for decades for essentially the same crime.

December 12, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (20)

Monday, December 06, 2021

When exactly in "early 2022" might we expect Prez Biden's nominees to the US Sentencing Commission?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Law360 article, which discusses the quorum-less status of the US Sentencing Commission and includes a prediction from the last remaining Commissioner as to when new USSC nominations may be forthcoming. The piece is headlined "Biden's Inaction Keeps Justice Reform Group Sidelined," and here are a few excerpts:

In November, Reps. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., and Jamie Raskin, D-Md., sent a letter to Biden urging him to fill vacancies on the Sentencing Commission, saying that the commission's inability to issue sentencing guidelines for the First Step Act could result in "uneven application of the law."

"It is imperative that the vacancies are expeditiously filled so the commission can continue its work to improve the federal criminal justice system," the pair said in the Nov. 22 letter.

Armstrong told Law360 that he sent the letter to Biden because having the commission's input would be beneficial as the Senate considers advancing the EQUAL Act, or Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act — a proposed law that would completely eliminate sentencing disparities between crack and powdered cocaine offenses.  The bill has passed in the House.

"Nobody's ever lost an election being tough on crime, so if you want reasonable smart policy changes, you need experts to give you the advice, because then, you can utilize that, and you don't take as much political heat," Armstrong said about the Sentencing Commission.

Congress is currently considering several sentencing reform bills in addition to the EQUAL Act.  Though lawmakers are running out of time to pass the proposed laws with its winter recess scheduled to start Dec. 11.  Four of the proposed sentencing reform bills — the Smarter Sentencing Act, the Preventing Unfair Sentencing Act, the RAISE Act and the Ending the Fentanyl Crisis Act — specifically call on the Sentencing Commission to review and revise its sentencing guidelines, if necessary to comply with the legislation.  However, the commission wouldn't be able to comply with these directives as long as it lacks a quorum.

A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about why Biden hasn't nominated commissioners for the Sentencing Commission yet or when he will announce his nominees.

Breyer, the sole remaining commissioner, told Law360 that he has been in contact with the White House and believes it is currently vetting candidates. He said that he is hoping for a slate of nominees in early 2022.  The White House is "certainly overworked, but I still think that there is some priority in getting this taken care of," Breyer said.

If there truly was "some priority" in staffing the US Sentencing Commission, I think we would have and could have already seen some USSC nominees now 11 months into the Biden Administration.  But I suppose this setting justifies the old saying "better late than never." 

I sincerely hope Judge Breyer's prediction of "nominees in early 2022" means sometime in January or February.  The process of Senate confirmation likely takes a few months even under the best of circumstances, and the prospect of confirmations would seem to diminish as we get closer to the midterm elections.  So even uncontroversial nominations made in January might not result in a full and functioning Commission until Spring 2022.  I fear later and/or controversial nominees could mean we do not get a full and functioning Commission at all in 2022.     

A few of many prior recent related posts:

December 6, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Monday, November 22, 2021

Bipartisan call from members of Congress for Prez Biden to make US Sentencing Commission nominations

Regular reader who recall my regular advocacy for Prez Biden to make nominations to the now-dormant US Sentencing Commission will know that this new Reuters story made me smile:

Two Democratic and Republican lawmakers in a letter on Monday urged President Joe Biden to prioritize filling vacancies that have left the U.S. Sentencing Commission without a quorum, saying the situation has stalled criminal justice reform.

U.S. Representatives Kelly Armstrong, Republican of North Dakota, and Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, said the vacancies have "forestalled the important work of updating and establishing new sentencing guidelines."

A White House spokesperson had no immediate comment.

The commission lost its quorum in January 2019, a month after former Republican President Donald Trump signed into law the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation aimed at easing harsh sentencing for non-violent offenders and at reducing recidivism.

Armstrong and Raskin said the lack of quorum also meant the commission cannot update the advisory sentencing guidelines needed to help implement the law, resulting potentially in its uneven application by judges across the country. "It is imperative that the vacancies are expeditiously filled so the Commission can continue its work to improve the federal criminal justice system," the lawmakers wrote.

The seven-person panel's lone remaining member, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, told Reuters this month he would be "surprised and dismayed" if Biden did not pick nominees by early 2022 and urged him to help restore its quorum.  Breyer's own term expired on Oct. 31 but he can remain on the commission for up to a year more unless a replacement is confirmed.  Armstrong and Raskin cited his potential departure as another reason to act.

The full letter can be found here.  I am ever hopeful that we will finally get nominations from Prez Biden no later than early 2022, though that will still be a year later than would have been ideal.  And I sincerely hope the Biden Administration will work effectively with Senate leaders to ensure his eventual nominees get a swift confirmation.  But even if this process gets going, it now seems unlikely a full USSC will be functioning before the May 1, 2022 deadline for the 2022 guideline amendment cycle, and so November 2023 could end up the earliest date for any guideline changes to become effective.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

November 22, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Federal prison population has now grown more than 4,300 persons (almost 3%) in just last six month

Prez Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to "take bold action to reduce our prison population."  But I cannot think of a single action he has taken over his first 10 months in office, let alone any "bold action," to reduce the federal prison population.  And the latest numbers from the federal Bureau of Prisons tell a notably story of federal prison population growth, not reduction, so far in the the Biden era.

The day after Joe Biden was inaugurated, 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 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 decreased almost 20%, dropping from 189,212 total federal inmates in January 2017 to 151,646 in January 2021.

At the 100 day mark of the Biden Administration, I noted in this post that the prison population in the first few months of the Biden era had held pretty steady.  Specifically, as of May 6, 2021, the federal prison population clocked in at 152,085, an increase of just over 500 persons in inauguration day.  But now the BOP update of the federal prison population as of Nov. 4, 2021 reports 156,428 "Total Federal Inmates."  Thus, over the last six months, the total federal prison population has grown nearly 3% with more than 4,300 additional inmates.

This prison growth, I suspect, is mostly a function of the federal criminal justice system returning to more case-processing normalcy as COVID concerns recede.  (The reduction in COVID concerns also likely is resulting in fewer grants of compassionate release and perhaps a greater willingness of some judges to order the start of prison terms.)  Increased concerns about violent crime might also be playing a role, directly or indirectly, in the flow of prisoners in and out of federal facilities.

Though a range of uncertain factors may be driving the significant uptick in federal prisoners over the last six months, I am certainly inclined to now predict that we will see continued increases in the federal prison population unless and until Prez Biden makes an effort to carry out his pledge to "take bold action to reduce our prison population."  I am not holding my breath.

November 4, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Continuing capital commentary as SCOTUS considers Marathon bomber's capital process

In prior posts here and here, I rounded up press coverage just before and just after the Supreme Court heard oral argument in US v. Tsanaev to consider whether the First Circuit erred when reversing the death sentence given to the bomber who killed three and injured hundreds during the 2013 version of the Boston Marathon.  Not surprisingly, the SCOTUS argument has prompted a number of thoughtful folks to have thoughtful comments on the case and much that surrounds it.  Here is a partial round-up of some of this recent commentary:

From Erwin Chemerinsky, "Biden’s death penalty hypocrisy"

From Chris Geidner, "Supreme Court couldn't consider death penalty case if not for Biden's broken promise"

From Thaddeus Hoffmeister, "Tsarnaev Supreme Court appeal: Do unbiased jurors exist in an age of social media?"

From Karen J. Pita Loor, "The perplexing case of Biden, Tsarnaev and the death penalty"

From Amelia Wirts, "Death penalty can express society’s outrage – but biases often taint the verdict"

October 17, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Reminders from many Govs to Prez Biden: it is always a good time for good clemency

I noted in this recent post that Prez Biden is now behind Prez Trump's clemency pace as we approach the end of the eighth month of Prez Biden's time in the Oval Office without him having yet used his clemency pen one single time.  As discussed in this post from late last month, there is talk that Prez Biden might use his clemency powers to help ensure that at least some member of the CARES home confinement cohort does not have to return to prison after the pandemic.   With summer now winding down, I thought it might be useful to highlight that at least some state governors understand that any time and every season can be a good time and season for clemency.  So here is a round-up of just some stories and commentaries about state clemency efforts from just this summer: 

From Arkansas: "Governor Asa Hutchinson Announces Intent to Grant Executive Clemency"

From Kansas: "Kelly Commutes 5 Prisoners' Sentences, Pardons 3 Others"

From Missouri: "Governor Parson Grants 12 Pardons, Commutes One Sentence"

From New Mexico: "Pardons for 19 New Mexico criminals, some who were violent"

From Oregon: "Pardons and commutations rising in Oregon"

From Virginia: "Northam was right to grant clemency to the Martinsville Seven. He should extend it to the living, too."

From Washington: "Inslee commutes more convictions to clear backlog left after Washington state’s drug-possession law struck down"

From Wisconsin: "Gov. Evers grants 71 pardons since May"

September 12, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

“The Case for a Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new white paper produced by Fair and Just Prosecution.  Here is its executive summary:

THE NEED FOR A PRESIDENTIAL TASK FORCE ON 21ST CENTURY PROSECUTION

The United States currently incarcerates its residents at the highest rate of any democratic country in the world.  This system of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts Black and brown Americans, disrupts communities, and bloats budgets, all while impeding the mission of public safety it purports to promote.  Prosecutors wield a vast amount of discretion and authority within the criminal legal system — and therefore share responsibility for those systemic failings — yet they also hold the power to bring about systemic transformation.  The Biden-Harris administration has a vital role to play in catalyzing innovation and helping prosecutors nationwide chart a path to greater justice and equity for their communities.  A new generation of local elected prosecutors are modeling that potential and are reimagining the role of prosecutors. We propose a Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Prosecution to build on — and help perpetuate — that movement.

PROPOSED FOCUS

Seventeen pillars would serve as the basis for a series of hearings and focus the Task Force’s work:

  • Understanding the historical legacy of the prosecutor
  • Promoting deflection, diversion, and shrinking the system
  • Advancing racial and ethnic justice
  • Addressing the poverty penalty and bail reform
  • Promoting harm reduction, saving lives, and drug policy reform
  • Misdemeanor justice
  • Better serving crime survivors
  • Understanding, preventing, and addressing violence
  • Juvenile and young adult justice
  • Preventing officer-involved shootings and enhancing police accountability
  • Improving conditions of confinement
  • Implementing post-conviction justice, fair sentencing, and sentencing review
  • Accounting for collateral consequences and promoting expungement
  • Addressing mass supervision and improving reentry
  • Envisioning success, metrics, and culture change
  • Ensuring ethics, accountability, and transparency
  • Propelling change and investing in transformation....

GOALS AND OUTCOMES

We recommend that the Task Force produce:
  • A final report that identifies successful prosecutorial reforms and innovation, lays out key challenges to implementing change, details promising practices, and offers specific and tangible goals paired with policy and program recommendations that could include improving the safety and well-being of our communities, dramatically reducing jail and prison populations, ending racial disparities, and enhancing transparency and accountability;
  • A strategic roadmap to incentivize and fund change and innovation, including by encouraging and enabling specific federal laws, policies, resources, and grants to help support and propel systemic transformation; and
  • A concrete implementation plan, including the creation of an implementation oversight group and ongoing technical assistance from key federal government bodies and leaders.

August 17, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noticing the notable number of public defenders among Prez Biden's judicial nominations

In this post a few weeks after Prez Biden assumed office, I asked "So what's a reasonable expectation for how many of Prez Biden's judicial nominees will be criminal defense or civil rights lawyers?". In that post, I noted the data showing the federal judiciary is badly skewed with a disproportionate number of judges who are former prosecutors or former government lawyers or have only private practice experience, and I was hopeful Prez Biden would look to bring more balance to the federal bench.

