Thursday, May 13, 2021

Fascinating compassionate release ruling based on clear sentencing error without other means of remedy

Regular readers are likely familiar with many of my (pre-COVID) prior posts making much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have long considered this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced on a variety of grounds.  A helpful reader alerted me to an especially interesting example of the granting of a sentencing reduction in US v. Trenkler, Cr. No. 92-10369 (D. Mass. May 6, 2021) (available for download below).

Trenkler is a fascinating case and opinion for many reasons, and the discussion of the case particulars and compassionate release jurisprudence more generally make Trenkler a must-read for anyone working in this space.  Here are some small snippets from the start and heart of the 50+ page opinion to encourage downloads:

Defendant Alfred Trenkler is a sixty-five-year-old federal inmate serving a life sentence for convictions stemming from his role in an October 28, 1991 bombing in Roslindale, Massachusetts that killed one Boston Police Department Bomb Squad officer and maimed a second officer.  On November 29, 1993, a jury convicted Trenkler of illegal receipt and use of explosive materials and attempted malicious destruction of property by means of explosives, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 844(d), 844(i) (Counts 2 and 3), and conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Count 1). See Jury Verdict, ECF No. 487. Trenkler is currently incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona (“USP Tucson”).  Defendant moves for compassionate release, asserting that extraordinary and compelling circumstances warrant his release based on (1) the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in light of his documented heart condition and the outbreak that has left at least 1009 inmates infected with COVID-19 over the past year at USP Tucson; and (2) what Trenkler characterizes as a series of miscarriages of justice that call into question his convictions and sentence....  The Court reduces Trenkler’s sentence to a term of 41 years, followed by a term of supervised release of 3 years... 

In addition to the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Trenkler urges the Court to reduce his sentence to time served in light of the “unique circumstances” surrounding his case.  Those unique circumstances, in Trenkler’s view, include questions surrounding his guilt and the fundamental unfairness of his conviction; the disproportionality of his sentence as compared to Shay, Jr.’s sentence; and his unlawfully imposed life sentence.

[Despite limits in AEDPA concerning habeas petitions,] now Congress has spoken again [via the FIRST STEP Act].  And this time it has given trial judges broad authority — indeed it has imposed a statutory duty, upon a defendant’s motion — to conduct an individualized review of the defendant’s case for extraordinary and compelling circumstances that call out for correction....  [A series of discussed] cases — and others like them — leave no question that this Court may conclude that a legal error at sentencing constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason, and reduce the sentence after conducting an individualized review of the case....

Here, it is both extraordinary and compelling that (1) a judge sentenced a defendant to life imprisonment using a preponderance of the evidence standard where the controlling statute provided that a life sentence could be imposed only by the jury; and (2) there exists no available avenue for relief from this legal error.

Download Trenkler CR opinion

May 13, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Split Eleventh Circuit panel creates circuit split over compassionate relief criteria after FIRST STEP Act

I have blogged in recent months about a significant number of significant circuit rulings addressing the reach and application of the sentence modification provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  The Second Circuit back in September was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, rightly in my view, that district courts now have broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  Since then, there have been somewhat similar opinions from the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth and Tenth Circuits generally recognizing that district courts now have broad authority after the FIRST STEP Act to determine "extraordinary and compelling" reasons that may justify a sentence reduction when an imprisoned person files a 3582(c)(1)(A) motion (see rulings linked below). 

But this past Friday, a split Eleventh Circuit panel issued the first major ruling in this area that breaks with the jurisprudence developed in these other circuits.  The majority opinion in US v. Bryant, No. 19-14267 (11th Cir. May 7, 2021) (available here), gets started this way:

Thomas Bryant is a corrupt former police officer who was sentenced to prison for running drugs and guns. He filed a motion seeking a reduction in his sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), and the district court denied that motion based on the Sentencing Commission’s policy statement found at U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13.  In resolving Bryant’s appeal, we must answer two questions about the relationship between Section 3582(c)(1)(A) and 1B1.13.

First, we must decide whether district courts reviewing defendant-filed motions under Section 3582(c)(1)(A) are bound by the Sentencing Commission’s policy statement.  Under Section 3582(c)(1)(A), a court can reduce an otherwise final sentence for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” as long as the reduction is “consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.”  The statute commands the Commission to publish a policy statement that defines “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” 28 U.S.C. § 994(t), and the Commission did: 1B1.13, which is entitled “Reduction in Term of Imprisonment under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).”  At the time, the statute required all motions to be filed by the BOP.  The policy statement repeats that then-existing statutory language and, in its application notes, lists several circumstances that are “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that justify a sentence reduction.

So far, so good.  But after Congress changed the statute to allow defendants to file motions in addition to the BOP, several of our sister circuits have held that 1B1.13 is not an “applicable policy statement[]” for those defendant-filed motions.  This is so, they say, because the policy statement, quoting the pre-existing statute’s language, begins with the following phrase: “Upon motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons.”  Based mostly on that language, our sister circuits have held that this policy statement is not an “applicable policy statement” that binds judicial discretion as to defendant-filed motions.

We disagree with that reasoning.  The statute’s procedural change does not affect the statute’s or 1B1.13’s substantive standards, specifically the definition of “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The Commission’s standards are still capable of being applied and relevant to all Section 3582(c)(1)(A) motions, whether filed by the BOP or a defendant.  And the structure of the Guidelines, our caselaw’s interpretation of “applicable policy statement,” and general canons of statutory interpretation all confirm that 1B1.13 is still an applicable policy statement for a Section 3582(c)(1)(A) motion, no matter who files it.

Second, because we conclude that 1B1.13 is an applicable policy statement, we must determine how district courts should apply that statement to motions filed under Section 3582(c)(1)(A).  Bryant argues that Application Note 1(D) of 1B1.13 conflicts with the statute’s recent amendment.  As a catch-all provision, Application Note 1(D) says that a court may grant a motion if, “[a]s determined by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, there exists in the defendant’s case an extraordinary and compelling reason other than, or in combination with, the reasons described in subdivisions (A) through (C).”  Bryant argues that, because the statute now allows for defendant-filed motions, we should replace “as determined by the [BOP]” with “as determined by the [court].”  This alteration to the policy statement would give courts effectively unlimited discretion to grant or deny motions under Application Note 1(D).

But we cannot do that. Application Note 1(D) is not inconsistent with the procedural change in the statute that allows defendants to file motions.  Because we can apply both the amended Section 3582(c)(1)(A) and Application Note 1(D), we must apply both.

In short, 1B1.13 is an applicable policy statement for all Section 3582(c)(1)(A) motions, and Application Note 1(D) does not grant discretion to courts to develop “other reasons” that might justify a reduction in a defendant’s sentence. Accordingly, we affirm.

Judge Martin's dissent gets started this way:

Today’s majority opinion establishes the Eleventh Circuit as the only circuit to limit an inmate’s ability to get compassionate release from incarceration solely to those “extraordinary and compelling” reasons that are pre-approved by the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”).  Our precedent now allows no independent or individualized consideration by a federal judge as plainly intended by the First Step Act.  And this limitation on compassionate release is based on an outdated policy statement from a Sentencing Commission that has lacked a quorum since the First Step Act became law.  The problems that arise from the majority’s reliance on the outdated policy statement are compounded by the majority’s express decision to strike (or ignore) language from the policy statement.  Sadly, this result reinstates the exact problem the First Step Act was intended to remedy: compassionate release decisions had been left under the control of a government agency that showed no interest in properly administering it.  With all respect due, I dissent.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

May 9, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

New Urban Institute resources on FIRST STEP Act prison particulars

I learned today via email about two notable new resources from the folks at the Urban Institute engaging with some of the intricacies of the prison reform elements of the FIRST STEP Act. 

First, this posting by Emily Tiry and Julie Samuels, titled "Three Ways to Increase the Impact of the First Step Act’s Earned Time Credits," suggests how this piece of the Act could be improved. Here is a snippet:

The 2018 First Step Act—the first major federal criminal justice reform legislation in nearly a decade—established earned time credits (ETCs) to provide early release opportunities for people incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

But to date, implementation of the ETC program has fallen short of expectations. No one has been released early via ETCs, it remains unclear how many — or if any — have actually received any ETCs, and BOP’s proposed rules for accruing and applying credits are restrictive and incomplete.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has interfered with ETC implementation plans by severely disrupting available programming, without changes now, the outlook for ETCs having a meaningful impact on opportunities for early release is bleak....  Although the progress so far has been disappointing, we suggest three ways to maximize the ETC system’s impact. The first would require congressional action; BOP could make the other two changes on its own. 

Second, this new resource, titled "The First Step Act’s Risk Assessment Tool: Who is eligible for early release from federal prison?," walks through the risk assessment instrument now applied to all federal prisoners. Here is how the resource is set up (links from original):

The First Step Act offers people incarcerated in federal prison the opportunity to earn credits toward early release.  To help determine who is eligible (after excluding people with certain prior offenses), the US Department of Justice created the Prisoner Assessment Tool Targeting Estimated Risk and Needs (PATTERN), a risk assessment tool that predicts the likelihood that a person who is incarcerated will reoffend.  This interactive version of PATTERN shows how each risk factor raises or lowers a person’s risk score and can estimate whether they qualify for early release.

May 5, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

SCOTUS argument in Terry suggests low-level crack defendant unlikely to secure resentencing based on FSA retroactivity

On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Terry v. United States, and the full oral argument is available here via C-SPAN.  The full argument runs nearly 90 minutes and the quality of the advocacy makes it worth the full listen.  But one can get a much quicker flavor of the tenor of the discussion from just a scan of the headlines of these press accounts of the argument:

From the AP, "Supreme Court skeptical of low-level crack offender’s case"

From Bloomberg Law, "Biden Switch Unlikely to Save Crack Offenders at Supreme Court"

From Law & Crime, "Biden Administration Flip-Flopped Its Position in Case Over Crack Cocaine Sentences. SCOTUS Did Not Seem Pleased."

From Reuters, "U.S. Supreme Court skeptical of expanding crack cocaine reforms"

From USA Today, "Supreme Court skeptical of applying Trump-era criminal justice law retroactively for small drug offenses"

From the Washington Post, "Supreme Court seems skeptical that law helps all convicted of crack cocaine offenses"

All the "skeptical" questions from the Justices certainly leaves me thinking that the Supreme Court will rule that Tarahrick Terry is not entitled to resentencing under the FIRST STEP Act provision making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  That may not ultimately be such a big loss for Mr. Terry since, as the Acting SG explained to SCOTUS back in March, he is already finishing up his prison sentence through home confinement and that term is to be completed in September.  I am hopeful that the relatively small number of similarly situated defendants who would be adversely impacted by a Terry loss would have some similar silver lining.

Prior related posts:

May 4, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

New federal defender laments BOP's response to COVID and the FIRST STEP Act

The Federal Public and Community Defenders sent this new letter today to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders to follow up on the April 15 oversight hearing concerning the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  The 16-page letter covers a lot of ground, and here are excerpts:

For too long, DOJ and BOP have ignored congressional directives to prioritize the safety and rehabilitation of individuals in its custody, and left tools provided by Congress unused. These failures have been exacerbated by a culture that bends towards opacity and against accountability.  We urge Congress to intervene.  At minimum, it must strengthen and increase its oversight of DOJ and BOP to help ensure that federally incarcerated persons remain safe and that Congress’ vision for sentencing and prison reform is realized.  At best, it will enact legislation to smartly and swiftly lower prison populations and to move vulnerable individuals to a place of relative safety.

For the past 13 months, COVID-19 has torn through BOP facilities.  Meanwhile, BOP has failed to take the necessary steps — or to use available resources — to remediate the pandemic’s risk. Even now, despite the increased availability of vaccines across the country, COVID-19 remains a lifethreatening risk to those in BOP custody.  The death count of incarcerated individuals continues to mount, and conditions in federal detention facilities remain dire....

BOP and DOJ have failed to use the tools Congress gave them to safely lower prison populations.  The failure by DOJ and BOP to use tools to move vulnerable individuals to a place of relative safety — either by transferring them to home confinement or by seeking their release through compassionate release — has exacerbated the consequences of substandard medical treatment and care in BOP....

The First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) was intended to shorten certain federal prison sentences and to reorient the federal prison system away from pure punishment and towards rehabilitation.  The FSA’s ameliorative sentencing provisions have made significant strides: as of September 28, 2020, BOP has released 2,509 individuals who qualified for retroactive Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 relief. 

But since the FSA’s enactment, little has been done to advance the Act’s core prison reform: a system designed to reduce recidivism risk by offering individuals incentives in exchange for their participation in evidence-based programming and productive activities.  To create that system, the FSA directed the DOJ to dramatically expand programming in BOP facilities, and to develop a risk and needs assessment system (“RNAS”) that could determine “the recidivism risk of each prisoner” and “the type and amount of evidence-based recidivism reduction programming for each.”  Unfortunately, DOJ and BOP have failed to meet the programming or RNAS mandates and have undercut the promise of the FSA by promulgating restrictive policies behind closed doors....

Even prior to the pandemic, BOP had a long history of not providing sufficient programs.  Because the recidivism-reduction efforts of the FSA are meaningless without adequate programming, and in light of the IRC’s warning, we are deeply concerned that BOP does not have a plan of action to comply with the FSA requirement that BOP “provide all prisoners with the opportunity to actively participate in evidence-based recidivism reduction programs or productive activities according to their specific criminogenic needs, throughout their entire term of incarceration.”  BOP’s past performance, with inconsistent access and quality across institutions, makes it difficult to have confidence that BOP will meet its statutory obligations in this regard.  We hope that Congress will continue to closely oversee BOP’s efforts on this front, and to appropriate sufficient funding to support adequate programming.

May 4, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 03, 2021

Terry v. US, the final SCOTUS argument of Term, provides yet another reminder of the persistent trauma and drama created by the 100-1 crack ratio

It was 35 years ago, amid intense media coverage of a "crack epidemic" and the overdose death of basketball star Len Bias, when Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 with the 100-to-1 powder/crack cocaine quantity ratio defining severe mandatory minimum sentencing terms.  As the US Sentencing Commission explained in this 1995 report, Congress "dispensed with much of the typical deliberative legislative process, including committee hearings," when enacting this law, and "the abbreviated, somewhat murky legislative history simply does not provide a single, consistently cited rationale for the crack-powder cocaine penalty structure."  Though the 100-to-1 ratio lacked any sound rationale in 1986, thousands of disproportionately black persons started receiving disproportionately severe statutory and guideline sentences for crack offenses in the years that followed.

Not long thereafter, in 1991 the US Sentencing Commission detailed to Congress that "lack of uniform application [of mandatory minimums] creates unwarranted disparity in sentencing" and that data showed "differential application on the basis of race."  Giving particular attention to cocaine sentencing, in 1995 the US Sentencing Commission explained to Congress that there was considerable racial disparity resulting from the 100-1 quantity ratio and that sound research and public policy might "support somewhat higher penalties for crack versus powder cocaine, but a 100-to-1 quantity ratio cannot be recommended."  In other words, three decades ago, an expert agency told Congress that mandatory minimums were generally bad policy and created racial injustice; over a quarter century ago, that agency also told Congress that crack minimums were especially bad policy and created extreme racial injustice.

In a sound and just sentencing universe, these reports and recommendations would have prompted immediate action.  But it took Congress another full 15 years to even partially address these matters.  After tens of thousands of persons were sentenced under the 100-to-1 ratio, Congress finally in 2010 passed the Fair Sentencing Act to increase the amount of crack need to trigger extreme mandatory minimum sentences.  The FSA did not do away with any mandatory minimums, and it still provided for much smaller quantities of crack to trigger sentences as severe as larger quantities of powder, but it still bent the arc of the federal sentencing universe a bit more toward justice.  However, it did so only prospectively as Congress did not provide for retroactive application of its slightly more just crack sentencing rules in the FSA.

Eight years later, Congress finally made the Fair Sentencing Act's reforms of crack sentences retroactive through the FIRST STEP Act. But, of course, no part of this story lacks for drama and racialized trauma, as the reach of retroactivity remains contested in some cases.  So, the Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument on Tuesday, May 4 in Terry v. US to determine if Tarahrick Terry, who was sentenced in 2008 to over 15 years in prison after being convicted of possessing with intent to distribute about 4 grams of crack cocaine, can benefit from the FIRST STEP Act's provision to make the Fair Sentencing Act reforms retroactive.

All the briefing in Terry is available here at SCOTUSblog, and Ekow Yankah has a great preview here titled "In final case the court will hear this term, profound issues of race, incarceration and the war on drugs." Here is how it starts:

Academics naturally believe that even obscure cases in their field are underappreciated; each minor tax or bankruptcy case quietly frames profound issues of justice.  But, doubtful readers, rest assured that Terry v. United States — which the Supreme Court will hear on Tuesday in the final argument of its 2020-21 term — packs so many swirling issues of great importance into an absurdly little case, it can hardly be believed.  The national debate on historical racism in our criminal punishment system?  Yes.  Related questions of how we address drug use with our criminal law rather than as a public health issue?  Undoubtedly.  Redemption after committing a crime? Of course.  The ramifications of a contested presidential election?  Sure.  The consequences of hyper-technical statutory distinctions on the fate of thousands?  Goes without saying.  A guest appearance by a Kardashian?  Why not.

