Tuesday, January 11, 2022

New paper explores "Reimagining Judging" in the US "after a decades long love affair with prison"

Retired US District Judge Nancy Gertner, who is now teaches at Harvard Law School, has this great new 44-page report titled "Reimagining Judging" released as part of the the Square One Project's Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy.  This press release and this executive summary provides an overview of the report, but my post title draws on this passage from the report that helps frame how Judge Gertner approaches this critical project:

Countless papers have been written about the perils of unstructured discretion — discrimination and bias chief among them (Frankel 1973).  But I want to raise another issue: The unique problem of giving judges discretion in sentencing at this moment in time, after a decades long love affair with prison.  How can judges who have been schooled in the extraordinarily punitive system that produced mass incarceration for the past thirty years suddenly operate in a system that — one hopes — will reflect wholly different premises?  How can a judicial system based on one set of assumptions suddenly enact or apply a wholly different approach?  These are precisely the same questions we have asked of police, correctional officers, and prosecutors in a changed criminal legal system.  Is change possible in juvenile correctional facilities that reflected hard-nosed punishment, too often accompanied by physical and sexual abuse scandals?  Is change possible with police schooled to be warriors, not guardians?  Although surprising at first blush, assuming that law-following judges will enforce such institutional changes — much like with these other actors — is not enough.

In this paper, I touch first on judicial resistance to recent modest criminal law reforms, one example of what I have described elsewhere as the phenomenon of “the habits of mass incarceration” (Gertner 2020).  Then I sketch out — very briefly — the factors that make judges resistant to change: constraints that apparently limit a judge’s horizons, cognitive influences that they ignore, and political pressures that are unexamined.  Finally, I propose a way to effect change — a very preliminary suggestion.

Several caveats: I am generalizing from my experiences from 17 years in the federal system.  This is not an empirical paper.  Not all judges fit these descriptions.  Nor is this paper about what needs to be changed in the broader criminal legal system; others are dealing with those profound and overarching questions.  Finally, the message here is not that judicial change is impossible, only that it is difficult.  Any “reimagining project” must take judicial impediments to change into account; this paper considers how to revamp the criminal legal system through the lens of those who must apply that system’s rules.

January 11, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 10, 2022

Spotlighting guideline circuit split, two Justices express "hope" US Commission will be back "in near future"

The Supreme Court issued this lengthy order list this morning which, as is typical, is mostly full of lots and lots of denials of certiorari. The Justices granted review in three cases (one involving habeas procedure) and called for the Solicitor General's views in two other cases.  But, at the very end of the 24-page order list without much of interest for sentencing fans, was a notable short statement by Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Barrett, respecting the denial of certiorari in Guerrant v. US, No. 21-5099. Here are highlights:

This petition implicates a split among the Courts of Appeals over the proper definition of a “controlled substance offense,” and, accordingly, over which defendants qualify as career offenders.... Defendants in [most Circuits] qualify as career offenders for federal sentencing purposes even if their only prior offenses involved substances not prohibited under federal law. As a result, they are subject to far higher terms of imprisonment for the same offenses as compared to defendants similarly situated in the Second or Ninth Circuits.

It is the responsibility of the Sentencing Commission to address this division to ensure fair and uniform application of the Guidelines. Cf. Braxton v. United States, 500 U.S. 344, 348 (1991).  In March 2021, I wrote concerning an unresolved Circuit split over the proper interpretation of a Guideline. See Longoria v. United States, 592 U. S. ___. The Sentencing Commission lacked a quorum of voting members then, and it still does today.  At this point, the Sentencing Commission has not had a quorum for three full years.  As the instant petition illustrates, the resultant unresolved divisions among the Courts of Appeals can have direct and severe consequences for defendants’ sentences. I hope in the near future the Commission will be able to resume its important function in our criminal justice system.

I am intrigued and pleased to see Justice Barrett now joining Justice Sotomayor in flagging the need for a functioning US Sentencing Commission to address problematic circuit splits.  But it bears noting that plenty of circuit splits, including this one, pre-date the USSC's loss of a quorum.  Even when fully functioning, the USSC has never been able to resolve all challenging circuit conflicts, and I share Dawinder Sidhu's view that we should all "be troubled by the court’s refusal to review conflicts involving the federal sentencing guidelines." (See full article here.) 

I think it is the responsibility of the USSC and SCOTUS to help "ensure fair and uniform application of the Guidelines."  And, as Justice Sotomayor notes, we are now a full three years into a quorum-less Commission and still do not even have Commissioner nominees.  Moreover, even if Prez Biden were to nominate new Commissioners in the next few weeks (which seems unlikely) and the Senate were to confirm those nominees quickly (which seems unlikely), a new Commission could not "fix" this broken guideline until Nov 2022 at the earliest (and Nov 2023 or later is much more realistic).  But SCOTUS could, and arguably should, "solve" this issue and others with a per curiam opinion that advances consistency for the time being subject to future review by a future Commission.

Because the Supreme Court has largely abdicated its role in guideline interpretation for over three decades now, I am not surprised that it is not now trying to fill the gap created by a quorum-less Commission.  But I wish there were more than just a couple of Justices willing to do a lot more than just talk up their "hope" that another part of the federal judiciary would be able to soon help advance sentencing justice. 

January 10, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Saturday, January 08, 2022

"Count the Code: Quantifying Federalization of Criminal Statutes"

SR-count-the-code-charts-page6The title of this post is the title of this fascinating new Heritage Foundation report authored by GianCarlo Canaparo, Patrick McLaughlin, Jonathan Nelson and Liya Palagashvili. Here is the report's summary and "key takeaways":

SUMMARY

The authors have developed an algorithm to quantify the number of statutes within the U.S. Code that create one or more federal crimes.  As of 2019, we found 1,510 statutes that create at least one crime.  This represents an increase of nearly 36 percent relative to the 1,111 statutes that created at least one crime in 1994.  Although the algorithm cannot precisely count discrete crimes within sections, we estimate the number of crimes contained within the Code as of 2019 at 5,199.  These findings support the conclusion that the number of federal crimes has increased, while also bolstering concerns that federal crimes are too diffuse, too numerous, and too vague for the average citizen to know what the law requires.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • This study quantifies the number of federal statutes that create a crime and estimates 5,199 federal crimes within the United States Code.
  • From 1994 to 2019, the number of sections that create a federal crime increased 36 percent.
  • Because many of these crimes apply to conduct no rational person would expect to be a crime, the government is potentially turning average Americans into criminals.

This report, and its useful but brief discussion of the "Relationship Between Federalization of Crime and Federal Prisoners" which includes the graphic reprinted above, got me to thinking about how hard it would be to effectively quantify and assess changes in federal sentencing law over the last 35 years since the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.  I was thinking about this challenge because, based on a quick read, I cannot quite tell if the algorithm used in this study picked up only federal statutes that created new crimes or also captured statutes that only changed the penalties for existing crimes (which happens fairly often).

Notably, from 1984 through 2009, most new federal sentencing laws enacted by Congress increased statutory penalties (often in complicated ways).  But the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act and the 2018 FIRST STEP Act serve as recent examples lowering statutory penalties (also in complicated ways).  And then, of course, starting in the late 1980s, federal law was significantly shaped by yearly federal sentencing guideline changes, some of which were directed by Congress.  There have been over 800 guideline amendments, some minor (and mandatory before 2005), others major (and advisory after 2005), some even retroactive.  And, thanks to Apprendi-Booker, ACCA interpretations and other jurisprudential messes, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have been "changing" federal sentencing law in various significant ways almost continuously over this period.

January 8, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

Making the case, because "upper-class offenders ... might be even more reprehensible," for a severe sentence for Elizabeth Holmes

Former federal prosecutor Barbara McQuade has this notable MSNBC opinion piece that makes a full-throated argument for throwing the book ay former Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Some people steal money with guns.  Other people steal money with lies.  In a court of law, they’re all crooks. But not all crooks are treated the same by the justice system, a fact Elizabeth Holmes may be counting on when it comes to her sentencing....  White-collar criminals like Holmes may not get their hands dirty in the traditional sense, but their conduct is no less criminal than a stickup in an alley.  In fact, upper-class offenders like Holmes might be even more reprehensible; while street crime is often motivated by need, white-collar crime is usually motivated by greed....

The government quantified Holmes’ investor fraud, arguing it amounted to more than $140 million, a figure that will largely influence her eventual sentence. Federal sentencing guidelines consider a number of factors, including the amount of money involved in the scheme. Based on that number, as well as enhancements and the sophistication of her scheme, Holmes is likely looking at a sentence between 14 and 17 years.

Sentencing is a key inflection point for disparities in the criminal justice system.  But will a judge actually give Holmes a 15-year sentence? Holmes’ defense attorneys, like the attorneys of many criminals before her, will certainly try to argue that the sentencing guidelines in white-collar cases are simply “too high.”  This argument has worked with judges in the past, and high-priced attorneys know that judges can reduce the sentence considerably in a fraud case, as long as they articulate a good reason. (Unlike in criminal cases involving drugs or guns, for example, Holmes does not face a mandatory minimum sentence.)...

Perhaps because judges see offenders who look like them or who share similar backgrounds, they often bite on the argument that sentences for white-collar crimes should be something less than the guidelines range.  I have heard defense attorneys argue that their clients have already been punished enough through societal shame.  You can imagine one of these white-collar defendants lamenting to his lawyer that he can’t even walk through the country club dining room without getting a nasty look from a fellow member.

The other advantage white-collar defendants enjoy at sentencing is their ability to showcase a life of good deeds and letters of support.  An upper-income defendant can often point to service on boards or donations to charitable causes as mitigating factors.  Here again we find problematic disparities baked into the justice system: A low-income defendant lacks the resources to amass anything resembling that kind of track record.  Similarly, while a defendant like Holmes can likely find prominent people to write her letters of support, a defendant lacking her resources usually also lacks the connections needed to mount a similar campaign.

Another argument often made by defense attorneys in white-collar cases is that incarcerating their clients would be a waste of resources because they pose no threat to public safety.  This may be true, but the federal sentencing statute provides that the purpose of sentencing also includes deterrence and just punishment.  Deterrence is especially important in white-collar cases because these are crimes that are carefully planned. No one commits investor fraud in the heat of passion. If defendants who perpetrate massive fraud can get away with a slap on the wrist, then others will calculate that it is worth the gamble to do the same.  A strong sentence in white-collar cases can provide an important data point in that calculation. And fraud is not an inherently victimless crime.

As we think about ways to address racial and economic disparities in the criminal justice system, we should consider not only the disproportionately long sentences that are imposed on street criminals.  We should also consider the paltry ones that are meted out to the wealthy.  We will find out soon enough how Elizabeth Holmes’ sentence does or does not contribute to this pattern.

Because I do not think all that many federal defendants (even "wealthy" ones) actually do get "paltry" sentences — unless and until they cut a special deal with a federal prosecutor, see, e.g., Jeffrey Epstein's first pass — I think we generally need to worry a whole lot more about disproportionately long federal sentences than about problematically short ones.  Still, this commentary  does usefully highlights how advantaged defendants are often better able to present mitigating sentencing factors than disadvantages ones.  For me, that provides a reason for the system to work harder to help the disadvantaged, not a reason to slam the advantaged.  As I expressed in an article nearly 15 years ago, it always worries me when an emphasis on sentencing consistency  fuels "a leveling up dynamic"  that pushes sentences to be more consistently harsh.

Prior related post:

January 5, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, January 03, 2022

Elizabeth Holmes convicted on 4 of 11 fraud charges ... but now can be sentenced on all and more

The high-profile fraud trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes resulting in a mixed verdict, but her conviction on four counts each with 20-year maximums means that she now faces up to eight decades in federal prison. And, as regular readers know, her acquittal/non-conviction on various charges do not preclude the federal judge at sentencing from considering evidence associated with those charges.  This short New York Times piece, headlined "What happens next to Elizabeth Holmes," provides some details about what may lie ahead:

Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the failed blood testing start-up Theranos, now awaits sentencing after being found guilty of four of 11 charges of fraud on Monday.

Ms. Holmes, 37, left the San Jose, Calif., courtroom through a side door after the verdict was read in the case, which was closely scrutinized as a commentary on Silicon Valley. She was found guilty of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. She was found not guilty on four other counts. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on three counts, which were set aside for later.

After the verdict was read, defense and prosecution lawyers discussed plans for Ms. Holmes’s sentencing, the status of her probation and the fate of the three hung charges. Judge Edward J. Davila of the Northern District of California, who oversaw the case, said he planned to declare a mistrial on those charges, which the government could choose to retry. The parties agreed that Ms. Holmes would not be taken into custody on Monday.

A sentencing date is expected to be set at a hearing on the three hung charges next week. Ms. Holmes can appeal the conviction, her sentence or both. She will also be interviewed by the U.S. Probation Office as it prepares a pre-sentence report....

Each count of wire fraud carries up to 20 years in prison, though Ms. Holmes is unlikely to receive the maximum sentence because she has no prior convictions, said Neama Rahmani, the president of the West Coast Trial Lawyers and a former federal prosecutor.

But he said her sentence was likely to be on the higher end because of the amount of the money involved. Ms. Holmes raised $945 million for Theranos during the start-up’s lifetime and those investments were ultimately wiped out.

Given the amount of loss and other factors likely to lead to upward guideline adjustment, Holmes is sure to face a very high guideline sentencing range (perhaps a range as high as life imprisonment). But her lack of criminal history and other potential mitigating personal factors leads me to expect her to receive a below-guideline sentence. But exactly what that sentence might be (and what the parties will argue for) will be interesting to following in the months ahead.

January 3, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (11)

Thursday, December 30, 2021

"How the Economic Loss Guideline Lost its Way, and How to Save It"

I have been overdue in blogging about this recent article which shares the title of this post and was published earlier this year in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.  This piece was authored by Barry Boss and Kara Kapp, and it is still very timely as we think about priority concerns for a new US Sentencing Commission (whenever it gets members).  In addition, the enduring issues discussed in this article could soon become a focal point of a very high-profile sentencing if a jury brings back fraud convictions against Elizabeth Holmes.  Here is this article's introduction:

This Article revisits a stubborn problem that has been explored by commentators repeatedly over the past thirty years, but which remains unresolved to this day.  The economic crimes Guideline, Section 2B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Manual, routinely recommends arbitrary, disproportionate, and often draconian sentences to first-time offenders of economic crimes.  These disproportionate sentences are driven primarily by Section 2B1.1’s current loss table, which has an outsized role in determining the length of an economic crime offender’s sentence.  Moreover, this deep flaw in the Guideline’s design has led many judges to lose confidence entirely in the Guideline’s recommended sentences, leading to a wide disparity of sentences issued to similarly situated economic crime offenders across the country.  Accordingly, this Guideline has failed to address the primary problem it was designed to solve — unwarranted disparities among similarly situated offenders.  Worse still, it not only has failed to prevent such unwarranted disparities, its underlying design actively exacerbates them.  In the wake of the United States Sentencing Commission’s recent launch of its Interactive Data Analyzer in June 2020, the authors have identified new evidence that this pernicious problem continues to persist.

In Part I, we review the history and purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines, generally, and the economic crimes Guideline specifically.  In Part II, we explain how the current version of the economic crimes Guideline operates in practice, the extraordinarily high sentences it recommends in high-loss cases, and the resulting overemphasis on loss that overstates offenders’ culpability.  In Part III, we analyze data made available through the Commission’s Interactive Data Analyzer and discuss our findings.  In Part IV, we offer a series of reforms designed to restore the judiciary’s and practitioners’ respect for this Guideline so that it may serve its animating purpose — to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similarly situated offenders

December 30, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

"How Much Prison Time Could Ghislaine Maxwell Serve After Sex Trafficking Conviction?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this new Newsweek article that explores a bit what I started thinking about upon hearing that Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein's "helper," had been convicted on five of six federal sex trafficking charges.  The simple technical answer to the question is 65 years, and the article provides these (helpful?) additional details:

The most serious charge Maxwell was convicted of, sex trafficking of a minor, carries a maximum prison sentence of 40 years.  She was also convicted of transporting a minor with the intent to engage in illegal sexual activity, a charge punishable by up to 10 years, as well as three other charges that each carry maximum sentences of five years.... It is unclear when she could be tried on two separate counts of perjury, which could also add a five-year sentence apiece.