Just over six month later, two new pieces detail that Prez Biden's track record here is pretty good and why this should be celebrated. Consider first this Bloomberg Law piece headlined "Public Defender Bench Aspirations Emboldened by Biden Nominees."  Here is an excerpt:

President Joe Biden’s nomination of several public defenders is part of a broader effort to add professional and demographic diversity to the judiciary.... Many federal public defenders who’d felt shut out from the bench now see their skills getting overdue recognition by the political establishment.  Biden’s nominations also may convince law students that “they’re not closing that door to being a judge just because they might pursue their public defender aspirations,” said Rachel Barkow, a New York University law professor.

Twelve of Biden’s 33 nominees so far for lifetime federal judicial appointments have public defender experience, and a handful of them have been confirmed.  They include Ketanji Brown Jackson, a former D.C. federal trial court judge and federal public defender, who was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, a former federal public defender in northern Illinois, was confirmed to the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit.

And at MSNBC, Chris Geidner has this new opinion piece headlined "Biden outshines Trump — and Obama — by appointing public defenders as judges." Here are excerpts:

Last weekend, the Senate confirmed Eunice Lee to a judgeship on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals.... Lee’s confirmation is remarkable for one due the fact that the judicial landscape is completely unrepresentative of the legal profession — and has been for a very long time. Her confirmation is a single, but important, effort to confront this imbalance.

If that sounds dramatic, just look at the number of judges with backgrounds as prosecutors.  As things stand, they overwhelmingly outnumber those with backgrounds as public defenders.  That imbalance is even more dramatic if you’re looking more broadly at whether the judge’s experience before taking the bench was in representing the government in any role or opposing it....

The law as we know it — or, more bluntly, as it is — is dramatically skewed by the experience imbalance among our judges. Broad swaths of the law like the court-created doctrine of qualified immunity — the protection against most lawsuits that government officials, particularly police officers and prison guards, receive — have been created by judges whose experience was often as prosecutors or otherwise representing the government’s interests instead of individual people’s interests....

Biden’s election over Trump raised hopes for a course correction in the federal judiciary. More than that, there also are the beginnings of change on the state level. This week, lawmakers in Virginia approved eight new judges to an expanded appeals court in the commonwealth, adding “two current and former public defenders and a longtime legal aid attorney — professional backgrounds that have never before been represented on one of the state’s high courts.”

These steps are good, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that they are just that: steps. Let’s assume that Biden continues nominating significant numbers of public defenders to the bench and, more unlikely, that other states take Virginia’s lead regarding their state courts. Even then, this imbalance on the bench would continue for the near future. It would take two or three presidencies, and an overwhelming number of governors and state lawmakers working to change their judiciaries, to see a real shift in the scales of justice.

These new judges being added to the mix, though, will nonetheless have an incredible opportunity, a chance to bring new perspectives to their colleagues and, through their opinions, to those of us who live under their rulings. They will be in the position to put some intellectual weight on the other side of the scale.

A few of many recent prior related posts:

August 17, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, August 01, 2021

Home confinement cohort at risk of being returned to federal prison garnering still more attention (but still little action)

The news a few weeks ago that the Biden Justice Department is not disputing the legal opinion that federal prisoners released into home confinement would have to be returned to prison after the pandemic continues to generate coverage and commentary.  Here is a round-up of just some recent pieces I have seen:

From Common Dreams, "Advocates Condemn Biden Plan to Send 4,000 Inmates Back to Prison After Pandemic"

From The Hill, "Inmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan"

From The Intercept, "Biden Has Said Pot Prisoners Should Be Free.  Now He’s Poised To Send Some Back To Prison."

From Politico, "Biden's prisoner's dilemma"

From The Root, "Biden Needs to Grant Clemency to the Over 4,000 People on Home Confinement"

It is understandable, but I still think quite unfortunate, that all of these stories focus almost exclusively on Prez Biden and his potential place in this story.  Most advocates have been talking up blanket clemency as the most efficient way to resolve this issue in order to keep the home confinement cohort from being sent back to prison after the COVID pandemic is over.  But, as I have highlighted in various posts, and stressed in this post titled "Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?," Congress readily could (and I think should) enact a statute that provides for the home confinement program to be extended beyond the end of the pandemic.  This problem is fundamentally a statutory one created by Congress in the CARES Act, and it could be readily fixed by Congress simply by adding a sentence or two to pending pieces of legislation.

In addition, as I highlighted in this other post, another important option for case-by-case relief for members of this cohort is through compassionate release motions.  This is how Gwen Levi got relief, and such motions have the potential to reduce lengthy sentences and not merely allow these sentences to be served at home.  Consider the story told here by Jeanne Rae Green, who was transferred to home confinement in May 2020 after serving serving 6.5 years of a 12.5 year sentence for meth distribution.  It sounds like she and other members of this home confinement cohort could bring strong sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  The legal limbo in which Jeanne and others now find themselves could be perfectly described as constituting "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction, especially if prosecutors cannot show how the 3553(a) factors would be better served by a return to prison.  (Indeed, as I have previously mentioned, I think federal prosecutors could and should actively promote and support sentence reduction motions for now on home confinement at risk of being sent back to prison.)

I am pleased to see so many working so hard to ensure this issue garners continued attention, and I am hopeful that Prez Biden will use his clemency pen to bring relief to the home confinement cohort ASAP.  But in the meantime, I also hope that pressure will be brought to bear on all the others — from members of Congress to members of DOJ to members of the judiciary — who can and should also be doing more help this cohort.

Some prior recent related posts:

August 1, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, July 30, 2021

Highlighting how the Biden Administration could and should start reforming federal BOP

I have lamented in post after post that the Biden Administration has so far failed to seize the opportunity to advance federal sentencing reforms by making needed appointments to US Sentencing Commission, and I will continue to be troubled by (and complain about) its failings in this space for as long as it lasts.  In the meantime, I am pleased to see this new AP article highlighting another so-far-missed Biden Administration missed opportunity under the headline: "Is Biden overlooking Bureau of Prisons as reform target?".  Here are excerpts from a long piece worth a full read:

Biden is overlooking a prime -- and, in some ways, easier -- target for improving the conditions of incarcerated people: the federal Bureau of Prisons. While most criminal justice overhauls require action from local officials or legislation, reforming the federal prison system is something Biden and his Justice Department control. And there are crying needs there for improvement.

Even before the coronavirus, federal prisons were plagued by violence, suicide, escapes, understaffing and health concerns. The pandemic made things worse. And now these facilities are set to absorb even more prisoners from private institutions that are no longer in business with the government....

Meanwhile, the number of federal prisoners is rising. Defendants end up in federal prison usually because their crime crossed state lines, or they violated a specific federal law. There are about 156,000 federal inmates. In total, 38% are Black and 57% are white, 1.5% Asian and 2.4% Native American. Most are serving sentences between 5 and 20 years, and 46% of those sentences are for drug offenses. Another 20% are for weapons, explosives or arson charges.

The administration can’t control the laws that get someone sent to prison. But it can control staffing, transparency, health care, the use of solitary confinement and, most of all, agency leadership. The head of the Bureau of Prisons is a Trump holdover, Michael Carvajal, who has been in charge as the coronavirus raged behind bars, infecting more than 43,000 federal inmates. He also oversaw an unprecedented run of federal executions in the last six months of Donald Trump’s presidency that was a likely virus super spreader.

Administration officials have been mulling whether to replace him, but no decision has been made, according to officials who spoke to The Associated Press.

One question they should be asking, according to Andrea Armstrong, a Loyola Law School professor who studies prisons, is whether the director’s role is to do more than keep operations running smoothly. “Real leadership,” she says, “would be convening people incarcerated, wardens and programming staff together to say, OK, we have an enormous problem ... how do we address this?”....

The “First Step Act,” approved in 2018, gives judges more discretion when sentencing some drug offenders, eases mandatory minimum sentences and encourages inmates to participate in programs designed to reduce the risk of recidivism, with credits that can be used to gain an earlier release.

But those programs can’t be completed right now, because there are not enough workers to facilitate them. Nearly one-third of federal correctional officer jobs in the United States are vacant, forcing prisons to use cooks, teachers, nurses and other workers to guard inmates. “There need to be enough people working in a prison to keep people housed in a prison safe. And they must be able to get access to the programs that should allow their release,” said Maria Morris of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.

A few of many prior related posts:

July 30, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 26, 2021

Reviewing Biden Administration's uninspired criminal justice reform efforts

Law360 has this lengthy new article, headlined "Advocates Frustrated By Biden's Silence On Justice Reform," that provides a lengthy review of various criminal justice reform efforts to date by the Biden Administration.  As the headline suggests, advocates are so far underwhelmed.  Here are excerpts from a piece worth reading in full:

One of President Joe Biden's most powerful tools for advancing criminal justice reform is his voice and yet, despite his campaign promises, he has been mostly silent on the issue while in office, frustrating criminal justice reform advocates.

Advocates for ending mass incarceration and mandatory minimum sentencing would have liked Biden to do more than just talk about criminal justice reform in his first six months in office, but they are even more frustrated by the fact that he isn't loudly advocating for reform and isn't letting people know when he will act on his reform promises....

Criminal justice advocates acknowledge that Biden started his presidential term with a full plate of pressing issues to address: the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic downturn, extreme political division and a migrant crisis at the southern border that could have sidelined criminal justice reform in his administration's early days.  And now, six months later, Biden's administration is still grappling with these issues in addition to combating a spike in homicides and surges in coronavirus cases in areas with low vaccination rates.

But advocates and experts say that Biden could at least publicly support more criminal justice reform legislation that has been introduced in Congress and dispel myths being perpetuated by some Republican lawmakers that releasing people from prison increases crime....

Biden alluded to criminal justice reform in his inaugural speech and in a presidential address marking his first 100 days in office.  He also included snippets of criminal justice reform in his plans for revitalizing jobs, helping American families and fighting gun violence....

Udi Ofer, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's justice division, said that Biden's crime prevention plan doesn't recognize that the majority of what police do is arrest people for low-level offenses like drug possession, and these arrests don't stop homicides and gun violence. "President Biden has invested so much political capital in laying out his crime prevention plan, and we have not seen the same sort of commitment laid out for criminal justice reform and for police accountability," Ofer said.

A lot of people are waiting to hear him say loud and clear that he recognizes the flaws in the justice system and genuinely wants to help fix them.

Some experts say that Biden's silence on criminal justice reform could be a calculated political move to straddle party lines and keep members of his own party together.  Republicans and Democrats are in disagreement about police reform. Progressive Democrats are calling for defunding the police and older party members fear that is too radical a move, according to Jacinta Gau, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida....

Rumblings of Biden's early plans for handling criminal justice reform-related issues has already sparked outcry from lawmakers and advocates.  A coalition of 20 advocacy organizations sent a July 19 letter to Biden urging him not to reimprison people who were released to home confinement during the pandemic and instead commute their sentences....

Even though advocates and experts want Biden to move more quickly on criminal justice reform, they also don't want him to make reactionary "tough on crime" policies that have been devastating for communities of color and led to mass incarceration.  However, they say Biden and his administration don't need to "reinvent the wheel" on criminal justice reform because organizations and scholars have already done the research on what works and what doesn't work.  The administration just needs to follow their lead, they say.

Though I am not surprised it goes unmentioned in this article, I have to bring up again in this context that the Biden Administration has so far missed the opportunity to appoint reform-minded persons to the US Sentencing Commission.  Of course, as I have lamented in post after post, the Biden Administration has so far failed to appoint anyone to the USSC.  As I stressed here, the US Sentencing Commission, when functional, has the power and the ability to be a significant agent for federal criminal justice reform.  But, unless the Biden Administration makes a lot of appointments very soon, I fear this important agency might not be functional until 2022 or perhaps even later.  Sigh. 