Henry Gass at the Christian Science Monitor has another great preview piece here under the headline "On the Supreme Court docket: Fairness, textualism, and crack cocaine."  Here is an excerpt:

Mr. Terry’s punishment followed war-on-drugs-era federal guidelines that treated a gram of crack cocaine 100 times worse than a gram of powder cocaine.  The sentencing disparity has come to be viewed, by critics spanning the political spectrum, as one of the great injustices of the war on drugs.  It’s been one of the key drivers of mass incarceration, those critics say, in particular subjecting thousands of low-level offenders — the vast majority young people of color – to long prison terms.

In the past decade Congress has reduced almost all of those sentences — all except for Mr. Terry, and thousands of low-level crack offenders like him.  It’s a deferral of justice that has brought him into an unlikely alliance with congressional leaders from both parties, as well as former federal judges, prosecutors, and, latterly, the Biden administration.

On Tuesday it will bring him to the U.S. Supreme Court, when the justices will hear arguments on whether this vestige of the tough-on-crime era should be eliminated.  His case is relatively narrow and technical, but in a country — and a Congress — that has come to roundly condemn drug policies like the crack powder sentencing disparity, it’s significant.

May 3, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Great example of clemency leading to more compassion ... in the form of compassionate release thanks to FIRST STEP Act reforms

I am not sure if anyone is trying to make a comprehensive list of the wide array of factors that federal courts have referenced in granting sentence reductions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) ever since the FIRST STEP Act allowed federal courts to directly reduce sentence without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  Thankfully, district and circuit court have consistently recognized that, in the word of the Second Circuit in US v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228 (2d Cir. 2020), the "First Step Act freed district courts to consider the full slate of extraordinary and compelling reasons that an imprisoned person might bring before them in motions for compassionate release."  And, via this new Law360 article, headlined "Ex-Detroit Mayor Ally Released From Prison Years Early," I saw a new opinion with a particularly notable reason given for such a reduction.  Here  are the basics and context from the article:

A former contractor and co-defendant to ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on Thursday was granted compassionate release from prison after serving eight years of a 21-year sentence over a municipal bribery and kickback scheme, with the judge citing health problems and the fact Kilpatrick had his sentence commuted. U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds reduced the sentence for Bobby Ferguson, 52, to time served, noting his underlying medical conditions that place him at grave risk were he to contract COVID-19, and the fact that Kilpatrick — the much more culpable defendant in the case — in January was granted a reprieve by former President Donald Trump.

Judge Edmunds said at the time of the original sentencing there were "serious differences" between Ferguson's conduct and that of Kilpatrick — the mastermind of the pay-to-play scheme to exchange city business for bribes and kickbacks.  That Ferguson is left facing a prison term more than twice as long as Kilpatrick served constitutes an "extraordinary and compelling" reason to grant Ferguson compassionate release, she said.  "He was not the driver of the bus; that was Mr. Kilpatrick, where the power resided," Judge Edmunds said.

Michigan federal prosecutors had strongly opposed granting Ferguson compassionate release, calling Kilpatrick's commutation "wrongful" and highlighting Ferguson's earlier convictions for assault and other alleged misdeeds.  The government also disputed that Ferguson's hypertension, diminished lung capacity due to an injury and high cholesterol merited an early release.   The government further argued that Ferguson had not exhausted his administrative remedies with the Bureau of Prisons, since he had only petitioned the prison warden for compassionate release based on his health issues and not the disparity in sentence that resulted from Kilpatrick's release.

However, Judge Edmunds said she was persuaded by other court decisions in finding that so-called "issue exhaustion" is not required for compassionate release. She also noted his prior violent crimes occurred decades ago, and that Ferguson hasn't displayed any such "hotheadedness" while incarcerated.

The full 11-page ruling this case is available at this link, and here is a key passage:

Defendant now faces the prospect of a period of incarceration much longer than a more culpable co-defendant.  At the time of sentencing, the Court noted there were “serious differences” between Defendant’s conduct and that of Mr. Kilpatrick. (ECF No. 493, PgID 16285.)  More specifically, Defendant was not an elected official and had been charged with and convicted of a substantially smaller number of charges. (Id.) The Court therefore concluded that Defendant deserved a shorter sentence than Mr. Kilpatrick and ultimately sentenced Defendant to a term of imprisonment 75% as long as Mr. Kilpatrick’s sentence. That Defendant now faces a period of incarceration more than twice as long as the time Mr. Kilpatrick served is both extraordinary and compelling.  See United States v. Sapp, No. 14-cr-20520, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16491, at *5 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 31, 2020) (defining “extraordinary as beyond what is usual, customary, regular, or common” and “a compelling reason as one so great that irreparable harm or injustice would result if the relief is not granted”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

The government argues that avoiding unwarranted sentence disparities, one of the § 3553(a) factors, should not be part of this step of the analysis and that taking this into account would contravene the interest in finality of sentences.  The Sixth Circuit has held, however, consistent with all other circuit courts that have addressed this issue, that district courts have “full discretion” to define extraordinary and compelling reasons. See Jones, 980 F.3d at 1109; see also Brooker, 976 F.3d at 237 (noting that “a district court’s discretion in this area — as in all sentencing matters — is broad”). The only statutory limit on what a court may consider to be extraordinary and compelling is that rehabilitation alone is not sufficient.  See 28 U.S.C. § 994(t).  That particular circumstances may also factor into the Court’s analysis under § 3553(a) has no bearing on whether they can be considered extraordinary and compelling.  And, here, the disparity only arose recently due to the unique circumstance of a co-defendant being granted a Presidential commutation.

While the finality of sentences is an important principle, the compassionate release provision of § 3582(c) “represents Congress’s judgment that the generic interest in finality must give way in certain individual cases and authorizes judges to implement that judgment.”  See United States v. McCoy, 981 F.3d 271, 288 (4th Cir. 2020) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  The Court finds this to be an appropriate case in which to do so. Not only has Defendant served a slightly longer term of imprisonment than a more culpable co-defendant, but his motion comes during an unprecedented global pandemic and Defendant has an increased vulnerability to the virus.

April 30, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Heard at BOP oversight hearing: "Simply put, our prison system at the federal level is failing."

The quote in this title of this post is sentence from the opening statement by Senator Dick Durbin during this morning's hearing titled "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Prisons" before the US Senate Judiciary Committee. The only witness for this hearing is Michael Carvajal, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and I had hoped by now that there might be publicly available some written testimony from him (as well as official statements from Senator Durbin or others).  Lacking such available written statements as of 10:30am today, I guess I need to do a little "live blogging."  Specifically, how about this from Senator Chuck Grassley's opening statement:

"I consider the passage of the First Step Act as one of the good things I have done since being a Senator.  It's because of the hard work and overwhelmingly bipartisan nature of the First Step Act that I am disheartened with the lackluster implementation.

"It seems as though the Justice Department -- and within that Department, the Bureau of Prisons -- are implementing the First Step Act as if they want it to fail.  I hope this isn't true, but action speak louder than words, and the inaction of the Justice Department and BOP on this paints a very difficult picture."

UPDATE: I new see, as of 11:30pm EDT, that the written testimony of Director Carvajal is now available here.  It runs eight pages, and here are a few notable data points from the statement:

Since March of last year, we have transferred approximately 24,000 inmates to home confinement, with almost 7,000 transferred directly under the CARES Act, a 250% increase in home confinement placements since the beginning of the pandemic....

The Bureau manages the health and treatment of approximately 140,000 inmates in Bureau facilities and RRCs. As of April 6, 2021, the Bureau had 406 positive COVID-19 inmate cases and 47,227 inmates recovered in our federal prisons, while there were 51 positive cases in our RRCs and 55 positive cases in home confinement. With respect to staff, there were 1,243 positive cases and 5,532 recovered cases. Sadly, there have been 4 staff deaths and 230 inmate deaths from COVID-19....

Despite the pandemic, the Bureau is on track to meet the requirements of the First Step Act (FSA).  While the global pandemic certainly impacted the delivery of FSA programs in institutions, critical services such as mental health care, crisis intervention, and religious services have continued unabated throughout the pandemic.  As we have learned more about virus mitigation strategies and begun the process of vaccinating staff and inmates, we have been able to resume much of our programming.  As of April 1, 2021, over 49,000 inmates were enrolled in Evidence-Based Recidivism Reduction (EBRR) Programs and Productive Activities (PA).  With respect to inmate eligibility for FSA Time Credit, of approximately 124,000 inmates reviewed for eligibility, approximately 50% are eligible.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I just saw a copy of the detailed written submitted testimony of Kevin Ring, FAMM President.  Here are excerpts from page one of the lengthy submission:

FAMM was established 30 years ago. During the past few decades, we have learned a great deal about the hardship people in federal prison endure.  Prison is never easy, even under the best of circumstances.  However, the past year has been by far the most difficult year for people in prison and their loved ones that we have ever witnessed.  We appreciate that everyone in the country was affected by the spread of COVID-19 and resulting lockdowns and disruptions, and we acknowledge the unprecedented challenges the leadership of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) had to face.  Our firm conclusion is that the BOP failed in several ways and that these failures were compounded by an inexplicable and infurating lack of transparency.

I fear we cannot adequately convey to you the desperation, fear, separation, and hardship that we have felt from the families we work with every day.  We asked some of them to share their firsthand experiences with us, so that we could paint a clearer picture of what transpired and how they felt.  Their observations are included in our comments below and in the addendum to this testimony.  The BOP ignored their voices throughout the past year and denied them basic information about the health and safety of their loved ones.

This statement includes a small portion of the concerns articulated by families.  In particular, we have highlighted their concerns regarding healthcare and the management of COVID-19 spread; the appalling conditions resulting from altered operations of the past year; the BOP’s lack of transparency with families and the public; underutilization of release mechanisms intended to protect prisoners; and lacking implementation of the First Step Act.  We share these families’ voices with you in the hope that will finally be heard and that they will inform your oversight.

April 15, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Ninth Circuit provides yet another ruling on post-FIRST STEP Act federal compassionate release authority

When it rains it pours, at least wih respect to compasionate release rulings these days.  In this last post, I called a Fifth CIrcuit decision handed down yesterday the latest such ruling.  But, thanks to people on Twitter smarter than me, I learned that the Ninth Circuit issues a ruling on this topic today in US v. Aruda, No. 20-10245 (9th Cir. April 8, 2021) (available here). Here is the start and a key paragrph of the ruling:

Patricia Aruda appeals from the district court’s order denying her motion for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  We hold that the current version of U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (“U.S.S.G.”) § 1B1.13 is not an “applicable policy statement[] issued by the Sentencing Commission” for motions filed by a defendant under the recently amended § 3582(c)(1)(A).  Because the district court relied on U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13, we vacate and remand so that the district court can reassess Aruda’s motion for compassionate release under the correct legal standard....

We agree with the persuasive decisions of our sister circuits and also hold that the current version of U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 is not an “applicable policy statement[]” for 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) motions filed by a defendant.  In other words, the Sentencing Commission has not yet issued a policy statement “applicable” to § 3582(c)(1)(A) motions filed by a defendant.  The Sentencing Commission’s statements in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 may inform a district court’s discretion for § 3582(c)(1)(A) motions filed by a defendant, but they are not binding. See Gunn, 980 F.3d at 1180.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

April 8, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fifth Circuit latest to issue notable ruling on federal compassionate release authority after the FIRST STEP Act

Last week brought a number of notable Tenth Circuit opinions regarding compassionate release authority after the FIRST STEP Act, as discussed in posts here and here.  A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the latest circuit ruling of note in this arena, this one coming from the Fifth Circuit in US v. Shkambi, No. 20-40543 (5th Cir. April 7, 2021) (available here).  Here is the start and some key parts of the ruling (with some cites removed):

The question presented is whether the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s compassionate-release policy statement binds district courts in considering prisoners’ motions under the First Step Act (“FSA”). The district court said yes and dismissed Francesk Shkambi’s motion for lack of jurisdiction. That was wrong for two reasons. First, the district court did have jurisdiction. And second, the policy statement is inapplicable. We reverse and remand....

The district court nevertheless thought itself bound by the old preFSA policy statement that appears in § 1B1.13.  That was error for three reasons.

First, the text of § 1B1.13 says it only applies to “motion[s] of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons.” U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13. That makes sense because in 2006 (when the Sentencing Commission issued the policy statement) and in November of 2018 (when the Commission last amended it), the BOP had exclusive authority to move for a sentence reduction. When Congress enacted the FSA in December of 2018, it gave prisoners authority to file their own motions for compassionate release; but it did not strip the BOP of authority to continue filing such motions on behalf of its inmates.  So the policy statement continues to govern where it says it governs — on the “motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons.” U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13.  But it does not govern here — on the newly authorized motion of a prisoner.

Second, the text of the commentary confirms the limited applicability of § 1B1.13. Application note 4 of the commentary makes clear that a “reduction under this policy statement may be granted only upon a motion by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons.”  U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 cmt. n.4 (emphasis added).  That note expressly limits the policy statement’s applicability to motions filed by the BOP.

Third, the district court cannot rely on pieces of text in an otherwise inapplicable policy statement.  See United States v. McCoy, 981 F.3d 271, 282 (4th Cir. 2020) (refusing to “do some quick judicial surgery on § 1B1.13 . . . [and] assume that what remains . . . applies to defendant-filed as well as BOP filed motions”).  It’s true that application note 1 defines “extraordinary and  compelling reasons” by articulating four categories of reasons that could warrant a sentence reduction. But this “text may not be divorced from context.” United States v. Graves, 908 F.3d 137, 141 (5th Cir. 2018)....  And the context of the policy statement shows that it applies only to motions filed by the BOP.  Just as the district court cannot rely on a money-laundering guideline in a murder case, it cannot rely on the BOP-specific policy statement when considering a non-BOP § 3582 motion.

For these reasons, we conclude that neither the policy statement nor the commentary to it binds a district court addressing a prisoner’s own motion under § 3582.  The district court on remand is bound only by § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) and, as always, the sentencing factors in § 3553(a). In reaching this conclusion, we align with every circuit court to have addressed the issue.  See United States v. McGee, --- F.3d ---, 2021 WL 1168980, at *12 (10th Cir. Mar. 29, 2021); United States v. Gunn, 980 F.3d 1178, 1180 (7th Cir. 2020); McCoy, 981 F.3d at 284; Jones, 980 F.3d at 1111; Brooker, 976 F.3d at 234.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

April 8, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Tenth Circuit issues another notable ruling on federal compassionate release authority after the FIRST STEP Act

I flagged here earlier this week the notable Tenth Circuit opinion regarding compassionate release authority after the FIRST STEP Act in US v. McGee, No. 20-5047 (10th Cir. Mar. 29, 2021) (available here).  A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a similar ruling also from the Tenth Circuit today in US v. Maumau, No. 20-4056 (10th Cir. April 1, 2021) (available here).  The Maumau name may sound familiar because, as noted here, the district court ruled "that the changes in how § 924(c) sentences are calculated" after the FIRST STEP Act could help serve as a "compelling and extraordinary reason" to justify resentencing.  The Tenth Circuit today affirms that ruling today in an extended opinion that makes these points at the end of the opinion:

In its third and final issue, the government argues that, “[i]n addition to the controlling [statutory] texts, the relevant legislative history and the structure of the sentencing system also show that a court cannot use the compassionate release statute to override a mandatory sentence based on the court’s disagreement with the required length” of such a sentence.  Aplt. Br. at 39-40.  The underlying premise of this argument is that the district court in the case at hand granted relief to Maumau based upon its disagreement with the length of his statutory sentence.

We reject the government’s argument because its underlying premise is incorrect.  Nothing in the district court’s decision indicates that the district court granted relief to Maumau based upon its general disagreement with the mandatory sentences that are required to be imposed in connection with § 924(c) convictions.  Nor was the district court’s decision based solely upon its disagreement with the length of Maumau’s sentence in particular.  Rather, the district court’s decision indicates that its finding of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” was based on its individualized review of all the circumstances of Maumau’s case and its conclusion “that a combination of factors” warranted relief, including: “Maumau’s young age at the time of” sentencing; the “incredible” length of his stacked mandatory sentences under § 924(c); the First Step Act’s elimination of sentence-stacking under § 924(c); and the fact that Maumau, “if sentenced today, . . . would not be subject to such a long term of imprisonment.”

A few of many, many prior related posts:

April 1, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | 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

Tenth Circuit becomes the latest circuit to embrace a robust view of sentence reduction authority under 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

I was pleased to see late yesterday another important circuit ruling on the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts, I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have long considered this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced on a variety of grounds. 

The Second Circuit back in September was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, quite rightly in my view, that district courts have now broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A).  Not long thereafter, the Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits issued somewhat similar opinions generally recognizing that district courts now have broad authority after the FIRST STEP Act to determine whether and when "extraordinary and compelling" reasons may justify a sentence reduction when an imprisoned person files a 3582(c)(1)(A) motion.  Yesterday, the Tenth Circuit joined the fun with its extended panel opinion in US v. McGee, No. 20-5047 (10th Cir. Mar. 29, 2021) (available here).  Here is how this opinion gets started:

In November 2000, defendant Malcom McGee was convicted by a jury of three criminal counts: (1) conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute one kilogram or more of a mixture of substance containing a detectable amount of PCP, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846; (2) causing another person to possess with intent to distribute in excess of one kilogram of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of PCP, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A)(iv), and 18 U.S.C. § 2(b); and (3) using a communication facility to commit and facilitate the commission of a felony, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b).  Because McGee had previously been convicted in the State of California of two felony drug offenses, the district court sentenced McGee to a mandatory term of life imprisonment pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A).

