Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Reviewing criminal justice highlights (or low-lights) from AG nominee Barr's confirmation hearing

Other commitments are keeping me from being able to keep a close watch on the Senate confirmation hearing for President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Justice, William Barr.  Fortunately, lots of other folks are doing so, and here is a round-up of a few pieces I have seen highlighting some of the criminal justice issues that have been discussed:

As the title of this post suggests, I surmise from this coverage that criminal justice reformers are not likely to be especially excited about the prospects for Attorney General Barr being an advocate for reforming the status quo. But I remain hopeful he will not be quite as resistant to reforms as was former AG Sessions. But time (and the political winds) will tell.

Prior related posts:

January 16, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"The Clemency Process Is Broken. Trump Can Fix It."

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Atlantic commentary authored by Rachel Barkow, Mark Holden and Mark Osler.  Here are excerpts:

It took six years of intense wrangling to get the First Step Act passed. Clemency reform, however, requires the action of only one man. The president can act alone to fix what Congress did not.

​Even the First Step Act’s primary nemesis, Republican Senator Tom Cotton, has acknowledged a role for clemency, saying as part of his attack on the legislation, “I grant that, in a particular case, the interaction of specific facts and the law can create an unjust sentence. If that happens, the best course of action is the scalpel of the governor or the president’s pardon and clemency power, not the ax of criminal leniency legislation.”

​Unjust sentences resulting from mandatory minimums are not rarities. That is why the First Step Act no longer permits mandatory minimum life sentences for third-strike drug offenses and lowered a two-strike, 20-year mandatory minimum for drug offenses to 15 years. The Act also requires that an individual first be convicted of an offense involving a firearm before receiving an additional 25-year mandatory minimum if he commits a second offense with a gun. (Previously, first-time offenders such as Weldon Angelos could receive multiple 25-year mandatory enhancements if the police documented multiple drug buys before making an arrest.)

One problem, as noted above, is that these and other welcome changes do not operate retroactively. People serving sentences now deemed excessive by Congress and the president have no recourse other than clemency to have those sentences rightsized. ​ There are more than 3,000 people left in prison serving mandatory sentences under the old firearm-enhancement law and the three-strikes provision that imposed a life sentence. Add to that the many individuals who are serving excessive sentences because of prosecutorial overcharging, and it is easy to see the urgent need to correct these injustices.

​For clemency to reach those thousands, the country needs a process that fairly, thoroughly, and efficiently evaluates candidates for a commutation (or shortening) of their sentence under the Constitution’s pardon power. At the moment, there are two possible processes, but neither works very well.

The first is informal: The president evaluates individual cases based on personal recommendations. This system does not scale.

​The second, more formal method isn’t any better. It courses through seven levels of review, much of it through a hostile Department of Justice bureaucracy that tends to defer to local prosecutors who are, in turn, loath to undo the harsh sentences they sought in the first place....

​Some states have better systems in place. In Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, and South Carolina, among others, an expert board plays a leading role in identifying and evaluating good cases. The best-functioning boards consist of people with expertise in criminal justice, social work, and psychology, and represent key stakeholders such as former judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, and community activists who share a common belief that the purpose of the pardon power is to temper justice with mercy.

This model could work at the federal level as well. The president could create a similar board of clemency advisers who represent a diverse range of experiences, including those who work in criminal defense or corrections and people who were formerly incarcerated. Ideally, this body would be bipartisan and work collaboratively with a professional staff to identify cases for the president. This body could also track the progress of individuals granted clemency to document how they use their second chances. Many no doubt will serve their communities ably, and publicizing their experiences could help counteract the risk of a single Willie Horton–type incident overshadowing the positive stories of people who have been granted clemency....

​The members of the bipartisan coalition that pushed through sentencing reform were united by a belief in liberty, a desire to cut costs, a respect for public safety, and a belief in second chances. But as the name of their legislation indicates, sentencing reform was just a first step. Clemency should come next.

A few of many recent related posts: 

January 15, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 14, 2019

Seeking reader suggestions for really tough (sentencing) questions for AG nominee William Barr

The Senate confirmation hearing for President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Justice, William Barr, is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning.  The headline of this Los Angeles Times article, "William Barr to face tough Senate hearing on attorney general nomination," predict a "tough" experience for Barr.  But, from my perspective, what could really make the hearing effective is for there to be a lot of sentencing reform and criminal-justice related questions.

As the title of this post suggests, I am eager to hear from readers in the comments about that might view as really "tough" questions for AG nominee Barr.  Here are a few that I have been thinking about based only on relatively current events:

I could go on and on, of course, with questions exploring President Bush's role in ramping up the drug war, President Trump's stated interest in the death penalty for drug dealers, and myriad issues related to federal marijuana prohibition.  But at this point I will just link below to prior posts about Bill Barr and again encourage interested readers to make suggestions in the comments.

Prior related posts:

January 14, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Attorney General Nominee Bill Barr reportedly to support FIRST STEP Act at coming hearing (and should be pressed on particulars)

This effective new Reuters article, headlined "Tough-on-crime record trails U.S. attorney general nominee into Senate hearings," reports on how the new AG-nominee's record on criminal justice issues and recent developments could intersect at next week's confirmation hearings. Here are the details:

President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. attorney general is expected to tell a Senate panel next week that he supports a new law easing prison sentences for some criminals, even though he advocated for decades for just the opposite.

William Barr for much of his career championed a get-tough approach to crime that has recently lost favor, culminating last month in Trump signing into law the biggest overhaul of the criminal justice system in a generation.

The First Step Act, enacted with strong bipartisan support in Congress, reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent, low-level offenders and makes it easier for prisoners to qualify for early release to halfway houses or home confinement. Trump signed it into law just weeks after he nominated Barr, who issued a report during an earlier stint as attorney general in the 1990s called “The Case for More Incarceration.”

Barr is expected to say that he will support the new law when he appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation hearings next week, according to two sources familiar with his preparations. “We believe that Barr’s position will be somewhat moderated when he testifies if for no other reason than that his boss (Trump) fully subscribes to the First Step approach,” said Fraternal Order of Police executive director Jim Pasco, who said he had been in touch with people helping Barr prepare for the Senate hearings.

The Senate, controlled by Trump’s fellow Republicans, is expected to confirm Barr’s nomination to again head the Justice Department.

Concerns about Barr’s record on criminal justice have so far taken a back seat to questions about how he would handle Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow and Russia has said it did not meddle in the election.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, the incoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he did not discuss the First Step Act when Barr visited him at his office on Wednesday. “That would have been a good question to ask him,” Graham said after the meeting.

But criminal justice advocates said they were working with lawmakers on the committee to make sure Barr will be questioned in detail about specific elements of the new law to ensure that he will support it. “It certainly appears he holds an old-school view of our criminal justice system, but there is an overwhelming majority of members of the House and Senate on both sides of the aisle who do not feel that way,” said Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network, a coalition of criminal-justice groups across the political spectrum....

Democratic Senator Cory Booker, a member of the Judiciary Committee, is among those concerned by Barr’s record. “Barr took an extremely troubling approach to mass incarceration in the nineties at the DOJ and it doesn’t look like his views have changed much,” said a Booker aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As attorney general, Barr would be in a position to influence how prisoners would be released into halfway houses or home confinement. “It’s frustrating to think we might have found one of the few people who are still stuck in the 1980s and 1990s on these issues,” said Kevin Ring, head of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has worked to reduce minimum prison terms.

Barr was attorney general in 1991-1993, a time when U.S. crime rates reached an all-time high of 758 incidents per 100,00 people. They have since fallen by nearly half, to a rate of 394 incidents per 100,000 people in 2017, according to the FBI. At that time, Barr advocated long prison sentences to keep violent criminals off the streets. “First, prisons work. Second, we need more of them,” Barr’s Justice Department wrote in a 1992 report.

Barr maintained his get-tough stance after leaving office. Along with other former law enforcement officials, he lobbied against earlier versions of the First Step Act in 2014 and 2015. When Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions in November, Barr and two other former attorneys general penned a Washington Post opinion piece that praised Sessions for directing prosecutors to pursue the severest penalties possible.

Barr’s advocacy came as others were concluding that mandatory minimum sentences and other tough policies had taken too harsh a toll, especially on African-Americans and Latinos, and were costing taxpayers too much money.

I am not at all optimistic that an Attorney General Barr will be much better (or at all better) than former Attorney General Sessions was on these important issues.  But I am hopeful that, with effective questioning by folks on both sides of the aisle during his confirmation hearings, nominee Barr might be inclined to make statements supportive of various key provisions of the FIRST STEP Act that will make it harder for him to undermine these provisions once in office.  I sincerely hope that strong advocates of the FIRST STEP Act and criminal justice reform will be sure to ask a lot of strategic questions of Barr in this arena rather than just give him a chance to repeat whatever Mueller investigation talking points that he is developing.

Prior related posts:

January 10, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reportedly to leave Justice Department after new AG is confirmed

As reported here via Reuters, "Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has overseen the Russian election meddling probe, is preparing to leave the U.S. Department of Justice in coming weeks as President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the department is set to take over, a department official said on Wednesday." Here is more:

William Barr, Trump’s pick to replace Sessions who was fired soon after the November midterm congressional elections, is set to appear for a confirmation hearing next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which must weigh his nomination before the full Senate considers his approval.

The official, who asked not to be named since no announcement has been made, said there is no specific plan for Rosenstein’s departure and that he plans to leave sometime after Barr’s confirmation.

If confirmed, Barr, who was U.S. Attorney General under the late President George H.W. Bush from 1991 to 1993, would oversee the investigation led by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a fellow Republican chosen by Rosenstein. Barr’s nomination is likely to meet heavy scrutiny regarding the ongoing investigation, particularly from Democrats, following reports he had written a memo in June questioning the probe. Rosenstein has said the memo had no impact on the department’s work.

Rosenstein will stay on to ensure smooth transition with Barr, the official said, adding that he has seen his job as deputy as a two-year stint and is not being forced out.

Asked about Rosenstein’s departure, first reported by ABC News, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said she had not spoken to Rosenstein and would leave any announced departures to him or the president. “Certainly, I don’t think there’s any willingness by the president or the White House to push him out,” Sanders told Fox News in an interview.

Rosenstein has stayed on under Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, whose controversial appointment has sparked numerous legal challenges and raised questions about what role he would play regarding the investigation.

Rosenstein has been frequently criticized by Trump, who calls the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and denies any collusion with Moscow. Russia has also denied any election interference.

As this reporting highlights, most media and pundits are likely to discuss the Russia investigation as they assess DAG Rosenstein's coming departure and the likely confirmation of AG-nominee Barr.  But serious criminal justice fans know that a new Attorney General and now a new Deputy Attorney General are critically important players in shaping the Justice Department's work on dynamic federal criminal justice issues ranging from marijuana reform to implementation of the FIRST STEP Act to future work by the US Sentencing Commission and so much more.

January 9, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Prez Trump signs historic (though modest) FIRST STEP Act into law ... and now comes the critical work of implementing it well!!

President Donald J. Trump officially signed the FIRST STEP Act into law today, and I am so very excited that a significant piece of sentencing and prison reform finally became law after years and years and years of talk and effort by so many.  I wish the reform was even more significant, especially on the sentencing side, but something is better than nothing and but for a modest reform to crack sentencing terms, we really have had nothing positive coming from Congress on the sentencing side in more than 20+ years.

The White House has this extended "fact sheet" about the FIRST STEP Act under the heading "President Donald J. Trump Secures Landmark Legislation to Make Our Federal Justice System Fairer and Our Communities Safer."  Here is an excerpt:

CREATING SAFER COMMUNITIES AND A FAIRER FEDERAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: The First Step Act will make our Federal justice system fairer and our communities safer.

  • The First Step Act will help prepare inmates to successfully rejoin society and enact commonsense sentencing reforms to make our justice system fairer for all Americans.
  • Among many reforms, the First Step Act will:
    • Promote prisoner participation in vocational training, educational coursework, or faith-based programs by allowing prisoners to earn time credits for pre-release custody.
    • Expand prison employment program opportunities.
    • Enact fair, commonsense reforms to mandatory minimums.
    • Eliminate the three-strike mandatory life sentencing provisions.
    • Give certain offenders the ability to petition the courts for a review of their sentences.

As the title of this post highlights, I am viewing the enactment of the FIRST STEP Act only as completing stage 1 of achieving significant federal criminal justice reform. Stage 2 involves the critical work of implementation, and so many of the large and small elements of the the FIRST STEP Act involve important and challenging implementation issues. Most obviously, the risk assessment system for prisoner programming and time credits needs to be developed and deployed in a fair and effective way and that is easier said than done. And the instruction that federal prisoners be house, whenever possible, within 500 miles of their homes is easier to describe than to ensure. And the new authority created by the FIRST STEP Act for courts to consider directly so-called "compassionate release" motions for sentence reductions presents a profound opportunity and a profound challenge for taking a second look at extreme (and extremely problematic) sentences.

I could go on and on, but I will save FIRST STEP Act "issue spotting" for the days and weeks ahead (I have created a new category archive for this very purpose).  For now I will just savor needed legal change and congratulate all those on the front lines who worked so very hard to help make this day possible.  Wow!

December 21, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Some accounts of what should come after the FIRST STEP Act

So far I have be disinclined to blog about what should come after the FIRST STEP Act, in part because the bill is still not yet officially law and in part because I think the most important (and challenging) work right after the enactment of the FIRST STEP Act is taking the many steps necessarily to effectively and expansively apply and implement all of its provisions. But, perhaps unsurprisingly given the modest nature of so many of the provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, a number of fine folks are already writing fine things about next steps. Here is a sampling of some of this writing:

December 20, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (4)

FIRST STEP Act approved by US House by vote of 358 to 36, will become law as soon as Prez Trump signs!!

As reported in this UPI piece, the US House of Representatives "overwhelmingly approved a bill overhauling the country's criminal justice system Thursday, sending the legislation to President Donald Trump's desk for a signature." Here is more:

The chamber approved the First Step Act with a 358-36 vote two days after the Senate passed it by a similar margin of 87-12. Lawmakers expect Trump to sign the legislation into law Friday.

The House approved a different version of the legislation earlier this year and had to amend it to make the Senate version.

Trump has described the reform as "reasonable sentencing reforms while keeping dangerous and violent criminals off our streets." "Congress just passed the Criminal Justice Reform Bill known as the #FirstStepAct. Congratulations!  This is a great bi-partisan achievement for everybody.  When both parties work together we can keep our Country safer. A wonderful thing for the U.S.A.!!" he tweeted.

House Speaker Paul Ryan welcomed passage of the legislation, saying it's something he's "believed in for a long time."

"These reforms to our criminal justice system will not only reduce recidivism and make communities safer, but they will help people into lives of purpose," he said.

HUZZAH!!!

Interestingly, when the prison-reform only versions of this bill received a House vote back in May, only two DOP members voted against it while 30+ Dems voted not because of a concern the bill did not go far enough. With the new version including a few modest sentencing reforms, this time around all Dems voted yea and all 36 nays came from GOP members (as detailed in this final vote tally).

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts as FIRST STEP Act gets ever closer to becoming law:

December 20, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Latest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter covers "The 2018 Debate over Federal Statutory Reform Proposals"

I am still so full of ideas and thoughts about what's next after the Senate's passage of the FIRST STEP Act, and in some future posts I will link to writings about second and thirst steps and so on.  But, coincidentally, just today I got notice that the December 2018 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter has just been published on-line, and it is a must-read for those looking to fully understand the background and back-story of the FIRST STEP Act.  

This Issue of FSR is already a bit dated, as it went to press last month before anyone was sure if Congress would get some version of the bill to the desk of the President.  But it still effectively highlights, thought the work and words of a number of leading reform advocates, why the path toward passage was so challenging and so important.  Here is snippet of my short introduction, followed by links to all the the original commentary:

This Issue of FSR provides a snapshot of the discussion and debate over the direction and scope offederal statutory reform proposals through 2018.  As of this writing, in early November 2018, meaningful lawmaking in this area is still just a possibility rather than an achieved reality; the momentum for reform that built through the first part of the year was halted by campaign dynamics as members of Congress turned their attention to the 2018 midterm elections.  But with President Trump reportedly embracing(in August) a compromise proposal that would add some [sentencing reform] provisions to the FIRST STEP Act, and with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledging to consider taking up criminal justice reform after the midterms, there remain reasons to be optimistic that all the big reform talk reflected in this Issue might yet produce big reform action before the end of 2018.

The materials in this Issue of FSR include both original commentary and primary documents that provide a flavor of the terms of the debate, in Congress and beyond, as political realities shifted from not believing any reform was possible during the Trump administration to strategizing just what kinds of reform should be prioritized. Georgetown Law Professor Shon Hopwood, a leading advocate for federal reforms, solicited original commentaries for this Issue that canvass the major provisions of key bills working their way through Congress in 2018.  Authored by some of the leading policy advocates involved on all sides of the conversation, these articles showcase why the scope and focus of statutory reform has engendered spirited debate.