July 26, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 23, 2021

Across political spectrum, insightful folks saying in insightful ways that Prez Biden must do better on criminal justice reform

The news to start this work week that the Biden Justice Department is not disputing the legal opinion that federal prisoners released into home confinement would be returned to prison after the pandemic has likely contributed to the end of this work week bringing a number of effective commentaries rightly asserting that Prez Biden continues to come up short on criminal justice issues.  Notably, these commentary are coming from across the political spectrum as evidenced by these pieces:

From Samantha Michaels at Mother Jones, "Biden Said He’d Cut Incarceration in Half. So Far, the Federal Prison Population Is Growing."

From Lars Trautman at The Washington Examiner, "Biden’s criminal justice inaction is nothing but malarkey"

I recommend both of these shorter pieces, but I especially want to encourage everyone to read this lengthy Washington Post magazine commentary by Piper Kerman headlined "She accidentally provided the ‘Lose Yo Job’ soundtrack to Biden victory memes this fall.  He could learn a lot from hearing her story."  In fact, we can all learn a lot from her story, as brilliantly told and contextualized by Piper Kerman, and her piece is a useful reminder that Vice-President Harris ought not be left out of discussions and criticisms of the tepid criminal justice reform efforts of the Biden Administration to date.

July 23, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Noticing Biden Administration's withdrawal of pursuit of the death penalty in many cases

This new New York Times article, headlined "U.S. Won’t Seek Death Penalty in 7 Cases, Signaling a Shift Under Biden," reports on a notable set of pending case developments suggesting one way that the Biden Administration is making good on its stated antipathy toward capital punishment.  Here are excerpts:

One man was charged in Orlando, Fla., with kidnapping and fatally shooting his estranged wife. Another man was indicted in Syracuse, N.Y., in the armed robbery of a restaurant and the murders of two employees. And a third man was charged in Anchorage with fatally shooting two people during a home invasion.

Those cases and four others prosecuted in federal courts around the country all had a common theme — they were among cases in which the Justice Department under President Donald J. Trump directed federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty if they won convictions.

But now, under a new presidential administration, the Justice Department has moved to withdraw the capital punishment requests in each of the seven cases. The decisions were revealed in court filings without fanfare in recent months. The decision not to seek the death penalty in the cases comes amid the Biden administration’s broad rethinking of capital punishment — and could signal a move toward ending the practice at the federal level....

Some legal experts said it was too early to tell what the seven scattered cases signified, and one lawyer suggested Mr. Garland could have been even more assertive. “I think it’s a good and important step by the attorney general, but there’s no question that it’s not far enough,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the Capital Punishment Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “President Biden should issue a much broader moratorium,” Ms. Stubbs added. “He should ask for a moratorium on all death penalty prosecutions.”

But Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a nonprofit group in Sacramento, Calif., that supports crime victims and the death penalty, was critical of Mr. Garland’s decisions in the seven cases. “The families of murder victims are clearly not included in the calculus when ordering U.S. attorneys not to pursue capital punishment in the worst cases,” he said.

Under Mr. Garland, the Justice Department has continued to fight the appeal of the death sentence imposed on Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered nine Black churchgoers in Charleston in 2015. And in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted of helping to carry out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured more than 260, the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty, which had been overturned on appeal.

July 22, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 19, 2021

New report highlights how various federal agencies other than DOJ can advance criminal justice reform

The Center for American Progress has this intriguing new report titled "Beyond the U.S. Department of Justice: An Intersectional Approach To Advancing Criminal Justice Reform at the Federal Level." The report discusses the work that leading federal agencies other than the Justice Department could do to improve criminal justice systems. Here is part of the report's introduction:

The nation urgently needs to rethink justice system operations, from policing and prosecution to probation and parole. But a comprehensive approach to U.S. criminal justice reform must also look beyond the justice system. The nation must re-examine the web of policies that intersect with public safety and criminal justice — from education to economic development to health care and beyond. Only through an intersectional approach can the government truly redress the harms of the past and build a fairer, more just, and equitable future....

While the DOJ will undoubtedly play a significant role in reforming criminal justice policy and regulations during the next four years, other federal agencies will also be crucial to these efforts. From the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Veterans Affairs, every corner of President Biden’s administration will be essential in shaping the future of America’s approach to safety and justice. As the new administration works toward its promise to “strengthen America’s commitment to justice,” there are several agencies that can take meaningful action toward implementing progressive criminal justice reforms, reducing the footprint of the justice system, and removing barriers for formerly incarcerated individuals.

This report highlights some of the agencies beyond the DOJ that can have significant impacts on reforming the criminal justice system and outlines measures that they could take to establish policies and regulatory practices that would support a more fair and equitable justice system in the long term.

July 19, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Federal prison population starting to grow again as we approach six months into Biden Administration

The day after Joe Biden was inaugurated, I authored this post posing this 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 realities 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, 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 lots of expected and unexpected roles in shaping federal prosecutions and sentencings, and broader phenomena like the COVID pandemic can impact the federal prison population more than specific justice policies.  Consequently, I was disinclined 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 we saw any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any policy changes started impacting the federal prison population count.  

Sure enough, when we hit the "100 days" milestone for the Biden Administration, I noted in this May 6, 2021 post that the federal prison population clocked in at 152,085 according to the federal Bureau of Prisons accounting.  In other words, no significant prison population growth early on in the Biden era.  But two months later, as we approach the six month mark for the Biden Administration, the federal prison population is starting to really grow again according to the prison population numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage.  Specifically, as of the ides of July 2021, the federal prison population clocks in at 154,596.

A BOP-measured growth of over 2500 federal inmates in just over two months strikes me as pretty significant, although I would guess that an easing of the COVID pandemic is the primary explanation.  The number of federal sentencings and the number of persons required to report to begin serving federal sentences have likely increased significantly in the last few months; I doubt any new Biden Administration (or AG Garland) policies or practices account for the (now 2%) growth in the federal prison population during the first six months of Joe Biden's presidency.

That said, I hope I am not the only one watching this number closely.  Especially given that the COVID pandemic is not really over and that a lot more surely could be safely "cut" from a bloated federal prison population, it will be quite disappointing if the Biden first term replicates the Obama first term marked by quite significant federal prison population growth.

July 15, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 01, 2021

When might we expect appointments to a new — a truly new — US Sentencing Commission?

As the calendar turns to July, it seems a good time to express my frustration that we are now nearly six months into the Biden Administration and there has not yet been any nominations to the US Sentencing Commission.  As I have noted in a number of prior posts (some linked below), due to a lack of Sentencing Commissioners, the USSC has been only somewhat functional for only a small portion of the last five years, and the USSC has not had complete set of commissioners firmly in place for the better part of a decade.  The USSC staff has completed lots of useful research and reports in the interim, but the FIRST STEP Act's passage in December 2018 makes it particularly problematic for the USSC to have been completely non-functional in terms of formal amendments or agendas in recent years.

Of course, the federal sentencing system can and does march on without a fully functioning USSC.  But the lack of Commissioners is a significant lost opportunity for this significant agency to this particular moment.  When functioning well, the USSC can and should be part of a hearty and healthy dialogue with Congress and the Justice Department, especially when these political branches are interested in criminal justice reforms.  As I stressed in a recent post, "Timely reminder of US Sentencing Commission's decarceral potential ... when it is functional," even small changes to the US Sentencing Guidelines by the USSC can have a huge impact on criminal justice practices and the federal prison population.  Moreover, as noted in this recent Bloomberg Law piece, headlined "Near-Vacant Sentencing Panel Gives Biden Chance for Fresh Start," the USSC these days could and should be thinking about a lot more than small guideline changes:

Six of seven possible seats on the U.S. Sentencing Commission remain empty, giving President Joe Biden an opportunity to remake the panel at a time when overhauling criminal justice is a rare example of bipartisan consensus....  In addition to taking up issues that have been unaddressed, a new set of commissioners could help review the decades-old sentencing guidelines wholesale to reflect a modern understanding of criminal justice, observers say.

“It is a great opportunity for the administration,” said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, who focuses on policy surrounding clemency, sentencing, and narcotics. “Because if you want a great shot at really creating reform in the federal system, the guideline commission is one place to start.”   And the bipartisan consensus on the need to overhaul sentencing gives a new commission “a chance to do things like simplify the guidelines,” Osler said....

During the 2020 presidential race, Biden’s campaign recommended tasking the Sentencing Commission with “conducting a comprehensive review of existing sentencing guidelines and statutory sentencing ranges.”  

The guidelines were drafted 40 years ago at a time when the emphasis was on punishment rather than rehabilitation, said Nancy Gertner, a former federal district judge in Massachusetts and a senior lecturer at Harvard who teaches law and neuroscience and has written about sentencing.  Since then, the connection between the guidelines and mass incarceration is clearer and people have a better understanding of the science behind the issues that impact crime, such as mental health, she said.  “In my view, these are guidelines that need to be reexamined and reevaluated,” Gertner said.

Back in February, I wrote a commentary, "Reviving the U.S. Sentencing Commission," which noted that the USSC has historically been dominated by persons with prosecutorial backgrounds; I also lamented that the USSC now needs six new confirmed members to get back to full strength and at least three new commissioners to even be somewhat functional.  At that time, I did not reasonably expect to see needed nomination to the US Sentencing Commission until at least some Circuit and District Judge nominees were put forward.  But yesterday, Prez Biden announced his fifth round of judicial nominees.  The USSC, which is also in the judicial branch, needs to get appointments soon or there will be reason to fear we will not get confirmed Commissions in place until 2022 or even later. 

I especially hope the frustrating wait for nominations will be rewarded soon with some terrific nominees for the Sentencing Commission who will be committed to thinking big about how to make federal sentencing sounder.  Especially in light of the FIRST STEP Act and other national criminal justice developments, we need not just new US Sentencing Commissioners.  The country  could and would benefit from a truly new US Sentencing Commission committed not just to monitoring and managing the federal sentencing guidelines, but also to being a powerful advocate for humane, evidence-based sentencing systems throughout this great nation.  Notably, what I wish to imagine today is what Judge Marvin Frankel ably urged a full 50 years ago when he first set out his ideas for a "Commission on Sentencing" at the very end of Criminal Sentencing: Law Without Order:

The uses of a commission [should be as] to marshal full-time wisdom and power against the ignorance and the barbarities that characterize sentencing for crimes today....  The need for change is clear.  Our justly proud awareness that "we the people" have the power should carry with it a corollary sense of duty.  It is our duty to see that the force of our state, when it is brought to bear through the sentences of our courts, is exerted with the maximum we can muster of rational thought, humanity, and compassion. 

A few prior recent related posts:

July 1, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?

In many prior posts (some linked below), I have discussed the Office of Legal Counsel memo released at the end of the Trump Administration which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  I see that there are two more notable new press articles on this topic:

From The Hill, "Biden faces criticism for not extending home confinement for prisoners"

From the Washington Post, "A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison."

The somewhat scattered Post article focuses on persons sent from home confinement back into federal prison for minor technical violations while also noting that the Biden Administration could seek to rescind the OLC memo or use clemency powers to keep folks home after the pandemic is deemed over.  The lengthy Hill article is more focused on the political discussion around this issue, but my post title reflects my growing frustration with this discourse.  Here are excerpts:

President Biden is under fire for not announcing an extension of a home confinement program for prisoners that was started during the coronavirus pandemic.  Progressives and criminal justice advocates have pressured the administration for months to rescind a Trump-era policy that kills the program when the pandemic ends.  They are frustrated that Biden's remarks this week didn’t address it....