Following Congress’s enactment of the First Step Act of 2018 (First Step Act) and the changes the First Step Act made to both § 841(b)(1)(A) and 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), McGee filed a motion with the district court pursuant to § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) to reduce his sentence based on “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The district court denied that motion.  McGee now appeals.  Exercising jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241, we reverse and remand to the district court for further consideration of McGee’s motion.

Though there are various elements to the McGee ruling, I was especially glad to see the panel explain effectively why it was improper for the district court to decide it could not grant a sentence reduction simply because Congress has not (yet) decided to make the sentencing changes in the FIRST STEP Act fully retroactive.  Here is part of the court's discussion on this point (emphasis in the original):

The plain text of § 401(c) of the First Step Act makes clear that Congress chose not to afford relief to all defendants who, prior to the First Step Act, were sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment under § 841(b)(1)(A).  But nothing in § 401(c) or any other part of the First Step Act indicates that Congress intended to prohibit district courts, on an individualized, case-by-case basis, from granting sentence reductions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) to some of those defendants.  Indeed, as the Fourth Circuit noted in McCoy, Congress’s purpose in enacting § 3582(c)(1)(A) was to provide a narrow avenue for relief “when there is not a specific statute that already affords relief but ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ nevertheless justify a [sentence] reduction.” Id. at 287 (emphasis in original).  Thus, the possibility of a district court finding the existence of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” based, in part, on a defendant’s pre-First Step Act mandatory life sentence under § 841(b)(1)(A) does not, in our view, necessarily usurp Congressional power.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

March 30, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Senators Durbin and Grassley introduce new "First Step Implementation Act"

As detailed in this press release, on Friday "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 (FSA), introduced the bipartisan First Step Implementation Act, legislation that aims to further implement the FSA and advance its goals." Here is more from the release:

“In 2018, Congress came together to pass the most important criminal justice reform laws in a generation.  The First Step Act passed by overwhelming bipartisan majorities and was supported by a broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups alike,” Durbin said.  “I was proud to champion this landmark legislation with my friend and colleague, Senator Grassley.  Now we are committed to working together on a bipartisan basis to ensure that the First Step Act and its goals are successfully implemented.”

“Our 2018 criminal justice reforms were the most significant in a generation.  We ought to be doing all we can to ensure their proper implementation.  This new bill now also ensures we make good on the intent of the First Step Act, and further builds on the ideas that led to its passage,” Grassley said.

The First Step Implementation Act of 2021 would further the goals of the FSA by:

  • Allowing courts to apply the FSA sentencing reform provisions to reduce sentences imposed prior to the enactment of the FSA;
  • Broadening the safety valve provision to allow courts to sentence below a mandatory minimum for nonviolent controlled substance offenses, if the court finds the defendant’s criminal history over-represents the seriousness of the defendant’s criminal record and the likelihood of recidivism;
  • Allowing courts to reduce sentences imposed on juvenile offenders who have served more than 20 years;
  • Providing for the sealing or expungement of records of nonviolent juvenile offenses; and,
  • Requiring the Attorney General to establish procedures ensuring that only accurate criminal records are shared for employment-related purposes.

March 28, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 20, 2021

SCOTUS appoints counsel (and delays argument) after new government position on crack sentencing retroactivity issue in Terry

As noted in this prior post, earlier this week the Acting Solicitor General informed the US Supreme Court that the government had a new (pro-defendant) position in Terry v. United States, No. 20-5904, the SCOTUS case concerning which crack offenders have a so-called "covered offense" under Section 404 of the FIRST STEP Act to allow for their retroactive resentencing.  The Supreme Court yesterday responding via this order in the Terry case:

The case is removed from the calendar for the April 2021 argument session.  Adam K. Mortara, Esquire, of Chicago, Illinois, is invited to brief and argue this case, as amicus curiae, in support of the judgment below.  The case will be rescheduled for argument this Term.

In other words, the Court appointed a lawyer to make the case against broad retroactive resentencing for certain crack offenders after the government said it no longer supported that position.  Doing so is not unusual when the parties agree on an outcome different from the decision below.  What is relatively unusual is that this appointment needed to be made long after cert was granted and briefing complete because of the Acting SG's new position on the merits.

I am pretty sure, under normal circumstances, the April argument session is the last one of a usual SCOTUS Term. But in our current a world of online arguments and disrupted timelines, perhaps the Justices can and will schedule this one argument for some time in May.  The Acting SG noted that the defendant in this case is due to finish the imprisonment portion of his sentence this September, and it would seem the Court is remains eager to resolve this matter before it takes its summer break.

Prior related posts on Terry:

March 20, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, March 19, 2021

Notable new review and accounting of COVID and federal compassionate release results

Vice News has this effective and thorough new piece bringing together a lot of notable data on federal compassionate release in the COVID era under the full headline "Prisoners Keep Dying of COVID While ‘Compassionate Releases’ Stall in Court: At least 54 federal prisoners have died from COVID-19 after having a compassionate release request denied or left pending."  Though the headline is focused on prisoner deaths, the lengthy article covers a lot of ground is worth reading in full.  Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Steven Brayfield was almost home. The 63-year-old from Springfield, Missouri, fought over six months for “compassionate release,” arguing in his emergency bid for freedom that he’d be unlikely to survive a coronavirus outbreak in federal prison. In the end, he was proven right.

Brayfield suffered from Type 2 diabetes, kidney problems, and obesity, among other health issues. He first asked his warden for compassionate release in July, when the dangers of COVID-19 in prison were already well documented but before the virus began to wreak havoc inside the minimum-security camp at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. He had just under two years left to serve on a non-violent, meth-related drug conviction....

But by Jan. 3, he was running a fever and tested positive for COVID. As he was struggling to breathe, prison staff escorted him to the hospital, where he was handcuffed to the bed. The next day, Brayfield’s judge granted his compassionate release request, reducing his sentence to time served. But his condition worsened and doctors put him on a ventilator. His public defender asked the judge to reverse the ruling, telling the court that if Brayfield died a free man, his family would be unable to afford the medical bills. He hung on until Jan. 19, remaining a federal prisoner until his last gasps for air. “You keep on thinking, my god, he’s so close to coming home,” said Shirley Marler, Brayfield’s 84-year-old mom. “Well, he came home alright, but in a box.”

Brayfield is one of at least 54 federal prisoners to die from COVID-19 after having a compassionate release request denied or delayed without a final resolution, according to data provided to VICE News.  The data, compiled by the University of Iowa’s College of Law’s Federal Criminal Defense Clinic, shows how a deluge of compassionate release requests during the pandemic overwhelmed the recently reformed system, leading to vulnerable people dying behind bars when they were eligible for freedom. 

Additional analysis of over 4,000 cases, based on data compiled by a researcher at Georgetown Law School and shared with VICE News, highlights a lasting legacy of former President Donald Trump: Judges appointed by Republicans grant compassionate releases at lower rates than Democratic appointees. Trump’s prolific stacking of the federal courts, where judges serve for life, will likely shape the way such cases are handled for many years to come. 

From 2020 to mid-January 2021, federal judges granted compassionate release to 2,271 prisoners, according to data provided to VICE News by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C. The rulings freed people who might have otherwise contributed to the tragic toll of COVID-19 (225 deaths and counting) inside the federal Bureau of Prisons.

In years past, compassionate release was virtually impossible for federal prisoners to obtain—an option made available only in life-or-death emergencies, at the discretion of prison officials. Between 2013 and 2017, the BOP approved just 6 percent of requests, letting out over 300 people, while 266 others died in prison custody after their requests were denied.

The passage of the First Step Act in 2018 reformed the system, allowing federal prisoners under “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances to petition their sentencing judges directly for compassionate release. Prisoners still have to “exhaust” their options within the BOP, but after 30 days the request goes to the courts. Prosecutors typically argue against the person getting out, and defendants can submit evidence such as medical records or letters of support. But even with the changes, compassionate releases remained rare at first. In 2019, judges granted fewer than 100 total, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The pandemic changed everything. Coronavirus turned federal prisons into death traps, especially low-security institutions with dorm-style housing units. Suddenly the federal courts were flooded with compassionate release requests, with judges receiving more than 10,000 applications in just three months, from last March to May. Those who follow the courts closely have been frustrated by inconsistent applications of the law or lack of leniency by judges, especially ones appointed by Trump and George W. Bush.

A few of many prior related posts:

March 19, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 15, 2021

Acting SG tells SCOTUS that new administration now supports broad application of crack retroactivity provision of FIRST STEP Act in Terry

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court granted cert in Terry v. United States, No. 20-5904, which concerns which crack offenders have a so-called "covered offense" under Section 404 of the FIRST STEP Act to allow for their retroactive resentencing.  Today, thanks to a heads up from a helpful colleague, I learned that the Acting Solicitor General sent this important short letter to the Supreme Court concerning the government's position in the Terry case.  Here are the key passages:

In its brief in opposition to certiorari, filed on December 4, 2020, the United States argued that petitioner lacks a “covered offense” as defined in the First Step Act.  The purpose of this letter is to notify the Court that the United States has reconsidered that position and will no longer defend the judgment of the court of appeals.

Following the change in Administration, the Department of Justice began a process of reviewing the government’s interpretation of Section 404 of the First Step Act.  As a result of that review, the Department of Justice has concluded that petitioner’s conviction is a “covered offense” under Section 404, that petitioner is entitled to request a reduced sentence, and that the court of appeals erred in concluding otherwise.

In light of the government’s current position, the Court may wish to appoint an amicus curiae to defend the judgment below.  The case is currently scheduled for oral argument on April 20, 2021.  According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, petitioner is scheduled to complete the remainder of his term of imprisonment, which he will serve almost entirely on home confinement, on September 22, 2021.  At that time, he will begin serving a six-year term of supervised release, which is the minimum term of supervised release permitted under 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(C) for his offense.  Were the case not to be decided before September 22, a question of mootness would arise that would need to be addressed before any decision on the merits.

SCOTUS mavens will better know if the Justices might just remand this particular case rather than try to appoint an amicus at this stage of the proceedings. (Nerd joke alert: will we see a different kind of Terry stop here?)  But, whatever SCOTUS does, it is big news that the new Administration is open to a broader application of the FIRST STEP Act here, and I am hopeful that this kind of Justice Department new thinking may end up being applied in a whole host of other sentencing settings.

March 15, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 11, 2021

"How Compassionate? Political Appointments and District Court Judge Responses to Compassionate Release during COVID-19"

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

This paper seeks to examine how judges are deciding compassionate-release motions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has proven particularly deadly inside the nation’s prisons.  I explore how judges appointed by Republicans and Democrats have ruled in more than 4,000 federal compassionate-release cases since March 2020, finding that judges appointed by Democrats are granting compassionate release at far higher rates than their Republican counterparts, with Trump judges granting among the fewest requests. 

The First Step Act of 2018 gave incarcerated individuals the right to file a motion for early release in court in light of “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances, and requests for release have skyrocketed since the outbreak of the virus.  The unique conditions of the pandemic, high levels of virus transmission in prisons, and the highly discretionary nature of the compassionate-release statute together offer a natural experiment for considering how judicial ideology impacts real lives.  The results of this analysis underscore the importance of the fight over control of the judiciary going forward.

March 11, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 08, 2021

Curious spitting over COVID prison data as Sixth Circuit panel ultimately affirms rejection of compasionate release motion

I sometimes feel social media tends to encourage some folks (myself included) to pick relatively silly fights over relatively silly matters.  That tendency seems to have bled over to a Sixth Circuit panel: today it released an opinion on a compassionate release appeal with two judges picking a relatively silly fight over relatively serious matter. Specifically, in US v. Mathews, No. 20-1635 (6th Cir. Mar. 8, 2021) (available here), the panel unanimously concluded that the district jusge did not abuse his discretion in denying
compassionate release based on his consideration of the § 3553(a) factors.  But while harmonious on the result, two judges decided to pick at each other over COVID prison data.

Judge Moore wrote the main opinion, and she begns by setting a serious tone concerning the matters at issue in the case (footnotes with cites to data omitted): 

By the end of 2020, one in every five persons incarcerated in the United States had tested positive for COVID-19. At least 275,000 imprisoned persons across the country have been infected; more than 1,700 have died.  A court’s refusal to reduce an incarcerated person’s sentence could result in death.

Judge Readler was apparently put off by this discussion and other parts of the opinion by Judge Moore, as he authors a one-page concurrence that includes complaints like this:

In reaching that conclusion, however, the lead opinion covers ground that is neither necessary to the outcome nor joined by another member of the panel, making it dicta, and seemingly misplaced dicta at that.  One example is the opinion’s introductory paragraph, which frames the appeal by invoking prison-related data collected by the Marshall Project.  As neither that data nor the means for collecting it are part of the record in this case, and thus unmeasured by federal evidentiary standards, the data’s value is difficult to assess.

Undaunted, Judge Moore has a lengthy footnote pushing back at Judge Readler which starts this way:

In what can only be described as dicta about dicta, Judge Readler diminishes COVID-19’s rampage in our federal prisons and assails The Marshall Project’s integrity.  We should not treat lightly the experience of persons who are incarcerated in prisons that are plagued with a deadly virus; nor should we demean those who advocate for imprisoned persons.  Many compassionate-release motions implicate complex issues of law and policy that merit our attention.  Contemplation of these issues aids our future reviews of compassionate-release motions.

This not-quite-judicious sparring by these jurists ultimately makes no difference to the outcome of the case, and I cannot help but wonder what the imprisoned appellant thinks of it all.  But I think that this particular outcome should not eclipse the official BOP data showing that more than 3000 compassionate-release motions motions having been granted since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act.  Throughout the COVID pandemic, an average of roughtly 50 sentencing reductions have been granted each week, which reveals that a good number of judges have, fortunately, refused to "treat lightly the experience of persons who are incarcerated in prisons that are plagued with a deadly virus."

March 8, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 27, 2021

"Reprogramming Recidivism: The First Step Act and Algorithmic Prediction of Risk"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Amy Cyphert.  Here is its abstract:

The First Step Act, a seemingly miraculous bipartisan criminal justice reform bill, was signed into law in late 2018.  The Act directed the Attorney General to develop a risk and needs assessment tool that would effectively determine who would be eligible for early release based on an algorithmic prediction of recidivism.  The resulting tool — PATTERN — was released in the summer of 2019 and quickly updated in January of 2020.  It was immediately put to use in an unexpected manner, helping to determine who was eligible for early release during the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is now the latest in a growing list of algorithmic recidivism prediction tools, tools that first came to mainstream notice with critical reporting about the COMPAS sentencing algorithm.

This Article evaluates PATTERN, both in its development as well as its still-evolving implementation. In some ways, the PATTERN algorithm represents tentative steps in the right direction on issues like transparency, public input, and use of dynamic factors.  But PATTERN, like many algorithmic decision-making tools, will have a disproportionate impact on Black inmates; it provides fewer opportunities for inmates to reduce their risk score than it claims and is still shrouded in some secrecy due to the government’s decision to dismiss repeated calls to release more information about it.  Perhaps most perplexing, it is unclear whether the tool actually advances accuracy with its predictions.  This Article concludes that PATTERN is a decent first step, but it still has a long way to go before it is truly reformative.

February 27, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Technocorrections | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Federal defendant in Terry with many notable friends urging broad application of crack retroactivity provision of FIRST STEP Act

As reported in this new Law360 piece, headlined "First Step Act's Authors Tell Justices Courts Are Misreading It," the First Step Act case currently on the  SCOTUS docket, Terry v. United States, No. 20-5904, and generated some notable amicus briefing.  Here are excerpts from this article:

The senators who wrote the First Step Act of 2018 have told the Supreme Court that they did not intend to exclude low-level crack offenders from the law's sentencing relief, contrary to the findings of some circuit courts across the country.

Since President Donald Trump signed it into law, four circuits have agreed with federal prosecutors that the landmark criminal justice reform bill applies only to those serving sentences for large quantities of crack, leaving those in prison for small amounts unable to revisit their sentences. Two other circuits, meanwhile, have reached the opposite conclusion and have extended relief to low-level offenders.  The Supreme Court has agreed to review this circuit split on the retroactivity of the law and is expected to hold oral arguments in April.

Ahead of the hearing, a broad coalition of liberal and conservative groups is supporting petitioner Tarahrick Terry, who is serving a 15-year sentence for possession with intent to distribute 3.9 grams of crack. If allowed to reopen his sentence, Terry could be eligible for immediate release under new sentencing rules.

In addition, the four senators who are largely responsible for the sentencing reforms in the First Step Act have filed an amicus brief in the high court supporting Terry's case. Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, told the justices that those provisions were instrumental to the law's passage and that Congress had always meant to extend that relief to those convicted of small quantity offenses.