December 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

On cusp of enactment of FIRST STEP Act, a brief trip to the archives via the (not-so-)way back machine

01fbcd89144c25425689e251bd5143038d04f0ceI am so full of ideas and thoughts and ways to celebrate the Senate passage of the FIRST STEP Act, I am not sure what to blog first and in the immediate future.  So, rather than do too much looking forward to what the FIRST STEP Act means when it becomes law (especially because I do not want to jinx anything), I figured I would close out my blogging tonight by doing a little looking back.  Specially, I looked at some archives of posts after Prez Trump got elected, and found these interesting posts (among others) that talked about the possibility of federal criminal justice reform  despite Trump's tough-on-crime rhetoric and his appointment of reform for Jeff Sessions as Attorney General:

I was inspired to review this this interest bit of the recent past in part because the developments this week have has me especially thinking about this post by Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences from almost exactly two years ago titled "Blowing Smoke on Sentencing Reform."  In that post, Bill Otis explained in his usual manner why he was not convinced by this Bill Keller commentary (also noted above titled) "Why Congress May Bring Criminal Justice Reform Back to Life."   Bill Otis was not entirely off-base to assert that sentencing reform was a uphill battle in this Congress, and he might even defend his analysis by noting that the FIRST STEP Act only includes a few very modest sentencing reforms.  But I bring this up because tonight's overwhelming vote for the FIRST STEP Act ultimately reinforces my belief that there is now a strong (and growing) group of GOP leaders who are very eager to take ownership of criminal justice reform.  And that reality bodes well for the prospects of second and third steps in the next Congress and beyond.

December 18, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Rounding up negative reactions to William Barr's nomination to be next US Attorney General

Unsurprisingly given his prior record as Attorney General and various statements on reform efforts past and present, folks in the criminal justice and drug policy reform community are not too keen of Prez Trump's decision to nominate William Barr to be the next US Attorney General.  Here is an extended sampling of press releases and articles on this front:

From ACLU, "No Relief: William Barr Is as Bad as Jeff Sessions — if Not Worse"

From The Brennan Center, "William Barr Is Out of Step on Criminal Justice Reform"

From Drug Policy Alliance, "Barr Record on Drug War and Criminal Justice Reform is Appalling"

From FAMM, "FAMM Statement on the Nomination of William Barr for U.S. Attorney General"

From The Intercept, "Trump’s Pick For Attorney General Pushed For Military Strikes On Drug Traffickers, Questioned Asylum Law"

From Leafy, "What Trump’s New AG Pick Could Mean for Cannabis"

From Marijuana Moment, "Where Trump’s Pick For Attorney General Stands On Drug Policy"

From Quartz, "Trump nominee William Barr pushed for the death penalty to “send a message to drug dealers"

From Vox, "William Barr helped establish mass incarceration. Now Trump wants him as attorney general."

Largely because of points made in these pieces, William Barr certainly was not the AG candidate I was rooting for.  (Retired DC Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown was a name thrown out at one point that struck me as especially interesting.)  But though I share many of the concerns expressed in the press releases and articles assembled above, I am also hoping and rooting that Barr's thinking on various crime and punishment issues may have evolved, at least a little bit, since his last stint as Attorney General a quarter century ago.  Particularly given how a number of "tough on crime" defenders of mandatory minimums and other harsh federal sentencing laws have come around in just the last few years to be vocal advocates for reform (e.g., Representative James Sensenbrenner and Senator Charles Grassley), I am not prepared quite yet to fear that an AG Barr will be as bad or worse than an AG Sessions.  But we will perhaps find out before too long.

Prior related posts:

December 9, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 07, 2018

Senator Ted Cruz supports FIRST STEP Act with revisions, Prez Trump tweets for a "VOTE," and the bill's prospects brighten

The US stock market probably can lay claim to being the most volatile and unpredictable metric since last months election, but the ups and downs surrounding the possible enactment of the FIRST STEP Act during the lame duck Congress have certainly been knocking me for a loop.  As of yesterday evening, as reflected in this post, I was ready to put a folk in reform efforts and conclude they were done for now.  But a new day brings all sorts of new developments: (1) Senator Ted Cruz issued this press release reporting "the White House and the sponsors of this bill ... have decided to accept [his] amendment" to exclude violent offenders from being released early so that now he believes "the Senate should take up and pass this important legislation, and (2) Prez Donald Trump posted this tweet:

This new Politico article, headlined "Trump leans on McConnell to vote on criminal justice reform," provides the latest full update, including these mostly encouraging details:

President Donald Trump pressured Senate Majority Leader Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Friday to pass criminal justice reform, hoping to push a reluctant McConnell to put it on the floor during a crowded lame duck session. After going mostly silent on the bill for several weeks, Trump touted the bill at an event in Kansas City and then singled McConnell out on Friday on his Twitter feed....

A person familiar with the conversations between the two men said the president was using a light touch on the bill, but would call McConnell out if he felt the bill was drifting away. “McConnell said if we’ve got 65 votes then he would allow the bill to get on the floor. And we’ve far exceeded that. And now the president is pushing the president to get the floor time," the person said. "We need to figure out exactly how this fits in in the floor time. Until we can answer that question all the pressure in the world won’t make a difference. What [Trump has] done is he’s expressed very clearly to McConnell that he wants him to figure it out."

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also talked to Trump on Friday and tweeted that "Trump told me he wants it done THIS CONGRESS."

The Trump tweet came on top of a day of rising public support for the bill, with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) endorsing a revised version of criminal justice reform. The legislation, which would relax some federal sentencing guidelines and reform the federal prison system, is being amended to “exclude violent offenders from being released early,” the Texas Republican said in a statement....

Four other senators endorsed the bill on Friday as it faces a time crunch on the Senate calendar. Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) backed the bill.  Those senators plus Cruz give the bill more than 30 official supporters in both parties, though almost the whole 49-member Democratic caucus is expected to back the bill if it comes up for a vote.

The real issue is on the Republican side, where advocates argue that about 30 of the 51 senators support it, but GOP leaders say the bill’s support is much lower.  Though conservatives like Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have led the public charge against it, there are quieter opponents of the bill like Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who says his state is in the midst of a “crime wave” from similar legislation.  “It’s a very challenging time in Alaska to be focused on criminal justice reform,” Sullivan said in an interview. He said the bill should not come up this year.

The internal disagreements and opposition from the National Sheriffs’ Association have made McConnell reluctant to bring the bill to the floor, especially with just two weeks left to pass legislation to fund the government. McConnell has repeatedly indicated to the White House and his conference that finding a window to pass the criminal justice reform bill would be challenging. “Until we can kind of figure out how to get the sheriffs on board, we still have a lot of opposition in our ranks,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader. “Then, from a timing standpoint, how would we process that in the next two weeks?”...

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he spoke to President Donald Trump on Friday and that the president wants the bill to pass, potentially as part of the spending bill along with more money for the border wall. But that plan would surely draw broad Democratic opposition over funding for the wall. And McConnell has mentioned taking up the bill next year after Democrats take the House. But the bill's supporters say that's akin to starting all over after building a fragile compromise this year.

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

December 7, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

So what does Bill Barr now think about federal criminal justice reforms or state marijuana reforms?

The question in the title of this post is prompted, of course, by this news as reported here by CNN: "President Donald Trump has decided to nominate former Attorney General William Barr to be the next permanent head of the Justice Department, the President told reporters Friday." Here is more:

"He will be nominated for the United States attorney general and hopefully that process will go very quickly," Trump added.

Barr previously worked at the CIA in the 1970s and served in several leadership roles at the Justice Department serving under President George H.W. Bush. He ultimately served as attorney general from 1991 through 1993. He subsequently served in several executive and leadership positions at corporations, including Verizon Communications. Barr also served as a board member on CNN's parent company, Time Warner, Inc., (now Warner Media) from 2009 until 2018....

Officials at the DOJ are thrilled with Trump's selection of Barr, multiple current and former officials told CNN. He's universally seen as solid, reliable conservative, but also someone who can get confirmed. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was "elated" by Trump's selection of Barr, according to a source close to him.

One Justice Department lawyer who had been nervous about who the President might pick praised the choice of Barr, saying it is good for morale. "As compared to other potential picks, this is a great choice," said the official. The source called Barr a "very mature choice," and said when Barr emerged as the front runner people at Justice were hoping he'd be the pick "because he's tough he's principled and he's independent."...

As for how quickly Barr could be confirmed, one congressional source notes it's usually at least two months from nomination to confirmation and said if the appropriate paperwork gets to the Hill in time, a hearing could be held in January.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a leading contender to become the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the President's selection of Barr, saying he "will provide new and much-needed leadership for the Department of Justice."...

Democratic congressional leaders criticized the President's choice. Nancy Pelosi, who is running to be the next speaker of the House, called Barr's proposed nomination "deeply concerning," adding that he "has spent the past two years auditioning for this job by stoking partisan attacks on our nation's law enforcement community, and encouraging the President to use the Justice Department as a political weapon to pursue his rivals and undermine investigations into Trump and his family's scandals."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Barr "will have a steep hill to climb in order to be confirmed by the Senate." Schumer demanded that Barr commit to allowing the Mueller investigation "proceed unimpeded" and that the special counsel's final report be available to Congress and the public after the investigation is completed.

As highlighted in this prior post, Barr's past history on issues of incarceration are not encouraging for advocates of federal criminal justice reform.  But lots of folks who adopted "tough-and-tougher" approaches to crime and punishment a few decades ago have become significant modern voices for all sorts of reforms.  So, I am hopeful that the coming weeks will bring thoughtful inquiries and questions concerning how would-be AG Barr would approach federal criminal justice reforms or state marijuana reforms circa 2019.

December 7, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Talk of William Barr for Attorney General (and his "Case for More Incarceration")

73EAIRHZP4I6RBSCZFYYUJLMXUThis new Washington Post article reports that "Former attorney general William P. Barr is President Trump’s leading candidate to be nominated to lead the Justice Department."  Here is more: 

Barr, 68, a well-respected Republican lawyer who served as attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush, has emerged as a favorite candidate of a number of Trump administration officials, including senior lawyers in the White House Counsel’s Office, these people said.  Two people familiar with the discussions said the president has told advisers in recent days that he plans to nominate Barr.

One person familiar with the discussions cautioned that while Barr is the leading candidate, the decision is not final and the president could decide to pick someone else.  Another person familiar with the discussions said Barr is “a really serious contender and possibly the front-runner” for the job but stressed it was impossible to predict Trump’s pick definitively until it was announced publicly.

That person said those advising the president viewed Barr as someone who knows the department well and is a good manager. Barr, this person said, also had a bluntness that is likely to resonate with the president. “He’s a serious guy,” the person said. “The president is very, very focused on [a candidate] looking the part and having credentials consistent with the part.”

Barr declined to comment.  Those familiar with the discussions said Barr, having already been attorney general, doesn’t feel a particular ambition for the position, but does feel a sense of duty to take it if offered....

Even if Barr were announced as the president’s choice this week, it could take months for a confirmation vote, given the congressional schedule.  In the meantime, acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker would still serve as head of the Justice Department...

Administration officials expect Barr’s nomination would be received positively by Republicans who respect his experience and Democrats who would likely view him as an old-school GOP lawyer with no particular personal loyalty to the president....

After leaving the Justice Department, Barr served in a variety of high-level corporate positions, including as general counsel and executive vice president of Verizon Communications.  He is currently a lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis and does work advising corporations on government enforcement and regulatory actions.

Any confirmation hearing for a new attorney general will likely be dominated by questions about how the nominee would handle political pressure from the White House, and oversee the ongoing Russia probe into whether any Trump associates conspired with Russian officials to interfere in the last presidential election.

Barr shares at least one of the president’s views on the probe being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.  In 2017, when asked by The Washington Post about political donations made by lawyers on the special counsel’s team, Barr said “prosecutors who make political contributions are identifying fairly strongly with a political party” and added: “I would have liked to see [Mueller] have more balance on this group.”

Barr also wrote last year that the administration’s decision to fire James B. Comey as FBI director was “quite understandable” because, in his view, Comey had usurped the power of the attorney general when he publicly announced his recommendation not to charge former secretary of state Hillary Clinton during the investigation of her private email server.

Barr’s daughter, Mary Daly, is a senior Justice Department official overseeing the agency’s efforts against opioid abuse and addiction.

Of course, I would be even more interested to hear about Barr's views on the FIRST STEP Act than about his views on the Special Counsel. A number of folks I follow on Twitter have been quick to note this notable document coming from the Justice Department in 1992 titled "The Case for More Incarceration." Then-AG Barr said this in a brief note at the start of that document:

[T]here is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets.  Of course, we cannot incapacitate these criminals unless we build sufficient prison and jail space to house them.

Revolving-door justice resulting from inadequate prison and jail space breeds disrespect for the law and places our citizens at risk, unnecessarily, of becoming victims of violent crime.

Notably, as this BJS document highlights, at the end of 1992, the federal prison population was "only" just over 80,000 and the national prison population was just over 883,000.  This subsequent BJS document two dozen years later details that by year end 2016, the the federal prison population clocked in at over 196,000 and the national prison population was over 1,526,000.  I am not at all keen to see more early 1990s era thinking about imprisonment at the Justice Department, but I certainly would like to see a return to early 1990s incarceration levels.

December 6, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Despite push by Prez and VP and support of at least 70 senators, odds of a Senate vote on FIRST STEP Act still reportedly "less than 50/50"

Politico has this lengthy report, headlined "White House makes last-ditch push on criminal justice reform bill," on the state of debate among Senate Republicans concerning the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are details:

The Trump administration and a bloc of Republican senators are making a last-ditch attempt to pass a criminal justice reform bill in the lame duck session.

In a closed-door party lunch on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence made a strong endorsement of the bill to Senate Republicans, senators said, emphasizing that the GOP could take a clear win in the lame duck with passage.  And supporters said they picked up votes during the discussion; one supportive GOP senator said they’ve accrued more than 20 hard “yes” votes and that another dozen or so GOP senators are gettable, which would likely be enough to easily pass the bill — if leadership will bring it up.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) maintained his poker face at the meeting, other than to reiterate the Senate’s short calendar.  Asked to assess the prospect that McConnell will put the sentencing and prison reform bill on the floor, one attendee said: “Less than 50/50.”...

“A lot of people like me are still trying to understand what it does,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who characterized Tuesday’s critical meeting as a “higher level discussion of whether we should attempt to do it.”

As they assess the bill‘s prospects, GOP leaders are also asking senators whether they'd prefer to deal with the bill next year after Democrats take over the House, according to two sources familiar with the matter.  That would dismantle a fragile bipartisan agreement and require Republicans and Democrats alike to essentially start over.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is still trying to garner more support for the bill, which would lower mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related felonies, expand a program for early release, promote training programs in prison and require inmates be placed in prisons closer to their homes. He and other advocates say they are open to changing the bill’s treatment of some criminals in order to win new supporters.

“We’re still working on getting additional yeses or additional cosponsors,” Grassley said, noting that the only way to overcome opposition from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and others was to increase co-sponsorship. He added that “we’re talking about no announcement before a couple days.”

McConnell is loath to take up the bill on the floor to prevent a circular firing squad among Republicans. But that’s already happening both in public and private: After trading blows on Twitter in recent days, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cotton each gave opposing speeches about the bill in the lunch.

But supporters said they have the momentum and estimated only a half-dozen Republicans will be difficult to convince: Cotton, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).  “Over half of the Republicans are for it, and maybe 80 percent, 90 percent, maybe all of the Democrats support it,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) said. “Things are all moving in the right direction.”

Still, Sen. Marco Rubio said that he is skeptical of the bill, particularly when it comes to classification of crimes and said he is “not sure there is anything” that could win him over. And a small bloc of Republicans, led by Cotton and Kennedy, are vocally going after the bill.  Kennedy called it “ass backwards” in an interview and said he had “serious philosophical problems with the criminal justice bill.” It “takes all our authority and gives it to a bunch of bureaucrats,” he said.

The Senate also needs to pass a spending bill by Dec. 7 to avoid a partial government shutdown, and lawmakers are trying to wrap up negotiations around the Farm Bill. The criminal justice bill is regarded as a “maybe” that could potentially wait until next year. A version of the bill has already passed the House.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that the bill “is still being evaluated and people are still trying to figure out where they stand.” He said McConnell has made no final decision....

But no matter what, there will be detractors.  Cotton told reporters Tuesday that while the House’s version of the bill was “fixable,” the Senate’s draft of the legislation has “gone consistently to the left.” 

If only a handful of Republicans supported this bill, I could understand why (but would still be frustrated) the Senate Majority Leader would not want to bring forward a bill favored more by his opposing party than by his own party.  But this Politico report reinforces my sense that a majority of GOP Senators would vote for the FIRST STEP Act and that a super-majority of all Senators (representing a super-super majority of the nation's population) want this legislation enacted.  That a few Senators from a few states can, in essence, exercise a heckler's veto highlights why thoughtful federal criminal justice reform has been so very hard.  Sigh.

Some of many prior related posts:

November 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

FIRST STEP Act, already compromised to cater to tough-on-crime crowd, may be watered down further for Senate vote

The Washington Post is reporting in this new article, headlined "Senate Republicans mull changes to controversial criminal justice bill," that there is talk of further gutting the few sentencing reform provisions in the latest version of the FIRST STEP Act and creating still further prison reform carve outs.  Here are the details:

Senate Republicans are actively discussing changes to a controversial overhaul of the criminal justice system in a bid to win more GOP support that could nonetheless shatter a delicate bipartisan compromise on one of President Trump’s top legislative priorities left for this year.

