Tuesday, July 07, 2020

New BREATHE Act proposes, among lots and lots of reforms, eliminating federal mandatory minimums and life sentences

As reported in this new AP piece, headlined "Movement for Black Lives seeks sweeping legislative changes," a big new federal criminal justice reform bill includes some big new ideas for sentencing reform. Here are some of the details:

Proposed federal legislation that would radically transform the nation’s criminal justice system through such changes as eliminating agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration and the use of surveillance technology is set to be unveiled Tuesday by the Movement for Black Lives.

Dubbed the BREATHE Act, the legislation is the culmination of a project led by the policy table of the Movement for Black Lives, a coalition of more than 150 organizations.  It comes at an unprecedented moment of national reckoning around police brutality and systemic racism that has spurred global protests and cries for change after several high-profile killings of Black Americans, including George Floyd....

The legislation was first shared with The Associated Press, and is scheduled to be revealed in a Tuesday press conference that is slated to include an appearance by singer John Legend.  The proposed changes are sweeping and likely to receive robust pushback from lawmakers who perceive the legislation as too radical.

University of Michigan professor and criminal justice expert Heather Ann Thompson acknowledged the uphill battle, but noted that that the legislation is being introduced at a highly opportune time.  “I think those programs that they’re suggesting eliminating only look radical if we really ignore the fact that there has been tremendous pressure to meaningfully reform this criminal justice system,” said Thompson, author of “Blood in the Water.”...

No members of Congress have yet said they plan to introduce the bill, but it has won early support among some of the more progressive lawmakers, including Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, who also are due to participate in the news conference.

The bill is broken into four sections, the first of which specifically would divest federal resources from incarceration and policing.  It is largely aimed at federal reforms because Congress can more easily regulate federal institutions and policy, as opposed to state institutions or private prison facilities.  The other sections lay out a detailed plan to achieve an equitable future, calling for sweeping changes that would eliminate federal programs and agencies “used to finance and expand” the U.S. criminal-legal system.

The elimination would target agencies such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has come under fire in recent years for its aggressive deportation efforts, and lesser-known programs such as Department of Defense 1033, which allows local law enforcement agencies to obtain excess military equipment.  The act, which also seeks to reduce the Department of Defense budget, would institute changes to the policing, pretrial detention, sentencing and prosecution practices...

It would establish the Neighborhood Demilitarization Program, which would collect and destroy all equipment like military-grade armored vehicles and weapons in the hands of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies by 2022.  Federal law enforcement also would be unable to use facial-recognition technology, which many communities across the nation already have banned, along with drones and forms of electronic surveillance such as ankle-monitoring.

The bill would end life sentences, abolish all mandatory minimum sentencing laws and create a “time bound plan” to close all federal prisons and immigration detention centers....

The bill would direct Congress to establish a Community Public Safety Office that would conduct research on non-punitive, public safety-focused interventions that would be funded through new grants, and programs like a “Free Them All” Matching Grant Program offering a 50% federal match for projected savings when states and communities close detention facilities, local jails, and state or youth prisons.

According to the document, it also would bring about numerous changes for parents and children, such as removing police, school resource officers and other armed security and metal detectors from schools.

I suspect that there is little chance that this entire piece of legislation advances in Congress anytime soon, but there may well be a chance that some pieces of this big bill could get incorporated into other proposals. Even if just a statement of aspirations, this new bill is noteworthy and could prove to be quite significant.

July 7, 2020 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 03, 2020

Effective review of the 1994 Crime Bill's complicated legacy

USA Today has this effective new piece about the impact and import of the 1994 Crime Bill under the headline "Fact check: 1994 crime bill did not bring mass incarceration of Black Americans."  I recommend the whole thing, and here are excerpts:

The 1994 crime bill, signed by President Bill Clinton, was a grab-bag of crime-fighting measures, ranging from three-strike provisions mandating a life sentence for repeat offenders and funding for states to hire 100,000 additional police officers, to a Violence Against Women Act.

As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, then-Sen. Joe Biden drafted the bill, known formally as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was billed by Democrats as a major crackdown on crime....

Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy think tank, says one of the most significant and long-lasting impacts of the legislation was the enticement to states to build or expand correctional facilities through the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing Incentive Grants Program....

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a campaign to end life imprisonment, told USA TODAY that the 1994 crime bill certainly encouraged the use of expanded incarceration by providing funding to the states for prison construction.  But he added that "mass incarceration was already well under way prior to the adoption of that legislation."...

Regarding mass incarceration of Black Americans, the issue plays out against the reality of longstanding racial disparities in imprisonment rates....  A report on "Racial Disparity in U.S. Imprisonment across States and Over Time," published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology in 2019, found that a large increase in Black imprisonment is traceable in many states to the crack epidemic in the mid-1980s.

This disparity, the report says, began to ease starting in the 1990s.  "Whatever its other effects, this suggests that the 1994 crime bill did not aggravate the preexisting racial disparity in imprisonment," the report said....

Our research finds that while the crime bill did increase the prison population in states, it did not bring about a mass incarceration relative to earlier years.  Rather, it coincided with a slowdown in the annual grown of the state and federal prison population. Nor did it bring about mass incarceration of Black people, compared to before the bill was passed.

This USA Today piece references and links to some effective research on this topic, although it does not mention the papers recently published by the Council of Criminal Justice on this topic (one of which I authored).  These CCJ papers provide a similar accounting of the impact of the 1994 Crime Bill:

July 3, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, July 02, 2020

"How Mandatory Minimums Are Weaponized"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new opinion piece in the New York Times authored by Sandeep Dhaliwal. I recommend the piece in full and here are excerpts:

In the early morning hours of May 30, Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman were arrested in Brooklyn after a night of citywide protests in response to the killing of George Floyd.  They are charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail through the broken window of an unoccupied police car.  No one was hurt.  Both have plead not guilty, but if they are convicted of the array of federal charges leveled against them, there will be no judging involved when they are sentenced: They will face mandatory sentences of 45 years in prison.

Their story is just one example of how many senseless mandatory minimum penalties — blind to the facts of a case and the stories of the individual defendants — remain enshrined in law and must be changed....

At a time when progress is being made to address policing, the prosecution of Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman is a sobering reminder of other, deeply ingrained injustices in our systems of punishment. Even after modest improvements made by the 2018 First Step Act, the penalties for criminal activity are too often draconian, and prosecutors are too often keen to invoke them not because the defendants deserve the severity but to coerce them to plead guilty.  Reforms to eliminate mandatory minimums and rein in prosecutorial overreaching are vital to comprehensively reforming our overly punitive criminal justice systems, whose excessive harshness disproportionately affects communities of color....

Mandatory minimums grew popular in the 1970s and 1980s, as Congress and many states began adopting them for a slew of crimes — the biggest category being drug crimes.  Proponents said they were designed to deter the most serious types of criminal conduct.  But the penalties were inflexibly harsh, and it quickly became clear that many low-level offenders were being swept up and facing grossly excessive sentences.

The laws also suffered from another flaw: They were racist. The most infamous example is that it once took 100 times the amount of powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger the same mandatory minimum prison terms.  Other lesser-known examples abound.  People of color are disproportionately affected by mandatory minimums for the simple reason that they are disproportionately arrested and charged with crimes generally....

[T]he 45-year mandatory minimum penalty that Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman face is part of an all too familiar pattern of prosecution.  The goal is to coerce people to plead guilty to charges carrying harsh sentences in exchange for the dismissal of charges that mandate unconscionable ones.

The message that prosecutors send to them and to so many other defendants is clear: If you consider exercising your fundamental right to trial, we will seek penalties that are so excessive that you will think twice, because we have the power to take sentencing authority away from the judiciary.

When this regime of mandatory minimums began more than 30 years ago, 20 percent of federal criminal cases were resolved by trial.  Today, fewer than 3 percent are, and more than 97 percent of cases are resolved by pleas.

No rational observer would conclude that Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman should spend a majority of their lives behind bars for an alleged act that caused harm to no one.  To put the threat of a 45-year mandatory sentence into some perspective, according to data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the median sentence for murder in the Second Circuit from 2015 through 2019 was 16 years.  The extreme 45-year sentences they face are a reminder that real people and families and communities are at the receiving end of these devastating penalties.

As lawmakers in Congress propose sweeping changes to policing spurred by society’s broad awakening to systemic racism, they must also make changes to eliminate federal mandatory minimums, rein in overcharging and help restore the right to trial.

July 2, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

"Prosecutors and Their Legislatures, Legislatures and Their Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this book chapter authored by Russell Gold recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This chapter explores the often-pathological relationship between prosecutors and legislatures and considers fiscal pressure as an important antidote to the pathology.  Institutional incentives between prosecutors and legislatures align in a way quite different than the classic separation-of-powers story.  Rather, legislatures are well served to empower prosecutors as much as possible by making criminal law broad and deep.  And with respect to substantive criminal law, prosecutors have been enormously empowered.  Prosecutors are not merely passive recipients of such power but indeed actively lobby for it — often quite successfully. 

But fiscal pressures can provide a cross-cutting pressure for legislatures, particularly at the state level where many governments must balance their budgets.  Thus, sentencing law sometimes finds legislatures refusing prosecutors’ requests for ever longer or mandatory minimum sentences because longer sentences are expensive; this is especially true where sentencing commissions provide legislatures with meaningful data on costs of particular proposals. 

Criminal procedure has recently found progressive prosecutors leading the way toward defendant-friendly reforms such as using unaffordable cash bail less frequently and providing defendants with more discovery than is required by law.  In these spaces, county prosecutors have provided laboratories of experimentation that led the way toward broader statewide reforms.

June 9, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 07, 2020

An initial list of federal sentencing reforms to advance greater equity and justice for congressional consideration

According to this recent Hill article, headlined "Pelosi: Democrats to unveil sweeping criminal justice proposal Monday," a federal criminal justice bill is in the works that may go beyond police reforms.  Here are the basics:

Democrats on Monday will introduce wide-ranging legislation designed to combat racial inequities in the criminal justice system, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Thursday.  The much awaited package, currently being crafted by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), will feature provisions designed to eliminate racial profiling, rein in the excessive use of police force and repeal the so-called qualified immunity doctrine for law enforcers, which protects individual officers from lawsuits over actions they perform while on duty.

"We will not relent until that is secured — that justice is secured," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.  Yet the package will go far beyond that, Pelosi suggested.... Aside from the criminal justice elements of the Democrats' legislation, Pelosi said the package would also include provisions designed to raise the status of African Americans outside of the criminal justice system as well. "It is about other injustices, too. It's about health disparities, it's about environmental injustice, it's about economic injustice, it's about educational injustice," Pelosi said. 

This Politico piece suggests the developing bill is primarily focused on police reforms.  But if Congress has an interest, as I think it should, in broader criminal justice reforms to advance greater equity and justice, I have many suggestions.  Let's get started with some basic federal sentencing reforms:

1. Equalize crack and powder cocaine sentencing (finally!) Based on data showing huge unfair disparities, the US Sentencing Commission in 1995 (a full quarter century ago!) sent to Congress proposed guidelines changes to fix the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity by adopting a 1:1 quantity ratio at the powder cocaine level.  But Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation rejecting the USSC’s proposed guideline changes (see basics here and here), thereby ensuring decades of disproportionately severe crack sentences and extreme racial inequities in cocaine offense punishments.

Barack Obama gave a 2007 campaign speech assailing the crack/powder disparity, and in 2009 the Obama Justice Department advocated for "Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity."  Sadly, despite strong DOJ advocacy for a 1:1 ratio in April 2009, it still took Congress more than a year to enact any reform to the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity, and then it only could muster a partial reduction in crack sentences rather than the parity advocated by the USSC in 1995 and by DOJ in 2009.  Specifically, the Fair Sentencing Act enshrined a bew 18:1 crack/powder quantity disparity ratio into federal drug sentencing statutes and guidelines, and even this modest reform did not become fully retroactive until eight years later with the FIRST STEP Act.

As the USSC said in 1995 and as DOJ recognized in 2009, crack cocaine and powder cocaine are functionally the same drug save for the fact that Blacks are far more likely to be prosecuted federally for the former.  The crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity has long been the most tangible and consequential example of structural sentencing racism, and the Minnesota Supreme Court decades ago found a lesser disparity to be unconstitutional under its state constitution.  This ugly stain still impacting thousands of Black federal defendants needs to be wiped out once and for all.

2. Repeal federal mandatory minimumsEven before its important work highlighting racial biases in the application of federal cocaine penalties, the USSC began noting the racial inequities in the application of federal mandatory minimum statutes.  In its 1991 report, the USSC noted early data showing "disparate application of mandatory minimum sentences [which] appears to be related to the race of the defendant, where whites are more likely than non-whites to be sentenced below the applicable mandatory minimum."  In its 2011 report, the USSC again documented with copious data the various ways that the effects of severe mandatory minimum sentencing provisions "fall on Black offenders to a greater degree than on offenders in other racial groups."

One need not rely on USSC data to see clear evidence of racial disparities in the application of federal mandatory minimum.  M. Marit Rehavi and Sonja B. Starr found that federal prosecutors are almost twice as likely to file charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences against Black defendants.  Similarly, Crystal Yang found that "Black offenders are far more likely to be charged with mandatory minimums than similar white offenders, and after Booker, black defendants are significantly more likely to face mandatory minimums that exceed their Guidelines minimum compared to white defendants."

Critically, mandatory minimums have all sorts of flaws, both in theory and in practice, that justify their repeal on a number of bases beyond advancing greater racial equity.  But, as is too often the case throughout criminal justice systems, a bad law for everyone often gets applied in a way that is especially inequitable and unjust for people of color.  All federal mandatory minimums ought to be repealed.

3. Create a federal expungement statute. Having a criminal record severely limits access to employment, education, housing, civic engagement, and public assistance.  As highlighted by a recent US Commission on Civil Rights report on collateral consequences, "People of color are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced more harshly than are white people, which amplifies the impact of collateral consequences on this population."

An encouraging recent study by Sonja B. Starr and J.J. Prescott involving expungements in Michigan over the course of decades found that expungement recipients had extremely low subsequent crime rates and saw a sharp upturn in wages and employment levels.  Sounds like a win-win, and ever more states are each year expanding and enhancing mechanisms for record relief.  But there is currently no general federal expungement or record sealing statute, and federal courts have no inherent authority to expunge records.  Congress should again follow the wise lead of the states by creating a robust expungement statute ASAP.

Critically, these three suggestions are really just low-hanging fruit for criminal justice reforms in the sentencing space that would obviously and easily advance greater equity and justice for all.  There are plenty of other important structural changes I would also like to see in the name of racial justice ranging from eliminating all felon disenfranchisement to decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana and lots more in between.  Indeed, any kind of wise criminal justice reform is likely to serve as a kind of racial justice reform given the consistently biased operation of our justice systems.  But for now, I will be content to advocate for these three reforms and encourage others to use the comments to indicate what they consider the most urgent forms of reform in this arena.

June 7, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Council on Criminal Justice releases big new reform report titled "Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety and Justice"

I noted in this post this last summer the notable new group working toward criminal justice reform called the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ).  I flagged here the CCJ's great set of papers and resources taking a close look at the 1994 Crime Bill (which I had a chance to contribute to as noted here); I also flagged here from December a big CCJ report on "Trends in Correctional Control by Race and Sex."  Today, I am excited to see and report on the CCJ's latest (and arguably most important) work, this big new report titled "Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety and Justice."  This press release provides a useful summary of the report and its major recommendations:

Well before COVID-19 surfaced, the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) established an independent task force to chart a course for federal action on criminal justice reform.  The pandemic has underscored the urgency of that effort, and today the Task Force on Federal Priorities released a report detailing 15 achievable, evidence-based proposals for change.  If fully implemented, key recommendations would:

  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes, reducing the prison population
  • Establish a “second look” provision allowing people serving longer sentences -– many of them elderly and infirm –- to ask courts for a sentence reduction
  • Help formerly incarcerated people succeed by sealing certain criminal records from public view
  • Create independent oversight of the federal prison system to improve conditions for incarcerated people and staff, strengthen reentry planning and other services, and hold employees accountable for misconduct
  • Resolve the federal-state conflict over recreational and medical cannabis by providing federal waivers to states that have legalized it
  • Dedicate millions of grant dollars to reducing victimization and trauma in cities most affected by violence...

The 14-member Task Force was established in June of 2019 to build on federal reforms adopted under the FIRST STEP Act, which passed with strong bipartisan support at the end of 2018.  While crime and incarceration rates have dropped, there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that more must be done to make communities safe and guarantee justice — not just by states and localities, where most criminal justice happens, but also by the federal government, which runs the country’s largest correctional system and helps set the tone of the national conversation.