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who led a letter of 28 House Democrats in April calling for the policy to be rescinded, “is disappointed he hasn’t officially extended the home confinement program,” a spokesperson said....

The home confinement program during the coronavirus pandemic was launched in response to the CARES Act in March and directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to prioritize home confinement for certain inmates in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.  Roughly 24,000 inmates since have been sent to home confinement.

In the final days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo stating that under federal law, those inmates released under the CARES Act must report back to prison when the coronavirus emergency is over, unless they are nearing the end of their sentence.  Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland could rescind that policy....

Advocates also argue that those inmates transferred to home confinement have been monitored and largely have not violated the conditions of their situation. “If they’re so low risk and they haven’t violated the conditions, it’s hard to imagine any reason why they should be sent back,” said Maria Morris, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, adding that it would be a “ridiculous waste of resources.”

Many of the inmates placed in home confinement are elderly or in a vulnerable situation due to COVID-19, which posed a threat to them if they stayed inside a prison.  [Holly] Harris calls it “bad government” to send those inmates back to prisons. “At this point, the president just needs to grant them clemency and let them move on.  They are out because the Trump Administration felt it was safe enough to let them go home.  What more cover does he need?” she said.

I agree entirely with advocates saying it would be "bad government" and a "ridiculous waste of resources" to send back to prison thousands of vulnerable people who have been successful serving their sentences at home during the pandemic.  But I do not think it entirely right to describe the OLC memo as a "Trump-era policy" that is readily changed by the Biden Administration.  The OLC memo is not really a "policy" document; it is an elaborate interpretation of how the CARES Act alters BOP authority to place and keep persons in home confinement.  Though the OLC statutory interpretation requiring a return of persons to federal prison is debatable, the fact that this interpretation of the CARES Act amounts to bad policy does not itself give the Biden Administration a basis to just ignore statutory law.

Of course, statutory law notwithstanding, Prez Biden could (and I think should) use his clemency authority to extended home confinement for those at risk of being sent back to federal prison post-pandemic.  But if members of Congress are "disappointed" that the home confinement program is not being extended, they should amend the CARES Act to do exactly that with an express statutory provision!  This difficult issue stems from the text of the CARES Act; if the statutory text Congress passed when COVID first hit now is clearly operating to creates wasteful, bad government, Congress can and should fix that statutory text.  Put simply, this matter is a statutory problem that calls for a statutory fix. 

I surmise that advocates (not unreasonably) assume that getting a gridlocked Congress to "fix" this CARES Act home confinement problem through statutory reform is much less likely than achieving some other fix through executive action.  But, as I see it, exclusive focus on executive action to fix what is fundamentally a statutory problem itself contributes to legislative gridlock.  Indeed, I am more inclined to criticize the Biden Administration for not urging Congress to fix this CARES Act problem, especially because the notable success of home confinement policies during the pandemic could and should justify statutory reforms to even more broadly authorize ever greater use of home confinement in "normal" times.

Notably, three sentencing-related bill made their way through the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month (basics here).  Because I am not an expert on either legislative procedure or inside-the-Beltway politics, I do not know if it would be easy or impossible to include add "home confinement fix" to one of these bills.  But I do know that I will always want to believe that Congress at least has the potential to fix problems of its own creation.  But, as this post is meant to stress, I think it important not too lose sight of the fact that this is a fundamentally a congressional problem, not a presidential one.      

Some prior recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Achieving a media troika, the New York Times also published this lengthy article on this topic under the headline "Thousands of Prisoners Were Sent Home Because of Covid. They Don’t Want to Go Back."  Like the Post article, this piece is a bit scattered in its focus while also directing most of the attention on the Justice Department and Biden Administration rather than highlighting Congress's critical role in this story.  This passage is especially notable:

Changing the prison system is one of the few areas that has drawn bipartisanship agreement in Washington. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, joined Democrats in criticizing the Justice Department memo, which was issued in January.

“Obviously if they can stay where they are, it’s going to save the taxpayers a lot of money,” Mr. Grassley said at the hearing [before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April]. “It will also help people who aren’t prone to reoffend and allows inmates to successfully re-enter society as productive citizens.”

The next sentence of this article, if it were telling the full story, should at the very least note that Congress could "fix" the OLC memo through a simple statutory change. I agree with Senator Grassley that it would be wrong to send all these folks back to prison after they have done well on home confinement, and so I think Senator Grassley should get together with his pals on the Capital Hill and pass a statute to that the law no longer could be interpreted to require sending them all back to prison at taxpayer expense.

June 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Biden Administration stresses reentry in its new public safety efforts

I was intrigued to see that the new "strategy" to combat gun violence announced today by the White House includes significant discussion of reentry issues.  This fact sheet, titled "Biden-Harris Administration Announces Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety," includes a bunch of items under the heading "Help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully reenter their communities."  Here are the headings of items discussed thereunder:

Investments to help formerly incarcerated individuals find quality jobs. 

Expanding Federal Hiring of Formerly Incarcerated Persons.

Implementing “ban the box” policy.

Hiring Second Chance Act Fellow.

Leveraging tax credits to incentivize hiring of formerly incarcerated individuals. 

Addressing the housing needs of returning citizens. 

This extended CNN piece discusses the initiative more generally, providing this summary:

The crime prevention strategy institutes a number of measures among federal agencies and it also relies on allowing states to use American Rescue Plan dollars for more flexible applications, including hiring law enforcement above pre-pandemic levels or using the funds toward community violence intervention programs.

According to the White House, Biden's "Comprehensive Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gun Crime and Ensure Public Safety" will focus on five main pillars: stem the flow of firearms used to commit violence, including by holding rogue firearms dealers accountable for violating federal laws; support local law enforcement with federal tools and resources to help address summer violent crime; invest in evidence-based community violence interventions; expanding summer programming, employment opportunities, and other services and supports for teenagers and young adults; and help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully reenter their communities.

June 23, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 10, 2021

Effective review of (just some) issues surrounding home confinement for the Biden Justice Department

This new extended Hill article, headlined "DOJ faces big decision on home confinement," provide an effective accounting of the building discussion around the status of home confinement in the federal system as it appears the pandemic is winding down.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

The Biden administration will soon have to decide whether to send back to prison thousands of inmates who were transferred to home confinement after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.  President Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland have been facing mounting calls to rescind a policy implemented in the final days of the Trump administration that would revoke home confinement for those inmates as soon as the government lifts its emergency declaration over the coronavirus.

Advocates and lawmakers argue that the program has been a resounding success, and that it would be unjust to reincarcerate thousands of individuals who abided by the terms of their home confinement.  “If you're one of these people, you're trying to figure out, 'Do I go back to college? Do I start a new job? Do I start a family? Do I sign a lease? I mean, what can I do, not knowing where I'm going to be in six months?’ That's cruel to keep somebody in that doubt and uncertainty for this long and to say, ‘You know, don't worry about it, it's not going to happen tomorrow,’” said Kevin Ring, president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Last year, in response to the CARES Act, then-Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to prioritize home confinement for certain inmates in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus within the prison system.  According to the BOP, about 24,000 inmates have been released to home confinement since the beginning of the pandemic. Advocates say there are now about 4,500 people facing uncertainty about whether they might have to go back to prison after months of reintegrating into society.

BOP Director Michael Carvajal told a House Appropriations subcommittee in March that just 21 inmates released to home confinement were sent back to prison for alleged rule violations. And in the program overall, only one person has committed a new crime....

The uncertainty about the program’s fate began in January, a few days before President Biden's inauguration, when the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo stating that under federal law, those inmates released under the CARES Act must report back to prison when the coronavirus emergency is over, unless they are nearing the end of their sentence.

Randilee Giamusso, a BOP spokesperson, said the Biden administration had recently expanded the eligibility for home confinement.  “This is an important legal issue about the language Congress used in the CARES Act,” Giamusso said in a statement.  “It is important to recognize even under the Office of Legal Counsel's (OLC) reading of the statute, the BOP will have discretion to keep inmates on home confinement after the pandemic if they’re close to the end of their sentences.  For the more difficult cases, where inmates still have years left to serve, this will be an issue only after the pandemic is over.”

Giamusso added that Biden recently extended the national emergency regarding COVID-19, and that the Department of Health and Human Services expects the public health crisis to last at least through December.  “The BOP is focused right now on expanding the criteria for home confinement and taking steps to ensure individualized review of more inmates who might be transferred,” Giamusso said.

Still, some lawmakers and advocates argue that the Trump-era policy would unnecessarily upend the lives of those deemed low-risk enough to be sent home and who have since abided by the terms of their home confinement.  Biden and Garland are facing pressure to rescind the policy memo, receiving letters from Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee; a bipartisan group of 28 House lawmakers; and a coalition of advocacy groups....

This past week, the White House told advocates that Biden is preparing to use his clemency powers, in what would be a rare early exercise of the power to commute or pardon incarcerated people.  Ring said rescinding the home confinement policy, or using another tool to keep those affected by it out of prison, is an easy way for Biden to show that he’s serious about taking on mass incarceration.

“They've said they want to use the clemency authority more robustly to let people out of prison who don't need to be there,” said Ring, who has served time in federal prison. “Well, here's 4,500 people that Bill Barr and Donald Trump cleared as the lowest of low risk. So if you can't find a way to keep these people home, I mean, how discouraging will it be for those who are hoping for clemency?”...

Experts and advocates alike see the home confinement policy as a radical experiment that yielded positive results, potentially adding more momentum to criminal justice reform efforts that have seen a growing bipartisan consensus against the tough-on-crime policies of the late 20th century.  Ring, of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said lawmakers should consider the success of the home confinement program as a potential alternative to incarceration.  “I think this is still a good model or a good use of natural experiment to show that we can keep more people in the community, and not keep them in prison,” he said. “Congress should use what happened here as evidence for expanding home confinement going forward.”

But in the meantime, Ring said, the priority is for the Biden administration to make clear that it does not intend to re-incarcerate those who are serving their sentences out at home. “Not only do they need to fix it, they need to fix it immediately,” he said. “They need to announce to these people, ‘You're not going back. We're not making you go back. We'll rescind the memo or we'll use some other authority we have to fix this.' But these people need to get on with their lives.”

I am grateful for this effective review of not just the COVID-driven home confinement changes, but also the broader issue of whether this unfortunate "natural experiment" justifies a robust rethinking of home confinement as an alternative punishment.  And I think that issue need to be explored even further because I surmise that home confinement can end up meaning lots of different things for lots of different persons.  And, in addition to the wonderfully low number of problems with the COVID home confinement transfers, it will be interesting and important to track long-term recidivism rates for these groups. 

Some prior recent related posts:

May 10, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 03, 2021

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)

Saturday, May 01, 2021

Assessments and concerns regarding Biden Administration's early criminal justice efforts

This past week brought the end of the first 100 days of Joe Biden's presidency along with a big speech from Prez Biden to Congress.  In this prior post, I lamented a bit that the big speech did not devote much attention to criminal justice reform issues.  And here is a round-up of some recent articles and commentary reviewing the work of the first 100 days and urging the Biden team to lean into criminal justice issues more:

From Christina Carrega at CNN, "Biden vowed to end the death penalty. Activists are demanding action as he nears the 100-day mark"

From Morgan Chalfant at The Hill, "White House officials meet virtually with criminal justice reform advocates"

From Marc Levin and Khalil Cumberbatch at USA Today, "On racial and criminal justice, Biden has shown some promise, but little progress"  

From Billy Binion at Reason, "If Biden Is Serious About Criminal Justice Reform, He Needs To Get Serious About Qualified Immunity"

From Shaun King at Newsweek, "Joe Biden Must Fix the Racist Criminal Justice System He Helped Create"

From Erica Zunkel and James Zeigler at USA Today, "Biden administration needs to walk the walk on second chances for prisoners; The Department of Justice routinely opposes releases, doing so in clearly meritorious cases."