The changes being mulled, confirmed by senators and others familiar with the talks, reflect in part proposals put forward by the National Sheriffs’ Association, which is opposed to the legislation as written.  Though a slew of law enforcement groups already support the bill, getting more of them on board is almost certain to improve its prospects among Republicans.

One change that has been discussed privately is tightening the “safety valve” provision, which provides more discretion to judges when they issue sentences.  Though the most recent public draft of the bill would allow judges to take advantage of those “safety valves” in more types of cases, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said senators are talking about reducing the types of convictions that would qualify for the “safety valve” provision.  Perdue also said senators are considering narrowing the kinds of fentanyl-related crimes that would be eligible under the legislation, which broadly is meant to loosen some mandatory minimum sentences and help rehabilitate prisoners.

“I’m probably going to be supportive of it,” said Perdue, who was a vocal opponent of a more expansive version of the legislation two years ago. “It does some things that we’ve been talking about that Georgia and North Carolina and Texas have done, with good results.”

A provision that gets rid of the “stacking” regulation — which is used to add more penalties against those who commit a drug-related crime while possessing a gun, even if the firearm wasn’t used — is also ripe for potential changes to win over Senate Republicans.

The changes under negotiation reflect the messy, closed-door horse-trading that will only grow as Senate leaders begin gauging support for the bill this week, even if attempts to change the legislation are ultimately unsuccessful.  Senate Democrats, who believe they have already made significant concessions, aren’t eager for more changes that would push the bill further to the right, considering it already has Trump’s endorsement and appears it could easily pass the House.

“I’m aware of the discussions, but we have a strong commitment on both sides of the aisle, including the White House, that the bill is what it is,” Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), one of the main Democratic authors of the bill, said Monday evening of the changes being discussed. “I believe we should all be standing pat and firm.”

The bill’s supporters — both Republicans and Democrats — are also rushing against the clock, scrambling to get the measure signed into law this year before Democrats gain control of the House.  The new majority, particularly the generation of lawmakers partly elected on a message of racial justice, could be more emboldened to push for more sweeping changes than the limited overhaul, upsetting the compromise.

Another change that has been floated privately is including additional categories of sex offenders in the group of inmates who would be ineligible for early release, according to one Senate official....

While the discussions continue, the ranks of publicly opposed senators are growing. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been privately speaking with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — two of his closest allies — but stressed Monday that while he is on board with the overhaul to the prison systems and recidivism programs, he is concerned about the proposed changes to sentencing laws. “Now that we’re getting to the guts of it, I need to have a better understanding,” Rubio said. But “as of now, I can’t support it, given my understanding of it.”

Trump, meanwhile, has not wavered from his public commitment to the First Step Act and overhauling the criminal justice system — the subject of a Monday roundtable in Mississippi that was sandwiched between two campaign rallies. After endorsing the bill with much fanfare at a White House ceremony this month, Trump again pushed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for a floor vote in a private phone call last Tuesday, according to people briefed on the conversation.

“Well, we’re talking to him, and we’re doing a count,” Trump said Monday in Mississippi of his discussions with McConnell. “We want to make sure that we have the votes because we don’t want to bring it if we don’t have the votes, but another thing we’re looking at right now is that we have more than enough. So at a certain point, we’ll have a talk. But we have the votes, and I’m sure that we’ll be voting soon.”

Especially in light of this new reporting, it is worth watching how Prez Trump talked up the FIRST STEP Act again at this Mississippi roundtable event Monday night, and also worth noting how VP Mike Pence and Senator Lindsay Graham also talked up the bill.  Because of how much Prez Trump seems to be leaning into this legislation, I now think it would be a big loss for him if there isn't a vote on the bill (and Prez Trump himself said at the roundtable event the bill could get 80 votes in the Senate).  So, based on all of this buzz, I am now thinking a Senate vote is going to happen, but that Senator Cotton and perhaps a few other hardliners will find various ways to continue watering down the bill up until a vote finally goes forward.

As I have said repeatedly in this space, any positive reform is better than no reform.  So I am continuing to hope we see a bill become law in the weeks ahead.  But I also hope everyone supporting of real reforms takes to heart that this bill will be, as it name connotes, just a small first step in a very long path toward needed federal criminal justice reforms.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: The White House has provided here the full transcript of "Remarks by President Trump at FIRST STEP Act Roundtable with Governor Bryant and Law Enforcement Leaders." They start substantively this way:

We’re here today to discuss a landmark prison reform bill called the FIRST STEP Act — so important.  This legislation will help former inmates reenter society as productive law-abiding citizens and it has tremendous support no matter where we go. Tremendous support.  Beyond anything I would’ve expected.

November 27, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 26, 2018

Senator Tom Cotton continuing to do everything he can to try to keep the FIRST STEP Act from moving forward

Senator Tom Cotton continues to work with all his might to halt Congress from taking any reform steps via the FIRST STEP Act, and his latest efforts involve this new National Review commentary and what is reported here by Politico under the headline "Cotton wields sex offender report to tank prisons bill."  Here is how Senator Cotton himself gets started at NR:

It remains to be seen whether the lame-duck 115th Congress will debate a sweeping overhaul of our federal criminal-justice system before we adjourn for the year. You may have heard about the legislation at hand, the FIRST STEP Act. I oppose it. I urge my fellow conservatives to take the time to read and understand the bill before signing on in support of this flawed legislation.

The 103-page bill that was released the Friday before Thanksgiving has some good parts, and I don’t question the intentions of the bill’s proponents. But you may have noticed that they talk more about their intentions than about the consequences of the bill. As conservatives, we know that good intentions say little about actual consequences. And to paraphrase Thomas Sowell, intellectuals who generate ideas with good intentions rarely have to face the consequences of those ideas personally.

When proponents of the bill discuss the substance, they claim that “nothing in the FIRST STEP Act gives inmates early release.” Instead of early release, proponents say, it merely provides incentives for inmates to participate in programs. This is nothing but a euphemism. Let there be no doubt: If the bill is passed, thousands of federal offenders, including violent felons and sex offenders, will be released earlier than they would be under current law. Whatever word games the bill’s proponents use will make no difference to the future victims of these felons.

Here is what Politico is reporting:

GOP Sen. Tom Cotton is locked in an awkward fight with fellow Republicans over their push to change federal prison sentencing guidelines. And now he has a new attack line intended to make his rivals squirm: Warnings that sex offenders could get off easy.

A new Justice Department analysis — conducted at Cotton‘s request — found that the Senate’s bipartisan sentencing and prison reform bill could make people convicted of some sex crimes eligible for early release. And though President Donald Trump supports the bill, Cotton says the DOJ confirmation underpins his argument that convicts of certain sex-related crimes could accrue credits making them eligible for supervised release or “pre-release” to a halfway house.

While GOP leaders are beginning to assess the prospects of the bill on the Senate floor, the Arkansas Republican argues that the latest version of the bill has been rushed and contains significant flaws and is hoping to sway undecided Republicans to join him. Cotton and Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have been battling over the specifics of the bill since it was released in mid-November, exactly the type of intraparty firefight Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been hoping to avoid.

The argument over the bill's treatment of sex offenders took center stage on Monday, drawing the latest public shots between the warring Republican senators. “Now that the Department of Justice has confirmed that the Senate FIRST STEP Act offers early release to multiple categories of sex offenders in several provisions of the bill, Congress should fix these problems instead of ramming this bill through. There is no such thing as a ‘low-risk violent sex offender’ who deserves earlier release than under current law," Cotton said in an emailed statement.

A spokesman for Lee defended the legislation in response to the DOJ analysis on Monday and accused the bill’s opponents of “spreading fake news” about the bill. “Just because a federal offense is not on the specific list of ineligible offenses doesn’t mean inmates who committed non-specified offense will earn early release. All inmates must first pass a DOJ risk assessment before they can even begin earning good time credits. And then they must secure certification from their warden that they are not a threat to safety before they can be released,” said Conn Carroll, a Lee spokesman. Carroll added that Lee is open to revising the bill if it turns opponents into supporters: “If adding to the list of specifically forbidden offenses would get some senators to yes, we would love to help them do that on the Senate floor.”

Their colleagues are watching closely. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that a Cotton op-ed panning the bill made a "compelling argument" and indicated his vote is in play. A number of Trump's allies, from Grassley to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are behind the bill, but in the Senate even a small band of opposed senators can make a floor debate stretch out for a week — all while lobbing attacks at fellow Republicans for being soft on crime.

"I'd like to get it through but we still have a few problems that we ought to work out," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "I'm for doing it if we can. We have a shot at it but we're going to have a lot of cooperation."

Senior Senate Republicans said on Monday they could not predict what McConnell will do. The president has lobbied McConnell to bring up the bill, but the GOP leader has told Trump the Senate's schedule is crowded over the next month. McConnell has emphasized that funding the federal government by the Dec. 7 deadline and finishing a farm bill are his top priorities. And the House would probably have to vote on whatever the Senate passes on criminal justice reform, and ousted House Republicans may want to head home as soon as the funding bill is finished.

November 26, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 22, 2018

So very thankful this year that so very many voices on the political right are actively advocating for criminal justice reforms

As regular readers know, I have long thought and advocated that all sorts of conservatives could and should robustly embrace all sorts of criminal justice reform given avowed commitments to personal liberty, small government, human dignity and the rule of law.  Almost exactly a decade ago in this 2008 Harvard Law & Policy Online article, published right after Prez Obama was elected to his first term, I urged progressives to start "aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration."  I further suggested:

Progressives, rather than categorically resisting calls for smaller government, should encourage modern conservatives and libertarians to turn their concerns and energies toward improving America’s criminal justice systems.  Areas where harsh criminal laws appear to be driven by government efforts to hyper-regulate often intangible harms, such as extreme mandatory sentencing statutes related to drug crimes and gun possession, seem especially likely settings for a convergence of views and new alliances for advocacy efforts.  Specific, issue-based advocacy may allow progressives to forge coalitions with unexpected allies in order to work against some of the most unjust modern sentencing laws and policies.

The kinds of coalitions I was hoping to see started to emerge (albeit too slowly for my taste) during the Obama Administration, and now they appear to be on full display as discussion of federal reforms finds expression in the debate over the FIRST STEP Act.  And so today I find myself especially thankful that it is now so much easier to find right-leaning organization and voices calling for the passage of federal reforms rather than resisting such reform.  Here, for example, is just a quick round up of just some recent voices on the political right actively advocating for the FIRST STEP Act:

From Politico, "Religious right to start pressure campaign around criminal justice reform"

From ALEC Action, "Members of the U.S. Senate: Please Support the FIRST STEP Act (S.3649)"

From John-Michael Seibler & Joe Luppino-Esposito at The Heritage Foundation, "How This Criminal Justice Reform Bill Could Make Our Neighborhoods Safer"

Via local NPR, "Kelley Paul Presses McConnell To Move Criminal Justice Reform Forward"

From Michelle Malkin in the National Review, "It’s Time to Pass the First Step Act: It's pro-cop, pro-borders, and tough on injustice."

From Pastor Paula White-Cain in the Washington Examiner, "Prison reform bill represents what’s beautiful about America"

Relatedly, Senator Charles Grassley has this notable new posting titled "Diverse Group of Organizations Endorse Bipartisan First Step Act" that highlights "a letter to Majority and Minority leaders in both the Senate and House of Representatives, [in which] 42 organizations, including faith-based groups and conservative think tanks, called on Congress to pass the comprehensive criminal justice reform package before the end of the year."

November 22, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Another round of news and notes from the front lines of the debate over the FIRST STEP Act

I am not sure I will need to do regular round-ups of stories and commentary surrounding the prospects of the FIRST STEP Act. But I am sure that there have been lots of notable developments and discussion since I did this last round-up of stories just a few days ago. So, from various sources and various authors (including Jared Kushner):

November 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 16, 2018

Senate Majority Leader McConnell tells Prez Trump that FIRST STEP Act will not get done this year

According to this new New York Times piece, "Senator Mitch McConnell told President Trump in a private meeting on Thursday that there is not likely to be enough time to bring a bipartisan criminal justice bill up for a vote this year, regardless of the support it has in the Senate and the White House, according to people familiar with the meeting." here is more:

Mr. McConnell, who as majority leader controls the Senate floor, delivered the news in a previously scheduled meeting at the White House convened to discuss the chamber’s legislative agenda for the remaining weeks of the term.

Lawmakers from both parties have been working furiously to build support for the compromise legislation that would begin to reverse some of the tough-on-crime federal policies of the 1980s and 1990s that incarcerated African-American offenders at much higher rates than white offenders.

Mr. Trump enthusiastically endorsed the proposal this week, and Speaker Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, pledged to move it across the finish line in the House “this term.” But Mr. McConnell’s conclusion could all but foreclose the possibility that Congress will vote on the bill this year.

Publicly, Mr. McConnell has avoided putting his thumb on the scale for or against the legislation. He told reporters on Wednesday that if proponents secured the support of at least 60 senators, he would be willing to push the bill forward, but cautioned that he would have to “see how it stacks up against our other priorities going into the end of our session.”

Congress must also come to an agreement on how to fund a handful of federal departments, including Homeland Security, and resolve an impasse over a major farm bill, among other smaller issues. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Mr. McConnell, reiterated those points in a statement on Friday, adding, “The support for, and length of time needed to move the new bill is not knowable at this moment.”

But Mr. McConnell told the president that the bill would most likely eat up about 10 days on the Senate floor — time that he did not have between now and the scheduled end of the legislative session on Dec. 14, according to the people familiar with the remarks, who were granted anonymity to describe the private meeting. They were not connected to Mr. McConnell. If the bill had enough support, Mr. McConnell said, he would be willing to bring it up next year, after the new Congress is seated.

Supporters of the legislation, which includes anti-recidivism programs, and the expansion of early release credits and sentencing changes, worry that Mr. McConnell is being a less-than-neutral arbiter. They believe that if consideration slips into January, when Democrats who favor more expansive sentencing changes take control of the House, the current compromise could collapse....

At the Senate Republicans’ weekly caucus luncheon at the Capitol, Mr. McConnell acknowledged that the changes had influential supporters who had worked hard on the issue, but also invited two of its chief critics, Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana, to deliver remarks, two Republican congressional officials said.

Mr. Cotton, who has been perhaps the loudest critic of the bill’s sentencing changes in the Senate, urged colleagues to slow down the process, saying that the bill’s impact and implications were too expensive to push through without hearings, according to another official familiar with his remarks. He stressed opposition by some law enforcement groups and warned that a draft version of the bill he had seen would lead to the immediate release of thousands of felons onto the streets.

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who helped write the legislation, pushed back against Mr. Cotton’s characterization. So did Senator Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and led the compromise effort. Mr. Grassley said that Mr. Cotton’s remarks made him sound like “some sort of pinko commie.”...

The delay in bringing up the legislation described to Mr. Trump is not the first time that proponents of changes in the sentencing and prison systems have bumped up against Mr. McConnell. A similar coalition of lawmakers and outside groups made a higher-profile and more expansive attempt to overhaul the criminal justice system during the final years of the Obama administration, and had support from Mr. Ryan and other Republicans. But Mr. McConnell did not allow a vote on the bill before the 2016 elections, worried about sowing divisions among Republicans.

This is quite disappointing, but not surprising, and I am now inclined to fear that no significant form of federal criminal justice reform will be completed as long as Senator McConnell is the Senate's majority leader.

November 16, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Prez Trump about to "make an announcement on H.R. 5682, the 'First Step Act'" ... which was a strong endorsement

According to this @POTUS_Schedule tweet, we are this afternoon to hear directly from Prez Trump on criminal justice reform: "4:30PM - Roosevelt Room - Announcement regarding H. R. 5682, the 'First Step Act'."  Lots of media are reporting he will endorse reform and push for a bill to be passed ASAP. I am about to watch the Live Stream here or here or here.

UPDATEPrez Trump announces his support for First Step Act, emphasizing its bipartisan nature and law enforcement's support, as well as asserting it would "roll back some of the Clinton crime law."  Trump concludes his remarks by saying, "I'll be waiting with a pen.  We will have done something that hasn't been done in many, many years, and it is the right thing to do."

MORE: Here is new item from the White House under the headlined "President Donald J. Trump Calls on Congress to Pass the FIRST STEP Act." Here are excerpts, with a few especially notable passages emphasized by me:

CALLING FOR BIPARTISAN ACTION: President Donald J. Trump is calling on Congress to take action and support the bipartisan prison reform legislation, the FIRST STEP Act. 

  • President Trump supports the FIRST STEP Act, which will help improve our Nation’s criminal justice system.
  • The FIRST STEP Act enjoys widespread support across the political spectrum.
    • Many of the reforms included in this legislation passed the House in an overwhelming, bipartisan vote of 360–59 in May 2018.
    • Republicans and Democrats in the Senate worked with the White House to craft a bipartisan sentencing reform compromise, which has been added to the legislation.
    • So far, seven major police organizations, more than 2,700 faith and evangelical leaders, and hundreds of conservative organizations and leaders support this legislation.

MAKING AMERICA SAFER AND FAIRER: The FIRST STEP Act will reform America’s prisons to make our communities safer and our justice system fairer.