"The text Congress enacted makes retroactive relief broadly available to all individuals sentenced for crack-cocaine offenses before the Fair Sentencing Act," the senators wrote in a brief filed Friday. "Had Congress intended to exclude individuals with low-level crack offenses from relief, Congress of course could have done so."...

The question at issue in Terry's case is whether low-level crack offenses qualify as covered offenses.  The Eleventh Circuit held that they do not and ruled against Terry, deepening a split among the courts that now makes the availability of sentencing relief under federal law dependent upon which circuit the defendant is located in....

The government has yet to file its opening merits brief in the case, and it is possible that President Joe Biden's acting solicitor general could change the government's position in the case to extend sentencing relief to low-level crack offenses, even if such changes are rare in criminal cases.

Notably, the broad and diverse coalition of amicus briefs filed in support of the petitioner in Terry includes not only a bipartisan group of Senators, but also: a group of former federal judges, prosecutors, and NACDL; a coalition of states and DC; and the ACLU, NAACP and R Street; Americans for Prosperity; the Constitutional Accountability Center; and the Cato Institute, American Conservative Union, Lincoln Network and Rutherford Institute

It will be interesting to see if all these "friends" might led the Justice Department to change its ligation approach to these issues under new leadership.  It will also be interesting to see if there are many (or any) outside groups or other voices eager to make the case that the FIRST STEP Act's retroactivity provisions do not extend to low-level crack offenders.

February 23, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Bureau of Justice Statistics releases "Federal Prisoner Statistics Collected under the First Step Act, 2020"

The US Justice Department's Bureau ofJustice Statistics today released this interesting new data report titled "Federal Prisoner Statistics Collected under the First Step Act, 2020."  Despite the year in its title, the report provides data on the federal prison population at the end of 2019 (so before any COVID-era shocks).  Here is how this 19-page report gets started and a few of its "key findings":

The First Step Act of 2018 (FSA) requires the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), through its National Prisoner Statistics program, to collect data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on a number of topics and to report these data annually. BJS is required to report on selected characteristics of prisoners, including marital, veteran, citizenship, and English-speaking status; educational levels; medical conditions; and participation in treatment programs. Also, BJS is required to report some facility-level statistics, such as the number of assaults on staff by prisoners, prisoners’ violations of rules that resulted in time-credit reductions, and selected facility characteristics related to accreditation, on-site health care, remote learning, video conferencing, and costs of prisoners’ phone calls.

The statistics in this report are for calendar year 2019, which represented the first full year under the FSA, and were collected in 2020. Data for 2020 will be available from the BOP in the second half of 2021. Unless otherwise noted, all counts in this report include federal prisoners held in correctional facilities operated either by the BOP or by private companies contracted by the BOP.

Key findings

  • The portion of federal prisoners who were the parent, step-parent, or guardian of a minor child (defined as a dependent age 20 or younger by the BOP) grew from 45% to 49% from year-end 2018 to year-end 2019 (table 1).
  • On December 31, 2019, a total of 31,458 federal prisoners were non-citizens of the United States (18% of all BOP prisoners), and 21,922 prisoners identified English as their second language (13% of all BOP prisoners). 

  • During 2019, a total of 3,791 federal prisoners earned a general-equivalency degree (GED) or other equivalent certificate while in prison. 

  • In 2019, there were 386 incidents of prisoners being placed in administrative maximum - segregated housing, the BOP’s most restrictive level of segregated housing. 

  • Of the 180 pregnant prisoners in federal custody in 2019, a total of 94 gave birth in custody and 74 were released before giving birth (table 2)....

  • While in custody, 116 federal prisoners received medication-assisted treatment for a substance-use disorder in 2019....

  • ƒIn 2019, all 122 BOP-operated facilities had video-conferencing capabilities for prisoners to participate in judicial hearings, foreign embassy consultations, reentry-related communications from probation offices, preliminary reentry preparation, disciplinary hearings, and the Institution Hearing Program.

  • A total of 89,369 prohibited acts occurred in BOP-operated facilities during 2019, of which 63,025 were committed in medium- or high-security facilities (71%) (table 4).

  • A total of 54,848 individual federal prisoners committed the 89,369 prohibited acts (table 5).

  • More than half of the individuals who committed prohibited acts in 2019 were age 35 or older (29,175 prisoners or 53%).

  • During 2019, there were 1,252 physical assaults on BOP staff by federal prisoners, with 18 of the assaults resulting in serious injury to the staff member (table 7).

  • In 2019, a total of 11,491 persons volunteered at BOP-operated facilities (table 8).

  • Faith-based programs made up 56% of all BOP recidivism-reduction partnerships in 2019 (table 9).

February 16, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Reviewing the still uncertain state, and the still certain need, for effective federal crack retroactivity resentencing

6a00d83451574769e2025d9b40d8aa200c-320wiI have not been able to keep up with all of the jurisprudential ups and downs that have followed the FIRST STEP Act finally making retroactive key parts of the Fair Sentencing Act for federal crack offenders.  Thus, I am quite grateful that a recent email discussion with various lawyers led to Assistant Federal Defenders Johanes Maliza and Thomas Drysdale drafting this extended guest post to catch us all up on some critical cases and issues in this arena:

The sentencing excesses that Congress addressed with the Fair Sentencing Act, and then the First Step Act, should stay in the past.  The pending cert petition in Bates v. United States, No. 20-535, has the potential to keep them there for everyone.  Bates asks the Court to decide whether cocaine base defendants getting resentenced under the First Step Act should get resentenced under modern sentencing guidelines, or under repealed, invalidated, or otherwise discarded sentencing rules.

The Court recently granted cert in another First Step Act case, Terry v. United States, No. 20-5904.  But Terry gets at a different, more limited question.  In Terry, the Court is answering only whether certain low-level cocaine base offenders are eligible for a resentencing.  The Terry question is important, and needs to be resolved to bring uniformity across the circuits, but the government made one good point as it opposed the petition: Terry concerns a limited group of defendants.

A Terry defendant would have to be a person with a small (often very small) amount of cocaine base, who is still serving her sentence 10 years after the Fair Sentencing Act.  Most 841(b)(1)(C) defendants from 2010 are out of prison by now, though many are still on Supervised Release.  The vast majority of cocaine base offenders still serving prison terms for pre-August 2010 conduct are mid- and high-quantity defendants, who were charged under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) or (B).  Terry only concerns people charged under § 841(b)(1)(C).

Even if Terry comes out for the petitioner, every single person who would benefit from Terry needs the answer to Bates: Which guidelines do courts use for resentencing? Indeed, the few Terry defendants still in prison are those who need a positive result in Bates the most because resentencing based on the guidelines from 2010 could still be sky high, even while the statutory scheme has shifted dramatically in the last 10 years.  Guidelines still anchor federal sentences; as the government says in Bates they remain the “lodestar.”

Consider a real, but anonymized, defendant in Central Illinois to show the need for modern guidelines in § 404 resentencings.  Mr. Jones [not client's real name, though he has given permission to speak about his case] was convicted of violating 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), for 50 grams or more of cocaine base in 2010.  The charge began with a 10-year mandatory minimum; but with four drug priors, his statutory minimum was Life.  His guidelines were Life.  His minimum term of Supervised Release was 10 years.

Because he cooperated, (the only way to get out from under life), Mr. jones got a 324- month sentence, plus 10 years of Supervised Release.  Even if he got out of prison before he died, he was going to die on Supervised Release.  Terry, which only concerns persons sentenced under § 841(b)(1)(C), has nothing to do with him because was charged under § 841(b)(1)(A).  With an 841(b)(1)(A) conviction, Mr. Jones is clearly eligible for resentencing under § 404 of the First Step Act, but the terms of that resentencing was not defined by the Act.  Since Mr. Jones was convicted of having 50 grams of cocaine base, his charges would come under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) in 2019. But how much does that really matter if his guidelines didn’t change?

One might assume the statutory changes transform everything now that a Mandatory Life is either 5-40 or 10-Life after First Step.  Which one, and why do we care?  Well, his prior convictions still set up his stat max, and his stat max still sets up his new guidelines.  Considering all four of his prior drug crimes still worked to raise his statutory max to Life and made his guidelines range 262-327 months and his 324-month sentence was still within that range.  But while one provision of the First Step Act gave Mr. Jones the right to seek resentencing, another provision made two of his priors ineligible to trigger § 851 enhancements because the statutory maximum sentences on those priors was below 10 years.  And while Mr. Jones’ resentencing worked its way through the docket, the Seventh Circuit issued a string of opinions that culminated in a ruling that Illinois cocaine convictions cannot serve as § 851 enhancements. Mr. Jones’ remaining two statutory enhancements, both for cocaine, were now out. Well, they were still there, since this Seventh Circuit ruling wasn’t necessarily retroactive, but this was a shockwave for Mr. Jones’ guidelines.  Under the law in 2010, Jones had statutory Life, and guidelines range of Life.  Now, under statutory changes and modern guideline interpretation, he had a statutory range of 5-40, and guidelines range of 188-235.

While his case was pending for First Step Act resentencing, the law had shifted for everybody else.  Mr. Jones’ 324-month sentence, after cooperation, had transformed from “Harsh-but-at-least-not-Life,” into, “That’s 11-plus years over the low end of the guidelines?!?”  Thankfully for Mr. Jones, he is in the Seventh Circuit, so the district court recalculated his guidelines as part of First Step resentencing, and gave him a 188-month (bottom-of-the-range) sentence.  Still harsh. But he’ll be out in a few years, not a decade.  But in the Tenth Circuit, which is where the Bates case comes from, this entire analysis would have amounted to passionate argument from his attorney, soaring rhetoric about finality from the government, and a “Whaddya gonna do?” from the district judge because the circuit does not permit a defendant's current guideline range to be considered at a First Step resentencing.

It is hard to imagine that that the First Step Act intended to leave people like Mr. Jones behind.  A broad bipartisan coalition passed the First Step Act, trying to reduce the draconian sentences imposed on nonviolent drug offenders.  Because the Supreme Court in Terry will only resolve the few people with § 841(b)(1)(C) convictions who are still in prison, the difference in treatment between what happened with Mr. Jones and what happened in a case like Bates will not be addressed.  The Supreme Court should take up and render a decision in a case like Bates as soon as possible in order to resolve a resentencing wait and uncertainty for hundreds, if not thousands, of defendants. No matter what happens in Terry, the issue in Bates is going to need a resolution. That resolution should come earlier, so that nobody has to overserve a minute of their sentences.

February 14, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Two more new 3582(c)(1)(A) reductions to remedy stacked 924(c) sentences reformed by FIRST STEP Act

As regular readers know, I have made much of the FIRST STEP Act provision now allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  The BOP reports here that a total of 2,693 of these motions have now been granted in the 25 months since the FIRST STEP Act became law.  The vast majority of the sentencing reduction motions brought by federal prisoners and granted by federal district judges these days are focused on the health threat posed by COVID.  But judges are still rightly finding other "extraordinary and compelling reasons" warranting sentencing reductions.

A helpful reader recently flagged for me two great new district court rulings using § 3582(c)(1)(A) to undo the now-repealed harshness of severe stacking of mandatory minimum 924(c) counts.  Both rulings ought to be read in full as yet another set of examples of the ridiculousness and injustice of (post-trial) sentences that had to be imposed by judges under mandatory sentencing provisions, and to appreciate how the FIRST STEP Act helps to restore at least a little sanity and justice in this ugly part of the federal sentencing world.  I will here just note the openning paragraphs and provide a link to the full opinions:

US v. McDonel, No. 07-20189 (ED Mich. Jan. 13, 2021):

Defendant Robert McDonel, then 21 years old, was sentenced to over 100 years in prison in 2008 after engaging in a spree of auto parts store robberies using a handgun.  That extraordinarily harsh sentence was the product of a statutory sentencing scheme that required enhancing and stacking sentences for multiple firearm brandishing offenses even when the crimes were committed as part of the same episode and charged in a single indictment.  Congress since has corrected that Draconian measure, but the legislation does not help McDonel, as the amendment is not retroactive. He asks the Court for relief under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), as amended by section 603(b)(1) of the First Step Act of 2018, Pub L. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, 5239, which allows a sentence reduction for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The gross disparity created by the legislative changes, which mitigated the harshness in the sentencing scheme to which McDonel was subjected, coupled with McDonel’s youth and rehabilitative efforts, qualify as extraordinary and compelling reasons under section 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). Other factors that the Court also must consider favor relief.  The motion will be granted.

Download McDonel opinion

US v. Nafkha, No. 2:95-CR-00220-001-TC (D Utah Jan. 11, 2021):

Prisoner Mounir Nafkha moves for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), asking the court to reduce his nearly 73-year sentence in the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to time served.  To date, Mr. Nafkha has served approximately 25 years of his sentence. He asserts that the circumstances surrounding his sentence — which consists of four consecutively “stacked” counts under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) — constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons for his early release.  The court finds that Mr. Nafkha has satisfied his burden of showing extraordinary and compelling reasons to release him and that the balance of sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) warrant his release. Accordingly, his motion (ECF No. 214) is GRANTED.

Download Nafkha Grant

January 24, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Some news and notes and rulings on federal compassionate release

I know that lots of people are eagerly awaiting the reported forthcoming list of clemency grants from Prez Trump on his last full day in office (including, it seems, Joe Exotic).  As we wait, I have noticed a number of recent pieces about so-called compassionate relief motions in the federal system, a mechanism which serves as a means now for federal judges to modify the prison sentences of some federal prisoners.  Here is a round up of some of these new pieces, included a few discussing grants and denials of compassionate release to notable individuals:

From Law360, "Pandemic Is Changing Compassionate Release Calculus"

From Colorado Politics, "Federal judges in Colorado denied overwhelming majority of requests to release inmates for COVID-19"

From Uerweb, "Bill Underwood is FREE! Former Music Exec Granted Compassionate Release from Prison After 33 Years"

From the AP, "Jailed kids-for-cash judge loses bid for pandemic release"

From Reuters, "U.S. judge rejects 'Pharma Bro' Shkreli's bid for compassionate release from prison"

January 19, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 09, 2021

SCOTUS grants cert on four new criminal cases, including one on FIRST STEP Act retroactivity of reduced crack sentences

The Supreme Court last night issued this order list which grants review in 14 new cases that will be heard later this SCOTUS Term.  Four of the cases involve criminal issues, and one is a sentencing case concerning the reach and application of the FIRST STEP Act's provisions making the reduced crack sentences of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  This SCOTUSblog post has a lot more about the sentencing case and a brief review of the others:

In Terry v. United States, the justices agreed to weigh in on a technical sentencing issue that has significant implications for thousands of inmates: whether a group of defendants who were sentenced for low-level crack-cocaine offenses before Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are eligible for resentencing under the First Step Act of 2018. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced (but did not eliminate) the disparity in sentences for convictions involving crack and powder cocaine, and the First Step Act made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  The specific question that the court agreed to decide is whether the changes made by the First Step Act extend to inmates convicted of the most minor crack-cocaine offenses.

In a “friend of the court” brief urging the justices to grant review in another case presenting the same question, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers explained that the lower courts are divided on this question; as a result, NACDL wrote, Supreme Court review is necessary “to prevent thousands of predominately Black defendants from being forced to spend years longer in prison than identically situated defendants” elsewhere in the country “and to ensure that Congress’s goal of alleviating the racial disparities in sentencing caused by the 1986 law’s harsh sentencing regime is realized.”

Other grants on Friday are:

  • Greer v. United States: Whether, when applying plain-error review based on an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, a court of appeals can look at matters outside the trial record to determine whether the error affected a defendant’s substantial rights or affected the trial’s fairness, integrity or public reputation....
  • United States v. Palomar-Santiago: Whether charges that a non-citizen illegally reentered the United States should be dismissed when the non-citizen’s removal was based on the misclassification of a prior conviction....
  • United States v. Gary: Whether a defendant who pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm is automatically entitled to plain-error relief if the district court did not advise him that one element of that offense is knowing that he is a felon.

January 9, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Sixth Circuit panel reiterates "district courts have discretion to define 'extraordinary and compelling' on their own initiative" for 3582(c)(1)(A) motions

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss another recent notable Sixth Circuit ruling discussing the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  A couple of months ago, as noted in this post, a Sixth Circuit's panel handed down US v. Jones, No. 20-3701 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here), to become then only the second circuit to rule expressly that district courts now have broad discretion to determine what now qualifies as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction now that federal courts can directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  Yesterday, a distinct Sixth Circuit panel reiterated this important doctrinal reality in  US v. Elias, No. 20-3654 (6th Cir. Jan. 6, 2021) (available here).

Notably, the Elias decision ultimately affirmed a district court's decision not to grant a defendant any reduction in sentence.  But the ruling usefully restated the broad authority of district courts in this arena.  Here is some of that discussion:

This Court recently spoke on that question [of whether the existing sentencing guideline confines district court authority], stating that § 1B1.13 is not an applicable policy statement for compassionate-release motions brought directly by inmates.  Jones, 980 F.3d at 1108–11.  The text of the guideline, along with the clear congressional purpose in the First Step Act of removing the BOP from its gatekeeping role, led this Court to its conclusion.  See id. (discussing the purpose of the First Step Act and noting that “[t]he first sentence of § 1B1.13 predicates the entire policy statement on the Director of the BOP’s filing a motion for compassionate release”).  The statement in Jones that § 1B1.13 was inapplicable to inmate-filed compassionate-release motions aligned with the Second Circuit, the first Circuit to rule on the matter, as well as the majority of district courts.  See Brooker, 976 F.3d at 234.  Since Jones, the Seventh Circuit and Fourth Circuit have reached the same conclusion.  See United States v. Gunn, 980 F.3d 1178, 1180 (7th Cir. 2020); McCoy, 981 F.3d at 281–82.

