Tuesday, May 24, 2022

With Senate leader now pushing for EQUAL Act, can crack sentencing reform finally get to finish line?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Daily News article headlined "Schumer calls for end to crack cocaine sentencing disparity: ‘Cocaine is cocaine’."  Here are excerpts:

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday called on lawmakers to end a sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that has had a disproportionate effect on Black Americans. “We have a moment to balance the scales of justice,” the New York Democrat said at a news conference outside the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in lower Manhattan. “It’s common sense: Cocaine is cocaine, and the sentencing should be equal.”

In September, the House overwhelmingly passed legislation to end a sentencing formula that uses an 18-to-1 ratio in treating equal amounts of crack and powder cocaine. The bipartisan vote was 361 to 66. Democrats and Republicans embraced the chance to correct what activists, researchers and law enforcement view as a historical wrong. Pricey powder cocaine has long been seen as the province of the wealthy, while crack is cheaper and generally associated with poorer Americans....

But the bill, called the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, has not yet landed on the floor of the Senate this spring, with both parties moving cautiously ahead of the pivotal midterm elections in November.

Schumer, who declined to describe a timeline for passage, appeared to be embarking upon a pressure campaign meant to clear space for the legislation’s approval without a fierce fight on the floor. In the Senate, Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) are sponsoring the legislation to end the sentencing disparities. “We’re working together — Sens. Booker, Portman and myself — figuring out the right timeframe and the right way to go,” Schumer told reporters Monday. “We want to get this done as soon as we can.”

Booker’s office said Monday that the legislation has picked up 21 cosponsors, including 11 Republicans, since it was introduced in the Senate in January. Booker said in a statement he was “pleased that Leader Schumer has called for a vote on the bill.” “For decades, our nation’s drug laws have been overly punitive and fraught with racial disparities, but perhaps no law has been as fundamentally flawed as the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity,” Booker said in the statement. “I look forward to passing the EQUAL Act as soon as possible.”

Beginning in 1986, mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine crimes were formulated using a staggering 100-to-1 ratio. The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, signed into law by President Barack Obama, changed the ratio to 18 to 1. “Some of our colleagues would say, ‘Well, I’ll lower it, but I won’t make it equal,’” said Schumer, who at one point held up sweetener packets as props during the news conference. “100 to 1 was horrible, but 18 to 1 was just as horrible, which it is now. 1 to 1 is fair.”

Senator Schumer is wrong to assert current crack sentencing after the Fair Sentencing Act is "just as horrible" as it was under the 100-1 ratio.  It is a bit better, but still not actually fair.  The EQUAL Act finally presents the prospect of getting to the 1-1 sentencing ratio that the US Sentencing Commission urged way back in 1995.  More than a quarter of a century later, I hope Senator Schumer is right about the fact that now is finally, finally "a moment to balance the scales of justice."

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

May 24, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 29, 2022

GOP Senators introduce competing crack/powder sentencing reform bill tougher than EQUAL Act

Regular readers should be aware from my prior postings that Congress seems poised to pass the EQUAL Act to entirely eliminate the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.  This disparity and its racialized impacts have been an ugly part of the federal sentencing landscape for over 35 years (when Congress first created the 100:1 disparity), and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 only partially reduced the disparity (down to 18:1).  But after the US House voted overwhelmingly, 361-66, to pass the EQUAL Act to end disparity last year, and after the Senate version had secured 11 GOP sponsors, I was hopeful the powder and crack cocaine disparity could and would finally be ended this year.

But, this press release from Senator Chuck Grassley's office, titled "Senators Introduce Bill To Reduce Crack-Powder Sentencing Disparity, Protect Communities From Criminals Most Likely To Reoffend," now has me concerned that a competing bill might now muck up the works.  Here are the details from the release:

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) today introduced the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act, which will reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders tried in federal courts. The legislation aims to make sentencing fairer while also preserving the ability of courts to keep those most likely to reoffend off the street.

“I’ve worked on this issue for many years. I cosponsored the 2010 legislation led by Senators Durbin and Sessions to reduce the disparity in sentencing from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.  It’s high time to do more to address this important issue and make our criminal code more just and fair.  Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring those more likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties.  Powder cocaine is being trafficked across the border in historic volumes, so we also need to take precautions that ensure these traffickers also face justice for spreading poison through our communities,” Grassley said....

This sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders has had a disparate impact on communities of color across the country.  Reducing this disparate impact is critical, but must be thoughtfully enacted to prevent likely reoffenders from returning to communities just to violate the law again.

Separate legislation has been introduced in the Senate to completely flatten the differences between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses.  This approach does not account for the differences in recidivism rates associated with the two types of cocaine offenses.  According to a January 2022 analysis from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), crack cocaine offenders recidivate at the highest rate of any drug type at 60.8 percent, while powder cocaine offenders recidivate at the lowest rate of any drug type at 43.8 percent.  Raising additional public safety concerns, USSC data reveals that crack cocaine offenders were the most likely among all drug offenders to carry deadly weapons during offenses. These statistics show the need for a close look at all available government data before we consider an approach to flatten sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses. 

The SMART [Start Making Adjustments and Require Transparency in] Cocaine Sentencing Act will reduce the current crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 18:1 to 2.5:1. It reduces the volume required to trigger 5-year mandatory minimum sentences for powder cocaine from 500 grams to 400 grams, and from 5 kilograms to 4 kilograms for 10-year mandatory minimum sentences.  For crack cocaine, the volume triggering a 5-year mandatory sentence is increased from 28 grams to 160 grams; the volume for the 10-year mandatory sentence is lifted from 280 grams to 1,600 grams.

Critically, the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act also requires an attorney general review and certification process for any retroactive sentencing adjustments. It provides for new federal research from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the lethality and addictiveness of these substances as well as what violence is associated with cocaine-related crimes. The legislation also requires a new report from the USSC on crack and powder cocaine offenses, including data on recidivism rates....

Full legislative text of the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act can be found HERE.  

Kevin Ring has an effective Twitter thread here criticizing various aspects of this proposal, which he calls the "The Grassley Unequal Act."  I hope that this bill does not impede progress on the EQUAL Act, but the fact that the EQUAL Act has not become law already make me concerned about the fate and future or long-overdue efforts to end the crack/cocaine sentencing disparity.

A few of many prior posts on the EQUAL Act:

UPDATE This new New York Times article, headlined "Drug Sentencing Bill Is in Limbo as Midterm Politics Paralyze Congress," details why the EQUAL Act may not get to the finish line in this Congress.  Here are excerpts:

[W]ith control of Congress at stake and Republicans weaponizing a law-and-order message against Democrats in their midterm election campaigns, the fate of the measure is in doubt. Democrats worry that bringing it up would allow Republicans to demand a series of votes that could make them look soft on crime and lax on immigration — risks they are reluctant to take months before they face voters.

Even the measure’s Republican backers concede that bringing it to the floor could lead to an array of difficult votes.  “I assume the topic opens itself pretty wide,” said Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, who became the 11th member of his party to sign on to the Equal Act this month, giving its supporters more than the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural obstacles....

Though Mr. Schumer endorsed the legislation in April, he has not laid out a timeline for bringing it to the floor.  Democrats say he is giving backers of the bill a chance to build additional support and find a way to advance the measure without causing a floor fight that could take weeks — time that Democrats do not have if they want to continue to win approval of new judges and take care of other business before the end of the year....

Its supporters say that they recognize the difficulties but believe that it is the single piece of criminal justice legislation with a chance of reaching the president’s desk in the current political environment.  “Of all the criminal justice bills, this is the one that is set up for success right now,” said Inimai Chettiar, the federal director for the Justice Action Network. “It is not going to be easy on the floor, but I think it is doable.”

The problem is that the push comes as top Republicans have made clear that they intend to try to capitalize on public concern about increasing crime in the battle for Senate and House control in November....  Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader, this week reprised his criticism of Judge Jackson and attacked Mr. Biden for having issued his first round of pardons and commutations, including for those convicted of drug crimes.  “They never miss an opportunity to send the wrong signal,” he said of Democrats.

Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who led the opposition to the First Step Act, said he was in no mood to let the Equal Act sail through. He has said that if the disparity is to be erased, penalties for powder cocaine should be increased.  “My opposition to the Equal Act will be as strong as my opposition to the First Step Act,” Mr. Cotton said.

The legislation encountered another complication on Thursday, when Senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Mike Lee of Utah, two top Republican supporters of the previous criminal justice overhaul, introduced a competing bill that would reduce — but not eliminate — the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. They said that research showed that crack traffickers were more likely to return to crime and carry deadly weapons.  “Our legislation will significantly reduce this disparity while ensuring those more likely to reoffend face appropriate penalties,” said Mr. Grassley, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

Sponsors of the Equal Act say they intend to push forward and remain optimistic that they can overcome the difficulties.  “We’ve got an amazing bill, and we’ve got 11 Republicans and people want to get this done,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and the lead sponsor of the legislation. “My hope is that we are going to have a shot to get this done right now.”

With strong advocates of the EQUAL Act now saying that getting this to the floor of the Senate is "doable" or can "have a shot," I cannot help but think it is quite a long shot this Congress.  Sigh.

April 29, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Is Congress finally on the verge of equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences?

I asked in this post a few weeks ago, "Why is getting the EQUAL Act through the US Senate proving so challenging?".  Excitingly, as detailed in this new Bloomberg piece, headlined "GOP Support Clears Senate Path for Bill on Cocaine Sentencing," it now looks like a bill to equalize crack and powder sentences now may have a ready path to passage. Here are the exciting details:

Ten Senate Republicans have signed on to a bill that would eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between drug offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, paving the way for likely passage in the evenly divided chamber where 60 votes are needed for most legislation.