  • Nearly all incarcerated Americans will one day leave prison, and the goal of this legislation is to make sure they do not return.
    • The FIRST STEP Act uses a targeted approach toward a specific population of Federal prisoners who will eventually be released.
  • The FIRST STEP Act will promote prisoner participation in vocational training, educational coursework, or faith-based programs, and in turn help them successfully reenter society.
    • Prisoners will be able to earn credits that reduce the amount of time spent in prison.
    • As a result, prisoners will gain job skills, drug treatment, and education that prepare them to reenter American communities as productive members of society.
    • The legislation also seeks to place Federal inmates closer to their communities in order to facilitate family visitation.
  • This is a true first step in creating a fairer justice system by reforming mandatory minimums, which have created racially discriminatory outcomes and increased overcrowding and costs.
    • The legislation reduces the enhanced penalties for certain non-violent repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision.
    • Certain nonviolent offenders will be able to petition courts for a review of their sentence, which can be reduced only after the judge reviews all circumstances, including public safety, criminal history, and the nature of the offense.

IMPROVING THE PRISON SYSTEM: Taking steps to better prepare inmates for reentry into our society and communities will help reduce recidivism.

  • We can improve society for all by better equipping prisoners being released for successful reintegration into society.
  • Today, one in three American adults has some type of criminal record and more than two million Americans are in prisons, including 181,000 in Federal prison.
    • More than 95% of these prisoners will eventually leave prison and face the challenge of restarting and reintegrating their lives.
  • Our prisons can do much more to prepare inmates for release, addressing the fact that roughly 77% of State inmates and 38% of Federal inmates are rearrested within five years of release. 

November 14, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly to announce support for FIRST STEP Act with sentencing provisions, greatly increasing its prospects for swift passage

This new CNN article, headlined "President Trump to announce support for criminal justice overhaul proposal," reports on encouraging news regarding efforts to get major federal criminal justice reform enacted in coming weeks. Here are the details:

President Donald Trump is expected to throw his support behind bipartisan criminal justice legislation during an event at the White House on Wednesday, two sources close to the process said.

Trump is scheduled to announce on Wednesday that he is supporting the latest iteration of the First Step Act, a bill that his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, has been working to craft and build support for alongside a bipartisan group of senators, the sources said.  The President will be joined by supporters of the legislation during the White House event, the sources said.

Supporters of the measure expect that Trump's explicit backing will help propel the prison and sentencing overhaul bill through Congress.  The President has wavered on whether to throw his support behind the bill in recent months, but the sources said he was swayed to back the bill on Tuesday after meeting with Kushner.

Trump's support came after several law enforcement associations announced their backing for the legislation.  The National District Attorneys Association, which represents 2,500 district attorneys and 40,000 assistant district attorneys, became the latest law enforcement organization to support the bill, according to a letter the group's president addressed to Trump....

The prosecutors' association's support for the legislation came on the heels of backing from several other law enforcement organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police, International Association of Chiefs of Police, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which also penned a letter of support to Trump.

The Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs of America also withdrew their opposition to the legislation, writing in a letter to Kushner dated Tuesday that they "endorse the objectives of the First Step Act" and the legislation "strengthens how Federal prisoners may be integrated into the community and set on a path to live positive and productive lives."  Less than two weeks ago, the groups wrote to Kushner to say they could not back the bill.

Opposition from since-ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, in particular, served as key stumbling blocks to advancing the legislation, with both touting opposition within law enforcement circles -- an argument that is quickly fading as groups back the proposal.  Sources close to the process said the support from law enforcement associations is key to advancing the measure and securing the President's full-throated support.

Proponents of the bill made several changes to it to win backing from law enforcement groups, including stiffer sentencing guidelines for fentanyl-related offenses and a compromise provision to modestly expand the definition of a serious violent crime.

Now the question is whether enough Democrats will rally to support the compromise package or hold out for a more ambitious overhaul of the nation's sentencing laws. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who had announced his opposition to a previous version of the bill because he felt it did not go far enough, said Tuesday that he is still looking to get more changes to the bill.

Though I am not going to count any sentencing reform chickens until they are hatched and have been signed into law, I am inclined to start predicting that we are on the verge of a remarkable federal criminal justice reform achievement that will be the most consequential statutory reform in nearly 35 years.  (I am also inclined to recall pieces from late 2016, like the one blogged here, that astutely suggested federal criminal justice reform might still be a real possibility in the Trump era.)  I am not quite yet ready to start patting a whole lot of folks on the back, but I am getting close to wanting to start celebrating the culmination of five years of very hard work by lots of folks inside and outside the Beltway.  Fingers crossed.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: A few other recent press reports reinforce my sense and concern that nothing here is a done deal yet:

From the Washington Post, "Trump receptive to compromise criminal justice overhaul backed by Kushner"

From The Hill, "Criminal justice reform faces a make-or-break moment"

November 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Senator Mike Lee makes the "conservative case for criminal justice reform"

Utah Senator Mike Lee has this new opinion piece at Fox News headlined "A conservative case for criminal justice reform." Here are excerpts:

“Government’s first duty,” President Reagan said in 1981 and President Trump recently tweeted, “is to protect the people, not run their lives.”  The safety of law-abiding citizens has always been a core principle of conservatism.  And it is why we need to take this opportunity to pass real criminal-justice reform now.

Although violent crime rose during the final two years of President Obama’s time in office, it decreased during the first year of Trump’s presidency.  We need to keep that momentum going. And criminal justice reform can help us do that in two ways.

First, commonsense sentencing reform can increase trust in the criminal-justice system, thus making it easier for law enforcement personnel to police communities.  Right now, federal mandatory-minimum sentences for many drug offenses can lead to outcomes that strike many people as unfair, and thus undermine the public’s faith in our justice system....

When the public sees judges handing out unfair punishments, it undermines trust in the entire justice system.  This makes it harder for police to do their job.  As Ronald Reagan explained when he was Governor of California, “[w]ithout respect for the law, the best laws cannot be effective.  Without respect for law enforcement, laws cannot be carried out.  We must have respect, not only for the law, but also for the many who dedicate their lives to the protection of society through enforcement of the law.”  Fairer sentencing laws will increase respect for police, especially in many communities where such respect is currently lacking.

Second, excessive prison sentences break apart families and weaken communities -- the building blocks of American civil society.  Incarceration is tough on any marriage.  Few can survive the loss of marital love and financial strain that happens when a spouse is behind bars.  And the longer the sentence, the more likely a marriage will end in divorce.  One 2011 study found that each additional year behind bars increases the likelihood of divorce by 32 percent.  This has real costs for the families -- and especially the children -- of offenders.

Incarceration is an essential law enforcement tool that protects communities and keeps families safe.  But it also inflicts costs on communities and families, and at some point the negative impact of incarceration on marriage and family can become too stark to ignore.  And for non-violent offenders, especially those with no prior criminal history, excessive sentences often do far more harm than good.

We now have a rare opportunity to pass criminal justice reform that will help restore trust in law enforcement and protect American families.  In May of this year, the House of Representatives passed the First Step Act, which includes some much-needed prison reform measures that would reduce recidivism.  Unfortunately, it did not include any reforms to address manifestly unjust sentences for non-violent offenders.

The Senate now has a chance to add some of those much-needed prison reform measures into the bill.  We won’t get everything we want, but we have an incredible opportunity to reach a compromise that includes meaningful, commonsense reforms to our nation’s mandatory-minimum drug sentencing laws.

It is unlikely we will get another opportunity to enact meaningful reform anytime soon.  President Obama failed to accomplish criminal-justice reform during his eight years in office.  But President Trump and the Republican Congress can get the job done now.  It would be another big step toward making America great again.

November 13, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Fraternal Order of Police now supporting FIRST STEP Act with some sentencing reform provisions

Roughly nine months ago, the President of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) wrote this three-page letter to the President of the United States expressing opposition to the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.  But yesterday, in what seems to me to be a important and encouraging development, the FOP released this one-page statement headed "FOP Partners with President Trump on Criminal Justice Reform."

The new FOP release should be read in full, as it indicates support for adding modest sentencing reforms to the FIRST STEP Act bill that was passed by the House earlier this year.  In addition, the sub-heading of the press release says "Revised and amended First Step Act to be introduced next week." This strongly suggests that "Beltway insiders" are prepared and planning to try to get big federal statutory sentencing reform done in a matter of weeks.

November 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Interesting talk of prison reform amidst talk of Chris Christie as possible Attorney General replacement

This new CNN article includes lots of interest for federal criminal justice reform fans under the headline "Trump considering Christie, Bondi for attorney general." Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump is considering former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to replace fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions, sources familiar with the matter said.

Trump fired Sessions on Wednesday without immediately naming a replacement, instead installing Sessions' chief of staff Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general. Both Christie and Bondi are longtime political allies of the President's and were initially considered contenders for the Justice Department perch during the transition.

Given Trump's longstanding frustrations with Sessions, other potential contenders have cropped up in Trump-friendly circles in recent months, including Whitaker, Solicitor General Noel Francisco, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, former Judge John Michael Luttig, Judge Edith Jones, former Judge Janice Rogers Brown, retiring Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina.

If nominated, Christie, a former US attorney, could face similar calls to the ones Sessions faced to recuse himself from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation given his role as a prominent 2016 campaign surrogate for Trump. But unlike Sessions, there is no indication he had contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign or transition.

Christie attended a previously scheduled law enforcement roundtable on prison reform efforts at the White House on Thursday morning, an administration official and source familiar with the meeting said.

Christie then met privately with the President's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner to further discuss prison reform issues, an administration official who works on the prison reform effort said.

Kushner and Christie have long been reported to have bad blood stemming from Christie's role as US attorney in prosecuting Kushner's father on 18 counts of tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign donations.

But the administration official said Kushner and Christie have a good relationship. "They've been working really closely on this for months," the administration official said. "Despite the fact that people have suggested otherwise, the two have a really close and good working relationship, particularly as it relates to prison reform."...

Prison reform has been a key agenda item for Kushner and Christie would likely be an important ally in that effort were he to be tapped for attorney general.

While Christie has been a friend of Trump's since before the 2016 campaign, the former New Jersey governor has been critical of Trump's handling of the Mueller investigation and instead praised Mueller amid the President's public criticism of the special counsel. "I've told him (Trump) many times that there's no way to make an investigation like this shorter, but there's lots of ways to make it longer, and he's executed on a number of those ways to make it longer," Christie said in May at the University of Chicago, while calling Mueller "an honest ... hard-working guy."

Christie has also rejected arguments by Trump's personal legal team that the President cannot obstruct justice, calling it "an outrageous claim" on ABC this summer.

November 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Brennan Center wasting no time advocating for sentencing reforms after election and ouster of AG Jeff Sessions

The folks over at the Brennan Center already have two short pieces up making the case for Congress to move forward with federal sentencing reforms and for the Senate Judiciary Committee to seek to ensure the next Attorney General cares about criminal justice reform.  Here are links to the pieces with some excerpts:

"Sentencing Reform Should Be a Top Post-Election Priority for Congress

As Congress prepares to enter a lame-duck session following yesterday’s midterm elections, it has a rare opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation that will help reform our criminal justice system and end mass incarceration. And sentencing reform must be included in any meaningful effort to reduce the number of people entering the federal prison system....

Criminal justice reform is a rare point of bipartisan consensus in today’s polarized climate. In fact, 71 percent of Americans surveyed – including a majority of Trump voters – agree that it’s important to reduce the country’s prison population. And there’s substantial support from key members of Congress – both Republican and Democrat – for comprehensive reform. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled he would call a vote after the midterm election if more than 60 senators support the bill.

With that momentum, one of Congress’s first agenda items for this year’s “lame-duck” session should be to pass legislation that will help reduce mass incarceration. And any successful effort will start with sentencing reform.

"With Sessions Gone, the GOP Can Show It Cares About Criminal Justice Reform"

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is a reliable and trusted ally for criminal justice reform advocates, both right and left.  So when President Trump nominated Jeff Sessions to lead the Justice Department, it came as something of a surprise that Grassley, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cleared the deck for him, ensuring a quick and easy Senate confirmation.

If Grassley later came to regret that — and there’s reason to believe he did — today offers a chance to correct it.  Against the backdrop of our looming, slow-burning constitutional crisis, Grassley can and should make support for criminal justice reform a litmus test for the next attorney general.  He has that power.  Now is the time to use it....

[I]f Trump is serious about criminal justice reform, he should simply refuse to nominate someone who doesn’t support sentencing reform.  And whether or not he follows through, Grassley should refuse to confirm anyone who will oppose or sabotage similar reform efforts.

Realistically, though, the best chance for guaranteeing a supportive attorney general rests with Grassley and other supporters of criminal justice reform on the Judiciary Committee, like Mike Lee (R-Utah), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and even, sometimes, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).  By demanding an attorney general who will back their words with action — and faithfully implement rather than sabotage any reform package they pass — Grassley and his committee could effect a major reset, giving the country a chance to move on from at least one aspect of the last two years.

November 8, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Jeff Sessions is no longer Attorney General of the United States

In a development that bodes well for federal criminal justice reform and marijuana reform, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has submitted his resignation in letter to President Donald Trump. Prez Trump has two tweets in response:

We are pleased to announce that Matthew G. Whitaker, Chief of Staff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Department of Justice, will become our new Acting Attorney General of the United States. He will serve our Country well....

....We thank Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his service, and wish him well! A permanent replacement will be nominated at a later date.

UPDATE: This Fox News piece includes the former Attorney General's resignation letter and details about how this came to pass:

Sources told Fox News that Trump did not call Sessions, but rather White House Chief of Staff John Kelly informed him of the president’s request for him to resign.  Sessions is expected to leave the Justice Department by the end of the day and Whitaker is expected to be sworn in Wednesday.

In his resignation letter, Sessions said was “honored to serve” as attorney general and said his Justice Department “restored and upheld the rule of law -- a glorious tradition that each of us has a responsibility to safeguard.”

November 7, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, November 05, 2018

Could the FIRST STEP Act, with sentencing reforms added, get through Congress in just a matter of weeks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Examiner article headlined "Prison reform bill to include sentencing, setting up post-election fight." Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform advocates say sentencing reform provisions will be included in legislation unveiled shortly after midterm elections Tuesday, triggering an intense lame-duck struggle over attaching penalty reductions to a White House-backed prison reform bill.

The First Step Act passed the House in a 360-59 vote earlier this year, but without sentencing reforms, at the behest of Republican opponents.  Reform advocates expect rapid legislative action after a pre-election pause, and believe there will be enough votes to pass the expanded legislative package.

Two people close to the process tell the Washington Examiner that a bipartisan group of senators has agreed to attach a set of sentencing reforms to the House-passed bill.

The additions include shortening federal three-strike drug penalties from life in prison to 25 years, reducing two-strike drug penalties from 20 years to 15, allowing a firearm sentencing enhancement to run concurrently with the underlying penalty, and allowing retroactive sentencing for crack cocaine cases judged under tougher historical laws.

“We are very excited about it. We think that the four reforms that are in the bill are ones that make sense,” said Mark Holden, the general counsel of Koch Industries and an influential conservative reform advocate. “From what we understand, there are enough votes — plenty — for it to happen,” Holden said. Holden said it’s his understanding that the sentencing language will also expand a “safety valve” option for judges to use discretion.

Both Holden and another person close to the legislation drafting process, who asked not to be identified, said there is wording to reduce concern about illegal immigrants benefiting from sentencing reform. The second person said the provision is being finalized, but there will be “a clarification saying this does not change existing statutes relating to undocumented individuals in the federal system.”

A spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, an influential advocate of the reforms, did not respond to requests for comment.

Holden said he expects the White House, particularly presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, to forcefully back the bill.  Last month, Trump said in a Fox News interview that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ longstanding opposition to reforms did not represent him. "If he doesn't [support reform], then he gets overruled by me.  Because I make the decision, he doesn't," Trump said Oct. 11....

It’s unclear how a group of Republican skeptics, such as Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, will react. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised a whip count after the election, and advocates believe it will make it clear with overwhelming support....

Last month, clemency advocates including Amy Povah of CAN-DO Clemency and Alveda King, the anti-abortion evangelical leader, hosted a panel at a Women for Trump event at Trump International Hotel in Washington.  Povah hopes that Congress passes the legislation, and that Trump will supplement the reform with generous use of his constitutional pardon powers. Last month, Trump said "a lot of people" are jailed for year for "no reason" and that he was actively looking to release some.

Povah said clemency would be particularly appreciated around the holiday, including Thanksgiving, when presidents pardon turkeys, disillusioning people who are looking for one. “I think Trump said it best, he said that he’s going to release a lot of people and I think a lot of people in prison took that seriously and literally," Povah said.  "He sent a lot of hope in that humans may be in line, maybe for the first time included in the Thanksgiving pardon."...

Trump has spoken repeatedly about his desire to release inmates from prison after commuting the life sentence of drug crime convict Alice Johnson in June at the request of celebrity Kim Kardashian West.  At a second Trump-Kardashian meeting, the TV star urged freedom for Chris Young, who was arrested at 22 and sentenced to life in prison for drug dealing. She brought with her former federal judge Kevin Sharp, who had imposed the sentence due to rigid federal laws he argued made little sense.  On his own, Trump mentioned another inmate, Matthew Charles, who returned to prison this year after a court found his drug sentence was reduced in error.