Through their vigorous deliberations, Task Force members zeroed in on reforms that not only target critical needs, but also are politically viable and hold the potential to make the greatest improvements in safety and the administration of justice. Reflecting the commitment of Task Force members to bipartisan, data-driven solutions, all 15 proposals are accompanied by a policy rationale, detailed implementation steps, and a summary of the research and evidence that support them.

Task Force members represent a broad cross-section of stakeholders: former federal prosecutors and defenders; a former mayor and a veteran police leader; experts in prisoner reentry, substance use, and victim rights; and advocates and formerly incarcerated people. Task Forces are strictly independent of CCJ and solely responsible for the content of their reports.  Members are asked to join a consensus signifying that they endorse the general policy thrust and judgments reached by the group, though not necessarily every finding and recommendation.

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear that I am a big fan of a lot of these recommendations, and I actually like this full list of all 15 recommendations even more than those summarized in the press release. In a few subsequent posts, I hope to give particular attention and scrutiny to the various key sentencing recommendations.  For now I will be content to say, good work CCJ!

May 27, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Members of Congress submit amicus brief urging Ninth Circuit to rule FIRST STEP Act provisions lowering mandatory minimums apply at a resentencing

In this post way back in 2018 just a few days after the FIRST STEP Act became law, I took note of the notable provisions in the Act which expressly addressed just which types of offenders should get the benefit of the Act's new statutory sentencing provisions if their cases were already in the criminal justice pipeline.  In that post, I complimented Congress for addressing these issues, but I also noted that some matters left unclear such as whether "a defendant already sentenced earlier in 2018 [who has] his sentence reversed on some other ground and now he faces resentencing [could] get the benefit of any new provisions of the FIRST STEP Act upon resentencing."

Via this new press release, I now see that this resentencing question is before the Ninth Circuit and that a notable group of Senators are seeking to ensure the defendant gets the benefit of the FIRST STEP Act at his resentencing.  Here is the text of the press release:

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), lead authors and sponsors of the First Step Act — landmark criminal justice reform legislation — today submitted a bipartisan Amicus Brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States of America v Alan L. Mapuatuli, a case related to the reduction of the second strike and third strike drug mandatory minimums.

The bipartisan Brief argues that Congress intended the First Step Act (FSA) to apply at post-FSA sentencing hearings, including when a defendant is before a court for sentencing after his or her initial sentence was vacated on appeal.  Congress intended to cover these cases by stating that the FSA applies “if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed” as of the FSA’s date of enactment.  However, the Justice Department is litigating the contrary position in United States of America v Alan L. Mapuatuli.

The Members wrote: “… the interpretation advanced by the Executive Branch and adopted by the district court in this case is contrary to Congress’s language and intent.  Reduced to its simplest form, that interpretation assumes that Congress intended to give legal effect to sentences that otherwise are void.  That assumption finds no support in the statutory text, contradicts the fundamental considerations that motivated Congress to enact the First Step Act, and produces inequitable outcomes that undermine the fairness and legitimacy of our criminal justice system.  That unquestionably is not what Congress intended.  For these reasons, amici respectfully submit that the district court’s judgment should be vacated and the case remanded for resentencing in conformity with the First Step Act.”

The full 20-page amicus brief in this matter is available at this link, and I applaud the Senators and their lawyers for urging the Ninth Circuit to ensure that the FIRST STEP Act is given the broad reach that it seems Congress intended and that its text reasonably supports.

May 13, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

A dozen new grants of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A), including another based on stacking/disparity/trial penalty concerns

In recent posts here and here, I highlighted some of the COVID-influenced grants of sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A) available via Westlaw.  (And, as I keep mentioning, I think these Westlaw listings do not represent all sentence reductions being granted these days).  Though a new week is just getting started (with Westlaw only showing rulings through April 27), I have spotted lots of new grants of sentence reductions since my last posting.  It is heartening to see these rulings from coast-to-coast and lots of places in-between:

United States v. Robinson, No. 18-cr-00597-RS-1, 2020 WL 1982872 (ND Cal. Apr. 27, 2020)

United States v. Gorai, No. 2:18-CR-220 JCM (CWH), 2020 WL 1975372 (D Nev. Apr. 24, 2020)

United States v. Coles, No. 00-cr-20051, 2020 WL 1976296 (CD Ill. Apr. 24, 2020)

United States v. Thorson, No. 5:16-CR-00017-TBR, 2020 WL 1978385 (WD Ky. Apr. 24, 2020)

United States v. Williams, No. 3:17-cr-121-(VAB)-1, 2020 WL 1974372 (D Conn. Apr. 24, 2020)

United States v. Park, No. 16-cr-473 (RA), 2020 WL 1970603 (SDNY Apr. 24, 2020)

United States v. Walls, No. 92-80236, 2020 WL 1952979 (ED Mich. Apr. 23, 2020)

United States v. Jackson, No. 4:14-CR-00576, 2020 WL 1955402 (SD Tex. Apr. 23, 2020)

United States v. Curtis, No. 03-533 (BAH), 2020 WL 1935543 (DDC Apr. 22, 2020)

United States v. Bess, No. 16-cr-156, 2020 WL 1940809 (WDNY Apr. 22, 2020)

United States v. Sanchez, No. 18-cr-00140-VLB-11, 2020 WL 1933815 (D Conn. Apr. 22, 2020)

In addition to this encouraging dozen of sentence reductions grants using § 3582(c)(1)(A) accelerated by COVID concerns, last week also brought a remarkable ruling that focused on pre-COVID concerns.  In United States v. Haynes, No. 93 CR 1043 (RJD), 2020 WL 1941478 (EDNY Apr. 22, 2020), the court granted relief to a fellow who, back in the early 1990s, got 40 years of extra mandatory prison time based on stacked gun charges brought by prosecutors after he turned down a plea deal calling for around an eight-year term.  As the court now explained: "Haynes has served almost 27 of the 46½ years to which he was sentenced.  To put that in context, he has served more than three times the length of the high end of the sentence he would have received had he pled guilty."  With that background and after some extended discussion of relevant precedent, the court added:

The Court readily concludes, on the facts as detailed above — including the brutal impact of Haynes’s original sentence, its drastic severity as compared to codefendant Rivers’s ten-year term, its harshness as compared to the sentences imposed on similar and even more severe criminal conduct today, and the extent to which that brutal sentence was a penalty for Haynes’s exercise of his constitutional right to trial — that the FSA’s elimination of the § 924(c) sentencing weaponry that prosecutors employed to require that sentence is an extraordinary and compelling circumstance warranting relief under § 3582(c).  For an individual like Haynes, with three pre-amended § 924(c) counts in a single indictment, the change spells the difference between thirty years in or out of prison.

I continue to be pleased to see (some) judges recognizing that 3582(c)(1)(A) motions can and should provide a means to correct (some) past unjust federal sentences.  The COVID crisis and the threat it poses to vulnerable prisoners is surely increasing the willingness of judges to review swiftly those past sentences that may no longer serve any sentencing purpose.  But, the sad reality of prison is that it is often bad, even in normal times, for the health of both inmates and the broader community.  Judge (and prosecutors and lawmakers) ought always be carefully checking and double-checking and triple-checking whether the considerable tax dollars used to keep persons incarcerated are sound public safety investments.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

Some (of many) pre-COVID posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

April 28, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

"The Misplaced Trust in the DOJ's Expertise on Criminal Justice Policy"

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

In this Review of Professor Rachel Barkow's new book, Prisoners of Politics: Breaking the Cycle of Mass Incarceration, I address Professor Barkow’s point about law enforcement resisting criminal justice reforms.  I place particular emphasis on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) and the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys’ (NAAUSA) opposition to nearly any federal criminal justice reform.  Federal prosecutors often claim that they just enforce the law — no more, no less.  But their actions show the contrary.

Through presidential administrations of both parties, the DOJ and the NAAUSA have affirmatively opposed most federal criminal justice reforms on issues involving sentencing, corrections, and clemency.  Oftentimes they weigh in on issues for which their prosecutors have no expertise.  Even worse, they have thwarted the goals of the very presidents they serve, especially if the president sets out to reform the system in ways that infringe on the DOJ’s prerogatives. 

If their opposition to reform were rooted in public safety or fairness, that would be one thing.  But through their lobbying efforts, they often advocate for policies that make it easier for federal prosecutors to charge and incarcerate people — as if that is the only worthy goal of the federal criminal justice system.  And all too often federal policymakers — whether members of Congress, the White House, or the U.S. Sentencing Commission — have listened.  As a result, there are now nearly 4,450 federal statutes and hundreds of thousands of federal regulations carrying criminal penalties, excessively punitive federal sentences, and a federal prison population that has increased by 618 percent since 1980.

April 8, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 23, 2020

Ruling 6-3, SCOTUS holds that Due Process does not compel a state to provide a traditional insanity defense in its criminal laws

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its opinion in the fascinating case of Kahler v. Kansas, No. 18-6135 (S. Ct. March 23, 2020) (available here). Justice Kagan authored the opinion of the Court, which starts this way:

This case is about Kansas’s treatment of a criminal defendant’s insanity claim.   In Kansas, a defendant can invoke mental illness to show that he lacked the requisite mens rea (intent) for a crime. He can also raise mental illness after conviction to justify either a reduced term of imprisonment or commitment to a mental health facility.  But Kansas, unlike many States, will not wholly exonerate a defendant on the ground that his illness prevented him from recognizing his criminal act as morally wrong.  The issue here is whether the Constitution’s Due Process Clause forces Kansas to do so — otherwise said, whether that Clause compels the acquittal of any defendant who, because of mental illness, could not tell right from wrong when committing his crime. We hold that the Clause imposes no such requirement.

Notably, in her opinion for the Court, Justice Kagan at various points stresses the fact that defendants in Kansas still can use mental illness matters as mitigating arguments at sentencing. For example:

In sum, Kansas does not bar, but only channels to sentencing, the mental health evidence that falls outside its intent-based insanity defense.  When combined with Kansas’s allowance of mental health evidence to show a defendant’s inability to form criminal intent, that sentencing regime defeats Kahler’s charge that the State has “abolish[ed] the insanity defense entirely." Brief for Petitioner 39....

If a mentally ill defendant had enough cognitive function to form the intent to kill, Kansas law directs a conviction even if he believed the murder morally justified.  In Kansas’s judgment, that delusion does not make an intentional killer entirely blameless.  See Brief for Respondent 40.  Rather than eliminate, it only lessens the defendant’s moral culpability.  See ibid.  And sentencing is the appropriate place to consider mitigation: The decisionmaker there can make a nuanced evaluation of blame, rather than choose, as a trial jury must, between all and nothing. See ibid.

Justice Breyer authored a dissenting opinion, which Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor joined, and it gets started this way: 

Like the Court, I believe that the Constitution gives the States broad leeway to define state crimes and criminal procedures, including leeway to provide different definitions and standards related to the defense of insanity.  But here, Kansas has not simply redefined the insanity defense.  Rather, it has eliminated the core of a defense that has existed for centuries: that the defendant, due to mental illness, lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy.  Seven hundred years of Anglo-American legal history, together with basic principles long inherent in the nature of the criminal law itself, convince me that Kansas’ law “‘offends . . . principle[s] of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.’” Leland v. Oregon, 343 U.S. 790, 798 (1952) (quoting Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 105 (1934)).

I am disinclined to pass judgement on these opinions before I get a chance to read them closely. But because I have long thought that so-called "excuse" defenses like insanity were more properly considered at the sentencing stage than the guilt stage, I am not inherently troubled by the essential of this ruling.  That said, it is worth noting here that if and when a defendant is subject to a severe mandatory minimum sentencing term (as is often the case for more serious crimes), Justice Kagan's assertion that a "decisionmaker [at sentencing] can make a nuanced evaluation of blame"  will not really be accurate.  And so I am going to be eager to try to (over)read Kahler as a statement that allowing a decisionmaker sentencing discretion is an important Due Process consideration (and this principle also finds expression in the Eighth Amendment in cases like Lockett and Miller).

March 23, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 02, 2020

SCOTUS grants cert in Borden ACCA case to replace Walker case after death of petitioner

As noted in this prior post, back in November the Supreme Court granted cert in Walker v. United States to consider whether a criminal offense that can be committed with only a reckless mens rea can qualify as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  After seeing the facts in the Walker, case, which involved to possession of ammunition and not the possession of a gun, I reached out to some law professor colleagues and we filed this this SCOTUS amicus brief in US v. Walker in early January.

But Mr. Walker died in late January, and so his petition for a writ of certiorari was dismissed.  Today SCOTUS took up a replacement case, Borden v United States, which will given the Justices another chance to decide whether a crime that can be committed by being reckless can be a “violent felony” for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Disappointingly, the Borden case involves gun possession, not just ammunition possession, so our amicus brief won't quite work for this new case.  Bummer.

In any event, though sentencing fans have to be excited about yet another ACCA case on the docket, the truly big SCOTUS cert news today concerns ACA, not ACCA.

March 2, 2020 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

New questionnaire explores what criminal justice reforms Democratic candidates would prioritize

A couple of helpful folks have made sure I did not miss this new New York Times piece that helps thicken our understanding of what leading Democratic candidates for Prez consider the most pressing of their criminal justice reform proposals. The full headline of the piece provide an ideal teaser: "Quandary for 2020 Democrats: Which Criminal Justice Changes Get Priority?: The Democratic presidential candidates are united in seeking a major overhaul of the criminal justice system, but a new questionnaire asked them to choose what they would do first." I recommend the piece in full, and here is a taste:

Justice Action Network — a bipartisan coalition of bedfellows as strange as the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group — ... asked the Democratic candidates to identify, for instance, the first criminal justice legislation they would propose, the first executive action they would take, and their top priority among several bills pending in Congress.

Five of the six remaining candidates — all but Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii — completed the questionnaire, and the Justice Action Network shared their responses with The New York Times....

The candidates all spoke about criminal justice as a matter of racial justice, and most said that was the primary reason they supported an overhaul. They argued unanimously for aggressive new policies, not small steps....

The candidates focused heavily on changes to sentencing, such as reversing harsh mandatory minimums and expanding diversion programs to keep low-level offenders out of jail. Most indicated that a top priority would be to give states financial incentives to reduce incarceration: a direct repudiation of the 1994 crime bill, which gave incentives to increase incarceration....

Criminal justice has become a rare point of bipartisan consensus in recent years, leading to the passage in 2018 of the First Step Act, which expanded early-release programs, increased job training and changed mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses. And that bill, a breakthrough at the time, has now become a floor.

The First Step Act “is now the marker of what a conservative reform is,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, legislative and policy director at the Justice Action Network. “So you see all of these candidates going way beyond that.”

Because most of the candidates support similarly expansive suites of policies, the survey pushed them to do something few politicians want to do: to grapple with the reality that presidents rarely pass an entire agenda in one fell swoop, and to identify the specific components of their plans that they believe will make the biggest difference.

Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren said their first executive actions on criminal justice would be to end the federal use of private prisons, while Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg said theirs would be to repeal directives from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions that require federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible penalties.

Asked for their top priority among several bipartisan bills now in Congress, Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg chose the REAL Act, which would let prisoners receive Pell grants for higher education. Ms. Warren’s priority was the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for drug possession, while Ms. Klobuchar chose the For the People Act, which would restore voting rights for former prisoners.

March 2, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Another thoughtful and thorough opinion finds statutory reform among "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for reducing sentence under § 3582(c)(1)(A)

As regular readers know, in lots of prior posts I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act which now allows 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 consider this provision a big deal because I think, 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.

I have previously flagged here and here and here  and here some notable examples of judges finding notable reasons sufficient to reduce a sentence.  But I have not blogged lately about any recent § 3582(c)(1)(A) rulings because my Westlaw searches have largely turned up only denials rather than grants of these motions.  Thanks to a helpful reader, though, I learned of a notable recent grant in US v. Maumau,  No. 2:08-cr-00758-TC-11, 2020 WL 806121 (D. Utah Feb. 18, 2020) (also available for download below).  This decision, authored by District Tena Campbell, provides an extended, thoughtful review of recent compassionate release jurisprudence and the changes to § 3582(c)(1)(A) brought by the FIRST STEP Act. 

I recommend review of the Maumau ruling in full for anyone working on or thinking about these isssues.  Here are some excerpts from the opinion that help highlight its importance:

Having reviewed all of the above cases, this court joins the majority of other district courts that have addressed this issue in concluding that it has the discretion to provide Mr. Maumau with relief, even if his situation does not directly fall within the Sentencing Commission’s current policy statement. Under the First Step Act, it is for the court, not the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, to determine whether there is an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to reduce a sentence....

As part of the First Step Act, Congress eliminated the consecutive stacking previously required for violations of § 924(c) [which had led to a 55-year sentence for the defendant for crimes committed at age 20]... When considered together, the court is inclined to find that Mr. Maumau’s age, the length of sentence imposed, and the fact that he would not receive the same sentence if the crime occurred today all represent extraordinary and compelling grounds to reduce his sentence.