“That looks like you’d get to 60, really,” said Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, one of the 10 GOP co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act.  “This is the Democrats’ prerogative, it’d be nice if they would bring it to the floor.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor on Monday, but his office did not immediately respond to questions on his plans for floor debate.  The bill passed the House, 361-66, in September and President Joe Biden, who campaigned on criminal justice reform, is expected to sign the measure when it reaches his desk.

The bill, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, eliminates the lower quantity thresholds for crack cocaine, which the bill’s proponents have said unjustly targets Black offenders.

In 2020, the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 77.1% of crack cocaine trafficking offenders were Black and 6.3% were White.  Yet White people are more likely to use cocaine in their lifetime than any other group, according to the 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.

Current laws establish an 18-to-1 ratio on federal penalties for crack and powder cocaine, meaning anyone found with 28 grams of crack cocaine would face the same five-year mandatory prison sentence as a person found with 500 grams of powder cocaine....

Sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine were originally created in 1986 with a 100-to-1 ratio.  The Sentencing Commission issued a special report in 1995 stating the 100-to-1 ratio punished low-level crack dealers “far more severely” than high-level suppliers of powder cocaine, despite there being no pharmacological difference between the two forms of the drug.  Then-President Bill Clinton and Congress rejected the commission’s recommendations to amend the law.

Fifteen years later, Congress reduced the sentencing disparity from to 18-to-1, but advocates have fought to further narrow the sentencing gap....

Senator Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, recently signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill after studying the issue with constituents, he said, and determining this would be a step toward “criminal justice fairness.” Moran said it is his “expectation that this bill will be considered by the Senate.”

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

March 23, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Why is getting the EQUAL Act through the US Senate proving so challenging?

In this post six weeks ago on MLK day, I asked "How about passing the EQUAL Act so we can be 'free at last' from the crack/powder sentencing disparity?".  I noted in this prior post that the Senate version of the EQUAL Act has garnered seven notable and diverse GOP Senators as co-sponsors, and that this comes after last Fall the Act was passed by the US House by a vote of 361-66 with a majority of GOP Representative voting in favor.  These matters are on my mind particularly today after seeing this new DOJ press release headed "Readout of Justice Department Leadership Meeting with FAMM."  Here is an excerpt (with my emphasis added):

The meeting focused on the positive real-world impact of the finalization of the First Step Act Time Credit Rule, and the recent memorandum by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) concerning home confinement, as well as the need for Congress to pass the EQUAL Act.  The department has strongly urged Congress to pass the EQUAL ACT, which would reduce the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences from 18:1 to 1:1.

The Attorney General emphasized that meetings like these are “vitally important” to help department leadership understand how its “policies on paper affect people and their communities.”    During her remarks, Deputy Attorney General Monaco spoke about the importance of implementing the First Step Act and the Time Credit Rule and praised the work of FAMM. She noted that “as of this month, thousands of people are returning to their communities having put in the work to do so.”  

In Associate Attorney General Gupta’s opening remarks, she reiterated the importance of hearing from individuals directly impacted by the criminal justice system and shared that the department provided written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of the EQUAL Act in June 2021, saying, “the current sentencing differential between crack and powder cocaine is not based in evidence and yet has caused significant harm in particular to communities of color.  It’s past time to correct this.”

I strongly agree that it is long past time to fix the crack/powder disparity, and every day matters: on average, every single workday, about 5 people — 4 whom are typically black and the other who is most likely Latino — are sentenced based on unjust crack sentencing rules in federal court.  Consequently, I continue to be deeply troubled that, nearly six months after the US House overwhelmingly voted with majorities in both parties in pass a bill to equalize crack and powder penalties, this bipartisan bill remains stuck in neutral in the US Senate.  Sigh.

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

March 1, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, January 17, 2022

How about passing the EQUAL Act so we can be "free at last" from the crack/powder sentencing disparity?

On MLK day, I have a tradition of making time to listen to the full "I Have A Dream" speech by Dr. King, which always delivers and always has its own unique power each and every listen.  In recent years, I have also used this day to explore Stanford University's awesome collection of MLK Papers; in posts linked below, I have quoted from various renown speeches and writings with an emphasis on the intersection of the civil rights movement and criminal justice reform.  But this recent news item from Wyoming has me today focused on a specific policy ask for advancing freedom and racial justice:

U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., became the seventh Republican co-sponsor of the EQUAL Act on Friday, which would fully and finally eliminate the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.

The two substances are virtually identical and equally dangerous, and yet crack carries a penalty that is 18 times that of powder cocaine, according to a news release. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a margin of 361-66, including 143 Republicans.

Lummis joined Republican Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Thom Tillis, R-N.C.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, as co-sponsors. Advocates from across the political spectrum said the addition of Lummis is a clear indication that the EQUAL Act has the momentum needed to pass the Senate....

The EQUAL Act has support from groups across the political spectrum, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association, National District Attorneys Association, Americans for Tax Reform, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Prison Fellowship, Due Process Institute, Americans for Prosperity, FAMM, Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, Faith and Freedom Coalition, ALEC Action, R Street Institute, FreedomWorks and Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

With seven notable and diverse GOP senators serving now serving as co-sponsors for the EQUAL Act, I have to believe this bill could easily overcome any filibuster efforts and secure passage on the floor of the Senate (likely by the 5 to 1 margin that it secured passage in the House).  So why is this not getting done ASAP?  To its credit, the Biden Administration has testified in support of the EQUAL Act in the US Senate, but I have not heard Prez Biden himself (or VP Harris) lean into this issue at all.  (Notably, if they want to focus on voting rights as a focal point for civil rights advocacy, they might also really advance the MLK legacy by taking on felony disenfranchisement.  Moreover, they should try to get bipartisan bills like the EQUAL Act passed into law so that people who care about criminal justice reform can better understand why they should bother to vote at all.)  

In part because US Sentencing Commission data reveal that "only" 1,217 persons were sentenced on crack trafficking offenses in FY 2020, which accounts for "only" 7.5% of all offenders sentenced for drug trafficking offenses, the import and impact of the EQUAL Act would not be as huge now as it might have been in years past.  (In FY 2009, just before the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-1 to 18-1, there were over 5,000 persons sentenced on crack offenses; indeed, more than 5,000 persons were sentenced each year on federal crack offenses through most of the 2000s.)  Still, the USSC 2020 data show that over 93% of those sentenced for federal crack offenses are persons of color (with 77% black), so that there is still a profound inequitable impact from our federal sentencing scheme that still unfairly treats crack offenses as much more serious than functionally comparable powder offenses.

Links to some prior MLK Day posts:

A few related posts on the EQUAL Act:

January 17, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, January 14, 2022

Illinois judge decides to acquit teen in sexual assault case to avoid four-year mandatory minimum term

The New York Times has this interesting new article about a troubling example of how mandatory minimum sentences can (and often do) end up distorting the operation of our justices systems.  The full headline of the article provides the essentials: "Judge Tosses Teen’s Sexual Assault Conviction, Drawing Outrage; Drew Clinton, 18, faced four years in prison under Illinois sentencing guidelines. But the judge, Robert Adrian, overturned his conviction this month, saying the sentence was “not just." Here are the details:

Last October, a judge in western Illinois convicted an 18-year-old man of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl while she was unconscious at a graduation party.

The man, Drew Clinton, faced a mandatory minimum sentence of four years in prison, but at a hearing earlier this month, Judge Robert Adrian reversed his own decision and threw out the conviction.  The nearly five months Mr. Clinton had served in jail, the judge said, was “plenty of punishment.”

The decision, which was reported by the Herald-Whig of Quincy, Ill., has dismayed organizations that help survivors of sexual assault, the Adams County state’s attorney’s office and the girl who reported the assault, who told a local television station that she was present when Judge Adrian overturned Mr. Clinton’s conviction. “He made me seem like I fought for nothing and that I put my word out there for no reason,” she told WGEM-TV. “I immediately had to leave the courtroom and go to the bathroom. I was crying.”...

Mr. Clinton was charged with criminal sexual assault on June 1, 2021.  The girl reported that he sexually assaulted her after she became intoxicated at a party on May 30, according to court records.  During the bench trial, she testified that she was unconscious and woke up to find a pillow covering her face and Mr. Clinton assaulting her....

Mr. Schnack [a lawyer for Mr. Clinton] argued that mandatory sentences take away a judge’s discretion. “Every individual should be judged by the court in doing its sentence and not by a legislator years and hundreds of miles removed,” he said, according to the transcript.

He also said that prosecutors had not proved their case against Mr. Clinton and that the girl was able to consent.  Mr. Schnack said that she made many decisions that night, including drinking and stripping down to her underwear to go swimming. “They weren’t the best decisions,” he said. “She did know what was going on.”

Judge Adrian said he knew that, by law, Mr. Clinton was supposed to serve time in prison, but in this case, the sentence was unfair, partly because Mr. Clinton turned 18 just two weeks before the party and, until his arrest, had no criminal record.  “That is not just,” Judge Adrian said during the Jan. 3 hearing, according to the transcript. “There is no way for what happened in this case that this teenager should go to the Department of Corrections. I will not do that.”

He said that if he ruled that the sentence was unconstitutional, his decision would be reversed on appeal.  Instead, he said, what he could do was “find that the people failed to prove their case.” Judge Adrian chastised the parents and other adults who he said provided liquor to the teenagers at the party and failed “to exercise their parental responsibilities.”...

Carrie Ward, the chief executive of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the judge’s comments and his decision to throw out Mr. Clinton’s conviction were “a clean and clear example of victim blaming.” By highlighting the girl’s clothing and chastising the hosts of the party, the judge shifted “100 percent of the blame from the perpetrator, from the actual person who committed the sexual assault, to everyone else, including the victim,” Ms. Ward said.

I am troubled that the judge here felt compelled to nullify guilt because he was unable or unwilling to develop an argument that a four-year prison term would be unjust and possibly illegal. I do not know Illinois law well enough to know if state constitutional jurisprudence or other doctrines could have provided a basis for the judge to rule that he had to be able to give effect to the defendant's youth and other mitigating factors. But if the judge made a compelling case for a more just sentence, perhaps prosecutors would not have appealed or perhaps appellate courts would have embraced the analysis. Instead, we have a case in which a judge seems to want to believe that two legal wrongs make a right.

