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)

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Timely reminder of US Sentencing Commission's decarceral potential ... when it is functional

I flagged in this post last week that the US Sentencing Commission had just released a host of notable new materials with lots of interesting data via the USSC's website.  Upon reflection and review, I was especially struck by this new data run detailing retroactive application of "Amendment 782 -- The 2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment, often referred to as 'Drugs Minus Two'."  These data reminded me of how impactful a functional and forward-thinking US Sentencing Commission can be on its own ... and why I hope Prez Biden will soon put forward nominations that would lead the USSC to become functional and forward-looking once again.

A bit of background, drawn from this report: "On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that ... reduced by two levels the offense levels assigned to [drug] quantities....  On July 18, 2014, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782."  In other words, the USSC in 2014 reduced the basic guideline offense level by two for all drug offenses and made this change retroactively applicable to all federal drug defendants still imprisoned for offenses before 2014.  Because drug offense are a huge part of the federal criminal docket and an even larger part of the federal prison population, this relatively small guideline change has had a huge prison time impact.

Specifically, as this retroactive new data report details, a total of 31,908 persons in federal prison were granted sentence reductions that averaged 26 months.  In other words, the retroactive application of the "drugs -2" guideline amendment resulted in just about 70,000(!) years of retroactive reduced imprisonment.  Further, with well over 100,000 federal drug cases sentenced over the last six years, the "prospective" impact of the  drugs -2 guideline amendment has surely been at least another 200,000 years of reduced imprisonment for federal drug offenders (and still counting). 

Critically, the drugs -2 amendment was not a direct reaction to any congressional legislation, it was a (bipartisan) decision made by a (bipartisan) expert commission shaped by evidence and sound policy analysis in all respects.  In other words, this was a consequential (decarceal) reform moved forward in precisely the good-government process that Judge Marvin Frankel envisioned when he astutely suggested the creation of a Commission on Sentencing for the federal criminal justice system. 

Sadly, the US Sentencing Commission is now essentially non-functional, at least for guideline amendments and any big initiatives, for going on three years because of the lack of commissioners.  As discussed in a number of prior posts linked below, I hope Prez Biden will get the USSC up and running again.  In the meantime, I will keep doing posts to note the wisdom and reform potential we risk losing until the USSC is functional and forward-looking once again.

 A few prior recent related posts:

May 26, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Fourth Circuit to review en banc recent panel ruling that lengthy (within-guideline) drug sentence was unreasonable

I noted in this post a few months ago the fascinating split Fourth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Freeman, No. 19-4104 (4th Cir. Mar. 30, 2021) (available here), which started this way:

Precias Freeman broke her tailbone as a teenager, was prescribed opioids, and has been addicted to the drugs ever since. In 2018, she was sentenced to serve more than 17 years in prison for possession with intent to distribute hydrocodone and oxycodone in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C). After Freeman’s appointed counsel initially submitted an Anders brief asking for the Court’s assistance in identifying any appealable issues, we directed counsel to brief whether Freeman’s sentence is substantively reasonable and whether Freeman received ineffective assistance of counsel on the face of the record. On both grounds, we vacate Freeman’s sentence and remand this case for resentencing.

The dissenting opinion concluded this way:

I have great sympathy for Freeman’s circumstances. Her story reflects failures in our community. One could argue her sentence does not reflect sound policy. But that does not make it unreasonable under the law. And while the record is concerning regarding the effectiveness of counsel Freeman received, it does not conclusively demonstrate a failure to meet the constitutional bar at this juncture. I dissent.

This case is already quite the fascinating story, but this new Fourth Circuit order shows that it is due to have another chapter at the circuit level:

A majority of judges in regular active service and not disqualified having voted in a poll requested by a member of the court to grant rehearing en banc, IT IS ORDERED that rehearing en banc is granted.

I am grateful for the colleague who made sure I saw this order, but I am disappointed that the very, very, very rare federal sentence reversed as unreasonably long is now getting en banc review when so many crazy long sentences so often get so quickly upheld as reasonable. The language of this order suggests the Fourth Circuit decide to rehear this case en banc on its own without even being asked to do so by the Justice Department.  And I am also unsure about whether Fourth Circuit en banc procedure will lead to any further briefing or arguments, but  the fact that there are two key issues (ineffective assistance of counsel AND reasonableness of the sentences) means that there might be a wide array of opinions ultimately coming from the full Fourth Circuit.

Prior related post:

May 11, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, May 02, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Thursday, April 29, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases FY 2021 first quarter sentencing data showing COVID's continued impact on federal sentencings (and USSC data)

A helpful colleague made sure that I did not overlook the fact that the US Sentencing Commission this week published here its latest quarterly data report which covers "Fiscal Year 2021 - 1st Quarter Preliminary Cumulative Data (October 1, 2020, through December 31, 2020)."  These new data provide another official accounting of how COVID challenges continued to dramatically reduce the number of federal sentences imposed through the end of 2020.  Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, while the three quarters prior to COVID averaged roughly 20,000 federal sentencings per quarter, the three quarters closing out 2020 had only between about 12,000 and 13,000 cases sentenced each quarter.  Figure 2 also shows that it is a steep decline in immigration cases that primarily accounts for the decrease in overall cases sentenced.

Also quite interesting is the big jump reported in these data of the number of below-guideline variances granted in the last two quarters (as detailed in Figures 3 and 4).  My colleague had this to say about this data: 

The overall rate of downward variances shot up recently and is staying up, while not surprisingly, the rate of within Guidelines sentences have dropped considerably.  The only apparent explanation is that judges are varying downward more frequently in light of the pandemic: COVID Variances to help lower the prison population and likelihood of infection spread.  Hopefully, if the Commission ever gets a quorum, it addresses the issue of infectious diseases and variances.  After all, 28 USC 994(g) states that “The sentencing guidelines prescribed under this chapter shall be formulated to minimize the likelihood that the Federal prison population will exceed the capacity of the Federal prisons, as determined by the Commission.”  Currently, 81 of the 193 BOP facilities are over their rated capacities making them that much more susceptible to outbreaks. 

Though I certainly want to believe more federal judges are imposing lower sentences because of COVID issues in prison, other data suggest there may be more to the story.  Specifically, in this new quarterly report, the USSC data still show that only 8.6% of offenders received a sentence of probation (in FY 2019, the last pre-COVID year, 7.7% of offenders receive probation; in FY 2018, 8.4% did).  In addition, the average sentence for drug trafficking and firearms and fraud seem largely unchanged when compared to pre-COVID years (though they have ticked down a month or two).  Still, if federal prosecutors during COVID are only moving forward with the most aggravated of cases, then having a few more more persons getting probation and many getting a few months less in prison may still reflect a real and consequential change in sentencing practices. 

In the end, though, I think the sharp increase in variances is primarily a product of the altered mix of cases now that the number of immigration cases being sentenced has declined dramatically.  Immigration sentences are, generally speaking, the least likely to include a variance; drug and fraud sentences are the most likely to include a variance.  Thus, when the case mix includes significantly fewer immigration cases, the overall sentenced population will have a greater percentage receiving variances.  Notably, this case mix story also surely explains why Figure 5 reports that the "Average Guideline Minimum" and the "Average Sentence" have been higher the last two quarters than any time in the last five years.  Immigration cases, generally speaking, have lower guideline minimums and lower average sentences; take a lot of these cases out of the overall mix, and the average for all the other cases will increase.

Ah, the many joys of complicated sentencing data!

April 29, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Third Circuit panel explores curious loss calculations in federal fraud guidelines

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting Third Circuit panel ruling this past week in US v. Kirschner, No. 20-1304 (3d Cir. April 22, 2021) (available here), discussing loss calculations under the fraud guidelines. There are lots of element to the Kirschner opinion, but the introduction provides an effective overview:

In 2018, Jonathan Kirschner pleaded guilty to one count of impersonating an officer acting under the authority of the United States and one count of importing counterfeit coins and bars with intent to defraud.  At sentencing, the District Court applied to Kirschner’s sentence three enhancements pursuant to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines — a 2-level enhancement because Kirschner’s fraud used sophisticated means; another 2-level enhancement because Kirschner abused a position of public trust to facilitate his crimes; and a 22-level enhancement because the “loss” attributable to his scheme was greater than $25 million but less than $65 million, even though it grossed only about one one-thousandth of that.