The United States points out in its opposition that Mr. Maumau’s request is unlike the vast majority of compassionate release requests because he is not suffering from any medical- or age-related physical limitations.  But the fact that such cases are uncommon does not mean that Mr. Maumau’s request must be denied.  First, the lack of such cases is, at least arguably, part of what spurred Congress to pass the First Step Act.... Finally, and perhaps most importantly here, at least one district court has modified a sentence based solely on the First Step Act’s changes to § 924(c) sentencing.... Like the Urkevich court, this court concludes that the changes in how § 924(c) sentences are calculated is a compelling and extraordinary reason to provide relief on the facts present here.

The United States objects to this conclusion because, it notes, Congress could have made its changes to § 924(c) retroactive but it chose not to do so. See Brown, 2019 WL 4942051 at *5.  While this is a relevant consideration, it ultimately has little bearing on the court’s conclusion. It is not unreasonable for Congress to conclude that not all defendants convicted under § 924(c) should receive new sentences, even while expanding the power of the courts to relieve some defendants of those sentences on a case-by-case basis.  As just noted, that is precisely the approach taken by the Urkevich court.

Based on the above, the court concludes that a combination of factors — Mr. Maumau’s young age at the time of the sentence, the incredible length of the mandatory sentence imposed, and the fact that, if sentenced today, he would not be subject to such a long term of imprisonment — establish an extraordinary and compelling reason to reduce Mr. Maumau’s sentence....

Regarding what type of sentence to impose, Mr. Maumau “urge[s] the Court to ... hav[e] him brought to the district, where he can be interviewed by Probation and perhaps have an opportunity to address the Court.” (Def.’s Reply at 1 (ECF No. 1744).)  The court agrees that this is the best way for the court to determine an appropriate sentence modification.

Accordingly, the court sets this matter for a hearing at 2:00 p.m. on April 7th.  At that time, Mr. Maumau and the United States will be permitted to present their arguments regarding what would be an appropriate sentence for Mr. Maumau in light of the above factors.  The court further orders Mr. Maumau, in advance of the resentencing hearing, to meet with the Probation Office, and for the Probation Office to prepare a new Presentence Report that addresses Mr. Maumau’s character, his danger to the public, his likelihood of rehabilitation or recidivism, the type of sentence he likely would have received had he been charged and convicted after the First Step Act had been passed, and any other relevant considerations.

Download Maumau.DistrictCourtOpinion.Feb18.2020

Some (of many) prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

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

Monday, February 03, 2020

US Sentencing Commission publishes latest FIRST STEP/FSA resentencing data

The US Sentencing Commission today released the latest in a series of data reports 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 December 31, 2019 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by January 29, 2020.

These new data from the USSC show that 2,387 prisoners have been granted sentence reductions, and that the average sentence reduction was 71 months of imprisonment 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 state that this part of the FIRST STEP Act, by shortening nearly 2400 sentences by nearly 6 years, has now resulted in over 14,000 prison years saved(!).

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 huge impact that can be measure in lots of years of lots of lives.  And, of course, people of color have been distinctly impacted: the USSC data document that over 91% of persons receiving FSA sentence reductions were Black and more than another 4% were Latinx.

February 3, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Some GOP Senators, fully aware of the mandatory minimum sentence, embrace a form of jury nullification to justify acquittal of Prez Trump

A few month ago in this point, I noted an interesting Second Circuit ruling that precluded a district judge from allowing defense attorneys to argue to jurors that they had nullifcation authority — that is the  power to return a not-guilty verdict in the face of clear guilt because of concerns about the undue sentencing consequences of a guilty verdict.  This ruling came to mind as I read this extended statement from Senator Marco Rubio, which includes these passages:

Voting to find the President guilty would not just be a condemnation of his action. If I vote guilty, I will be voting to remove a President from office for the first time in the 243-year history of our Republic....

That is why six weeks ago I announced that, for me, the question would not just be whether the President’s actions were wrong, but ultimately whether what he did was removable.

The two are not the same.  Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office....

Determining which outcome is in the best interests requires a political judgment — one that takes into account both the severity of the wrongdoing alleged but also the impact removal would have on the nation.

I disagree with the House Managers’ argument that, if we find the allegations they have made are true, failing to remove the President leaves us with no remedy to constrain this or future Presidents.  Congress and the courts have multiple ways by which to constrain the power of the executive.  And ultimately, voters themselves can hold the President accountable in an election, including the one just nine months from now....

I will not vote to remove the President because doing so would inflict extraordinary and potentially irreparable damage to our already divided nation.

This statement by a Senate juror seems to be arguing that, even if President Trump is factually guilty, the mandatory minimum punishment in an impeachment trial of removal is not in the best interest of the country.  Similarly, Senator Lamar Alexander's statement about why he was voting against witnesses seemed to call President Trump's actions inappropriate while suggesting the sanction of removal was not justified for this kind of inappropriate behavior.

I do not mean in any way to fault these Senators' approach to serving as jurors, but rather just seek to highlight in this context the thinking of two fully informed jurors with a concern for proportionate punishment and the broader public interest.  Put another way for sentencing fans, we should be ever mindful of how mandatory minimum sentencing schemes (even one in the US Constitution) will necessarily impact the work of all decision-makers in the administration of justice.  Also, if jury nullification makes sense in the trial of a President, why not for everyone else?

February 1, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Council on Criminal Justice releases new papers on "Federal Sentencing Provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill"

Sentencing_Report_LinkI noted in this post this past summer the notable new group working toward criminal justice reform called the Council on Criminal Justice.  In September, I flagged in this post that the Council on Criminal Justice had gotten started on a great new set of  papers and resources taking a close look at the 1994 Crime Bill.  The first two paper in the series, Overview and Reflections by Richard Rosenfeld and Impacts on Prison Populations by William Sabol and Thaddeus Johnson, both provided terrific perspectives and details on the import and impact of the 1994 Crime Bill.

I am now very pleased to report that the third paper in this series has been published under the title "Tough and Smart: Federal Sentencing Provisions of the 1994 Crime Bill."  If you click through to the full paper, you can see that one of the reasons I am pleased to see it published is because I am its author.  I was very honored to get a chance to work with the CCJ team on this project, and all the folks involved with CCJ were quite effectively invested in helping me work through the various complicated federal sentencing stories that emerged from the 1994 Crime Bill.

I recommend that interested persons read this piece in full, as there are lots of intricacies to this story that I was only able to partially capture in what is meant to be a short read.  The start and end of the piece provides a hint of its essential points:

When President Bill Clinton signed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (the Crime Bill), he called it the “toughest and smartest crime bill in our history.” Enhancing penalties across a wide range of offenses, the Crime Bill included many provisions that not only justified the “tough” label, but also fueled “get-tough” rhetoric and behavior by federal, state, and local officials nationwide.  This well-known legacy, however, obscures what may be one of the most consequential sentencing provisions in this massive law — a “smart” sentencing section that has allowed tens of thousands of people convicted of drug crimes to avoid certain severe mandatory minimum terms enacted by Congress in the 1980s....

Reflecting the “tough-on-crime” attitudes of the times, some federal lawmakers criticized the Crime Bill as not tough enough despite its many punitive elements. Just weeks after passage of the landmark legislation, Republican lawmakers introduced the Contract with America, which included a promise to adopt a Taking Back Our Streets Act within the first 100 days of what signers hoped would be a Republican-held Congress.  This pursuit of even harsher penalties and even more federal funding for prison construction than what was authorized in the Crime Bill was not surprising; in fact, such calls reflected much of the political and policy thinking of the time — on both sides of the aisle.  In this era, talking tough was widely seen not only as essential to success at the ballot box, but also as the sound policy response to all crime concerns.

While the spirit and text of the Crime Bill focused on a tougher approach to crime and punishment, its sentencing provisions with among the greatest tangible impact were those that enabled people convicted of lower-level drug offenses to receive less severe sentences, and laid the foundation for future crack cocaine sentencing reforms.  Despite that often overlooked reality, the Crime Bill fostered and reinforced tough-on-crime attitudes in Washington and among state and local criminal justice officials that contributed to historic growth in national prison populations.

January 22, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Notable reform perspectives via Brennan Center

Over at the Brennan Center for Justice are these two notable new criminal justice reform pieces:

January 5, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Split Second Circuit panel grants feds request for mandamus to preclude a jury nullification instruction in child porn case involving 15-year mandatory minimum

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this How Appealing post flagging the fascinating split Second Circuit panel ruling yesterday in US v. Manzano, No. 18-3430 (2d Cir. Dec. 18, 2019) (available here).  The start of the majority opinion sets forth the basics:

Respondent Yehudi Manzano stands charged with production of child pornography, an offense punishable by a mandatory minimum term of fifteen years’ imprisonment, and transportation of child pornography, which is punishable by a mandatory minimum term of five years’ imprisonment.  Shortly before trial, he filed motions requesting permission to argue for jury nullification — in essence, that the jury should render a verdict not in accordance with the law — and to present evidence regarding the sentencing consequences of a conviction in this case.  On the eve of trial, the district court (Underhill, Chief Judge) granted Manzano’s request to argue jury nullification, but reserved decision on the admissibility of evidence regarding the sentencing consequences of a conviction.

The government now seeks a writ of mandamus directing the district court to (1) preclude defense counsel from arguing jury nullification, and (2) exclude any evidence of sentencing consequences at trial.  Applying settled law in this circuit, we hold that the government has a clear and indisputable right to a writ directing the district court to deny defense counsel’s motion for leave to argue jury nullification, and that the other conditions for mandamus relief are satisfied.  We further hold that, at this time, the government does not possess a clear and indisputable right to a writ directing the district court to exclude any evidence of sentencing consequences.

Here is the start of Judge Barrington Parker's partial dissent:

We are fortunate that the prosecutors in this Circuit nearly always bring a high degree of professionalism, good judgment, and common sense to bear in the exercise of their responsibilities.  This case presents the unusual circumstance where a conscientious jurist is confronted with a charging decision that, in his considered judgment, reflects an abuse of prosecutorial power.  Charging decisions are, of course, by and large the exclusive province of prosecutors. 

There is a straightforward solution that could avoid the problems raised by the petition and discussed in this dissent.  The petition should be held in abeyance and the case remanded to the District Court, at which time the prosecutors could revisit their charging decision. If they chose not to do so, they could provide information as to why they believed their decision was appropriate. If this approach did not resolve the problem, this Court could then revisit the petition.

Faced with the Government’s charging decision, Judge Underhill could, I suppose, have acquiesced in whatever the prosecutors wanted.  But he is not a piece of Steuben glass. Instead, witnessing what he perceived to be abuse, he pushed back.  I believe that most conscientious jurists would have done the same.  I have no difficulty concluding that Judge Underhill was right to do so.  “[F]ederal courts have authority under their supervisory powers to oversee the administration of criminal justice within federal courts.”  United States v. Johnson, 221 F.3d 83, 96 (2d Cir. 2000) (quoting Daye v. Attorney Gen., 712 F.2d 1566, 1571 (2d Cir. 1983)).  They should use these powers “to see that the waters of justice are not polluted” and “to protect the integrity of the federal courts.” United States v. Payner, 447 U.S. 727, 744 (1980); accord United States v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A., 863 F.3d 125, 135 (2d Cir. 2017).  Their supervisory powers are not restricted to the protection of explicit constitutional rights.  McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332, 341 (1943).  The powers exist “in order to maintain respect for law” and to “promote confidence in the administration of justice.”  Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 438, 484 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting); accord Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 642 (1974); United States v. Getto, 729 F.3d 221, 229 (2d Cir. 2013).  The supervisory powers should be sparingly exercised.  HSBC, 863 F.3d at 136.  Judges are not, of course, free to disregard the limitations of the law they are charged with enforcing under the guise of exercising supervisory powers or at other times.  Payner, 447 U.S. at 737.  But since Payner, we have recognized that within their supervisory powers, courts should “not hesitate to scrutinize the Government’s conduct to ensure that it comports with the highest standards of fairness.” Johnson, 221 F.3d at 96 (quoting United States v. Lawlor, 168 F.3d 633, 637 (2d Cir. 1999)). This requirement applies with particular force in contexts such as charging and sentencing, especially those involving mandatory minimum sentences, where the Government plays an “often decisive role.” Id.

Whether Judge Underhill went too far is debatable.  But because this case does not come close to meeting the exacting standards for mandamus, I respectfully dissent from the majority’s grant of a writ directing the District Court to allow no arguments for jury nullification.  I concur to the extent that the majority denies a writ directing the District Court to exclude at trial evidence of sentencing consequences.

This local article about the ruling reports that the defendant's lawyer is going to seek en banc review. I am not optimistic the full Second Circuit will take up this matter or resolve it different, but I would like to see these issues get a lot more attention particularly in light of recent Sixth Amendment jurisprudence.  Notably, in the recent Haymond case, Justice Gorsuch spoke broadly about the Framers' vision of the jury right and explained: "Just as the right to vote sought to preserve the people's authority over their government's executive and legislative functions, the right to a jury trial sought to preserve the people's authority over its judicial functions." But how can the people have authority over the judicial function if they are not fully informed of their rights and authority as jurors and not made aware of the possible consequences of their decisions?

December 19, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, December 08, 2019

"From Warfare to Welfare: Reconceptualizing Drug Sentencing During the Opioid Crisis"

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

The War on Drugs officially began in 1971 when President Nixon decried drug abuse as “public enemy number one.”  The goal of the war rhetoric was clear — to cast drug abuse and the drug offender as dangerous adversaries of the law-abiding public, requiring military-like tactics to defeat.  Criminal sentencing would come to be the main weapon used in this pressing combat.  In continuation of the war efforts, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was passed under President Reagan, establishing a weight-based, and highly punitive, mandatory minimum sentencing approach to drug offenses that has persisted in some form for the last thirty years.  When the Act passed, crack cocaine was touted as the greatest drug threat, and crack cocaine offenders — the vast majority of whom were Black — were subjected to the harshest mandatory minimum penalties.  Like any war, the consequences of the War on Drugs has had widespread casualties, including (but not limited to) the devastation of many communities, families, and individuals; the increase in racial disparities in punishment; and fiscal catastrophe in penal systems across the country.  What the War on Drugs has not done is eradicate drug abuse in the United States.  And now, nearly fifty years after drugs became our national enemy, we have a new face of drug crime — the opioid addict.

The current Administration has recognized that “[d]rug addiction and opioid abuse are ravaging America.”  However, rather than ramping up punishment for opioid offenders through lengthier drug sentencing, in October 2017 the opioid crisis officially became a Public Health Emergency under federal law.  And while it is largely understood that this was mostly a symbolic statement with little practical effect, the rhetoric is markedly different than it was during the purported crack epidemic of the 1980s. Rather than drug offenders being the enemy, the opioid addict has been cast as the American Everyman, and the opioid addiction problem has become known as the “crisis next door” that “can affect any American, from all-state football captains to stay-at-home mothers.”

Now that the drug emergency is portrayed as destroying wholesome American communities — as opposed to poor, crime-ridden communities of color — the tone has changed from punishment toward treatment and rehabilitation.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has described opioid misuse and addiction as “a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.”  While we are in the midst of this shift in messaging about drug addiction, it is an ideal time for drug sentencing as a whole to be reconceptualized from use as a weapon — designed to destroy — to having a public welfare agenda.  To do this it requires recasting potential drug offenders as community members, rather than enemies.  This change in perspective and approach also necessitates understanding drug crime as undeterred by incarceration.  The tasks must be to decide on a goal of drug sentencing, and to develop multifaceted approaches to address and eradicate the underlying sources of the drug problem.  When this is done, we may find that more appropriate purposes of punishment — rehabilitation and retribution — compel us to think beyond incarceration, and certainly mandatory minimum sentencing laws, as the appropriate punishment type at all.

December 8, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Two new disconcerting reports on southern justice

This past week I saw two notable new reports from pubic policy groups about criminal justice problems in southern states.  Here are links to the reports and excerpts from them:

About Alabama via the Equal Justice Initiative, "As Prison Spending Increases, So Does Violence and Misconduct":

A new study by the Equal Justice Initiative on Alabama’s prisons concludes:

  • In the first 10 months of 2019, twice as many Alabama prisoners have been murdered (13) than the entire 10-year period between 1999 and 2009, making Alabama’s current system the most violent in the nation

About Mississippi via FWD.us, "We All Pay: Mississippi’s Harmful Habitual Laws":

Mississippi has an incarceration crisis, driven in large part by its use of extreme sentences. In fact, long prison sentences have become the norm in Mississippi. First-time drug possession can land you in prison for 20 years. Stealing tools from a garage can result in 25 years behind bars. These excessively long sentences weaken Mississippi’s families and workforce and waste tax dollars since they also do nothing to make neighborhoods safer....