January 14, 2022 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, January 07, 2022

Two of three defendants convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery given LWOP, other gets life with parole

This lengthy USA Today piece reports on a high-profile state sentencing that took place down in Georgia.  Here are the basics:

A judge sentenced three men to life in prison Friday for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and denied the possibility of parole for two of the defendants, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael.  However Judge Timothy Walmsley granted the possibility of parole to William "Roddie" Bryan, the McMichaels' neighbor who joined the chase and took video of the killing. Bryan must serve at least 30 years in prison before becoming eligible....

Before the sentencing was read, Walmsley held a minute of silence to represent a fraction of the time Arbery was running before he was shot.  He called the image of Travis McMichael aiming a shotgun at Arbery "absolutely chilling." The judge also quoted the defendant's statements, saying their words gave context to the video and guided his sentencing decision. The minimum penalty required by law for the murder charges is a life sentence; Walmsley had to determine whether each defendant would have the possibility of parole....

The three men chased the Arbery, 25, in trucks while he was running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020.  The men weren't arrested for more than two months when Bryan's video was released, which fueled nationwide racial justice protests and later became a key piece of evidence in the murder trial. The nearly-all white jury deliberated for almost two days before finding the men guilty.  They were taken to Glynn County jail after the verdict was reached and are expected to appeal....

Walmsley said that while sentencing may not provide closure for the family, the community or the nation, it would hold the defendants accountable for their actions.  Arbery's parents, Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones, cried as the sentence was read.  Earlier Friday, the family asked for all three defendants to get the harshest penalty as they shared memories of him and the toll his death has taken....

The defendants all had the opportunity to speak before sentencing, a time when judges typically expect to hear remorse, but did not....

After being sentenced on the state charges, the three men will face a federal hate crimes trial for killing Arbery.  The three men are white; Arbery was Black. All three are charged with interfering with Arbery's rights and attempted kidnapping.  The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying and brandishing — and in Travis McMichael’s case, firing — a gun during and in relation to a crime of violence.

The federal charges are punishable by death, life in prison or a shorter prison sentence and a fine, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.  There is no parole in the federal system. Attorneys will begin selecting a jury from a wide pool of 43 counties across the Southern District of Georgia for that trial Feb. 7. The proceedings are set to take place in Glynn County.

The McMichaels and Bryan are also facing a civil lawsuit filed by Arbery’s mother. The wrongful death suit seeks $1 million in damages and also names former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, former Glynn County Police Chief John Powell, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, and several Glynn County police officers.

January 7, 2022 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, December 17, 2021

Another crazy long sentence resulting from crazy crude mandatory minimums after deadly accident in Colorado

A very sad case turned into a very extreme sentence for a truck driver in Colorado earlier this week.  This lengthy local story, headlined "Driver gets 110 years in fiery I-70 crash that killed 4," provides lots of the details and videos from the sentencing.  Here are the basics:

The man convicted after a crash on Interstate 70 that left four people dead was sentenced to 110 years in prison Monday afternoon.

Rogel Aguilera-Mederos was 23 when his semi-truck slammed into stopped traffic on the interstate near Denver West Parkway on April 25, 2019.  Four people died instantly from the impact: Doyle Harrison, William Bailey, Miguel Angel Lamas Arellano and Stanley Politano. It is believed they all died from injuries and not the resulting fire.

Aguilera-Mederos was found guilty by a jury on 27 counts in total.  The most serious charges were four counts of vehicular manslaughter.  Other counts he was found guilty of included first-degree assault, first-degree attempt to commit assault, vehicular assault, reckless driving and careless driving. He was found not guilty on 15 counts of first-degree attempt to commit assault.

Judge A. Bruce Jones sentenced Aguilera-Mederos to the required 10-year minimum for each of the six counts of first-degree assault with extreme indifference, to be served consecutively.  He was also sentenced to the required minimum of five years for 10 additional counts of attempted first-degree assault with extreme indifference.  Those will be served consecutively as well.

The judge said the legislature required him to order those sentences be served consecutively, which was why, he said, he issued the minimum sentence for those charges.  However, he did say he may have sentenced Aguilera-Mederos to more than the minimum, if not required to issue the sentences consecutively.

"In all victim impact statements I read, I did not glean from them someone saying, 'He should be in prison for the rest of his life, and he should never, ever get out," Jones said.  "Far from it. There was forgiveness reflected in those statements, but also a desire that he be punished and serve time in prison, and I share those sentiments."

In addition to the 110 years stemming from those charges, Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 30 years for 11 other charges that will be served concurrently.

Aguilera-Mederos was extremely emotional as he asked for forgiveness before Jones announced the sentence. "I know it has been hard and heartbreaking for everyone involved," he said though tears. "I can't sleep, I think all the time about the victims. A part of me will be missing forever, as well." Aguilera-Mederos said he took responsibility for the crash, and said it was not intentional. "I have never thought about hurting anyone in my entire life," he said....

The judge said his hands were tied when it came to sentencing, because Colorado's violent crime statute is specific. 9NEWS Legal Expert Scott Robinson said certain violent crimes require a minimum sentence for each victim, and they have to run consecutively. But he said there is one way for violent crime sentences to be reduced.

"Colorado's violent crimes statute gives judges some discretion after 180 days have passed," Robinson said. "Here, the sentencing judge, Bruce Jones, will have an opportunity to determine whether there were unusual and extenuating circumstances which would justify a reduction in the sentences imposed." The judge said he could not assure the courtroom this would be the end of this process, giving an indication that he may consider a motion like that.

The jury had to decide whether the crash resulted from a series of bad choices by the driver or a mechanical failure that the driver had no control over. Aguilera-Mederos faced 42 counts in all. He testified for hours and tearfully recounted publicly for the first time his version of what happened on that day.

Both sides agreed that his truck lost brakes at some point, but they disagreed on how or why that happened.... After the brakes were out, prosecutors argued that Aguilera-Mederos made a series of bad choices that resulted in the crash. One of them being his failure to use a runaway truck ramp on the highway.

I do not know the particulars of Colorado sentencing law, but I sure hope there is a mechanism for the reconsideration of this crazy extreme sentence before too long. But the very possibility that an awful accident can lead to an initial mandated sentence of 100+ years suggest to me that some reform of Colorado sentencing law is still needed.

Here is some other notable recent coverage of this case:

"Trucker’s 110-year sentence in fatal I-70 crash spotlights Colorado sentencing laws, prosecutors’ charging decisions"

"He Was Sentenced To 110 Years in Prison for Causing a Fatal Traffic Accident. The Judge Isn't Happy About It."

"Truck Driver Sentenced 110 Years For Deadly Crash Stemming From Brake Failure Even Though Everyone Agrees It's Unreasonable"

December 17, 2021 in Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (15)

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

"Time For Justice The Urgent Need For Second Chances In Pennsylvania’s Sentencing System"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report written by Emily Bloomenthal, Director of Research at FAMM.  Here is part of how the report's executive summary gets started:

Too many people in Pennsylvania are serving long prison terms that don’t make communities safer.  People who do not pose a risk to public safety languish in prison for decades because Pennsylvania’s laws don’t give them a second chance.  This report, which focuses on people serving minimum sentences of 20 years or longer, looks at the harms and injustices of extreme sentences in Pennsylvania, as well as opportunities for reform.

Key findings:

Pennsylvania’s prison population has been shaped by some of the harshest sentencing policies in the country.

• In 2019, Pennsylvania imprisoned more than seven times the number of people that it did in 1970.  That growth was driven by punitive policy choices, not increases in crime, and it did not make Pennsylvanians safer.

• Pennsylvania is a national leader in imposing extreme sentences.  This ranking is largely driven by two laws: the mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment required for first- and second-degree murder, and the denial of parole eligibility to anyone serving a life sentence. In Pennsylvania prisons, 13.4% of people are serving life without parole (LWOP), compared to only 3.6% nationally.

• The population serving extreme sentences in Pennsylvania has surged over the last few decades. There were more than nine times as many people serving extreme sentences in 2019 than there were in 1980.

• Pennsylvania’s extreme sentencing practices have overwhelmingly impacted people of color, especially Black people, who make up less than 11% of Pennsylvania’s population but 65% of people serving life sentences and 58% of those serving non-life sentences of 20 years or longer.

• Pennsylvania’s extreme sentencing practices have created a large (and growing) elderly prison population, which increased thirtyfold from 1979 to 2019.

Pennsylvania’s extreme sentences are a high-cost, low-value proposition for taxpayers.

• Researchers have found no evidence that severe sentencing policies discourage people from choosing to engage in crime.

• Extreme sentences are not necessary for preventing recidivism, because the vast majority of people who commit crimes — even very serious crimes — naturally grow out of criminal behavior as they age and mature.  For example, of the 174 Philadelphia juvenile lifers — all originally convicted of homicide — who were resentenced and released following landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions, only two (1.1%) had been reconvicted of any offense as of 2020.

• Based on average incarceration costs, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (DOC) is spending $220 million per year to incarcerate 3,892 people who have already served at least 20 years.  The true cost is undoubtedly higher, because incarceration costs increase dramatically as people age and need more medical care.

• The average cost for incarcerated individuals in skilled or personal care units is $500 per day (or $182,625 per year), more than three times the cost for the general population.