Kirschner appeals the District Court’s judgment of sentence and challenges the three enhancements it applied.  For the reasons that follow, we will vacate Kirschner’s sentence and remand for resentencing.  While the District Court was well within its discretion to apply the abuse-of-trust and use-of-sophisticated-means enhancements, we conclude it clearly erred in applying the 22-level enhancement for loss, and we cannot say that the error was harmless.

I have always thought the federal fraud guideline deeply misguided due to commentary basing offense severity calculations on the greater of intended or actual loss (and the guideline is also deeply problematic for placing extreme emphasis on "loss" and by only requiring proof by a preponderance).  In this case, a focus on intended loss meant a guy who netted only about $30,000 selling fake goods when caught was sentenced as if he had netted $36 million! 

Ultimately, the panel here concluded intended loss was not subject to the "deeper analysis" needed to justify the district court's calculation.  But, for those following broader debates over the basic validity of guideline commentary, the panel had this interesting aside:

Under a Guidelines comment, a court must ... identify the greater figure, the actual or intended loss, and enhance the defendant’s offense level accordingly.  Only this comment, not the Guidelines’ text, says that defendants can be sentenced based on the losses they intended.  By interpreting “loss” to mean intended loss, it is possible that the commentary “sweeps more broadly than the plain text of the Guideline.”  United States v. Nasir, 982 F.3d 144, 177 (3d Cir. 2020) (en banc) (Bibas, J., concurring).  But Kirschner assumes the comment is correct, and so we will too.

This kind of aside reinforces my sense — or perhaps I should just say my hope — that it is only a matter of time before the US Supreme Court will consider, in some context, the validity of guideline commentary that arguably “sweeps more broadly than the plain text" of the guideline.

April 24, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Split Eleventh Circuit panel rejects equal protection challenge to illegal reentry guideline

Yesterday the Eleventh Circuit handed down an interesting split panel opinion in US v. Osorto, No. 19-11408 (11th Cir. April 20, 2021) (available here). These paragraphs from the start of the majority opinion provides a flavor for the issues and the court's holding:

Defendant-Appellant Juan Carlos Osorto was convicted of illegal reentry after the 2016 Guidelines went into effect.  Because he had committed other offenses both before his original deportation and after it, but before his current illegal-reentry offense, he received offense-level increases under both subsections 2L1.2(b)(2) and (3).  He now challenges both subsections as violations of, among other things, his equal-protection rights.  Osorto (and the Dissent) argue that these guidelines, which apply to only illegal-reentry offenses, discriminate against noncitizens by counting their prior convictions twice — once in the offense level and a second time in the Guidelines’ criminal-history calculation. Meanwhile, Osorto contends, citizens cannot illegally reenter the United States, and generally, no guidelines for other offenses count prior convictions in both the offense-level and criminal-history calculations.  So in Osorto’s view, subsections 2L1.2(b)(2) and (3) unlawfully discriminate against noncitizens.

We disagree.  First, Osorto’s challenge to § 2L1.2(b)(2) is foreclosed by our binding precedent in the form of Adeleke.  Second, Osorto (and the Dissent) consider the wrong universe of individuals.  Subsections 2L1.2(b)(2) and (3) do not apply to all noncitizens convicted of any crime in the United States; rather, they apply to only those noncitizens who both have illegally reentered the United States and have been convicted of other crimes.  This is important because, third, through § 1326(b), Congress has determined that illegally reentering the United States after being deported following conviction on another crime is a more serious offense than simply illegally reentering the United States, and that conduct should be deterred.  The challenged guidelines reflect the national interests that Congress permissibly has endorsed through its enactment and amendment of § 1326(b).  Fourth, Congress has entrusted the Sentencing Commission with direct responsibility for fostering and protecting the interests of, among other things, sentencing policy that promotes deterrence and appropriately punishes culpability and risk of recidivism — the interests the Sentencing Commission cited in issuing the challenged guidelines. Finally, subsections 2L1.2(b)(2) and (3) are rationally related to the Commission’s stated interests in issuing them.  So after careful consideration, and with the benefit of oral argument, we must uphold the guidelines at issue and affirm Osorto’s sentence.

Here is part of the start of the dissenting opinion by Judge Martin:

Mr. Osorto challenges Guideline § 2L1.2(b)(3) on equal protection grounds.  This Guideline makes for tougher sentences for defendants who commit a designated offense after reentering the United States without authorization.  See USSG § 2L1.2(b)(3).  This list of designated offenses does not include the offense of unauthorized reentry itself.  See id. Meanwhile, a defendant is already punished for both the unauthorized reentry and any other offense that leads to the increased punishment imposed by § 2L1.2(b)(3) on account of the calculation of a defendant’s criminal history under the Sentencing Guidelines.  See USSG § 4A1.1(b).  The result is that any offense committed after unauthorized reentry is double-counted for noncitizens in their Guideline calculation based on little more than their immigration status.  Sentencing Guideline § 2L1.2(b)(3) therefore subjects noncitizen defendants to more severe punishment than citizens who commit the same crime.  Mr. Osorto argues that this more severe punishment imposed upon him because he is a noncitizen violates his Fifth Amendment right to equal protection of the laws.  U.S. Const. Amend. V; see United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744, 774, 133 S. Ct. 2675, 2695 (2013) (“The liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause contains within it the prohibition against denying to any person the equal protection of the laws”).  I believe he is right.

April 21, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 16, 2021

First public plea deal struck by Capitol rioter, who agrees to cooperate and to reported guideline range of 41 to 51 months in prison

As reported in this Fox News piece, headlined "Capitol rioter takes first public plea deal, agrees to cooperate with authorities: sources," the first big plea in the Capitol riot cases has been announce by the Justice Department. Here are the basics with a few points highlighted:

An alleged member of the Oath Keepers militia group who was "among the first five or six" rioters to enter the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6 is the first person to agree to take a plea deal, Fox News has learned. Jon Schaffer has also agreed to cooperate against others involved in the riot, officials said.

Speaking in court Friday morning, a federal prosecutor told U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta that Schaffer was "among the first five or six" rioters to enter the Capitol during the Jan. 6 siege. Schaffer is also the frontman of the band Iced Earth. The central Indiana native who was photographed with the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol is accused of spraying police officers with a pepper-based bear spray irritant, the FBI previously said.

He was charged with several felony counts, including engaging in an act of physical violence and knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful entry. Schaffer, 53, pleaded guilty to obstruction of an official proceeding and entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon.

He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted, but Mehta said Friday sentencing guidelines call for 41 to 51 months in prison....

A sentencing hearing date has not yet been set.  Schaffer was released and will be allowed some travel for work.  He must stay out of Washington, D.C., other than for court-related matters and may not possess any firearms.

I have not yet been able to find a plea agreement or other public document that details how the guideline range of 41 to 51 months was determined. But I still find those numbers interesting, as well as the fact that this defendant, even after pleading guilty, is to be free pending sentencing.

This official DOJ press release, headed "Lifetime Founding Member of the Oath Keepers Pleads Guilty to Breaching Capitol on Jan. 6 to Obstruct Congressional Proceeding," provide some more context:

Jon Schaffer, 53, of Columbus, Indiana, today admitted that he breached the Capitol on January 6, 2021, wearing a tactical vest and armed with bear repellent, and pleaded guilty to unlawfully entering the U.S. Capitol to obstruct Congress’ certification of the U.S. presidential election results.

"On this 100th day since the horrific January 6 assault on the United States Capitol, Oath Keepers member Jon Schaffer has pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, including for breaching the Capitol while wearing a tactical vest and armed with bear spray, with the intent to interfere with Congress’ certification of the Electoral College results," said Acting Deputy Attorney General John P. Carlin. "The FBI has made an average of more than four arrests a day, seven days a week since January 6th. I commend the hundreds of special agents, prosecutors and support staff that have worked tirelessly for the last hundred days to bring those who committed criminal acts to justice."