[I]f 60-year-old Maxwell is given a sentence anywhere near the maximum allowable term, she may spend the rest of her life behind bars, especially since the federal prison system does not include parole. If federal prison sentencing guidelines are allowed and she is ordered to serve sentences concurrently, Maxwell could face as little as 10 years.

Maxwell was sent back to Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center after the verdict was read on Wednesday.  She has been held at the facility in isolation since being arrested in July 2020. Maxwell is likely to remain there until she is sentenced and assigned to a federal prison....

It is unclear whether security measures for Maxwell will be altered in light of her convictions.  Maxwell has denied all of the charges that she was convicted of on Wednesday. Plans to launch an appeal have already been set in motion, her attorney Bobbi Sternheim told reporters after the verdict. "We firmly believe in Ghislaine's innocence," Sternheim said. "Obviously we are very disappointed with the verdict, we have already started working on the appeal and we are confident that she will be vindicated."

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan has yet to announce the date of Maxwell's pending sentencing hearing.

I think this article means to make the point that if federal sentencing guidelines are followed (not "allowed"), then Maxwell would be quite likely to get a term lower than the 65-year  statutory maximum available.  (It is perhaps worth noting that the most serious count of conviction now carries a statutory maximum sentence of life, but the stat max was "only" 40 years at the time of Maxwell's offense conduct.)

I am not an expert on guideline calculations for this set of offenses, but my sense is that the recommend range will be at least as high as 20 years, and perhaps even much higher.  It will be interesting to see the precise calculation and the sentencing advocacy by the prosecution and the defense in the months ahead.  It will also be interesting to watch if Judge Nathan's nomination to the Second Circuit, or the effort by some GOP Senators to question her sentencing work, could come to somehow impact Maxwell's eventual sentencing.

December 29, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Signing of NDAA into law brings some (low profile) federal sentencing reform to the military justice system

Who says significant federal sentencing reform cannot makes its way though Congress these days?  As this week proved, as long as a reform involves a relatively small and low-profile part of the federal justice system, and especially if it is part of a must-pass/must-sign National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), federal sentencing reform can become law without even a peep in the press.  Indeed, I would be entirely unaware that Prez Biden's signing of the NDAA was worthy of this blog post, but for a helpful colleague ensuring I did not miss the sentencing piece of the military justice reform story in this year's NDAA.

Of course, as can be found in various press pieces, there was considerable attention given to one high-profile piece of military justice reform in the NDAA: "Democrats applauded provisions in the bill overhauling how the military justice system handles sexual assault and other related crimes, effectively taking prosecutorial jurisdiction over such crimes out of the hands of military commanders."  But, as this Just Security piece laments, the new law only makes "piecemeal changes" in this arena, because "the FY22 NDAA military justice reform provisions transfer only a narrow class of crimes out of the chain of command and into the hands of military lawyers under their respective service secretaries."  Helpfully, in addition to giving extensive critical attention to the high-profile reforms of the NDAA, this Just Security piece also just summarizes the sentencing story:

Revolutionizes military sentencing. The NDAA mandates that sentencing for all non-capital offenses be conducted by military judges instead of the current practice, which allows for panel (jury) sentencing.  It provides for offense-based sentencing, as opposed to the current unitary model (imposing a single sentence for all offenses) and directs that non-binding sentencing guidelines be created. This sentencing reform is a much-needed step forward, though it leaves in place the only criminal justice system in the United States that tolerates non-unanimous votes to convict, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional for states last year. 

Because I tend to be a fan of jury sentencing, but this press article from a few months ago, headlined "'Crapshoot' Sentencing by Court-Martial Juries Likely to End, Advocates for New Legislation Say," highlights the disparity problems it seemed to produce in the military system:

Court-martial sentencing by juries may go the way of flogging, a change many military justice experts say is long overdue. Military judges instead would hand down sentences based on federal guidelines as part of military justice system reforms proposed in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act....

Supporters say the revision would make sentences in military trials fairer, as well as more consistent and predictable.  "People convicted of sexual assault, one guy gets five years, the other guy gets no confinement," Don Christensen[, a former Air Force prosecutor and president of Protect Our Defenders,] said. "In drug cases, you'd also see huge disparities with no justification. With shaken baby cases, sentences were all over the place."

Military defendants currently may choose whether a judge or a jury, called a "panel," decides their cases, including sentencing.  Military jurors have little experience, context or guidance when determining sentences, Christensen said.  That is magnified by the fact that under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, jurors' sentences can range from no punishment all the way to lengthy prison terms, he added....

Proposals to end it in the military date to at least 1983. The Pentagon proposed an overhaul in 2016, but the idea was dropped.

Critically, in addition to shifting sentencing from juries to judges, the new NDAA calls for the creation of "sentencing parameters" and "sentencing criteria" to guide military judges with "no fewer than 5 and no more than 12 offense categories."  These new parameters and criteria are to be created by a "Military Sentencing Parameters and Criteria Board" with five members, all judges, within the next two years.  In other words, a brand new set of (more simple) federal sentencing guidelines are due to be created for the military justice system.  All sentencing fans should be sure to keep an eye on this process, and one can hope that it might provide some useful lessons for reform to the civilian federal justice system.

December 28, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 27, 2021

Early preview of SCOTUS cases considering criminal convictions for doctors opioid prescribing practices

I briefly noted the interesting federal criminal drug cases that the Supreme Court took up in early November in this post.  With the top-side briefs now being submitted to SCOTUS, this local press article, headlined "U.S. Supreme Court will hear case of Alabama doctor who prescribed powerful opioids," provides a somewhat fuller preview. Here are excerpts:

Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have agreed to hear the appeal of an Alabama pain doctor convicted of running a pill mill, a case that could change how federal prosecutors handle opioid cases.  A federal judge in 2017 sentenced Dr. Xiulu Ruan of Mobile to 21 years in prison for several charges including drug distribution and money laundering related to operations at Physicians Pain Specialists of Alabama.  Ruan appealed his conviction last year to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals but lost.  The U.S. Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to hear Ruan’s appeal.

The doctor claims his prescriptions of fentanyl and other opioids were supposed to help patients with severe pain.  In a brief, his lawyers said physicians should not risk arrest and prosecution for unconventional treatments when other approaches have failed.  In Ruan’s case, he prescribed fentanyl approved for patients with cancer pain to people suffering from back, neck and joint pain, according to the U.S. Department of Justice....

Ruan’s appeal has been consolidated with another case, Dr. Shakeel Kahn, who practiced in Arizona and Wyoming.  Both men were found guilty of violating the federal Controlled Substances Act and said juries were not allowed to consider a “good faith” defense, which is aimed at protecting doctors trying to help patients.  The supreme court could uphold his conviction or send his case back to trial.

Ruan’s criminal trial lasted seven weeks in 2017 and featured testimony from patients who supported the doctor and family members who said loved ones received dangerous doses of addictive painkillers.  Prosecutors acknowledged that many patients received good care at the two clinics, but said some prescriptions fell far outside the norm.  Ruan and another practitioner at the clinic, Dr. John Patrick Couch, were among the nation’s top prescribers of fentanyl painkillers.  Couch was also convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.  He has also appealed his case.

In its response, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice said Ruan prescribed much higher rates of opioids than other doctors and earned more than $4 million as a result. Ruan and his partner issued almost 300,000 prescriptions for controlled substances, they wrote. Prosecutors said Ruan had deep ties to drug companies that created fentanyl medications. After his conviction, they seized assets that included exotic cars, residential and commercial property....

In his brief, Ruan’s attorney wrote that Physicians Pain Specialists of Alabama did not operate as pill mills. The clinics only accepted patients with insurance, refused cash payment and used diagnostic tools to find the sources of patients’ pain.  Only patients with intractable pain received fentanyl, Ruan testified at his trial. “He also testified that the medication was a ‘lifesaver’ for patients who would otherwise ‘have to go to [the] ER’ during such an episode,” the brief said.

Pain patients have criticized crackdowns on pain clinics and doctors.  Compassion & Choices, an organization that advocates for dying patients, submitted a brief in support of Ruan. “Medical practitioners prescribing opioids to such patients in good faith are not drug pushers under the Act,” according to the Compassion & Choices brief.  “Practitioners thus should not have to suffer the specter of criminal liability simply for treating such patients at such a vulnerable, critical, and private time in their lives.”...

Arguments in Ruan’s case are scheduled for March 1, 2022.

The briefing in Ruan v. US, No. 20-1410, is available at this SCOTUSblog link, and the brief from the defense sets up the issue this way in its Introduction:

To ensure that licensed medical professionals do not risk criminal prosecution and felony conviction based on simple malpractice, nearly all courts, construing the CSA and the implementing regulations, require that the government prove that the physician lacked a good faith basis for her prescription.  See Pet. 4-5, 18-27.  But not the Eleventh Circuit. According to the court of appeals, a doctor may be convicted under the CSA if her prescription fell outside of professional norms — without regard to whether she believed in good faith that the prescription served a bona fide medical purpose.  That outlier position, if sustained, would result in the kind of “sweeping expansion of federal criminal jurisdiction” that this Court has repeatedly condemned. Kelly v. United States, 140 S. Ct. 1565, 1574 (2020) (quoting Cleveland v. United States, 531 U.S. 12, 24 (2000)); see also Bond v. United States, 572 U.S. 844, 862-865 (2014). It would also chill medical progress, disrupt the doctor-patient relationship, and criminalize prescriptions whenever a lay jury is persuaded that the physician exceeded the “usual” practice of medicine.

Though these cases are formally about the standards for criminal liability for these doctors, there are sentencing stories lurking here.  First, of course, are the high sentencing stakes for any doctors found guilty of illegal drug distribution.  Decades-long federal sentences are common — but not at all consistent as Prof Adam M. Gershowitz has detailed — and local press indicates federal prosecutors wanted sentences considerably longer than the two decades given to Drs. Ruan and Couch.  But why might such extreme prison terms be needed, given that, once these doctors lose their prescribing licenses, they are functionally unable to repeat their crimes and their risk of recidivism is very low at their age?  Simply put, some vision of retribution must be driving the severity of the sense, especially since deterrence of doctors is likely achieved by any criminal prosecutions and over-deterrence seems like a real risk here.

In the end, the fact that the sentencing stakes are so high likely helps explain why these cases got the Supreme Court's attention.  And the debate over the whether the law requires proving a lack of good faith would, in a sense, get the the heart of the retributivist question of just how blameworthy these doctors really are.  For all those reasons (and others), when oral argument takes place in a couple months, I will be interested to see if any Justices bring up any of the sentencing issues lurking beneath these cases. 

Prior related post:

December 27, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 20, 2021

Despite lacking a quorum, US Sentencing Commission still has an interesting and productive year

Regular readers are likely tired of hearing me complain about the US Sentencing Commission being crippled by a lack of Commissioners, but I hope some have noted my eagerness to compliment the "short-staffed" USSC for all the data and reports produced and promulgated through 2021.  This morning I received an email from the Commission providing a "year in review," and I was struck again at what the Commission has achieved this past year even absent a quorum.  I cannot find this email in a web form, so I will here just reproduce some highlights (with links from the USSC and to the USSC website):

1. Preliminary FY21 data reveal a continued decline in sentencings and a historic shift in the makeup of the federal drug caseload. Learn more ...
2. With the advent of COVID-19, tens of thousands of offenders sought compassionate release. The Commission tracked and reported this data throughout 2021. Learn more

In early 2022, look for a comprehensive new research report on compassionate release providing even greater analysis regarding the courts’ reasoning for granting or denying motions for compassionate release....

6. The Commission expanded its catalog of interactive tools designed for those working in the federal criminal justice system.
IDA Expansion: Interactive Data Analyzer feedback has been very positive and users continue to #AskIDA for even more data. The Commission has listened to your feedback. IDA is now updated with enhanced filtering capabilities—including a brand new data filter for career offenders. Learn more

JSIN Development: The Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) platform is an online sentencing data resource specifically developed with the needs of judges in mind. The platform provides quick and easy online access to average prison length and other sentencing data for similarly-situated defendants. Learn more

December 20, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Lots of new January 6 riot sentencings producing lots of notable new headlines and sentencing stories

In this post about a week ago, I flagged this CNN piece reporting on the first 50 sentences imposed on those convicted for federal crimes as part of the January 6 riot.  That article noted that sentences were still forthcoming in the most serious cases; one such case was sentenced yesterday setting a new "record" as reported in this Washington Post article headlined "Fla. man sentenced to 5 years for attacking police, the longest Jan. 6 riot sentence yet."  Technically, the WaPo headline is off, as the defendant got sentenced to 63 months, and I am not too keen on at least one element accounting for the severity of this sentence: 

Robert S. Palmer, 54, of Largo, Fla., pleaded guilty in October to assaulting law enforcement officers with a dangerous weapon, and his original plea agreement called for a sentencing range of 46 to 57 months.  But after his plea, and his entry into the D.C. jail, Palmer arranged to make an online fundraising plea in which he said he did “go on the defense and throw a fire extinguisher at the police” after being shot with rubber bullets and tear gas.

That was a lie, Palmer admitted Friday.  He had thrown a fire extinguisher — twice — a large plank and then a four-to-five-foot pole at police before he was struck with one rubber bullet.  The falsehood indicated a failure to accept responsibility for his actions, prosecutors argued, and when U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan agreed, she increased his sentencing range to 63 to 78 months, ultimately imposing a 63-month term.

Based on the rest of the WaPo article, it seems as of the day of sentencing Palmer had truly accepted responsibility.  Though it is understandable that prosecutors and the sentencing judge may have considered previous statements trying to minimize his culpability as undercutting his claims of remorse, I find it troubling that Palmer ends up facing 1 to 2 years longer in a cage simply for a few stupid comments while trying to raise money for his defense.  I have long thought some prosecutors and judges are too eager to deny acceptance of responsibility credit under the guidelines based on a defendant's dumb statement or two, and this case highlights the stakes potentially involved in doing so.

Palmer's sentence, because of its length, generated the most recent January 6 sentencing headlines.  But I saw a few more notable headlines and stories this past week that seemed worth rounding up here:

"Judge: Lack of charges for Trump over Jan. 6 is no basis for leniency for others"

"New York man sentenced to nearly 3 years in prison for threatening Sen. Raphael Warnock"

"Judge goes beyond prosecutors' request with sentence for Jan. 6 couple"

"Jan. 6 riot ‘not patriotism’ judge says in sentencing Ga. man"

"UK student gets 30-day sentence for involvement in Jan. 6 Capitol riot"

"Federal judge ordered Fort Pierce man to serve probation for activities at U.S. Capitol Jan. 6"

"Guardsman in Jan. 6 Mob Gets Probation, Still Serving in the Guard"

December 18, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (36)

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Though guidelines recommend federal LWOP sentence for Derek Chauvin, plea deal provides for concurrent sentence between 20 and 25 years

I just got a chance to look at the high-profile federal plea agreement entered yesterday in US District Court in Minnesota in US v ChauvinThis Justice Department press release sets out the basics of the plea and the sentencing particulars:

The Justice Department announced [on December 15] that Derek Chauvin, 45, pleaded guilty in federal court to two violations of a federal civil rights statute.

First, defendant Chauvin pleaded guilty to willfully depriving, while acting under color of law, George Floyd of his constitutional rights, resulting in Mr. Floyd’s bodily injury and death. Defendant Chauvin also agreed that the appropriate sentencing base offense level for this crime is second-degree murder because he used unreasonable and excessive force that resulted in Mr. Floyd’s death, and he acted willfully and in callous and wanton disregard of the consequences to Mr. Floyd’s life.

Second, defendant Chauvin pleaded guilty to willfully depriving, while acting under color of law, a then 14-year-old juvenile of his constitutional rights, resulting in the juvenile’s bodily injury....

Defendant Chauvin pleaded guilty [on December 15] before U.S. District Court Senior Judge Paul A. Magnuson.  Defendant Chauvin will be sentenced at a hearing to be scheduled at a later date.  According to the plea agreement, defendant Chauvin faces a sentence of between 20- and 25-years imprisonment.  Under the terms of the plea agreement, defendant Chauvin will serve his sentence in federal custody and will not be eligible to work in any law enforcement capacity following his release.