November 17, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Another quartet of must-read new essays in Brennan Center's "Punitive Excess" series

highlighted here back in April the terrific new essay series assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice under the title "Punitive Excess."  I have blogged about sets of new essays repeatedly (as linked below) because each new set of new essays are must reads (like all that come before).  Since my last posting a few months ago, the series has added four awesome new essays, and here are links to the latest quartet:

Prior related posts:

November 16, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Notable new essays in Brennan Center's "Punitive Excess" series focused on responding to violent crime and mandatory minimums

highlighted here back in April the terrific essay series assembled by the Brennan Center for Justice under the title "Punitive Excess."  I have blogged about sets of new essays repeatedly (as linked below) because each new set of new essays are must reads (like all that come before).  The latest pair of piece ought to be of particular interest to sentencing fans:

Both of these pieces are must reads, and the piece on mandatory minimums has links to research and other materials that might be useful for those litigating against such sentences or seeking reductions therefrom.  Here is a segment (with links) from that piece:

[P]rosecutors’ power over mandatory minimums in turn creates racial disparities, obliterating any pretense of an unbiased system.  A recent study finds that prosecutors’ mandatory minimum charges resulted in Black individuals spending more time in prison than whites for the exact same crimes.  In fact, prosecutors bring mandatory minimums 65 percent more often against Black defendants, all else remaining equal. Another study similarly finds that some federal prosecutors charge Black and Latino individuals more often than white individuals with possession or sale of a quantity of drugs just sufficient to trigger a mandatory minimum; the disparity is highest “in states with higher levels of racial animus.”

Finally, mandatory minimums do not promote community safety.  Rather, any prison time at all increases the risk of future crime because “incarceration is inherently criminogenic”; mandatory minimums only exacerbate this situation.  Florida experienced a 50 percent spike in crime after enacting mandatory minimums.  Long sentences also make it more difficult for people to reintegrate into society.  And our overreliance on prisons makes us less safe by diverting resources from other critical public safety needs.  In contrast, studies show that shorter sentences in drug cases neither diminish public safety nor increase drug abuse.

The dominant paradigm is vulnerable, and instituting a new paradigm is both possible and crucial. President Biden and his attorney general have denounced mandatory minimums, as did former Attorney General Eric Holder.  Even though federal prosecutors — all of whom are subject to supervision by the Department of Justice — have long been the primary proponents of mandatory minimums, Attorney General Merrick Garland affirmed this position during his confirmation hearings: “We should . . . , as President Biden has suggested, seek the elimination of mandatory minimum[s].”

However, despite Garland’s testimony, his Department of Justice has given no sign that it will stop pursuing mandatory minimums. In fact, earlier this year, Garland reinstated a 2010 Holder policy that incorporated a long-standing directive to federal prosecutors: “Where two crimes have the same statutory maximum and the same guideline range, but only one contains a mandatory minimum penalty, the one with the mandatory minimum” should be charged.  To make matters worse, Garland chose not to reinstate a 2013 Holder policy that both directed prosecutors to decline to charge a mandatory minimum in “low-level, non-violent drug offenses” and explicitly acknowledged that such sentences “do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation.”  After twenty years defending people charged with federal crimes, I’ve learned that prosecutors are rarely agents of change.  This is unfortunate because Garland has real power to reduce racialized mass incarceration. He can and should instruct federal prosecutors to refrain from charging and seeking mandatory sentences, especially in drug cases, where popular opposition to mandatory minimums is strongest.

Prior related posts:

October 18, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

"The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons"

The title of this post is the title of this new publication by The Sentencing Project authored by Ashley Nellis.  Here are parts of the report's overview:

This report details our observations of staggering disparities among Black and Latinx people imprisoned in the United States given their overall representation in the general population.  The latest available data regarding people sentenced to state prison reveal that Black Americans are imprisoned at a rate that is roughly five times the rate of white Americans.  During the present era of criminal justice reform, not enough emphasis has been focused on ending racial and ethnic disparities systemwide.

Going to prison is a major life-altering event that creates obstacles to building stable lives in the community, such as gaining employment and finding stable and safe housing after release. Imprisonment also reduces lifetime earnings and negatively affects life outcomes among children of incarcerated parents.

These are individual-level consequences of imprisonment but there are societal level consequences as well: high levels of imprisonment in communities cause high crime rates and neighborhood deterioration, thus fueling greater disparities.  This cycle both individually and societally is felt disproportionately by people who are Black. It is clear that the outcome of mass incarceration today has not occurred by happenstance but has been designed through policies created by a dominant white culture that insists on suppression of others....

Truly meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system cannot be accomplished without acknowledgement of its racist underpinnings. Immediate and focused attention on the causes and consequences of racial disparities is required in order to eliminate them.  True progress towards a racially just system requires an understanding of the variation in racial and ethnic inequities in imprisonment across states and the policies and day-to-day practices that drive these inequities.

KEY FINDINGS

  • Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly 5 times the rate of white Americans.
  • Nationally, one in 81 Black adults per 100,000 in the U.S. is serving time in state prison.  Wisconsin leads the nation in Black imprisonment rates; one of every 36 Black Wisconsinites is in prison.
  • In 12 states, more than half the prison population is Black: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
  • Seven states maintain a Black/white disparity larger than 9 to 1: California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.
  • Latinx individuals are incarcerated in state prisons at a rate that is 1.3 times the incarceration rate of whites.  Ethnic disparities are highest in Massachusetts, which reports an ethnic differential of 4.1:1.

RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Eliminate mandatory sentences for all crimes.  Mandatory minimum sentences, habitual offender laws, and mandatory transfer of juveniles to the adult criminal system give prosecutors too much authority while limiting the discretion of impartial judges.  These policies contributed to a substantial increase in sentence length and time served in prison, disproportionately imposing unduly harsh sentences on Black and Latinx individuals.

2. Require prospective and retroactive racial impact statements for all criminal statutes.  The Sentencing Project urges states to adopt forecasting estimates that will calculate the impact of proposed crime legislation on different populations in order to minimize or eliminate the racially disparate impacts of certain laws and policies.  Several states have passed “racial impact statement” laws.  To undo the racial and ethnic disparity resulting from decades of tough-on-crime policies, however, states should also repeal existing racially biased laws and policies.  The impact of racial impact laws will be modest at best if they remain only forward looking.

3. Decriminalize low-level drug offenses.  Discontinue arrest and prosecutions for low-level drug offenses which often lead to the accumulation of prior convictions which accumulate disproportionately in communities of color.  These convictions generally drive further and deeper involvement in the criminal legal system.

October 13, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 07, 2021

New California law to end mandatory minimum terms for many non-violent drug offenses

Ironically, I have been so busy this week with this on-going conference about drug sentencing, I am just now getting a chance to blog about the drug sentencing news from California discussed in this local article headlined "Gov. Newsom Signs Bill Ending Mandatory Minimum Sentences For Many Non-Violent Drug Crimes." Here are details:

Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that ends mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes on Tuesday, giving judges more individual discretion on punishing criminals.

Senate Bill 73, authored by Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), ends the prohibition against probation and suspended sentencing for drug crimes, including possessing more than 14.25 grams of illegal drugs, agreeing to sell or transport opiates or opium derivatives, planting or cultivating peyote, some forging or altering prescription crimes, and other similar non-violent drug-related crimes.

According to SB 73, the bill would not end the ability of judges to administer mandatory minimum length jail sentences. It would also not end laws that require jail time for many other drug offenses or remove probation ineligibility for those who had previously committed drug felonies.

Senator Wiener wrote the bill earlier this year to better address drug addiction treatment and to stop mass non-violent crime imprisonments. “Our prisons and jails are filled with people, particularly from communities of color, who have committed low-level, nonviolent drug offenses and who would be much better served by non-carceral options like probation, rehabilitation and treatment,” Wiener said in a statement on Tuesday. “It’s an important measure that will help end California’s system of mass incarceration.”...

However, law enforcement groups reiterated on Tuesday and Wednesday that the removal of mandatory minimums would lead to side effects such as an increase of drug use, a rise in drug sales, and a rise in drug-related crimes.  “SB 73 sets a dangerous precedent and would jeopardize the health and safety of the communities we are sworn to protect,” said the California Police Chiefs Association in response to the signing.

October 7, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Wooden it be remarkable if the Constitution again has something to say about applying ACCA?

For some reason, the Supreme Court's Wooden case concerning proper application of the Armed Career Criminal Act prompts me to make silly post titles.  My prior recent post, "Wooden, SCOTUS on the ACCA, not so free and easy," riffed poorly on song lyrics, while today I am trying a bad pun.  The question within the punny title here is driven by the fact that the Supreme Court has previously blown up part of ACCA based on Fifth Amendment vagueness problems (Johnson from 2015) and has also shaped its application of the statute based on Sixth Amendment jury right worries (Shepard from 2005).  So, perhaps unsurprisingly, during SCOTUS oral argument yesterday in Wooden, a number of Justices raised both Fifth and Sixth Amendment concerns about  courts having to figure out the reach of ACCA's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum for unlawful gun possession based on just whether and when a defendant on a prior crime spree has committed predicate offenses "on occasions different from one another."

I am disinclined to make bold predictions after listening to the oral argument, though I am tempted to predict that the defendant will prevail and the question is going to be on what ground(s). I reach that view because even Justice Alito seemed to be struggling to figure out how to give meaningful content to a key phrase that determines at least five years of federal imprisonment.  Here are a few choice quotes from Justice Alito: "This seems to me to be a nearly impossible question of statutory interpretation because the term 'occasion"' does not have a very precise meaning.";  "I have no idea what an occasion is or what a criminal opportunity is or what a criminal episode is."  If Justice Alito cannot come up with a pro-prosecution reading of the applicable statute, I doubt other Justices will be able to do so -- especially because many of the other Justices who generally tend to favor the government also tend to be fans of the Fifth and/or Sixth Amendment doctrines in play in this case (I am thinking here of the Chief Justice as well as Justices Thomas and Gorsuch).