"The defendant in this case admits forcing his way into the U.S. Capitol on January 6 for the express purpose of stopping or delaying congressional proceedings essential to our democratic process. These actions are disgraceful and unacceptable" said FBI Deputy Director Paul M. Abbate.  "The FBI and our partners will continue to utilize all available authorities to aggressively investigate, pursue and hold accountable those who committed acts of violence or otherwise violated the rule of law that day."...

Schaffer pleaded guilty to a criminal information charging him with obstruction of an official proceeding and entering and remaining in a restricted building or grounds with a deadly or dangerous weapon. Combined, he faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. The Honorable Amit P. Mehta accepted Schaffer’s guilty plea.

A few prior related post:

UPDATE:  A helpful colleague got me a copy of the plea agreement, which can now be downloaded here:

Download PleaSchaffer

April 16, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, April 05, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2020"

The US Sentencing Commission, despite the persistent lack of a quorum, can still churn out federal sentencing data and can still produce helpful reports about that data.  One such report is its annual review of federal criminal cases, which was released  today under tht title "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2020."  The full 27 page report is available here, and the USSC describes and summarizes the report this way on this webpage

Summary

The United States Sentencing Commission received information on 64,659 federal criminal cases in which the offender was sentenced in fiscal year 2020.  Among these cases, 64,565 involved an individual offender and 94 involved a corporation or other “organizational” offender.  The Commission also received information on 5,859 cases in which the court resentenced the offender or otherwise modified the sentence that had been previously imposed.  This publication provides an overview of these cases.

Highlights

A review of cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2019 reveal the following:

  • The 64,565 individual original cases reported to the Commission in fiscal year 2020 represent a decrease of 11,973 (15.6%) cases from fiscal year 2019, reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the work of the courts.
  • Cases involving drugs, immigration, firearms, and fraud, theft, or embezzlement accounted for 86.4% of all cases reported to the Commission.
  • Immigration cases were the most common federal crimes in fiscal year 2020 (41.1%)..
  • Drug possession cases continued a five-year downward trend, decreasing 22.0 percent from fiscal year 2019, while the number of drug trafficking cases reversed a slight upward trend from 2019 — falling 17.3 percent.
  • Methamphetamine offenses were the most common drug cases.  The 7,537 methamphetamine cases represented 45.7% of all drug crimes.

April 5, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 04, 2021

US Sentencing Commission may still lack a quorum, but now it has a podcast!

I am ever grumpy that the US Sentencing Commission has been without a quorum for well over two years (see here), while also being ever hopeful we will get new Commissioner nominees soon (see here and here).  But this past week I was ever pleased to see a notice at the US Sentencing Commission's website spotlighting "COMMISSION Chats: NEW PODCAST SERIES."  This USSC webpage explains:

Brought to you by the Office of Public Affairs, Commission Chats is a podcast series designed to inform the public of the Commission's objectives and work through interviews with senior leadership and other subject matter experts.  Listeners will hear about current projects directly from the staff bringing these projects to completion.

And here is the description of the first entry:

Commission Chats -- Episode 1 (MARCH 2021)

Episode 1: An Interview with Staff Director Ken Cohen In the pilot episode of Commission Chats, Kenneth Cohen, Staff Director of the Commission, discussed our core missions and gave some tips on how the Commission can make a new Hill staffer's life a bit easier. (Published March 30, 2021)

 

UPDATE: The USSC on Monday, April 5 posted Commission Chats -- Episode 2 (April 2021):

Episode 2: ORD Deputy Director Kristin Tennyson and the Interactive Data Analyzer (IDA) Go behind the scenes with IDA in this Commission Chats podcast episode!  Kris Tennyson, Deputy Director of the Office of Research and Data, talks about its development, how to best utilize it, and what the future holds for IDA. (Published April 5, 2021)

April 4, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seemingly encouraging, but quite complicated, analysis of racial disparities in federal drug sentencing

The past week's Washington Post included this notable op-ed by Charles Lane under the headline "Here’s some hope for supporters of criminal justice reform." A focal point of the op-ed was this newly published paper by sociologist Michael Light titled "The Declining Significance of Race in Criminal Sentencing: Evidence from US Federal Courts."  Here is how the op-ed discusses some key findings with a positive spin:

How many more months in prison do federal courts give Black drug offenders as opposed to comparable White offenders?

The correct answer, through fiscal 2018, is: zero.  The racial disparity in federal drug-crime sentencing, adjusted for severity of the offense and offender characteristics such as criminal history, shrank from 47 months in 2009 to nothing in 2018, according to a new research paper by sociologist Michael Light of the University of Wisconsin.  For federal crimes of all types, there is still a Black-White discrepancy, but it, too, has shrunk, from 34 months in 2009 to less than six months in 2018....

What went right?  Basically, decision-makers unwound policies that had provided much higher maximum penalties for trafficking crack cocaine than the powdered variant and, crucially, had encouraged federal prosecutors to seek those maximum penalties.  Supreme Court rulings, in 2007 and 2009, gave federal judges latitude to impose more-lenient sentences for crack dealing. The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act reduced the crack vs. powder punishment disparity, from a maximum of 100 times as much prison time to 18.

And starting that same year, the Obama administration Justice Department actively sought to diminish the disparity. As part of this effort, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. instructed federal prosecutors in 2013 not to seek the maximum penalty for drug trafficking by low-level, nonviolent defendants.

The upshot was that the average federal drug sentence for Black offenders fell 23 months, while that for White offenders rose 23 months, possibly due to the growing prevalence of opioids and methamphetamine in White communities.  For all federal crimes, sentences for White offenders rose from 47 months to 61, while those for Black offenders fell from 81 to 67.

The United States has now restored the racial parity in federal sentencing that — perhaps surprisingly — existed before the war on crack’s start in the late 1980s.  As of the mid-1980s, Black and White offenders had received roughly 26 months in prison.

Though I am disinclined to be too much of a skunk at a sentencing equity party, I do not believe the Light study really should be the cause of too much celebration in our era of modern mass incarceration.  For starters, the Light study documents that greater racial parity was achieved as much by increases in the length of federal drug sentences given to white offenders as decreases in these sentences to black offenders.  More critically, in 2018, the feds prosecute a whole lot more drug defendants and the average federal sentence for both White and Black drug offenders is still a whole lot longer (nearly 300% longer) than in an earlier era.  I find it hard to be too celebratory about they fact that we now somewhat more equally send a whole lot more people to federal prison for a whole lot longer for drug offenses.

Moreover, the Light analysis highlights that it is largely changes in the composition of cases being sentenced in federal court that account for why average drug sentences are now more in parity among whites and blacks.  The longest federal drug sentences are handed out in crack cases (disproportionately Black defendants) and meth cases (disproportionately White defendants), so as crack prosecutions declined and meth prosecutions increased over the last decades (see basic USSC data here), it is not that suprising that average federal drug sentences for black offenders went down and those for white offenders went up. 

I do not want to underplay the importance of the harsh federal system now being directed more equally toward whites and blacks, but I do want to be sure to highlight one more key finding from the Light stidy: "In 2018, black offenders received an additional 1.3 mos. of incarceration relative to their white peers.  In drug cases, they received an additional 5 mos.  These results are not explained by measures of offense severity, criminal history, or key characteristics of the crime and trial."  In other words, while Light finds that average federal drug sentences have come into parity across all cases, looking at individual drug cases reveals black offenders are still sentenced to nearly a half-year longer than comparable white offenders.  

That all said, it is fascinating to see the data that Light spotlights and effectively unpacks (I highly recommend his paper), and I am grateful Lane spotlights what still might reasonably be viewed as a hopeful story.  I especially hope folks will keep an eye on these data as we now work our way through the COVID era and its unpredicatable impact on case composition and processing.

April 4, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Might we be getting closer to (needed) new nominees for the "frozen" US Sentencing Commission?

I was so excited to see Prez Biden announce his first slate of judicial nominations in part because I have been presuming that we would not get needed nomination to the US Sentencing Commission until at least some judge nominees were first put forward.  (Ever the fan of semantic technicalities, I think we should also call any nomination to the USSC to be "judicial nominees" given that the USSC is the only agency located in the judicial branch.)  Adding to my excitement is this recent Roll Call article suggesting that nominations are in the works and may be able to be advanced quickly through Congress in a bipartisan manner.  I recommend the lengthy Roll Call article in full, and its full title highlights its themes: "Help wanted: Revived commission could spark criminal justice changes: Key judicial agency hasn’t had enough members to function for years." Here are excerpts:

The judicial agency that sets such policies hasn’t had enough members to function for years.  “What’s happened is, we’re frozen in time,” said Senior U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer, the lone remaining member of the seven-person U.S. Sentencing Commission.