May 1, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Prez Biden gets timely reminder that criminal justice reform presents unique bipartisan opportunity

I complained in this post that Prez Biden did not have all that much to say about criminal justice issues in his lengthy speech to Congress this week. But I now see from a number of news reports that criminal justice reform got some brief, but especially notable, bipartisan attention after the speech.  This Washington Post piece, headlined "GOP lawmaker who voted to overturn Biden’s election win wants to help him on criminal justice reform," provides these details:

Moments after President Biden concluded his first speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, he was greeted by lawmakers aiming to get in some coveted face time with the president.  Among them was Rep. Troy E. Nehls (R-Tex.), who helped barricade the entrance of the House Chamber during the insurrection Jan. 6 but still voted to overturn the election that Biden won.

But in a brief exchange Wednesday night, Nehls, wearing a Texas-flag mask, introduced himself to Biden as “a sheriff from Texas” and offered his experience policing Fort Bend County to help with the president’s efforts on criminal justice reform.  “I want to help with the criminal justice reform. I want to be a part of it. It’s needed,” he said to the president. “I don’t know how to reach out to you, but I have the experience.”

In response, Biden assured him they’d be in touch, saying, “I’ll reach out to you.”... A White House official told The Washington Post on Thursday that Biden “appreciated Rep. Nehls’s offer and their conversation.”...

During last year’s GOP primary for an open seat in Congress, Nehls painted himself as a fierce Trump advocate.  Texas Monthly reported that he stated on his campaign website how he would “stand with President Trump to defeat the socialist Democrats, build the wall, drain the swamp, and deliver on pro-economy and pro-America policies.”  After he secured the nomination, Nehls pivoted to a more moderate approach for the general election, focusing on health care and criminal justice reform.  He also removed the “Standing with Trump” section from his website as Trump’s approval among Republicans was waning, according to the Houston Chronicle.  He went on to defeat his Democratic opponent, Sri Preston Kulkarni, by seven percentage points in November....

On Wednesday night, Nehls tweeted during the speech about the president’s handling of the southern border and slammed Democrats for reportedly handing out masks in the Chamber that were made in China. But in their exchange on criminal justice reform, Nehls took on a much different tone than the one he used on Twitter.

“I don’t want to hurt your reputation,” the president said to Nehls of his offer, according to video of the moment. Before Biden went to talk to another lawmaker, Nehls made his final plea: “I can do a whole lot of good in that conversation.”

This Texas Tribune article, headlined "Freshman GOP Texas congressman made a personal pitch to Joe Biden: Let me help with criminal justice reform," provides some more details concerning the type of reforms that Rep Nehls seems eager to champion:

Biden administration staff reached out to Nehls' office on Thursday morning, according to Nehls spokesman Daniel Gribble.  Gribble added that Nehls is "optimistic about common sense reforms they can accomplish" and the congressman's focus is "recidivism reduction through inmate training programs."

"As Sheriff, Rep Nehls implemented HVAC and welding programs for non-violent inmates at the county jail," Gribble said.  "He had wild success reducing the 2 year re-arrest rate with participating inmates.  He’d like to see similar programs available in County jails across the country and is working on legislation that will make that possible."

April 30, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Not even much lip service about sentencing reform in Prez Biden's first address to Congress

Prez Joe Biden gave a very lengthy speech this evening (full text here), but it only included a precious few sentences about criminal justice reform.  Here are these sentences:

We have all seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black America. Now is our opportunity to make real progress.

Most men and women in uniform wear their badge and serve their communities honorably.  I know them.  I know they want to help meet this moment as well.

My fellow Americans, we have to come together.  To rebuild trust between law enforcement and the people they serve. To root out systemic racism in our criminal justice system.  And to enact police reform in George Floyd’s name that passed the House already.

I know the Republicans have their own ideas and are engaged in productive discussions with Democrats.  We need to work together to find a consensus.  Let’s get it done next month, by the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death.

The country supports this reform.  Congress should act.

Though I was pleased to hear small mention of policing reform by Prez Biden, I was disappointed (though not really surprised) that there was not any other mention of any other criminal justce reform efforts.  And this new NPR piece, headlined "Activists Wait For Biden To Take Bold Action On Criminal Justice Reform," picks up this theme.  Here are excerpts:

President Biden campaigned on a plan to remake the criminal justice system. He admitted that many of the tough-on-crime positions he staked out 30 years ago just did not work.  He said he would focus on drug treatments and on cutting long mandatory prison sentences.  NPR's Carrie Johnson has been talking to progressive activists who are waiting for that to happen....

JOHNSON: The Biden White House has been talking regularly with [Inimai] Chettiar and others who want to overhaul the justice system. Kevin Ring advocates for people in prison at the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

KEVIN RING: FAMM's been around 30 years. I don't know that we've ever had that kind of outreach from the White House or the Justice Department.

JOHNSON: Ring says he had a guarded optimism about Biden based on his campaign rhetoric.

RING: But there was also some skepticism that he was going to have to tear down the house that he built in some ways through the sentencing laws and prison policies he not only sponsored but bragged about.

JOHNSON: Ring says it's still early, but the White House seems to be trying to lay the groundwork for more foundational change. Kara Gotsch of the Sentencing Project isn't so sure about that.

KARA GOTSCH: The lip service is good, but we need more, more action....

JOHNSON: Other advocates credit the Biden team for supporting bipartisan legislation that would finally equalize the penalties for people caught with crack cocaine.  Since the 1980s, offenses involving crack have been punished 100 times more harshly than the powder form of the drug, which has been more popular with white people.  Chettiar of the Justice Action Network thinks that bill could become law this year.  With Congress so closely divided between the two political parties, the odds of legislation that would transform the justice system are pretty slim.  That's why advocates are pushing the White House and DOJ to go big now before time runs out.

April 28, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (14)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

"A Courts-Focused Research Agenda for the Department of Justice"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Brennan Center report.  Here is its introduction:

Millions of individuals interact with the U.S. criminal and civil legal system every year. Many of them look to the courts to defend their rights and ensure fair outcomes — and all too often, courts are falling short.

As a candidate, President Biden committed to combatting mass incarceration, ending the criminalization of poverty, rooting out racial disparities, and refocusing our criminal and civil legal systems on the key principles of equality, equity, and justice. State and federal courts are critical to achieving these goals, but there is much that we don’t know about how they currently function and where reform is most acutely needed.

In order for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to effectively support states, local jurisdictions, tribal governments, territories, and the federal government in refashioning our courts into more just institutions, research and data are urgently required.

There must be an understanding not only of who is entering the court system, but why they are brought into it, and what their experiences illustrate about our vast system of local, state, and federal courts. For example, the Biden administration has emphasized its intention to end the practice of incarcerating people for their inability to pay court debt, yet we still know very little about how these and other predatory court practices function across the country. The Covid-19 pandemic prompted an unprecedented experiment with remote court proceedings in jurisdictions across the country, but we still know very little about how remote court impacts access to justice and the fairness of proceedings.

President Biden has also emphasized the importance of racial, ethnic, gender, and professional diversity on the bench — including nominating judges who bring diversity to the bench. But while the judiciary publishes diversity data about Article III judges, we lack basic information about the demographics or professional experience of many judges in state and Article I federal courts. These are just a few of the data and research gaps that make our courts problematically opaque.

Although just scratching the surface, we offer some recommendations for the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) and National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to collect additional data and perform research to better understand how our courts do or don’t work for millions of Americans, as well as setting forth a research agenda that could shed more light on how to improve our nation’s vast system of local, state, and federal courts. 

April 22, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Why is DOJ apparently keeping hidden a new memo expanding the criteria for home confinement?

The question in the title of this post is what I keep wondering as days pass since I saw this FAMM press release from last Friday and yet still fail to see any updated official information from the Department of Justice or the the Bureau of Prisons.  The FAMM press release, dated April 16, 2021, starts this way (my emphasis added):

FAMM President Kevin Ring released the following statement in response to the Department of Justice (DOJ) releasing a memo expanding the criteria for home confinement.

“We’re grateful that that the new administration heeded the widespread calls to make more people eligible for home confinement,” Ring said. “The original criteria were too narrow. These changes will protect vulnerable people in federal prisons.

“We are extremely disappointed, however, that the administration has not rescinded or overruled the legal memo that could force people on home confinement back to prison when the pandemic subsides.  Thousands of families are rightfully anxious that they will be separated again soon.  We worry that today’s announcement will result in more families being in the same boat.”

I understand why the FAMM release expresses concern that the Biden Administration has not yet addressed the worrisome OLC memo discussed in this post that would require returning some folks to prison post-pandemic.  But, in the short term, I am quite concerned that an important memorandum expanding the criteria for home confinement seemingly has not yet been made widely publicly available.

Notably, on this DOJ coronavirus page, there is no link to or any reference to a new DOJ memo on home confinement criteria.  And this BOP COVID page still states expressly that "eligibility requirements for an inmate to be considered for Home Confinement are set forth in the Attorney General's March 26 and April 3, 2020 Memoranda."  Given these webpages, one might say that DOJ and BOP are now not just guilty of a lack of transparency on an important matter of public concern, but they are actually providing misleading information about what the current home confinement criteria are right now.

Misleading information about home confinement criteria is not just problematic for persons in federal prisons and their families who might think they ought to be eligible for home confinement.  It is also problematic for federal judges around the country who are considering compassionate release motions and who might be influenced by the new home confinement criteria in their decision-making.  And, most fundamentally, it is problematic for the American people who have every right to expect and demand that consequential criminal justice decisions by government actors will be transparent and clear, not hidden and opaque.

UPDATE:  The folks at FAMM have posted here what looks like the full text of the new "Updated Home Confinement Guidance under the CARES Act  [as of] April 2021"  Here is how this document gets started:

On Wednesday, April 14, 2021, FAMM received the text of a memo outlining new criteria for home confinement under the CARES Act.  As of this time, the memo has not been shared online by the BOP or Justice Department, but a BOP spokesperson confirmed to The Marshall Project that this memo was sent to all BOP facilities.

Frustratingly, it is hard to tell from the text of this still-officially-secret DOJ memo just how the criterial for home confinement has been changed and how many current federal prisoners might be impacted by the change.  Moreover, the memo also says that it "provides updated guidance and direction and supercedes the memorandum dated November 16, 2020," but I am not sure that November 16 memo was ever made public.  Sigh. 

April 20, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Any interesting new insights about the interesting new folks tapped by Prez Biden for DEA and AAG positions at the Department of Justice?

As detailed in this press release, Prez Biden yesterday announced "His Intent to Nominate 11 Key Administration Leaders on National Security and Law Enforcement."  Two of the nominees could prove be particularly impactful in sentencing and other federal criminal justice reform arenas: 

Anne Milgram, Nominee for Administrator, Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Justice

Anne Milgram has had a distinguished career as a state, local, and federal prosecutor.  As New Jersey’s Attorney General from 2007-2010, Milgram was New Jersey’s chief law enforcement officer and led the 9,000-person Department of Law & Public Safety, overseeing the New Jersey State Police and the State Division of Criminal Justice....

Kenneth Polite, Nominee for Assistant Attorney General for Criminal Division, Department of Justice

Kenneth A. Polite is currently a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.  During the Obama/Biden administration, he served as the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, where he championed prevention, reentry, and enforcement in improving public safety, and advised Department of Justice leadership as a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee.... 