Of the more than 2,600 people in prison today who have been sentenced with a habitual penalty, one-third (906 people) have been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. Nearly half of that group (439 people) has been sentenced to die in prison through either a life or virtual life sentence of 50 years of more.

The impact of these laws is not felt equally across communities: Habitual penalties are applied overwhelmingly and disproportionately to Black men. Despite making up 13 percent of the state’s population,75 percent of the people with 20+ year habitual sentences are Black men.

November 24, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 15, 2019

SCOTUS grants cert on yet another ACCA case and also on statute of limitation on military rape charges

Via this new order list, the Supreme Court has added four new cases to its merits docket.  The big one of the bunch is a case involving Google and copyright issues concerning computer code, but the others are criminal cases.  One has SCOTUS focused on the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act yet again, and two combined others deals with statutes of limitation.  Here are descriptions of the new criminal cases via this post at SCOTUSblog (with paragraphs rearranged): 

In Walker v. United States, the justices will consider whether a criminal offense that can be committed merely by being reckless can qualify as a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a 1984 law that extends the sentences of felons who commit crimes with guns if they have been convicted three or more times of certain crimes.

The question comes to the court in the case of James Walker, an elderly Tennessee man who was sentenced to 15 years in prison under the ACCA after police discovered 13 bullets — which Walker had found while cleaning the rooming house that he managed — when responding to reports of drug sales at the house.  Walker argues that the ACCA should not apply to his case. He contends that one of his prior convictions, for robbery in Texas, does not qualify as a “violent felony” because a defendant could be convicted if he recklessly caused injury during a theft.

The federal government agrees with Walker that the justices should weigh in on the issue, but it maintains that the lower court was correct in deeming Walker’s robbery conviction a “violent felony” for purposes of the ACCA.

The justices also granted two requests by the government to weigh in on the statute of limitations for old rape charges against members of the armed forces.  The question arises in the case of Michael Briggs, a captain in the U.S. Air Force who in 2014 was charged with the 2005 rape of a member of his squadron.  Under the version of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that was in effect when Briggs was charged, there is no statute of limitations for rape.  At his court-martial proceeding, Briggs was found guilty, but an appeals court later ordered that the charge be dismissed.  It reasoned that under a 2018 ruling by the same court, the five-year statute of limitations for the version of the UCMJ in effect in 2005 applied to Briggs’ offense.  The court also ruled that a 2006 law that specifically provides that there is no statute of limitations for rape does not apply to rapes committed before 2006.

The government filed a separate petition for review in the case of two other members of the Air Force.  Richard Collins was an instructor at an Air Force base in Texas.  In 2016 he was found guilty of the August 2000 rape of a student in his course.  As in Briggs’ case, an appeals court reversed Collins’ conviction, pointing to a 2018 decision by the same court.  Humphrey Daniels was convicted in 2017 of the 1998 rape of a civilian near the North Dakota Air Force base where he was stationed; his conviction was also reversed.

The government appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to grant both petitions.  The government told the justices that sexual assault is “devastating to the morale, discipline, and effectiveness of our Armed Forces, but also difficult to uncover.”  The request was supported by a “friend of the court” brief by Harmony Allen and Tonja Schultz — the victims of Collins and Daniels. Today the justices agreed to take up the case.

November 15, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Jersey commission releases big report recommending numerous big sentencing reforms

As reported in this local article from New Jersey, an "advisory panel that was reinvigorated by Gov. Phil Murphy to study racial and ethnic disparities in the state criminal justice system issued its report Thursday, calling for the elimination of mandatory sentences for those convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes." Here is more:

The 13-member New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission — chaired by retired state Supreme Court Justice Deborah Poritz — also recommended that those still incarcerated under such sentences be allowed to apply for early release. In addition, the group is urging lawmakers to adopt a new mitigating sentencing factor for young offenders, as well as a “compassionate release” program for those sentenced to terms of 30 years or more as juveniles.

The commission, which includes designees of senior lawmakers on both political parties, reached its conclusions unanimously, according to the report. “The Commission’s recommendations … reflect a consensus-driven, policy making process that incorporates a wide range of perspectives, including those of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community stakeholders, corrections officials, faith organizations, and victims’ rights advocates,” the report reads.

Murphy on Thursday hailed the work of the commission, and urged the Legislature to put the reforms into bills during the current lame duck session, noting that he will sign them. “This is a comprehensive set of reforms. They will ensure the criminal justice system not only works, but works better and for all communities,” he said. “They meet the call of justice but also our broader goal of fairness.”  State Senate President Steve Sweeney called the recommendations in the report “a long-time overdue.”...

The commission was initially created by Gov. Jon Corzine a decade ago, but his successor, Chris Christie, never made any appointments and the group did not meet. Murphy jump-started the effort in February of last year, a month after he took office, noting that New Jersey “has the nation’s worst disparity in the rates of incarceration between black and white offenders” and that, “We can and must do better.”

The report also recommends a loosening of sentencing restrictions for two more serious crimes, second-degree robbery and second-degree burglary, which currently fall in a classification alongside offenses like murder, carjacking and aggravated arson. According to the report, both offenses are frequently charged even though they incorporate a broad range of conduct, including that which results in no physical injury to the victim.

Under the commission’s recommendation, the period of parole ineligibility for those convicted of such crimes would be reduced to half the sentence, down from the current 85%. The commission said it hoped its recommendations would “replicate the success” of the state’s recent bail reform initiative, in which monetary bail was largely replaced by an assessment of whether someone charged with a crime was likely to show up in court or be a danger to the community if released.

This press release from the Office of Gov Murphy includes supportive quotes from all sorts of state political and criminal justice leaders. I am eager to believe that the widespread support for the work of this state commission increases greatly the likelihood that some or all of its recommendations will become law.

The NJ commission's full report is available at this link, and it is a worthwhile read in full.  Here is the report's "Summary of Recommendations":

1. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

2. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent property crimes.

3. Reduce the mandatory minimum sentence for two crimes – second degree robbery and second degree burglary – that previously have been subject to penalties associated with far more serious offenses.

4. Apply Recommendations #1, #2 and #3 retroactively so that current inmates may seek early release.

5. Create a new mitigating sentencing factor for youth.

6. Create an opportunity for resentencing or release for offenders who were juveniles at the time of their offense and were sentenced as adults to long prison terms.

7. Create a program, called “Compassionate Release,” that replaces the existing medical parole statute for end-of-life inmates.

8. Reinvest cost-savings from reductions in the prison population arising from these reforms into recidivism reduction and, to the extent available, other crime prevention programs.

9. Provide funding to upgrade the Department of Corrections’ existing data infrastructure to better track inmate trends and to develop partnerships with academic institutions to analyze this data.

November 15, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Tales of extreme state drug mandatory minimums (and non-retroactive reforms) from Florida

The Miami Herald has this lengthy article discussing an array of extreme sentences resulting from Florida's (now somewhat reformed) mandatory minimum drug laws.  The piece is headlined "Hundreds languish in Florida prisons under outdated mandatory minimum drug sentences, " and I recommend it in full.  Here is a taste:

It’s not enough that Jomari DeLeon calls every day, asking her 8-year-old daughter about school and reminding her that “mommy misses you.” The child still asks when she’s coming home, believing her mom’s been gone all these years because of a stint in the military. That would explain the barbed wire surrounding the compound that she visits every month.

In reality, DeLeon is four hours away in this privately run women’s prison in the Panhandle town of Quincy, serving the third year of a 15-year sentence. If she had committed her drug crime in 2016, rather than eight years ago, she would be free by now. Up to 1,000 Florida inmates find themselves in the same legal purgatory....

[DeLeon was involved in two small non-violent drug] deals — a grand total of 48 pills for $225.... Under Florida law in 2013, the possession or sale of about 22 hydrocodone pills — less than one prescription’s worth — would trigger a trafficking sentence of 15 years...

Similar drug cases were playing out across the state. In Orange County in 2009, a man named William Forrester was handed a 15-year sentence for oxycodone trafficking after he was caught falsifying prescriptions to support his habit....

In 2010, a woman named Nancy Ortiz asked an Osceola judge that rehabilitation be included in her sentence to ease her addiction to crack. She had sold two bottles of hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop. Instead, the judge sentenced her to 25 years. “I take no pleasure in imposing this sentence,” the judge told Ortiz. “But I don’t have any discretion in the matter.”

For years, people caught with prescription painkillers in Florida received tougher penalties than those with the same weight in street drugs. In some cases, they received five times the sentence because that’s what the law required....

[P]ublic defenders from around the state went to Tallahassee to lobby the Legislature to change the law .. [and] even the state prosecutors’ association — those pursuing convictions for drug crimes — joined the public defenders in pursuit of lighter sentences for those selling prescription pills. MO<Finally, lawmakers listened. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor, sponsored a bill in 2014 that increased the number of hydrocodone or oxycodone pills needed to trigger the lengthy mandatory sentences. To get 15 years for hydrocodone, for example, would now take about 77 pills, rather than about 22....

The Legislature’s 2014 law could not apply to DeLeon’s sentence because, at the time, the Florida Constitution explicitly prohibited changes in sentencing laws to apply retroactively.... [That was changed in 2018 when] voters approved Amendment 11 last year.

At Gadsden Correctional Facility, it was cause for celebration. Another prisoner serving 15 years, also for hydrocodone, told DeLeon that the change in Florida’s Constitution could mean their freedom. “This is exactly what’s going to help us get out of here,” she told DeLeon. DeLeon’s family was so excited for her re-sentencing hearing, they started preparing for her to come home, buying canvasses for her to paint.

In July, however, the judge explained his hands were tied. Her motion for a new sentence was denied because state lawmakers first need to lay out a framework for judges to follow. It’s unclear when, or if, lawmakers will do so.

Earlier this year, lawmakers again increased the number of hydrocodone pills required to trigger mandatory sentences. Bradley, the state senator who sponsored the 2014 drug sentencing change, said he would be open to easing sentences for old drug cases. But he said he doesn’t consider it a priority....

Hundreds of people like DeLeon are in prison serving outdated sentences for hydrocodone or oxycodone trafficking that would not have been handed down if they committed the same crimes today.

One analysis by the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonpartisan group that’s done policy analysis for the Florida Senate, found that up to 640 current inmates fall into this category, while researchers with the Project on Accountable Justice housed at Florida State University found up to 935 inmates. Both estimates have not been previously published.

For one year, it costs Florida $20.7 million to incarcerate 935 people, according to “full operating cost” data from the Department of Corrections. Multiply that expense over their entire sentences, and the cost to taxpayers balloons to more than a hundred million dollars.

November 14, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 08, 2019

Latest Harvard Law Review SCOTUS issue gives criminal justice its due

As all law geeks know, the November issue of the Harvard Law Review is always devoted to the Supreme Court's prior Term work.  And as all long-time readers know, I have often been disappointed when the November SCOTUS issue does not give considerable attention to the Court's considerable criminal justice work. 

But, providing another exciting sign of the criminal justice times, the latest HLR issue, which is now available online here, gives criminal justice reform its due.  Specifically, the Foreword authored by Dorothy Roberts is titled "Abolition Constitutionalism" and it aspires to provide a "sustained analysis of the relationship between the prison abolition movement and the U.S. Constitution."  And Rachel Barkow has in this issue this lengthy commentary titled "Categorical Mistakes: The Flawed Framework of the Armed Career Criminal Act and Mandatory Minimum Sentencing."

In addition, a handful of OT 2018 SCOTUS criminal cases got case comments in this issue:

I know what extra reading I am looking forward to doing over a holiday weekend!

November 8, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 07, 2019

Another update on Chicago "stash-house sting" litigation showcasing feds ugly drug war tactics

Via a series of posts last year, I was able to report updates from Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, concerning the extraordinary litigation her clinic has done in response to so-called "stash house stings" in which federal agents lure defendants into seeking to rob a (non-existent) drug stash-house.  In this 2017 post, I highlighted this lengthy Chicago Tribune article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," on this topic. 

I now see that the Chicago Tribune has this new lengthy article, headlined "Convicted in a controversial stash house sting operation, Leslie Mayfield is struggling to rebuild his life after prison." which focuses on one stash-house defendant while also telling the broader stories of these cases.  I recommend the new Tribune article in full, and here are excerpts:

Leslie Mayfield wasn’t used to entering a courtroom except in shackles.  Over the years, through his trial for conspiring to rob a drug stash house, his sentencing to a decades-long prison term and his long-shot fight to overturn his conviction on entrapment grounds, Mayfield had always been escorted into court by deputy U.S. marshals from a lockup in back....

But recently, he took a seat in U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang’s courtroom gallery, whispering to his attorney that it all felt strange as he waited for his name to be called....  Reviewing reports on Mayfield’s progress, Chang noted that since his release from prison, he’d found a job, reconnected with his family and maintained a strong motive to stay straight.  Then the judge made the transformation official, agreeing that Mayfield, 51, no longer needed court supervision.

The ruling marked a quiet milestone in the widely criticized sting operations in which the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used informants to lure unsuspecting targets into a scheme to rob drug stash houses — an undercover ruse concocted by the government.

For years, the stings were considered a smashing success, touted as a law enforcement tool to remove dangerous criminals from the streets.  But the practice came under fire in 2014 when attorneys for the University of Chicago Law School mounted a legal challenge on behalf of nearly four dozen Chicago-area defendants alleging the stings disproportionately targeted African Americans and Hispanics.

Both the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office staunchly defended the operations in court, saying they followed rigorous guidelines to ensure the stings were lawful.  While the legal effort to prove racial discrimination fell short, the tactics drew sharp rebukes from many judges.  Prosecutors began quietly dismissing the more serious charges, and over the next year or so, most of the defendants — including Mayfield — were sentenced to time served.

As the first to be cleared of all court supervision, Mayfield could be viewed as a success story, but he’s struggled in many ways.  Like so many ex-cons, Mayfield is learning how hard it can be to rebuild his life after prison. He also continues to fight guilt over the plight of his brother and cousin — both of whom he recruited into the scheme and are still serving decadeslong prison sentences....

The outlines of each stash house sting followed the same basic pattern: ATF informants identified people they believed would commit a drug-related robbery.  If the target met certain criteria — including a violent criminal background — agents approved the sting.

The elaborate operations included a fake stash house location, fictitious amounts of money and drugs, and other made-up details of a robbery plot.  An undercover agent posing as a disgruntled drug dealer followed a script aimed at convincing the target to agree on secret recordings to take part in the robbery, pledge to bring guns — and use them if necessary.

Since agents claimed that massive quantities of drugs were involved, the prosecutions often carried eye-popping sentences, sometimes even life behind bars.  Nearly all the targets, though, turned out to be African American or Hispanic — many of whom had minimal criminal histories....

Mayfield was convicted at trial in 2010 and handed a 27-year sentence.  His brother, with only a nonviolent drug conviction in his past, and his cousin both were given 25-year prison terms.

In 2014, the University of Chicago’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic led an effort to have charges against 43 defendants dismissed on grounds that the cases were racially biased.  In a landmark hearing in December 2017, nine federal judges overseeing the cases heard testimony from dueling experts on policing who came to dramatically different conclusions.

The U.S. attorney’s office denied that the stings disproportionately affected minorities, arguing that targets were selected by their propensity for violence, not race.  For instance, while out on bond, two men facing stash house-related indictments were charged in separate shootings, including the wounding of a Chicago police officer.

But many judges overseeing the cases had clear concerns that the ends did not justify the means.  In a decision that wasn’t binding but served as a guide for other judges, then-U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said the stings shared an ugly racial component and should “be relegated to the dark corridors of our past.”

While Castillo stopped short of dismissing the case before him, his 2018 ruling had a ripple effect.  At the urging of Castillo and other judges, the U.S. attorney’s office began offering plea deals and dropping counts that involved stiff mandatory minimum sentences.

The results were startling. While many of the 43 defendants faced mandatory sentences of 15 to 35 years in prison if convicted, 32 instead were released with sentences of time served after pleading guilty to lesser charges.  Most of the others received prison terms that were significantly below federal sentencing guidelines.

While the cases hadn’t been thrown out of court, Alison Siegler, the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic’s founder, noted in an April report to the 7th Circuit Bar Association that "the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the ATF have entirely stopped bringing stash house cases in Chicago, even as those cases continue to be prosecuted elsewhere in the country.”

Some prior related posts:

October 7, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

"How Mandatory Minimums Enable Police Misconduct"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new New York Times commentary authored by Scott Hechinger. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Police departments rightfully get blamed for the crisis in violent and corrupt policing. The recent firing of Daniel Pantaleo, the New York Police Department officer who strangled Eric Garner to death, lied about it, kept his job for five years and got terminated only after international pressure and the recommendation of a Police Department judge, underscores why.