That could soon change.  The Biden administration has reached out to key lawmakers and the criminal justice community for guidance on a slate of appointments to revive the sentencing commission, a move that also could influence congressional efforts to further change the nation’s criminal justice system.

President Joe Biden will make those picks against the backdrop of a simmering debate about fairness in the nation’s criminal justice system, after a summer of social unrest related to police misconduct sparked a focus on racial inequity in the criminal justice system more broadly.  Advocates say sentencing is a crucial consideration when it comes to overhaul.  A bipartisan group of senators on Friday reintroduced a broad sentencing overhaul bill, which includes provisions that direct the sentencing commission to act to implement it....

The commission must include two additional federal judges, and no more than four members can be from the same political party.  The Senate must approve the members.  The last confirmation vote was for Breyer’s reappointment, four years ago this month, at the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency.  Breyer is the brother of Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, and his term on the commission expires in October.

Trump made nominations for the sentencing commission, including two federal judges with reputations for tough-on-crime approaches.  But those nominees went nowhere because they raised concerns from civil rights groups, Senate Democrats and Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley about whether those members would carry out the changes in the 2018 law known as the First Step Act.  Grassley, when he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, championed the bill with now-Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.  The Senate passed the bill, 87-12, and it became one of Congress’ few major bipartisan accomplishments in recent years.

Grassley said this week that he has had conversations that indicate the Biden administration is working to avoid Senate confirmation problems for a slate of nominees to the sentencing commission “because both they — the White House —and this senator, and I’m sure a lot of other senators, want to get the commission up and running so it can do its work.”

Durbin said in a written response to questions that the commission “can play a vital role in sentencing reform by informing Congress about federal sentencing developments.” But he also hinted at broader aims for the commission. “For too long, federal sentencing policies have had a disparate impact on Black and brown Americans,” Durbin said. “Our sentencing policies have to reflect fairer standards.”...

Breyer said the Judicial Conference is currently considering a list of judges to submit to the White House for consideration, and he anticipates that the White House will put forward a slate of six nominees.  Until then, he said, “I think we’re in crisis.” The sentencing structure was designed to change over time and be guided by experience, he said.  “And it’s an understandable tendency that if the guidelines don’t reflect reality that they’re ignored or given less weight,” Breyer added.  

A few prior recent related posts:

March 31, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

"Many Capitol rioters unlikely to serve jail time" because some facing only misdemeanor convictions

The quoted title of this post is the lead headline of this lengthy and detailed Politico discussion of some of the case processing realities surrounding the on-going federal prosecutions of persons involved in the insurrection on January 6, 2021.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Americans outraged by the storming of Capitol Hill are in for a jarring reality check: Many of those who invaded the halls of Congress on Jan. 6 are likely to get little or no jail time.  While public and media attention in recent weeks has been focused on high-profile conspiracy cases against right-wing, paramilitary groups like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, the most urgent decisions for prosecutors involve resolving scores of lower-level cases that have clogged D.C.’s federal district court.

A POLITICO analysis of the Capitol riot-related cases shows that almost a quarter of the more than 230 defendants formally and publicly charged so far face only misdemeanors. Dozens of those arrested are awaiting formal charges, even as new cases are being unsealed nearly every day. In recent days, judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have all indicated that they expect few of these “MAGA tourists” to face harsh sentences.

There are two main reasons: Although prosecutors have loaded up their charging documents with language about the existential threat of the insurrection to the republic, the actions of many of the individual rioters often boiled down to trespassing.  And judges have wrestled with how aggressively to lump those cases in with those of the more sinister suspects. “My bet is a lot of these cases will get resolved and probably without prison time or jail time,” said Erica Hashimoto, a former federal public defender who is now a law professor at Georgetown....

The resolution of the more mundane cases also presents acute questions about equity, since most of the Capitol riot defendants are white, while misdemeanor charges are often a vexing problem for minority defendants in other cases.  There are also sensitive issues about precedent for the future, given the frequency of politically inspired demonstrations on Capitol Hill that run afoul of the law....

Prosecutors have signaled that plea offers for some defendants will be coming within days and have readily acknowledged that some of the cases are less complicated to resolve than others. “I think we can work out a non-trial disposition in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Cole told Judge Dabney Friedrich last week in the case of Kevin Loftus, who was charged with unlawful presence and disrupting official business at the Capitol, among other offenses that have become the boilerplate set lodged against anyone who walked into the building that day without authorization.

The Justice Department will soon be in the awkward position of having to defend such deals, even as trials and lengthy sentences for those facing more serious charges could be a year or more away....

Former federal prosecutor Paul Butler said he hopes that those most troubled by the Capitol riot won’t recoil at the looming deals for many participants. “The punishment has to be proportional to the harm, but I think for many of us, we’ll never forget watching TV Jan. 6 and seeing people wilding out in the Capitol,” said Butler, now a law professor at Georgetown. “Everybody who was there was complicit, but they’re not all complicit to the same degree for the same harm.”

A standard set of four misdemeanor charges prosecutors have been filed in dozens of the Capitol cases carries a maximum possible punishment of three years in prison.  But that sentence or anything close to it is virtually unheard of in misdemeanor cases, lawyers said.  “Nobody goes to jail for a first or second misdemeanor,” Butler said flatly....

In virtually all the non-felony cases, the charges are likely to be grouped together as trespassing under federal sentencing guidelines.  While those guidelines contain a small enhancement for entering a “restricted” building or grounds, defendants with no significant criminal history are looking at the lowest possible range: zero to six months. “Zero” months means no jail at all....

Another factor prosecutors and judges may weigh is that the treatment of misdemeanors by the justice system is currently the subject of intense attention in criminal justice reform circles. Reformers say such minor charges often cause major complications in the lives of the minority defendants who typically face them. “A lot of Black or brown people, they don’t get the benefit of individual judgment or breaks,” said Butler.  “I think this will be a record number of white people who appear in federal criminal court in D.C….If they’re receiving mercy, the prosecutor’s office should make sure that same mercy will be applied to all the other people who they prosecute, who are mainly people of color and low-income people.”

The former prosecutor said he hopes the high-profile Capitol prosecutions call attention to the underlying equity issues and to the fact that the vast majority of federal cases are resolved not through trials but the plea negotiations that are about to begin. “This could be a teachable moment here for the public,” Butler said.

I have highlighted lots of quotes by Prof Butler here because I share he view that these cases present an important "teachable moment," and because I hope persons who support criminal justice reform and who are troubled by modern mass incarceration will not be unduly critical of non-carceral outcomes for lower-level offenders even in this high-profile crime.  In addition to this "mass crime" helping to teach that prison time is not essential for any and every offender, these cases may be able to spotlight how disruptive a prosecution and non-carceral punishment can prove to be for defendants.  I surmise many of the lower-level defendants here have already endured a lot of formal and informal punitive consequences from their indictment, and they will continue to face all sorts of formal and informal consequences after any convictions.  Even defendants who get probation, I would guess, will not be eager to brag that they only suffered a "slap on the wrist" and perhaps some will even be usefully vocal about how much punishment the criminal justice process itself produces even if no jail time is imposed.

March 30, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 22, 2021

Notable SCOTUS partners urging (unavailable) USSC to clarify a guideline point

As noted before, the big SCOTUS news today for sentencing fans was the Justices' decision to grant cert to reconsider the reversal of the federal death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.  (How Appealing collects some of the major media coverage here).  But for federal guideline gurus, the SCOTUS order list also included a fascinating little statement by Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Gorsuch, respecting the denial of certiorari in Longoria v. United States, No. 20–5715. 