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just saw that Law360 also has a new article on this front under the headline "Hard Decisions Loom In Lame-Duck Push For Sentencing Reform."  This lengthy piece starts with this sentence: "Over the next two months, Republican lawmakers have a chance to pass the most comprehensive criminal justice reforms in a generation, a combination of prison and sentencing reforms that stand to improve the lives of more than 180,000 federal inmates."

November 5, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2018 third quarter (repackaged) sentencing data

US Sentencing Commission has now released here its "3rd Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2018 Data."  As previously noted in this post when the USSC released data on offenders sentenced during the first half of fiscal year 2018, the Commission has altered how it accounts and reports sentencing data.  This new data run explains "the Commission is again updating the way it presents quarterly data. In this report, all analyses that involve a comparison of the position of the sentence imposed to the guideline range that applied in the case are presented in a new way. Sentences are now grouped into two broad categories: Sentences Under the Guidelines Manual and Variances."  As I see it, this means within-guideline and "traditional departure" sentences are grouped together, while all Booker-allowed variances are broken out distinctly.

As I have said before, nothwithstanding this repackaging aside, we can still look at the "within-guideline" number on Tables 8 and 8A for direct comparisons on this front between the first three quarters of of FY 2018 and all federal sentencing data from the last full year of the Obama Administration (in this FY 2016 data report).  Doing so shows that the within-guideline sentencing rate has increased from 48.6% in FY 2016 up to 50.5% in the first three-quarters of FY 2018.  Without a more intricate and sophisticated analysis controlling for caseloads and other factors, this upward movement in within-guideline sentences does not alone provide conclusive evidence that "Trump era" changes in prosecutorial policies and practices is having a direct impact on federal sentencing outcomes.  But these new data continue to be suggestive of trends to watch as more cases more through the pipeline and as new federal prosecutors and judges are impacted by new commands and advocacy from Main Justice.

Prior related post:

October 30, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

FAMM laments problems in federal prisons while urging Prez Trump to new head for Bureau of Prisons

As detailed in this press release, FAMM President Kevin Ring has now sent this letter to President Trump urging him to appoint a director of for the US Bureau of Prisons ASAP.  Here is how this latter gets started:

I write today to urge you to appoint a reform-minded individual to serve as Director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons (BOP) as soon as possible. The BOP has been without a permanent director since General Mark Inch’s resignation from the post in May of this year. The void in consistent leadership has caused and exacerbated numerous problems throughout the federal prison system, for both staff and those in custody.

FAMM is in contact with over 35,000 federal prisoners and their family members on a regular basis.  Through our correspondence, we have learned of continual problems plaguing the BOP’s programs and operations.  We hear frequently from prisoners and their families about the lack of adequate medical care or medical attention when requested. We continue to hear about lastminute reductions in halfway house time and continued underutilization of home confinement for low-risk individuals.  We have seen the BOP routinely neglect its role in identifying eligible candidates for the federal compassionate release program, which would allow the courts to consider resentencing terminally ill or elderly prisoners.  We have also learned of several BOP facilities instituting questionable and problematic policies regarding family visits and limiting prisoner access to mail from their loved ones as well as access to books.  Because education and strong family ties are proven to help in the rehabilitation of prisoners, these policies pose a significant threat to successful rehabilitation and should be reversed under new leadership.

October 30, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 29, 2018

Is it a given that the end of Jeff Sessions' time as Attorney General is drawing nigh?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP piece headlined "Some Sessions Allies Hope White House Allows Graceful Exit."  Here are excerpts:

Sensing that Jeff Sessions’ days at the Justice Department may be numbered, some of his supporters want the White House to allow for a graceful exit for an attorney general they believe has dutifully carried out the administration’s agenda even while enduring the president’s fury.

It seems unlikely that efforts to soften a possible dismissal after the Nov. 6 midterm election would find sympathy in the White House, where President Donald Trump’s rage remains unabated over the attorney general’s recusal from the Russia investigation. A hand-picked successor could theoretically oversee the rest of the probe in place of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

But some supporters say they hope that if and when Sessions is replaced, his record as senator and attorney general will be recognized and not overwhelmed by Trump’s attacks, or that the administration will at least respect the Justice Department by guaranteeing a smooth transition.

A scenario advocated by at least one Sessions ally, former Cincinnati Mayor Ken Blackwell, would allow him to remain on the job until January and be permitted to resign on his own then rather than be fired immediately after the midterms. Blackwell said allies have made their case to administration officials that Sessions has successfully pushed the president’s core priorities, including on illegal immigration, and deserves some sort of recognition from the White House that “he has more than a passing grade.”

“It is not unknown, from anyone from John Kelly to Jared Kushner, that there is a base of support,” said Blackwell, referring to Trump’s chief of staff and son-in-law. “A portion of that base is ready to continue advocacy for his service.”

Newt Gingrich, a former Republican House speaker who is close to the White House and calls himself a longtime “admirer” of Sessions, said he would be open to serving as an intermediary if asked between the White House and Sessions supporters. “He deserves a graceful exit. His career deserves a strong conclusion,” said Gingrich, who called Sessions “a strong conservative who has done strong work at the Department of Justice.”...

The president, though mindful that Sessions remains popular among much of his base, would seem unlikely to sign off on a plan to extend Sessions’ time in office, according to a White House official and an outside adviser familiar with Trump’s thinking but not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations. Trump has repeatedly had to be talked out of firing Sessions before November and has signaled to allies that he wants to make sweeping changes at the Justice Department once the midterms have concluded.

He told The Associated Press this month that he was “not thrilled” with Sessions but made no commitment to dismiss him. If Trump were to wait, it would not be out of deference to Sessions, but rather because the White House would be managing the fallout from the midterms and preparing for a pair of presidential overseas trips in November, according to the official....

Smith said one way Trump could enable a respectful exit would be for the White House to craft a smooth succession plan and allow Sessions to be part of the process.

Ed Meese, a Reagan administration attorney general and Sessions friend, said he wasn’t thinking about Sessions’ departure because “I don’t want to see him fired at all.”

Because AG Sessions seems to be a significant barrier to significant federal criminal justice reforms, I am hopeful his days at the Department of Justice are numbered. But I do not expect him to seek a graceful exits because I do not think he wants to exit.  But especially with talk of a prison and sentencing reform bill being possibly hashed out and passed during the lame-duck Congress of the coming months, I am especially hopeful (but not optimistic) that it is only a matter of weeks before AG Sessions out of his current job.

A few prior related posts:

October 29, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Justice Department touts record-breaking increases in federal criminal charges

This afternoon I received notice of this new DOJ press release titled "Justice Department Smashes Records for Violent Crime, Gun Crime, Illegal Immigration Prosecutions, Increases Drug and White Collar Prosecutions." Here is the text of the release (with emphasis in original):

Under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice charged the largest number of violent crime and firearm defendants in its history in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018.

“President Donald Trump is a law-and-order President — and this is a law-and-order administration,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  “The Department of Justice is breaking law enforcement records and doing so by significant margins.   When I took office as Attorney General, I ordered federal prosecutors and agents to take illegal guns off of our streets, to prosecute crimes aggressively, to protect our nation’s borders, and to target white collar fraud.  With support from our state and local partners, our federal prosecutors and agents have delivered — and I am grateful to them and the fabulous state and local officers who worked so hard to make these achievements possible.  And we are seeing results.  Violent crime and homicides, which jumped in 2015 and 2016, both dropped in 2017 and will drop again in 2018.  There can be no doubt that good law enforcement policies can make our communities safer.”

According to data from the Executive Office of United States Attorneys (EOUSA), the number of defendants charged with criminal felony offenses increased by nearly 15 percent from more than 71,200 defendants in FY 2017 to more than 81,800 in FY 2018. 

In FY 2018, the Justice Department charged the largest number of violent crime defendants since EOUSA started to track this category more than 25 years ago (more than 16,800) — surpassing by nearly 15 percent the previous record set just last year.

In FY 2018, the Justice Department charged more than 15,300 defendants with federal firearms offenses, which is 17 percent more than the previous record.

In FY 2018, over 23,400 defendants were charged with felony illegal re-entry, an increase of more than 38 percent from FY 2017.

In FY 2018, over 23,600 defendants were charged with drug-related offenses, an increase of more than six percent from FY 2017.  

Also in FY 2018, the Justice Department increased white-collar prosecutions by more than three percent, charging more than 6,500 defendants.

Finally, in FY 2018, more than 68,400 defendants were charged with misdemeanor illegal entry.  This is the highest number of such defendants charged since EOUSA started to track this category and an almost 86 percent increase from the previous year.  This total is also more than 4 percent higher than the previous record of over 65,500 defendants set in FY 2013.

October 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Alice Marie Johnson urges Prez Trump to free "thousands more" federal prisoners like her

Trump-just-granted-clemency-to-alice-johnson-afte-2-758-1528302960-6_dblbigThe now-famous, drug-dealer-serving-LWOP grandmother Alice Marie Johnson, who was granted clemency three months ago by Prez Donald Trump, has authored this lengthy new Fox News opinion piece headlined "President Trump freed me from prison – I’m glad he wants to give other nonviolent offenders their freedom."  Here are excerpts:

On June 6, I walked out of prison as a free woman after serving almost 22 years of my life sentence on a first-time nonviolent drug conviction, thanks to a decision by President Trump to commute my sentence to time served.  I was thrilled to hear the president say this week that he is looking to give early release to additional nonviolent prisoners like me....

I can never thank the president enough.  He heard my voice, gave life to my hope and promise to my future.  I am a 63-year-old grandmother who just wants to live in peace and enjoy my family.  There is zero chance I will ever break the law again....

Many other nonviolent offenders in federal prisons today are — like me — no danger to society, and I look forward to having President Trump and members of his administration examine their cases.  Many of these men and women have spent long years in prison and deserve to receive clemency or a commutation of their sentences from the president.

Freeing these offenders early would be an act of justice and mercy, as granting me my freedom was.  And early release would save taxpayers the cost of feeding and housing these people for years after they have paid their debt to society.

When President Obama began granting clemency to nonviolent offenders near the end of his presidency, he gave hope to thousands of people like me.  By 2016, I was 20 years into my life sentence.

My path to prison began at a time in my life when I faced some desperate choices.  I made a terrible decision to participate in a drug conspiracy — a decision I very much regret.

But during my two decades in prison, I accomplished an extraordinary rehabilitation — writing plays, volunteering in the prison hospice, becoming an ordained minister and mentoring to young women in prison.  By 2016 I was a new woman living a new life, even if it was a life I thought was destined to be lived only behind bars.

President Obama’s clemency initiative gave me hope.  I had been told not to hope, not to dream, because I would never be set free. As his presidency came to a close, President Obama began releasing hundreds of other nonviolent offenders, and I became sure I would be released as well.  My prison warden, captain, case manager and vocational training instructor all recommended I be granted clemency.

Unfortunately, I was left behind.  President Obama left office without giving me the chance to start a new life.  And I learned that putting your hope in one man is a mistake, because when that hope dies, you think all your hope has to die. When I received the denial letter from the Office of the Pardon Attorney, I was devastated.  I don’t know why my request was denied, because no explanation was given.  But that decision left me so disappointed.

My petition met all the criteria for clemency.  I had reformed my life in prison and I felt it should have been clear to anyone that I would contribute to society if I was released.  But President Obama left, President Trump arrived and I was told again to give up hope.  I didn’t.

I kept fighting for myself because I know that hearts can change, and no matter what administration is in power, you have to be willing to come to the table, sit down and talk about whether you can find common ground.

Thankfully, Jared Kushner and others working for President Trump have worked to keep clemency and criminal justice reform alive.  They can see that not every person who makes a mistake deserves for that mistake to define the rest of their life. They know that hope is important, but it must also be turned into meaningful change....

I did not leave prison bitter.  I love America and believe in the inherent goodness of the American people and the possibility of redemption.  Now it is President Trump who can make history if he takes the opportunity to go further than any president before him by giving second chances to thousands of people who just need someone to hear them.

The president has a power that the Constitution grants to him alone to both show mercy and deliver justice for people who were given excessively long sentences for crimes involving no violence.  The people who deserve to be freed are those who have long since recognized their mistakes and who have rehabilitated themselves during their time in prison.

I will never forget what President Trump did for me. He changed my life and gave me the opportunity to fulfill my potential, and now he has the chance to do the same for thousands more.

I find it interesting and encouraging that Ms. Johnson says there are "thousands more" federal prisoners like her and that she calls upon Prez Trump to "make history" by going "further than any president before" in the use of his clemency powers. To surpass Prez Obama here, Prez Trump would have to grant more than 1700 clemencies, and I know Ms. Johnson is not the only one who would like to see this happen.

October 14, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Some prosecutors and some conservatives push back on momentum for federal criminal justice reforms

As highlighted via recent posts here and here, momentum seems to be picking up again for the passage of a version of the federal FIRST STEP Act that would reform federal prison practices and tweak federal sentencing rules.  Perhaps prompted by these realities, a new poll and new letter has emerged to push back on reform efforts. 

The poll comes from ORC International and was commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice, a group which represents the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.  This press release reports on the heart of the poll:

A new survey of American adults, commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice (FSJ), confirms that Americans overwhelmingly oppose sentencing and prison and “reforms” that would reduce federal criminal penalties for drug traffickers and allow the early release of prisoners to “home confinement.” Three out of four Americans surveyed (74 percent) said that they oppose proposals that reduce penalties for criminals involved in the trafficking of heroin, fentanyl, and similar drugs....

Public opposition to criminal leniency is deep across the American population and holds true regardless of race, gender, or party affiliation, the FSJ survey results (detailed below) show. The survey results represent an objective barometer of public opposition to criminal leniency for drug traffickers, in sharp contrast to the skewed results of a recent Kentucky poll touted by criminal leniency advocates....

The survey, conducted from September 13-16, 2018, interviewed 1,004 American adults, and was administered by ORC International, a nationwide polling firm. Full study results and methodology are available here.

Employing similar rhetoric and expressing similar concerns(and citing this poll), an assortment of conservative leaders have sent this letter to Prez Trump urging him to oppose FIRST STEP Act. Here is part of the letter:

Now, a leniency-industrial complex is urging you to support a bill that would reduce the sentences for federal drug traffickers, and allow large numbers of those same traffickers to “serve” their sentences outside prison in “home confinement.”

Mr. President, don’t do it. Trust your instincts. America seems, to many of us, to be plagued with different applications of justice. The public is losing faith in the rule of law and reforms are needed. But, here [we present] just four of many reasons why you should oppose this emerging new bill....

But this bill is not prison reform — it’s prison release. It’s not sentencing reform — it’s sentencing reductions. Contrary to what jailbreak supporters tell you, these policies are far from popular.  Proponents inadvertently acknowledge how unpopular their proposals are by disguising what they’re doing with buzzwords and abstract concepts.

Given how momentum for federal reform has built, slowly but surely, over much of 2018, I would be surprised if this new poll and letter significantly changes how important political players' are dancing with the FIRST STEP Act. But they both show that seemingly ever-growing consensus in support of federal reforms does not include everyone, and they also help highlight why even relatively modest reforms like the FIRST STEP Act can be a challenging political lift.

October 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, September 21, 2018

Why is the Sessions' DOJ now taking death penalty off the table for Donald Fell after so much cost and agony for victims?

The question in the title of this post emerges from this notable federal capital news, headlined "Accused killer Donald Fell to take plea deal, avoid death penalty," emerging from Vermont in a long-running multiple murder case.  Here are the basics:

Nearly 20 years after he allegedly kidnapped and murdered a Vermont grandmother, accused killer Donald Fell is changing his plea and will avoid the death penalty.

Terry King, 53, was arriving for work at the Rutland Price Chopper in 2000 when police say Donald Fell and Robert Lee carjacked her, drove her to New York and killed her on the side of the road.

Fell was convicted and sentenced to death in 2005.  But his federal conviction was overturned due to juror misconduct and a new death penalty trial was set to begin.

But now there is a plea deal that takes the death penalty off the table. Court documents show Fell will plead guilty to four federal crimes, including carjacking and kidnapping with death resulting. In exchange, he will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.  A judge must still accept the agreement.

Fell's alleged accomplice, Robert Lee, never stood trial. He killed himself in prison. Fell and Lee were accused of two other murders that night. Police say before kidnapping Terry King, the men murdered Fell's mother, Debra, and her friend, Charles Conway in Rutland. But those killings took a back seat to King's murder because the feds were charging the men in that case since they brought King across state lines. The feds also had the death penalty to bargain with. The state of Vermont does not have a death penalty.

As highlighted via prior posts below, Fell's legal team has been making an aggressive case against his continued capital prosecution.  But I sincerely doubt federal prosecutors found any of their claims compelling or really worried that federal judges would.  So I am inclined to assume that federal prosecutors just concluded, presumably with the blessing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that throwing more federal taxpayer dollars after the pursuit of federal death sentence was just not a good investment of limited resources (perhaps especially because the feds have not executed anyone in over 15 years).

That all said, I still find this decision especially striking because the victims here are vocally against this plea resolution.  This local article, headlined "Victim's family says justice not served with Fell plea deal," explains the family's reaction while also suggesting federal prosecutors had to work had to talk them into being content with this resolution:

The family of Terry King says justice is not being served. That's their response to news a plea deal has been reached with King's accused killer, Donald Fell. The deal means Fell will avoid the death penalty. "I mean they beat her to death. Beat her to death while she prayed for her life. And yet he is allowed to live? What justice is that?" demanded Barbara Tuttle, Terry King's sister.