It is notable, but perhaps unsurprising, that the DOJ press release does not highlight why the terms of Chauvin's plea in fact amount to a pretty good deal given the federal sentencing realities he was facing.  In the wake of his state convictions, Chauvin's federal conviction was a near certainty; as his plea agreement details, here is the likely guideline calculation for Chauvin's offenses: "the defendant's adjusted offense level is 43 and ... [thus] the advisory guideline range is life imprisonment."

Despite the guidelines recommending a federal LWOP sentence, federal prosecutors agreed for Chauvin to a plea deal that binds the federal sentencing judge to these terms (as specified in this Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea): 

The Court should impose a sentence of imprisonment of no less than 240 months and no greater than 300 months (expected to serve no less than 204 months and no greater than 255 months, assuming all goodtime credit);...

The Court, pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 5G1.3(b)(2), should order that the sentence of imprisonment imposed in this case be served concurrent to the 270-month sentence imposed in State of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin,No. 27-CR- 20-I2646 (expected to serve approximately 178 months, assuming all good-time credit); and

At sentencing, the Court, pursuant to U.S.S.G. § 5G1.3(b)(1), should adjust the sentence for any period of imprisonment/incarceration already served....

I can understand all sorts of reasons for the feds to accept these plea terms, and the agreement notes "the United States intends to advocate for a sentence of 300 months" and that the "agreed sentence is based on the parties' consideration of the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)."  Still, I thought it worth highlighting that this especially notable case is yet another where it seems everyone agrees that the guidelines do not actually guide toward a proper sentence.

A few prior related posts:

December 16, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Death threats to Speaker Pelosi leads to 28-month (below guideline, above plea deal) federal sentence

This Politico article reports on a notable federal sentencing today under this full headline: "QAnon follower gets 28-month sentence for death threats to Pelosi: Judge says continuing election-fraud rhetoric from Republican politicians makes defendant an ongoing threat."  Here are some of the details:

A QAnon follower from Georgia who brought an arsenal of weapons to Washington just after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol was sentenced Tuesday to 28 months in prison for making crude threats to kill Speaker Nancy Pelosi and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Cleveland Meredith Jr., 53, missed then-President Donald Trump’s Jan. 6 rally due to trouble with his truck, but was arrested the following day at a hotel near the Capitol after family members alerted the FBI to threatening text messages he’d sent. In a trailer outside the hotel, police found a pistol, an assault rifle and about 2,500 rounds of ammunition, as well as a telescoping gun-sight....

With credit for the more than 11 months he has already served at a D.C. jail facility since his arrest plus good behavior credit, Meredith is likely to spend roughly another 14 months in federal prison before being released....

During a sentencing hearing that spanned more than three hours, Jackson read aloud the series of texts Meredith sent during a drive from Colorado to D.C. and after he arrived in Washington. “Thinking about heading over to Pelosi [expletive]’s speech and putting a bullet in her noggin on Live TV,” Meredith wrote in a message to his uncle on Jan. 7.  “I may wander over to the Mayor’s office and put a 5.56 in her skull,” Meredith added in an earlier message....

In her statement, Jackson railed against an increase in extreme political language, and she noted that many political leaders continue to make false claims about fraud in the 2020 election. “The heated inflammatory rhetoric that brought the defendant to the district has not subsided,” the judge said. “The lie that the election was stolen and illegitimate is still being perpetrated. Indeed, it’s being amplified not only on social media, but on mainstream news outlets and…it’s become heresy for a member of the president’s—the former president’s party to say otherwise.”

During a brief, emotional statement to the court, Meredith insisted that the threats he issued and his talk of “war” in the Capitol were just overheated rhetoric. “I had no intention. It was political hyperbole that was too hyper,” Meredith said. “I was out of control that day.”...

Meredith pleaded guilty in September to a felony threat charge that carries a maximum of five years in prison. The plea deal contemplated a sentence of between six months and two years. However, Jackson found that the non-binding sentencing guidelines actually called for a stiffer sentence of between 37 months and 46 months because the threat to Pelosi targeted a government official.

“The fact that the government didn’t point to this before is odd,” said the judge, an appointee of former President Barack Obama. “It’s hard to suggest that these threats weren’t about or motivated by the victim’s performance of their official duties…The defendant was not incensed at Nancy Pelosi because she was a next-door neighbor who parked in his parking spot or a former romantic or business partner.”

Kiyonaga complained bitterly about the increase in the recommended sentencing range and suggested that the change will discourage other defendants from agreeing to plea deals. “I painstakingly negotiated a plea agreement with the government,” he said. “I think the government has gotten a windfall that it should not take advantage of. I think that will reverberate.”

The judge ultimately sentenced Meredith below the guidelines range, citing in part the harsh pandemic-related conditions at the D.C. Jail, where he is housed with others awaiting trial on charges related to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

December 14, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Accounting for the first 50 sentences imposed on January 6 rioters

This new CNN piece, headlined "After 50 rioters sentenced for January 6 insurrection, a debate rages over what justice looks like," reports on a new analysis of sentences for the high-profile crimes that kicked off 2021.  I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here are parts of how it gets started:

Of the 50-plus defendants who have been sentenced for their role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, fewer than half were sent to jail for their crimes. Most received an assortment of lesser penalties, including brief terms of house arrest, a couple years of probation, four-figure fines or court-ordered community service, according to a CNN analysis.

The milestone of 50 sentencings was hit on Friday, a busy day in court, with six hearings on the schedule. Four defendants got probation Friday, including a pair of veterans from Wisconsin, while one man who stole a beer from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office got 20 days in jail.

As federal prosecutors have brought cases against nearly 700 rioters, a heated debate has emerged over what justice should look like for such an unprecedented assault on democracy. This debate has raged on social media and in the halls of Congress. It has also played out among the two dozen judges handling the cases at the federal courthouse in Washington, DC.

After 50 sentencings, a split has developed on the bench: One group of judges has handed down stiffer punishments to rioters, including time behind bars. While a more skeptical group of judges have rebuffed the Justice Department and instead imposed fines and probation, which means the rioters will avoid jail but stay under government supervision for years to come.

This dynamic won't last forever -- this initial wave of guilty pleas and sentencings will eventually be followed up by dozens of more serious felony cases with longer prison terms. But for now, the dizzying array of outcomes has caused some headaches. Judges are questioning the department's approach to January 6, and politicians from both sides have fanned the flames....

These wings of the court don't fall along political lines. There are GOP-appointed skeptics, and some Democratic appointees handing down tough punishments. But the dynamic is nuanced. This has also forced partisan players on both sides to contort their ideological views to fit the moment.

Democratic lawmakers and activists are calling for more incarceration and want judges to throw the book at rioters, while many Republican officials and right-wing influencers have become newfound supporters of improving jail conditions for what they call "political prisoners."

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just notice this recent AP article discussing some of the sentencings for some of the January 6 crimes under the headline "Capitol rioters’ social media posts influencing sentencings." Here is how the extended piece gets started:

For many rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, self-incriminating messages, photos and videos that they broadcast on social media before, during and after the insurrection are influencing even their criminal sentences.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson read aloud some of Russell Peterson’s posts about the riot before she sentenced the Pennsylvania man to 30 days imprisonment. “Overall I had fun lol,” Peterson posted on Facebook.  The judge told Peterson that his posts made it “extraordinarily difficult” for her to show him leniency.

“The ’lol’ particularly stuck in my craw because, as I hope you’ve come to understand, nothing about January 6th was funny,” Jackson added.  “No one locked in a room, cowering under a table for hours, was laughing.”

Among the biggest takeaways so far from the Justice Department’s prosecution of the insurrection is how large a role social media has played, with much of the most damning evidence coming from rioters’ own words and videos.

December 12, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (12)

Thursday, December 09, 2021

How many years and counting might reality TV star Josh Duggar now get after federal jury convictions on two child pornography charges?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this celebrity trial news from the AP: "Former reality TV star Josh Duggar was immediately taken into custody Thursday after a federal jury convicted him of downloading and possessing child pornography." Here is more:

The jury in Fayetteville, about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of Little Rock, found the 33-year-old Duggar guilty on one count each of receiving and possessing child pornography.  He faces up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000 for each count when he’s sentenced.... U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks said sentencing will happen in about four months, Fayetteville TV station KNWA reported. “We respect the jury’s verdict and we look forward to continuing this fight on appeal,” said Justin Gelfand, one of Duggar’s defense attorneys.

Duggar and his large Arkansas family starred on TLC’s “19 Kids and Counting” until the network canceled the show in 2015 following revelations that he had molested four of his sisters and a babysitter. Authorities began investigating the abuse in 2006 after receiving a tip from a family friend but concluded that the statute of limitations on any possible charges had expired.

Duggar’s parents said he had confessed to the fondling and apologized . At the time, Duggar apologized publicly for unspecified behavior and resigned as a lobbyist for the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group. Duggar later apologized for a pornography addiction and for cheating on his wife, calling himself “the biggest hypocrite ever.” The judge in the child porn case ruled that jurors could hear testimony about how in 2003, Duggar admitted to molesting four girls.  A family friend testified that Duggar told her about the abuse.

Federal authorities said they began investigating after a Little Rock police detective found child porn files were being shared by a computer traced to Duggar.  A federal agent testified in May that images depicting the sexual abuse of children, including toddlers, were downloaded in 2019 onto a computer at a car dealership Duggar owned.  Duggar’s attorney argued that someone else downloaded or uploaded the images onto Duggar’s computer.  But the jury wasn’t swayed.

This DOJ press release, titeld "Federal Jury Convicts Former Reality Television Personality for Downloading and Possessing Child Sexual Abuse Material," provides these additional offense details and more of the sentencing specifics:

According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, Joshua James Duggar, 33, of Springdale, repeatedly downloaded and viewed images and videos depicting the sexual abuse of children, including images of prepubescent children and depictions of sadistic abuse.  Duggar, a former reality television personality who appeared with his family on the TLC series “19 Kids and Counting,” installed a password-protected partition on the hard drive of his desktop computer at his used car lot in Springdale to avoid pornography-detecting software on the device.  He then accessed the partition to download child sexual abuse material from the internet multiple times over the course of three days in May 2019.  The password for the partition was the same one he used for other personal and family accounts.  Duggar downloaded the material using the dark web and online file-sharing software, viewed it, and then removed it from his computer....

Duggar was convicted of receipt and possession of child pornography. His sentencing date has not been scheduled yet.  Receipt of child pornography is punishable by a term of imprisonment of five to 20 years. Possession of child pornography depicting prepubescent children has a maximum penalty of 20 years of imprisonment as well.  A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Though the exact sentencing range that Duggar will now face under the guidelines will depend on a lot of the particulars of his downloading activities, he is now certain to receive a federal prison term of at least five years due to his conviction on a receipt charge.  In addition, because the child porn guideline §2G2.2 has so many significant enhancement, he could be facing a guideline sentencing range of well over decade.  (Some USSC data for Fiscal Year 2020 here shows in Table 7 that the average national child porn sentence was about 8.5 years and the average sentence for child porn in the Western District of Arkansas was a few months over 7 years.  Though the child porn guidelines are quite harsh, they are the guidelines that judges depart down from most frequently.)

December 9, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2021 fourth quarter sentencing data showing growth in cases and in average sentence severity

US Sentencing Commission yesterday published here its latest quarterly data report which is described as a "4th Quarter Release, Preliminary Fiscal Year 2021 Data Through September 30, 2021." These new data provide another official accounting of how COVID realities appear to be continuing to reduce the usual total number of federal sentences imposed, though in this latest quarter we are seeing a return almost to pre-pandemic norms for most offense categories other than immigration cases.

Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, in pre-pandemic years, quarterly cases sentenced generally averaged around 17,000 to 19,000. But in the three quarters closing out 2020, amid the worst early periods of the pandemic, there were only between about 12,000 and 13,000 cases being sentenced each quarter.  In the most recent quarter here reported, running from July 1 to September 30, 2021, it appears that more than 15,000 cases were sentenced in federal court.  Figure 2 also shows that, relative to pre-pandemic trends, the only major caseload decline now is in the total number of immigration cases sentenced while the other big federal case categories — Drug Trafficking, Firearms and Economic Offenses — now have the total number of cases sentenced in recent quarters not off that much from recent historical norms.

Consistent with what I have noted in prior post about pandemic era USSC data, these data continue to show a notable jump in the percentage of below-guideline variances granted in the last five quarters (as detailed in Figures 3 and 4).  But I suspect these data may reflect the altered mix of cases now that the number of immigration cases being sentenced has declined dramatically rather than significantly different behaviors by sentencing judges.  And, notably, Figure 5 in this data run reveals that the "Average Guideline Minimum" as well as the "Average Sentence" were higher in this last quarter than in recent history, with a particularly notable uptick in these measures of average sentence severity over the last two quarters.

A few prior recent related post:

December 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 06, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior recent related posts:

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

Thursday, December 02, 2021

New Senate bill to add defender ex officio position to US Sentencing Commission

As detailed in this press release from earlier this week, "U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) [have] introduced the Sentencing Commission Improvements Act, legislation that would for the first time add an ex officio member with a public defender background to the U.S. Sentencing Commission."  Here is a link to the short bill, and here is more from the press release:

Currently, the Commission consists of seven members from both political parties appointed by the President and two ex officio, nonvoting members, the Attorney General or a designee and the U.S. Parole Commission chair. However, unlike the majority of state sentencing commissions, the federal Commission lacks a representative from a public defender background who would provide an essential perspective on the criminal justice system. 

“The federal Sentencing Commission was created to be fair, impartial, and capable of providing evidence-driven improvements to our sentencing system, which is fraught with disparities,” said Senator Booker. “Adding a statutory member to the Commission with a public defender background will ensure that the Commission’s ranks include this distinct and essential perspective on our criminal justice system and, thus, bring us one step closer to a more balanced and just system.”

“The U.S. Sentencing Commission is tasked with establishing practices and policies to promote transparency and reduce sentencing disparities, but the Commission is missing a crucial perspective from the federal public defender system. If we hope to improve sentencing policies in America, we must balance the Commission’s membership by adding a nonvoting federal defender,” said Senator Durbin. “The Sentencing Commission Improvements Act will remedy the Commission’s blind spot and move us toward a fairer sentencing process.”

This new Law360 article, headlined "'No-Brainer' Bill Would Add Fed. Defender To Sentencing Body," provides some more background and details.  Here is an excerpt:

A Senate proposal Tuesday would create a new seat on the U.S. Sentencing Commission for former federal defenders, a move experts say would counterbalance the outsize influence that current and former prosecutors have over the currently dormant panel....

New York University professor and former U.S. Sentencing Commission member Rachel Barkow cheered the proposal. "The Department of Justice has a seat at the table — literally — with a DOJ rep attending all the Commission's meetings," she told Law360 in a statement Wednesday. "It would be helpful to have a defender there as well to offer that perspective.  The Commission has always had plenty of people serving as commissioners who were former prosecutors, and public defense experience is equally valuable."

Brian Jacobs, a former New York federal prosecutor who now specializes in white collar defense with Morvillo Abramowitz Grand Iason & Anello PC, called the proposed move a "no-brainer."  "Speaking as a defender — but even wearing my former prosecutor hat — it makes sense to want to have that sort of balanced input," he told Law360....

Without a quorum last year, the commission missed the chance to shape sentencing policy in response to the coronavirus pandemic — something public defenders are particularly equipped to weigh in on, according to Jacobs. "There's no reason there shouldn't be language in the guidelines addressing how much more difficult time in custody is right now," he said, referring to viral outbreaks, remote court snafus, and restrictive prison policies limiting defendants' ability to meet with counsel. "If the sentencing commission were more nimble, you can imagine there would have been a statement in the guidelines themselves."

December 2, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Calling out SCOTUS for failing to take up circuit splits over the federal sentencing guidelines

In this post last month, I noted this notable new paper by Dawinder Sidhu titled "Sentencing Guidelines Abstention," which astutely assails the US Supreme Court for its "refusal to review [circuit] splits involving federal sentencing policy."  I am now pleased to see Dawinder putting forward his important points in this new HIll commentary headlined "The Supreme Court's criminal justice blind spot."  I recommend the full piece and here are excerpts:

A primary role of the Supreme Court is to resolve differences among the federal appeals courts when those courts reach different conclusions on the same questions of law.  But for 30 years, the Supreme Court has refused to perform this essential role when the disagreements concern federal sentencing guidelines.  The court’s inaction has allowed uncertainty and disparities to fester in this critical area of criminal justice....