For starters, though seeing Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch together might surprise some, folks who follow non-capital sentencing jurisprudence likely know that these two often speak in harmony on these kinds of issues.  More notable is what these Justices had to say within a three-paragraph statement focused on the application of one of the few downward adjustments in the US Sentencing Guidelines.  Here are highlights:

This petition implicates an important and longstanding split among the Courts of Appeals over the proper interpretation of § 3E1.1(b).  Most Circuits have determined that a suppression hearing is not a valid basis for denying the [extra one-point acceptance of responsibility] reduction....  A minority of Circuits have concluded otherwise.  In this case, for example, the Fifth Circuit accepted the Government’s refusal to move for a reduction after it had to prepare for a 1-day suppression hearing....

The Sentencing Commission should have the opportunity to address this issue in the first instance, once it regains a quorum of voting members. [FN*]  Cf. Braxton v. United States, 500 U.S. 344, 348 (1991).  I write separately to emphasize the need for clarification from the Commission.  The effect of a one-level reduction can be substantial.  For the most serious offenses, the reduction can shift the Guidelines range by years, and even make the difference between a fixed-term and a life sentence.  The present disagreement among the Courts of Appeals means that similarly situated defendants may receive substantially different sentences depending on the jurisdiction in which they are sentenced. When the Commission is able, it should take steps to ensure that § 3E1.1(b) is applied fairly and uniformly.

[FN*] Currently, six of the seven voting members’ seats are vacant.  The votes of at least four members are required for the Commission to promulgate amendments to the Guidelines.  See U.S. Sentencing Commission, Organization (Mar. 18, 2021), https://www.ussc.gov/about/who-weare/organization.

I am very pleased to see a couple Justices flag this issue, and I especially like the emphasis that the "effect of a one-level reduction can be substantial."  In other words, kudos to these Justices for making the point that even a single guideline point can be a big deal. (And I suspect that this sentence alone may end up in a lot of future briefs.)  I also like a high-profile shout out to a (non-functional) Sentencing Commission to take up this matter. 

But the split noted here has been kicking around for decades, meaning that the Commission has already long been able to, and long failed to, address this issue.  Moreover, because the Sentencing Commission currently lacks a quorum, practically speaking, it will not be able to address this issue until at least 2022 even if future members are eager to do so.

For the entire history of the federal sentencing guidelines, and as explained in the 1991 SCOTUS Braxton ruling, the Supreme Court has generally left it to the Commission to resolve conflicts over guideline interpretation.  I understand the thinking behind this kind of deflection (although I flagged some concerns in a long-ago article, The Sentencing Commission as Guidelines Supreme Court: Responding to Circuit Conflicts, 7 Fed. Sent. Rep. 142 (1994)).  Now that the guidelines are "effectively advisory," there is arguably even stronger reasons for SCOTUS not to spend its limited time on the resolution of circuit conflicts over guideline interpretation.

Still, this kind of case leaves me wondering if, at some point, the Justices can and should be prepared to actually adjudicate guideline matters that have long festered and allows "similarly situated defendants [to possibly] receive substantially different sentences depending on the jurisdiction in which they are sentenced."  Moreover, here we have a guideline provision being applied to functionally punish defendants seeking to vindicate constitutional rights through a court motion, a type of guideline issue which might be especially appropriate for the Supreme Court's intervention.

March 22, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Notable new Seventh Circuit panel opinion on ineffectiveness of counsel failing to raise meritorious guideline argument

A helpful reader alerted me to a notable new ineffective assistance opinion from the Seventh Circuit in Bridges v. US, No. 20-1623 (7th Cir. Mar. 17, 2021) (available here).  Here is how this opinion gets started:

This appeal raises fundamental questions about what is expected of defense counsel in the federal criminal justice system, where almost all defendants plead guilty.  Counsel must negotiate guilty pleas and argue for more lenient sentences, both of which require expert knowledge of the federal Sentencing Guidelines.  This knowledge is a core competency for federal criminal defense.  The issue here is whether a lawyer’s failure to raise an important and, in this case, ultimately meritorious guideline argument may constitute ineffective assistance of counsel even where there was no directly on-point precedent within the circuit at the relevant time.  We find that it may in this case.

Now in his sixties, petitioner Jeffery Bridges has been in and out of prison since he was a teenager and has been battling drug addiction even longer.  After staying out of trouble for eight years, Bridges got involved in drugs again and committed four robberies in two days in March 2017.  He netted scarcely $700 in total and was easily caught by the police. A federal grand jury indicted Bridges for four counts of robbery in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951.

Bridges agreed to a guilty plea stipulating that he was subject to the guideline career offender enhancement, U.S.S.G. § 4B1.1, which could apply only if his crimes of conviction were “crimes of violence” as defined by the Guidelines.  This enhancement more than doubled his advisory guideline sentencing range.  The district court imposed a below-guideline sentence of 140 months.  Bridges did not appeal. He had waived that right in his plea deal.

Bridges now seeks postconviction relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, alleging he was denied effective assistance of counsel in pleading guilty.  He argues that his lawyer failed to realize and argue that Hobbs Act robbery did not then qualify as a “crime of violence” under the Guidelines, so he should not have been categorized as a career offender.  When Bridges pleaded guilty and was sentenced, there was no binding precedent in this circuit on this issue. Bridges argues that competent counsel still would have recognized the issue or at least known to investigate it.  The district court denied relief without holding a hearing, reasoning that counsel’s failure to anticipate arguments that we have not yet accepted cannot be constitutionally deficient.

We reverse for an evidentiary hearing on defense counsel’s performance under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).  First, we join the other circuits that have concluded that Hobbs Act robbery is not a “crime of violence” as that phrase is currently defined in the Guidelines.  Although we had not so ruled when Bridges pleaded guilty, the building blocks for a successful legal argument were already in place.  Effective counsel would have considered this question that was so important in this case.  At that time, minimal research would have uncovered a Tenth Circuit decision squarely holding that Hobbs Act robbery was no longer a crime of violence under a 2016 amendment to the guideline definition of a crime of violence.

We realize how counterintuitive it is to argue or hold that Hobbs Act robbery is not a crime of violence — and that counsel could be deficient for failing to argue for that unexpected result.  Yet defense lawyers, prosecutors, and judges in the federal system all appreciate that both statutory and guideline sentencing enhancements for recidivism and crimes of violence have produced many counterintuitive results over the last several decades.  During those years, both federal statutes and the Sentencing Guidelines have used the “categorical method” to classify prior convictions and current offenses.  The Sentencing Commission proposed guideline amendments in 2018 to reduce reliance on the categorical method. 83 Fed. Reg. 65400, 65407–65412 (Dec. 20, 2018).  The Commission has been unable to act on those proposed amendments, though, because it has lacked a quorum for years.  Bridges may be a beneficiary of that odd circumstance.

March 18, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Amusing (but still quite serious) reminder of what not to do while awaiting federal sentencing

A Sixth Circuit panel yesterday issued a notable (unpublished) opinion in US v. Cadieux, No. 20-1689 (6th Cir. Mar. 15, 2021) (available here).  It is hard not to be somewhat amused by the facts of the case, but it is still important not to downplay the serious sentencing realities involved.  Here are the factual basics:

Cadieux was involved in a Michigan conspiracy to distribute marijuana in which he grew and then sold at least 100 pounds of processed marijuana over the course of two years to Andrew Bravo who then sold the drugs to others.  Cadieux was arrested and charged in December 2019 for his role in this drug-trafficking conspiracy.

He was very cooperative in the case against him.  Shortly after his arrest, he gave the government information and testified before a grand jury.  And after the court released him on bond, Cadieux entered into a plea agreement and pled guilty to conspiracy to manufacture, distribute, and possess with intent to distribute 50 kilograms or more of marijuana. While out on bond, however, Cadieux also made some poor choices.

First, he violated his conditions of release when he ate a marijuana brownie, tested positive for marijuana three times, and took two Adderall pills prescribed to someone else. Second, he discussed details of his pending criminal investigation on a local radio show, “Free Beer and Hot Wings,” after the hosts asked listeners about the easiest money they had ever made.  Cadieux told the hosts that he had made about three million dollars in past three years growing and selling marijuana.  He acknowledged that he was going to prison for it.  But he said “it was worth it” because he was only going to prison for 15 to 24 months, and he could keep the money he made because he was “good at hiding” it. (R. 173, Presentencing Report, PageID 331.)  He told them his plan was to “get out and do it again,” but he said that the next time he was “gonna do it legally . . . but in [his] wife’s name” because he couldn’t “do it in [his] name no more.” (First Call.)  One of the hosts responded, “yeah, you’ll be a felon . . . .” (Id.)  Third, after realizing the call had been a mistake, Cadieux called again and asked the show to “dump a cup of coffee on the sound board and get rid of the call” because the call had upset his attorney. (R. 185, Sentencing Hearing, PageID 597.) He offered to pay for a replacement.