I do not know all that much about either of these folks, but I do know that lots of criminal justice advocates are going to be urging them to be reform minded.  Here is some early press coverage of these nominations providing some background:

UPDATE:  A helpful reader commented that Anne Milgram gave this notable TED talk in October 2013 titled "Why smart statistics are the key to fighting crime."  Here is how the 12-minute talk, which has been viewed more than 1 million times, is described:

When she became the attorney general of New Jersey in 2007, Anne Milgram quickly discovered a few startling facts: not only did her team not really know who they were putting in jail, but they had no way of understanding if their decisions were actually making the public safer.  And so began her ongoing, inspirational quest to bring data analytics and statistical analysis to the US criminal justice system.

Because I believe the DEA could and would likely benefit from using more "smart statistics," I hope these ideas become part of DEA operations in the years ahead.

April 13, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 02, 2021

ONDCP releases "Biden-Harris Administration’s Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One"

The Executive Office of The President Office Of National Drug Control Policy yesterday released this detailed 11-page document titled "The Biden-Harris Administration’s Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One."  For folks interesting in the potential future of the drug war at the federal level, the document makes for an interesting read.  Here is how it gets started (endnotes omitted):

The overdose and addiction crisis has taken a heartbreaking toll on far too many Americans and their families.  Since 2015, overdose death numbers have risen 35 percent, reaching a historic high of 70,630 deaths in 2019.  This is a greater rate of increase than for any other type of injury death in the United States.  Though illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids other than methadone (SOOTM) have been the primary driver behind the increase, overdose deaths involving cocaine and other psychostimulants, like methamphetamine, have also risen in recent years, particularly in combination with SOOTM.  New data suggest that COVID-19 has exacerbated the epidemic, and increases in overdose mortality6 have underscored systemic inequities in our nation’s approach to criminal justice and prevention, treatment, and recovery.

President Biden has made clear that addressing the overdose and addiction epidemic is an urgent priority for his administration.  In March, the President signed into law the American Rescue Plan, which appropriated nearly $4 billion to enable the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Health Resources and Services Administration to expand access to vital behavioral health services.  President Biden has also said that people should not be incarcerated for drug use but should be offered treatment instead.  The President has also emphasized the need to eradicate racial, gender, and economic inequities that currently exist in the criminal justice system.

These drug policy priorities — statutorily due to Congress by April 1st of an inaugural year — take a bold approach to reducing overdoses and saving lives.  The priorities provide guideposts to ensure that the federal government promotes evidence-based public health and public safety interventions.  The priorities also emphasize several cross-cutting facets of the epidemic, namely by focusing on ensuring racial equity in drug policy and promoting harm-reduction efforts.  The priorities are:

  • Expanding access to evidence-based treatment;
  • Advancing racial equity issues in our approach to drug policy;
  • Enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts;
  • Supporting evidence-based prevention efforts to reduce youth substance use;
  • Reducing the supply of illicit substances;
  • Advancing recovery-ready workplaces and expanding the addiction workforce; and
  • Expanding access to recovery support services.

ONDCP will work closely with other White House components, agencies and Congress to meet these priorities.  ONDCP will also work closely with State, local, and Tribal governments, especially around efforts to ensure that opioid lawsuit settlement funds are used on programs that strengthen the nation’s approach to addiction.

April 2, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Prez Biden announces his first group of judicial nominees reflecting diverse backgrounds

As partially detailed in this CBS News piece, headlined "Biden announces first slate of judicial nominees with picks that would make history," Prez Joe Biden has formally announced a first set of planned nominations for judicial openings. Here are basics: 

President Biden on Tuesday rolled out his first slate of judicial nominees, announcing candidates with diverse backgrounds and professional qualifications as he begins to make his own stamp on the nation's district and circuit courts. Of the president's 11 judicial picks, three set to be nominated to the federal district courts would make history if confirmed by the evenly divided the Senate. The White House said the candidates underscore Mr. Biden's commitment to diversity on the federal bench.

"This trailblazing slate of nominees draws from the very best and brightest minds of the American legal profession," Mr. Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "Each is deeply qualified and prepared to deliver justice faithfully under our Constitution and impartially to the American people — and together they represent the broad diversity of background, experience, and perspective that makes our nation strong."

The president intends to nominate three Black women to fill vacancies on a trio of circuit courts: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the District of Columbia Circuit; Tiffany Cunningham to the U.S. Court of Appeals to the Federal Circuit; and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals....

In addition to announcing nominees to the circuit courts, Mr. Biden also revealed his candidates to fill open seats on federal district courts in Maryland, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and New Mexico, as well as the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Three of Mr. Biden's nominees to the district courts would make history if confirmed by the Senate: Judge Zahid Quraishi, tapped for the district court in New Jersey, would be the first Muslim-American federal judge; Judge Florence Pan would be the first Asian-American woman on the district court in D.C.; and Judge Lydia Griggsby would be the first woman of color to serve as a federal judge in Maryland.

With 72 vacancies on the federal courts and another 28 seats set to become open in the coming weeks and months, Mr. Biden has been under pressure to prioritize judicial nominees and mount his own effort to reshape the federal bench after former President Donald Trump succeeded in appointing more than 230 judges to the courts, most of them white men. The president has also been pushed by progressive groups to select nominees with not only diverse backgrounds, but also an array of legal experience, including public defenders, civil rights lawyers and legal aid attorneys.

The full list of the nominees is available via this White House press release.  The nine women and two men on this list seem to represent an array of diverse professional histories as well as personal backgrounds (e.g., I count ten different law schools represented).  Long-time readers know I have been a long-time fan of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, in part because she served on the US Sentencing Commission and was once a federal public defender.  I was not surprised at all to see her name on this list, and it is great to see a good number of additional nominees with significant public defender histories (Judges Jackson-Akiwumi and Boardman, Margaret Strickland). And I was pleasantly suprised to see the list include someone I attended high school with (Judge Griggsby) and a fairly recent graduate of The Oho State University Moritz College of Law (Judge Puttagunta). 

March 30, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 19, 2021

Small, and not quite steady, reform progress in a not quite new era for criminal justice reform

An interesting set of new press pieces highlight ways in which the criminal justice times seem to be a-changing during the Biden era, but not yet quite as much or as fast as lots of advocates might be hoping or expecting.  Here they are with a brief excerpt:

From BuzzFeed News, "COVID-19 Has Torn Through Prisons. Advocates Want Biden To Act Now"

Nearly all of the groups who spoke with BuzzFeed News said that they’ve participated in briefings and have had conversations with White House staff to raise concerns about BOP policy, including compassionate release and underused policies to thin prison populations during the pandemic.  Advocates have specifically pushed the administration to direct the BOP to use its expanded authority to grant home confinement under last year’s coronavirus relief plan.

Advocates have had a mixed response to those conversations, with optimism about prospective change mingled with frustration about slow-moving progress.

From Slate, "The Biden Administration Takes a Step Toward Undoing the Damage of the War on Drugs"

In September, [Tarahrick] Terry petitioned the Supreme Court saying he qualified for a sentence reduction [of his 188-month sentence for possessing 3.9 grams of crack cocaine in 2008], because the First Step Act made 2010’s Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. His case got a boost earlier this week, when President Biden’s Justice Department informed the Supreme Court they believe that Terry, and others who were incarcerated for low-level crack cocaine offenses, should have their sentences reduced under the First Step Act. The court plans to hear the case later this year.

From Vox, "The EQUAL Act would finally close the cocaine sentencing disparity"

Reps. Don Bacon (R-NE) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) have already cosponsored [the EQUAL Act]. But in a statement to Vox, Bacon was less optimistic about the timeline, even as he said that eliminating the cocaine sentencing disparity is only one part of a broader justice reform push he wants to tackle.

“While I am optimistic it will be voted on in the House this Congress, I don’t have a projected timeline for the bill at this stage and hope to gain more bipartisan support as it makes its way through the legislative process,” he said. The Senate is where it will be more critical to find Republican support, considering the chamber’s 50-50 split. Thus far, only Sens. Cory Booker and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) have signed on.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, who worked with Durbin to introduce and shepherd the First Step Act through the Senate, would be a critical part of any bipartisan negotiation. In a statement to Vox, a spokesperson for Grassley said he was receptive to working with Democrats on the EQUAL Act, but that that process had not begun yet.

March 19, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 15, 2021

"14 Steps Biden’s DOJ Can Take Now to Reform America’s Criminal Legal System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new commentary at The Appeal authored by Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler. I highly recommend the full piece, and here are parts of the preamble and the listed "14 steps":

As the Biden Administration takes shape and the nation recovers from four years of Donald Trump, there may be a temptation to return to “normal.”  That could be especially true at the Department of Justice, where so many longstanding norms — independence from politics, high ethical standards, a commitment to facts — took a beating.  With many Obama-era appointees back in high-level positions, there is likely a desire to go back to the way things were when the same people were last in power.  But that’s setting the bar too low.  While it’s critical that the department rededicate itself to its core values, it’s not sufficient to simply create an “Obama Lite” initiative.  Instead, the DOJ, with its vast authority and discretion, and its power to unilaterally shape the federal criminal legal system, should be a driving force for dramatic, high-impact change.

President Biden’s Executive Order stating that the DOJ will not renew contracts with private prison companies is a prime example of largely symbolic but practically useless reform.  It is a positive step that builds off an Obama-era policy, but it is only a tiny step forward.  It does not get to the heart of what really needs to change.  No one will be released or serve less time because of this order.  Private prisons account for a small percentage of where people in federal prisons are housed, and most of the private contracts at the federal level are with the Department of Homeland Security, which is not covered by the Executive Order.  In addition, many of the private contracts have long time periods, so another administration might undo this order before it ever takes effect.  It is therefore possible the order will not change anything at all.

The Obama Administration, just like administrations before it, had fatal flaws when it came to criminal justice, and the Biden Administration should aim to cure them.  This isn’t just important for better criminal justice policies and public safety.  It’s also important because of the institutional weakness that Trump put into stark relief.  For too long, the DOJ has relied on the notion that it should have broad discretion because good people work at the department.  While we agree that competent, well-meaning people generally do work at the DOJ, the Trump Administration showed why that isn’t enough.  For example, Obama’s Department might have opposed abolishing mandatory minimum sentences because of its own policy to curb their use (though even that policy was inconsistently enforced), but preserving those laws enabled the Trump Administration to use them far more aggressively.  If the Biden Administration wants both a lasting legacy of real criminal justice reform and to show a commitment to the rule of law, it needs to pursue critical institutional reform at the Department even if at the expense of its own discretion.

With those goals in mind, we propose the following 14 policy recommendations.  These are largely aimed at structural issues that can be addressed without legislation that would have the biggest impact in reducing prison populations and remedying disportionate punishments and discriminatory policies.  These reforms cover different topics, but they are all backed by empirical evidence as being in the interest of public safety, reducing racial disparities, and giving the DOJ back its good name.  These include substantive policy changes and personnel priorities, and we will cover those first precisely because they can be done without Congress.  Other reforms require Congress’s cooperation.  While there is no guarantee Congress will agree, this is the time to pursue these shifts, with Democratic leadership and bipartisan support for criminal justice reform.  But legislation will not move without DOJ support.  DOJ opposition has been a chief impediment for more significant criminal justice reforms, so it’s long past time for it to take the lead on breaking the logjam.

1. Revise Charging Policies...

2. Reform Clemency...

3. Commit to Compassionate Release...

4. Ensure First Step Act Programming Credit...

5. Reform and Move the Bureau of Prisons...

6. Abolish the Death Penalty...

7. Appoint Reformers to Key Positions Within DOJ...

8. Support Reform at the Sentencing Commission...

9. Support Creating a High-Level Criminal Justice Advisor Position...

10. Implement Forensic Science Reform...

11. Revise Discovery Policies...

12. Support Legislative Reform...

13. Support Release Through Parole...

14. Eliminate Financial Incentives to Charge Cases...

March 15, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, March 14, 2021

With a new Attorney General now in place, should we expect to see any changes in the federal prison population?