For some other views on the argument, here is a round up of some of the press coverage I have seen:

From Bloomberg Law, "Justices Parse ‘Occasion’ Meaning in Career-Criminal Appeal"

From Courthouse News Service, "Burglary of many units in one facility poses counting challenge at sentencing"

From Law360, "Justices Dubious About Feds' 'Career Criminal' Interpretation"

From SCOTUSBlog, "A hypothetical-filled argument proves how tricky it is to define an 'occasion'"

October 5, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, October 03, 2021

Wooden, SCOTUS on the ACCA, not so free and easy

The title of this post is my not-so-clever way of connecting the Supreme Court's new-Term opening case on the Armed Career Criminal Act to a depressing CSN&Y song.  The lyrics of the song "Wooden Ships" are only a bit more opaque than the language that SCOTUS has to sort out in Wooden v. US concerning the proper application of the severe sentencing mandatory minimum of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Daniel Harawa at SCOTUSblog has a full preview of the case in this new post titled "What’s an “occasion”? Scope of Armed Career Criminal Act depends on the answer."  Here is an excerpt (with links from the original):

If you break into a storage facility and steal from 10 separate storage units, did you commit 10 offenses “on occasions different from one another”? The Supreme Court will answer this question in Wooden v. United States, yet another case concerning the scope of the Armed Career Criminal Act....

The federal government charged Wooden with being a felon in possession of a firearm — a crime for which the maximum punishment is 10 years’ imprisonment. The government also requested that Wooden be designated an armed career criminal under the Armed Career Criminal Act, in which case Wooden would be subject to a 15-year mandatory minimum.  To qualify as an armed career criminal, a defendant must have three prior “violent felony” or “serious drug offense” convictions.  Here, the government argued that Wooden’s 10 burglary convictions qualified as 10 “violent felonies” for ACCA purposes.  To constitute separate convictions under ACCA, the crimes must be “committed on occasions different from one another.”  Wooden argued that the 10 burglaries all occurred on the same “occasion,” and therefore counted for only one qualifying violent felony under ACCA.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed with the government.  It held that the crimes were committed on separate “occasions” because Wooden “committed ten distinct acts of burglary.”  To the 6th Circuit, it was dispositive that “Wooden could not be in two (let alone ten) of [the storage units] at once.”  Much like the 6th Circuit, other circuits had held that crimes are committed on different “occasions” for ACCA purposes when they are committed “successively rather than simultaneously,” as in United States v. Carter, an 11th Circuit case.  Other circuits, however, looked beyond temporality and instead considered whether the crimes were committed under sufficiently different circumstances.  The 2nd Circuit, for instance, “distinguish[ed] between the defendant who simply commits several offenses in a connected chain of events and the defendant who … commits multiple crimes separated by substantial effort and reflection.” The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve this split.

Before the Supreme Court both Wooden and the government argue that ACCA’s structure, history, and purpose support their position.

October 3, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 01, 2021

After an overwhelming majority of GOP House delegation voted for EQUAL Act, can the Senate move quickly to finally right a 35-year wrong?

I was very excited when earlier this week the US House voted 361-66 to pass the EQUAL Act to end the statutory disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences.  I was also pleased to see this follow-up press release from my GOP senator headlined "Portman, Senate Co-Sponsors Laud House Passage of EQUAL Act."  Here is the text:

U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the bipartisan Senate sponsors of the EQUAL Act, issued the below statement following the passage of the EQUAL Act in the House of Representatives by a bipartisan vote of 361-66.

“Today, House Republicans and Democrats joined together in passing the EQUAL Act, legislation that will once and for all eliminate the unjust federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity.  Enjoying broad support from faith groups, civil rights organizations, law enforcement, and people of all political backgrounds, this commonsense bill will help reform our criminal justice system so that it better lives up to the ideals of true justice and equality under the law.  We applaud the House for its vote today and we urge our colleagues in the Senate to support this historic legislation.”

Ohio eliminated the crack-powder sentencing disparities back in 2011.

Along with bipartisan support in Congress, this landmark legislation has support from groups across the political spectrum, including the National District Attorneys Association, Americans for Tax Reform, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Prison Fellowship, Due Process Institute, Americans for Prosperity, FAMM, Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition, Digital Liberty, Faith and Freedom Coalition, ALEC Action, R Street Institute, National Association for Public Defense, American Civil Liberties Union, Sentencing Project, Fair Trials, FreedomWorks, Center for American Progress, Drug Policy Alliance, Jesuit Conference, Black Public Defender Association, Dream Corps JUSTICE, Federal Public and Community Defenders, Innocence Project, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, and Tzedek Association.

So three notable GOP Senators from pretty red states are co-sponsors of the EQUAL Act in the Senate, and a wide array of right-leaning advocacy groups are also eager to see this pass.  And, to highlight again the House vote specifics, roughly twice as many GOP reps voted for the EQUAL Act as voted against it.  If this same breakdown happened on the Senate side, there would be over 80  total votes for passage of the EQUAL Act in the Senate.  Even if only half of GOP Senators support the EQUAL Act, that makes 75 votes in the Senate.  And, of course, only 10 GOP votes would be needed to end any filibuster, which I presume Senator Cotton would launch to gum up the works, to permit a floor vote.

So, if ever there was a federal criminal justice reform bill that should be a relatively easy lift, I would hope this is it.  And yet, I have not seen any advocates talk as if Senate action is imminent or even all that likely.  As I mentioned to a Vice News reporter who wrote here about the House vote, an average of more than four persons are sentenced in federal court for crack offenses every single week day, and many tends of thousands of (disproportionately black) offenders have been sentenced unfairly now for a full 35 years since the crack/powder disparity first became law way back in 1986.  There is no need or value to waiting to finally make all federal cocaine offenses subject to the same sentencing rules, and so I hope the Senate might move swiftly.  But, as is always the case it seems when in comes to Congress, I do not think there is reason to be optimistic.  Sigh.

(Oh, and more more point while I am bemoaning Beltway activities (or lack thereof): even if the EQUAL Act were to move forward quickly in the Senate, I do not think it currently provides emergency authority for the US Sentencing Commission to change the crack guidelines AND the US Sentencing Commission is currently inert until Prez Biden nominates a slate of Commissioners and those folks garner Senate confirmation.  Fortunately, because the guidelines are advisory, district judges could ignore the disparate crack guidelines even while still in place after passage of the EQUAL Act.  But then again, those disparate guidelines can and should be ignored now, and yet they are still followed in many cases and still create a benchmark that shapes and distorts the sentencing process.)

October 1, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

US House votes 361-66 to pass today the EQUAL Act to end disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences

Based on data showing huge unfair disparities, the US Sentencing Commission in 1995 — more than a 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 ushering in decades more disproportionately severe crack sentences and extreme racial inequities in federal cocaine offense punishments.

Barack Obama at Howard University gave a 2007 campaign speech — exactly 14 years ago today — 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 new 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.

But in early fall 2021, and despite the deep divisions on so many political issues, the vast majority of US Representatives spoke together today to say that federal law should no longer sentence crack and powder cocaine offense differently.  This Hill article explains:

The House passed legislation on Tuesday that would eliminate the federal disparity in prison sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, in an effort to enact criminal justice reform on a bipartisan basis. The bill, which lawmakers passed 361-66, is meant to address a gap that its proponents say has largely fallen on Black people and other people of color.

The House passed the measure handily, but the vote divided Republicans. A majority of House Republicans voted for the bill with all Democrats, but the 66 votes in opposition all came from the GOP....

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a law signed by then-President Reagan as part of the “War on Drugs,” established a five-year minimum sentence for possessing at least five grams of crack, while an individual would have to possess at least 500 grams of powder cocaine to receive the same sentence. A 2010 law called the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the cocaine sentencing disparity for pending and future cases, but did not fully eliminate it. And a criminal justice reform bill enacted in 2018 under former President Trump allowed people convicted prior to passage of the 2010 law to seek resentencing.

Under the bill the House passed on Tuesday, defendants who were previously convicted for crack cocaine offenses would also be allowed to petition for sentence reductions.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), a former judge, said the measure was a “a great start toward getting the right thing done” as he recalled dealing with cocaine cases. “Something I thought Texas did right was have a up to 12 months substance abuse felony punishment facility. Some thought it was strange that a strong conservative like myself used that as much as I did. But I saw this is so addictive, it needs a length of time to help people to change their lives for such a time that they've got a better chance of making it out, understanding just how addictive those substances are,” Gohmert said during House floor debate.

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans would have to join with all Democrats to advance it in the evenly divided chamber. A companion bill introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) currently has five cosponsors, including three Republicans: Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.).

I lack knowledge about the ways and means for this kind of bill to get a vote in the Senate soon, but I feel pretty confident that it would get similarly strong support in that cambers if and whenever a vote goes forward. I hope such a vote goes forward soon, since we have all waited more than long enough for more sensible sentencing in this arena.

A few prior recent related posts:

September 28, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 02, 2021

"Power to the People: Why the Armed Career Criminal Act is Unconstitutional"

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

In our constitutional democracy, it is the people who hold ultimate power over every branch of government, including authority over the judiciary through the jury trial guarantee of the Sixth Amendment.  However, the traditional view of recidivist statutes, including the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), exempts the fact of a defendant’s prior convictions from the Sixth Amendment jury trial promise.  Specifically, prosecutors and federal judges have removed from juries and given to sentencing judges the power to determine prior crimes that enhance a defendant’s sentence under the ACCA by labeling a recidivist finding a sentencing factor rather than an element of the offense.

In this article, I argue the recidivist statute exemption, primarily exercised in federal law through the vehicle of Almendarez-Torres v. United States, violates the Constitution; defies the Court’s revived focus on the jury trial right through the Apprendi v. New Jersey line of cases requiring any fact that increases a defendant’s sentencing range to be found by the jury or admitted by the defendant at the guilty plea; and disregards the Court’s due process focus in the Taylor v. United States line of cases prohibiting factfinding under the ACCA.