In [a] 1991 opinion, the court ... added extraneous language [in an early case address a conflict over a guideline that the US Sentencing Commission was in the process of amending], writing that because the commission possessed authority to amend the guidelines in response to interpretive conflicts, the court should be “more restrained and circumspect in … resolving such conflicts.”

Because this language was unnecessary to the disposition of the case, it should have no precedential weight.   At most, this case supports the unremarkable proposition that, when the commission’s amendment process is under way regarding a guideline that triggers a judicial conflict, the court should exercise restraint and allow the commission to complete its amendment process.  The court regularly abstains from interfering with parallel administrative or state proceedings.  Deferring to the commission during the course of a simultaneous amendment process would be consistent with this respect for alternative decisional bodies.

The problem, however, is that the court has refused to hear all guideline conflicts, not just those the commission is actively addressing.  In adopting this broad position, the court has ceded its role of ironing out judicial conflicts to the commission.  As then-Judge Samuel Alito recognized [in this FSR article], “No other federal agency — in any branch — has ever performed a role anything like it.”  Indeed, the court does not forgo consideration of a case when Congress or an administrative agency may one day amend a statute or regulation producing a conflict.

This anomaly has real-life consequences.  This year, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor believed that the court should not hear a sentencing guidelines case, notwithstanding the fact that it raised an “important and longstanding split” among the federal appeals courts. They reasoned that the commission should “address the issue in the first instance.”  But the justices conceded that until the commission resolves the split, “similarly situated defendants may receive substantially different sentences depending on the jurisdiction in which they are sentenced,” with the disparities ranging by a factor of “years” and spanning from a “fixed-term” to a “life sentence.”

This knowingly perpetuated uncertainty and disparity in the federal courts.  To make matters worse, the court did so knowing that the commission has been without a quorum for almost three years. As such, the court punted a conflict to an agency incapable of amending the guidelines or resolving conflicts.  This isn’t the first time the commission has lacked a quorum for a significant period.  Even when the commission is fully functional, it only has the capacity to take on some of the conflicts that exist.  This is not to disparage the commission but to call into question the Supreme Court’s hoisting the responsibility of addressing guideline conflicts onto the shoulders of a regularly shorthanded commission.

Anyone interested in coherence and consistency in criminal justice should be troubled by the court’s refusal to review conflicts involving the federal sentencing guidelines.  It is one thing to be discerning in case selection; it is another to step aside altogether from guideline cases that implicate the fair and uniform administration of justice.

December 1, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

El Chapo's wife sentenced to three years in federal prison (guidelines be damned)

This Vice article provides a thorough accounting of a notable federal sentencing with this rousing start: "Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera became infamous for daring jailbreaks in Mexico only to end up serving life in prison in the United States. Now his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, has managed to avoid a similar fate."  Here is more from the piece: 

The 32-year-old Coronel was sentenced Tuesday to just three years in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to charges that she helped her husband run his drug trafficking empire, facilitated one of his prison escapes in Mexico, and violated U.S. sanctions by spending his illicit fortune. She also paid nearly $1.5 million to the U.S. government.

It could have ended much worse for Coronel, who faced up to 14 years for her crimes under federal sentencing guidelines.  Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., asked her judge for leniency, calling for her to serve just four years behind bars and fueling speculation that she’d struck a deal to cooperate.

Coronel’s attorneys and federal prosecutors made the case to sentencing Judge Rudolph Contreras that she only played a minimal role in the cartel and that her crimes were committed simply because she was married to El Chapo. “The defendant was not an organizer, leader, boss, or other type of manager,” prosecutor Anthony Nardozzi said. “Rather, she was a cog in a very large wheel of a criminal organization.”

A soft-spoken Coronel addressed the court in Spanish before the judge handed down the sentence, asking for forgiveness and making a plea for leniency so that she could be free to raise her 10-year-old twin daughters, who were fathered by El Chapo....

The light sentence has raised eyebrows among ex-prosecutors who handled similar cases against high-level drug traffickers and their associates.  “Downward departure,” or a sentence below the range called for by federal guidelines, is typically reserved for individuals who agree to assist the government in some capacity, David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, told VICE News.  “They’re treating her like a cooperator,” said Weinstein, who now works as a defense attorney.  “These are the types of circumstances where people are involved in large-scale drug trafficking conspiracies and are benefiting the kingpin and helping the kingpin. You usually don’t get downward departure unless you’re providing substantial assistance.”

Coronel, who holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Mexico, was taken into custody by FBI agents on Feb. 22 after arriving at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.  While federal authorities announced that Coronel had been “arrested,” sources familiar with her case told VICE News she was aware of pending charges against her and came to turn herself in.

Coronel has been held since February at a jail in Alexandria, Virginia, and is now expected to be transferred into the federal prison system to serve out her sentence. She will receive credit for time served and could be released in just over two years.

If prosecutors truly believed Coronel had only played a minimal role and was merely El Chapo’s wife, it's unclear why she was even charged in the first place because her prosecution would be a waste of time and resources, according to Bonnie Klapper, a former federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York.  Klapper, now in private practice, said Coronel’s sentence “is a very clear demonstration of how prosecutors can manipulate the sentencing guidelines to either punish or reward a defendant.”...

In sentencing Coronel, Judge Contreras noted that putting her behind bars for a long time would do little to dissuade anyone else from joining the Sinaloa Cartel. In fact, he said, there was little indication that prosecuting El Chapo had any impact on the cartel’s operations.  “One can make a plausible argument that even the removal of Guzmán from the conspiracy has not resulted in a reduction of harm to the public,” the judge said. “There appears to be no shortage of replacements to fill the defendant’s slot in the organization.”

Contreras noted Coronel’s “impoverished” upbringing and the involvement of her family members in the drug trade, and indicated that he believed that she was a victim of her circumstances who was very young and impressionable when she married El Chapo. “I hope you raise your twins in a different environment than you’ve experienced to date,” Contreras said in his parting words to Coronel. “Good luck.”

This article is astute to note how this case highlights "manipulation" of the federal sentencing guidelines and sentencing outcomes. Indeed, the Government's sentencing memo in the case showcases how the guidelines can function more like a parlor game than as a steady guide to sensible sentencing.  According to that memo, Coronel's PSR initially "concluded that the Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range in this case was 135 months to 168 months ... [and] neither the Government nor the Defendant objected to this Guidelines calculation."  But, sometime thereafter, the Government decided "that Defendant’s applicable Guidelines range is 57 to 71 months in prison ... [and] Defendant and the Probation Office concur."

In other words, everyone in this case first determined that the guidelines recommended 11+ to 14 years in prison, but then later everyone decided the guidelines recommended less than half that length of time.  And then, guidelines be damned, the government decided to recommend a sentence of 48 months (nine months below the low end of the lower guideline range).  And then Judge Contreras decided that 36 months was a sufficient sentence. 

Of course, one might reasonably expect the guidelines to be a poor "fit" for this kind of unique case with its many unique elements.  But, then again, a quarter century ago in Koon v. US, 518 U.S. 81 (1996), the Supreme Court rightly made this closing observation: "It has been uniform and constant in the federal judicial tradition for the sentencing judge to consider every convicted person as an individual and every case as a unique study in the human failings that sometimes mitigate, sometimes magnify, the crime and the punishment to ensue."

November 30, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, November 14, 2021

New US Sentencing Commission podcast discusses new Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) Tool

In this post two monts ago, titled "USSC releases interesting (but problematic?) new JSIN platform providing data on sentencing patterns," I reported on the release by the US Sentencing Commission of a new sentencing data tool for federal sentencing judges.  Though I have flagged in prior posts a few concerns about the construction and possible use of the Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) data tool in federal sentencing (see posts linked below), I still view JSIN as quite interesting and important data work by the USSC. 

The Sentencing Commission, on this webpage introducing JSIN, has provided an FAQ that explains the tool a bit.  But now one can also find on the USSC website this new podcast (called "Commission Chats") featuring a discussion of JSIN.  The short podcast (about 12 minutes) is described this way:

In this special episode, U.S. District Court Judge Charles R. Breyer, Acting Chair of the Commission, and Glenn Schmitt, Research and Data Director, discuss the origin and particulars of JSIN, the Commission's new online data tool developed specifically for sentencing judges. 

Though the podcast does not go much beyond a description of the basic elements of JSIN, it still makes for an interesting listen and Judge Breyer gives an explanation for some of the data choices reflected in JSIN.

Prior related JSIN posts:

November 14, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Feds get 41 months for one high-profile January 6 rioter and seek 51 months for another

Two new Politico articles provide updates on the latest sentencing news from the prosecution of persons involved in the January 6 Capitol riot.  Here are links and excerpts:

"N.J. man hit with toughest sentence yet in Jan. 6 attack":

A federal judge on Wednesday imposed the most serious sentence yet in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, ordering a New Jersey man to serve almost three-and-a-half years in prison for punching a police officer in the face during the melee.

Scott Fairlamb, 44, a former MMA fighter and gym owner, is the first defendant charged with assaulting an officer during the attack to face sentencing. The judge, Royce Lamberth, said he expected Fairlamb’s 41-month sentence would end up lower than others also facing charges for assaulting police that day.

That’s because Fairlamb was the first to plead guilty to such an assault and, despite initially celebrating the attack, has since expressed remorse that both prosecutors and Lamberth himself described as “genuine.”

Some of many prior related posts:

November 10, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 08, 2021

Is longest prison term for Jan 6 rioter, and a possible new benchmark, coming this week?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent AP article, headlined "Prosecutors seek 44 months in 1st sentence for riot violence," previewing a notable sentencing scheduled for this coming Wednesday. Here are the basics:

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday recommended a prison sentence of nearly four years for a New Jersey gym owner who is on track to be the first person sentenced for assaulting a law enforcement officer during the riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Scott Fairlamb’s sentencing, scheduled for next Wednesday, could guide other judges in deciding the appropriate punishment for dozens of other rioters who engaged in violence at the Capitol that day.

Prosecutors said Fairlamb, one of one of the first rioters to breach the Capitol, incited and emboldened other rioters around him with his violent actions....

If U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth adopts the Justice Department’s recommendation for a 44-month prison term, Fairlamb’s sentence would be the longest for a rioter.  An 8-month prison term is the longest sentence among the nearly two dozen rioters who have been sentenced so far.  A man who posted threats connected to Jan. 6 but didn’t storm the Capitol was sentenced to 14 months in prison.

Defense attorney Harley Breite said during an interview Wednesday that he intends to ask Lamberth to sentence Fairlamb to the time he already has served in jail, allowing for his immediate release.  Fairlamb has been jailed since his Jan. 22 arrest at his home in Stockholm, New Jersey....

Fairlamb, a 44-year-old former mixed martial arts fighter, owned Fairlamb Fit gym in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey.  He is the brother of a Secret Service agent who was assigned to protect former first lady Michelle Obama, according to defense attorney Harley Breite.

Fairlamb picked up a police baton as he joined the mob that broke past a line of police officers and breached the Capitol, according to prosecutors. A video showed him holding the collapsible baton and shouting, “What (do) patriots do? We f——— disarm them and then we storm the f——— Capitol!”  After he left the building, Fairlamb shoved and punched a Metropolitan Police Department officer in the face, an attack captured on video by a bystander.  The officer said he didn’t suffer any physical injuries, according to prosecutors.

Fairlamb pleaded guilty to two counts, obstruction of an official proceeding and assaulting the police officer.  The counts carry a maximum of more than 20 years in prison, but sentencing guidelines calculated by the court’s probation department recommend a term of imprisonment ranging from 41 to 51 months.  Lamberth isn’t bound by any of the recommendations....

Fairlamb’s social media accounts indicated that he subscribed to the QAnon conspiracy theory and promoted a bogus claim that former President Donald Trump would become the first president of “the new Republic” on March 4, prosecutors wrote.  QAnon has centered on the baseless belief that Trump was fighting against a cabal of Satan-worshipping, child sex trafficking cannibals, including “deep state” enemies, prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.

Some of many prior related posts:

November 8, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, November 01, 2021

"Sentencing Guidelines Abstention"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Dawinder S. Sidhu. Here is its abstract:

A primary role of the Supreme Court is to resolve conflicts among the federal courts of appeal.  When the split concerns the federal sentencing guidelines, however, the Supreme Court has ceded this role to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, effectively allowing the Commission to act as the court of last resort in this context.  As then-Judge Alito recognized, “no other federal agency — in any branch — has ever performed a role anything like it.”

This anomaly has largely escaped academic attention because the Court’s abdication comes in the form of certiorari denials, which are buried in the Court’s long order lists.  But the consequences of the Court’s refusal to review splits involving federal sentencing policy — referred to here as “sentencing guidelines abstention” — cannot be ignored.  Sentencing guidelines abstention perpetuates uncertainty and wide-ranging sentencing disparities, meaning the length of a federal defendant’s sentence will depend on the happenstance of where the defendant is sentenced.  The principled and fair administration of justice cannot tolerate such ambiguity and randomness.

This Article argues that there is no sound basis for sentencing guidelines abstention.  It outlines reasons — grounded in precedent, congressional intent, administrative law principles, and practical considerations — why the Court should reassume its traditional role of resolving federal sentencing guideline splits, provide uniformity and consistency to the federal judiciary, and contribute thereby to the development of a reasoned and coherent federal criminal justice system.

November 1, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 28, 2021

USSC releases "new" guideline manual as Acting Chair describes recent Commission activities

The US Sentencing Commission today published on its site this two-page letter by Acting Chair Charles R. Breyer (which is dated September 15, 2021). The letter discusses the release of a "new" Guideline Manual as well as recent work by the Commission. All federal sentencing fans will want to check out the whole letter, and here are just some of the interesting excerpts:

As many of you know, since early 2019, the United States Sentencing Commission has been operating without the quorum of four voting members required by statute to promulgate amendments to the sentencing guidelines, policy statements, and commentary. Thus, the 2018 edition of the Guidelines Manual, which incorporated amendments effective November 1, 2018, was the last version of the Guidelines Manual released.

The Commission has received feedback indicating that hard copies of the 2018 Guidelines Manual are significantly worn and that there is a limited supply of new copies available.  In addition, the Commission has identified the need to update Appendix B, the accompanying volume to the Guidelines Manual that compiles the principal statutory provisions governing sentencing, the Commission, and the drafting of sentencing guidelines.  Congress has amended several of the statutory provisions contained in Appendix B since the Commission released the 2018 Guidelines Manual.

As acting chair of the Commission, I am pleased to transmit this edition of the Guidelines Manual, which is a reprint without changes of the guidelines, policy statements, and commentary contained in the 2018 Guidelines Manual featuring a new cover in Berkeley blue....

Although lacking the quorum necessary to promulgate guideline amendments, the Commission has introduced several interactive tools and other resources to assist with guideline application over the past few years....

The Commission continues to perform other statutory duties while it awaits the appointment of new voting commissioners.  Over the past few years, the Commission has met the growing demand for the Commission’s work products, resources, and services, as evidenced by an impressive increase in the Commission’s website traffic. The Commission continues to release new and informative sentencing data, research, and training materials....

The Commission also continues to work on several important policy priorities, including examining the implementation of the First Step Act of 2018.  To inform a newly constituted Commission and to provide Congress and others a timely assessment of the First Step Act’s impact, the Commission has been collecting, analyzing, and reporting data on the five sentencing provisions contained in the Act.  In 2020, the Commission released The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation, a comprehensive report comparing data from the first full year following the enactment of the Act with data from fiscal year 2018, the last full fiscal year prior to its enactment.  More recently, the Commission published a report analyzing how courts are ruling on compassionate release motions after the First Step Act and during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The Commission is currently collecting further data on compassionate release motions, including the reasons courts are asserting for granting and denying such motions, to inform Congress and the public, as well as its own policymaking.  

October 28, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Federal Offenders Who Served in the Armed Forces"

Cover_armed-forcesThe title of this post is the title of this fascinating new report from the US Sentencing Commission released today.  This USSC webpage provides this overview and key findings:

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are more than 19 million Americans who are veterans. Over 10,000 veteran offenders were in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the end of 2019, accounting for almost six percent of all BOP inmates.