Regular readers know that I have been following federal prison population data quite closely during the COVID era, giving particular attention to the numbers that the federal Bureau of Prisons updates weekly at this webpage.  But I have not blogged on this topic in nearly two months because, after a tumultuous 2020, there has been a notable stability in BOP reports of "Total Federal Inmates" during the Biden era.  As noted here, the day after Prez Biden's inauguration, BOP reported a total population of 151,646; as of March 11, 2021, this population stands at 151,703. 

Back in 2017, when Prez Trump was elected and Jeff Sessions took over as Attorney General and implemented new charging and sentencing policies for federal prosecutors, there was understandable concern (see articles here and here) that reductions in the federal prison population that took place during Prez Obama's second term would get reversed.  Indeed, Trump's Justice Department back in 2017, as noted here, was forecasting and budgeting for federal prison population increases.  But, due to a varety of factors, most notably the passage of the FIRST STEP Act and especially the COVID pandemic, the federal prison population actually dropped dramatically during in Trump era.  Specifically the federal prison population decreased by nearly 38,000 persons during Prez Trump's term (nearly 20%), which highlights that the plans, policies and practices of any Attorney General can be eclipsed by other factors impacting the federal prison population.

Against this backdrop, I am wondering (a) if new Attorney General Merrick Garland is going to implement policies and practices that consciously seeks to continue shrinking the federal prison population, and (b) whether we will see any real changes in the federal prison population anytime soon.  In this January post, I predicted the federal prison population would be relatively steady to start the Biden era because it could take months before we see any major DOJ policy changes and many more months before any big policy changes start impacting the federal prison population. 

A few recent prior related posts:

March 14, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Are we soon going to start seeing notable judicial nominees from Prez Biden?

This past week was full of big accomplishements for the Biden Administration with the confirmation of Attorney General Merrick Garland and the passage of the big COVID relief bill.  And now, as we approach nearly two months into the new Administration, there is reason to expect we will start seeing Prez Biden announce some judicial nominations.  These recent press articles certainly are raising expections that nomination will be coming soon:

From Axios, "White House primes 'pipeline' of federal judges"

From Buzzfeed News, "Biden Is Considering History-Making Nominees For The Federal Courts"

From CNN, "Get ready for a raft of Biden court nominees"

From Law.com, "Biden's First Judicial Nominees Will Test His Commitment to Diversifying Courts"

As these articles help highlight, many folks are focused on whether and how Prez Biden will focus on racial and gender diversity in his judicial nominees.  And in this post at The Volokh Conspiracy, Josh Blackman wonders: "How old will President Biden's judicial nominees be? Which side of 50 will the nominees be on?".

Regular readers know that I will be rooting for judicial nomines with experience as defense attorneys to balance a federal judiciary now loaded with a disproportionate number of former prosecutors.  Long-time readers may recall that I was, as detailed in this post from Feb 2016, an advocate for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be nominated by Prez Obama for the 2016 SCOTUS opening in part because of her history as a public defender and her time as a member of the US Sentencing Commission.  I am excited to see Judge Jackson being discussed as Prez Biden's likely first pick for the DC Circuit, I am am hopeful she will be just one of many judicial nominees with a notably different personal and professional background.

And, as I have stressed recently, we need great diverse picks to fill long-empty seats on the US Sentencing Commission.

A few prior related posts:

March 13, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

With Merrick Garland now finally confirmed as the next US Attorney General, might another DOJ charging and sentencing memo be soon forthcoming?

As reported in this CNBC piece, the US Senate "on Wednesday voted to confirm Merrick Garland as attorney general, placing the longtime federal appeals court judge and one-time Supreme Court pick at the helm of an agency central to President Joe Biden’s domestic policy agenda. The vote was 70-30." Here is more:

Garland takes over as the head of the Department of Justices as the sprawling agency continues to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, one of the largest probes in its history. Garland has called the inquiry his No. 1 priority.

The Justice Department will also be crucial in enacting Biden’s sweeping plans for civil rights enforcement and criminal justice reform. The department is likely to make important decisions in the coming years concerning regulation of the nation’s largest technology companies, which some lawmakers are pushing to break up.

Garland’s pledged to defend the independence of the Justice Department during hearings before the judiciary committee last month. Biden has made restoring the traditional distance between the department and political officials at the White House a top priority....

Before Biden tapped Garland to be attorney general, the centrist lawyer was nominated by former President Barack Obama to a seat on the Supreme Court in 2016 after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans at the time controlled the Senate, and refused to hold a hearing on his nomination.

Several other top Justice Department nominees are still being considered by the Senate, including Vanita Gupta, Kristen Clarke and Lisa Monaco.  Gupta and Monaco faced questions from senators on Tuesday. Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s civil rights division under Obama, is nominated to become associate attorney general.  Clarke is nominated to be the head of the civil rights division. Biden nominated Monaco to be deputy attorney general.

As the title of this post ponders, I cannot help but wonder if a new confirmed Attorney General might soon result in a new permanent Justice Department charging and sentencing memorandum.  As noted in this post six weeks ago, less than 10 days after Prez Biden took office, acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson rescinded the May 2017 charging/sentencing memo put in place by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.   This one-page Wilkinson memo said it was an "interim measure before Senate-confirmed leadership is in place at the Department."  Though we still await confirmation of the rest of DOJ leadership, Garland's confirmation brings us much closer to having permanent new DOJ leadership in place for possibly redirecting DOJ sentencing policies and practices.

Some (of many) prior related posts on DOJ charging and sentencing guidance:

March 10, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Flagging federal criminal justice reform as great bipartisan legislative opportunity

Van Jones and Louis Reed have this great new CNN piece under the headlie "The one issue that could bring Democrats and Republicans together."  Here are excerpts:

Political commentators continue to wonder whether President Joe Biden can deliver on his promise of national unity and healing.  While his prospects for doing so seem increasingly limited, there is one area that offers some hope: criminal justice reform....

Biden has a unique opportunity to build on his predecessors' progress. To start, he can:

1. Increase funding for the First Step Act. Biden can build on the existing bipartisan consensus by allocating more money to the kinds of educational and job training programs prescribed in the First Step Act. One of the core features of this legislation is "earned time credits," which lets people shorten the length of their sentences by completing various programs.

Demand is high. There is a waiting list of more than 11,000 people even for basic literacy programs. Access to these kinds of programs has been diminished even further during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it's worth the investment because increasing educational and job training, treatment, and compassionate release programs can significantly reduce the federal prison population and recidivism rates.

2. Fix federal supervision systems.  When people are released from federal custody, many enter an incredibly harsh supervised release system.  Due to laws requiring mandatory supervision sentences and mandatory prison time for noncriminal "violations," many people get saddled with years or even decades of invasive monitoring and additional time behind bars for things like missing a meeting.

Biden could push for smart bipartisan reforms like capping the amount of time people spend under supervision, preventing people from returning to prison for noncriminal violations and allowing people to get off supervision early based on good behavior and participation in educational programs.  Reforms like these are already winning favor in red states (like Louisiana), purple states (like Michigan) and blue states (like California).

3. Back existing bipartisan legislative efforts. There are some measures that already have support from both sides of the aisle. None are perfect; the legislative process would likely strengthen many of them.  But if Biden is looking for common ground issues, these measures offer him a great starting point:

  • Safer Detention Act....
  • Smarter Pretrial Detention for Drug Charges Act....
  • The Driving for Opportunity Act....
  • Reintroduce the Smarter Sentencing Act....
  • Reintroduce the Community First Pretrial Reform and Jail Decarceration Act.

March 9, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 01, 2021

Great and distinctive accounting of a modern evidence-based criminal law reform agenda

Jon Gould and Pamela Metzger have this interesting and important new Hill commentary headlined "Evidence-based paths toward criminal justice reform." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it gets started:

As recent events at the Capitol make clear, criminal legal reform is a moral and civic imperative for the new Biden administration.  President Joe Biden ran, in part, on a promise of reducing the United States’ outsized reliance on incarceration, correctional supervision and fines and fees and committed himself to addressing systemic racism in the criminal system.  Recent events have only increased the urgency for smart, compassionate criminal legal reforms that are based on empirical evidence, rather than on instinct or past practice.

Evidence-based criminal law reform — which draws on lessons learned from medicine and other disciplines — advocates policies driven by the results of research, rather than by anecdote or collective assumptions.  Evidence-based reform is widely known in corrections policy and police investigations and new research has led recent reforms of bail, sentencing and the death penalty.

But if the Biden administration wants to truly move the needle, it must direct its attention to widespread reform opportunities in venues that have often been overlooked.  We suggest that the Biden justice agenda include a focus on research and evidence-based reform in three key areas: prosecutorial charging discretion, participatory defense efforts and the needs of small, tribal and rural, or STAR, communities.

March 1, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 27, 2021

What kind of "behind the scenes" clemency moves might Prez Biden's staff be working on?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a sentence in this Vox piece by German Lopez (strangely) headlined "Biden’s secret weapon for criminal justice reform."  The article is about the power of the President to grant clemency, and I think it a bit strange to call that power a "secret weapon" given all the attention that clemency has received in recent years and given that there has already been a number of prominent calls for Prez Biden to use this power in prominent ways (examples blogged here and here and here and here).  I guess the headline speak to the tendency of some to look past the clemency power as a means to address systemic issues like mass incarceration, and the piece is still a worthwhile read.  Here is an excerpt that includes the sentence that prompts the question in the title of this post:

[S]ome advocates have argued for a ground-up rethinking of clemency: The president could reform the whole process to systematically cut sentences for federal inmates caught in the frenzy of America’s drug war and mass incarceration....

[T]he president or his advisory board could set standards, targeting inmates with long sentences (especially for nonviolent crimes), those under mandatory minimums, or people who have been rehabilitated in prison.

Biden, at least, supports using clemency powers for some of these ends — saying in his criminal justice reform plan that he’d use his clemency powers “to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes.”

But since taking office, Biden hasn’t made any public moves in this area — although his staff is reportedly working on it behind the scenes.

Biden could be waiting for his attorney general nominee to get Senate approval. Or he could be concerned about the political risks: If an inmate he releases goes on to commit a crime, it could fuel a backlash. (The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Prez Biden should have his Attorney General nominee approved next week, so perhaps reported "behind the scenes" work will become public in short order. I remain hopeful that significant use of the clemency power will be part of a multi-prong criminal justice reform push by the Biden Administration, but I will only believe it when I see it.

A few of many prior related posts:

February 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 26, 2021

Federal prosecutors still pursuing capital charges over a month into Biden Administration

There has been considerable advocacy from progressives urging Prez Biden to commute federal death row and to halt all capital prosecutions (examples here and here).  Against that backdrop, I thought this new Justice Department press release was notable under this full headline: "Death Penalty Sought For Murder Of Fort Campbell Soldier; Victim's murder occurred on the Fort Campbell, Kentucky military installation."   Interestingly, the start of the release specifies that former Prez Trump's last Attorney General was the one who authorized this prosecution in the Western District of Kentucky:

The United States filed Notice of Intent to Seek the Death Penalty for Victor Everette Silvers, in connection with the death of Brittney Niecol Silvers, announced Acting United States Attorney Michael A. Bennett.  Former Acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen authorized and directed the United States Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Kentucky to seek the death penalty.