I present my theory by examining the ACCA’s different occasions clause, a lesser known but potent provision that in theory imposes the ACCA’s mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years only when recidivist crimes are “committed on occasions different from one another.”  In practice, judges impose the different occasions clause by engaging in complex judicial factfinding at sentencing by a lower preponderance of the evidence standard regarding the who, what, when, where, and why of prior crimes.  Judges who label the different occasions clause a sentencing factor rather than an element of the offense act in disregard of the jury trial right, due process guarantee, and legislative intent of the ACCA.  I argue that the Constitution requires the ACCA different occasions clause to be decided by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt in a bifurcated trial.  Judicial removal of the different occasions clause from jury scrutiny dramatically illustrates why a new approach enforcing the Sixth Amendment jury trial right to the ACCA different occasions clause is long overdue.

August 2, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 26, 2021

Shouldn't federal prosecutors already be doing what they can to minimize the unjust crack-powder sentencing disparity?

At last month's Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on "Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine," the Biden Administration through the testimony of Regina LaBelle rightly stated that the crack-powder sentencing disparity produces "significant injustice":

The Biden-Harris Administration strongly supports eliminating the current disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  The current disparity is not based on evidence yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly to individuals, families, and communities of color.  The continuation of this sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system, and it is past time for it to end.  Therefore, the Administration urges the swift passage of the “Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act,” or the “EQUAL Act.”

In addition, the US Department of Justice submitted testimony (linked below) that rightly stated that "it is long past time" to end the crack-powder sentencing disparity:

The Department strongly supports the legislation, for we believe it is long past time to end the disparity in sentencing policy between federal offenses involving crack cocaine and those involving powder cocaine.  The crack/powder sentencing disparity has unquestionably led to unjustified differences in sentences for trafficking in two forms of the same substance, as well as unwarranted racial disparities in its application.  The sentencing disparity was based on misinformation about the pharmacology of cocaine and its effects, and it is unnecessary to address the genuine and critical societal problems associated with trafficking cocaine, including violent crime.

Download DOJ EQUAL Act Testimony- FINAL

In light of these forceful statements, I have been optimistic that the EQUAL Act might move forward in Congress fairly soon even though the pace of congressional action is always uncertain.  At the same time, I hoped that federal prosecutors under the authority of Attorney General Garland might do what they could ASAP, in the exercise of their charging and sentencing authority, to minimize the impact of the crack-powder disparity as Congress works on a permanent legislative fix.  After all, if DOJ really believes that "it is long past time to end the disparity" and that the disparity is based on "misinformation" which produces "unwarranted racial disparities," then a department purportedly committed to justice surely ought not keep charging crack mandatory minimums and advocating for guideline sentences based on this disparity.

But I have heard from defense attorneys in the know that statements about existing crack sentencing provisions creating "significant injustice in our legal system" have seemingly not trickled down to federal prosecutors, who are still generally charging crack mandatory minimums and arguing for within-guideline crack sentences.  And I have be authorized to share this recent statement from the Federal Defenders to DOJ: "We were glad to see the Department’s recent support for legislation to end the crack-powder disparity but reports from the field indicate that line prosecutors continue to indict mandatory-minimum crack cases and seek guideline sentences that rely on the discredited ratio."

Talking the talk to Congress about reform is an important aspect of what the executive branch can do to improve our justice system. But the Justice Department can and should also be expected to walk the walk.  But so far, it seems, federal prosecutors are not really ready to give up the crack-powder disparity, even though DOJ asserts that "it is long past time" to do so. Sigh.

July 26, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 23, 2021

As Eleventh Circuit works though ACCA "occasions different" mess, Judge Newson flags Apprendi "prior conviction" issues

A helpful reader alerted me to an interesting new split Eleventh Circuit panel decision in US v. Dudley, No. 19-10267 (7th Cir. July 22, 2021) (available here), concerning application of the severe mandatory minimum in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.  As regular readers know, ACCA converts the 10-year maximum prison term for illegal gun possession by a felon into a 15-year mandatory minimum if the defendant has the wrong kind of prior convictions.  The basic issue in Dudley is a topic also to be considered by the Supreme Court this fall in Wooden v. US, namely ACCA's requirement that key prior offenses needed to be "committed on occasions different from one another."  In Wooden, the facts of the prior convictions are not in dispute, and so the Supreme Court will likely just explore the legal meaning of "occasions different from one another."  In Dudley, part of the debate concerns uncertainty about the facts of the prior convictions, and so the Eleventh Circuit panel has to discuss how these facts can be proved.

Working through a variety of complicated ACCA precedents, the majority in Dudley ultimately decides that "the district court did not err in relying on the prosecutor’s factual proffer in Dudley’s plea colloquy to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the three qualifying prior convictions for Alabama assault occurred on three separate, distinct occasions."  For hard-core ACCA fans, the majority's discussion might be interesting.  But hard-core Sixth Amendment fans will especially want to check out Judge Newsom's lengthy partial dissent which flags the significant Apprendi issues raised by prior rulings and this case.  Here is are some passages from the partial dissent to show why the whole opinion is worth checking out:

For starters, why doesn’t judicial factfinding involving ACCA’s different-occasions requirement itself violate the Sixth Amendment?  After all, we’ve described the different-occasions inquiry as a factual one....

Of course, I recognize that we and other circuits have repeatedly rejected constitutional challenges to ACCA’s different-occasions inquiry.  See Maj. Op. 18–19 (collecting cases).  We’ve justified ourselves on the ground that the date of an offense is part of the “factual nature” of the conviction — and thus falls under Almendarez-Torres’s exception to Apprendi....

But that explanation, while plausible at first blush, is tough to square with the Court’s characterization of Almendarez-Torres as a “narrow exception” to Apprendi’s general rule.  See Alleyne, 570 U.S. at 111 n.1.  As interpreted by Apprendi, Almendarez-Torres exempts only “the fact of a prior conviction” from the bar on judicial factfinding.  Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 490 (emphasis added).  After all, Almendarez-Torres itself involved only the bare fact that the defendant had been convicted of a prior aggravated assault.  523 U.S. at 226.   Although I don’t question Almendarez-Torres’s continuing vitality — above my pay grade — it seems that we do more than just faithfully apply that decision when we extend its “narrow exception” for the mere “fact of a prior conviction” to include other related facts, such as the date or time of the underlying offense.  Indeed, if Almendarez-Torres authorizes factfinding about more than just the fact of a prior conviction, what’s the limiting principle?  What differentiates the timing of the offense from the fact that it was “violent” for ACCA’s predicate-felony inquiry?  Both, it seems to me, are equally part (or not part) of the “factual nature” of the prior conviction.

July 23, 2021 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

House Judiciary Committee votes 36 to 5 to advance the EQUAL Act to reduce federal crack sentences

At a time of problematic and often ugly partisanship inside the Beltway, I have continued to believe and hope that a number of federal sentencing reforms could and should still be able to secure significant bipartisan support.  This belief was reinforced yesterday when the House Judiciary Committee voted 36 to 5 to advance the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act.  Excitingly, not only does this bill reduce crack statutory sentences to the level of powder cocaine offenses, it also provides for all previously convicted crack offenders to obtain a resentencing.  (Recall that neither the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 nor the FIRST STEP Act of 2018 included full retroactivity for the sentencing reductions in those reform bills.)

I want to believe that the overwhelming vote in support of the EQUAL Act in the House Judiciary Committee means that a vote a passage by the full House will be coming soon.  I also want to believe that the bill, which also has bipartisan Senate support, could move efficiently through the upper chamber and become law this year.  But, because the politics and ways of Congress are always mysterious, I am not assuming passage is a sure thing and I have no idea what the timeline for the bill's potential progress will be going forward.  All I know is that it is now more than a quarter-century since the US Sentencing Commission first explained to Congress why a big crack/powder sentencing difference was unjustified and unjust, so the EQUAL Act cannot become law too soon and is way too late.  But better late than never, I still hope.

Notably, we are already approaching three years since passage of the FIRST STEP Act and there is yet to be a next step.  Though I would like to see many more statutory sentencing reform steps from Congress that go far beyond the EQUAL Act, I still think reforms can and should be happy right now with even baby steps in the right direction from a divided Congress.  And,  critically, the EQUAL Act would be a consequential baby step: USSC data indicate that more than 8000 people are in federal prison for crack offenses now and that more than 100 people are sentenced on crack offenses each month.  So literally thousands of people will be impacted if the EQUAL Act becomes law, and then, if/when this reform is finally achieved, we can work on correcting the next and the next and the next injustice baked into federal sentencing law and practice. 

A few prior related posts:

July 22, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 08, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 21, 2021

US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing set for "Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine"

On the morning of Tuesday, June 22, 2021, the US Senate Judiciary Committee has a hearing set for 10am titled "Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine." The hearing should be available to watch at this link, where this list of witnesses are set out:

Ms. Regina LaBelle, Acting Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy

The Honorable Asa Hutchinson, Governor, State of Arkansas

Mr. Matthew Charles, Justice Reform Fellow, FAMM

The Honorable Russell Coleman, Member, Frost Brown Todd

Mr. Antonio Garcia, Executive Director, South Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area

Mr. Steven Wasserman, Vice President for Policy, National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys

Notably, the Washington Post here reports on what Ms. Regina LaBelle will be saying in her testimony as well as some of the political context around this hearing.  Here is part of the story:

The Biden administration plans to endorse legislation that would end the disparity in sentences between crack and powder cocaine offenses that President Biden helped create decades ago, according to people with knowledge of the situation — a step that highlights how Biden’s attitudes on drug laws have shifted over his long tenure in elected office.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Regina LaBelle, the acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, plans to express the administration's support for the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, or Equal Act. The legislation, which sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), would eliminate the sentencing disparity and give people who were convicted or sentenced for a federal cocaine offense a resentencing.

“The current disparity is not based on evidence yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly to individuals, families, and communities of color,” LaBelle says in prepared written testimony obtained by The Washington Post in advance of the hearing. “The continuation of this sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system, and it is past time for it to end. Therefore, the administration urges the swift passage of the ‘Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act.’ ”...