Tuttle is talking about Donald Fell, the man accused of the brutal murder of Terry King. The North Clarendon grandmother was kidnapped on her way to work back in 2000. "It is a total embarrassment for the U.S. government as far as I am concerned, a total embarrassment," Tuttle said. And King's sister says she speaks for the entire family....

"If you are going to have the death penalty, then enforce it. If you are not going to use it, then why is the law there? Why all these appeals over and over and over again? Eighteen years of this," Tuttle said.

Tuttle says her family has known a plea deal was in the works for several weeks. Under the deal, Fell will plead guilty to four federal crimes including carjacking and kidnapping with death resulting.  Tuttle says her family was convinced by prosecutors it was the best way to go to avoid another lengthy trial and appeal process.  "I would just as soon go to court all over again if I knew that he would come out with the death penalty.  And it was actually be enforced and we wouldn't have to go through 18 more years of appeals," she said. "It is ridiculous."

Tuttle says at least she won't have to keep being reminded of the case once Fell is sentenced to life without parole. She hopes if any good can come of the story, maybe it can lead to changes in the system. "They are always talking about criminal justice reform. Let me tell you, this is a perfect example of why our system is broken," she said....

It is important to note that a federal judge still needs to approve this deal. The case goes back to court Sept. 28.

I doubt the family member speaking here would be content with abolition of the death penalty as a way to fix this part of a broken capital criminal justice system. But I find it so telling that the "tough-and-tougher" federal administration that Prez Trump advocates and that AG Sessions seeks to implement ultimately gave up here on what should not be a uniquely hard capital prosecution.  Another notable data point to support the view that the long-running litigation war against the death penalty is ever closer to a complete victory.

Prior related posts:

September 21, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I do not think Prez Trump meant this tweet as a compliment to the Attorneys General, but it kinda is

President Donald Trump was tweeting up a storm yet again this morning, and this particular tweet struck me as especially ironic (and thus blogworthy):

The irony, of course, is that Prez Trump obviously means this tweet to be a criticism of current Attorney General Jeff Sessions (and likely also of former Attorney General Eric Holder).  And yet, as is so often heard from Attorneys General and others in the Justice Department, a commitment to the rule of law should often mean that the Department of Justice is to operate largely the same way no matter which person or party is formally at the helm.  In other words, from a different speaker at a different time, this statement really could be an extraordinary compliment to officials within the Justice Department.

Of course, as sentencing fans know, it is not actually accurate at all that the Justice Department is being run now just like it was run under former AG Holder.  Current AG Sessions was fairly quick to rescind any number of Holder-era guidance memos and policies on topics ranging from private prisons to charging and sentencing directions to marijuana enforcement.  And, of course, AG Sessions is reportedly trying to prevent significant sentencing and prison reforms in Congress, while former AG Holder supported various reforms (though not sufficiently, in my view). 

So, like so much this current Prez says, this tweet is wrong is more ways that the Prez even realizes. 

September 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Is Jeff Sessions' opposition to modest sentencing reforms going to cost him his job as Attorney General?

The question in the title of this post — which I would answer "I hope so" — is prompted by this Politico article fully headlined "Trump personally lobbying GOP senators to flip on Sessions: Opposition to the attorney general's firing, long seen as a red line by lawmakers, has softened in recent days."  Here is an excerpt from the piece of note to sentencing fans:

The president, who has spent a year and a half fulminating against his attorney general in public, finally got traction on Capitol Hill thanks to the growing frustration of a handful of GOP senators with their former colleague – most importantly, Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who have been irritated by Sessions’ opposition to a criminal justice reform bill they support, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen congressional GOP aides, Trump advisers, and Republicans close to the White House....

Over the past week, Trump has belittled Sessions in conversations with several Republican senators, including Graham, and the idea of dismissing him no longer provokes the political anxiety it once did.

Along with Graham and Grassley, Sessions has also alienated presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, the chief White House proponent of the Graham-Grassley approach on criminal justice reform, as well as his wife, Ivanka Trump.

After a meeting last week that included Trump, Sessions and Kushner, the White House and McConnell delayed action on the issue until after the midterms. Grassley and other backers of the effort left the meeting hopeful for progress at that point. But Sessions’ office put out a sharply negative statement that suggested the president had come out against any sentencing reform in the legislation.

Holly Harris, a longtime Kentucky GOP strategist pushing for a reform deal from the helm of the nonprofit Justice Action Network, blasted Sessions for an “absolute mischaracterization” of the White Houses stance on the issue. “DOJ is making so many enemies in so many places now that I actually think it’s going to help our legislation. I think they’ve gone way too far,” Harris said, describing Sessions’ actions on the issue as “off the rails.”

The criminal justice issue has been an ongoing sore point between Sessions and Grassley. The House passed a narrower bill in May that doesn’t include changes to sentencing requirements — something Sessions strongly opposes but that Grassley and others, including Graham, have insisted on adding.

When Sessions spoke out against a broader criminal justice bill that the Judiciary Committee passed in February, Grassley publicly dressed him down. “Look at how hard it was for me to get him through committee in the United States Senate,” the senator said then. “And look at, when the president was going to fire him, I went to his defense.”

No longer. Though Grassley had previously said he could not schedule hearing time to confirm a new attorney general, he changed his tune last week. “I do have time for hearings on nominees that the president might send up here that I didn’t have last year,” Grassley said last week.

Prior related post:

UPDATE: This new Bloomberg piece suggests AG Sessions will be in his job at least for the next few month: "Trump Says He’ll Keep Sessions Until November Despite ‘Illegal’ Probe"

August 30, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Deputy AG Rosenstein suggests more federal prosecutions are key to battling opioid crisis ... but that really hasn't been working

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has this notable New York Times opinion piece under the headlined "Fight Drug Abuse, Don’t Subsidize It."  Here are is how it starts and ends:

Almost 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, a shocking 54 percent increase since 2012.  Dangerous opioids such as heroin and fentanyl contributed to two-thirds of the deaths.  This killer knows no geographic, socioeconomic or age limits.  It strikes city dwellers and Midwestern farmers, Hollywood celebrities and homeless veterans, grandparents and teenagers.

Remarkably, law enforcement efforts actually declined while deaths were on the rise.  Federal drug prosecutions fell by 23 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the median drug sentence doled out to drug traffickers decreased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2016.  The Trump administration is working to reverse those trends.  Prosecutions of drug traffickers are on the rise, and the surge in overdose deaths is slowing.

Unfortunately, some cities and counties are considering sponsoring centers where drug users can abuse dangerous illegal drugs with government help.  Advocates euphemistically call them “safe injection sites,” but they are very dangerous and would only make the opioid crisis worse.

These centers would be modeled on those operating in Canada and some European countries. They invite visitors to use heroin, fentanyl and other deadly drugs without fear of arrest.  The policy is “B.Y.O.D.” — bring your own drugs — but staff members help people abuse drugs by providing needles and stand ready to resuscitate addicts who overdose....

That is not the way to end the opioid crisis. Americans struggling with addiction need treatment and reduced access to deadly drugs.  They do not need a taxpayer-sponsored haven to shoot up.

To end the drug crisis, we should educate everyone about the dangers of opioid drugs, help drug users get treatment and aggressively prosecute criminals who supply the deadly poison.  Under the leadership of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice is delivering results.  Many federal, state and local agencies are working with us to combat opioid addiction.  Cities and counties should join us and fight drug abuse, not subsidize it.

I am disinclined to take up here the debate over safe injection sites, which could merit a volume.  I will be content here to point to this recent report from Europe indicating "evaluation studies have found an overall positive impact on the communities where these facilities are located," as well as this new meta-research indicating that "Medically Supervised Injection Centres ... had a significant favourable result in relation to drug-related crime and a significant unfavourable result in relation to problematic heroin use or injection." At Vox, German Lopez covers these research matters in this recent article headlined "Safe injection sites were thought to reduce drug overdoses. The research isn’t so clear."

I am inclined to take issue with how DAG Rosenstein seems to make a case for more federal prosecutions to address overdose deaths and the opioid crisis.  Though he laments that "federal drug prosecutions fell by 23 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the median drug sentence doled out to drug traffickers decreased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2016," DAG Rosenstein leaves out the fact that declines in marijuana and crack prosecutions and the impact of fairer crack guidelines account for these realities (see USSC quick facts data on marijuana and crack).  Meanwhile, as this USSC report explains, in "fiscal year 2016, there were 2,763 heroin trafficking offenders [sentenced in federal court, meaning the] number of heroin offenders has increased by 29.4% since fiscal year 2012."  In other words, though overall federal drug prosecutions have gone down through 2016, federal prosecution of heroin has been going up significantly this period when overdose deaths from dangerous opioids were also surging. 

In addition, there is a basis to question the statement that prosecutions of drug traffickers are now on the rise, as this data from TRAC suggests that FY 2017 and 2018 has seen record low numbers of federal drug trafficking prosecutions.  And to assert that the "surge in overdose deaths is slowing" is not all that reassuring given the new preliminary report of 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017 compared to 64,000 in 2016 (though I suppose it is correct to say the "surge" is slowing given that this 8,000-person increase in deaths is less than the 11,000 increase from 2015 to 2016).  Especially at a time of crisis, I sincerely want to believe that, as DAG Rosenstein asserts, the "Department of Justice is delivering results."  But the data I can find does not seem to support this claim.

August 28, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Is it too early to start a new US Attorney General short list (or wish list)?

I think it is extremely unlikely that Prez Donald Trump will fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions before the mid-term elections in November, which are still more than 10 weeks away.  Nevertheless, as detailed in this Bloomberg piece headlined "Key Republicans Give Trump a Path to Fire Sessions After the Election," some key Senators are seemingly trying to make it easier for Prez Trump to consider replacing AG Sessions after the election:

Donald Trump, who’s long threatened to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, may have received a crucial go-ahead signal from two Republican senators with a key condition attached: wait until after the November elections.

Confronted with the criminal convictions this week of his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former personal attorney Michael Cohen, the president has only reaffirmed his open resentment that Sessions recused himself from what’s become a wide-ranging investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The pivotal message on Thursday came from Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who oscillates between criticizing many of the president’s policies and defending a president who sometimes invites him to go golfing at a Trump-branded resort.  “The president’s entitled to an attorney general he has faith in, somebody that’s qualified for the job, and I think there will come a time, sooner rather than later, where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice,” Graham told reporters.

But he added that forcing out Sessions before November “would create havoc” with efforts to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, as well as with the midterm elections on Nov. 6 that will determine whether Republicans keep control of Congress.

Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, also changed his position on Thursday, saying in an interview that he’d be able to make time for hearings for a new attorney general after saying in the past that the panel was too busy to tackle that explosive possibility.

It wasn’t clear, though, whether the senators’ comments were intended to endorse a move on Sessions later, or to coax Trump out of taking precipitous action now.  And some senior Republican senators strongly rejected Graham’s seemingly impromptu fire-him-later idea.

Notably, Prez Trump this morning tweeted out Senator Graham's staement this way:

@LindseyGrahamSC “Every President deserves an Attorney General they have confidence in. I believe every President has a right to their Cabinet, these are not lifetime appointments. You serve at the pleasure of the President.”

I still think, for now, it is mostly a parlor game to imagine who Prez Trump might seek to replace AG Sessions.  But this game surely shapes my own rooting interest as a supporter of federal criminal justice and marijuana reforms.  If, say, Senator Tom Cotton were to be Prez Trump's pick to replace AG Sessions, I would be content with the status quo.  But if, say, Senator Cory Gardner were to be of interest to the President, then I would start rooting for AG Sessions to start packing up his office.  Of course, a perhaps more plausible pick might be someone like Senator Ted Cruz (especially if he were to lose his re-elction bid in November, which seems unlikely but possible).  And one has to wonder whether anyone could be confirmed by a divided Senate either in a lame-duck period or soon thereafter. 

Just for fun, I would be interested in hearing readers' creative possibilities for the next Attorney General, and I will start the game by throwing out two names just for kicks: Brian Sandoval and Dabney Friedrich.  I have no idea if either would have any interest in a position that is challenging even under the best circumstances, but I think both have just the right combination of experience, independence and "confirm-ability" to make them plausible possibilities.

Please play along, dear readers, in the AG short-list game.

August 25, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, August 24, 2018

Will Prez Trump deliver on all the clemency "tidal wave" of hopefulness he has engendered?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable recent article in the Washington Examiner headlined "MLK niece urges clemency 'tidal wave' after giving White House list of names." Here are excerpts: 

Evangelical leader Alveda King says she’s optimistic that President Trump will unleash a “good tidal wave” of clemency after she delivered to the White House a list of nearly 100 prisoners who she wants Trump to release.

The niece of Martin Luther King Jr. participated in an Aug. 1 discussion between Trump and African-American pastors and left behind her list of names with the office of the presidential adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

King, a supporter of Trump and leader of the anti-abortion group Civil Rights for the Unborn, declined to provide a copy of her list, citing the potential sensitivity of clemency decisions, and would not discuss specific details about her interactions at the White House. “I did not, on purpose, count or remember the names, I just submitted the list,” King told the Washington Examiner. “I’m trying to get a good tidal wave, a positive tidal wave, a tidal wave to maybe change things and make things better.”

King wants to see a "jubilee" or mass awarding of clemency and said there are misperceptions about what’s happening behind the scenes. She said it’s her understanding that the White House, through Kushner’s office, is processing recommendations in an orderly manner.

Trump has used his constitutional clemency powers nine times — releasing four inmates, two with pardons, and issuing post-release pardons to five others — almost always at the urging of celebrities or political allies, giving the impression of haphazard grants based on influencer requests.

But King said she believes the White House has in place a process for reviewing a deluge of recommendations following the June release of Alice Johnson, a drug conspiracy convict who Trump released at the urging of reality TV star Kim Kardashian. Trump unleashed tremendous enthusiasm behind bars by releasing Johnson, and then declaring: "There will be more pardons. ... I want to do people that are unfairly treated like an Alice."

There were signs of increasing internal work on clemency applications at about the time Johnson was released. Days earlier, White House counsel Don McGahn called a right-leaning policy advocate and asked him to assemble lists of worthy clemency aspirants. The outside contact gathered names from the CAN-DO Foundation and Families Against Mandatory Minimums and hand-delivered the lists to McGahn and Kushner.

Some policy advocates have urged Trump to create an in-house clemency commission that would supplement the work of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which clemency advocates view as ineffectual and biased in favor of prosecutors. But so far, no official in-house review process has been announced....

“It’s not disorder, it’s a very orderly process. … I'm a person who believes in order, and I believe they have a good system in place," King said. "I didn’t try to go in and put a list in the president’s hands. ... You can get it to Jared Kushner’s office, and they will look at it."

Angela Stanton, a former prison inmate, author, and King’s goddaughter, took the lead in assembling King's list. She said that inmates who already served more than 10 years in prison were given priority. “Everybody deserves to get out and everybody deserves a second chance,” Stanton said. “The majority of these people decided to go to trial, and if they had not gone to trial, they would have been home.”

A couple names on the list already were submitted to the White House, such as Michelle West, 25 years into a life sentence for drug-related crimes, and paralyzed inmate Michael Pelletier, 12 years into a life sentence for smuggling Canadian marijuana into Maine.  Others were profiled in a New York University report featuring inmates left behind by an Obama administration push to shorten drug sentences, including Lavonne Roach, a mother of three who is 20 years into a 30-year methamphetamine sentence; Chad Marks, who is more than a decade into a 40-year sentence for drug dealing; David Barren, 10 years into a 30-year cocaine sentence; and Craig Cesal, who since 2003 has been serving a life sentence for marijuana crimes.

The report referenced above is this 36-page document produced by the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at NYU Law School under the title "The Mercy Lottery: A Review of the Obama Administration’s Clemency Initiative."  I am very pleased to see that report being used to generate a list of good clemency candidate, though I sense that the Trump White House has heard from lots of different folks in lots of different ways about lots of different clemency possibilities.  That reality leads me back to the question in the title of this post: because there is no shortage of good clemency candidates in the federal system, the only thing really holding back a clemency "tidal wave" is the person sitting in the Oval Office.  

August 24, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly has decided he will not support federal criminal justice bill before mid-term election

This new Axios piece has a depressing headline: "Scoop: Trump won't endorse criminal justice bill before midterms."  Here are all the reported details:

President Trump has stymied a plan to push prison and sentencing reform before the midterms, according to an administration source with direct knowledge. In a White House meeting on Thursday afternoon, Trump decided that the compromise package that Jared Kushner, Sen. Chuck Grassley and others have been advocating for is too politically difficult to endorse before the elections, the source told Axios.

Why it matters: Without the president backing the bill, which might have reduced some mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes and sent around 4,000 prisoners home, it has zero chance of getting a vote before the midterms. Senate leadership was already reluctant to bring it up for a vote. The collapse of the bill is a win for opponents of the package, including law-and-order hardliners Sen. Tom Cotton and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

As noted in this prior post, Politico has already been reporting that the Senate was not going to vote on any criminal justice reform bill until after the election.  But I suppose it was possible Prez Trump might want to push forward; indeed, some commentators, as noted here and here, have suggested it would be politically wise for Trump to campaign for reform in the run-up to the election.  Ultimately, this decision by Trump provides even more basis to worry that it will continue to be a heavy slog to get sentencing reform as well as prison reform to the President's desk.