But the near impossibility of getting fired is only part of the crisis of impunity. An overlooked but significant culprit is mandatory minimum sentencing.

In criminal courts throughout this country, victims of police abuse — illegal stops and frisks, car stops and searches, home raids, manufactured charges and excessive force — routinely forgo their constitutional right to challenge police abuse in a pretrial hearing in exchange for plea deals. They do so because the alternative is to risk the steep mandatory minimum sentence they would face if they went to trial and lost. Prosecutors use the fear of these mandatory minimums to their advantage by offering comparatively less harsh plea deals before pretrial hearings and trials begin.

The result is not only the virtual loss of the jury trial — today, 95 percent of convictions come from guilty pleas instead of jury verdicts — but also the loss of the only opportunity to confront police misconduct in criminal proceedings.  In New York City, for example, less than 5 percent of all felony arrests that are prosecuted have hearings to contest police misconduct. For misdemeanor arrests that are prosecuted — a third of which are initiated by the police — less than .5 percent of cases go to a hearing.  A guilty plea also has the effect of insulating police from any civil rights lawsuit asserting false arrest because a plea of guilty serves as an admission that the officers’ arrest was justified....

The framers of the Constitution envisioned a far different system.  They knew well from British rule that the government’s power to stop, search, detain, accuse, judge and punish people suspected of committing crimes presented unique risks for abuse.  While they did not envision plea bargaining or the kind of policing we have today, three of 10 amendments in our Bill of Rights — the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth — when read together, collectively describe the view that government power should be vigorously challenged, without fear of reprisal or punishment, at every turn when it threatens the liberty of individuals. This original intent becomes meaningless if defendants cannot seek and receive judicial protection.  As the United States Supreme Court warned nearly 60 years ago in the landmark Mapp v. Ohio: “Nothing can destroy a government more quickly than its failure to observe its own laws, or worse, its disregard of the charter of its own existence.”...

We must abolish mandatory minimum sentences.  Aside from denying individualized justice and driving mass punishment, they usurp the role of the jury, coerce guilty pleas and, yes, insulate police misconduct. But as Jacob’s case underscored, even in the rare cases where officers are forced to testify and a judge finds them unbelievable, there is no mechanism to ensure that they are halted from being able to contribute to future prosecutions.

Fortunately, there is a growing national conversation among forward-thinking district attorneys and prosecutors to take police accountability more seriously.  District attorneys like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and Kim Gardner in St. Louis have developed “do not call” lists of officers whom they refuse to rely upon based on previous findings of incredibility or misconduct.  If more prosecutors start rejecting arrests from bad officers, a strong message can be sent and their ability to continue hurting people can be stymied.

Prosecutors must also end the practice of the “hearing penalty,” where a plea offer made is forever lost once the hearing starts.  A plea offer, once made, should not depend on a person’s having the audacity to exercise their constitutional rights.  A system that provides no disincentive for misbehavior and no accountability for those with the greatest responsibility and the power to take away a person’s liberty is profoundly dangerous.

September 25, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Council on Criminal Justice produces papers on "The 1994 Crime Bill: Legacy and Lessons"

Via email, I learned the Council on Criminal Justice has a great new set of developing papers and resources taking a close look at the 1994 Crime Bill.  The materials are assembled on this page, and here are highlights:

On September 13, the Crime Bill turns 25.  After a quarter century, it’s as controversial as ever — and as important to understand.

What did the Crime Bill actually do? What does the research say about the impact it had on crime and justice? What lessons does it offer policymakers today?

To help answer these critical questions, the Council commissioned analyses from some of the nation’s most respected crime experts.  Papers examining the major provisions of the bill will be released over the coming months.

Overview and Reflections - Richard Rosenfeld 

Part One: Impacts on Prison Populations - William Sabol 

September 12, 2019 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 06, 2019

After gun mandatories deemed unconstitutionally severe, former Blackwater guards get much lower terms at federal resentencing

This New York Times article, headlined "Three Ex-Blackwater Guards Are Resentenced in Iraq War Massacre," reports on high-profile resentencings that followed a (too-rare) ruling that the application of a severe federal mandatory minimum statute violated the Eighth Amendment.  The DC Circuit's significant Eighth Amendment ruling from 2017 is discussed in this post, and here is part of the press report on the resentencing:

Three former Blackwater security contractors were sentenced on Thursday to roughly half of their original 30-year prison terms for the deadly 2007 shooting of unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, widely seen as one of the darkest moments of the Iraq war.

The three former contractors — Dustin L. Heard, Evan S. Liberty and Paul A. Slough — had been convicted in 2014 of multiple counts of manslaughter for their roles in the massacre.  But in 2017, a federal appeals court vacated their sentences, saying the trial judge, Royce C. Lamberth of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, erred in invoking a law that requires 30-year sentences for such offenses that involve machine guns....

Prosecutors on Thursday nevertheless asked Judge Lamberth to resentence Mr. Slough to 30 years, and the other two men to slightly less.  Defense lawyers asked him to instead sentence their clients to the roughly five years they had already served.  The three defendants, dressed in orange prison garb, asked to be sent home to their families.

But after a hearing that lasted most of the day and played out before a courtroom packed with dozens of family members, friends and other supporters of the men, the judge rejected those ideas. He instead sentenced Mr. Heard to 12 years and seven months; Mr. Liberty to 14 years; and Mr. Slough to 15 years. In the United States, Judge Lamberth said, “We hold our armed forces and our contractors accountable for their actions.”...

The government had hired Blackwater Security to escort State Department officials through a chaotic war zone in Iraq.  Shortly after the convoy pulled into Nisour Square, the contractors began shooting civilians with machine guns and firing grenades. While the contractors claimed they had come under fire by insurgents, prosecutors said — and a jury agreed — that the evidence showed there had been no incoming fire.

Prosecutors at the hearing on Thursday emphasized that the firing went on for 20 minutes, indicating that a moment of panic had turned into reckless disregard for human life. But they acknowledged that the security contractors had stopped firing at different times.  Prosecutors said that Mr. Slough was jointly responsible for 13 of the deaths and 17 of the wounded, Mr. Liberty for eight of the deaths and 11 of the wounded, and Mr. Heard for six of deaths and 11 of the wounded.

The jury found that the chaotic hail of machine-gun fire and grenades targeting civilians began when another contractor, Nicholas A. Slatten, shot the driver of a white Kia without provocation. Mr. Slatten was retried and convicted of first-degree murder last year, and Judge Lamberth sentenced him last month to life in prison.

During the hearing, Judge Lamberth praised the character of the three defendants before him, calling them “fine young men” but for the aberration of their poor judgment and reckless actions in Nisour Square. But he said he had to balance that assessment against the significant loss of life that resulted from their recklessness and poor judgment, as well as the need to uphold the rule of law.

While the defense objected to the sentences, making clear that another appeal was likely, they and the judge also discussed the possibility that he would recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that it waive certain security restrictions associated with manslaughter convictions.  If those are waived, the three could benefit from a rule permitting certain inmates with less than 10 years left on their sentences to serve the remainder in minimum-security prison camps....

One of the legal issues facing the judge was prosecutors’ contention that each of the defendants should receive an additional 10 years under the law that enhances penalties for crimes involving the use of a firearm.  Defense lawyers said that law should not apply to a war zone case for the same reason that the appeals court rejected the use of the machine-gun law in the case, and Judge Lamberth agreed with the defense.

Still, the judge also quoted lines from the appeals court’s 2017 opinion saying the defendants can and should be held accountable for the death and destruction they had caused: “We by no means intend to minimize the carnage attributable to Slough, Heard and Liberty’s actions.  Their poor judgments resulted in the deaths of many innocent people.  What happened in Nisour Square defies civilized description.”

Prior related post:

September 6, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Making the case for exempting juvenile offenders from being subject to adult mandatory minimums

Nila Bala and James Dold have this new commentary at The Hill under the headline "Mandatory minimums harm children." Here are excerpts:

An estimated 76,000 children are tried as adults every year.  These children end up in a system that is poorly equipped to serve them.  Children are fundamentally different from adults, which is why we do not let children vote in elections, join the military, or buy cigarettes.  Young people often make bad decisions without pausing to think about the consequences. But because their brains are still developing, they also have an incredible capacity for change, and who they are when they are teenagers is certainly not who they will be for the rest of their lives.  This is why the Supreme Court, in a series of rulings, has struck down the use of the death penalty for those under 18 and declared life without parole an impermissible sentence for the vast majority of children.

Yet, many children still face incredibly long sentences that are harmful to them and provide no commensurate benefit to public safety.  A few decades ago, a group of academics propagated the false notion that some young people could not be rehabilitated because they were so evil and remorseless that they should be termed “superpredators.”  This idea has been completely debunked.  Unfortunately, the bad policies that allowed children to be easily transferred into the adult criminal justice system in the wake of the superpredator era had a lasting impact across the country.  Children continue to be subject to lengthy mandatory minimum sentences when they are tried as adults, and their status as children is often not considered during sentencing.

The adult system is not the right place for children, who grow up without educational opportunities, age appropriate services, or treatment if they are placed in it.  In the adult system, they face far greater risks of physical and sexual abuse, and are far more likely to commit suicide than youth committed to the juvenile justice system.  Long sentences driven by mandatory minimums further compound the harm these children suffer.  When we prosecute children in the adult system, where the focus is on punishment instead of on treatment, we continue failing to address why kids end up committing crimes in the first place....

As the law stands now, the hands of judges are tied when sentencing under statutes that require harsh mandatory minimums that do not consider the capacity of children to change.  Under House Resolution 1949, however, judges would be required to consider how children are fundamentally different from adults and would be authorized, but would not be required, to depart up to 35 percent from the otherwise applicable mandatory minimum sentence.  Similar legislation has been championed at the state level by members of both parties, and most recently by Republican state lawmakers in Arkansas and Nevada.

I believe this commentary means to reference this bill, H.R. 1949.  But the text of the bill, though it does allow a judge "to impose a sentence that is 35 percent below a level established by statute as a minimum sentence so as to reflect the juvenile’s age and prospect for rehabilitation," does not actually expressly require a judge to consider how juvenile offender are different than adult.  

August 27, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 29, 2019

Will criminal justice reform take on a bigger role in round two of the 2020 Democratic Prez candidate debates?

190717174548-cnn-democratic-presidential-debate-large-169The next round of debates among the Democratic candidates eager to take on Prez Trump in Nov 2020 takes place this week in Detroit (and this local article provides a partial review and preview of the candidates).  I have an inkling that Prez Trump's varied attacks on various Democratic members of Congress may take up a lot of the conversation, but I am of course hoping that we get more focus on criminal justice reform issues.  For various reasons, I think we might.

For starters, federal criminal justice developments have been in the news quite a bit of late.  Two weeks ago, we had the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act kick into a new gear (basics here), and last week Attorney General William Barr announced a change in the federal execution protocol and the scheduling of five federal executions (basics here).  These developments certainly could justify a focused question ("Will you pledge to commute all federal death sentences as Prez?") or general question ("What should be prioritized in the NEXT STEP Act?") on federal criminal justice reforms.

In addition, a number prominent candidates, in particular Joe Biden, Cory Booker and Pete Buttigeig, have put forth major criminal justice reform plans in recent weeks.  These candidates now have developed positions and "talking points" on various criminal justice reform topics, and they may be interested in bring up their plans in more general discussions to highlight their priorities.

And speaking of Joe Biden, it is possible that some of his competitors might think that he can be attacked based on his past role in various federal laws that are now the subject of much justified criticism.  With Biden seemingly still the front-runner, there might be an interest in bringing up his criminal justice reform past.  This new lengthy Washington Post article, headlined "How an early Biden crime bill created the sentencing disparity for crack and cocaine trafficking," certainly tees up one possible line of attack.  Here is an excerpt:

As he makes another bid for the White House, Biden, now 76, is facing criticism over his past advocacy for tough-on-crime policies, particularly his authorship of the 1994 omnibus anti-crime law that is blamed for accelerating incarceration rates, especially of black men.  One of his Democratic rivals, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, last week said that the law “inflicted immeasurable harm on black, brown, and low-income communities.”  Booker is expected to raise the issue again before a national audience during this week’s primary debate.

Biden’s role in passing the lesser-known 1986 law and creating the crack-powder disparity reveals how he grappled with policies years earlier that would affect the black community.  The episode could further complicate his ongoing struggle to reconcile his decades-long record with changing political and societal norms....

An examination of Biden’s work on a half-dozen criminal justice bills found that his legislation included liberal priorities but also broadly served to push federal criminal policy to the right in response to a surge of violent crime.  Biden’s language and policy positions were mainstream for Democrats at the time, reflecting a political consensus around tough-on-crime policies during the crime wave that began in the 1970s and efforts by many in the party to assert a more centrist image.

Critics now say those policies helped fuel incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system — and are calling on Biden to take responsibility for his part....

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act authorized more than $1 billion for drug enforcement, education and treatment programs.  But one of its most consequential provisions was the “100-1” rule, so named because it required a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for trafficking in 500 grams of powder cocaine or five grams of crack.

Though Biden took responsibility for the formula in 2002, it is unclear exactly how it came to be part of his bill.  The ratio was more aggressive than proposals from either the Reagan administration, which sought a “20-1” rule, or House Democrats, who held the majority and sought a “50-1” rule, but less aggressive than the “1,000-1” ratio proposed by Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.), the co-chairman of Biden’s working group.

The process had turned into a political “bidding war” between Republicans and Democrats, who were courting fearful voters ahead of the 1986 elections, said Eric Sterling, a former House Democratic staffer who worked on the 50-1 proposal.

No experts recommended a 100-1 ratio, said Sterling, now president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a drug policy and criminal justice reform group, who said he regrets working on the House proposal.  “Biden was the lead anti-drug guy among the Democrats.  As ranking member, he had critical sign-off authority on legislation.  A lot of these concerns about the 100-to-1 ratio really are questions that Biden needs to answer for,” Sterling said in an interview this month.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

July 29, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 12, 2019

"Next Steps in Federal Corrections Reform: Implementing and Building on the First Step Act"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new Urban Institute issue brief authored by Julie Samuels, Nancy La Vigne and Chelsea Thomson.  This webpage provides this abstract:

Advocates and legislators across the political spectrum celebrated the passage of the First Step Act in December of 2018, the first large federal prison reform bill in nearly a decade.  This research brief reviews key measures in First Step, describes the actions and oversight needed for faithful and vigorous implementation of the act, and highlights some of the law’s limitations.  Working from the original set of recommendations made by the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, we then describe additional measures that represent the next logical — and evidence-based — steps in federal corrections reform.  These steps include expanding eligibility for earned time credits, making all sentencing provisions retroactive, further reducing mandatory minimum penalties, and creating a second look provision for people serving extremely long sentences to petition the court for sentence reductions.

May 12, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Florida legislature passes it own first (very baby) step act on criminal justice reform

This local article out of Florida, headlined "Legislature OKs criminal justice reforms but no change to mandatory-minimum sentencing," reports on how the Sunshine State is starting to move forward on reform inspired clearly by the federal FIRST STEP Act. But, as the article explains, political challenges have resulted in Florida's first step being even more limited that what has been achieved at the federal level:

The Florida Legislature passed a 296-page criminal justice reform package bill Friday, the last full day of the session, addressing the issue of a bulging prison population that has long eluded resolution....

Reshaping Florida’s tough-on-crime policies and reducing the state’s nearly 100,000-person prison population is a rare issue that has united Trump populists and progressive civil rights groups, yet often results in open and closed-door fights among Republicans over how far to go.

This year, compromise was reached. The House passed the bill unanimously Friday, following the Senate’s near-unanimous passage on Thursday. The bill now heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. Despite the victory for Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, who’s long been a leading voice in the Legislature for the need for criminal justice reform, the bill’s passage was bittersweet.

“I am incredibly disappointed,” he said Thursday, referring to several big-ticket reform pieces that were taken out of the bill at the behest of the House. “I’m not surprised we didn’t get there, but I think what we did was advance the conversation.”

House Bill 7125 is the result of private negotiations between the two chambers over the past week and contains many changes proposed by those seeking to reshape Florida’s tough-on-crime laws from the 1990s. That includes making it easier for felons to get professional licenses and allowing state attorneys to decide whether juvenile cases should be transferred to adult court. Currently, that happens automatically if the crime is severe or the child has certain prior convictions.

It also would raise the “threshold” dollar amount at which theft charges go from a misdemeanor to a felony, from $300 to $750. That’s not as high as the House’s original proposal, which was to raise it to $1,000, but it brings Florida’s law closer to the national average. It also eliminates or reduces driver’s license suspensions as a criminal penalty, which lawmakers have said unfairly hampered people’s ability to get to their jobs and continue to make an honest living.

The bill has been dubbed the “Florida First Step Act” after the federal reform law with the same name. Shortly after the bill passed the House, Kara Gross, the legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the bill amounted to “a baby step, at best.”...