Thus, there has emerged a newfound consensus among the courts, and the government provides no compelling reason for us to disturb the consensus of our sister Circuits. Therefore, we hold that § 1B1.13 is not an applicable policy statement for compassionate-release motions brought directly by inmates, and so district courts need not consider it when ruling on those motions.  Further, we clarify that, as in Jones and Ruffin, district courts may deny compassionate-release motions when any of the three prerequisites listed in § 3582(c)(1)(A) is lacking and do not need to address the others....  And, in the absence of an applicable policy statement for inmate-filed compassionate-release motions, district courts have discretion to define “extraordinary and compelling” on their own initiative.  See Jones, 980 F.3d at 1111; Ruffin, 978 F.3d at 1007 (suggesting that without an “‘applicable’ policy statement for motions by defendants . . . district court[s] may freely identify extraordinary and compelling reasons”).

A few of many, many prior related posts:

January 7, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Notable recent reports on FIRST STEP Act implementation efforts

While there is considerable discussion of the next steps in federal criminal justice reform (including by me), there is still lots and lots of work still to do in implementing fully the FIRST STEP Act of 2018.  The reality of FIRST STEP work to do comes through over and over again in these two recent implementation reports from the Department of Justice and the Independent Review Committee:

The Attorney General's First Step Act Section 3634 Annual Report (Dec. 2020)

Report of the Independent Review Committee Report Pursuant to the Requirements of Title I Section 107(g) of the First Step Act (FSA) of 2018 (Dec. 21, 2020)

January 5, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 21, 2020

Pondering next steps in federal sentencing reform on the second anniversary of the FIRST STEP Act

The FIRST STEP Act, which is fully titled the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, was signed by Prez Trump into law on Dec. 21, 2018.  That means today is the second anniversary of what many have rightly called the biggest federal criminal justice reform legislation in a generation — while others have also rightly called this law a relatively small modification to the federal criminal justice system.  Because I consider the FIRST STEP Act a very big deal and also a very small start of needed federal sentencing reform, I am inclined to ponder today just what could and should be the next steps after the FIRST STEP.

I am not quite sure if future big federal reform bills should be called the NEXT STEP or the SECOND STEP, but I am quite sure some of the criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (available here pp. 56-62) would make a good starting point for the next Congress.  Here are just a few proposals that I would be eager to prioritize:

Mandatory Minimums: Empower judges to determine appropriate sentences, by fighting to repeal mandatory minimums at the federal level and give states incentives to repeal their mandatory minimums.

Retroactive Reforms: Make all sentencing reforms retroactive to allow for individualized resentencing.

Crack/Cocaine Sentencing Disparity: End the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity in sentences, and make the change retroactive.

Bureau of Prisons Oversight: Create a Bureau of Prisons ombudsman position for people who are incarcerated and their families to make complaints and get prompt redress.

Removing barriers to reentry: Remove restrictions on access to public housing, employment, occupational licenses, driver’s licenses, and public benefits.  Create a U.S. Reentry Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of barriers to reentry, with the goal of taking executive action and proposing legislation to remove as many as possible.

Juvenile Sentencing Reform: Abolish life without parole for juveniles.

There are lots of other good ideas in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations, but I have highlighted a few proposals which would largely require action by Congress (rather than reforms that might be achieved just though executive action or other means).  I am sure readers may have other ideas for legislative sentencing reforms that the next Congress should prioritize.

Though the FIRST STEP Act is now two years old, and though I do not think it is too early to think about the NEXT STEP or the SECOND STEP, I also think it critical that the next Congress and the Biden Adminstration keep working hard on robust application of the FIRST STEP Act.  Helpfully, the implementation picture is informed by the US Sentencing Commission's recent intricate data report (and this infographic) on “First Step Year One,” and the federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute of Justice have useful webpages about various other aspect of the Act.  But there is much more work still to do to ensure the FIRST STEP Act fulfills its full potential and has its maximum impact; I hope in 2021 that FIRST STEP work can move forward while another reform bill gets going.

A few of many, many prior related FIRST STEP Act posts:

December 21, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Split Sixth Circuit panel decides FIRST STEP Act's less severe 924(c) mandatory minimums are applicable to resentencing

In this post a full two years ago right after the enactment for the FIRST STEP Act, I flagged some issues regarding which "pipeline" defendants might be able to benefit from the Act's reduced sentencing terms.  (By "pipeline," I meant cases in which offense conduct took place before passage of the FIRST STEP Act, but a sentence was not fully finalized when the Act became law.)  In that post, I noted that Congress in the FIRST STEP Act had expressly provided that the reduced 924(c) mandatory minimums were to be applicable "if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment" of the Act.  And then I pondered in that post: "Imagine a defendant already sentenced earlier in 2018, but his sentence is reversed on some other ground and now he faces resentencing in 2019.  Can a defendant get the benefit of any new provisions of the FIRST STEP Act upon resentencing?"

A Sixth Circuit panel this past week spoke to these issues in US v. Henry, No. 19-2445 (6th Cir. Dec 18, 2020) (available here).  The panel split, with the majority eager to give broad application to the FIRST STEP Act's reduced sentencing terms.  The Henry court gives various justifications for its reading of the applicable provision of the Act, including its legislative history: "the legislative history of the First Step Act demonstrates Congress’s intent to remedy overly punitive mandatory-minimum sentences faced by defendants, including defendants resentenced after the Act’s enactment."  Judge Gibbons writing in dissent sees matters differently, explaining "Given the vast sentencing disparities depending on whether the First Step Act applies — 55 years versus 15 years in this case — it is unclear why Congress chose to extend the Act’s protection to a defendant sentenced on the date of enactment but not to a defendant sentenced just one day prior. But whatever the wisdom of that decision, 'Congress has . . . drawn a line in the sand.'"

I am very much in favor of the approach adopted by the majority here, which essentially recognizes that absent a clear "line in the sand" for limiting application of the newer, less severe sentencing terms, it makes sense to give those terms the broadest possible application.  As the dissent notes, a full 40 years of imprisonment is at issue in this matter.  As I see it, if Congress is not 100% clear that an extra four decades of time in a cage  must be imposed, courts ought not mandate its imposition.

December 19, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Tangible example of continuing big sentence reductions in COVID era thanks to the FIRST STEP Act

I have highlighted in some recent posts some important new circuit rulings about district courts' sentence reduction authority under 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act (see here and here).  These rulings reinforce that federal judges now have broad authority to consider any and all "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction and need not just focus on medical reasons for granting compassionate release.  But, of course, amidst the worldwide COVID pandemic, lots and lots of vulnerable inmates have lots and lots of medical reasons for requesting compassionate release, and many federal judges have been responsive to these requests.  

As of this writing, the BOP is now reporting at this FSA page that there have been "2,205 Approved" total "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences" since the passage of the FIRST STEP Act in December 2018.  The US Sentencing Commission has previously reported, as noted here, that 145 of these motions were granted in "First Step Year One," which in turn suggests that over 2000(!) compassionate release motions have now been granted by federal district judges in the COVID era. 

These topics are on my mind because a helpful reader sent me a district court ruling granting a sentence modification last week that provides a tangible example of a defendant securing quite a significant sentence reduction.  I sometimes get asked about examples of a defendant securing relief despite having served less than half of their initial sentence, and US v. Ferizi, No. 1:16-cr-42 (LMB) (ED Va. Dec. 3, 2020) (available for download below), is such a case.  The defendant in Ferizi was initially sentenced to 240 months in prison, but that sentence was "reduced to time served" after he served just over 60 months. Here is an excerpt (cites removed):

There is no dispute that defendant has a particularized susceptibility to the disease.  Defendant has had a chronic cough since childhood, and was diagnosed with asthma in 2018. Defendant's obesity is yet another factor that places him at greater risk for severe illness — the CDC has warned that having a body mass index greater than 30 is a risk factor, and defendant's BMI has fluctuated between 30 and 31 during his incarceration.  Considering these multiple risk factors, the government has conceded that Ferizi is at elevated risk of contracting COVID-19, and as such has established 'extraordinary and compelling circumstances' to justify release for purposes of 18 U.S.C. § 3582....

Defendant has also satisfactorily responded to the Court's concerns that it might be infeasible to release him if he could not then be promptly deported, either because he might be on a no-fly list or because Kosovo might refuse to accept him.  The government has "confirmed with FBI and ICE" that, in spite of defendant's no-fly status, he would be able to board a specifically-designated deportation flight....

The government argues that even if that is the case, "the seriousness of [defendant's] offense and the danger he poses to the community make him an inappropriate candidate for compassionate release."  There is no doubt that defendant committed a serious offense when he provided the personal information of U.S. government and military employees to ISIL, and as the victim impact letter attached to the Presentence Investigation Report demonstrates, his actions were harmful to the individuals whose names appeared on the list posted by ISIL.  Nevertheless, even defendants who have committed very serious offenses can be appropriately released from custody or supervision where "[t]here is no indication that defendant poses a risk to the public, and reducing defendant's sentence to time served will not diminish the seriousness of his offense or respect for the law."...

In this case, defendant's offense did not involve violence, and none of the individuals whose information he gave to ISIL suffered physical harm. Defendant has explained that he
"totally and completely oppose[s] ISIL and all that it stands for," and that immaturity rather than ideology was the primary motivator of his conduct....  Defendant had no significant criminal history before his arrest for his present offenses, which he committed when he was only 19 years old.  He has incurred only minor infractions while in BOP custody, all of which were more than two years ago.  He has completed educational courses and drug treatment programs, and has been rated by BOP staff as a "low" risk for recidivism....

Given defendant's age; the more than five years he has spent in prison, including the particularly brutal months in the Malaysian prison; his health risks; and the conditions at Gilmer, defendant has established extraordinary and compelling grounds for release, which the § 3552 [sic] factors do not outweigh. 

Download Ferizi Order Granting Compassionate Release

A few of many prior related posts:

December 6, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Fourth Circuit becomes the fourth circuit to embrace a robust view of sentence reduction authority under 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

I am very pleased to see today yet another important circuit rulings on the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have consider this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced. 

The Second Circuit back in September was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, quite rightly in my view, that district courts have now broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A).  Then, on the same day last month, the Sixth Circuit in Jones and the Seventh Circuit in Gunn issued similar opinions recognizing that district court now have broad authority after the FIRST STEP Act to determine whether and when "extraordinary and compelling" reasons may justify a sentence reduction when an imprisoned person files a 3582(c)(1)(A) motion.  Now, today, the Fourth Circuit has become the fourth circuit to get into this act with a great panel opinion in US v. McCoy, No. 20-6821 (4th Cir. Dec. 2, 2020) (available here).  Here is how this opinion gets started:

The defendants in these consolidated appeals were convicted of robberies and accompanying firearms violations under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). At the time, sentences under § 924(c) were “stacked,” which exposed the defendants to additional mandatory minimums and led to sentences ranging from 35 to 53 years of imprisonment. After the defendants’ convictions became final, Congress passed the First Step Act and ended sentence “stacking” under § 924(c). Today, the defendants’ sentences would be dramatically shorter – in most cases, by 30 years – than the ones they received.

At the same time it shortened sentences under § 924(c), the First Step Act significantly expanded access to compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A). Prior versions of § 3582(c)(1)(A), which empowers courts to reduce sentences for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” had allowed review of sentences only at the request of the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”). The First Step Act removed the BOP from that gatekeeping role, authorizing defendants themselves to file motions for sentence reductions.

Relying on both these First Step Act provisions, the defendants moved for reductions in their sentences under § 3582(c)(1)(A), resting their case for “extraordinary and compelling reasons” primarily on the length of their § 924(c) sentences and the disparity between their sentences and those that Congress deemed appropriate in the First Step Act. After considering each defendant’s individual circumstances – including their youth at the time of the offenses, their lack of significant prior criminal history, their exemplary behavior and rehabilitation in prison, and their already-substantial years of incarceration – the district courts granted the defendants’ motions and reduced their sentences to time served.

We now affirm the judgments of the district courts. As the government emphasizes on appeal, § 3582(c)(1)(A) prohibits sentence reductions that are not consistent with “applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.” But contrary to the government’s argument, treating the defendants’ § 924(c) sentences as an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for release is not inconsistent with any “applicable policy statement” of the Sentencing Commission for the simple reason that the Commission has yet to issue a policy statement that applies to motions filed by defendants under the recently amended § 3582(c)(1)(A). Nor was it otherwise improper, we conclude, for the district courts to consider the First Step Act’s declaration of the appropriate level of punishment under § 924(c) in assessing the defendants’ cases, on an individualized basis, for compassionate release.

Like the other circuit opinions and many comparable district court opinions, this Fourth Circuit ruling is the real McCoy, and its closing paragraph provides a fitting summary of the sound work that district courts are doing in accord with the congressional guidance in the FIRST STEP Act:

We return to the Second Circuit’s description of the First Step Act and its amendment of § 3582(c)(1)(A): an “incremental” change that does not mandate more lenient sentences across the board but instead gives new discretion to the courts to consider leniency.  Zullo, 976 F.3d at 230.  The district courts in these cases appropriately exercised the discretion conferred by Congress and cabined by the statutory requirements of § 3582(c)(1)(A).  We see no error in their reliance on the length of the defendants’ sentences, and the dramatic degree to which they exceed what Congress now deems appropriate, in finding “extraordinary and compelling reasons” for potential sentence reductions. The courts took seriously the requirement that they conduct individualized inquiries, basing relief not only on the First Step Act’s change to sentencing law under § 924(c) but also on such factors as the defendants’ relative youth at the time of their offenses, their post-sentencing conduct and rehabilitation, and the very substantial terms of imprisonment they already served.  Those individualized determinations were neither inconsistent with any “applicable” Sentencing Commission guidance nor tantamount to wholesale retroactive application of the First Step Act’s amendments to § 924(c).

A few of many, many prior related posts:

December 2, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seventh Circuit panel says old guideline does not limit potential "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for 3582(c)(1)(A) motions after FIRST STEP Act

Last night in this post, I noted the big compassionate release ruling from the Sixth Circuit in US v. Jones, 20-3701 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here), which ruled that "the passage of the First Step Act rendered § 1B1.13 'inapplicable' to cases where an imprisoned person files a motion for compassionate release."  In other words, the Sixth Circuit held that district courts now have broad authority to determine what now qualifies as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction under the statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) despite the fact that a pre-FIRST STEP provision of the guidelines, § 1B1.13, might seem to limit that authority. 

Helpfully, a couple of readers made sure I did not miss another ruling from another circuit on the same topic that happened to be handed down the same day as Jones.  Specifically, a Seventh Circuit panel in US v. Gunn, No. 20-1959 (7th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here), had this (and more) to say on this topic:

Like the Second Circuit, see United States v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228 (2d Cir. 2020), we disagree with this reading of the statute’s trailing paragraph.  It says that a reduction must be “consistent with” all “applicable” policy statements.  Section 1B1.13 addresses motions and determinations of the Director, not motions by prisoners.  In other words, the Sentencing Commission has not yet issued a policy statement “applicable” to Gunn’s request.  And because the Guidelines Manual lacks an applicable policy statement, the trailing paragraph of §3582(c)(1)(A) does not curtail a district judge’s discretion.  Any decision is “consistent with” a nonexistent policy statement.  “Consistent with” differs from “authorized by”.

The statute itself sets the standard: only “extraordinary and compelling reasons” justify the release of a prisoner who is outside the scope of §3582(c)(1)(A)(ii).  The substantive aspects of the Sentencing Commission’s analysis in §1B1.13 and its Application Notes provide a working definition of “extraordinary and compelling reasons”; a judge who strikes off on a different path risks an appellate holding that judicial discretion has been abused.  In this way the Commission’s analysis can guide discretion without being conclusive....

Like the district court, we hope that the Sentencing Commission’s ability to revise its guidelines and policy statements will be restored by the appointment of additional members.  Until that happens and §1B1.13 is amended, however, the Guidelines Manual lacks an “applicable” policy statement covering prisoner-initiated applications for compassionate release.  District judges must operate under the statutory criteria — “extraordinary and compelling reasons” — subject to deferential appellate review.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

December 2, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Sixth Circuit panel rules "courts have full discretion" to determine extraordinary and compelling reasons for 3582(c)(1)(A) motions

I only today saw a big notable Sixth Circuit ruling from a few weeks ago discussing the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts, I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  The SIxth Circuit's recent ruling in US v. Jones, 20-3701 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here), constitutes the second big circuit decision ruling that district courts have broad discretion to determine what now qualifies as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction.