This report provides an analysis of the relatively small number of veterans each year who are sentenced for a federal felony or Class A misdemeanor offense, most often committed well after they left military service.  In particular, the report examines federal offenders with prior military service who were sentenced in fiscal year 2019, the crimes they committed, and an assessment of whether that prior service was given special consideration at sentencing.

Key Findings

  • In fiscal year 2019, 4.4 percent of all U.S. citizens sentenced in the Federal courts for a felony or Class A misdemeanor had served in the military.  For these offenders, the average length of time between separation from the military and the sentence for the federal offense was 23 years.

  • The most common crime type committed by both veteran offenders and citizen offenders overall was drug trafficking (25.0% and 37.6%, respectively).  Veteran offenders, however, committed child pornography offenses more than four times as often as citizen offenders overall, 11.6 percent compared to 2.7 percent, and sex abuse offenses more than twice as often, 6.7 percent compared to 2.4 percent.

  • The sentences imposed on veteran offenders and citizen offenders overall were similar in terms of type of sentence imposed and average sentence imposed.  For veteran offenders, 79.2 percent received a sentence of imprisonment compared to 83.9 percent of all citizen offenders, and the average sentence for veteran offenders was 64 months compared to 62 months for all citizen offenders.

  • Although veteran offenders were more likely to be sentenced below the applicable guideline range (38.9% received a downward variance compared to 31.8% of all citizen offenders), military service does not appear to have a significant influence on the sentences imposed.  The court specifically cited an offender’s military service as a reason for the sentence imposed in only 15.0 percent of cases involving veteran offenders.

  • When the court did cite an offender’s military service as a reason for the sentence, it was almost always for service that the military had characterized as honorable.

  • Only two other offender characteristics were correlated with sentences where a court cited the offender’s military service as a reason.  Two-thirds (66.9%) of the offenders whose military service was cited by the court indicated that they had some history of mental health problems, compared to 51.1 percent for veteran offenders generally.  Also, more than half (54.8%) of the offenders whose service was cited by the court had served in a combat zone, compared to 22.6 percent for all veteran offenders.

October 28, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 15, 2021

"Sentencing Commission Data Tool Is Deeply Flawed"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Law360 commentary by Michael Yeager which provides an important and critical discussion of the US Sentencing Commission's new JSIN sentencing tool.  This piece develops and details some of the concerns flagged here when JSIN was first released, and here are excerpts from the piece:

In some respects, [JSIN] an improvement from the Sentencing Commission's annual reports and past data tools. For example, past annual reports have provided an average of all fraud sentences; that method lumps all frauds together, whether they involve $1 million or $100 million.

JSIN is more focused than that and thus closer to the guidelines calculation that judges must actually perform at sentencing. But the most important numbers that JSIN reports — the average and median sentences for a particular position on the sentencing table — are inflated by a series of choices to exclude large chunks of the commission's own dataset.

First, JSIN excludes all sentences for cooperating witnesses, meaning cases in which the government filed and the court granted a Section 5K1.1 motion for a substantial assistance departure....

Second, JSIN includes mandatory minimum sentences, which by definition are not examples of how judges have exercised discretion. In fact, they're the opposite....

Third, and most important, JSIN excludes all nonimprisonment sentences: not just nonimprisonment sentences due to a Section 5K1.1 motion, or application of Section 5K3.1's safety valve, but rather all nonimprisonment.  That is, all sentences that are probation only, fine only, alternative confinement only (such as home confinement) or any combination of those options that doesn't also include prison time.

At positions on the sentencing table where the range is zero to six months, that means that JSIN is excluding sentences within the advisory range.  And even at many higher positions on the sentencing table, a substantial portion of cases are nonimprisonment.  Yet, JSIN excludes all of them from its averages and medians.

The effect of these choices can be dramatic. When JSIN is queried for stats on the position of the sentencing table for U.S. Sentencing Commission Section 2T1.1 — tax evasion, offense level 17 and criminal history I — JSIN reports the median sentence as 18 months.  But when one uses the commission's full dataset to calculate the median on that same cohort (Section 2T1.1, level 17, history I, no 5K1.1) and includes sentences of probation, the median is significantly lower.  Instead of JSIN's 18 months, the median is just 12 months. That's a whole six months lower — and a 33% decrease....

[B]y conducting a more complete study of the Sentencing Commission's data than the JSIN provides, the defense could also examine particular aspects of a guidelines calculation, such as loss or drug weight.  The defense could strip out mandatory minimum sentences or do an analysis of 10 or 15 years of cases, not just five.  They could also break down cases by circuit or district, not just nationally.  Now that JSIN is available, defense attorneys should consider all the above.  It was already a good idea to use accurate and complete data analysis of similarly situated defendants. But now the need has increased. The defense now has to counter JSIN and the false impression it creates.

Prior related JSIN posts:

October 15, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

US Sentencing Commission issues new report on "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Production Offenses"

Back in June 2021, as detailed in this post, the US Sentencing Commission released this big report, running nearly 100 pages, titled "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Non-Production Offenses."  A follow-up report, running "only 72 pages" was released today here under the title "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Production Offenses."  This USSC website provides some "key findings" from the report, and here are some of those findings:

Prior recent related post:

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Non-Production Offenses" 

October 13, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making the case for deferred federal sentencing for individuals (like corporations)

The Hill has this notable new commentary by Joel Cohen, somewhat poorly titled "Why not defer individual jail sentences?," that develops the case for allowing federal defendants facing prison time to have a presentencing period to demonstrate reform and their true character.  Here are excerpts:

[S]trictly speaking, nothing in federal criminal procedure necessarily enables an individual to have the court postpone his sentence so that the judge, if so inclined, can consider two or three more years of personal growth and “turnaround” on the part of the defendant.

Oddly, by contrast, a corporate defendant can get such a benefit.  If a prosecutor accords an indicted corporate defendant a deferred prosecution agreement, the case typically is put on hold for months, maybe a year or more, so that the corporation can show the court that it is, indeed, “cleaning up its act.”  Perhaps, ideally, during that period it has established a corporate compliance program calculated to monitor the type of misconduct that got the corporation into trouble. Under the agreement, if approved by the court, the indictment typically would be fully dismissed when the monitoring period ends.

So, why isn’t something similar available for individual defendants?  I’m not suggesting an outright dismissal of a person’s case after an agreed-upon (somewhat court-monitored) period of “good behavior.”  Instead, I’m proposing that a defendant’s sentence be postponed (at the request of, or with the consent of, the defendant), with the judge receiving periodic, informal reports about the defendant’s ongoing conduct.  During this period, the sentencing judge becomes the defendant’s “probation officer” by being able to determine whether the person is walking the straight and narrow.

Is there a better means to determine if the defendant is truly being rehabilitated?  Not only that, doesn’t it also incentivize rehabilitation when the judge will continue to maintain the gavel for use after this period of sentence postponement ends?

To be sure, some defendants will run afoul of the judge’s beneficence in having granted such a continuance.  If so, however, the judge would be positioned to remand the defendant immediately to begin his sentence.  And that sentence likely would not be particularly lenient — maybe even more harsh than it otherwise would have been.  That’s the price a person should pay if given a second chance and he blows it.

Yes, the procedure proposed here would place added duties and time burdens on judges whose calendars already are overburdened, and likely for probation officers, too, if the judge decides to direct the probation department to periodically report the defendant’s progress.  Still, wouldn’t the judges who employ this procedure be making valuable contributions to criminal justice in helping to rehabilitate defendants and lowering the need for incarceration in an overloaded federal prison system?   Most importantly, the suspense period would give the defendant every impetus to straighten up and live a law-abiding life.

Yes, in some cases it might be painful for a defendant to wait two or three years for his “day of judgment,” not knowing if he will have satisfied the judge when sentencing day finally arrives.  The ball is in his court, though. He can opt out, or never ask his lawyer to request that the judge put the case on hold....

I did not initiate this idea in my imagination. U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan of the District of Columbia occasionally employs this “suspense” practice in cases where it makes sense to him.  And, as I understand it, he sometimes proposes it if an informed defendant affirmatively requests it.  It seems to be working.  I suspect it probably doesn’t require the government’s consent, although obviously that would be preferable. It’s something for other judges to think about.

October 13, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

What do we know about JSIN and its use in federal sentencing proceedings two weeks after its release?

In this post two weeks ago, titled "USSC releases interesting (but problematic?) new JSIN platform providing data on sentencing patterns," I reported on the release by the US Sentencing Commission of a new sentencing data tool for federal sentencing judges. The Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) data tool is described this way by the USSC:

The Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) platform is an online sentencing data resource specifically developed with the needs of judges in mind.  The platform provides quick and easy online access to sentencing data for similarly-situated defendants.  JSIN expands upon the Commission’s longstanding practice of providing sentencing data at the request of federal judges by making some of the data provided through these special requests more broadly and easily available....
JSIN provides cumulative data based on five years of sentencing data for offenders sentenced under the same primary guideline, and with the same Final Offense Level and Criminal History Category selected.

I mentioned in my prior post that JSIN seemed relatively easy to navigate and quite useful, but I also expressed concern that the JSIN tool was possibly constructed with built-in and systemic "severity biases" due to certain data choices.  I keep hoping some others might soon write about JSIN and the role it could or should play in federal sentencings, but to date I have seen no press coverage or any other commentary about JSIN.  I have heard some positive review from a few federal district judges, though that may just reflect the tendency of all thoughtful sentencing judges to find any and all additional sentencing data to be helpful to their work.

Given that well over 1000 persons are sentenced ever average week in the federal sentencing system, I am now wondering if the USSC or anyone else is collecting any data on whether and how JSIN is being used in current federal sentencings.  Are any probation offices including JSIN data in presentencing reports?  Are federal prosecutors and defense attorneys using JSIN data in sentencing briefs and arguments?  Are federal sentencing judges referencing JSIN data in their sentencing decision-making?

October 12, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 08, 2021

With two defendants now convicted after trial, how steep might the "trial penalty" be in the Varsity Blues cases?

As reported in this Bloomberg piece, the first jury trial in the Varsity Blues prosecutions ended this afternoon: "Two parents accused of cheating to get their children into elite U.S. universities were found guilty of all charges, in the first trial stemming from a national college admissions scandal that ensnared dozens of families."  Here is more:

Former Wynn Resorts Ltd. executive Gamal Abdelaziz, 64, was convicted Friday of two counts of conspiracy by a Boston jury after prosecutors alleged he paid $300,000 in bribes to get his daughter into the University of Southern California as a purported basketball player.

Private equity investor John B. Wilson, 62, was convicted of conspiracy, bribery, fraud and filing a false tax return after prosecutors alleged he paid more than $1.2 million in bribes to get his son into the University of Southern California and his twin daughters into Stanford and Harvard as star athletes.

After a three-week trial, the jury deliberated for about 11 hours before rendering the verdict. Abdelaziz and Wilson will be sentenced in mid-February. For both men, the most serious charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

The verdict is a victory for prosecutors who charged 57 parents, coaches and others for taking part in the alleged scheme, which involved doctoring entrance exam scores, faking athletic prowess and bribery to gain seats at universities. An FBI sting unveiled in March 2019 swept up several prominent figures, including “Desperate Housewives” star Felicity Huffman and former Pimco chief executive Douglas Hodge. The case unfolded as the nation debated questions of privilege and inequality.

Thirty-three of the parents have pleaded guilty, with prison sentences ranging from two weeks to 9 months. Former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling, who oversaw the case, said he hoped the dozens of jail sentences would deter would-be scammers. He acknowledged it wouldn’t change what he said was parents’ unhealthy obsession with colleges as brands.

During the trial, prosecutors alleged that both Abdelaziz and Wilson had worked with college counselor William “Rick” Singer, the admitted mastermind of the scheme. The U.S. said both paid Singer to guarantee a “bulletproof” way of getting their kids into elite colleges. Prosecutors called 14 witnesses and showed jurors scores of emails they said was proof both men knew and understood Singer’s plan....

The government never called Singer, who proved a problematic cooperator. He kept some of the money parents paid him, tipped some off about the investigation and erased about 1,500 text messages from his mobile phone. He made notes saying federal agents wanted him to “bend the truth” when drawing the parents out and “retrieve answers that are not accurate.” Lawyers for both defendants assailed Singer as a con man who duped them into believing their funds were legitimate donations going to schools or sports facilities....

Four more parents are due to go on trial next year. One father was pardoned by former president Donald Trump.

I have done numerous posts about some of the defendants who were among the first to plead guilty and received relatively short sentences in this high-profile college admissions scandal (some of those posts are linked below).  I have not closely followed some of the more recent sentencings, but the question in the title of this post highlights why I will have extra interest in how Abdelaziz and Wilson are treated by both the Justice Department and the sentencing judged.  Helpfully, DOJ has assembled here all the cases charged and sentenced in the Varsity Blues investigation.  From a quick scan, it does not appear that DOJ has sought a sentence in any of the plea cases of more than 18 months in prison; the longest imposed sentence has been nine months. 

I would guess that the DOJ sentencing recommendations for Abdelaziz and Wilson will longer than 18 months, but how much?  Does the high-profile nature of this case make it a bit less likely that DOJ will seek to go hard after these defendants, who seem like so many others save for their decision to test the government at a trial?  (The amount of money and number of kids involved in the Wilson case may the the reason DOJ will cite for a longer recommended term.)  In addition to wondering about DOJ recommendation, of course, it will be interesting to see how the sentencing judge decides to follow the requirement in 3553(a)(6) to consider "the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct."   It seems we have to wait until 2022 for final answers to these question, but I welcome speculation in the comments.

A few of many prior posts on other defendants in college admissions scandal:

October 8, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 30, 2021

TRAC releases intriguing new report on "Equal Justice and Sentencing Practices Among Federal District Court Judges"

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University is a research center that keeps track of a lot of federal criminal case processing data. Today TRAC released this notable short data report under the title "Equal Justice and Sentencing Practices Among Federal District Court Judges." Here are snippets from the start and end of the report:

This report examines very recent data on federal trial judges and their sentencing practices. The existence of judge-to-judge differences in sentences of course is not synonymous with finding unwarranted sentencing disparity....  But a fair court system always seeks to provide equal justice under the law, working to ensure that sentencing patterns of judges not be widely different when they are handling similar kinds of cases.

In reality, sometimes the goal of equal justice under the law is achieved, and other times the actual sentences handed down depart markedly from this goal. Using case-by-case, judge-by-judge, data updated through December 2020, a new analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University identifies federal courthouses where wide judge-to-judge sentencing differences currently occur, and courthouses where there is wide agreement in sentencing among judges.

While special circumstances might account for some of these differences, half of the courthouses in the country had median differences in prison sentences of 16 months or more, and average differences of 21 months or more.

Results further showed that currently seven (7) federal courthouses out of 159 compared had perfect agreement among judges in the typical or median sentences assigned. In an additional thirty (30), judge-to-judge sentences differed by six months or less.... At the other extreme, five (5) courthouses showed more than 60 months difference in the median prison sentence handed out across judges serving on the same bench....

This study largely replicates the findings from TRAC's first national judge-by-judge examination of the differences among federal judges in sentencing practices that appeared in the Federal Sentencing Reporter. That study was published almost a decade ago. While it is true that some specific courthouses show greater agreement today, others show less agreement. Many of these changes appear to reflect changes in the judges currently serving there.

Yet answering the question of whether significant intra-judge differences in sentencing practices exist is not sufficient to establish that such differences are indeed unwarranted sentencing disparities. Much more research and a great deal more time is needed for a thorough examination of the actual details of judge-by-judge sentencing patterns.

September 30, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Two misdemeanants get 45-day jail terms at latest January 6 riot sentencings

In this post a few weeks ago, I noted that federal prosecutors had started talking up the prospect of seeking jail time even in some of the January 6 riot cases that were resolved through only misdemeanor charges.  Today, as reported in this new AP piece, headlined "Ohio friends sentenced to 45 days for U.S. Capitol riot Jan. 6," jail time for two January 6 misdemeanants became a reality:

Federal prosecutors assert that everybody who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 should be evaluated individually when deciding whether a prison sentence is warranted.  On Wednesday, a judge accepted the Justice Department’s assessment that two friends from Ohio fall into a category of rioters who deserve to be incarcerated.