After Cadieux’s call to “Free Beer and Hot Wings,” the government investigated Cadieux’s concealment of drug money.  It “identified significant sums of unexplained cash hid[den] in his bank accounts.” (Id. at 602.)  And Cadieux agreed to voluntarily forfeit $75,000, which the government believed more accurately represented his drug profits than Cadieux’s statements on the air.

Critically, Cadieux's calls into the "Free Beer and Hot Wings" radio show ended up costing him a lot more than the forfeited $75,000.  Specifically, as a direct result of this call and his other pre-sentencing behavior, "probation’s presentence report (PSR) recommended an enhancement for obstruction of justice and refused to recommend a reduction for acceptance of responsibility."  The sentencing court adopted these recommendations:

It found that Cadieux was not entitled to the acceptance-of-responsibility reduction for two reasons: 1) Cadieux’s statements on the radio show indicating his intent to “go right back to it” coupled with his attempts to destroy the recording and 2) Cadieux’s continued drug use in violation of bond conditions. (Id. at 609-11.) It found the obstruction enhancement appropriate because “the phone calls were relevant for sentencing”; it was particularly troubled by “the request of the radio station to ditch the tape.” (Id. at 610.) The court sentenced him to 37 months.

The Sixth Circuit panel affirms these determinations and upholds the 37 month sentence.  Given that the defendant here might have only been looking originally at a little more than year in prison, it seems that his foolish braggadocio and related pre-sentencing behavior cost him more time in prison than his offense behavior of conspiring to distribute 50 kilograms or more of marijuana.

March 16, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, March 15, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases 2020 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics

This morning I receive an email from the US Sentencing Commission alerting me to the exciting news that "today the U.S. Sentencing Commission published its 2020 Annual Report and Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics." Here are the highlights as described in the email:

Agency Highlights

The Annual Report presents an overview of the Commission's work in FY20—a year that brought unique challenges and opportunities for technological advancement as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • COVID-19 significantly impacted how the Commission performs its daily work; however, sustained and strategic investments in technology, automation, and cybersecurity allowed for a quick pivot and continuity of operations culminating in this seasonable publication of the 2020 Sourcebook.
  • The Commission’s website traffic increased by more than 20% for the second year in a row, demonstrating that interest in the Commission's work by sentencing courts, Congress, the Executive Branch, and the general public continues to increase.
  • The Commission launched a new Interactive Data Analyzer--a tool for Congress, judges, litigants, the press, and the general public to easily and independently analyze sentencing data by their state, district or circuit, and refine their inquiry by a specific crime type or time period.
  • COVID-19 forced the Commission to suspend all in-person training and seminars; however, the Commission’s ongoing investments in eLearning allowed its training efforts to continue unabated.
  • The Commission collected, analyzed, and reported data on implementation of the First Step Act of 2018, and continued its recidivism research to help inform Congress and others on how best to protect public safety while targeting scarce prison resources on the most dangerous offenders.

FY20 Fast Facts

The Sourcebook presents information on the 64,565 federal offenders sentenced in FY20 — a sentencing caseload that decreased by nearly 12,000 cases from the previous fiscal year.

  • Immigration, drug trafficking, firearms, and fraud crimes together comprised 86% of the federal sentencing caseload in FY20.
  • Immigration was the most common federal crime type sentenced, accounting for 41% of the caseload (up from 38% in FY19).
  • Methamphetamine continued to be the most common drug type in the federal system, and a steadily growing portion of the drug caseload (up from 31% in FY16 and 42% in FY19 to 46% in FY20).
  • Methamphetamine trafficking continued to be the most severely punished federal drug crime (holding steady at an average sentence of 95 months). (Average sentences across all other major drug types (crack cocaine, powder cocaine, heroin, and marijuana) decreased.)
  • Two-thirds (67%) of drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, up slightly from the previous year (66%).
  • Three-quarters (74%) of federal offenders were sentenced under the Guidelines Manual in FY20.

March 15, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 12, 2021

Wonderful new Federal Sentencing Reporter issue explores "Weinstein on Sentencing"

M_fsr.2021.33.3.coverI am so very pleased to report on the publication of the latest issue of the Federal Sentening Reporter.  This issue is titled "Weinstein on Sentencing" and it celebrates the many contributions to federal sentencing law, policy and practice by legendary EDNY Judge Jack Weinstein.

FSR was quite fortunate to get two of Judge Weinstein's former clerks, Carolin Guentert and Ryan Gerber, to organize this great new issue.  They did a wonderful job gathering an array of perspectives in an issue that includes a considerable number of original articles under the heading "Celebrating Judge Weinstein" as well as excerpts from Judge Weinstein's past opinions and articles under the heading "Weinstein In His Own Words." 

I highly encourage everyone to check out this full FSR issue, and here is a list of the original articles:

Guest Editors’ Observations: Judge Weinstein's Contributions to Sentencing Law by Carolin E. Guentert & Ryan H. Gerber

Weinstein on Sentencing by Kate Stith

Jack B. Weinstein Up Close by John Gleeson

Jack Weinstein: Reimagining the Role of the District Court Judge by Jessica A. Roth

Serving a Rehabilitative Goal: Assessing Judge Jack B. Weinstein’s Supervised Release Jurisprudence by Christine S. Scott-Hayward

A Judge’s Attempt at Sentencing Consistency After Booker: Judge Jack B. Weinstein’s Guidelines for Sentencing by Carolin E. Guentert & Ryan H. Gerber

Hanging Up the Robe by Thomas Ward Frampton

Sentencing with Love, Not Hate by Deirdre D. von Dornum

March 12, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Senators Durbin and Grassley re-introduce "Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act"

Back in 2019, I was pleased to be able to blog here about a legialative effort to prohibit judicial reliance on "acquitted conduct" in the federal sentencing system.  I am now pleased to now be able to again highlight that Senators Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley are again the bipartisan sponsors of the latest version of the "Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act."  This March 4 press release from Senator Durbin's office provides these details:

U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the lead sponsors of the landmark First Step Act, [on March 4] introduced the bipartisan, bicameral Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021.  This legislation would end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury.  U.S. Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN-09) and Kelly Armstrong (R-ND) plan to introduce House companion legislation next week.

“Under our Constitution, defendants can only be convicted of a crime if a jury of their peers finds they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  However, federal law inexplicably allows judges to override a jury verdict of ‘not guilty’ by sentencing defendants for acquitted conduct.  This practice is inconsistent with the Constitution’s guarantees of due process and the right to a jury trial,” Durbin said.  “Our bipartisan, bicameral bill would make it clear that this unjust practice is prohibited under federal law.”

“If any American was acquitted of past charges by a jury of their peers, then some sentencing judge down the line shouldn’t be able to find them guilty anyway and add to their punishment. A bedrock principle of our criminal justice system is that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. The use of acquitted conduct in sentencing punishes people for what they haven’t been convicted of. That’s not acceptable and it’s not American. Back in 2014, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Ginsburg all agreed, but weren’t able to hear the case and stop the practice. Our bill will finally prohibit under federal law what many already find patently unconstitutional,” Grassley said....

Our criminal justice system rests on the Fifth and Sixth Amendment guarantees of due process and the right to a jury trial for the criminally accused.  These principles require the government to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.  Under the Constitution, defendants may be convicted only for conduct proven beyond a reasonable doubt.   However, at sentencing, courts may enhance sentences if they find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a defendant committed other crimes.  The difference in those standards of proof means that a sentencing court can effectively nullify a jury’s verdict by considering acquitted conduct....