What didn’t make the cut of the final bill:

▪ Allowing judges discretion over sentences for certain drug crimes that currently have required amounts of time that defendants must serve, called “mandatory minimum” sentences.

▪ Permitting prison inmates convicted of nonviolent felonies to be released after serving a minimum 65 percent of their sentence if they have good behavior and participate in educational and rehabilitative programs (current law is 85 percent).

▪ Retroactive re-sentencing for people who were convicted of aggravated assault back when the state’s punishment for that crime was harsher than it is now.

Email messages between House and Senate staff obtained by the Herald/Times show that the House had, at one point last week, been “comfortable” with modified language related to giving judges more discretion over sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, reducing the length of some sentences. But that didn’t make it into the final bill....

Despite some lukewarm support for giving judges more sentencing discretion, Gov. Ron DeSantis poured cold water on the idea of letting inmates out after serving 65 percent of their sentence, likely one of the reasons that piece was scrapped....

The bill passed with only one “no” vote in the Senate, which came from Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, who praised Brandes’ efforts but said that he, too, was frustrated with the compromise. “Honestly, I’m tired of submitting to the will of the House on these types of issues,” he said.

Still, the willingness of the House, traditionally the more tough-on-crime chamber, to cobble together a criminal justice reform package of this size shows a shift of tone, however subtle, toward reducing Florida’s burgeoning prison population.

Friday’s bill also creates a task force to reevaluate Florida’s entire criminal punishment code, and whether the set punishments fit the crime. House Speaker José Oliva said that this bill is the result of several years of discussion on this issue. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have said they intend on taking up some of the issues that failed next year. “Sometimes ideas take time for people to understand and to have a chance to really let set in. For a lot of years the idea was being tough on crime,” Oliva said recently. He added, though, that data showing the harms of these policies “started a conversation. I think that conversation is now maturing.”

I am sorry to see that Florida is not moving forward on bolder reforms, but there is still good reason to celebrate reform efforts finding expression in this historically tough state.  Given that it took a full 40 years to ramp up incarceration level to historical levels, nobody should expect changes in the forces and laws developed in the tough era to happen quickly or without lots of fits and starts.

May 4, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 01, 2019

Virginia Gov explains why he will not sign any mandatory minimum bills for the remainder of his term

A number of folks made sure I did not miss this interesting Washington Post commentary authored by Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia. The piece is headlined "Ralph Northam: I won’t sign another mandatory minimum sentence bill into law. Here’s why." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Over the past few decades, there has been a rise in legislation imposing mandatory minimum sentencing.  These kinds of sentences are determined by elected officials who purport to be tough on crime, particularly drug offenses.  Judges are not given the opportunity to arrive at these sentences by weighing the facts on a case-by-case basis.

This session, I signed one such bill into law, regarding the murder of police officers.  It will be the last mandatory minimum bill that I sign for the remainder of my term as Virginia’s governor.

I believe we have more than enough mandatory minimum sentences — more than 200 — in Virginia state code. In recent weeks,  I have visited with community leaders across the state seeking input on how I can best use the power of the governor’s office to make our commonwealth fairer and more equitable for communities of color.  My commitment today will not solve all of the issues with our criminal justice system, but I believe it is a step in the right direction.

I’m starting with vetoes of two mandatory minimum sentencing bills this week.  The bills demonstrate how we have become too quick to impose mandatory minimum sentencing.  One, House Bill 2042, would impose a 60-day mandatory minimum for assault and battery against a family or household member for someone with a prior assault and battery conviction in recent years.  The other, Senate Bill 1675, establishes a six-month mandatory minimum for killing or injuring a law enforcement animal, which is already a felony under Virginia code.

While violence is unacceptable, these are crimes that can be addressed by a judge with full knowledge of the facts and circumstances of each particular case.

Piling on mandatory minimum sentences has contributed to our growing prison population over the past few decades, to the point that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in the popularity of mandatory minimums pegged to drug offenses, no matter the circumstances.  Mandatory minimums for lower-level drug offenses, along with three-strikes laws, helped accelerate the rise in prison populations in the United States.  At the end of 2016, the United States had 655 people in prison for every 100,000 adults, according to World Prison Population List, compared to a world prison population rate of 145 per 100,000 adults. That is the highest incarceration rate out of 222 countries ranked by the World Prison Brief.

Data do not indicate that mandatory minimum sentences keep our communities safer.  Instead, mandatory minimums are disproportionately harming people and communities of color....

Mandatory minimums are focused on punishment, not rehabilitation.  I have declared May to be Second Chance Month in Virginia, to increase the focus on ways we can make our criminal justice system fairer and more equitable.  We must continue to prepare returning citizens to be successful members of the community.  And we must work harder to address the mental health and substance-use disorders that often lead people into our criminal justice system.

We need to focus on evidence-based approaches that ensure equitable treatment under the law.  And we must focus on ways to rehabilitate returning citizens, particularly nonviolent ones.  I want to give our judges, appointed by the Virginia General Assembly, the appropriate discretion over sentencing decisions.  We must remember that punishment and justice are not always the same thing. We are better as a society when we give our judicial system the ability to discern the difference.

May 1, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 26, 2019

"Individualized Sentencing"

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

In Woodson v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court proscribed the use of mandatory death sentences.  One year later, in Lockett v. Ohio, the Court expanded this principle to hold that defendants in capital cases were entitled to “individualized sentencing determinations.”  The Court’s reasoning in both cases centered on the seriousness of the death penalty.  Because the death penalty is “different” in its seriousness and irrevocability, the Court required the sentencing court, whether judge or jury, to assess the individualized characteristics of the offender and the offense before imposing a sentence.

In 2012, the Court expanded this Eighth Amendment concept to juvenile life-without-parole sentences in Miller v. Alabama.  Specifically, the Court held that juvenile offenders also were unique — in their capacity for rehabilitation and their diminished culpability — such that they too deserved individualized sentencing determinations.  The seriousness of the sentence in question, life without parole, also factored into the Court’s decision to extend the individualized sentencing requirement to juvenile life without parole cases.

Felony convictions, however, are serious too.  The current consequences for a felony conviction in most states result in dehumanizing effects that extend far beyond release including loss of right to vote, state surveillance, and loss of the right to own a firearm, not to mention social stigma.  As such, this Article argues for an extension of the Court’s Eighth Amendment individualized sentencing principle to all felony cases.  Doing so would require the Court to overrule its prior decisions, including Harmelin v. Michigan, but the Court’s opinion in Miller hints at a willingness to do just that.

While initially valuable in ensuring that capital cases received heightened scrutiny, the unintentional consequence of the Court’s differentness principle is that non-capital cases have received almost no constitutional scrutiny.  The individualized sentencing determination requirement provides one simple way to begin to remedy this shortcoming.

Adopting this doctrinal extension would have three major consequences: (1) it would provide each defendant his day in court in the face of serious, lifelong deprivations, (2) it would eliminate draconian mandatory sentencing practices, and (3) it would shift the sentencing determination away from prosecutors back to judges.

Part I of the Article describes the evolution of the individualized sentencing doctrine.  Part II exposes the unintended consequences of the differentness concept, and unearths the theoretical principles behind individualized sentencing.  In Part III, the Article argues for the expansion of the current doctrine and explains why the current roadblocks are not insurmountable.  Part IV then explores the consequences of broadening the application of the individualized sentencing doctrine, for defendants, legislators, and judges alike.

April 26, 2019 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Recapping a notable week of SCOTUS criminal justice arguments

As flagged in this Monday post, the Supreme Court's final week of oral arguments for this Term, which took place this past week, included hearings on three cases involving notable criminal justice issues.  We likely should not expected written decisions in Mitchell v. Wisconsin, Rehaif v. United States or Quarles v. United States until late June, but SCOTUSblog provides a sense of where the Court might be headed in these cases through these argument analysis posts:

On Mitchell by Amy Howe, "Justices debate warrantless blood draw for unconscious drunk driver"

On Rehaif by Evan Lee, "Court leaning toward requiring the government to prove that a felon in possession knew he was a felon"

On Quarles by Rory Little, "ACCA argument becomes a broader discussion of statutory interpretation"

Interesting jurisprudential developments could emerge from all three of these cases, but the Rehaif case has an issue lurking that could possibly impact lots and lots of federal prosecutions for felon in possession of a firearm under 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  

April 26, 2019 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Federal judge pens extraordinary and compelling order requesting US Attorney to vacate old stacked 924(c) conviction in extraordinary and compelling case

I learned last night of a remarkable new four-page order entered in US v. Marks, No. 03-CR-6033 (WDNY March 14, 2019) (available for download below).  Chad Marks' case has been followed for years by clemency advocates like Amy Povah, and this CAN-DO profile page has lots of background materials about his case, his requests for clemency, and all the positive work he has done since being sentenced many years ago to 40 mandatory prison years due to extreme recidivist stacking § 924(c) firearm charges. 

As informed readers know, the FIRST STEP Act eliminated the provisions of federal law that had required multiple § 924(c) firearm mandatory-minimum sentences to be stacked to include recidivist 25-year terms.  But it did not make this change retroactively applicable to offenders like Mr. Marks' who were subject to its severe terms in prior years.  This new order by US District Judge David Larimer speaks to this reality, and here is part of what it has to say:

Although the First Step Act and the Guideline changes referenced in it benefit many, it does not appear that Marks would benefit directly because the changes to Section 924(c) do not appear to be retroactive. One option now is for those in the system to say to Mr. Marks, “too bad, the changes don’t apply to you and you must serve the lengthy remainder of your 40-year term, and perhaps die in jail.”

Chad Marks has now filed a pro se motion (Dkt. #491) requesting this Court, in part, to request the United States Attorney for the Western District of New York, James P. Kennedy, Jr., to consent to vacating one of Marks’ Section 924(c) convictions, which would, in effect, remove the draconian, mandatory 25-year consecutive sentence.

Admittedly, this is not a typical request. Marks makes this request, though, relying on several cases from other districts throughout the country where the U.S. Attorney did precisely what Marks seeks here. Marks relies principally on the case of U.S. v. Holloway, 68 F. Supp. 3d 310 (E.D.N.Y. 2014). That thoughtful opinion is annexed to Marks’ motion as Exhibit A. In the Holloway case, the defendant was convicted of three Section 924(c) violations for three separate car jackings over a two-day period. He received a mandatory sentence of 57 years. In Holloway, District Judge John Gleeson remarked that such a stacking sentence “would be laughable if only there weren’t real people on the receiving end of them.”

Prosecutors spend their days seeking convictions and appropriate sentences. What is sought here is different, but in his decision in Holloway, Judge Gleeson praised the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York for agreeing to vacate a prior conviction in that particular and unusual case. He noted that prosecutors can and should use their vast power to remedy injustices in an appropriate case.

So, what to do?  Does this defendant, Chad Marks, deserve this remedy? In my more than 30 years as a district court judge, I have never known a prisoner to do more to make changes in his life while incarcerated. Marks’ acts and accomplishments while incarcerated for the last decade are truly extraordinary. Marks has obtained a college degree, participated in about 100 rehabilitative programs, has received numerous awards and citations, is engaged as a GED teacher and has mentored other inmates. Marks has recounted many of these accomplishments in his motion (Dkt. #491, page 7). The record reflects extraordinary accomplishments.

Extraordinary cases require extraordinary care and sometimes extraordinary relief.  I urge all to review Judge Gleeson’s thoughtful decision in the Holloway case. The criminal “justice” system is about justice and fairness ultimately.  Chad Marks was convicted of serious crimes, but I believe that Marks is not a danger and is not now the person convicted of these charges in 2008, which involved a rather small-scale drug case.  All of Marks’ co-defendants have completed their sentences.

I request that the United States Attorney for the Western District of New York, James P. Kennedy, Jr., carefully consider exercising his discretion to agree to an order vacating one of Marks’ two Section 924(c) convictions.  This would eliminate the mandatory 25-year term that is now contrary to the present provisions of the statute. Congress has now recognized the injustice of “stacking.”

To facilitate that review, I request that Marks’ appointed counsel, Jillian S. Harrington, Esq. provide a filing listing in detail the many, many accomplishments, awards and other matters involving Marks while he has been incarcerated. In addition, counsel should list the scores of rehabilitative programs that Marks successfully completed.  Marks has described many of his accomplishments in his pending motion, but I leave it to counsel to provide a detailed supplement to assist the U.S. Attorney’s review as well as this Court’s.

Download 3-18-19 LARIMER ORDER

I am so very pleased to see this federal judge enter this formal order urging the US Attorney to vacate a charge in order to do justice in this extraordinary and compelling case.  However, I keep using the term "extraordinary and compelling" in this post because I do not think the federal judge here has to rely on the US Attorney to do justice in this case now that the FIRST STEP Act has changed the process around judicial consideration of sentence modifications under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(C)(1)(A).

As noted in this prior post, the FIRST STEP Act now provides that an inmate can bring a request to "modify a term of imprisonment" directly to a sentencing court (rather than needing a motion made by the Bureau of Prison) based on the claim that "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction." This is what gets described often as the "compassionate release" provision of federal law, and most generally assume that it is only applicable to sick and dying prisoners. But, ever the textualist, I am eager to highlight to everyone that Congress only formally requires a judge to find "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant such a reduction." As I read this new Marks order, I think Judge Larimer has already essentially made such a finding.

That all said, even though I think Judge Larimer has authority to do justice for Mr. Marks without awaiting action by the local US Attorney, I still think it strategically wise to see the prosecution's involvement in his effort to do justice. With the buy-in by the local prosecutor and vacating of a one of Mr. Marks' 924(c) convictions, there would likely be no appeal and likely no impediment to a Mr. Marks getting released in short order. If Judge Larimer were to act on his own using § 3582(C)(1)(A), however, the feds could possibly appeal and seek to block any early release.

March 19, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, March 08, 2019

Senator (and Prez candidate) Cory Booker introduces "Next Step Act of 2019" with wide array of sentencing and criminal justice reforms

As set forth in this press release, "U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) today introduced a sweeping criminal justice bill — the Next Step Act  — that would make serious and substantial reforms to sentencing guidelines, prison conditions, law enforcement training, and re-entry efforts."  Here is more about this new (lengthy) legislative proposal from the press release:

The Next Step Act is the most comprehensive criminal justice bill to be introduced in Congress in decades. "It's been 75 days since the First Step Act was signed into law, and already, it's changing lives," Booker said.  "But the First Step Act is just as its name suggests — it is one step on the long road toward fixing our broken criminal justice system. There's more that remains to be done so that our justice system truly embodies those words etched onto our nation's highest court â?“ 'equal justice under law.' That's exactly what the Next Step Act does. It builds off the gains of the First Step Act and pushes for bolder, more comprehensive reforms, like eliminating the sentencing disparities that still exist between crack and powder cocaine, assisting those coming out of prison with getting proper work authorization and ID documents, reducing the barriers formerly incarcerated individuals face when they try to find jobs, and ending the federal prohibition on marijuana."...

Specifically, the Next Step Act would:

  • Reduce harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses: the 20-year mandatory minimum would be reduced to 10 years, the 10-year mandatory minimum would be reduced to 5 years, and the 5-year mandatory minimum would be reduced to 2 years.

  • Eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences (currently it is 18:1)

  • End the federal prohibition on marijuana, expunge records, and reinvest in the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs.

  • "Ban the Box" by prohibiting federal employers and contractors from asking a job applicant about their criminal history until the final stages of the interview process, so that formerly incarcerated individuals get a fairer, more objective shot at finding meaningful employment.

  • Removing barriers for people with criminal convictions to receiving an occupational license for jobs, such as hair dressers and taxi drivers.

  • Reinstate the right to vote in federal elections for formerly incarcerated individuals (blacks are more than four times as likely than whites to have their voting rights revoked because of a criminal conviction).

  • Create a federal pathway to sealing the records of nonviolent drug offenses for adults and automatically sealing (and in some cases expunging) juvenile records.

  • Ensure that anyone released from federal prison receives meaningful assistance in obtaining a photo-ID, birth certificate, social security card, or work authorization documents.

  • Improve the ability of those behind bars to stay in touch with loved ones, by banning the practice of charging exorbitant rates for phone calls (upwards of $400-$500 per month) and ensuring authorities take into consideration where someone's kids are located when placing them in a federal facility, a circumstance that acutely impacts women since there are far fewer women's prisons than men's prison.

  • Provide better training for law enforcement officers in implicit racial bias, de-escalation, and use-of-force.

  • Ban racial and religious profiling.

  • Improve the reporting of police use-of-force incidents (currently the Department of Justice is required to report use-of-force statistics to Congress, but states and local law enforcement agencies are not required to pass that information on to federal authorities, creating a significant gap in data that could be used to improve policies and training).