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg sentenced Derek Jancart and Erik Rau to 45 days in jail. Prosecutors had recommended four months of imprisonment for both men.  They must report to jail by Nov. 29.  The jail sentences for Jancart and Rau could become benchmarks for how the courts resolve many other Capitol insurrection prosecutions, a caseload that tops 600 defendants and grows by the week.

Like most of the insurrectionists who have pleaded guilty so far, Jancart and Rau aren’t accused of engaging in any violence or destruction at the Capitol or of conspiring to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory. Defense attorneys compared their actions to those of other Capitol riot defendants who avoided prison sentences after pleading guilty to non-violent misdemeanors.

But prosecutors cited several factors in arguing that prison, not probation, was the appropriate sentence for both men — and will be in many other cases.  They said Jancart, an Air Force veteran, prepared for violence on Jan. 6 by bringing a gas mask and two-way radios to Washington. Rau, a steel mill worker, brought a medical kit and Kevlar-lined gloves.

They said Jancart and Rau spent 40 minutes inside the Capitol, reaching House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s conference room. Jancart celebrated the violence on social media and didn’t show any remorse when the FBI arrested him, according to prosecutors.  They said Rau screamed, “We have you surrounded!” at police officers and shouted, “Go, go, go!” and “Yeah, they just pushed through the guards!” Those statements are “akin to inciting a riot and contributed to the environment of terror on that day,” prosecutors said.

“This was not a protest,” prosecutors wrote. “And it is important to convey to future rioters and would-be mob participants — especially those who intend to improperly influence the democratic process — that their actions will have consequences.”

The judge told Jancart and Rau that they and other rioters tried to undermine the peaceful transfer of power after a democratic election.  “There are few actions that are as serious as the one this group took on that day,” Boasberg said.

Jancart and Rau apologized and expressed remorse for their actions. “I did get caught up in the moment,” Jancart said.  “I just kind of followed the crowd and let my curiosity get the best of me.”

“There is no excuse for my actions on Jan. 6,” Rau said. “I 100% know better than to do what I did that day.”

Jancart was arrested at his Ohio home in February. Rau was arrested in July. Both men pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a Capitol building, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment.

Over 80 defendants have pleaded guilty to riot-related offenses, but only seven others besides Jancart and Rau have been sentenced so far. A Florida man who entered the U.S. Senate chamber was sentenced to eight months in prison.  Two were sentenced to time served after six months in jail. Two were sentenced to house arrest. Two others received probation.

Probationary sentences “should not necessarily become the default,” prosecutors wrote.  “Those who trespassed, but engaged in aggravating factors, merit serious consideration of institutional incarceration. While those who trespassed, but engaged in less serious aggravating factors, deserve a sentence more in line with minor incarceration or home confinement,” they added....

More than 50 other rioters are scheduled to be sentenced before the end of 2021.

Some of many prior related posts:

September 29, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

USSC releases interesting (but problematic?) new JSIN platform providing data on sentencing patterns

Jason-voorhees-friday-the-13th_1I had heard rumors that the US Sentencing Commission was working on a new sentencing data tool for federal sentencing judges, and today the USSC unveiled here what it calls the Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN).  Here is how the USSC generally describes JSIN (which is called "jason" in the helpful video the USSC has on its site):  

The Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) platform is an online sentencing data resource specifically developed with the needs of judges in mind.  The platform provides quick and easy online access to sentencing data for similarly-situated defendants.  JSIN expands upon the Commission’s longstanding practice of providing sentencing data at the request of federal judges by making some of the data provided through these special requests more broadly and easily available....

JSIN provides cumulative data based on five years of sentencing data for offenders sentenced under the same primary guideline, and with the same Final Offense Level and Criminal History Category selected.  

This all sounds great and interesting, and JSIN seems relatively easy to navigate and quite useful until one notices these notable data choices spelled out in the FAQ provided by the USSC (with my emphasis added):

After excluding cases involving a §5K1.1 substantial assistance departure, JSIN next provides a comparison of the proportion of offenders sentenced to a term of imprisonment to those sentenced to a non-imprisonment sentence....

JSIN reports the average and median term of imprisonment imposed in months for cases in which a term of imprisonment was imposed. Probation sentences are excluded.

Though I am not a data maven, I can understand the general logic of excluding the 5K and probation cases from the JSIN data analysis. But, perhaps because I am not a data maven, I greatly fear that these data exclusion choices result in the JSIN platform being systematically skewed to report statistically higher average and median terms of imprisonment.  For example, if 94 imprisonment cases have an average prison term of, say, 50 months and 6 more cases were given probation, I think the true average sentence is 47 months, but JSIN is seemingly built to report an average of 50 months.  Though less predictable, I fear the exclusion of 5K cases also may create a kind of severity bias in the data reporting.

IN addition, I did not see any way to control for the application of mandatory minimum statutes, which also serve to skew judicial sentencing outcomes to be more severe.  If a case have a guideline range of 30 for a first offender, meaning a range of 97-121 months under the guidelines, but a 10-year mandatory minimum applies, the judge is duty-bound to impose a sentence of at least 120 months even if he might want to give 97 months or something a lot lower.  If that sentence of 120 months is treated in the averages like every other sentence, it looks like the judge wanted to give the top of the guideline range even though he gave the lowest sentence allowed by law.  In other words, without controlling for the distorting impact of mandatory minimums, these averages may not really reflect judicial assessments of truly justified sentencing outcomes but rather averages skewed upward by mandatory minimums.

I am not eager to beat up on the USSC for creating a helpful and easy-to-use data tool and for making this tool accessible to everyone online.  And I am hopeful that the exclusions and mandatory minimum echoes may only impact the data runs in relatively few cases and only a small amount.  But even if the impact is limited, I think it quite worrisome if this JSIN tool has a built-in and systemic "severity biases" due to its data choices.  If it does, when hear about JSIN, I am not going to imagine the heroic Jason Bourne, but rather the nightmarish Jason Voorhees.

September 28, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

US Sentencing Commission releases updated "Compassionate Release Data Report" covering all of 2020 and first half of 2021

As detailed in prior posts here and here, a few months ago the US Sentencing Commission started releasing short data report titled "Compassionate Release Data."  Though these reports provide only some very basic accounting of the grants and denials of federal compassionate release motions nationwide, they still provide the only "official" accounting of who is getting relief and some of the basics surrounding their demographics. 

Exciting, the latest of these reports was released today at this link and "reflects compassionate release motions decided by the courts during calendar years 2020 and 2021 (January 1, 2020 - June 30, 2021)."  Table 1 of the report shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the number of these motions brought and the grant rate declined though the first six months of 2021.  I presume that could reflect the fact that lots of the strongest cases may have received release in 2020 and also concerns about COVID started declining as vaccines became available to federal prisoners.

As I have said before, I hope that the US Sentencing Commission not only continues to release more data on these cases, but also a lot more granular data and analyses about sentencing reduction grants.  I also hope the USSC will (a) track recidivism rates for this population over time, and (b) discuss which guidelines might be still producing excessively long sentences in retrospect as documented through these grants.  The kind of second-look sentencing mechanism now operating the the federal system is not only valuable and important as a means to achieve better justice in individual cases, but also should serve as an important feedback loop providing a kind of on-going audit of the operation of the entire federal sentencing system. 

A few of many prior related posts:

September 28, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 20, 2021

Two notable new Forbes pieces on the state of federal sentencing and clemency practices

Though both piece merit their own posts, a busy time means I have to combine my coverage of two recent Forbes piece that are worth full reads.  I will be content with a link and a paragraph to whet appetites:

From Brian Jacobs, "The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Inadequate Response To Covid-19":

For the past 18 months, federal courts have grappled with the impact of Covid-19 on sentencing proceedings, and a curious disparity has emerged.  On the one hand, anecdotal evidence suggests that federal judges are imposing more lenient sentences in recognition of how the pandemic has made imprisonment harsher and more punitive than in the past. On the other hand, reports available from the U.S. Sentencing Commission tell a different story — at least for now — suggesting that courts have to a great extent ignored the pandemic when imposing sentence.  I have written in the past (here and here) about how the body of sentencing law is effectively hidden from public view (as it exists primarily in court transcripts).  This dearth of readily accessible sentencing law is particularly problematic during the Covid-19 pandemic, as courts are grappling with novel issues in hundreds of cases.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission is uniquely positioned to fill this gap, but so far has largely failed to do so.

From Walter Palvo, "Biden Considering Options To Avoid Returning Federal Inmates To Prison Post Covid-19":

The Biden administration’s Department of Justice has started sending out applications to inmates at home under the CARES Act for consideration of a presidential clemency. To be eligible, the inmate must be home under CARES Act, have been convicted of a drug offense and have 4 years or less remaining in their sentence. I spoke with Amy Povah who runs the non-profit Can Do for Clemency program to help prisoners achieve freedom from federal prison through changing laws and clemency. “President Biden has been handed an easy political gift. There are 4,000 inmates functioning in society, obeying the laws, bonding with family and held accountable for their past actions. There is no better group vetted to be given clemency than this group of CARES Act inmates.

September 20, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2021 third quarter sentencing data showing COVID's continued (but reduced) impact on federal sentencings

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission this week published here its latest quarterly data report which is described as a "3rd Quarter Release, Preliminary Fiscal Year 2021 Data, Through June 30, 2021."  These new data provide another official accounting of how COVID challenges continued to reduce the usual total number of federal sentences imposed, though in the latest quarter we are seeing a return almost to pre-pandemic norms. 

Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, in pre-pandemic years, quarterly cases sentenced generally averaged around 17,000 to 19,000.  But in the three quarters closing out 2020, amid the worst early periods of the pandemic, there were only between about 12,000 and 13,000 cases being sentenced each quarter.  In the most recent quarter report, which ran from April 1 to June 30, 2021, about 15,000 cases were sentenced in federal court.  Figure 2 also shows that major declines in the total number of immigration cases sentenced are what primarily accounts for the decrease in overall federal cases sentenced.  For the other big federal case categories -- Drug Trafficking, Firearms and Economic Offenses -- the total number of cases sentenced in recent quarters are not off that much from recent historical norms.

Consistent with what I noted in this prior post about pandemic era USSC data, these data show an interesting jump in the percentage of below-guideline variances granted in the last four quarters (as detailed in Figures 3 and 4).  But I remain unsure if these data reflect significantly different behaviors by sentencing judges over the last year or is just primarily a product of the altered mix of cases now that the number of immigration cases being sentenced has declined dramatically.

Prior recent related post:

September 16, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

"Life lessons: Examining sources of racial and ethnic disparity in federal life without parole sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article published in Criminology and authored by Brian Johnson, Cassia Spohn and Anat Kimchi.  Here is its abstract:

Alongside capital punishment, sentences to life without the possibility of parole are one of the most distinctive aspects of the American system of criminal punishment.  Unlike the death penalty, though, almost no empirical work has examined the decision to impose life imprisonment.  The current study analyzes several years of recent federal sentencing data (FY2010–FY2017) to investigate underlying sources of racial disparity in life without parole sentences.  The analysis reveals disparities in who receives life imprisonment, but it finds these differences are attributable mostly to indirect mechanisms built into the federal sentencing system, such as the mode of conviction, mandatory minimums, and guidelines departures.  Both Black and Hispanic offenders are more likely to be eligible for life sentences under the federal guidelines, but conditional on being eligible, they are not more likely to receive life sentences.  Findings are discussed in relation to ongoing debates over racial inequality and the growing role that life imprisonment plays in American exceptionalism in punishment.

September 7, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 02, 2021

More encouraging(?) news from Capitol Hill on federal statutory criminal justice reform efforts

Axios has this interesting new piece headlined "Senate plans barrage on crime," which provides an encouraging update on the commitment of some key Senators to get additional federal criminal justice reforms to the finish line soon. Here are some details (with a bit of my emphasis added):

Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are working to win Senate passage of a big criminal justice reform package this Congress.

Why it matters: Crime is spiking in big cities. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) is still working on a police reform measure.  The bipartisan dynamic duo atop the Senate Judiciary Committee is stepping up, passing three piecemeal bills out of their committee....

What they're saying: It's these three measures, Grassley told Axios, they "hope to package along with potentially other proposals to pass the Senate sometime this Congress." Durbin told Axios in his own statement that he's "committed to bringing these bills to the Senate floor this Congress."

What to watch: The final package also may include a measure for the thousands of inmates who were released to home confinement during the pandemic but will be forced to return behind bars when it's over, a Republican Senate staffer told Axios.  In addition, it may address sentencing disparities in crack and powder cocaine offenses.

One challenge will be the crime spike, which has the potential of sapping support from senators afraid of being branded soft on crime.  "Negotiations have always been an important part of enacting criminal justice reform, and this time will be no different, especially given the increase in crime we are seeing across the country,” Grassley said.

Between the lines: It's still early, but advocates said they need to take advantage of any opening they see for criminal justice reform — especially since police reform has stalled. They pointed to the House Judiciary Committee recently voting out the bipartisan EQUAL Act.  It would eliminate disparities in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine offenses and allow some inmates to appeal their sentence.  Even normally critical Republicans like Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) are cosponsors for the bill, which they take as a good sign.  That has supporters believing whatever emerges from the Senate can be packaged with House measures in conference committee and, ultimately, pass Congress.

I use the term "encouraging(?)" to describe this news in my post title because "this Congress" only means sometime before January 3, 2023.  Given how hard it is to get a divided Congress to complete anything these days, I suppose I should find any talk of any serious commitment to getting anything done to be just "encouraging."  But because of the modest nature of the "three piecemeal bills" primarily being discussed here (details in links below), I have been hoping that one or more of these bills might have a real change of getting to the desk of Prez Biden before the end of this year.

That all said, if these three Durbin/Grassley bills were to be combined with the EQUAL bill to reduce crack sentences and with some statutory fix to the pandemic home confinement problem, then I think all sentencing advocates would have something to really get excited about.  Notably, the FIRST STEP Act ended up having a lot of smaller reform proposals rolled into it, and I would love to see  five good reform proposals (and a few more) put together so that reform legislation can really improve a federal criminal justice system broken in so many ways.

Last but not least, I cannot complete this post without emphasizing, yet again, how effective implementation of any congressional reforms demands a well-functioning US Sentencing Commission.  The FIRST STEP Act is now nearly three years old, and the absence of a fully functioning USSC has impeded needed follow-up reforms and analyses that only the USSC can complete.  All the Durbin/Grassley bills and others in this space likewise need a working USSC to aid implementation (and a functional USSC could and would now be able to aid legislative analysis and consideration of various proposals).  But, with no USSC nominations from Prez Biden yet named, I am now fearing we may not ever get a full slate of Commissioners during "this Congress."

Some of many prior related posts:

August 2, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, July 30, 2021

Provocative new empirical paper claims to identify the "most discriminatory" federal sentencing judges

Via Twitter, I was altered to this notable new empirical paper by multiple authors titled "The Most Discriminatory Federal Judges Give Black and Hispanic Defendants At Least Double the Sentences of White Defendants."  The paper's title alone likely explains why I describe it as provocative, and this abstract provides more context about the paper's contents:

In the aggregate, racial inequality in criminal sentencing is an empirically well- established social problem. Yet, data limitations have made it impossible for researchers to systematically determine and name the most racially discriminatory federal judges.  The authors use a new, large-scale database to determine and name the observed federal judges who impose the harshest sentence length penalties on Black and Hispanic defendants.  Following the focal concerns framework, the authors (1) replicate previous findings that conditional racial disparities in sentence lengths are large in the aggregate, (2) show that judges vary considerably in their estimated degrees of racial discrimination, and (3) list the federal judges who exhibit the clearest evidence of racial discrimination.  This list shows that several judges give Black and Hispanic defendants double the sentences they give observationally equivalent white defendants.  Accordingly, the results suggest that holding the very most discriminatory judges accountable would yield meaningful improvements in racial equality.

The "new, large-scale database" used for this study is this JUSTFAIR data source published online last year.  I have not previously blogged about the JUSTFAIR data because I have never been sure of its representativeness since the source says it includes nearly 600,000 cases over a recent 18-year period (from 2001 to 2018), but more than twice that number of persons have been sentenced in federal courts during that span.  I fear I lack the empirical chops to know just whether to be reasonably confident or highly uncertain about the JUSTFAIR data, and that broader concern colors my thinking about this provocative new paper's claims that the authors have been able to identify the "most racially discriminatory federal judges."