Outside coalitions backing Durbin and Booker’s bill have focused particularly on shoring up conservative support as part of their larger criminal justice overhaul agenda. To that end, one of the witnesses testifying in favor of the bill Tuesday is Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican who led the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush.

“Although Congress has taken steps to reduce the disparity and provide some retroactive relief, any sentencing disparity between two substances that are chemically the same weakens the foundation of our system of justice,” Hutchinson says in his prepared remarks, also obtained by The Post.  “Congress now has the opportunity to build on the bipartisan successes of the Fair Sentencing Act and the First Step Act by eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine once and for all.  The strength of our justice system is dependent on the perception of fundamental fairness.”

Russell Coleman, a former counsel to now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former U. S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, will also promote the legislation at the hearing Tuesday morning.

A few prior related posts:

June 21, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

"Undoing the Damage of the War on Drugs: A Renewed Call for Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the title of the scheduled congressional hearing called by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the U.S. House Committee of the Judiciary. The hearing is to take place on Thursday, June 17, 2021 at 10am and can be streamed here. The witness list, available here, should make this a must-see event:

Rachel E. Barkow, Vice Dean and Charles Seligson Professor of Law, Faculty Director, Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, NYU School of Law

William R. Underwood, Senior Fellow, The Sentencing Project

Kyana Givens, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of North Carolina

Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director, Drug Policy Alliance

Marta Nelson, Director, Government Strategy, Advocacy and Partnerships Department, Vera Institute of Justice

Jillian E. Snider, Director, Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties, R Street Institute

John Malcolm, Vice President, Institute for Constitutional Government, Director, Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and Ed Gilbertson and Sherry Lindberg Gilbertson Senior Legal Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

June 16, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Some early coverage of big new SCOTUS ruling limiting ACCA in Borden

A busy day on other matters means I have only had a chance to skim Borden v. US, No. 19–5410 (S. Ct. June 10, 2021) (available here), the big win for the defendant today in an ruling limiting the reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  I hope in the coming days to have a lot to say about Borden ruling itself and its possible aftermath, but for now I can and will round up some early press and blog coverage:

From Bloomberg Law, "Divided High Court Sides With Defense on Repeat-Offender Law"

From Crime & Consequences, "Fractured Supreme Court Cripples Armed Career Criminal Act"

From The Hill, "Gorsuch, Thomas join liberal justices in siding with criminal defendant"

From Law & Crime, "Kagan Goes After Kavanaugh for Lengthy Footnote: There’s Nothing ‘Unfair’ About This Outcome"

From the New York Times, "Supreme Court Limits Sweep of Law on Mandatory Minimum Sentences"

From SCOTUSblog, "Court limits definition of 'violent felony' in federal gun-possession penalty"

From The Volokh Conspiracy, "Justice Thomas Takes One For The Team in Borden v. U.S."

June 10, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

In 5-4 decision, SCOTUS limits reach of ACCA mandatory minimum "violent felony" predicates by holding a "reckless offense cannot so qualify"

The last big SCOTUS sentencing ruling of this Term that I have been eagerly awaiting was (yet another) one concerning application of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Today the wait was over, as this morning the Court handed down it opinion in Borden v. US, No. 19–5410 (S. Ct. June 10, 2021) (available here).  And it is a big win for the defendant with Justice Kagan authoring the key opinion for four Justices (with Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Gorsuch joining), which starts this way:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e), mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for persons found guilty of illegally possessing a gun who have three or more prior convictions for a “violent felony.”  The question here is whether a criminal offense can count as a “violent felony” if it requires only a mens rea of recklessness — a less culpable mental state than purpose or knowledge.  We hold that a reckless offense cannot so qualify.

Justice Thomas writes a concurring opinion that starts this way:

This case forces us to choose between aggravating a past error and committing a new one. I must choose the former.  Although I am “reluctant to magnify the burdens that our [erroneous] jurisprudence imposes,” Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 610 (2002) (Scalia, J., concurring), I conclude that the particular provision at issue here does not encompass petitioner’s conviction for reckless aggravated assault, even though the consequences of today’s judgment are at odds with the larger statutory scheme.  The need to make this choice is yet another consequence of the Court’s vagueness doctrine cases like Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015).

Justice Kavanaugh writes a lengthy dissenting opinion (which is longer than the other two opinions combined) which concludes its opening discussion this way:

In my view, the Court’s decision disregards bedrock principles and longstanding terminology of criminal law, misconstrues ACCA’s text, and waves away the Court’s own recent precedent. The Court’s decision overrides Congress’s judgment about the danger posed by recidivist violent felons who unlawfully possess firearms and threaten further violence. I respectfully dissent.

There is a lot here to take in, but I hope to figure all this out before too long. The key takeaway is that, thank to Justices Gorsuch and Thomas, Borden is the slimmest of victories for the defendant here and likely the start of yet another chapter of uncertainty about what comes next in ACCA jurisprudence.

June 10, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

GOP Gov and former DEA chief calls for Congress to "finally and fully end the disparity between crack and cocaine offenses"

In this new Fox News commentary, Arkansas Gov Asa Hutchinson makes a notable pitch for the EQUAL Act (discussed here).  The piece is headlined "It's time to fix an old wrong and end the disparity between crack and cocaine offenses," and I recommend it in full.  Here are excerpts:

In America, the principles of fairness and equal treatment are fundamental to the rule of law.  When we fall short of these principles, we lose confidence in our justice system and weaken the foundation of our country.  Since 1986, there has been a substantial difference in prison sentences for crack and powdered cocaine offenses, a disparity that has not only encouraged a misapplication of limited law enforcement resources, but has also been the source of unequal punishment for basically identical crimes....

During my time in Congress in the 1990s, and as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from 2001-2003, I saw first-hand the impact of this disparity, and found it was failing on three fronts.  First, it rarely led to the prosecution of major drug traffickers and sellers.  Instead, it led to increased prosecutions of small-time dealers and peripheral supporters, almost all of whom were replaced immediately.

Second, it became clear that the disparity was built on a misunderstanding of crack cocaine’s chemical properties and effects of the body.  Crack and powdered cocaine were chemically the same, and the violence that was linked to crack cocaine was not related to the properties of the drug.  Instead, it was the general product of the drug trade and the historically violent trends in areas where crack is predominantly used and sold.

Third, it undermined community confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system. I talked with drug task force officers and front-line agents at the DEA who said this sense of injustice had a real impact in the fight against illegal drugs; it made it more difficult for agents to build trust and work with informants in the areas most impacted by the crack epidemic.  The disparity in sentencing led to more harm than help in our federal anti-crime efforts.

The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., dramatically reduced the disparity, from 100:1 to 18:1.  In 2018, the First Step Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump, made that reduced disparity retroactive.

Those were important steps, but the new sentencing laws continue to cause disproportionate harm and decreased trust in communities of color.  For example, in 2019, Black people accounted for 81% of all federal crack cocaine convictions. Those convictions led to prison terms 18 times longer than they would have been for equivalent amounts of chemically identical powdered cocaine.

It is time for Congress to finish what it started, and finally and fully end the disparity between crack and cocaine offenses.  The bipartisan Equal Act would bring federal sentencing law in line with most states that have eliminated, reduced or never instituted, these unjust disparities. That includes my home state of Arkansas, where possession of crack and powdered cocaine are treated the same under state law....

The strength of our justice system is totally dependent on the perception of fairness and the concept that punishments should fit the crimes.  The clear and pernicious injustice of crack and powdered cocaine sentencing disparities harms our communities, limits law enforcement in their fight against illegal drugs, and weakens the foundation of our entire system of justice.

Congress has the opportunity to fully and finally eliminate this injustice by passing the Equal Act.  To get it done, lawmakers of all different backgrounds will need to put partisanship aside and work in the best interests of the American people.  I can’t think of a worthier cause than preserving our founding principle — that all Americans are treated equally under the law.

I am fully supportive of efforts to equalize federal crack and powder sentencing rules which are now based largely around the quantity of drugs involved in the offense.  But, for truly effective reform, I believe we need to not only move entirely away from any quantity-based approaches to drug offense sentencing, but also start moving away from punitive criminal justice responses to drug activities.

A few prior related posts:

June 9, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 02, 2021

Fascinating split Third Circuit ruling on federal drug distribution prohibition (and death resulting 20-year mandatory minimum)

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss yesterday's notable new ruling from a Third Circuit panel in US v. Semler, No. 19-2319 (3d Cir. Jun. 1, 2021) (available here). This split (non-precedential?) decision address the persistently problematic issue of when and how social sharing of drugs constitutes distribution and all of the potentially severe consequences that can follow.  Here is how the majority opinion authored by Judge Roth gets started: 

Emma Semler is an addict who bought and injected heroin with a fellow user, then failed to intervene as that user overdosed and died.  She now appeals her conviction and sentence under the Controlled Substances Act for distribution of heroin resulting in death, a charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment.

We hold that the definition of “distribute” under the Controlled Substances Act does not cover individuals who jointly and simultaneously acquire possession of a small amount of a controlled substance solely for their personal use.  Because a reasonable jury could find that Semler and the decedent jointly acquired possession of the heroin in question for their personal use, we will vacate Semler’s conviction and remand this case for a new trial so that the jury can be instructed on the correct legal standard.

The dissent authored by Judge Porter starts this way:

The Controlled Substances Act prohibits the distribution of certain drugs.  In that statute, Congress carefully defined the meaning of “distribute.”  Dissatisfied with the breadth of Congress’s handiwork, the majority vacates Emma Semler’s judgment of conviction.  It holds that Semler did not “actually transfer” heroin when she handed it to Jennifer Werstler.  Because that “is flatly contrary to standard English usage” and contradicts our Court’s precedent, I respectfully dissent.  Kansas v. Garcia, 140 S. Ct. 791, 802 (2020).