The first significant circuit ruling on the reach and application of § 3582(c)(1)(A) came from the Second Circuit in US v. Zullo/Brooker, No. 19-3218-CR (2d Cir. Sept. 25, 2020) (available here; discussed here).  This latest circuit ruling from the Sixth Circuit in Jones folllows the same path by providing a thoughtful and thorough accounting of the history of applicable law on the way to these important statements: 

We now join the majority of district courts and the Second Circuit in holding that the passage of the First Step Act rendered § 1B1.13 “inapplicable” to cases where an imprisoned person files a motion for compassionate release.  See United States v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228, 234 (2d Cir. 2020).  Until the Sentencing Commission updates § 1B1.13 to reflect the First Step Act, district courts have full discretion in the interim to determine whether an “extraordinary and compelling” reason justifies compassionate release when an imprisoned person files a § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion....

By following the Second Circuit’s lead, we weave together three compatible aspirations: preserving as much of § 1B1.13 that can be saved, adhering to Congress’s intent, and respecting the Sentencing Commission’s thoughtful authorship of § 1B1.13’s commentary.  In cases where incarcerated persons file motions for compassionate release, federal judges may skip step two of the § 3582(c)(1)(A) inquiry and have full discretion to define “extraordinary and compelling” without consulting the policy statement § 1B1.13.  Thus, the district judge in Jones’s case permissibly assumed for the sake of argument that extraordinary and compelling circumstances existed without reference to the policy statement § 1B1.13.

There is a lot more in the Sixth Circuit ruling in Jones worth checking out, but most consequential is this clear statement that district courts are not limited by the (now-dated, pre-FIRST-STEP-Act) language of § 1B1.13 when assessing what may qualifies as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction.  I believe a few other circuits are considering this issue now, and it will be interesting to see if any more rule of this matter before we get tho the two-year anniversary of the FIRST STEP Act later this month.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

December 1, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

"Here's One Thing Republicans and Democrats Agree on: Criminal Justice Reform"

The title of this post is one headline that I have seen for this new New York Times article (which echoes some themes I have stressed in a few posts here and here from election week). I recommend the article in full, and here are some excerpts:

In a video presenting his closing argument for maintaining Republican dominance of the Senate, the majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, chose three issues — tax cuts, judicial appointments and criminal justice reform.

Mr. McConnell had resisted bringing the First Step Act, which expanded release opportunities for federal prisoners, to the floor under former President Barack Obama and did so during the Trump administration only under extreme pressure.  Its passage firmly established the allure of reform and is now widely cited as President Trump’s most significant bipartisan achievement....

[C]riminal justice reform offers something for just about everyone: social justice crusaders who point to yawning racial disparities, fiscal conservatives who decry the extravagant cost of incarceration, libertarians who think the government has criminalized too many aspects of life and Christian groups who see virtue in mercy and redemption.

At the federal level, both parties have proposed police accountability bills.  Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has recently signaled that he is open to reinstating parole for federal prisoners, which was eliminated during the tough-on-crime 1980s.  President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised to reduce incarceration and supports abolishing mandatory minimum sentences and expanding mental health and drug treatment.

Relatively few voters ranked the criminal justice system at the top of their list of concerns, even after the killing of George Floyd in May thrust policing into the national spotlight.  But patient work by advocates, buy-in from conservative groups and the United States’s position as a global leader in incarceration have gradually spread the message that the system is broken, and made fixing it a cause with broad appeal. 

A wide array of criminal justice measures did well on the ballot, including increasing police oversight, legalizing drugs and restoring voting rights to those with felony records.

Fewer Americans than ever believe the system is “not tough enough,” according to a recent Gallup poll.  And in a sign of how much attitudes have changed since lawmakers boasted of locking people up and throwing away the key, Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden sparred over who had let more people out of prison.

The fact that it is a niche issue may serve to increase its chances of breaking partisan gridlock....

The pandemic, in which prisons and jails have become some of the biggest viral hot spots, presents an opportunity for advocates, who hope that Covid-19 relief measures like expanded medical release and early parole will outlast the spread of the coronavirus.

Pandemic-related budget shortfalls represent another opportunity. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a progressive group, has called its legislative agenda for next year “Spend Your Values, Cut Your Losses,” arguing that measures like lowering drug penalties and making it harder to revoke probation and parole will save millions of dollars....

Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster, said that criminal justice reform proposals garner support across the board, and help Republicans reach outside their base to groups like suburban women and people of color.

I am pleased to see this article and like many of its themes.  But amidst generations of mass incarceration and criminalization, data showing a third of US adults has a criminal record, and nationwide 2020 protests focused on racial (in)justice, I am still struck and troubled by the blasé statement that criminal justice reform is just a "niche issue."  (Since I read nine of the first ten Amendments to the US Constitution as setting forth formal or informal safeguards against extreme uses of the police power, I suppose I should be grateful the Framers did not view as "niche" the operation of American criminal justice systems.)

This NY Times piece, coming right after a big transition election, leads me to recall this online article I penned for the Harvard Law & Policy Review almost exactly 12 years ago under the title "Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities."  Among other points, I urged progressives to seek to forge bipartisan coalitions for reform in this way:

[P]rogressives can and should be aggressively reaching out to modern conservatives and libertarians in order to forge new coalitions to attack the many political and social forces that contribute to mass incarceration....  If truly committed to their espoused principles of human liberty and small government, modern conservatives and libertarians should be willing and eager to join a serious campaign committed to reversing the incarceration explosion.  Progressives, rather than categorically resisting calls for smaller government, should encourage modern conservatives and libertarians to turn their concerns and energies toward improving America’s criminal justice systems.  Areas where harsh criminal laws appear to be driven by government efforts to hyper-regulate often intangible harms, such as extreme mandatory sentencing statutes related to drug crimes and gun possession, seem especially likely settings for a convergence of views and new alliances for advocacy efforts.  Specific, issue-based advocacy may allow progressives to forge coalitions with unexpected allies in order to work against some of the most unjust modern sentencing laws and policies.

Though a lot of progress has been made in since I wrote these words back in 2008, there is still a whole lot more that needs to get done. I hope political leaders at the federal, state and local levels will continue to keep working together (on this "niche" issue) to continue to move forward aggressively and effectively.

November 25, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Granting of compassionate release reduces ridiculous federal sentence by hundreds of years

This CNN piece, headlined "Grandfather serving 505-year sentence ordered to be released 'without delay'," reports on a recent grant of compasionate release to reduce a sentence that would seem like a joke if it had not been real.  Here are some of the details:

In a stunning reprieve for a man sentenced to more than five centuries behind bars for a nonviolent offense, a judge in Los Angeles on Thursday summarily slashed his sentence to time served and ordered his immediate release.

Juan Carlos Seresi, a convicted money launderer whose projected release date from the federal Bureau of Prisons had been July 8, 2419, was suddenly ordered to be freed "without delay" by U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson.  Once out, Seresi will be subject to a three-year term of supervised release, according to Wilson's order.

"It's a miracle," Seresi said after hearing the news from his daughter, Patti Mawer, she told CNN.  Mawer, 46, said her father has been behind bars since she was a teenager, but has remained an integral part of her family's life.  "After all this praying and all this hoping, he can't believe it," Mawer added.

Seresi, 73, was one of four defendants sentenced to 505 years behind bars in 1991 for laundering cocaine cartel cash who were featured in a CNN report published in August.  The article noted how the sentences were considered harsh even back then and represent the sort of draconian punishment that has since been widely condemned amid a national conversation around justice reform.

When the case was before Wilson in August, he denied a request by prosecutors to overturn the men's convictions "in the interests of justice" due to special treatment given to a government witness by FBI agents that was not disclosed to the defense.  Wilson conducted a months-long review into the matter and concluded that the men's convictions were sufficiently supported by evidence and testimony unrelated to that particular witness.  All four defendants filed an appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is pending.

But Seresi's attorneys also filed a motion seeking his release on compassionate grounds, due in part to his advanced age and a diagnosis of high blood pressure making him susceptible to serious complications from Covid-19.  Prosecutors in the US Attorney's Office in Los Angeles did not oppose the motion.

While Wilson found that those factors alone did not entitle Seresi to early release, he noted other factors that — taken together — amounted to "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for granting his freedom.  Seresi was convicted of a nonviolent offense, had already served more than 30 years behind bars, earned three associate degrees while incarcerated and had a near spotless disciplinary record, the judge noted.

November 15, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Digging carefully into what the FIRST STEP Act has, and has not, really achieved

Malcolm C. Young, a long-time justice reform advocate, sent me an interesting new report he has completed titled "How Much Credit Should Trump be Given for the First Step Act?".  This new report, which I recommend in full, is a continuation of some research which was recently published in the Journal of Community Corrections under the title "The First Step Act and Reentry."  That Fall 2019 article makes the case that "as a law intended to improve federal reentry, the FSA falls short."  Young's new report, which can be downloaded below, is a detailed effort to pushback on some of Prez Trump's claims about "his" achievements through the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is an excerpt from the start of the report:

Trump is entitled to take credit for signing the FSA into law and the reductions in the federal prison use that followed. But the FSA, which was drafted by legislators, is neither the first nor the largest reform in recent years.  For examples, a reform in sentences for crack cocaine at the close of the George Bush administration reduced the use of federal prisons by close to three-quarters of the reduction obtained from the FSA.  A downward adjustment in drug sentences that cleared the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) during the Obama administration resulted in nearly half-again as much a reduction in prison use (146%) as resulted from the FSA at the end of its first year.  And, finally, including the downward adjustment in drug sentences, Obama-era reforms resulted in more than double (230%) the FSA’s reduction in prison use in its first year.

As to benefits for Black Americans, the FSA’s reductions in sentences for crack cocaine benefited Black individuals disproportionally, as intended, yet very little more than did three similarly structured reforms intended to alleviate racial disparities in federal drug sentencing.  The FSA’s other provisions benefit smaller proportions of Black individuals.

As to reentry, the Trump administration's claim that, “[t]he landmark First Step Act enacted commonsense criminal justice reform that is helping prisoners gain a new lease on life and is making America safer” is, regrettably, simply not true.  These aspects of the FSA are not working.  But the fault lies more with Congress than Trump.

Download Trump and the First Step Act October 2020

October 28, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 19, 2020

US Sentencing Commission releases its latest updated "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report"

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission today released this updated new version of its data report titled "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report." The introduction to the report provides this context and overview:

On December 21, 2018, the President signed into law the First Step Act of 2018.  Section 404 of that act provides that any defendant sentenced before the effective date of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (August 3, 2010) who did not receive the benefit of the statutory penalty changes made by that Act is eligible for a sentence reduction as if Sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time the offender was sentenced.  The First Step Act authorizes the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the Government, or the court to make a motion to reduce an offender’s sentence.

The data in this report represents information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act which the courts have granted. The data in this report reflects all motions granted through June 30, 2020 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 15, 2020.

These new updated data from the USSC show that 3,363 prisoners have been granted sentence reductions.  The average sentence reduction was 71 months of imprisonment (roughly a quarter of the original sentence) among those cases in which the the resulting term of imprisonment could be determined.  Though this data is not exact and may not be complete, it still seems sound to now assert that this part of the FIRST STEP Act alone, by shortening nearly 3361 sentences by nearly 6 years, has resulted in nearly 20,000 federal prison years saved! (That is an eliminations of two hundred centuries of scheduled human time in federal cages, if you want to think of it another way.)

Of course, as I have noted before, the FSA retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act was only a small piece of the legislation. But these latest data show yet again how this small piece has had big impact in lots of years of lots of lives. And, of critical importance and note to be overlooked, people of color have been distinctly impacted: the USSC data document that nearly 92% of persons receiving these FSA sentence reductions were Black and more than another 4% were Latinx.

October 19, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 25, 2020

Second Circuit panel rules unanimously that district courts have broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise"

I am very pleased to see the first of what may soon be many circuit rulings on the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have consider this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.  COVID realities, of course, raised the need for and stakes of this important provision of federal sentencing law.

The first significant circuit ruling on the reach and application of this statute is a great one, coming from a Second Circuit panel in US v. Zullo, No. 19-3218-CR (2d Cir. Sept. 25, 2020) (available here).  Though I may be a bit biased because this opinion was penned by a former boss of mine (Judge Guido Calabresi), I suspect others will share my view that this ruling is a great accounting of applicable law and a great outcome.  Here are just a few excerpts from the 21-page opinion (some analysis may follow in future posts):

The First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194 (“First Step Act”), was simultaneously monumental and incremental.  Monumental in that its changes to sentencing calculations, mandatory minimums, good behavior credits and other parts of our criminal laws led to the release of thousands of imprisoned people whom Congress and the Executive believed did not need to be incarcerated.  Incremental, in that, rather than mandating more lenient outcomes, it often favored giving discretion to an appropriate decisionmaker to consider leniency.

This case reflects that dichotomy.  The First Step Act provision we analyze overturned over 30 years of history, but at the same time it often did no more than shift discretion from the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”) to the courts.  We must today decide whether the First Step Act empowered district courts evaluating motions for compassionate release to consider any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise, or whether courts remain bound by U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual (“Guidelines” or “U.S.S.G.”) § 1B1.13 Application Note 1(D) (“Application Note 1(D)”), which makes the Bureau of Prisons the sole arbiter of whether most reasons qualify as extraordinary and compelling.  Because we hold that Application Note 1(D) does not apply to compassionate release motions brought directly to the court by a defendant under the First Step Act, we vacate and remand the district court’s contrary decision....

For all of these reasons, the First Step Act freed district courts to consider the full slate of extraordinary and compelling reasons that an imprisoned person might bring before them in motions for compassionate release.  Neither Application Note 1(D), nor anything else in the now-outdated version of Guideline § 1B1.13, limits the district court’s discretion....

Nor can we say, as a matter of law, that a court would abuse its discretion by granting someone compassionate release on this record.  It bears remembering that compassionate release is a misnomer.  18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) in fact speaks of sentence reductions.  A district court could, for instance, reduce but not eliminate a defendant’s prison sentence, or end the term of imprisonment but impose a significant term of probation or supervised release in its place. Id.  Beyond this, a district court’s discretion in this area — as in all sentencing matters — is broad.  See United States v. Cavera, 550 F.3d 180, 188 (2d Cir. 2008) (en banc) (noting a district court’s “very wide latitude” in sentencing). The only statutory limit on what a court may consider to be extraordinary and compelling is that “[r]ehabilitation … alone shall not be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason.”  28 U.S.C. § 994(t) (emphasis added).

In the instant case, Zullo does not rely solely on his (apparently extensive) rehabilitation.  Zullo’s age at the time of his crime and the sentencing court’s statements about the injustice of his lengthy sentence might perhaps weigh in favor of a sentence reduction.  Indeed, Congress seemingly contemplated that courts might consider such circumstances when it passed the original compassionate release statute in 1984.  See S. Rep. No. 98-225, at 55-56 (1984) (noting that reduction may be appropriate when “other extraordinary and compelling circumstances justify a reduction of an unusually long sentence” (emphasis added)); see also United States v. Maumau, No. 2:08-CR-00758-TC-11, 2020 WL 806121, at *6-*7 (D. Utah Feb. 18, 2020) (further discussing this history and collecting cases where district courts have reduced sentences in part because they were overly long).

September 25, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, September 14, 2020

Bureau of Justice Statistics reports encouraging crime declines in release of results of 2019 National Crime Victimization Survey

As reported in this press release and as fully detailed in this 53-page report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has just published the results from its annual survey of households about their experiences with crime. Notably, most other reports about crime rates are based on crimes reported to police, but this annual survey in different: "TheNCVS is the nation's largest crime survey and collects data on nonfatal crimes both reported and not reported to police." Here are some of the statistical highlights via the press release:

After rising from 1.1 million in 2015 to 1.4 million in 2018, the number of persons who were victims of violent crime excluding simple assault dropped to 1.2 million in 2019, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. Statistics on crimes that have occurred in 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, are being collected now and will be reported next year....

The rate of violent crime excluding simple assault declined 15% from 2018 to 2019, from 8.6 to 7.3 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older.  Among females, the rate of violent victimization excluding simple assault fell 27% from 2018 to 2019, from 9.6 to 7.0 victimizations per 1,000 females age 12 or older.  Violent crimes other than simple assault are those that are generally prosecuted as a felony.

From 2018 to 2019, the portion of U.S. residents age 12 or older who were victims of one or more violent crimes excluding simple assault fell from 0.50% to 0.44%, a 12% decrease.  There were 880,000 fewer victims of serious violent or property crimes (generally felonies) in 2019 than in 2018, a 19% drop. From 2018 to 2019, 29% fewer black persons and 22% fewer white persons were victims of serious crimes.  Victims of serious crimes are those who experienced a serious violent crime or whose household experienced a completed burglary or completed motor-vehicle theft.

This year, BJS provides new classifications of urban, suburban and rural areas, with the goal of presenting a more accurate picture of where criminal victimizations occur. Based on the NCVS’s new classifications, the rate of violent victimization in urban areas declined from 26.5 victimizations per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 2018 to 21.1 per 1,000 in 2019, a 20% decrease from 2018 to 2019.

Nationally, rape or sexual assault victimizations declined from 2.7 per 1,000 persons age 12 or older in 2018 to 1.7 per 1,000 in 2019. Across all crime types, victimizations reflect the total number of times people or households were victimized by crime. Based on the 2019 survey, less than half (41%) of violent victimizations were reported to police. The percentage of violent victimizations reported to police was lower for white victims (37%) than for black (49%) or Hispanic victims (49%).