The Next Step Act is an effort to build upon the momentum of the First Step Act, which was signed into law late last year and which represents the biggest overhaul to the criminal justice system in a decade.  Booker was a key architect of the bill — he was instrumental in adding key sentencing provisions to the package after publicly opposing the House-passed version of the First Step Act first released in May 2018.  Booker also successfully fought to include provisions that effectively eliminated the solitary confinement of juveniles under federal supervision and banned the shackling of pregnant women.

The Next Step Act is based upon a number of individual bills Booker has authored, co-authored, or co-sponsored since arriving to the Senate in 2013, including the Marijuana Justice Act, the Fair Chance Act, the REDEEM Act, the Ending Racial Profiling Act, the Smarter Sentencing Act, the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, the Democracy Restoration Act, and the Police Reporting Information Data and Evidence Act.

I would be quite excited by a number of the substantive provisions in this bill if it had any chance of moving forward in any form.  But, for a host of political and practical reasons, this bill really serves more as Senator Booker's statement of aspirations rather than as a serious attempt to get something specific passed by Congress in the coming months.  Nevertheless, I am inclined to compliment the Senator for having so many big criminal justice reform aspirations, and the introduction of this bill will help ensure that Senator Booker keeps attention on criminal justice reform as he moves forward with his presidential campaign.

March 8, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 07, 2019

"All Talk and No Action: Arizona’s Mandatory Drug Sentencing"

The title of this post post is the title of this notable new "Policy Perspective" document authored by Greg Glod of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Right on Crime initiative. The piece includes research, insights and lessons that extend well beyond Arizona, and here is the introduction and part of the conclusion:

Drug use affects millions of people, with more than 23 million people over the age of 12 in the U.S. addicted to drugs or alcohol.  Arizona has some of the strictest drug laws in the country, including mandatory prison sentencing.  Politicians and tough-on-crime state prosecutors claim that mandatory prison sentencing for certain drug offenses helps to reduce crime and drug use.  But are they really working?  Research shows that sentencing drug offenders to mandatory prison time does not reduce crime or drug use — it can actually make both worse. Prisons continue to become overpopulated with drug offenders who are better served with treatment than incarceration.

This paper will provide a brief overview of Arizona’s often confusing drug sentencing laws, discussing threshold amounts that trigger mandatory prison sentencing for drug offenses in Arizona, reasons why they are not working, and will overview what other states are doing instead.  It will conclude by recommending actions for state lawmakers to begin to reverse the negative social and fiscal impact of Arizona’s prison sentencing for drug offenses....

Arizona lawmakers have options for how to deal with the future of Arizona’s mandatory drug sentencing.  To avoid exacerbating the problems that mandatory drug sentencing schemes have created, lawmakers must stop advocating for new mandatory drug sentencing laws.  Nor should they support laws increasing or expanding existing mandatory sentencing schemes.  While every option available in other states is not necessarily appropriate for Arizona, some are, including “safety valve” and de-felonizing marijuana possession.

March 7, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 25, 2019

After swift cert denial in Rivera-Ruperto, should I just give up hoping for an improved Eighth Amendment to check extreme non-capital sentences?

Intrepid readers may realize that I have paid close attention to a case out of the First Circuit, US v. Rivera–Ruperto, because I thought it involved extraordinarily facts that made for a compelling Cruel and Unusual Punishments argument if that clause was to function as even the most minimal check on the imposition of extreme prison sentences on adult offenders.  But, frustratingly, today's Supreme Court order list has under a long list of cert denials "18-5384  Rivera-Ruperto, Wendell v. United States."  Grrrr.

Of course, I was not the only one who thought this was was exceptional: as noted here, the entire First Circuit issued a remarkable opinion last year while denying en banc review (available here) in which Judge Barron spoke for all his colleagues in urging the Justices to take up the Rivera-Ruperto to reconsider its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  I was sincerely hoping that this unusual statement from an entire circuit might at least get Rivera-Ruperto a single relist from the Supreme Court or maybe just a short statement from some Justices about the issue.  A single relist or a statement about a denial of cert would suggest that there was at least a single Justice who might think that a toothless Eighth Amendment is a problem in an era of mass incarceration.  (Tellingly, the legal press and criminal justice twitterverse has also entirely ignored this case, confirming my fears that one need to be a murderer on death row before just about anyone gets interested in an Eighth Amendment claim.)

I still want to hope that maybe a district court or the First Circuit could find a way to do better in this case when Wendell Rivera-Ruperto eventually brings a 2255 claim (which could now juice an Eighth Amendment argument, as I suggested here, on the fact that the FIRST STEP Act has changed the federal law that lead to his 130 years of mandatory-minimum prison time).  But even if Rivera-Ruperto is able to get some relief eventually, I am still this morning left deeply troubled by the notion that not a single Justice seems to be at all concerned about modern Eighth Amendment jurisprudence relating to extreme non-capital sentences.  Sigh. 

A few prior related posts:

February 25, 2019 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"Mandatory Minimums, Crime, and Drug Abuse: Lessons Learned, Paths Ahead"

The title of this post is the title of this "Policy Brief" from The James Madison Institute authored by Greg Newburn and Sal Nuzzo.  I recommend the brief in full, and here is an excerpt from the final section of the paper titled "Lessons for the Future":

In the 1970s, frustrated with an intolerable crime wave and unprecedented drug abuse, New York, Michigan, and Florida tried a new solution.  Their theory was clear: harsh mandatory sentences would scare drug users into getting clean, deter would-be drug dealers from entering the trade, and incarcerate kingpins and major players who could not then continue to bring drugs into the state.  Leaders in each state were confident that their proposed solution would finally be the one that worked.

More than 40 years later, New York and Michigan recognized that the solution in which their leaders had such sincere confidence could no longer be justified by evidence, data, or experience, and repealed their mandatory minimum drug laws.  Those repeals were possible only after policymakers were honest about the failure of their solution to deliver on its promises.

In fact, dozens of states nationwide have reformed or repealed mandatory minimum laws over the past 15 years.  Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi all have exceptions to mandatory minimum drug trafficking laws.  Texas has never used mandatory minimum drug laws, and, like Florida, is currently enjoying a near 50-year crime low.  (Florida’s drug overdose death rate was 62 percent higher than Texas’ between 1999 and 2017.)  Louisiana repealed its mandatory minimum drug laws in 2017, with the support of the state’s prosecuting attorneys....

Florida, however, has so far refused to join the emerging consensus in favor of mandatory minimum drug law reform.  In spite of overwhelming evidence, Florida still clings to the same solution to drug abuse that has failed the state for 40 years, and continues to ignore the costly unintended consequences of its continued reliance on this failed strategy. Like New York and Michigan, attempts to reform Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws are invariably met with dire predictions of doom and gloom, and Chicken Little-style warnings that without mandatory minimums Florida risks inviting 1970s-level crime once again.

February 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán found guilty on all 10 federal counts now facing LWOP sentence ... but surely could still provide substantial assistance

As reported in this NPR piece, headlined "'El Chapo,' Notorious Drug Kingpin, Found Guilty After Dramatic Trial In New York," the federal government secured high-profile drug convictions today in New York.  Here are some details:

After a long trial held under heightened security at the Brooklyn, N.Y., federal court, a jury has found Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, one of the world's most notorious drug kingpins who led Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, guilty on all ten counts related to drug trafficking. He 61-year-old faces the possibility of life in prison.

Tuesday's verdict ended a dramatic trial that started in November and was filled with explosive testimony from Guzmán's former cartel associates. It included testimony from more than 50 witnesses, many of whom described Guzmán's use of violence against his enemies.

Guzmán faced 10 charges in the indictment, including engaging in a criminal enterprise — which in itself comprised 27 violations, including conspiracy to commit murder. Other charges included using firearms and manufacturing and distributing cocaine, heroin and other drugs.

Last week, Judge Brian Cogan gave jurors about three hours of instructions for their deliberations. He said he was confident that they had followed his instructions not to read or watch news about the case. The entire jury has been anonymous for their protection. At one point, the judge told the foreperson to sign notes using her name but then corrected that instruction and told her to use her juror number instead to keep her identity secret.

The jurors — four men and eight women — deliberated for days, asking for lengthy testimonies and whether ephedrine was considered methamphetamine.

In laying out their case, prosecutors spent 11 weeks calling witnesses, while the defense took 30 minutes and brought just one witness to the stand. The prosecution and defense delivered their final arguments to the jury in January.

Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzmán's defense lawyers, gave an animated presentation, banging the podium, pacing before the jurors and patting his client on the shoulder.... The prosecution had produced a "scripted event," he said, with cooperating witnesses who "lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people." And if Guzmán was convicted, all of those people would be released, he said.

Lichtman cast doubt on whether some of the murders that witnesses described ever happened. He called Guzmán "the rabbit" that Mexican authorities were chasing when the true mastermind behind the Sinaloa cartel was Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada....

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Liskamm led the prosecution's rebuttal, urging jurors not to fall for the defense's smear. "The day cocaine conspiracies are made in heaven is the day we can call angels as witnesses," she said....

Prosecution witnesses offered testimony that swung from the bizarre to the shocking. According to testimony, he had a diamond-encrusted pistol and a gold-plated AK-47; he kicked off a cartel war after a rival refused to shake his hand; he and a mistress once fled naked through a secret tunnel under a bath tub; he escaped from a Mexican prison with the help of his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro; and, in one of the most controversial allegations, he bought off Enrique Peña Nieto for $100 million — a claim the former Mexican president has denied....

Guzmán's 29-year-old wife attended the trial nearly every day, even as a mistress testified. She told The New York Times, "I don't know my husband as the person they are trying to show him as." The weeks also brought details of the sophisticated methods that the cartel used to move its contraband, from secret landing strips to container ships and submarines. People who stood in the way were allegedly bribed, kidnapped, tortured or killed....

Guzmán already had humiliated Mexico by escaping from prison twice. Once he made a getaway in a laundry cart. And then there was the mile-long tunnel that began under his maximum security prison cell's shower, a passageway that he told Penn had required sending engineers to Germany for training.

The cartel reportedly built some 90 tunnels between Mexico and the United States. After a long manhunt, he was recaptured in 2016 by Mexican authorities on the outskirts of Los Mochis and extradited to the United States the next year. He arrived on U.S. soil and pleaded not guilty to U.S. federal charges.

Guzmán showed in Mexico that he can devise ways to escape from prison, but I am hopeful US authorities will not have similar prison administration difficulties.  But, as the title of this post is meant to suggest, there is another way Guzmán could now try to work his way out of federal prison, namely by providing substantial assistance in the prosecution of others.

Ultimately, I am not sure Guzmán will be eager even at this point to cooperate with the feds, and I would be quite surprised if the feds would be willing to offer any significant sentencing discount for his cooperation.  But here it seems worth flagging the reality that, in a federal sentencing system that rewards defendants who cooperate, the greatest potential sentencing rewards can go to the most guilty of defendants who have the most potential information to offer.  Guzmán, who I believe is now facing a mandatory life sentence, would seem to be the poster child of the most guilty of defendants with the most potential information to offer.

February 12, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

"Mandatory minimum sentencing policies and cocaine use in the U.S., 1985–2013"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new research published in the journal BMC International Health and Human Rights and authored by Lauryn Saxe Walker and Briana Mezuk. Here is its abstract:

Background

As of May 2017, the United States federal government renewed its prioritization for the enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences for illicit drug offenses.  While the effect of such policies on racial disparities in incarceration is well-documented, less is known about the extent to which these laws are associated with decreased drug use.  This study aims to identify changes in cocaine use associated with mandatory minimum sentencing policies by examining differential sentences for powder and crack cocaine set by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (ADAA) (100:1) and the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the disparate sentencing to 18:1.

Methods

Using data from National Survey on Drug Use and Health, we examined past-year cocaine use before and after implementation of the ADAA (1985–1990, N = 21,296) and FSA (2009–2013, N = 130,574). We used weighted logistic regressions and Z-tests across models to identify differential change in use between crack and powder cocaine.  Prescription drug misuse, or use outside prescribed indication or dose, was modeled as a negative control to identify underlying drug trends not related to sentencing policies.

Results

Despite harsher ADAA penalties for crack compared to powder cocaine, there was no decrease in crack use following implementation of sentencing policies (odds ratio (OR): 0.72, p = 0.13), although both powder cocaine use and misuse of prescription drugs (the negative control) decreased (OR: 0.59, p < 0.01; OR: 0.42, p < 0.01 respectively).  Furthermore, there was no change in crack use following the FSA, but powder cocaine use decreased, despite no changes to powder cocaine sentences (OR: 0.81, p = 0.02), suggesting that drug use is driven by factors not associated with sentencing policy.

Conclusions

Despite harsher penalties for crack versus powder cocaine, crack use declined less than powder cocaine and even less than drugs not included in sentencing policies.  These findings suggest that mandatory minimum sentencing may not be an effective method of deterring cocaine use.

January 13, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Federal Sex Offenses"

The US Sentencing Commission has kicked of the new year with this 81-page report titled ""Mandatory Minimum Penalties for Federal Sex Offenses." This USSC webpage provides this summary and key findings from the report:

Summary

This publication examines the application of mandatory minimum penalties specific to federal sex offenses; it is the sixth and final release in the Commission's series of publications on mandatory minimum penalties.

Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication includes analyses of the two types of federal sex offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties, sexual abuse offenses and child pornography offenses, as well their impact on the Federal Bureau of Prisons population. In addition to analyzing child pornography offenses generally, this publication analyzes child pornography offenses by offense type, exploring differences in frequency, offender characteristics, and sentencing outcomes for distribution, receipt, and possession offenses. Where appropriate, the publication highlights changes and trends since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report.

Key Findings

  • Mandatory minimum penalties for sex offenses are applied less often in the federal system compared to other mandatory minimum penalties.
    • Offenders convicted of a sex offense comprised only 4.2 percent (n=2,633) of federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2016.
    • Sex offenses accounted for 19.4 percent of offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2016.
  • Sex offenses, however, increased in number and as a percentage of the federal docket, and sex offenders were more frequently convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.
    • Offenders convicted of a sex offense increased from 3.2 percent (n=2,317) of federal offenders, in fiscal year 2010, to 4.2 percent (n=2,633) in fiscal year 2016.
    • The number of offenders convicted of sexual abuse offenses has steadily increased since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report, from 639 offenders in fiscal year 2010 to a high of 1,148 offenders in fiscal year 2016. Additionally, the percentage of sexual abuse offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty also increased substantially, from 21.4 percent in fiscal year 2004, to a high of 63.2 percent in fiscal year 2016.
    • While also increasing over time since 2004, the number of child pornography offenders has remained relatively stable since the Commission’s 2011 Mandatory Minimum Report, decreasing slightly from 1,675 offenders in fiscal year 2010 to 1,565 in fiscal year 2016. The percentage of child pornography offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, however, has generally increased, from 50.2 percent in fiscal year 2010 to a high of 61.2 percent in 2014, before leveling off to 59.6 percent in fiscal 2016.
  • Sex offenders are demographically different than offenders convicted of other offenses carrying mandatory minimum penalties.
    • In fiscal year 2016, Native American offenders comprised a larger percentage of sexual abuse offenders than of any other offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty. They constituted 11.7 percent of sexual abuse offenders overall and represented the largest portion (28.2%) of sexual abuse offenders convicted of an offense not carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.
    • White offenders constituted over 80 percent of offenders convicted of any child pornography offense (80.9%), convicted of a child pornography offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty (83.0%), and those subject to that penalty (83.2%).  In comparison, White offenders comprised 22.7 percent, 27.2 percent, and 31.1 percent of all federal offenders, federal offenders convicted of any offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, and federal offenders subject to any mandatory minimum penalty, respectively.
    • The average age for all child pornography offenders and child pornography offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was 42, five years older than the average age for federal offenders convicted of an offense carrying any mandatory minimum penalty. Nearly half of all child pornography offenders were 41 or older (48.0%).
    • While the average age for sexual abuse offenders was the same as the average age of federal offenders overall (37), of those convicted of a mandatory minimum penalty, 17.6 percent were older than 50 and 20.5 percent were between 41 and 50.
  • Offenders convicted of sex offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty are sentenced to longer terms than those convicted of sex offenses not carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.
    • In fiscal year 2016, the average sentence for offenders convicted of a sexual abuse offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty was nearly three times longer than the average sentence for offenders convicted of a sexual abuse offense not carrying a mandatory minimum penalty (252 months compared to 86 months).
    • The average sentence for child pornography offenders who faced a ten-year mandatory minimum penalty because of a prior sex offense conviction (136 months) was substantially longer than the average sentence for those offenders who were convicted of a possession offense (without a prior sex offense), which does not carry a mandatory minimum penalty (55 months).
    • Child pornography offenders convicted of distribution (140 months) and receipt offenses (93 months), which carry a five-year mandatory minimum penalty, also had a longer average sentence than offenders convicted of possession offenses (55 months), who did not face a mandatory minimum penalty.
  • Although Commission analysis has demonstrated that there is little meaningful distinction between the conduct involved in receipt and possession offenses, the average sentence for offenders convicted of a receipt offense, which carries a five-year mandatory minimum penalty, is substantially longer than the average sentence for offenders convicted of a possession offense, which carries no mandatory minimum penalty.
    • In fiscal year 2016, the average sentence for receipt offenders (without a prior sex offense conviction) was two and a half years longer (85 months) than the average sentence length for possession offenders (without a prior sex offense conviction) (55 months).
  • While still constituting a relatively small percentage of the overall prison population, the number of both sexual abuse offenders and child pornography offenders in Federal Bureau of Prisons custody has steadily increased, with both reaching population highs as of September 30, 2016.
    • Sexual abuse offenders accounted for only 3.5 percent (n=5,764) of the federal prison population as of September 30, 2016, but the number of sexual abuse offenders in a federal prison has steadily increased since fiscal year 2004, from 1,640 offenders to a high of 5,764 in fiscal year 2016. The number of offenders convicted of a sexual abuse offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in the federal prison population has increased at a similar rate, from 276 to 4,055, during the same time period.
    • Child pornography offenders accounted for only 5.1 percent (n=8,508) of the federal prison population as of September 30, 2016, but the number of child pornography offenders in federal prison has steadily increased since fiscal year 2004, from 1,259 offenders to a high of 8,508 in fiscal year 2016. The number of offenders convicted of a child pornography offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in the federal prison population has increased at a similar rate, from 118 to 6,303 during the same time period.