Some of many prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: This new Washington Post article reports on today's White House meeting on criminal justice reform efforts under the headline "GOP senator: Trump backs tenets of compromise on criminal-justice reform." The report suggests that both proponents and opponents of reform think Prez Trump is on their side.  The article seems to confirm that reform is not going to get done before the mid-term election.  

August 23, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Prez Trump advocating for a whole new kind of sentencing reform: he says cooperation deals "almost ought to be outlawed. It’s not fair."

This New York Post piece, headlined "Trump says flipping should be ‘outlawed’ after Cohen plea deal," reports on some notable new comments about the operation of the criminal justice system by Prez Donald Trump this morning.  Here are the details:

President Trump said his former lawyer Michael Cohen “lied” to get a “better deal” with federal prosecutors to reduce his jail time — and suggested that “flipping” should be outlawed.

“You get 10 years in jail, but if you say bad things about somebody in other words, make up stories if you don’t know.  Make up.  They just make up lies. I’ve seen it many times,” the president told “Fox & Friends” in an interview that aired Thursday.

“For 30, 40 years I’ve been watching flippers.  Everything’s wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they — they flip on whoever the next highest one is, or as high as you can go,” he said about Cohen, who pleaded to eight felony counts in Manhattan federal court on Tuesday.

“It almost ought to be outlawed. It’s not fair,” Trump continued.

Cohen was facing 65 years behind bars on the charges, but is expected to get a reduced sentence because of the plea deal. Trump said that “in all fairness” to Cohen, “most people are going to do that.”  The president also tried to distance himself from Cohen, who worked for more than 10 years for Trump and was known as a confidant and “fixer” who once said he’d take a “bullet” for Trump.

“He was a lawyer for me, one of many,” the president said.  “You know, they always say, ‘the lawyer,’ and then they like to add ‘the fixer.’” Well, I don’t know if he was a ‘fixer.’ I don’t know where that term came from,” Trump said in the interview.  “But he’s been a lawyer for me. Didn’t do big deals, did small deals. Not somebody that was with me that much.”

He said he would see Cohen “sometimes” but on big deals Trump said “outside lawyers” and “inside lawyers” would take part. “You know, they make it sound like I didn’t live with — without him. I understood Michael Cohen very well. He — well, it turned out he wasn’t a very good lawyer, frankly.”

Two of the charges Cohen pleaded to involved hush-money payments made before the 2016 election to two women who alleged they had affairs with Trump between 2006 and 2007, a possible violation of campaign finance laws. Cohen paid $130,000 to former porn star Stormy Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and arranged for $150,000 to be paid to the parent company of the National Enquirer to keep Karen McDougal’s story under wraps.

Trump said he didn’t know about the payments until “later on” even though Cohen has a tape of him and the president discussing them. “Later on I knew. Later on. What he did — and they weren’t taken out of the campaign finance, that’s the big thing. That’s a much bigger thing,” Trump said. “Did they come out of the campaign? They didn’t come out of the campaign, they came from me.”

Prez Trump is entirely right that cooperation deals can often result in false testimony and can produce considerable unfairness.  In fact, Prez Trump's staff should have urged him to cite Alexandra Natapoff's great book, "Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice," in conjunction with his complaints.  Here is a bit of the description of that book:

Although it is nearly invisible to the public, criminal snitching has invaded the American legal system in risky and sometimes shocking ways. Snitching is the first comprehensive analysis of this powerful and problematic practice, in which informant deals generate unreliable evidence, allow criminals to escape punishment, endanger the innocent, compromise the integrity of police work, and exacerbate tension between police and poor urban residents.  Driven by dozens of real-life stories and debacles, the book exposes the social destruction that snitching can cause in high-crime African American neighborhoods, and how using criminal informants renders our entire penal process more secretive and less fair. Natapoff also uncovers the farreaching legal, political, and cultural significance of snitching: from the war on drugs to hip hop music, from the FBI’s mishandling of its murderous mafia informants to the new surge in white collar and terrorism informing.

I doubt that Prez Trump is serious about advocating for the prohibition of cooperation deals, and I am certain few in Congress or elsewhere would even consider seriously the reforms proposed in Natapoff's book.  But if Prez Trump really cares about the unfairness and other problems that can be created by cooperation deals, there is a whole lot he could and should do right away.  First and foremost, he should express opposition to all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions (or at least suppose reforms like the Justice Safety Valve Act) because the threat of a significant mandatory minimum prison term often creates the most extreme pressure to deal and cooperate.  Second and on-going, he could and should consider focusing at least part of his (supposed) interest in broad use of clemency powers to those persons seemingly most unfairly convicted and sentenced based on questionable evidence coming from cooperators.

UPDATE: Alexandra Natapoff has this new post reacting to the President's comments, and here are her insights:

The irony is that Trump is attacking snitching for its greatest strength: it enables law enforcement to investigate and prosecute the wealthy, the powerful, and the politically insulated.  Think of the Enron prosecution, or the dismantling of the mafia, neither of which could have happened without cooperation deals.  Also ironically, Trump is criticizing informant use in its least problematic incarnation. When Trump's "many friends" become defendants and informants, they will be well represented and informed about their rights and options, while their cooperation deals will be recorded, vetted, and publicly scrutinized.  Most informants, and most defendants faced with snitch testimony, will get none of these protections. It is precisely here in the white collar and high profile political context that cooperation is best regulated, most accountable and transparent, and thus least problematic.

To be sure, there are many reasons to agree that snitching "should almost be illegal."  It leads to wrongful convictions; it tolerates the crimes committed by informants; it coerces the most vulnerable and rewards the most culpable. It promotes government secrecy, rule breaking, and sometimes corruption.  But its potential to hold powerful people accountable is its best feature.

August 23, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Could enhanced FIRST STEP Act get more than 90 votes in the Senate if even brought up for a vote?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Hill piece from late Friday headlined "Sentencing reform deal heats up, pitting Trump against reliable allies." Here are excerpts (with emphasis added):

Negotiations on a criminal justice reform bill are pitting President Trump against some of his closest allies on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) sent a public warning shot to the White House this week, writing in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Trump should not support a “jailbreak” by reducing mandatory minimum sentences. “That foolish approach is not criminal justice reform. … [It would] undercut President Trump’s campaign promise to restore law and order,” Cotton wrote.

Besides Cotton, other reliable allies of the White House, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), are opposing the administration’s approach, which would combine a House-passed prison reform bill with changes to sentencing and mandatory minimums that have wide, bipartisan support in the Senate.

Supporters say completing the bill would give the administration a needed win heading into November's midterm elections. Cotton argues it would make Trump and the GOP look weak on crime.

White House officials and supporters of a deal have been talking with Republican holdouts to try to convince them to back the proposed compromise, which they say would add roughly four sentencing reform provisions into the House bill, which currently focuses on recidivism and not sentencing laws. The pending agreement is expected to add into the House bill lower mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug convictions and more exceptions for judges on applying mandatory minimums. It would also let judges avoid doubling up on convictions for drug offenders facing simultaneous charges, and retroactively apply the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which is aimed at reducing the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses.

A senior White House official said they had received largely positive feedback and have 30 to 32 locked down “yes” votes among Republican senators. The official offered hope that the number of GOP supporters could eventually grow as many as 40 to 46. “We're hopeful that we'll be able to bring everybody together to get this to a place where we have ... most of the Republicans ready to vote for it,” the official said...

Supporters are moving forward and trying to build support within the GOP conference, signaling they view Cotton as a surmountable outlier. “I view it like the handful of people who are trying to obstruct are kind of giving it their best shot and, again, at the end of the day, I think facts usually overcome scare tactics,” the senior White House official said.

If Cotton’s op-ed was meant to build opposition to the potential deal within the Senate Republican Conference, officials suggested it appeared to have backfired. The senior White House official said that nearly a dozen Republican senators had reached out in wake of the Wall Street Journal article to say they didn’t agree with Cotton. A second White House official confirmed the outreach.

But opposition from a small, but vocal, group of critics has been a years-long roadblock for criminal justice reform in the Senate, where GOP leadership has been reluctant to put a spotlight on intra-caucus fights.

In addition to Cotton, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) threatened to do everything within their power to block a 2015 criminal justice reform bill, which had the support of the White House. Hatch has since come on board with criminal justice legislation, and Sessions is now attorney general. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has warned him to “stay out” of the negotiations....

Republicans won’t be able to pass a criminal justice deal on their own. A separate Senate bill, spearheaded by Grassley and Durbin, has the support of 32 senators, including Democrats like Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.). The White House is hoping electoral politics won’t get in the way of them supporting the pending agreement. “[If] people vote against it, I think it would just be really bad vote for them because this bill does a lot of good things,” the senior White House official said of potential Democratic opposition....

Trump held an event on prison reform last week, and at a White House meeting earlier this month signaled support for criminal justice reform. The senior White House official said that while negotiations are ongoing and no final decision has been made, “there is a very strong chance” the president will support the final package.

“[That] means that a lot of the people will want to be with him on it,” the official said. “And again, they know that the president's very tough on crime and if he's supporting something then they know it's not going to be a soft on crime bill.”

But Cornyn appeared skeptical that Trump, despite his deep popularity with GOP voters, would be able to change the dynamics in the Senate. “I don’t think people are going to change their strongly held positions on the sentencing reform part,” he said. “So my goal is to achieve what’s possible."

Riffing on the quote from Senator Cornyn, it seems quite possible that 45 Senators or more from both parties will be inclined to support whatever version of the FIRST STEP Act gets to the floor of the Senate with the President's support.  As I said in a recent post here, and as this article confirms, the problem now is not getting enough votes in support of reform but rather on getting congressional leadership to settle on the particulars of a bill and finally allowing a vote on the Senate floor.

As the GOP heads into a challenging mid-term election, I think and hope that many members would see the FIRST STEP Act as an opportunity to demonstrate bipartisan leadership. And maybe, as he headline of this interesting Bustle article suggest, Prez Trump could have another one of his kids involved in advocacy efforts here: "Tiffany Trump's Georgetown Work Shows She Has An Interest In Criminal Justice Reform Too."  

Some of many prior recent related posts:

August 19, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Will Trump White House soon "deploy its assets ... to stump" for federal criminal justice reform? It may be critical.

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris headlined "Connect Beltway to America to get federal criminal justice reform done." Here are excerpts:

When it comes to excuses to pass over federal criminal justice reform, I have heard them all, from “it takes at least 10 years to pass legislation like this” to “there is no way move a criminal justice bill in an election year.” But the one that really burns me is “you cannot point to state success because the federal system is much more complicated.”

The arrogance of the Beltway is incredible.  Of the more than 2.3 million people serving time behind bars in this country, more than 1.3 million are housed in state prisons, and about 615,000 sit in local jails.  Only 225,000 are housed in a federal facility. The Texas prison system alone holds more inmates.  State prison systems deal with overcrowding, stifling budget cuts, and drug epidemics that show no signs of abating.  Because they can see and experience this crisis first hand, governors on the left and the right are passing strong criminal justice reforms that offer alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment programs, provide opportunities that put people back to work, and save millions of taxpayer dollars.

Now these governors are invading the federal reform effort, seeking to finally connect Beltway leaders to what is happening in their own backyards.  President Trump, in a savvy move, convened a criminal justice roundtable at his resort in New Jersey and invited Republican and Democratic governors from states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia, all of which have passed strong criminal justice reforms with bipartisan support that decrease incarcerated populations, improve reentry programs, and ultimately lower crime and recidivism.  This is all part of a strategy to take the fight to pass a federal bill straight to the people and away from the status quo in Washington....

Keenly aware that red states like Georgia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Kentucky have made aggressive changes to their justice systems, including sentencing reforms and felony expungement laws, [Jared] Kushner has showed the president these success stories.  In this latest roundtable, Trump included the Democratic governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, who shared that reforms implemented in his state led to a 20 percent decrease in the number of people imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, which frees up valuable resources to fight dangerous crimes and reduce recidivism.

While the public safety benefits of reform are undoubtedly impressive to a “tough on crime” president, the overwhelming public support for these issues must be equally attractive.  Voters across the country are looking to Congress to act. Polling from earlier this year shows that 75 percent of voters, a clear supermajority crossing all partisan, geographic, education, income, racial and ethnic boundaries, believe the criminal justice system needs to be reformed and support changes such as fixing our cash bail system and replacing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

In the final stretch to a Senate vote, do not be surprised to see this White House deploy its assets to the states to stump for a bill they know the American people want.  There will be folks from every walk of life lining up behind them, from business leaders and military veterans to civil rights advocates and faith leaders.  Just this week, people from 50 organizations of all political stripes and bipartisan senior legislative staff met to talk details. When the phone lines light up in offices all over Capitol Hill demanding a vote, Washington may well be out of excuses.

Candidly, I will be quite surprised if this White House were to deploy its assets to stump for reform, but I certainly hope this will happen.  I am fairly confident that if Prez Trump were to do a series of tweets in support of a federal criminal justice reform bill, that bill would have a much greater chance of getting to his desk.  And Prez Trump does not have to change minds about pending reforms: there is already overwhelming bipartisan support for the basic substance of nearly every serious sentencing and prison reform bill. 

The current challenge is  getting congressional leadership to settle on which version of which bill will be brought up for a vote. Senate leadership has been the bottleneck lately, and the White House surely could and should focus, publicly and privately, on advocacy toward leadership to settle on a bill and finally allow a vote.  (Notably, the FIRST STEP Act got 86% approval when it got to a vote in the House of Representatives, so it seems informed legislators are even more supportive of federal reform than the poll numbers.) 

This piece by Holly Harris highlights just why passage of federal criminal justice reform could be a huge win for this Administration, and I hope Prez Trump sees the potential political value to pushing reform over the finish-line.  Presidents always have unique powers and unique opportunities to grease the legislative process, and a congressional reform discussion that has been going strong for now five years with no tangible results can certainly uses as much grease as it can get. 

Some of many prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: I have just added to the title of this post after seeing this new Politico piece headlined "Criminal justice deal faces steep Senate hurdles despite Trump’s push."  Here is an excerpts that has me thinking reform does not get done unless and until the Trump White House puts all its might behind the effort:

Trump has stepped up his own calls for a deal on the prisons overhaul that the House passed earlier this year, holding two events so far this month.  And groups off the Hill say they're closing in on a path to pass the legislation through the Senate by adding some of the sentencing changes Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) spent years negotiating with Democrats.

But interviews with a dozen GOP senators show that those talks remain in a precarious state.  That’s because the handful of Republicans who have long protested reducing mandatory-minimum sentences leave Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) without any incentive to call up legislation that would split his conference.

One of those longtime critics of adding sentencing to the House-passed prisons bill bluntly predicted Thursday that McConnell would not “bring the bill to the floor any time soon.”

“I’m not sure that we can put together a deal,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) said in an interview. “I’m not sure we should.”...

Close involvement from Trump will likely be required for the GOP to get past its internal schism over reducing mandatory minimum sentences as part of a prisons package. Grassley's bipartisan package of sentencing and prison reforms boasts 15 Republican cosponsors, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes even the narrower prisons-only approach the House has passed.

August 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Senator Cotton delivers faulty arguments to prop up faulty federal sentencing system

With Jeff Sessions now in the role of Attorney General, Senator Tom Cotton is one of the last members of Congress eager to push a tough-and-tougher agenda.  Despite the US position as world leader in incarceration, Senator Cotton asserted a few years ago, as noted here, that "we have an under-incarceration problem."  His thinking today finds expression in this new Wall Street Journal article headlined "Reform the Prisons Without Going Soft on Crime: Proposals to give judges more discretion and cut mandatory minimums endanger public safety."  Regular readers will be familiar with many of the moves in this piece (even though we've not heard much from Bill Otis lately).  Here is a sample:

The U.S. faces a drug epidemic today, exactly the wrong time to go soft on crime.  According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017 more than 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, a 37% increase from 2015 and a nearly 100% increase since 2008.  Violent crime has declined since the 1980s because mandatory minimums adopted then locked up violent criminals.  But in 2015-16, the most recent years for which full data are available, violent crime increased at its fastest rate in a quarter-century, though preliminary data suggest it might have leveled off in 2017....

This naive policy ignores the reality of recidivism.  Five out of six prisoners end up rearrested within nine years, according to a recent Justice Department study. In fact, on average reoffenders are rearrested five times — and not for minor crimes.  Only a handful of ex-convicts return to prison exclusively for parole violations, whereas 77% of drug offenders are rearrested for serious nondrug crimes, such as murder and rape.  Most criminals will commit more crimes after being released from prison, even with improved rehabilitation programs.  The last thing Congress should do is shorten their sentences or allow them to “serve time” in home confinement....

What is the logic of such leniency?  Activists say they want to reverse “mass incarceration.”  That is a curious characterization when less than half of crimes are even reported to police and more than 80% of property crimes and 50% of violent crimes that are reported go unsolved, according to Pew Research Center.  Tell those victims denied justice that the U.S. locks up too many criminals.