In 2019, there were 5.4 million total violent incidents involving victims age 12 or older. The portion of violent incidents involving black offenders (25%) was 2.3 times the portion involving black victims (11%), while the portion involving white offenders (50%) was 0.8 times the portion involving white victims (62%) and the portion involving Asian offenders (1.0%) was 0.4 times the portion involving Asian victims (2.3%).

The 2019 survey found that an estimated 12.8 million U.S. households experienced one or more property victimizations, which include burglaries, residential trespassing, motor-vehicle thefts and other thefts. The rate of property crime declined 6% from 2018 (108.2 victimizations per 1,000 households) to 2019 (101.4 per 1,000).

This decline in property crime was partly due to a 22% decrease in burglary from 2018 to 2019 (from 15.0 to 11.7 burglary victimizations per 1,000 households). Moreover, the rate of burglary victimization declined to the lowest level since the NCVS was redesigned in 1993.

In addition to being eager to celebrate this report of important crime declines in 2019, I am tempted to highlight that the FIRST STEP Act became law at the very tail end of 2018 and was in effect for all of 2019.  I do not want to seriously claim, based only on this data, that there is likely a cause-and-effect relationship between modest federal sentencing and prison reforms in December 2018 and national crime declines in 2019.  But I still think it quite notable given that some prominent critics of criminal justice reform loudly called part of the Act a "foolish ... jailbreak that would endanger communities" or regularly asserted that this "leniency legislation inevitably would lead to more crime."  As long-time students of crime and punishment know well, it is almost impossible to make simple and accurate predictions about what kinds of sentencing legislation will or will not end up having an impact (positive or negative) on crime.

September 14, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Ugly details from federal defenders' latest fact sheet on COVID-19 and federal detention

Sentencing Resource Counsel for the Federal Public Community Defenders has just released this new two-page fact sheet dense with information and links on "The COVID-19 Crisis in Federal Detention."  I recommend the full document, and here are some of the details (absent the links):

COVID-19 is ripping through the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), infecting incarcerated individuals at a rate 4 times the general population, and causing deaths at nearly twice the national rate. BOP is “making it worse,” said Joe Rojas, the regional vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals. “They’re making the virus explode.”

There have now been 126 reported deaths of incarcerated individuals, an incalculable loss.  They were parents, siblings, and children.  They were us.  Some of their deaths were surely preventable.  BOP’s press releases reveal that the majority — 93 — were at higher risk of complications from COVID-19 and BOP knew it.  At least a quarter of those who have died in BOP’s care were seventy or older.  Last month, BOP told the Washington Post that at least 18 individuals died while their requests for compassionate release were pending.  To date, we have identified 19 individuals who died in BOP custody after filing — and in some cases, even after being granted — requests for release....

BOP and DOJ have ignored the tools Congress gave them to lower prison populations safely.  The bipartisan CARES Act authorized AG Barr to dramatically expand the use of home confinement to protect the most vulnerable from COVID-19.  But in response, AG Barr and BOP have issued restrictive guidance and memos, each “more confusing than the next,” that together establish a “complex set of procedural and logistical hurdles to home confinement.”  To date, BOP has approved for transfer to home confinement only 4.4% of the 174,923 who were in custody on February 20.  The DOJ OIG examined BOP’s response to COVID-19 at one of BOP’s hardest-hit facilities, Lompoc Federal Correctional Complex, and found that BOP’s use of home confinement at FCC Lompoc was “extremely limited.”  The Department of Justice (DOJ) has not released demographic data on the individuals BOP has approved for home confinement, despite congressional demands.  At a time when transparency is more important than ever, the federal incarceration system is a black box. “The problem is that prisons in the U.S. are not accustomed to oversight and transparency.”

Thanks to the First Step Act of 2018, individuals no longer must depend on BOP to initiate a motion for compassionate release. Post-FSA, defendants may file a motion directly with the court 30 days after the warden’s receipt of a request.  But during the COVID-19 crisis, this 30-day delay, coupled with DOJ’s routine opposition, prevents vulnerable defendants from obtaining critical relief.  At FMC Carswell, a medical facility that houses the most medically vulnerable women in BOP, “fewer than 20 women” have reportedly received compassionate release.  Based on a survey of defense attorneys representing clients across the country, we are not aware of a single BOP-initiated motion for compassionate release based on heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19 infection.

September 9, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, September 07, 2020

Reviewing how much and how little the FIRST STEP Act has achieved

Jacob Sullum has this great new Reason piece that spotlights key data from this recent US Sentencing Commission report on the first year under the FIRST STEP Act.  The full headline details the themes: "The FIRST STEP Act Has Reduced Prison Terms for More Than 7,000 People. While that's nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans behind bars." I recommend the piece in full, and here are snippets (with links from the original):

During the first full calendar year in which the law applied, it resulted in shorter sentences for more than 4,000 drug offenders. While that is nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans, including more than 68,000 drug offenders, behind bars....

In 2019, the USSC report says, 2,387 already imprisoned crack offenders qualified for shorter sentences under the FIRST STEP Act's retroactivity provision. The average reduction was 71 months, making the average sentence for this group 187 months (more than 15 years), down from 258 months (more than 21 years).... The second most significant FIRST STEP Act sentencing reform in 2019 (again, measured by the number of people affected), was its widening of the "safety valve" that allows low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimums they otherwise would receive. The USSC reports that 1,369 defendants benefited from that expansion in 2019....

The law also expanded the "good time" credits that allow prisoners to be released early. Although the USSC report does not analyze the impact of that provision, the Justice Department reported last year that more than 3,100 prisoners had benefited from it. 

By the end of last year, then, more than 7,000 people either had been released from prison earlier than they otherwise would have been or were serving sentences that will end sooner than would have been the case before the FIRST STEP Act took effect. That is a meaningful accomplishment. Thousands of people will spend less time behind bars, and more time with their families, friends, and neighbors, thanks to this law, and that number will rise each year.

At the same time, the law's beneficiaries at this point represent less than 5 percent of the federal prison population, less than 11 percent of drug offenders in federal prison, and less than 10 percent of federal criminal cases each year. And while a crack offender who serves 15 years rather than 21 years in prison surely is better off, the reduced penalty is still draconian, especially if you think peaceful transactions involving arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants should not be treated as crimes to begin with.

Prior recent related posts:

September 7, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Spotlighting remarkable (but still cursory) data on "compassionate release" after FIRST STEP Act

Regular readers are surely familiar with the big deal I have long made about the statutory changes to the so-called compassionate release provisions in federal law via the FIRST STEP Act.  In posts here and here way back in February 2019, I was talking up these changes as the "sleeper provisions" in the Act because it now let persons in prisons move directly in court for a sentence reduction.  By May 2019, I was wondering aloud here about whether anyone was collecting and analyzing sentence reduction orders under § 3582(c)(1) since passage of the FIRST STEP Act.  From the get-go, I have tried to flag notable rulings granting sentence reductions under 3582(c)(1) since the passage of the Act, but the coronavirus pandemic created so much jurisprudence in this space that I was ultimately only able to do lengthy postings like this one of grants on Westlaw.

Against this backdrop, I was so very pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission's big new report on "The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation" (discussed here, available here) includes a final section discussing "Compassionate Release" (at pp. 46-49).  Somewhat disappointingly, this section is quite brief and the data provided is not especially rich or detailed.  But some data is better than nothing and certainly worth reviewing:

During Year One, 145 motions seeking compassionate release were granted, a five-fold increase from fiscal year 2018 (n=24)... [and] of those motions granted during Year One, 96 (67.1%) were filed by the offender and 47 (32.9%) were filed by the BOP.... 

Offenders who benefited from compassionate release in Year One received larger reductions and served more time when compared to those granted release in fiscal year 2018. The average length of the reduction in sentence was 68 months in fiscal year 2018; sentences were reduced, on average, by 84 months in Year One.  The average months of time served at the time of release also increased, from 70 months to 108 months.  The average age at the time of release increased by ten years, from 51 years old at the time of release to 61 years old....

In Year One, most (81.4%) compassionate release grants were also based on medical reasons.  Of the 145 compassionate release motions granted, 118 were based on the medical condition of the defendant, 15 were based on age, two were based on family circumstances, and 15 were based on other extraordinary and compelling reasons.  Of the 118 granted for medical reasons, 75 were based on terminal illness, 31 based on a condition or impairment that substantially diminishes the ability of the defendant to provide self-care within the correctional facility environment, and in 12 the type of medical reason was not further specified.

An additional appendix (Appendix 4 on p. 71) provides a break-down of the guidelines under which these persons receiving sentence reductions were initially sentenced.  These data look somewhat comparable to the general federal prison population, as about half of the recipients were sentenced under the drug guideline.  But it seems white-collar guidelines and the robbery guideline may be somewhat over-represented, though that may reflect that these offenders are more likely to be older and/or subject to more extreme sentencing terms for various reasons.  Other than knowing that a lot more sentence reduction motions were granted in the first year after the FIRST STEP Act and that most were for medical reasons, these "raw" data do not tell us that much more about this interesting little part of the sentencing world.  (Notably, the USSC does not report at all, and may not be collecting, data on how many sentence reduction motions have been brought to, and have been denied by, district courts.  Grants only tells us only so much, though even grant data could and should be subject to some more detail analysis to help Congress and other assess whether this mechanism was working as intended in 2019.)

Critically, as the USSC report makes clear, its data here are from just the first full calendar year the First Step Act was in effect (“First Step Year One”) running from December 21, 2018 through December 20, 2019.  In other words, this report concerns entirely pre-COVID data, and that is HUGELY important because there has been, roughly speaking, about a nearly 20-fold(!) increase in sentence reductions grants over the last six months of our COVID era.  Specifically, the BOP is now reported at this FSA page that there have been "1,498 Approved" total post-FIRST STEP Act "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences."  Doing the math, this seems to mean that while there were 145 motions granted in First Step Year One, there have been 1,353 more motions granted since that time (nearly all of which, I think, have been over the last six months).  Framed another way, we can say that, on average, in the year after passage of the FIRST STEP Act, roughly a dozen sentence reductions motions were granted each month, and now in the COVID-era, more than 220 are being granted each month!  

I sincerely hope the USSC is planning to do a more detailed and informative accounting of its First Step Year One data, as I think a lot could and should be learned from how judges responded to these motions before COVID.  But I am now even more interested to see data from the COVID era, as the number of cases (and probably the number of reasons for grants) has increased so dramatically.  At the same time, the relative rarity of these sentence reductions should not be forgotten.  With a federal prison population of around 175,000 through 2019, the USSC data show that less than 0.1% of all federal prisoners benefited from a sentence reduction that year.  With all new COVID grants, we still have well under 1% of the federal prison population receiving so-called compassionate release.  That still does not seem anywhere close to a lot or enough compassion to me.

September 3, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 31, 2020

US Sentencing Commission issues big new report on "The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation"

Download (25)I am extremely pleased to see that the US Sentencing Commission this morning released this big new report (and this infographic) providing data and analysis on the impact of the First Step Act over the period it calls “First Step Year One” running from December 21, 2018 through December 20, 2019.  Importantly, though the report is titled "The First Step Act of 2018: One Year of Implementation," this document only examines key sentencing provisions and not all the prison reforms and other elements of the First Step Act. (As the start of the report explains: "This report examines the impact of five provisions of the First Step Act of 2018 related to sentencing reform.") 

In addition, and I think valuably, the report cover an entirely pre-COVID period and thus sets an interesting and important baseline for understanding the impact of the First Step Act before the pandemic may have changed things.  The most obvious change brought about by COVID was a sharp increase in the number of motions for compassionate release/sentence reduction, but I suspect there will be other impacts that will be reflected in future data.

With all that background, here are some "Key Findings" from the Introduction of the full USSC report:

REDUCING DRUG RECIDIVIST PENALTIES

Enhanced recidivist penalties imposed pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851 applied to fewer offenders in First Step Year One, as a result of the First Step Act’s narrowing of qualifying prior drug offenses. When enhanced penalties did apply, they were less severe than in fiscal year 2018.
• The number of offenders who received enhanced penalties decreased by 15.2 percent, from 1,001 offenders in fiscal year 2018 to 849 offenders in First Step Year One.
• The new 15-year enhanced mandatory minimum penalty, which was reduced from 20 years by the First Step Act, applied to 219 offenders in First Step Act Year One. By comparison, the 20-year enhanced mandatory minimum penalty applied to 321 offenders in fiscal year 2018....

EXPANDING SAFETY VALVE 

Offenders were more likely to receive relief from a mandatory minimum penalty or a reduction in sentence as a result of the First Step Act’s expansion of the safety valve eligibility criteria at 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f).
• In First Step Act Year One, of 13,138 drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, 41.8 percent (n=5,493) received statutory safety valve relief from the mandatory minimum penalty. By comparison, in fiscal year 2018, of 10,716 drug trafficking offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, 35.7 percent (n=3,820) received statutory safety valve relief.
• In First Step Act Year One, of 19,739 drug trafficking offenders, 36.1 percent (n=7,127) benefited from the safety valve, either by receiving relief from a mandatory minimum, a
guideline reduction, or a variance based on the new expanded eligibility criteria. By comparison, of 18,349 drug trafficking offenders, 32.1 percent (n=5,885) benefited from the safety valve in fiscal year 2018....

LIMITING 924(c) “STACKING”

The 25-year penalty for a “second or subsequent offense” under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) applied less frequently in First Step Year One, as a result of the First Step Act’s limitation of the penalty to section 924(c) offenders with a final prior firearms conviction, as opposed to those with multiple section 924(c) charges in a single case....

RETROACTIVELY APPLYING THE FAIR SENTENCING ACT OF 2010

Since authorized by the First Step Act, 2,387 offenders received a reduction in sentence as a result of retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010....

COMPASSIONATE RELEASE

In the first year after passage of the First Step Act, 145 offenders were granted compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), a five-fold increase from fiscal year 2018, during which 24 compassionate release motions were granted.

A lot could be said about these data and lots more in the report, but my short take away is that the sentencing revisions in the First Step Act largely achieved their intended goals and impacted a lot of cases, though they still have a relatively small impact on a massive federal criminal justice system.  For example, even though these data show that the First Step Act's expanded safety valve provision served to benefit roughly 1250 more federal drug defendants at sentencing, any system-wide benefit would seem to be largely eclipsed by the fact that the federal government brought roughly 1400 more drug cases into the federal system during First Step Year One.  When some federal drug sentences go down slightly, but the overall number of defendants being sentenced for drug cases goes up (and especially if the federal caseload increase involves mostly lower-level offenders), it is hard to get too excited about the impact of reform.

I do not want to throw cold water on the good news that this new USSC report represents.  Rather, I just want to stress that there is still a WHOLE lot more reform work needing to get done.  (There is also a whole lot more work needed to be done in analyzing this report, which I hope to be able to do in some subsequent posts.)

August 31, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 07, 2020

Effective review of messiness of federal compassionate releases amidst COVID

BuzzFeed News has this great lengthy new piece on the messy realities of federal compassionate release realities during the pandemic. The full headline of the piece, which I recommend in full, provides a summary: "'I Had Hit The Lottery': Inmates Desperate To Get Out Of Prisons Hit Hard By The Coronavirus Are Racing To Court: With little legal precedent for a global pandemic, judges are deciding on a case-by-case basis how to weigh the risks of COVID-19 in prisons."  Here is an excerpt:

A BuzzFeed News review of more than 50 cases filed in the federal district court in DC showed that with little precedent for a flood of release requests during a pandemic, decisions about who gets out of prison and who does not can appear arbitrary. Prisoner advocates and defense lawyers say these cases can come down to the luck of the draw, with some judges proving to be more sympathetic than others.

Judges are making medical assessments about how much of a threat COVID-19 poses to an individual inmate and then deciding how to balance that against the public safety risk of sending that person back into the community; inmates are usually released to home confinement or under the supervision of a probation officer. And judges are reaching different conclusions about how to measure an inmate’s risk of exposure in state and federal prisons, which have seen some of the worst clusters of COVID-19 cases nationwide.

Boykin is one of more than 800 inmates who have been granted compassionate release by a federal judge since March, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Another 7,000 federal inmates have been released by the BOP to home confinement in the same period, after Attorney General Bill Barr directed the bureau to prioritize using its own release power for eligible inmates to minimize the spread of COVID-19. More than 150,000 federal inmates remain incarcerated.

Thousands of inmates are still exploring options to get out. Families Against Mandatory Minimums, just one of the groups that connect inmates with pro bono legal assistance, has fielded more than 3,000 requests for help since the start of the pandemic. They’ve been able to match approximately 1,200 inmates and family members with lawyers.

“We were hoping ... that judges would not want to be a party to this ongoing, slow massacre in the prisons. And they’re not, and that’s good,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring. However, he said, when it comes to how judges are analyzing release requests, “it’s not consistent across jurisdictions — there are some judges who have been stricter and some who have been more lenient.”