January 2, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Notable pipeline provisions in FIRST STEP Act in the wake of litigation history surrounding FSA of 2010

Long-time readers surely recall the legal uncertainty that followed the last congressional reduction of severe mandatory sentencing provisions in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 with respect to "pipeline" cases, i.e., cases in which offense conduct took place, but a sentence had not yet been imposed, before the enactment of the FSA's new crack sentencing provisions.  This legal uncertainty made it all the way up the Supreme Court in Dorsey v. US, 567 U.S. 260 (2012), and here is how the Court's 5-4 majority explained and resolved the issue:

In 2010, Congress enacted a new statute reducing the crack-to-powder cocaine disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. Fair Sentencing Act, 124Stat. 2372. The new statute took effect on August 3, 2010. The question here is whether the Act’s more lenient penalty provisions apply to offenders who committed a crack cocaine crime before August 3, 2010, but were not sentenced until after August 3. We hold that the new, more lenient mandatory minimum provisions do apply to those pre-Act offenders.

Fast forward to the present day, and Congress this time around has figured out that it can and should address these pipeline issues directly when making statutory sentencing modifications. Specifically, here are the operative pipeline instructions that appear in the FIRST STEP Act with its three important sentencing changes:

SEC. 401. REDUCE AND RESTRICT ENHANCED SENTENCING FOR PRIOR DRUG FELONIES....

(c) APPLICABILITY TO PENDING CASES. This section, and the amendments made by this section, shall apply to any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of this Act, if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.

SEC. 402. BROADENING OF EXISTING SAFETY VALVE....

(b) APPLICABILITY. The amendments made by this section shall apply only to a conviction entered on or after the date of enactment of this Act.

SEC. 403. CLARIFICATION OF SECTION 924(c) OF TITLE 18, UNITED STATES CODE.... 

(b) APPLICABILITY TO PENDING CASES. This section, and the amendments made by this section, shall apply to any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of this Act, if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.

Put simply, Congress in the FIRST STEP Act has expressly provided that all cases in the pipeline, as long as a defendant has not yet been sentenced, are to be sentenced in accord with the new and lowered mandatory minimums (section 401) and without stacked 924(c) charges (section 403).  But, in slight contrast, only those pipeline defendants who have not yet been convicted, are able to be sentenced with the benefit of the new and expended safety valve provision (section 402) which allows defendants with a bit more criminal history to avoid the application of otherwise applicable drug mandatory minimums.

I am pleased to see Congress this time around directly addressing pipeline issues and thereby answering the most basic questions about how pending cases are to be handed.  And yet, ever eager to issue spot, I already have some follow-up questions:

  1. 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?
  2. Or imagine a defendant who might benefit from the broader safety valve and has not yet been sentence but did plead guilty earlier in 2018. Could this defendant move to vacate his plea simply in order to plead guilty anew in 2019 so that his conviction will then be "entered on or after the date of enactment of" the FIRST STEP Act?

The pipeline issues after the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 impacted perhaps thousands of defendants, whereas the issues I raise above may only impact dozens. But for those particular defendants, what is still left uncertain might still certainly be a very big deal.  (I also suspect there are additional pipeline issues I have not yet imagined, and I welcome input on this issue and all other relating to FIRST STEP Act implementation.)

December 26, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 24, 2018

Lamenting lack of retroactive application of new sentencing changes in FIRST STEP Act (... and so rooting again for robust clemency)

This recent piece from The Guardian, fully headlined "Current inmates feel left behind by Trump's criminal justice reform bill; First Step Act reduces the mandatory sentence for three-strikes offenders but the provisions will not be made retroactive," spotlights how certain inmates have gotten left behind even as the inappropriateness of their sentences inspired key sentencing reforms in the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are excerpts:

On paper, Chris Young seems exactly the kind of person a prison reform bill ought to release from federal custody. In the eight years since he was last free, Young has become an avid reader, taught himself to write computer code and worked as a tutor for fellow prisoners. Right now he’s reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus “for fun”.  He also says that since he can’t get real-world practice, he re-reads the same passage of a programming book every day after lunch, to make sure it’s committed to memory.

When he was 22, Young was arrested on a third low-level drug charge. Under so-called “three strikes” laws, he was given a mandatory life sentence.  For decades, in cases involving repeat drug offenders, such laws have stripped federal judges of discretion. The judge who sentenced Young, Kevin Sharp, was so shaken by the experience he retired shortly after.  “What I was required to do that day was cruel,” Sharp tweeted earlier this year.

The bipartisan First Step Act, signed into law by Donald Trump on Friday, softens that “cruel” requirement for federal judges, reducing the mandatory sentence in such cases to 25 years. But it will not do anything for Young.  In one of many compromises made by progressive reform advocates to secure conservative support, this and several other provisions were not made retroactive.  “I’m human and I would have loved to have benefited from the bill, but unfortunately I don’t,” Young told the Guardian from federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. “I don’t necessarily feel left behind, I just feel [lawmakers] don’t understand what goes on with the … actual humans that their choices and politics affect.”...

Advocates believe [the Act] can be a launching point for state and local reform which could have a much greater impact on the US inmate population. After all, just 10% of people incarcerated in the US are in the federal system.  “I absolutely think that this one is going to be catalytic towards other de-carceration campaigns on the local and state level,” said Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated reform advocate who helped bring dozens of former inmate-led groups on board for the First Step Act.

“I think that the Senate — a conservative Republican Senate — has just given permission to conservatives all over the country [to become] engaged in criminal justice reform.” Nonetheless, the lack of retroactivity on a majority of the sentencing reforms was “a tough pill to swallow”.

“It’s one of the concessions that hurts the most,” said Martin. “It’s about fairness, and yet there’s this group of people who continue to be harmed because of the lack of retroactivity.”

That includes people like John Bailey, a 71-year-old inmate of the federal prison in Hazleton, West Virginia which is nicknamed “misery mountain”. Bailey’s brother Oliver said he was struggling to understand the logic of the changes not applying to inmates like John, who was imprisoned in 1992 on a non-violent drug charge. “If you recognize the injustice now,” asked Bailey, “how come it doesn’t apply to those that suffered the same injustice before?”

Advocates who worked on the bill said conservatives and politically vulnerable Democrats opposed retroactivity because of how releasing prisoners early might resonate with voters.

There is one bright spot for the Baileys. One provision of First Step that does apply to current inmates is a requirement that prisoners be housed no more than 500 driving miles from their home. Bailey, who is from St Petersburg, Florida, has spent his prison life in Leavenworth, Kansas and now West Virginia, thousands of miles away. Oliver has not seen John since he was jailed. “At this point something’s better than nothing,” he said. “We need to progress from here.”

It’s a common sentiment. Chad Marks is serving a 40-year sentence on drug conspiracy charges, thanks to another provision First Step will restrict. Marks’ sentence was enhanced by “stacking” language in federal law which dramatically increases a sentence if an offender possesses a firearm in the commission of a drug crime, whether or not it is used. “I don’t understand how lawmakers can say that doing this is wrong,” he said, “and that they are going to fix it, but not apply it retroactively. That was a big blow. What has my focus and attention right now is the fact that lawmakers did something, but my focus is also on a second step coming.”...

Young, Bailey and Marks continue to wait for a second step. While they do, all three must place their primary hope for release in an act of clemency: a pardon or commutation issued by the president. Young’s case has been endorsed by Kim Kardashian, who successfully lobbied for the release of another federal prisoner, Alice Johnson, in June. Marks said he was “more than hopeful that I will find relief through clemency”.

“I am praying that president Trump will find me worthy of mercy and grace,” he said. “I won’t let him down or disappoint him.”

As regular readers know, Prez Trump has been letting me down and disappointing me by having so far failed to make good on all the talk from earlier this year that he was looking at "3,000 names" for possible clemencies. I sincerely hope that Prez Trump and those assisting him on clemency matters are going to give extra attention to persons serving extreme sentences that would no longer be applicable under the new sentencing provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.  (I also think persons serving particularly extreme sentences should file (or seek to re-file) constitutional or other challenges to their sentences that might be emboldened by FIRST STEP Act reforms, but I will discuss this idea in a subsequent post.)

A few of many recent related posts: 

December 24, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Fifty Years of American Sentencing Reform — Nine Lessons"

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

Efforts to standardize sentences and eliminate disparities in a state or the federal system cannot succeed; distinctive practices and norms, diverse local cultures, and practical and political needs of officials and agencies assure major local differences in sentencing practice.  Presumptive sentencing guidelines developed by sentencing commissions, however, are the most effective means to improve consistency, reduce disparity, and control corrections spending.  Federal sentencing guidelines have been remarkably unsuccessful; they should be rebuilt from the ground up.  Mandatory sentencing laws should be repealed, and no new ones enacted; they produce countless injustices, encourage cynical circumventions, and seldom achieve demonstrable reductions in crime.  Black and Hispanic defendants are more likely than whites and Asians to be sentenced to imprisonment, and for longer; presumptive sentencing guidelines reduced racial disparities initially and over time, but most states do not have presumptive guidelines.  Use of predictions of dangerousness to determine who is imprisoned and for how long is unjust; predictive accuracy has improved little in 50 years and current methods too often lengthen prison terms of people who would not have committed violent crimes.  Except in the handful of states that have effective systems of presumptive sentencing guidelines, parole release is an essential component of a just and cost-effective sentencing system in the United States.

December 24, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HUZZAH!!!

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

After rejection of contentious proposed amendments, FIRST STEP Act passed by Senate by vote of 87 to 12!!!!

In this post back in August I wondered "Could enhanced FIRST STEP Act get more than 90 votes in the Senate if even brought up for a vote?".  Well, it seems I was off by three votes, as tonight the the US Senate voted 87 to 12 to enact the FIRST STEP Act.  With a vote in the House scheduled for later this week, this bill should be on Prez Trump's  desk before the end of this week and law before Prez Trump heads down to Mar-a-Lago for the holidays.  This USA Today article, headlined "Senate passes First Step Act with push from criminal justice groups; bill goes to House," provides this account of today's historic developments:

Alex Gudich and the team from #cut50 weren’t taking any votes for granted. They spent Tuesday knocking on the doors of senators and urging them to support a criminal justice reform bill up for a vote, something they didn't know would happen that night.

"We knew that it would be a tough vote for many members on both sides," said Gudich, deputy director for the national advocacy group pushing to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system. "We’re here at a very, very pivotal moment."

In a major step in that effort, the Senate voted 87 to 12 late Tuesday to approve the bipartisan "First Step Act" pushed by Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Mike Lee, R-Utah and Cory Booker, D-N.J. The bill must now go over to the House for a vote. President Donald Trump has supported the measure....

The Senate defeated amendments proposed by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and John Kennedy of Louisiana that would have required the Bureau of Prisons to notify victims before a prisoner is released and tracked former offenders after they're released.

Several advocacy groups, including #cut50, and national civil rights groups, including the National Urban League, have been a part of a massive push to get the legislation passed. “It’s been a long time in raising the awareness of how the system of mass incarceration is so destructive and needs to be fixed and reformed,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “There’s been a lot of groundwork that has been laid over the years.”

The groups have been working on criminal justice reforms for years, including under then-President Barack Obama, but supporters said the effort got a boost earlier this year with the help of Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser. “We were excited to see a breakthrough this year and a shift," Gudich said.

Gudich called the First Step Act “a compromise bill, but importantly it does not add any new mandatory minimum. There are no sentencing enhancements.” Some advocates, however, have complained the measure doesn’t go far enough. Morial said he would have wanted more provisions to deal with bail reforms and more support for reentry programs, but welcomes the effort. “If we could get a perfect comprehensive bill, we’d do it," he said. “This bill is also the product of some difficult political trade-offs. But it’s better to move this bill with all the things it does than to sit back and wait. We could end waiting another three to four years."

Lawmakers particularly praised the work and input of advocates and civil rights groups. “Formerly incarcerated individuals were incredibly important voices in urging the House to get something done meaningful on prison reform,’’ said New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, incoming House Democratic Caucus Chair, a key negotiator. “Nobody is more authoritative on the issue of the victimization that has taken place as a result of over criminalization as a result of the mass incarceration epidemic then those Americans who were directly impacted.”

Indeed, formerly incarcerated people from a host of groups, including #cut50, Prison Fellowship, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, have lobbied Congress to support reforms. Civil and voting rights groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU, have also been key players along with a host of conservative groups. “We as conservatives share common goals,’’ Kevin Roberts, executive director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said during a press conference last week. “We want strong communities and institutions. We want those who have done wrong to be punished and then to seize their own redemption without state interference. Most of all we want safe neighborhoods.”

Morial applauded the passage of the First Step Act, but said more needs to be done. “This is something that we have to work on over time. This bill is a good bill, but this not going to be the last effort at criminal justice reform,’’ he said. “There’s already a lot of movement at the state level… This is a growing movement in America – the idea that we have to fix the system of mass incarceration.”

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just say that Prez Trump has already tweeted here about this significant legislative development, saying "This will keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance, to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!"

December 18, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, December 17, 2018

Cloture vote on FIRST STEP Act gets super-majority support in Senate

As reported in this article from The Hill, the "Senate advanced a White House-backed criminal justice reform bill on Monday, paving the way for senators to try to pass the bill as early as Tuesday." Here is more on the vote and what comes next:

Senators voted 82-12 to end debate on the legislation, which merges a House-passed prison reform bill with a handful of changes to sentencing laws.

Twelve Republicans voted against advancing the legislation despite President Trump endorsing the measure in November: GOP Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), John Kennedy (La.), Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jim Risch (Idaho), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Dan Sullivan (Alaska), Mike Rounds (S.D.) and Pat Toomey (Pa.).

The Senate is expected to vote on potential changes to the legislation as soon as Tuesday before taking a final vote on the bill. “There are a number of members with outstanding concerns that they feel are still unresolved. ... The Senate will be considering amendments before we vote on final passage later this week,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said ahead of the vote.

Though supporters rolled out a final version of the bill last week to try to win over more GOP senators, conservatives, led by Cotton and Kennedy, are expected to get votes on three amendments. Cotton, in a National Review op-ed published Monday, said his potential changes would help "limit the damage" and conservatives who had already said they would support the bill "have jumped on the bandwagon too soon."...

Toomey said in a statement that he was still weighing supporting the bill but voted no on Monday because it will block senators from voting on an amendment that he wanted to offer. “The First Step Act contains worthwhile provisions that seek to improve the criminal justice system and reduce offender recidivism, which is why I am seriously considering supporting it. However, today’s procedural vote was designed to preclude amendments, including one I intended to offer to support victims of crime," Toomey said.

The amendment votes are expected to be held with a simple majority threshold, meaning at least a few GOP senators would need to join with all Democrats to block them from getting added to the bill. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who helped craft the deal along with Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), warned that as currently drafted that he believes Cotton's amendments are "poison pills" meant to undercut the legislation as a whole.

I am pretty sure this all means that the FIRST STEP Act is going to be passed by the Senate in the next few days, though there is still uncertainty as to whether it will be with or without the Cotton-Kennedy Amendments. My understanding is that the House will vote on whatever the Senate passes in short order, so some version of the FIRST STEP Act could be on the desk of Prez Trump even before the end of this week.  Wowsa!

December 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)