The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act would end this practice by:

  • Amending 18 U.S.C. § 3661 to preclude a court of the United States from considering, except for purposes of mitigating a sentence, acquitted conduct at sentencing, and
  • Defining “acquitted conduct” to include acts for which a person was criminally charged and adjudicated not guilty after trial in a Federal, State, Tribal, or Juvenile court, or acts underlying a criminal charge or juvenile information dismissed upon a motion for acquittal.

Along with Durbin and Grassley, the legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Thom Tillis (R-NC).

The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act is endorsed by the following organizations: National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Due Process Institute, ALEC Action, American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Tax Reform, Black Public Defenders Association, Digital Liberty, Dream Corps JUSTICE, Drug Policy Alliance, Fair Trials, Faith and Freedom Coalition, FAMM, Federal Public and Community Defenders, FreedomWorks, The Innocence Project, Justice Action Network, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Prison Fellowship, R Street Institute, Right on Crime, The Sentencing Project, Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Tzedek Association.

Bill text is available here.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

March 7, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 05, 2021

Did a Sixth Circuit panel largely decimate the federal sentencing fraud guidelines (and perhaps many others)?

A helpful colleague made sure I found some time in a busy week to think about the Sixth Circuit's panel decision on Wednesday in US v. Riccardi, No. 19-4232 (6th Cir. Mar. 3, 2021) (available here). The Riccardi decision is the latest in a series of relatively new circuit rulings in which courts are declaring it improper and impermissible for the commentary to the federal sentencing guidelines to be applied in ways that expand the meaning of the actual guidelines (prior Sixth Circuit en banc example flagged here).

Riccardi seems like an especially big deal because it is focused on the commentary to the fraud guidelines, USSG § 2B1.1, which has an extensive accounting of how courts should account for the key factor of "loss" in the main guideline.  Here is how panel's majority opinion gets started: 

Jennifer Riccardi, a postal employee, pleaded guilty to stealing 1,505 gift cards from the mail. Most of these gift cards had an average value of about $35 for a total value of about $47,000.  The Sentencing Guidelines directed the district court to increase Riccardi’s guidelines range based on the amount of the “loss.” U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1(b)(1).  Yet § 2B1.1 does not define the word “loss.”  A search for its ordinary meaning might produce definitions such as “[t]he amount of something lost” or “[t]he harm or suffering caused by losing or being lost.”  American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 1063 (3d ed. 1992).  Perhaps, then, the word is ambiguous on the margins.  Does it, for example, cover only financial harms or emotional ones too?  But one definition of “loss” that you will not find in any dictionary is the rule that the district court used for Riccardi’s stolen gift cards: a $500 minimum loss amount for each gift card no matter its actual value or the victim’s actual harm (which, for Riccardi, amounted to a total loss amount of $752,500).

Riccardi challenges the use of this $500 minimum loss amount, which comes from the Sentencing Commission’s commentary to § 2B1.1.  The commentary instructs that the loss “shall be not less than $500” for each “unauthorized access device,” a phrase that Riccardi concedes covers stolen gift cards. U.S.S.G. § 2B1.1 cmt. n.3(F)(i).  But guidelines commentary may only interpret, not add to, the guidelines themselves.  United States v. Havis, 927 F.3d 382, 386 (6th Cir. 2019) (en banc) (per curiam).  And even if there is some ambiguity in § 2B1.1’s use of the word “loss,” the commentary’s bright-line rule requiring a $500 loss amount for every gift card does not fall “within the zone of ambiguity” that exists. Kisor v. Wilkie, 139 S. Ct. 2400, 2416 (2019).  So this bright-line rule cannot be considered a reasonable interpretation of — as opposed to an improper expansion beyond — § 2B1.1’s text.  We thus reverse Riccardi’s sentence and remand for resentencing without the use of the commentary’s automatic $500 minimum loss amount for every gift card.

Though the part of the loss commentary found to be an "improper expansion" of the 2B1.1 guideline in Riccardi might seem like a quirky example, I suspect a good many fraud cases involve commentary that could be considered an "improper expansion" of the guideline term "loss."  For example, the commentary states that "loss is the greater of actual loss or intended loss," but can see a good argument that "intended loss" — which is loss that did not actually happen, but was part of the design of an offense — is not a reasonable interpretation of "loss."  Similarly, the commentary states sentencing judges "shall use the gain that resulted from the offense as an alternative measure of loss only if there is a loss but it reasonably cannot be determined." I feel pretty confident that "gain" is not really an interpretation of "loss."

Critically, the fraud guideline is not the only one important part of the federal sentencing guideline with an intricate set of commentary instructions that might be challenged as full of "improper expansions."  I sense a growing number of litigants and courts are starting to hone on potentially problematical guideline commentary and that some variation of this issue with be getting to the US Supreme Court before too long.  In the meantime, defense attorneys would be wise to challenge (and preserve arguments around) any application of guideline commentary that even might be viewed as "expansionary."

March 5, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Federal Sentencing Guidelines: Some Valedictory Reflections Twenty Years After Apprendi"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Frank O. Bowman III now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In this contribution to the North Carolina Law Review's symposium on the twentieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, I offer a valedictory reflection on my own intellectual journey with sentencing reform and in particular with the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

The account begins with my first encounters with the Guidelines when I was a zealous Assistant U.S Attorney, continues through my transition to teacher, scholar, policy advocate, and occasional sentencing consultant, and foreshadows a conclusion with me in the role of disillusioned curmudgeon muttering about might-have-beens as I shuffle towards my dotage.

The utility, if any, of these musings will lie partly in the fact that I have been up to my neck in Guidelines minutia for thirty years, but mostly in the fact that I have felt obliged to change my mind as events and experience challenged my previous convictions.  Some reconstruction of the evolution of my thinking as the Guidelines arose, failed, and died, but then achieved an enduring afterlife as law that is not really law at all, may be of modest use when the time finally comes to build something truly new.

March 5, 2021 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "Federal Armed Career Criminals: Prevalence, Patterns, and Pathways"

The US Sentencing Commission has just released this big report providing "information on offenders sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act, including an overview of the Act and its implementation in the federal sentencing guidelines. The report also presents data on offender and offense characteristics, criminal histories, and recidivism of armed career criminals."  Here are the "Key Findings" appearing in the first part of the report:

Key Findings
• Armed career criminals consistently comprise a small portion of the federal criminal caseload, representing less than one percent of the federal criminal caseload.  During the ten-year study period, the number of armed career criminals decreased by almost half, from 590 in fiscal year 2010 to 312 in fiscal year 2019.
• Armed career criminals receive substantial sentences.  Offenders who were subject to the ACCA’s 15-year mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing received an average sentence of 206 months in fiscal year 2019.  Offenders who were relieved of the mandatory minimum for providing substantial assistance to the government received significantly shorter sentences, an average of 116 months in fiscal year 2019.
• Armed career criminals have extensive criminal histories. Even prior to application of the armed career criminal guideline, 90.4 percent of armed career criminals qualified for the three most serious Criminal History Categories under the guidelines, and almost half (49.4%) qualified for Criminal History Category VI, the most serious category under the guidelines. 
• The overwhelming majority of armed career criminals had prior convictions for violent offenses. In fiscal year 2019, 83.7 percent of armed career criminals had prior convictions for violent offenses, including 57.7 percent who had three or more such convictions.  Despite the predominance of violence in their criminal history, the most common prior conviction for armed career criminals was for public order offenses, with 85.3 percent having at least one such prior conviction.
• More than half (59.0%) of armed career criminals released into the community between 2009 and 2011 were rearrested within an eight-year follow-up period. When armed career criminals recidivated, their median time to rearrest was 16 months and the most serious common new offense was assault (28.2%).
• Recidivism rates of armed career criminals varied depending on whether they had prior convictions for violent offenses and the number of such prior convictions.
      ◦ Nearly two-thirds (62.5%) of armed career criminals with prior violent convictions and no prior drug trafficking convictions, and more than half (55.0%) of armed career criminals with both prior violent and drug trafficking convictions were rearrested within the eight-year follow-up period.  In comparison, only 36.4 percent of armed career criminals with prior drug trafficking convictions and no prior violent convictions were rearrested during the study period, but there were only 12 such offenders.
     ◦ Furthermore, 61.7 percent of armed career criminals with three or more prior violent convictions were rearrested during the eight-year follow-up period compared to 48.9 percent of armed career criminals with one or two prior violent convictions

March 3, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 05, 2021

"Narrating Context and Rehabilitating Rehabilitation: Federal Sentencing Work in Yale Law School’s Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Miriam Gohara now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The Challenging Mass Incarceration Clinic (CMIC) at Yale Law School has been representing clients in federal sentencing and state postconviction cases since 2016.  Drawing on a blueprint I set forth in a 2013 article, the clinic teaches a model of noncapital sentencing practice that builds on the best capital defense sentencing practices and seeks to transform judges’ and prosecutors’ assumptions about criminal sentencing.