I would love to hear from readers with strong empirical backgrounds about whether this new paper effectively demonstrates what it claims to identify.  I am initially skeptical because the the two judges labelled "most discriminatory" come from the same federal judicial district and only a few districts are among those that have all the identified "discriminatory" judges.  That reality leads me to wonder if case-selection realities, rather than "discrimination," may at least in part account for any observed racial differences in sentencing outcomes.  Relatedly, when I dig into the local data at the JUSTFAIR data site, the judges identified in this new paper as the "most discriminatory" do not seem to have anywhere close to the most racially disparate rates of above/below guideline sentencing outcomes even within their own districts.

In short, without a much better understanding of the empirics at work here, I am not confident about what this new empirical paper is claiming.  But I am confident that I would like to hear from readers as to what they think about this provocative new paper on an always important topic.

July 30, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

When might we expect advocacy groups to push Prez Biden make needed appointments to the US Sentencing Commission?

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

In this post a few weeks ago, I highlighted that all the openings on the USSC provide the Biden Administration with an opportunity to appoint transformative commissioners who could make the USSC into a criminal justice reform leader for years to come.  And, as the title of this post suggests, I am now growing a bit frustrated that an array of criminal advocacy groups are not yet publicly advocating on this issue.  (I surmise there might be behind-the-scenes work afoot on this front.  I sure hope so.)  Notably, a broad range of advocacy groups have been actively urging Prez Biden to broadly and aggressively use his clemency powers for various sets of offenders.  Though I share an interest in seeing clemency powers revived, clemency is often just a "one-time" achievement.  Effective appointments to the US Sentencing Commission can provide the foundation for advancing badly needed structural and institutional federal sentencing reforms for a generation.

Justified concern for the home confinement cohort at risk of being sent back to federal prison after the end of the pandemic has garnered lots of attention from advocates and the media.  But, ironically, with the pandemic dragging on, that cohort is still likely to be able to stay home for the foreseeable future even if Prez Biden does not grant some kind of mass clemency (and, as I have argued, Congress ought to be acting to address this issue).  Meanwhile, the federal prison population is growing significantly again, perhaps in part due to a number of beneficial changes to federal sentencing law from the FIRST STEP Act having not yet been fully implemented into the guidelines.  (I particularly have in mind potential expansion of the "safety valve" adjustment in the drug guidelines based on the statutory change in FIRST STEP; a parallel guideline change which might reduce thousands of drug sentences if made fully retroactive.)  With the pandemic dragging on and the federal prison population on the rise, it is especially worrisome that the Biden Administration is moving at a pace that could result in there is no functioning  US Sentencing Commission in place until 2022 and even no realistic chance for any needed guideline amendments until perhaps 2023.

I understand that other appointments, from judges to other executive branch positions, are a higher priority for many political insiders and advocacy groups.  But shrewd and bold nominations to the US Sentencing Commission could and would serve as an effective way for Prez Biden to signal a real commitment to criminal justice reform while also reviving an agency with a long history of impactful work on the federal sentencing system.  In addition to hoping the Biden team is making some progress on this front, I also now want to urge criminal justice advocacy groups to see this is an important opportunity to advance needed change.

Last bit of insider tounge-in-cheek joke:  Maybe the Biden team should get really clever and urge Justice Breyer to give up his day job and serve again on the US Sentencing Commission. 

A few of many  prior recent related posts:

July 20, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 19, 2021

First Jan 6 rioter to be sentenced on felony charges gets (below-guideline) sentence of eight months in federal prison

As noted in this preview post on Friday, this morning was the scheduled sentencing day for Paul Allard Hodgkins, who carried a Trump flag into the well of the Senate during the January 6 riot at the Capitol.  Hodgkins' sentencing has been seen as particularly significant because he is the very first person to be sentenced on felony charges stemming from his actions on January 6 — one misdemeanor defendant has been sentenced to probation — and because Hodgkins' sentencing memo and the Government's sentencing memo made notable arguments as he sought probation and as the government urged an 18-month prison term (at the midpoint of the calculated guidelines range of 15 to 21 months).

This AP piece reports via its headline that the federal sentencing judge here did what often happens in these kinds of cases, namely he came quite close to splitting the difference: "Capitol rioter who breached Senate sentenced to 8 months."  Here are more details on this notable federal sentencing:

A Florida man who breached the U.S. Senate chamber carrying a Trump campaign flag was sentenced Monday to eight months behind bars, the first resolution for a felony case in the Capitol insurrection.

Paul Allard Hodgkins apologized and said he was ashamed of his actions on Jan 6. Speaking calmly from a prepared text, he described being caught up in the euphoria as he walked down Washington’s most famous avenue, then followed a crowd of hundreds up Capitol Hill and into the Capitol building. “If I had any idea that the protest … would escalate (the way) it did … I would never have ventured farther than the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Hodgkins told the judge. He added: “This was a foolish decision on my part.”

Prosecutors had asked for Hodgkins to serve 18 months behind bars, saying in a recent filing that he, “like each rioter, contributed to the collective threat to democracy” by forcing lawmakers to temporarily abandon their certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory over President Donald Trump and to scramble for shelter from incoming mobs.

His sentencing could set the bar for punishments of hundreds of other defendants as they decide whether to accept plea deals or go to trial. He and others are accused of serious crimes but were not indicted, as some others were, for roles in larger conspiracies. Under an agreement with prosecutors, Hodgkins pleaded guilty last month to one count of obstructing an official proceeding, which carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop lesser charges, including entering a restricted building and disorderly conduct.

Video footage shows Hodgkins wearing a Trump 2020 T-shirt, the flag flung over his shoulder and eye goggles around his neck, inside the Senate. He took a selfie with a self-described shaman in a horned helmet and other rioters on the dais behind him.

His lawyer pleaded with Judge Randolph Moss to spare his 38-year-old client time in prison, saying the shame that will attach to Hodgkins for the rest of his life should be factored in as punishment. The lawyer argued in court papers that Hodgkins’ actions weren’t markedly different from those of Anna Morgan Lloyd — other than Hodgkins stepping onto the Senate floor. The 49-year-old from Indiana was the first of roughly 500 arrested to be sentenced. She pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and last month was sentenced to three years of probation.

Hodgkins was never accused of assaulting anyone or damaging property. And prosecutors said he deserves some leniency for taking responsibility almost immediately and pleading guilty to the obstruction charge. But they also noted how he boarded a bus in his hometown of Tampa bound for a Jan. 6 Trump rally carrying rope, protective goggles and latex gloves in a backpack — saying that demonstrated he came to Washington prepared for violence.

Prior related posts:

July 19, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, July 16, 2021

Feds advocate for (mid-guideline) prison term of 18 months for first Jan 6 defendant due to be sentenced on felony charge

As noted in this Washington Post piece, a notable federal sentencing is scheduled for Monday and federal prosecutors have a notable sentencing recommendation for the judge: "U.S. prosecutors on Wednesday urged a federal judge to impose an 18-month prison term on the first defendant to face sentencing for a felony in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach, citing the need to deter domestic terrorism."  Here is more:

“The need to deter others is especially strong in cases involving domestic terrorism, which the breach of the Capitol certainly was,” Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Mona Sedky said in a government sentencing request for Tampa crane operator Paul Allard Hodgkins, 38, who carried a Trump flag into the well of the Senate....

Hodgkins’s sentencing, scheduled for Monday, could set the bar for what punishment 100 or more defendants might expect to face as they weigh whether to accept plea offers by prosecutors or take their chances at a trial by jury.  About 800 people entered the building, U.S. officials have said, with more than 500 individuals charged to date and charges expected against at least 100 others.  About 20 people have pleaded guilty, and one misdemeanor defendant has been sentenced to probation.

In Hodgkins’s case, Sedky cited FBI Director Christopher A. Wray’s testimony in March to the Senate that the problem of homegrown violent extremism is “metastasizing,” with some actors growing emboldened by the Capitol riot....  Sedky also asked U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss of Washington to recognize prior court findings that though individuals convicted of such behavior may have no criminal history, their beliefs make them “unique among criminals in the likelihood of recidivism.”

Hodgkins pleaded guilty on June 2 to one felony count of entering the Capitol to obstruct Congress, a common charge being used by prosecutors.  Unlike other defendants, he was not accused of other wrongdoing or involvement with extremist groups, nor did he enter a cooperation deal with prosecutors.  Under advisory federal guidelines, he could face a prison sentence of 15 to 21 months.

Hodgkins poses an intriguing example for defendants against whom prosecutors have threatened to seek enhanced domestic terrorism penalties, lawyers said.  Such enhancements, if found to apply, could more than double a defendant’s guidelines range or otherwise increase recommended penalties, although judges would have the final say. In Hodgkins’s case, prosecutors did not ask the judge to apply the enhancement, even though they wrote Wednesday that his conduct met the definition of violence “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion.”  Instead, prosecutors said a “midpoint” sentence in Hodgkins’s existing range was appropriate, but still urged Moss to consider the importance of dissuading future acts of domestic terrorism.

Hodgkins has asked for a below-guidelines sentence of probation.  His attorney urged Moss to follow the example of President Abraham Lincoln’s planned approach to the defeated South after the Civil War, before he was assassinated.  “Today, this Court has a chance to make a difference,” Tampa attorney Patrick N. Leduc wrote, asserting that America now is “as divided as it was in the 1850s” on racial and regional lines.  “We have the chance to be as Lincoln had hoped, to exercise grace and charity, and to restore healing for those who seek forgiveness. Alternatively, we can follow the mistakes of our past: to be harsh, seek vengeance, retribution, and revenge, and continue to watch the nation go down its present regrettable path,” Leduc said.

Lawyers familiar with the Capitol probe have said the case illustrates how prosecutors are taking a carrot-and-stick approach in plea talks, threatening to hit some defendants with tougher sentencing guidelines calculations while showing some flexibility for those not accused of any violent conduct in a bid to resolve cases short of trial.

For example, another Jan. 6 defendant pleaded guilty Wednesday to the identical charge as Hodgkins. However, Josiah Colt, 34, of Idaho, faced a sentencing guidelines range three times as high, 51 to 63 months, after admitting that he came armed to Washington and was with others accused of violently interfering with police. Colt, however, entered a cooperation deal, implicating two men he was with in plea papers and agreeing to aid investigators in exchange for a recommendation of leniency.

Several defense attorneys in the probe privately called prosecutors’ tactics draconian in some cases, saying they are threatening years of prison time for individuals not charged with violence and giving them little choice but to face trial.

The Post has also helpfully provided links to Hodgkins' sentencing memo and the Government's sentencing memo.  They both make for interesting reads.  And, as always, I welcome reader views on how they think the 3553(a) factors ought to play out in sentencing in this high-profile case.

Prior related posts:

July 16, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Joe Exotic (of "Tiger King" fame) prevails on technical guideline issue to secure resentencing on Tenth Circuit appeal

It seems like a very long time ago that everyone was talking about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin.  The must-see Netflix documentary "Tiger King" about their ugly rivalry dropped just as we were all going into pandemic lock down, and it was only about 18 months ago that we were all talking about Joe and Carole and their cats.  That is a lot less time than the 264 months (22 years) that Joe Exotic was sentenced to after his federal jury convictions for multiple wildlife crimes and two counts of using interstate facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire plots to kill Carole Baskin.

But what is old is new again thanks to today's Tenth Circuit panel decision in US v. Joseph Maldonado-Passage, No. 20-6010 (10th Cir. July 14, 2021) (available here).  Here is how the panel opinion gets started:

It was a rivalry made in heaven.  Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the self-proclaimed “Tiger King,” owned what might have been the nation’s largest population of big cats in captivity. Carole Baskin was an animal-rights activist who fought for legislation prohibiting the private possession of big cats.  He bred lions and tigers to create big-cat hybrids — some the first of their kind.  She saw the crossbreeding of big cats as evil.  He built his business around using cubs for entertainment.  She protested his events as animal abuse and urged boycotts.

The rivalry intensified after Baskin sued Maldonado-Passage for copyright and trademark infringement and won a million-dollar judgment.  Maldonado-Passage responded by firing a barrage of violent threats at Baskin, mostly online.  And he didn’t stop there.  Before long, he was plotting her murder.  Twice, within weeks, he set about hiring men to kill Baskin — one, an employee at his park; the other, an undercover FBI agent.

Maldonado-Passage soon faced a federal indictment charging him with twenty-one counts, most for wildlife crimes, but two for using interstate facilities in the commission of his murder-for-hire plots.  A jury convicted Maldonado-Passage on all counts, and the court sentenced him to 264 months’ imprisonment.

On appeal, he disputes his murder-for-hire convictions, arguing that the district court erred by allowing Baskin, a listed government witness, to attend the entire trial proceedings.  He also disputes his sentence, arguing that the trial court erred by not grouping his two murder-for-hire convictions in calculating his advisory Guidelines range.  On this second point, he contends that the Guidelines required the district court to group the two counts because they involved the same victim and two or more acts or transactions that were connected by a common criminal objective: murdering Baskin.

We hold that the district court acted within its discretion by allowing Baskin to attend the full trial proceedings despite her being listed as a government witness, but that it erred by not grouping the two murder-for-hire convictions at sentencing.  Accordingly, we affirm the conviction but vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.

As noted by the 10th Circuit panel, correction of the guideline error will shift Joe Exotic's advisory sentencing range down to 210 to 262 months from the 262 to 327 months used at his initial sentencing.  So Joe will still be facing a hefty guideline range, but maybe he will be better able to advocate and secure a below-guideline range at an upcoming resentencing.

July 14, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 08, 2021

District Judge cites "severe remorse" among reasons to give Michael Avenatti (way-below-guideline) sentence of 30 months in federal prison

This NBC News piece reports that "Michael Avenatti, the brash attorney who had been a leading foe of then-President Donald Trump, was sentenced Thursday to 30 months in prison for a brazen, botched scheme to extort athletic apparel giant Nike out of up to $25 million." Here is more about this high-profile sentencing:

That sentence was much lower than the nine years that was the bottom of the sentencing range suggested by federal guidelines, and not anywhere close to “a substantial” prison term sought by federal prosecutors for the California lawyer.

“I alone have destroyed my career, my relationships and my life. And there is no doubt I need to pay,” Avenatti, 50, tearfully told Manhattan federal court Judge Paul Gardephe before he was sentenced. “I am truly sorry for all of the pain I caused to Mr. Franklin and others,” Avenatti said, referring to his former client Gary Franklin, an amateur basketball coach.

Avenatti’s sentencing came more than three years after he gained widespread fame, and infamy, for his bombastic representation of porn star Stormy Daniels, who received a $130,000 hush money payment from Trump’s then-personal lawyer Michael Cohen before the 2016 presidential election to keep her quiet about claims she had sex with Trump years before he ran for the White House.

Daniels is one of several former Avenatti clients that he is charged with swindling in two other separate federal prosecutions, one of which is due to begin next week in California.

Gardephe said that in the Nike scheme, “Mr. Avenatti’s conduct was outrageous.”  "He hijacked his client’s claims, and he used him to further his own agenda, which was to extort Nike millions of dollars for himself,” said the judge, who also sentenced Avenatti to three years of supervised release for the case, in which Avenatti was convicted at trial last year. “He outright betrayed his client,” Gardephe said....

But Gardephe added that Avenatti deserved a lighter sentence than the range recommended by federal guidelines — from nine years to 11-years and three months — because, the judge said that for the first time in the case, “Mr. Avenatti has expressed what I believe to be severe remorse today.”

The judge also cited the brutal conditions in which Avenatti was kept for several months in a Manhattan federal prison after his 2019 arrest. And Gardephe sharply noted, in justifying the lower-than-recommended sentence, how federal prosecutors did not criminally charge Geragos in spite of what they have said was his active participation with Avenatti in the shakedown.

The judge ordered Avenatti, who remains free on bond, to surrender on Sept. 15 to begin his sentence, which Gardephe recommended be served in at the federal prison camp in Sheridan, Oregon. Avenatti’s lawyers had asked for a sentence of just six months....