Virtually no one goes to federal prison for “low-level, nonviolent” drug offenses, especially mere drug use or possession. In 2015, there were 247 inmates in federal prison for drug possession. In these rare cases, the inmates usually pleaded down from a more serious offense.  In the extreme case of a manifestly unjust sentence, the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions. President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases.

Some fiscal conservatives believe that America spends too much on the prison system.  Yet the Bureau of Prisons costs taxpayers less than $8 billion a year, or about 0.2% of the entire federal budget.  After national security, the government’s most basic responsibility is to protect its citizens from crime. The costs of crime and disorder — personal and economic — far outweigh the downsides of putting serious criminals behind bars.

Mandatory minimums and truth-in-sentencing laws work. Rather than eliminate them, Congress should improve access to faith-based and other antirecidivism programs in federal prisons.  American families deserve safe communities and protection from drugs and crime.  Criminals, especially first-time offenders who grew up in rough environments, deserve second chances — once they have done their time.

I suspect most readers can readily see logical flaws in Senator Cotton's advocacy here (e.g., how do poor clearance rates for violent crimes justify excessive drug sentences?).  Most fundamentally, the bills with a chance for passage in Congress do not get anywhere close to "eliminating"  mandatory minimums or truth-in-sentencing laws, and they in fact sadly do not really do all that much more than enhance antirecidivism programs in federal prisons.  But even the modest bills with a shot at passage (which have the support of Prez Trump) are too much for Senator Cotton.

John Pfaff has this twitter thread in which he describes the effort as "horrifically dishonest." John attacks various numbers in the op-ed, and I will just stress a telling flip-flop on the clemency front. Senator Cotton says "the pardon power is a better instrument of justice than broad sentencing reductions," but many folks on the right criticized Prez Obama's use of clemency at the end of the term by saying it should be Congress in charge of granting any serious sentencing relief.  Senator Cotton here also says here "President Trump has shown himself more than willing to intervene to redress such cases," but he has so far only commuted two extreme federal sentences (roughly .001% of the federal prison population).  Prez Trump has promised to do more, but he can not be expected to nor depended upon to do the kind of reform via clemency that Congress should be doing in the first instance.

UPDATE: Mark Holden has this new commentary, headlined "Correcting the Record About Sentencing Reform and Mandatory Minimums," which goes point-by-point through key claims made by Senator Cotton and provides different perspective on his assertion.

ANOTHER UPDATE:  Derek Cohen over at Right on Crime also has this notable response to Senator Cotton's piece under the headline "Setting the Record Straight"

August 16, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Does Prez Trump have the courage to visit the largest maximum security prison in the country?

The question in the title of this post reflects my weak effort to try to goad Prez Donald Trump into accepting an invitation from Louisiana's governor as reported in this article:

Gov. John Bel Edwards has invited President Donald Trump to visit Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum security prison in the country.

In a letter sent Thursday (Aug. 9) [available here], Edwards said Angola would be a good place for Trump to explore the benefits of Louisiana's criminal justice overhaul last year. Edwards touted the vocational, victim reconciliation and faith-based programs housed at the prison, where nearly 6,000 inmates live.

Specifically, Edwards said Trump should see the accredited Bible college located at Angola and the prison's hospice program, which has received national recognition. "It is not a secret that the implementation of these types of programs is what helped to transform LSP from one of the bloodiest prisons in America to a place of hope, transformation and reconciliation," Edwards wrote to Trump.

Both the Bible college and the hospice program at Angola predate by several years the criminal justice overhaul Edwards spearheaded. In fact, inmates at Angola were not as significantly affected by the criminal justice law changes in 2017 as people in other parts of the prison system.

Edwards' criminal justice overhaul dealt mostly with shortening sentences and expanding parole and probation opportunities for nonviolent offenders. It has resulted in Louisiana losing its title of incarceration capital of the country, but the drop in the prison population has occurred almost entirely among people serving time for lower-level offenses.

Angola is home predominantly to people serving life sentences for violent crimes who will never be released from prison. Those inmates mostly did not see substantial changes in their sentences as a result of the criminal justice overhaul.

The governor also attended a meeting in New Jersey with Trump and several other elected officials on criminal justice issues Thursday. Other governors attending included Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Kentucky, Gov. Phil Bryant, R-Mississippi, and Gov. Nathan Deal, R-Georgia. Edwards was the only Democrat invited to the meeting.

Notably, a little more than three years ago as detailed in this post, Prez Obama got lots of good press for making history by being the first occupant of the White House to visit a federal correctional facility.  Back in 2015, I had this to say in the wake of this historic visit: "Though I am not really expecting it, I would love for this kind of presidential visit to a prison to become a regular habit and something of a tradition. As President Obama stressed in his recent speech to the NAACP, most of the persons behind bars "are also Americans" and all presidents should be committed to serving all Americans, even those who are incarcerated."  It would be amazing for Prez Trump to be the one who turns visiting a prison into a tradition, and perhaps Prez Trump could even be goaded into trying to  Prez Obama's visitation record by visiting both a state and a federal prison as he advocates for Congress to pass criminal justice reform.

Interestingly, earlier today Prez Trump had this tweet which mention his advocacy for prison reform in this way: "I'm pushing for prison reform to give people who have paid their debt to society a second chance. I will never stop fighting for ALL Americans!"  I hope part of his push will include a visit to Angola and other prisons and jails, where millions of Americans reside.

A few older related posts:

August 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, August 10, 2018

Could a version of the FIRST STEP Act with sentencing reforms pass the Senate in a matter of weeks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this encouraging Thursday Washington Examiner piece headlined "Jared Kushner helps Trump pave rare bipartisan path to big win." Here are excerpts with a few lines emphasized:

Thursday’s roundtable at President Trump’s summer White House in New Jersey to address prison and sentencing reform with governor’s is the latest bid by top aide Jared Kushner to give his father-in-law a rare bipartisan victory on a once controversial issue.

In getting Trump to carve out part of his working vacation at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., Kushner and other officials are hoping to demonstrate how important the issues are to the president as he works to get a Senate vote in the next month.

Trump’s meeting this afternoon with governors, state attorneys general, and top aides is the latest in which he will endorse prison reform and he is also expected to open the door to sentencing reform, a sign to key senators that he is ready for a deal.

Just last week he met with Trump met with Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott and Chuck Grassley who are working legislation on sentencing and prison reform.

“We are trying to get a vote in the next two weeks,” said an administration official of the broad prison reform bill known as the First Step Act that passed the House overwhelmingly.

As he has on Middle East peace and other projects his father-in-law has given him, Kushner has worked overtime -- and always behind the scenes -- to build an unusual coalition in support of the reforms....

“There can’t be any doubt that by having this as the only major event on the president’s schedule that he is laser focused on this,” said one associate, who added, “We think that with this momentum and with the coalition behind it, that this can actually happen.”

Importantly, as I understand matters, the Senate would be voting on not just the prison reforms in the House version of the FIRST STEP Act, but also some sentencing reforms. Those reform are limited, but still quite significant, and they are outlined in this recent piece by Mark Holden.  And if this is brought up for a vote in the Senate, I do not think there is any real likelihood it would not pass.  Indeed, the question would be probably whether it might get even more than 80 votes.

If this really gets completely done in the coming weeks, I do think it will be right to give Prez Trump and his Administration a considerable amount of credit.  But that credit comes only if and when a bill is signed and the law is changed.  Remarkably, I am starting to get optimistic that this could happen pretty soon.

August 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, August 09, 2018

White House emails "startling facts about America’s prison system"

Though I will not be back on-line regularly for a few more days, I  am finding ways to check my emails and felt inspired to report here on what appeared at the very top of the daily email blast from the White House today.  Specifically, this text and these links appeared under the heading "The startling facts about America’s prison system":

Following successful bipartisan passage of the FIRST STEP Act in the House of Representatives, President Trump is hosting a roundtable with a number of America’s governors today to discuss implementing prison reform in their states.

President Trump supports efforts to reduce recidivism — the return of former inmates to prison—as a way to make America’s streets safer. The Administration has worked closely with Congress to find a solution that reduces crime, enhances public safety, and increases opportunity for those who have earned a second chance.

“The facts about America’s prison system are startling,” Senior Advisor Jared Kushner wrote in The Wall Street Journal in April. “The U.S. has 4% of the world’s population, but roughly 25% of the world’s prisoners. . . . Of the 650,000 people who leave prison every year, two-thirds will commit a new crime within three years.”

The bottom line, says Kushner: “President Trump promised to fight for the forgotten men and women of this country—and that includes those in prison.”

The starting facts about America’s prison system.

Taking action: President Trump’s principles for reforming our prisons

No White House gets any credit or congratulations from me unless and until actual legislation gets enacted into law.  But this email, which also noted that today "President Donald J. Trump is hosting a roundtable discussion with governors on prison reform and the FIRST STEP Act before Congress," reinforces my sense that this White House is going to keep talking up at least some measure of criminal justice reform until at least something actually gets done. Or, at least, they are fooling me into believing this is a real priority for this Administration.

August 9, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Encouraging news from DC about prospects for prison reform with sentencing reform getting enacted in 2018

Though I am a very long way from DC right now (much closer to Russia, in fact, somewhere on this route), I had to find a way on-line to be sure to note the exciting federal criminal justice reform news reported here in The Hill under the headline "Trump gives thumbs up to prison sentencing reform bill at pivotal meeting."  Here are the details:

President Trump has told Republican senators that he’s open to a new proposal on prison and sentencing reform, giving new life to an issue that seemed hopelessly stalled on Capitol Hill.

The compromise presented to Trump by Republican senators at a White House meeting on Wednesday would combine the prison reform bill passed by the House in May — the First Step Act — with four sentencing reform provisions that have bipartisan Senate backing, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

A senior White House official described the president as “positively inclined” toward the compromise proposal. The source said Trump told GOP senators to “do some work with your colleagues” and “let's see where the Senate is and then come back to me with it.”...

The compromise offer was presented to Trump at a meeting with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser and Trump’s son-in-law; Shahira Knight, the new White House legislative affairs director; and White House chief of staff John Kelly also attended the White House meeting.

Attendees described Trump’s support for the initiative as a positive development for the effort to reduce mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. While getting a final bill to Trump would require a Senate vote and then winning House approval for the new package, a second source familiar with the meeting described it as “very successful.” “It’s not done until it’s done, but we made a lot of progress,” the source said.

Grassley said afterward that he believes prison reform and sentencing reform can be moved in tandem. “I think we made great progress so it doesn’t have to be broken up,” Grassley told reporters Thursday. “There seems to be an interest on the part of the White House now to keeping the bills together.”

Negotiators now think there’s a possibility of moving legislation through the Senate as soon as this month, though it’s more likely to wait until the lame-duck session after the midterm elections....

The emergent compromise proposal would make several technical changes to the House-passed First Step Act and merge it with four sentencing reforms from the Senate’s Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which has a large number of co-sponsors from both parties.

“The question is how little sentencing reform we can put in there without losing the Democrats and how much we can put in there without losing more than a handful of Republicans, and we think we’ve about cracked that formula,” said a person familiar with the internal talks who briefed The Hill.

The proposed compromise would lower lifetime mandatory minimum sentences for people with prior nonviolent drug felony convictions to 25 years and reduce 20-year mandatory minimum sentences for similar offenders to 15 years. But in an effort to reach common ground, that reform would only apply to new sentences and not to people already in jail.

Another reform would free judges from having to ratchet up sentences for drug offenders convicted on simultaneous charges. A requirement known as the “stacking enhancement” forced judges to treat convictions on multiple charges as prior offenses and mandated harshly long punishments for nonviolent drug offenders. In another bid to broaden political support, this reform would not apply retroactively.

A third reform would apply the Fair Sentencing Act, which Congress passed in 2010 and reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related offenses, retroactively. That law reduced the disparity between cocaine- and crack-related crimes prospectively but only applied to new sentences. The reform now being discussed would retroactively reduce the disparity of old sentences.

The final reform would expand exceptions to the application of mandatory-minimum sentences to more people with criminal histories.

I am not counting any sentencing reform chickens before they hatch, but this description of the compromise combo FIRST STEP Act and SRCA would seem to make a lot of sense in light of various positions staked out on both sides of the aisle. And if Prez Trump signals support for such a reform package and is willing to make it a priority, I would now be inclined to predict this will get done this year. But because Prez Trump has never seemed a serious advocate for sentencing reform, and because his Attorney General likely dislikes all of this, and because the run-up and aftermath of an election can disrupt lots in DC, I am inclined to remain pessimistic about all of this until votes are being scheduled and taken.

August 4, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

"Attorney General Sessions Delivers Remarks Calling for a Legislative Fix to the Armed Career Criminal Act"

The title of this post is the headline of this press release from the US Department of Justice today, and here are some of the comments that follow that focus on ACCA:

[B]ecause of a 2015 Supreme Court decision holding that the definition of violent felony was too vague — we are missing one of the most important law enforcement tools we had. The Johnson case is quite significant.

Regardless of the merits of the Court’s decision, the consequences have been devastating for Americans across the country.

This court decision led to the release of a man from right here in Little Rock. Eight months after he was released from prison, he was arrested for aggravated assault and domestic battery. A year after that he was arrested for kidnapping, rape, aggravated assault, battery, and terroristic threats. He is accused of raping a 62-year old woman and an autistic homeless man.

This court ruling also led to the release of a man who allegedly punched a pregnant woman at a nightclub in Forrest City. When police intervened, he allegedly assaulted three of them, cutting one of them on the forehead.

A man from Pine Bluff got his 15 year sentence cut in half. A year later, he got into an argument with a co-worker. According to the allegations against him, the co-worker turned around to walk away when the defendant sucker-punched him, broke his nose and eye sockets, chipped a tooth and busted his lip.

Two of these criminals I’ve talked about are now back in prison. They were let out of prison, reoffended, and now they’re back in prison.

But the consequences are not limited to Arkansas. This is a nationwide problem and it’s a cause for deep concern. In Utah, a career criminal released by this decision tortured and murdered two teenagers and then threw their bodies down a mineshaft. A released career criminal in California allegedly murdered his father, carjacked a vehicle and killed the driver. In Oregon, a released career criminal held a Subway sandwich shop hostage and then shot a police officer just 18 days after he was released.

Sadly, I could go on and on. So why did this happen? The Supreme Court struck down part of a law called the Armed Career Criminal Act. It had been on the books for 30 years and applied thousands of times.

This is the law that requires a minimum 15- year sentence for felons caught with a firearm after their third violent felony or serious drug trafficking conviction.

These are not the mythical “low-level, nonviolent drug offenders,” who we are always told are being excessively imprisoned. These are criminals who have already committed multiple serious offenses and then were caught with a gun.

This is no little matter. In 2016, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that nearly seven out of ten career criminals reoffended after being released. Federal firearms offenders were found to be the most likely to be rearrested of any category. These criminals are both. They are career criminals and firearms offenders. I was a United States Attorney before the Armed Career Criminal Act — and I was United States Attorney afterward. I’ve seen its importance firsthand as we worked to reduce crime in America.

Nationwide, the Supreme Court’s decision has resulted in more than 1,400 violent career criminals back onto our streets — including 18 here in Arkansas. Nine of these Arkansas criminals have already been arrested again.

Six-hundred of those 1,400 criminals have been arrested again. It’s only been three years since the Court decision, but 42 percent have already reoffended.

On average, these 600 criminals have been arrested or reoffended three times in the last three years. A majority of those who have been out of prison for just two years have been arrested again. Releasing repeat offenders has consequences. Every crime committed by a recidivist released by this court case would not have happened. Every one of their victims would not have been victimized.

We must fix the law so violent career criminals are not let out of jail early. Their recidivism rate is staggering indeed, but let’s remember: this is still likely an underrepresentation of their illegal activity. Any law officer in this room will tell you that criminals rarely get caught on their first offense. We can only imagine how many crimes they have really committed and how many innocent people they have victimized.

Releasing hardened criminals into our communities before they serve their minimum term is not fair to crime victims. And it is not fair to law enforcement. You shouldn’t have to go into danger time and again to arrest the same people.

Congress and our legislatures need to help us and consider legislation that protects the public. We need Congress to fix the law so that we can keep violent career criminals off of our streets. That shouldn’t be controversial.

Fortunately, some Members of Congress are helping. My good friend Senator Cotton understands this issue. He is working on legislation that is intended to fix this problem for good — and I want to thank him for his outstanding leadership on criminal justice issues.

We should look for effective and proven ways to reduce recidivism, but we must also recognize that simply reducing sentences without reducing recidivism unfairly creates more victims.

I agree with Attorney General Sessions that we need a Johnson fix and more.  Reform to the Armed Career Criminal Act is long overdue (Justices Scalia and Alito have bemoaning ACCA problems and urged Congress to act for many, many years before Johnson).  Beyond just the vagueness problem Johnson addressed, there are deeper problems with the entire structure of the Armed Career Criminal Act, particularly its reliance on a severe mandatory minimum prison term (of 15 years) for the mere act of possessing a firearm or ammunition. Consequently, I do not think a mere Johnson fix to ACCA will be a fully sound or effective response to the genuine concerns flagged by AG Sessions.

In a future post, I hope to be able to discuss the specifics of Senator Tom Cotton's approach to fixing ACCA.  For now, I will just suggest it will be interesting to see if anyone in Congress will be willing to try to roll an ACCA fix into existing criminal justice reform proposals that are now seemingly languishing on the Hill.

August 1, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)