In this article, I set forth CMIC’s theoretical underpinnings and detail our interdisciplinary, trauma-informed approach to sentencing advocacy and clinical practice.  I then describe CMIC’s case outcomes, including variances which have reduced each of our clients’ prison time an average of five years below the United States Sentencing Guidelines range and more than 18 months below prosecutors’ recommended sentences.  CMIC’s work has also produced innovations to traditional client-centered, holistic lawyering; enhanced approaches to working with experts; and yielded insights into the incorporation of defense-based victim outreach in appropriate cases.

Our experiences in CMIC raise several areas for future research, including whether the model will produce the kind of fundamental sentencing reform I predicted in my earlier work, and questions about fairness, risks, data, and scalability.  I am publishing this article with the hope and intention that other law school clinics will borrow from and improve on CMIC’s model.

February 5, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 28, 2021

New efforts to fix the ugly old problem of sentencing disparity for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses

As detailed in this press relase from Senator Cory Booker's office, "U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), both members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced legislation that will finally eliminate the federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity and apply it retroactively to those already convicted or sentenced."  Here is more:

After the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses vastly differed. For instance, until 2010, someone caught distributing 5 grams of crack cocaine served the same 5-year prison sentence as someone caught distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine. Over the years, this 100:1 sentencing disparity has been widely criticized as lacking scientific justification. Furthermore, the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity has disproportionately impacted people of color.

The Fair Sentencing Act, introduced by Senator Durbin, passed in 2010 during the Obama administration and reduced the sentencing disparity from 100:1 to 18:1....  The Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act would eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity and ensure that those who were convicted or sentenced for a federal offense involving cocaine can receive a re-sentencing under the new law.

And FAMM has this press release highlighting advocates support for this effort to remedy a long-standing and ugly federal sentencing injustice.  Here are excerpts:

FAMM and Prison Fellowship have teamed up to launch the #EndTheDisparity Campaign to urge Congress to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine-related sentences. Both organizations are circulating petitions and are planning a series of activities to build public support for reform.

“We have been fighting to repeal unjust sentencing laws for 30 years, and we’ve seen no greater injustice than the crack-powder disparity,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring. “We were glad Congress reduced the disparity in 2010, but it’s time to finish the job. We must remove this racially discriminatory scheme from the criminal code.”

In 2010, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the crack-powder disparity from 100:1 to 18:1. Lawmakers acknowledged that the arguments for the original disparity had been proven incorrect; crack cocaine is no more addictive than powder and is not more likely to cause violent crime.

“The unequal treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses is among the most glaring examples of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system,” said Heather Rice-Minus, Senior Vice President of Advocacy and Church Mobilization for Prison Fellowship. “There is no sound scientific reason to punish powder and cocaine offenses differently and more importantly, there is a moral imperative to repent from this injustice.”

Uncontroverted was the fact that lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms for crack offenses disproportionately harmed Black people.  Crack usage rates did not differ greatly between white and Black Americans, but more than 80% of federal crack convictions involved Black defendants.

While the Fair Sentencing Act greatly reduced the number of people subject to the mandatory minimum sentences for crack, Black people still make up more than 80 percent of federal crack convictions....

For more information and background on the disparity and campaign see the resources below:

January 28, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

"The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Recidivism Studies: Myopic, Misleading, and Doubling Down on Imprisonment"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now available via SSRN authored by Nora Demleitner. Here is its abstract:

Recidivism is now the guiding principle of punishment and has become the new hallmark of criminal justice reform, as reflected in the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recidivism project.  So far, the Commission has issued three reports in 2020 alone, which outline the parameters within which “safe” criminal justice reform can proceed.  Yet the overly broad definition of “recidivism” and the focus on easily measurable and static risk factors, such as prior criminal record, create a feedback loop.

The Commission’s work should come with a warning label.  Its recidivism studies should not be consumed on their own.  Instead, they must be read in conjunction with U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services recidivism research, which includes data on the impact of programming, treatment, and services on reentry success.  Yet, concerns about undercounting recidivism events drive the entire U.S. approach.  Western European studies reflect different philosophies and values that explain some of the underlying reasons for the dramatically different imprisonment rates on the two sides of the Atlantic.

These recidivism studies raise also questions about the Commission’s role.  Its ongoing preference for imprisonment indicates that it continues to consider itself the guardian of incarceration-driven guidelines.  The studies reenforce the status quo and the Commission’s role in it.  They threaten to propel us into data-driven selective incapacitation and continuously long prison terms for those with prior criminal records, all in the name of public safety.

January 26, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 25, 2021

US Sentencing Commission publishes report on "Fentanyl and Fentanyl Analogues: Federal Trends and Trafficking Patterns."

The United States Sentencing Commission, despite its status as an incomplete agency due to the absence of confirmed commissioners for years, keeps churning out notable data reports.  Today brings this notable new publication, clocking in at 60 pages, titled "Fentanyl and Fentanyl Analogues: Federal Trends and Trafficking Patterns."  Here is this report's "Key Findings" from this USSC webpage:

January 25, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases more 2020 sentencing data revealing COVID's impact on federal sentencings

Regular readers know I have been keenly eager to see any US Sentencing Commission data providing a window into the COVID state of federal sentencing.  Back in October, as blogged here, the USSC released here its "3rd Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2020 Data Through June 30, 2020."  And I just saw that yesterday, the USCC released here its 4th Quarter ... Preliminary Fiscal Year 2020 Data Through September 30, 2020." 

These new data provide another official accounting of federal sentencing outcomes that make clear that COVID concerns dramatically reduced the number of federal sentences imposed in the third and fourth quarters of Fiscal Year 2020.  Specifically, as reflected in Figure 2, it appears that the previous three quarters averaged roughly 20,000 federal sentencings, whereas the quarter ending in June 2020 saw only around 12,000 federal sentences imposed and the quarter ending in September 2020 had about 13,000 sentencings. 

Digging into these numbers, Figure 2 also reveals that the mix of cases being sentenced changed considerably from quarter 3 to quarter 4 in 2020.  In quarter 3, all major categories of cases declined considerably in total number sentenced.  But in quarter 4, immigration cases kept declining while drug, firearm, and economic cases bounced back somewhat closer to "pre-COVID normal."  (Of course, quarter 4 ended in September 2020 before the big second wave of COVID cases; it will be interesting to see what case processing data looks like in in quarters 1 and 2 of Fiscal Year 2021.) 

Critically, the change in the caseload would seem to help explain a dramatic uptick in average sentence imposed during the last quarter of FY 2020.  As detailed in Figure 5, average sentences pre-COVID were pretty stable, clocking in each quarter for many years between 38 and 43 months.  But in the quarter ending in June 2020, the average federal sentence averaged only roughly 30 months; but in the next quarter ending in September 2020, the average sentence jumped to nearly 48 months.  This leads me speculate that the sentencings that went forward during the early COVID period may have generally been the less serious cases; into the late summer, it would appear, more serious cases moved forward to sentencing despite COVID concerns.  In addition, because immigration cases typically have lower sentences than drug, firearm, and economic cases, the average sentence for all cases is likely to increase when the number of immigration cases in the pool declines so considerably.

In sum, these latest USSC data show that the total number of federal sentences imposed in the first six months of the COVID era (April to September 2020) dropped about 30% below historical normal, but the mix of cases and the length of the sentences imposed in this period varied dramatically between the two quarters of existing USSC data.  Very interesting, and now I am even more eager for the next data run and for even more intricate reporting and analysis from the US Sentencing Commission.

January 5, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (0)