At his trial next week, Avenatti is accused of crimes that include defrauding clients out of millions of dollars. One of those clients was a mentally ill paraplegic. Avenatti next year is due back in Manhattan federal court to be tried on charges related to allegedly swindling Daniels, out of $300,000 in proceeds for a book she wrote.

July 8, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (8)

Another notable round of new Quick Facts publications from US Sentencing Commission

In a number of prior post, I have praised the US Sentencing Commission for continuing to produce a steady stream of its insightful little data documents in its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications (which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format"). This is another such post intended to flag these newest publications:

July 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Prosecutors, court communities, and policy change: The impact of internal DOJ reforms on federal prosecutorial practices"

Crim12275-fig-0007-mThe title of this post is the title of this important and impressive new empirical federal criminal justice research just published in Criminology and authored by Mona Lynch, Matt Barno and Marisa Omori. Here is the article's abstract:

The current study examines how key internal U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) policy changes have been translated into front-line prosecutorial practices. Extending courts-as-communities scholarship and research on policy implementation practices, we use U.S. Sentencing Commission data from 2004 to 2019 to model outcomes for several measures of prosecutorial discretion in federal drug trafficking cases, including the use of mandatory minimum charges and prosecutor-endorsed departures, to test the impact of the policy changes on case processing outcomes. We contrast prosecutorial measures with measures that are more impervious to discretionary manipulation, such as criminal history, and those that represent judicial and blended discretion, including judicial departures and final sentence lengths. We find a significant effect of the policy reforms on how prosecutorial tools are used across DOJ policy periods, and we find variation across districts as a function of contextual conditions, consistent with the court communities literature. We also find that a powerful driver of changes in prosecutorial practices during our most recent period is the confirmation of individual Trump-appointed U.S. Attorneys at the district level, suggesting an important theoretical place for midlevel actors in policy translation and implementation.

This article includes a data set of over 300,000(!) federal drug cases, and the findings are extremely rich and detailed. I have reprinted one of many interesting charts above, and here is the article's concluding paragraphs (without references):

Recent developments call into question whether the existing workgroup dynamics in the federal system that we have documented here — with prosecutors generally pushing for more punitive outcomes, and judges and defense attorneys acting as a counter to this punitiveness — are likely to persist in the future.  Although there was bipartisan Congressional support for the First Step Act, suggesting that the late twentieth-century punitive policies may continue to wane in appeal, the federal criminal system has also undergone significant change, particularly in the judiciary where lifetime appointments prevail.  The Trump administration was extremely active in appointing new judges to existing vacancies, and as a result, nearly a quarter of active federal judges were appointed during his presidency.  Given the conservative political leanings of many of these judges, it is fair to question whether these judges might in fact oppose a move toward less punitive practices among federal prosecutors.

Even if the Biden administration is successful in scaling back punitive policies and installs U.S. Attorneys who are in ideological alignment with such reforms, prosecutorial power is not limitless in determining case outcomes.  Under advisory guidelines, judges have considerable power to sentence above the guidelines, as long as it is within the generous statutory limits that characterize federal criminal law.  In the face of this possibility, federal prosecutors may opt to exercise their most powerful tool—the discretionary decision to file charges, or not.  Thus, should the dynamics shift to where the current roles are reversed, prosecutors could come to rely on their discretion not to charge in those drug cases where they seek to eliminate the chance that those potential defendants receive long sentences.  In any case, as our results suggest, we should expect that any potential future conflicts among federal prosecutors and judges are likely to play out differently across different court contexts, depending on the conditions and make-up of each local district.

July 8, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Encouraging(?) update on prospects for series of small federal sentencing reform bills

Politico has this new piece on the the prospects for (small) statutory sentencing reforms making their way through Congress soon.  Both the headline and contents of the article are generally encouraging, though one is always wise not to expect much from Congress these days.  The piece, headlined "As police reform talks sputter, bipartisan criminal justice bills advance," should be read in full by federal sentencing fans.  Here are a few highlights:

Democrats don't want to borrow a thing from Donald Trump’s four years in power, with perhaps one exception: bipartisan criminal justice reform.  As police reform talks edge closer to collapse and Democratic priorities from gun control to immigration stall, the Senate is chugging ahead on an overhaul of the U.S. criminal justice system that advanced under Trump.  Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) described criminal justice reform as a “personal priority” for himself and his GOP counterpart, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley....

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said this week that he expects both chambers will "be moving a series of bipartisan criminal justice reform bills ... to deal with the mass incarceration epidemic that we have in America and the over-criminalization problem which both Democrats and Republicans recognize as a challenge that must be decisively tackled."

Whether Republicans back criminal justice reform to the extent that they did in 2018 remains to be seen. The First Step Act, which included sentencing as well as prison reform provisions, passed the Senate with 38 GOP votes but only after many conservatives got on board following a personal appeal from Trump.  A potentially stronger deterrent than a Democrat in the White House, for some Republicans weighing this year's bills, is the current increase in violent crime.  "A bigger issue is the big rise in crime in the last year,” Grassley said in an interview. “I think that’s the biggest impediment, not because Trump’s not president.”  Durbin countered that the package he is working on with Grassley, a trio of bills, focuses on non-violent crime....

So far, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved three bills co-sponsored by Durbin and Grassley.  The first would give inmates the ability to petition for the sentencing changes established in 2018 to apply retroactively, among other provisions.  The second would prohibit a judge from considering any conduct for which a defendant was acquitted in sentencing. Finally, the third would expand eligibility for a program that allows elderly prisoners to serve out the remainder of their sentences at home.  That measure also includes a provision that would allow vulnerability to Covid-19 to qualify as a reason for compassionate release.

But criminal justice reform advocates are pushing for the inclusion of more provisions in a larger package, especially legislation that would eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The Biden administration recently backed the bill, and Durbin's committee held a hearing on it last month that featured GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson (Ark.), a former Drug Enforcement Administration chief, and Matthew Charles, the first person released from prison after the First Step Act passed in 2018.  The road to closing that crack-cocaine sentencing disparity, a longtime progressive cause, is a hard one....

Advocates are hoping to see further movement before Congress leaves for its scheduled August recess.  However, both Grassley and Durbin suggested that could be a heavy lift, given their limited days left in session and the intense focus on moving through both the bipartisan infrastructure deal and reconciliation.  Durbin said he is working to pass his bills by voice vote, but if that doesn’t work he will ask Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for floor time.  Grassley predicted that some time in the fall would be more likely....

As Congress enters the second half of the year, proponents of criminal justice reform are confident that some type of legislation will get through, given the ideological range of groups pushing for change.  “Each member, both Republican and Democrat, have very much an interest in it based upon inequities that have happened because of past tough on crime legislation,” Grassley said. “But something that really helps is when you have a broad coalition of the most liberal and the most conservative interest groups in the United States working together for it.”

Because there are many moving parts to the legislative proposals in play, and especially because of partisan divisions along with the fraught politics of crime, I fear that there could be many speed bumps on the way to congressional approval of even the small sentencing reform proposals that have so far advanced through the Senate Judiciary Committee.  But if there are enough folks on both side of the political aisle who remain eager to get something done in this space, and especially if the Biden Administration might be prepared to prioritize these issues after infrastructure discussions are resolved, I will be hopeful that we could see one or maybe more federal sentencing reform bills become law in 2021.  But I should close by repeating what I said at the outset, namely that it is always wise not to expect much from Congress these days.

Some of many prior related posts:

July 1, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Non-Production Offenses"

Cover_CP-non-prodDespite only having a single commissioner, the US Sentencing Commissioner is continuing to produce interesting federal sentencing data and reports.  This latest USSC report, running nearly 100 pages, was released today under the titled "Federal Sentencing of Child Pornography: Non-Production Offenses."   This report drills into data from fiscal year 2019, and this webpage sets out these "key findings" from the report:

  • Facilitated by advancements in digital and mobile technology, non-production child pornography offenses increasingly involve voluminous quantities of videos and images that are graphic in nature, often involving the youngest victims.
    • In fiscal year 2019, non-production child pornography offenses involved a median number of 4,265 images, with some offenders possessing and distributing millions of images and videos.
    • Over half (52.2%) of non-production child pornography offenses in fiscal year 2019 included images or videos of infants or toddlers, and nearly every offense (99.4%) included prepubescent victims.
  • Constrained by statutory mandatory minimum penalties, congressional directives, and direct guideline amendments by Congress in the PROTECT Act of 2003, § 2G2.2 contains a series of enhancements that have not kept pace with technological advancements.  Four of the six enhancements — accounting for a combined 13 offense levels — cover conduct that has become so ubiquitous that they now apply in the vast majority of cases sentenced under § 2G2.2.
    • For example, in fiscal year 2019, over 95 percent of non-production child pornography offenders received enhancements for use of a computer and for the age of the victim (images depicting victims under the age of 12).
    • The enhancements for images depicting sadistic or masochistic conduct or abuse of an infant or toddler (84.0% of cases) or having 600 or more images (77.2% of cases) were also applied in most cases.
  • Because enhancements that initially were intended to target more serious and more culpable offenders apply in most cases, the average guideline minimum and average sentence imposed for nonproduction child pornography offenses have increased since 2005.
    • The average guideline minimum for non-production child pornography offenders increased from 98 months in fiscal year 2005 to 136 months in fiscal year 2019.
    • The average sentence increased more gradually, from 91 months in fiscal year 2005 to 103 months in fiscal year 2019.
  • Although sentences imposed remain lengthy, courts increasingly apply downward variances in response to the high guideline ranges that apply to the typical non-production child pornography offender.
    • In fiscal year 2019, less than one-third (30.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders received a sentence within the guideline range.
    • The majority (59.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders received a variance below the guideline range.
    • Non-government sponsored below range variances accounted for 42.2 percent of sentences imposed, and government sponsored below range variances accounted for 16.8 percent.
  • Section 2G2.2 does not adequately account for relevant aggravating factors identified in the Commission’s 2012 Child Pornography Report that have become more prevalent.
    • More than forty percent (43.7%) of non-production child pornography offenders participated in an online child pornography community in fiscal year 2019.
    • Nearly half (48.0%) of non-production child pornography offenders engaged in aggravating sexual conduct prior to, or concurrently with, the instant nonproduction child pornography offense in fiscal year 2019.  This represents a 12.9 percentage point increase since fiscal year 2010, when 35.1 percent of offenders engaged in such conduct.
  • Consistent with the key aggravating factors identified in the Commission’s 2012 Child Pornography Report, courts appeared to consider participation in an online child pornography community and engaging in aggravating sexual conduct when imposing sentences, both in terms of the length of sentence imposed and the sentence relative to the guideline range.
    • In fiscal year 2019, the average sentence imposed increased from 71 months for offenders who engaged in neither an online child pornography community nor aggravating sexual conduct, to 79 months for offenders who participated in an online child pornography community, to 134 months for offenders who engaged in aggravating sexual conduct.
    • In fiscal year 2019, offenders who engaged in aggravating sexual conduct were sentenced within their guideline ranges at a rate nearly three times higher than offenders who did not participate in online child pornography communities or engage in aggravating sexual conduct (44.3% compared to 15.6%).
  • As courts and the government contend with the outdated statutory and guideline structure, sentencing disparities among similarly situated non-production child pornography offenders have become increasingly pervasive. Charging practices, the resulting guideline ranges, and the sentencing practices of judges have all contributed to some degree to these disparities.
    • For example, the sentences for 119 similarly situated possession offenders ranged from probation to 228 months though these 119 possession offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
    • The sentences for 52 similarly situated receipt offenders ranged from 37 months to 180 months though these 52 receipt offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
    • The sentences for 190 similarly situated distribution offenders ranged from less than one month to 240 months though these 190 distribution offenders had the same guideline calculation through the application of the same specific offense characteristics and criminal history category.
  • When tracking 1,093 nonproduction child pornography offenders released from incarceration or placed on probation in 2015, 27.6 percent were rearrested within three years.
    • Of the 1,093 offenders, 4.3 percent (47 offenders) were rearrested for a sex offense within three years.
    • Eighty-eight offenders (8.1% of the 1,093) failed to register as a sex offender during the three-year period.

June 29, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Post-Libby commutation developments, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

New plea deals sets possible new precedent for resolving low-level Capitol riot prosecutions with single misdemeanor with 6 month jail maximum

As reported in this Politico piece, headlined "Virginia couple pleads guilty in Capitol riot," the first set of pleas for low-level participating in the January 6 riots were entered in federal court yesterday.  Here are the details:

A Virginia couple on Monday became the third and fourth defendants to plead guilty in the sprawling investigation stemming from the Capitol riot in January.  However, Jessica and Joshua Bustle of Bristow, Va., became the first to plead guilty in federal court who faced only misdemeanor charges as a result of their actions at the Capitol as lawmakers were attempting to certify President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory.

Under a deal with prosecutors, the Bustles each pleaded guilty to one of the four misdemeanor charges they faced: parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building. They could get up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000, but will be spared the potential of back-to-back sentences on multiple counts.

The arrangement could serve as a template for hundreds of other misdemeanor-only cases filed related to the Jan. 6 events.  Defense attorneys say it also suggests that prosecutors will not readily agree to more lenient resolutions in Capitol riot cases, such as deferring the case and dismissing it following a period of good behavior.

“There’s no guarantee what the sentence will be in this case,” Judge Thomas Hogan told the Bustles during the afternoon hearing, conducted by videoconference. “I can give a sentence that’s legal up to the maximum in the statute: six months.”

According to a complaint filed by an FBI agent in March, Jessica Bustle posted on her Facebook page on Jan. 6: “Pence is a traitor. We stormed the capital.  An unarmed peaceful woman down the hall from us was shot in the neck by cops.  It’s insane here….Pray for America!!!!”  In another post, Jessica Bustle — who said she’s opposed to taking the coronavirus vaccine — indicated she and her husband were attending a “health freedom” rally separate from then-President Donald Trump’s rally. They later decided to check out what was happening at the Capitol, she wrote.  “My husband and I just WALKED right in with tons of other people.” Bustle also wrote: “We need a Revolution.”...

The Bustles have also agreed to pay $500 apiece in restitution, Hogan said.  Both the Bustles' attorneys and a prosecutor said they were prepared to proceed with sentencing Monday, but the judge declined, saying he would set a sentencing date in 4 to 6 weeks.  “I’m not prepared to do sentencing today. I think we have to look at the case a little bit,” said Hogan, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan. The judge said he wanted to ensure “consistency and comparability” of sentences among the Capitol riot defendants, none of whom have been sentenced thus far.

Many Capitol riot defendants face the four typical misdemeanor charges the Bustles faced plus a felony charge of obstruction of an official proceeding.  The latter charge carries a potential 20-year prison term. It is not clear how prosecutors have distinguished between nonviolent defendants who face only the misdemeanors and those who had the felony charge added on.

The first guilty pleas in the Capitol riot came in April from Jon Schaffer, a heavy-metal guitarist and self-described lifetime member of the Oath Keepers. He admitted to two felonies: obstruction and entering a Secret Service-restricted area while carrying a dangerous weapon.  Schaffer agreed to cooperate in the government’s ongoing conspiracy case against fellow Oath Keepers.  A total of 16 people are now charged in that case.

The second guilty plea was from a Florida man who went onto the Senate floor during the Jan. 6 unrest, Paul Hodgkins.  At a hearing earlier this month, he pleaded guilty to a felony obstruction charge.  Prosecutors agreed to drop the misdemeanor charges against him, but there was no cooperation element to the deal.  He is tentatively set for sentencing on July 19.

This Reuters piece about these latest pleas details a bit more some of the sentencing specifics around the two earlier pleas:

The first guilty plea came in April, when a founding member of the right-wing Oath Keepers, Jon Schaffer, pleaded guilty to two felony charges of obstructing the certification of the 2020 election and breaching a restricted building. Prosecutors are recommending a sentence of between 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 years of prison time for Schaffer, but his sentence will ultimately be decided by a District of Columbia judge.

A Florida man on June 2 became the second person to plead guilty to storming the Capitol. Paul Allard Hodgkins pleaded guilty to one felony count of obstructing an official proceeding. A judge said federal sentencing guidelines call for Hodgkins to receive sentence in the range of 15 to 21 months.

Prior related posts:

June 15, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)