According to the superseding indictment, returned on Tuesday, February 23, 2021, Victor Everette Silvers murdered Brittney Niecol Silvers on October 14, 2018, by shooting her with a firearm at the Fort Campbell, Kentucky military installation.  Brittney Niecol Silvers was, at the time of her death, assigned to the 96th Aviation Support Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  The penalty for First-Degree Murder (Premediated) is Death or Life Imprisonment.

Victor Everette Silvers is also charged with Attempted First-Degree Murder, Domestic Violence, Violation of a Protection Order, Possession of a Firearm by a Prohibited Person, and two counts of the Use/Carry/Discharge of a Firearm During and in Relation to a Crime of Violence.

This press release is a useful reminder that, while it may not be essential for Prez Biden to make an immediate decision about whether to commute the sentences of persons already on federal death row, there is more immediate urgency for the Biden Administration about whether to continue seeking to add to the number of persons on federal death row.

February 26, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

New commentary calling for Prez Biden to revive the US Sentencing Commission

In this post earlier this month, I wondered aloud about when we might reasonably expect Prez Biden to make needed appointments to the US Sentencing Commission.  This issue remained on my mind when I was recently asked to write a commentary for ASU's new Crime and Justice News site.   Specifically, I decided to write on "Reviving the U.S. Sentencing Commission," and here is an excerpt from this commentary (links from original):

[F]ederal sentencing politics and policy development have transformed dramatically in recent years.  Presidents Obama and Trump did not agree on much, but they both supported and signed major federal sentencing reform legislation designed to reduce punishment levels.  Huge majorities in Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 and the FIRST STEP Act in 2018, demonstrating strong bipartisan support for impactful changes to federal sentencing laws and practices.  Congress even titled its 2018 legislation to signal the law was to be just the first in a series of reform steps for the federal justice system.  Meanwhile, a global pandemic and heightened concern about racial injustices in 2020 have only increased calls for change and further heightened the moral and practical imperatives for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to pursue big and bold sentencing reforms.

But, problematically, the U.S. Sentencing Commission presently cannot advance any reforms because persistent vacancies have crippled its ability to function.  Open commissioner slots were left unfilled in the final years of the Obama Administration, and new nominees advanced by President Trump in March 2018 were controversial and got a cold shoulder from the Senate.  Remarkably, the agency Congress created to advance sound “sentencing policies and practices” lacked a quorum for much of the Trump Administration as Congress debated, enacted and oversaw the initial implementation of the landmark FIRST STEP Act.  As of this writing, the Commission currently has only a single Commissioner; the agency now needs six new confirmed members to get back to full strength and at least three new commissioners to be somewhat functional.

The current vacancies not only create a critical need for President Biden to revive the U.S. Sentencing Commission, but also provide a critical opportunity to reimagine who serves on this Commission and how it approaches its work.  Circa 2021, we have not just bipartisan political support for meaningful criminal justice reforms at local, state and federal levels, but also a wide and diverse array of individuals with a deep reserve of sentencing expertise and experiences.  President Biden must make it a priority to nominate a full slate of new commissioners with diverse backgrounds and experiences who will advance an ambitious, grand view of how the Commission can and should seek to meet our current criminal justice moment.

In a letter to Democratic Senators following his election, President Biden signaled an interest in nominating for judgeships “individuals whose legal experiences have been historically underrepresented on the federal bench, including those who are public defenders, civil rights and legal aid attorneys, and those who represent Americans in every walk of life.”  This sentiment can and must carry over to nominations to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which has historically been dominated by persons with prosecutorial backgrounds.  With millions of persons federally prosecuted in recent decades and with a third of all U.S. adults burdened with some kind of criminal record, representing “Americans in every walk of life” in this context must include individuals involved in the justice system.

In his pioneering 1972 book, Criminal Sentences: Law Without Order, Judge Marvin Frankel first advocated for a “Commission on Sentencing” to include “lawyers, judges, penologists, and criminologists, ... sociologists, psychologists, business people, artists, and, lastly for emphasis, former or present prison inmates.”  As Judge Frankel explained, having justice-involved persons on a sentencing commission “merely recognizes what took too long to become obvious—that the recipients of penal ‘treatment’ must have relevant things to say about it.”  Judge Frankel’s insights remain ever so timely a half-century later, and the federal system can now follow a recent sound state example: Brandon Flood was appointed Secretary of the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons in 2019, not despite but largely because of his lived experience as an inmate and his numerous encounters with the criminal justice system.  President Biden’s could and should consider going even further by including multiple persons with diverse, direct experiences with U.S. justice systems in his nominations to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

February 24, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Potent call for new Attorney General to address how "mass detention creates mass incarceration"

Alison Siegler and Kate M. Harris have this notable new New York Times op-ed under the headline "How Did the ‘Worst of the Worst’ Become 3 Out of 4?: Merrick Garland can bring bail reform to the federal justice system."  Here is how the efective piece gets started and concludes:

Few see Judge Merrick Garland, President Biden’s pick for attorney general, as a progressive who will reform the criminal legal system. But the Biden administration recently acknowledged that mass incarceration does not make us safer.  And as the nation’s chief federal prosecutor, if confirmed, Judge Garland will have the power to prioritize federal bail reform and reduce sky-high rates of pretrial jailing.  Doing so will decrease mass incarceration, advance racial justice and enable Mr. Garland to stake his claim as a progressive prosecutor.  In fact, federal bail reform is an area where he may have already shown an appetite for change.

In November, voters across the nation overwhelmingly chose reform-oriented progressive prosecutors over “law and order” challengers.  Red and blue districts elected prosecutors who ran on a promise to use their office to enact change. Some of these prosecutors promised to stop pursuing low-level drug crimes.  And at least one has since ended the use of cash bail for certain crimes.  But while the progressive-prosecutor movement has gained momentum at the state and county levels, it hasn’t gotten any traction in the federal system.

Mr. Garland will be able to change this by disrupting the culture of detention that pervades the ranks of federal prosecutors and, to some degree, the federal judiciary.  During his time as chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Mr. Garland was a member of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the main policymaking organization for the federal bench.  Since 2017, the Judicial Conference has repeatedly called on Congress to reform the federal bail law by eliminating what is known as the “presumption of detention” for many drug cases.

While the Supreme Court famously said that freedom should be the default for people awaiting trial, current law directs judges to assume that people charged with certain crimes — including most drug crimes — will flee and endanger the community if released.  That exception has now swallowed the rule, becoming a built-in bias for incarceration that feeds the federal system’s colossal detention rates and stark racial disparities....

As Judge James Carr of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio has observed, “Mass detention creates mass incarceration.”  Instead of maintaining a default position that most people awaiting trial should be jailed, Mr. Garland should enact policy changes that limit pretrial jailing to cases where it is genuinely necessary, eliminate all financial considerations from the detention calculus and aim to reduce racial disparities in pretrial detention.

These common-sense changes would mark the true beginning of a progressive-prosecutor movement at the federal level. Prosecutors fostered the culture of detention. Now they must help dismantle it.

February 24, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 22, 2021

Notable quotables on criminal justice issues from AG-nominee Merrick Garland during his confirmation hearing

This new Reuters piece provides some choice quotes from U.S. Attorney General Nominee Garland on criminal justice policies during his Senate confirmation hearing today. I sense advocates of criminal justice reform will be pleased with these comments:

DEATH PENALTY

Garland told Congress he used to support the death penalty, including the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, a case he prosecuted.  He said his views have evolved due to concerns about executing innocent people and its disparate impact on communities of color.

“I have had a great pause about the death penalty.  I am very concerned about the large number of exonerations that have occurred through DNA evidence and otherwise,” he said. “The data is clear that it has an enormously disparate impact on Black Americans and members of communities of color.”

MARIJUANA PROSECUTIONS

Garland revealed he will not seek to prioritize marijuana possession prosecutions. “We can focus our attention on violent crimes and other crimes that put great danger in our society, and not allocate our resources to some things like marijuana possession.”

ON SENTENCING REFORM

“We should do as, as President Biden has suggested, seek the elimination of mandatory minimum.  So that we once again give authority to district judges and trial judges to make determinations based on all of the sentencing factors that judges normally apply.”

“We don’t have to seek highest possible offense with the highest possible sentence. ... Legislatively, we should look at equalizing ... what’s known as the crack powder ratio, which has had an enormously disproportionate impact on communities of color.”

This CNN article about the hearings suggests that Garland is on his way to being confirmed as the next U.S. Attorney General, and it will be interesting to see just how he goes about operationalizing these sentiments though DOJ's work and through advocacy to Congress.

February 22, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 15, 2021

Any guesses for when we might again have a fully functioning US Sentencing Commission?

It has been far too long since the US Sentencing Commission has been fully functional, and this post is my indirect way of saying that I hope getting the USSC back in action with a full slate of Commissioners is a top priority for the Biden Administration.  But, given that we still do not yet have a new confirmed Attorney General nearly a month into the new administration, and especially with other business (and other judicial openings) sure to be a higher priority, I am wondering if it may still be months before we can start talking seriously about what the "new Commission" ought to be doing to advance criminal justice reform.

Former Prez Donald Trump's track record with respect to the US Sentencing Commission was quite spotty.  As noted in this April 2017 post, the USSC had only two of seven commissioner slots filled at the start of 2017 (which led the Commission not to advance any formal amendments to the guidelines in that year).  Senate confirmation of two nominees gave the USSC a functioning quorum to be able to move forward with 2018 guideline amendments.  But a slate of new nominees to the Commission by former Prez Trump in March 2018 were controversial and got a cold shoulder from the Senate leaving the USSC again with only two Commissioners (and thus without a quorum) as it entered 2019.  Prez Trump  thereafter did not announce new nominees until August 2020 and, according to this recent Law360 piece, those names were never even formally sent to the Senate.

Long story short, the US Sentencing Commission was only somewhat functional for a small portion of the last four years, and the USSC has not had complete set of commissioners firmly in place for the better part of a decade.  The USSC staff has completed lots of research and has churned out many reports in the interim, but the FIRST STEP Act's passage in December 2018 made it particularly problematic for the USSC to have been non-functional in terms of formal amendments or agendas in recent years.

As reveled on this official US Sentencing Commission page, right now the USSC currently has only a single Commissioner and so will need six new confirmed members to be back to full strength (and it needs at least three new commissioners to have a quorum to even be somewhat functional).  All these vacancies present Prez Biden with an important opportunity to revive and reshape the work of the Commission at a time when the work of the Commission could and should be especially important.  And, as I noted in this post in November, the criminal justice reform recommendations of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (first discussed here; available here pp. 56-62) included this notable recommended agenda for the USSC:

Sentence Length and Early Release: Task the U.S. Sentencing Commission with conducting a comprehensive review of existing sentencing guidelines and statutory sentencing ranges, with the goal of generating legislative recommendations, promulgating new guidelines, and issuing formal guidance to reduce unreasonably long sentences and promote rehabilitation.  The Commission should make recommendations regarding early release options, including expanding good time credits, reinstating federal parole, and creating a “second look” mechanism permitting federal judges to reevaluate sentences after a certain amount of time served.  Any such options should use a systematic, evidence-based approach that reduces risks to public safety, prevents racially disparate implementation, reduces the total number of people under federal custody and supervision, and limits the duration and conditions of supervision.

I am hopeful that the Biden Administration is already working toward developing a list of nominees for the Commission (which, by statute, have to be bipartisan). I am especially hopeful that the Biden team might be already getting input on this list from key folks in the Senate so that any eventual slate of nominees will be well-received and quickly confirmed.  But, as suggested at the outset, because of various competing priorities and the (usual and unusual) inside-the-Beltway distractions, I really do not have a good guess to the question in the title of this post.

February 15, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)