August 7, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Noticing problems with crack sentence reduction retroactivity, especially when certain judges are discretionarily disinclined

The New York Times has this effective new article highlighting the ugly underbelly of the FRIST STEP Act's efforts to make sure the Fair Sentencing Act's reduction of crack sentences was fully retroactive.  The headline and subheadline of the piece serves as a summary: "Law to Reduce Crack Cocaine Sentences Leaves Some Imprisoned: Critics say the First Step Act is being applied too arbitrarily by judges who are taking a hard line when it comes to revisiting nonviolent drug sentences."  Here are excerpts from a piece worth reading in full:

By and large, the First Step Act has met its goal of reducing federal sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, addressing a longstanding disparity in which crack cocaine convictions in particular led to far harsher penalties than other drug offenses and disproportionately increased imprisonment of Black men.

Thousands of inmates across the country, predominantly people of color, have been released or resentenced under a provision of the new law that allowed changes to the sentencing provisions to be applied retroactively.  As of January, 2,387 inmates had their sentences reduced under the provision that allows some crack cocaine offenders to be resentenced, out of 2,660 that the United States Sentencing Commission estimated in May 2018 were eligible.

But the law gives judges discretion in reducing sentences, leaving some inmates like Mr. Maxwell without much recourse when their applications are rejected. In those cases, activists and defense lawyers worry that the First Step Act gives too much authority to judges to determine who does and does not deserve early release.  “It’s like the luck of the draw,” said Sarah Ryan, a professor at Wesleyan University who has analyzed hundreds of First Step Act resentencing cases.  “You’ve got people sitting in prison during a pandemic, and it’s not supposed to come down to who your judge is.  It’s supposed to come down to the law.”

The simple enactment of the bill was no guarantee for inmates.  This provision of the bill did not mandate that the judges must resentence eligible offenders; Congress specified that “nothing in this section shall be construed to require a court to reduce any sentence.”...

The section of the act that governs resentencing for crack cocaine convictions is just four sentences long.  It made retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.  Courts have been relatively slow to determine some of the ambiguities of the act, including whether to consider behavior behind bars or other concurrent charges as factors in the decision.

Many public defenders — who handle most of these applications — in the toughest districts declined to speak on the record for fear of upsetting the judges who oversee their cases. Parks Small, a federal public defender in Columbia, S.C., said an imperfect First Step Act was still better than nothing, calling the bill a “godsend” for many inmates.  He added that judges varied as to the importance they placed on the original offense or the inmate’s behavior behind bars.  “You give it to different judges, they’re going to come up with different opinions,” Mr. Small said.  “It’s frustrating.”

August 1, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

"Open Risk Assessment"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Brandon Garrett and Megan Stevenson. Here is its abstract:

As criminal justice actors increasingly seek to rely on more evidence-informed practices, including risk assessment instruments, they often lack adequate information about the evidence that informed the development of the practice or the tool.  Open science practices, including making scientific research and data accessible and public, have not typically been followed in the development of tools designed for law enforcement, judges, probation, and others.  This is in contrast to other government agencies, which often open their processes to public notice and comment.

Lack of transparency has become pressing in the area of risk assessment, as entire judicial systems have adopted some type of risk assessment scheme.  While the types of information used in a risk tool may be made public, often the underlying methods, validation data, and studies are not.  Nor are the assumptions behind how a level of risk gets categorized as “high” or “low.”  We discuss why those concerns are relevant and important to the new risk assessment tool now being used in federal prisons, as part of the First Step Act.  We conclude that a number of key assumptions and policy choices made in the design of that tool are not verifiable or are inadequately supported, including the choice of risk thresholds and the validation data itself.  Unfortunately, as a result, the federal risk assessment effort has not been the hoped-for model for open risk assessment.

July 21, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Back by popular demand, another VERY long list of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

It has now been a full two wees since I set out this holiday weekend listing of new grants of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  The delay in producing a new list is not because of a lack of grants.  In fact, the updated numbers on this BOP page on the FIRST STEP Act suggests that roughly 70 sentence reductions are being granted by federal district courts each week: BOP reported 706 grants of "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences" three weeks ago, then reported 774 total grants as of two weeks ago, and it now reports 916 total grants. 

Only a portion of these sentence reduction grants end up on Westlaw, but I have heard from a number of readers that my listings are still appreciated.  So, without further ado, I am pleased to highlight dozens and dozens of additional recent grants here.  Because it has been two weeks since my last list, this one will be quite lengthy:

United States v. Grant, No. 16-30021-001, 2020 WL 4036382 (CD Ill. July 17, 2020)

United States v. Burton, No. 18-cr-00094-JSW-1, 2020 WL 4035067 (ND Cal. July 17, 2020)

United States v. Hendry, No. 2:19-cr-14035-ROSENBERG, 2020 WL 4015487 (SD Fla. July 16, 2020)

United States v. Watkins, No. 15-20333, 2020 WL 4016097  (ED Mich. July 16, 2020) 

United States v. Mabry, No. 14 CR 116-1, 2020 WL 4015315 (ND Ill. July 16, 2020)

 

United States v. Kirschner, No. 1:10-cr-00203-JPH-MJD, 2020 WL 4004059 (SD Ind. July 15, 2020)

United States v. Burt, No. 90-80492, 2020 WL 4001906 (ED Mich. July 15, 2020)

United States v. Calimer, No. DKC 02-0177, 2020 WL 4003288 (D Md. July 15, 2020)

United States v. Arceo, No. 5:09-cr-00616-EJD-1, 2020 WL 4001339 (ND Cal. July 15, 2020)

United States v. England, No.CR 18-61-GF-BMM, 2020 WL 4004477 (D Mont. July 15, 2020)

 

United States v. Mines, No. 4:18-cr-00552, 2020 WL 4003048 (ND Oh. July 15, 2020)

United States v. Edwards, No. 5:15-cr-00339, 2020 WL 4003050 (ND Oh. July 15, 2020)

United States v. Fluellen, No. 1:15-cr-00435, 2020 WL 4003039 (ND Oh. July 15, 2020)

United States v. Neal, No. 5:15-cr-00339, 2020 WL 4003049 (ND Oh. July 15, 2020)

United States v. Berry, No. 09-CR-90-JPS, 2020 WL 4001932 (ED Wisc. July 15, 2020)

 

United States v. Hayes, No. 17-20292, 2020 WL 4001903 (ED Mich. July 15, 2020)

United States v. Anello, No. 2:12-cr-00131-RAJ, 2020 WL 3971399 (WD Wash. July 14, 2020)

United States v. Torres, No. 19-cr-20342-BLOOM, 2020 WL 4019038 (SD Fla. July 14, 2020)

United States v. Collins, No. 15-10188-EFM, 2020 WL 3971391 (D Kan. July 14, 2020)

United States v. Evans, No. 18-cr-00308-WHO-1, 2020 WL 3971620 (ND Cal. July 14, 2020)

 

United States v. Mitchell, No. 4:13-cr-20468, 2020 WL 3972656 (ED Mich. July 14, 2020)

United States v. Pompey, No. CR 97-0638 RB, 2020 WL 3972735 (D N.M. July 14, 2020)

United States v. Amaro, No. 16 Cr. 848 (KPF), 2020 WL 3975486 (SDNY July 14, 2020)

United States v. Furlow, No. 2:06-CR-20020-01, 2020 WL 3967719 (WD La. July 13, 2020)

United States v. Fletcher, No. TDC-05-0179-01, 2020 WL 3972142 (D Md. July 13, 2020)

 

United States v. Fortson, No. 1:18-cr-00063-TWP-MJD, 2020 WL 3963729 (SD Ind. July 13, 2020)

United States v. Osborne, No. 1:07CR00019-002, 2020 WL 3958500 (WD Va. July 13, 2020)

United States v. Reed, No. 09-160 (PAM), 2020 WL 3960251 (D Minn. July 13, 2020)

United States v. Barajas, No. 18-CR-736-04 (NSR), 2020 WL 3976991 (SDNY July 13, 2020)

United States v. White, No. CCB-09-369, 2020 WL 3960830 (D Md. July 10, 2020)

 

United States v. Leal, No. 12-20021-05-KHV, 2020 WL 3892976 (D Kan. July 10, 2020)

United States v. Van Praagh, No. 1:14-cr-00189-PAC-1, 2020 WL 3892502 (SDNY July 10, 2020)

United States v. Hernandez, No. 10-CR-1288-LTS, 2020 WL 3893513 (SDNY July 10, 2020)

United States v. Collins, No. 10-cr-00963-1, 2020 WL 3892985 (ND Ill. July 10, 2020)

United States v. Smith, No. 04-CR-2002-CJW-MAR, 2020 WL 3913482 (ND Iowa July 10, 2020)

 

United States v. Paz, No. 92-172, 2020 WL 3958481 (D N.J. July 10, 2020)

United States v. Spencer, No. 04 Cr. 1156 (PAE), 2020 WL 3893610 (SDNY July 10, 2020)

United States v. Jones, No. 13-cr-577-2, 2020 WL 3892960 (ED Pa. July 9, 2020)

United States v. Croft, No. 95-496-1, 2020 WL 3871313 (ED Pa. July 9, 2020)

United States v. Gonzalez Quiroz, No. 18-CR-4517 (DMS), 2020 WL 3868751 (SD Cal. July 9, 2020)

 

United States v. Crawford, No. 2:18-cr-00075-3, 2020 WL 3869480 (SD Oh. July 8, 2020)

United States v. Davis, No. 3:10-cr-99 (SRU), 2020 WL 3843682 (D Conn. July 8, 2020)

United States v. Grubbs, No. CR16-228 TSZ, 2020 WL 3839619 (WD Wash. July 8, 2020)

United States v. Devine, No. 3:17cr228 (JBA), 2020 WL 3843716 (D Conn. July 8, 2020)

United States v. Gutierrez, No. 98-279(8) (JRT/AJB), 2020 WL 3839831 (D Minn. July 8, 2020)

 

United States v. Steffey, No. 2:12-cr-0083-APG-GWF, 2020 WL 3840558 (D Nev. July 8, 2020)

United States v. Jelinek, No. 15-20312, 2020 WL 3833125 (ED Mich. July 8, 2020)

United States v. Barnes, No. 3:13-CR-117-TAV-HBG-1, 2020 WL 3791972 (ED Tenn. July 7, 2020)

United States v. Erickson, No. 18-245(3) (DWF/HB), 2020 WL 3802823 (D Minn. July 7, 2020)

United States v. McRae, No. PJM 10-0127, 2020 WL 3791983 (D Md. July 7, 2020)

 

United States v. Mueller, No. 2:08-cr-00139-AB-1, 2020 WL 3791548 (ED Pa. July 7, 2020)

United States v. Bradley, No. 2:14-CR-00293-KJM, 2020 WL 3802794 (ED Cal. July 7, 2020)

United States v. Reyes-De La Rosa, No. 5:18-CR-55, 2020 WL 3799523 (SD Tex. July 7, 2020)

United States v. Mishler, No. 19-cr-00105-RS-2, 2020 WL 3791590 (ND Cal. July 7, 2020)

United States v. Tate, No. 17-cr-30037, 2020 WL 3791467 (CD Ill. July 7, 2020)

 

United States v. Ramsey, No. 18-CR-163, 2020 WL 3798938 (ED Wisc. July 7, 2020)

United States v. Hayes, No. 09 CR 1032, 2020 WL 3790615 (ND Ill. July 7, 2020)

United States v. Adeyemi, No. 06-124, 2020 WL 3642478 (ED Pa. July 6, 2020)

United States v. Adams, No. 3:04-CR-30029-NJR, 2020 WL 3639903 (SD Ill. July 6, 2020)

United States v. Bennett, No. 15-260(10) (PAM/TNL), 2020 WL 3638696 (D Minn. July 6, 2020)

 

Some of many prior recent related posts on CR grants:

July 19, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

An ever-timely offer for compassionate release help from one who was recently released

I suspect a number of readers know the name Chad Marks, perhaps from these prior recent posts about his case:

As the second of this posts details, Chad secured a significant sentence reduction this year, allowing him to leave prison last month.  My understanding that Chad quite selflessly helped a number of his fellow prisoners with legal claims and filings while he was incarcerated, and I saw from this new Facebook posting that he is eager to continue to do so:

With COVID-19 ramping back up in our prison system if you and your loved ones need help with preparing a 3582 motion, or if you need help with a 2255 contact me at www.myfreedomfighters.com

Posted by Chad Marks on Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Because I get a lot of inquiries about getting help with compassionate release motions, I wanted to here be able to share this important and insightful human resource.  Chad welcomed my suggestion of posting his Facebook offer, and I am grateful he has.

July 15, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Highlighting just one way that, even after the FIRST STEP Act, "Justice Still Eludes Crack Offenders"

Sarah E. Ryan has this notable new Crime Report commentary headlined simply "Why Justice Still Eludes Crack Offenders." I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

In early 2007, Carl Smith sold 1.69 grams of crack, less than half a teaspoon.  He also sold a teaspoon of powder cocaine.  A New Hampshire federal judge sentenced him to seventeen-and-a-half years imprisonment, the lowest end of the sentencing guidelines recommendation.

Last spring, Smith sought a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.  The district court denied the request because he was convicted under a statutory subsection unaffected by the new law. In essence, he had sold too little crack to go free.  According to an early 2020 analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the New Hampshire district courts granted just four sentence reductions under the First Step Act.  The district of Rhode Island granted four times more reductions; the district of Connecticut granted five times as many.

Nationally, the average sentence reduction was 71 months.  As a result, many defendants had served their time and could be released from incarceration.  But not Carl Smith. He remained locked up during a pandemic.  He appealed, arguing that the First Step Act covered his conviction.

After analyzing more than 500 First Step Act cases, including 90 relevant circuit court opinions, I know two things: this area of law remains in disarray and the circuit courts have largely dodged the tough issues.  They remain complicit in a decades-old mass incarceration scheme.

The now-familiar history of the crack laws omits one key fact: Congress knew early on that the drug laws were disproportionately affecting Black defendants.... In 1995, the Sentencing Commission told Congress that Black defendants accounted for nearly 90 percent of crack cocaine convictions and that most of their customers were white.  In 1996, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported the changing nature of the federal prison population using bold-faced sub-headers such as: “An increasing percentage of the Nation’s prisoners are black or Hispanic.”  In 1999, the BJS reported that the length of federal prison sentences had increased 40 percent. 

By the mid-1990s, lawmakers understood that dealers like Carl Smith were serving prison terms usually reserved for second-degree murder, or intentional murder demonstrating an extreme indifference to human life.  Yet Congress provided no relief, for decades.

In 2010, Congress raised the quantity necessary for future statutory minimum sentences in the Fair Sentencing Act; the law did not help defendants sentenced at the height of the drug war.  A few thousand people remained incarcerated under the old crack laws.  Their only hope was an historic reform amounting to an admission of Congressional guilt. The First Step Act was that law.  A bipartisan coalition heralded the First Step Act as the end of the draconian drug laws.  The Act gave sitting judges the authority to reopen the old crack cases and impose more appropriate sentences.... The intent of the law was clear, but some judges wavered.

There are two plausible ways to read the resentencing section — section 404 — of the First Step Act: as a small fix to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 or a broad mandate to rectify thousands of unjust sentences.  The broad reading is historically, legally and morally correct.  But hundreds of hearings in, the nation’s district courts remain divided on the law’s most basic tenets, like which defendants can be resentenced or what Section 404 empowers judges to do.

Some judges apply Section 404 narrowly.  A subset dismiss cases involving too little or too much crack without a review of the other facts.  Still others review all cases implicating a Fair Sentencing Act statute, but only to perform a new mathematical calculation.  They do not consider a defendant’s post-sentencing conduct or intervening changes in the law, even favorable state and federal supreme court rulings.  Their narrow interpretations of the law unnecessarily depress the length of sentence reductions.

Other judges construe Section 404 broadly.  They view the First Step Act as a gateway to relief.  Some find that they can revisit the sentences of small-time dealers or inmates serving hybrid sentences for interconnected drug and weapons crimes.  Some believe that they may consider a defendant’s good conduct, prison coursework and recent high court rulings.  Broad-view judges find that Congress empowered them to mitigate the damage of the old crack laws.  Their proof? The text of the law, including the word “impose” as a mandate to issue an independent sentence — and the testimony of a dozen or more senators, of both parties, characterizing the First Step Act as redress for the old drug laws.

Recently, the First Circuit adopted a broad view in Carl Smith’s case [opinion here]. That appellate opinion is reason for hope that the circuit courts will raze the remains of the old crack laws.  This summer, the appellate courts should adopt a broad reading of the First Step Act.  That reading should require sitting judges to issue meaningful sentence reductions, including ‘timed served’ in many cases.

And, it should hold sitting judges accountable for the continued incarceration of non-violent drug dealers who have served a decade or more.  Amidst global protests for freedom, liberation and justice for Black citizens, and a raging pandemic, the courts must fully enact the First Step Act as Congress intended.

I am pleased to see this new commentary calling out lower courts for not giving full effect to remedial aspects of the FIRST STEP Act.  But this analysis should not leave out the problematic role of the Justice Department.  I surmise that DOJ has consistently argued for narrow and limiting approaches to the application of Section 404.  Decades ago, DOJ could reasonably contended that its arguments for severe application of federal sentencing laws were consistent with congressional intent.  Now, DOJ arguments for severe application of federal sentencing laws often clearly fly in the face of congressional intent.

July 7, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)