A few prior posts on drug-causing-death prosecutions and punishments:

June 2, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 27, 2021

In contrast to Ninth Circuit panel, Eleventh Circuit panel gives narrow reading to FIRST-STEP-amended mandatory-minimum safety valve provision

In recent posts here and here, I have spotlighted a significant recent Ninth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Lopez, No. 19-50305 (9th Cir. May 21, 2021) (available here), which interpreted the FIRST-STEP-amended statutory safety valve to enable more federal drug defendants to benefit from its authorization for below mandatory-minimum sentences.  But a helpful reader flagged in a comment to one of these posts that an Eleventh Circuit panel reach an opposite interpretation of this statutory language just days earlier in US v. Garcon, No. 19-14650 (11th Cir. May 18, 2021) (available here).  Here is a key passage from the start and from the central analysis in Garcon

Julian Garcon pleaded guilty to attempted possession of 500 grams or more of cocaine with intent to distribute in violation of the Controlled Substances Act and faced a five-year statutory minimum sentence.  21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1); 841(b)(1)(B)(ii); 846.  At sentencing, Garcon sought safety valve relief as provided in the First Step Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(1).  The district court interpreted the “and” in § 3553(f)(1)(A)–(C) as conjunctive, meaning that Garcon was only disqualified from safety valve relief due to his prior convictions if he met all three subsections of § 3553(f)(1) or, in other words, if he had (1) more than four criminal history points, excluding any points resulting from one-point offenses; (2) a prior three-point offense; and (3) a prior two-point violent offense.  The district court then found that Garcon was eligible for relief because he had only a prior three point offense, as described in § 3553(f)(1)(B).  The government appealed, arguing that § 3553(f)(1) is written in the disjunctive and, thus, Garcon is ineligible for safety valve relief because he met one of the three disqualifying criteria — here, he has a prior three-point conviction.  After careful review and with the benefit of oral argument, we find that, based on the text and structure of § 3553(f)(1), the “and” is disjunctive.  Accordingly, we vacate Garcon’s sentence and remand for resentencing....

The contextual indication that the “and” in § 3553(f)(1) is disjunctive is that if the “and” is read conjunctively so that a defendant must have all three requirements before he is disqualified from the safety valve, then subsection (A) would be superfluous. If we read the “and” conjunctively, there would be no need for the requirement in (A) that a defendant must have more than four criminal history points total because, if he had (B)’s required three-point offense and (C)’s required two-point violent offense, he would automatically have more than four criminal history points.  Thus, Garcon’s suggested reading violates a canon of statutory interpretation, the canon against surplusage.

In short, last week produced a crisp circuit split on the proper interpretation of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act on a matter that impacts many hundreds of federal drug cases every month.  Data from the US Sentencing Commission shows there are typically more than 1500 drug cases sentenced in federal court each and every month, with over 250 each month in the Ninth Circuit and over 100 each month in the Eleventh Circuit.  Not all these cases will be impacted by this statutory dispute over the reach of the new safety valve, but many can be.

It is surely only a matter of time before other circuit weigh in on this important issue, and I assume this split will be deepened in the coming months and that the Supreme Court will have to take cert.  Along the way, it will be interesting to see if future rulings find this existing circuit split to be evidence of ambiguity in the statutory text (which, in turn, should lead to rulings in favor of the defendant based on the rule of lenity).  Notably, the Eleventh Circuit panel in Garcon states in support of its narrow interpretation that the "text and structure of § 3553(f)(1) provide a clear meaning."  Garcon, No. 19-14650, slip op. at 9.  But the Ninth Circuit in Lopez states in support of its broader interpretation that it must apply "Congress’s clear and unambiguous text."  Lopez, No. 19-50305, slip op. at 19.  To me, the only thing that seems actually "clear" about this statute's text is that SCOTUS is going to have to resolve how it should be applied.

Prior related post:

May 27, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Notable (and huge) sentence reductions used to remedy stacked 924(c) sentences for crooked cops

As reported in this Baltimore Sun article, headlined "Corrupt former Baltimore Police officers get sentences reduced from 454 years to 20 years," a couple of crooked cops this week got their sentences reduced considerably to undo the now-repealed harshness of severe stacking mandatory minimum 924(c) counts thanks to the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is a summary from the press account:

Two former Baltimore Police officers sentenced to a combined 454 years in federal prison for shaking down citizens in the early 2000s had their prison terms reduced to 20 years each by a federal judge Monday.

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang agreed with arguments put forward by attorneys for William King and Antonio Murray earlier this year under the First Step Act, noting that since their convictions in 2006 Congress has passed sentencing reforms that would have led to significantly shorter sentences if the officers were sentenced today....

The U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed that the sentences should be reduced, but to 30 years for Murray, and 65 years for King. “Neither sentence is unreasonable given the offense conduct in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson wrote.

The officers’ attorneys noted that former Gun Trace Task Force Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, who pleaded guilty to years of robberies and drug dealing, received 25 years in prison in 2018....  Chuang agreed, saying 20 years for King and Murray “roughly corresponds with the type of sentences presently imposed in comparable police corruption cases in this District.”...

Prior to the Gun Trace Task Force case, the case of King and Murray was one of the highest-profile Baltimore police corruption cases.  The officers, who were assigned to the BPD’s public housing drug unit, were called out in the “Stop Snitching” underground video, with a man on the tape saying the officers looked out for certain drug dealers.  A man they shook down went to the FBI, and authorities launched an investigation that found the officers were detaining and robbing drug dealers.

At the time, the officers “maintained that their activities were all in furtherance of legitimate police activity in an effort to develop sources to lead to arrests of drug distributors,” said prosecutors, adding the officers claimed they used their ill-gotten money to pay informants who could help them catch those higher up in the drug gangs.  King later said the tactics were imported by the department’s New York police leadership, and blamed immense pressure to reduce crime as the reason he and some colleagues went bad.

The men were convicted of robbery, extortion, and drug and handgun offenses, which each had penalties that were “stacked” at sentencing.  The sentencing judge, J. Frederick Motz, lamented at the time that the sentences were “absolutely disproportionate to the crimes that were committed” but said he had no discretion to depart from the mandatory sentencing laws.

The opinions from the district court in these two cases can be downloaded below:

Download United States v. William King No 05-cr-00203 (May 24 2021 D. Md.)

Download United States v. Antonio Murray No 05-cr-00203 (May 24 2021 D. Md.)

May 26, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Another accounting of Ninth Circuit's significant FIRST STEP safety-valve expansion Lopez ruling

6a00d83451574769e20224df387165200bIn this post yesterday, I flagged the significant new Ninth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Lopez, No. 19-50305 (9th Cir. May 21, 2021) (available here), concerning the proper interpretation of the FIRST-STEP-amended statutory safety valve.  Professor Eric Fish alerted me to this important new ruling, and he also kindly wrote up this thoughtful account of it:

The Ninth Circuit just issued a major opinion, United States v. Lopez, that makes it significantly easier to avoid mandatory minimums in federal drug cases.  All three judges signed on to the result, and on balance it was a relatively conservative panel.  The opinion is a highly technical exercise in textualism that turns on the meaning of the word “and.” One could see its reasoning succeeding in the current Supreme Court.

To understand the opinion, it is first necessary to understand the “safety valve” exception.  This exception lets defendants avoid mandatory minimum sentences in federal drug cases, but only if they satisfy five criteria: (1) the crime cannot result in death or serious bodily injury, (2) the defendant cannot use violence or possess a dangerous weapon, (3) the defendant cannot be an “organizer, leader, or manager,” (4) the defendant must provide all information they have about the crime to the government, and (5) a rule excluding defendants based on their criminal history.

This last exclusion, based on criminal history, was at issue in Lopez.  Up until 2018, anybody with more than one “criminal history point” under the Sentencing Guidelines was excluded from safety valve.  This meant that anyone who had been sentenced to more than 60 days in jail or had more than one conviction of any kind (including misdemeanors) was excluded.  The First Step Act expanded this rule to the following (codified at 18 U.S.C. 3553(f)(1)):

(1) the defendant does not have—

(A) more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;

(B) a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and

(C) a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;

After the First Step Act was enacted, judges and attorneys assumed that someone whose criminal history met the criteria in A, B, or C could not get safety valve.  So someone with more than 4 points, a 3-point conviction (meaning any conviction with a sentence over 13 months), or a 2-point “violent offense” couldn’t avoid the mandatory minimum.  But is that what the provision means?  Apparently not, says the panel!  Read it again – the three items are connected by a conjunctive “and,” not a disjunctive “or.”  And the plainest reading of three items connected by “and” is that the list includes all three.  So, reasoned the panel, to be excluded from safety valve you must have every item on the list.

The prosecutors’ strongest argument was that if “and” is read to mean “and,” then (A) becomes surplusage. If someone has a 3-point offense and a 2-point violent offense, they necessarily have “more than 4 criminal history points.”  The majority deals with this by observing that “2-point violent offense” could be read to mean “2- or 3-point violent offense,” since any 3-point offense also contains two points.  So someone could have a 3-point violent offense satisfying (B) and (C), but not have 4 or more points for (A).  The concurrence by Ninth Circuit judge Milan Smith Jr. disagrees with that reading of (C), but still concludes that “and” means “and” notwithstanding any surplusage.

Only a small number of defendants meet all three criteria.  The Lopez opinion thus lets many more people avoid mandatory minimum sentences.  With the available data it is difficult to estimate exactly how many more people would qualify, but the number is significant.  

Prior related post:

May 23, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Ninth Circuit panel interprets FIRST STEP amendment to statutory safety valve to greatly expand who can avoid federal mandatory-minimum sentences

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a significant new Ninth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Lopez, No. 19-50305 (9th Cir. May 21, 2021) (available here).  Here is how the opinion gets started:

Title 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), commonly called the “safety valve,” allows a district court to sentence a criminal defendant below the mandatory-minimum sentence for certain drug offenses if the defendant meets the criteria in § 3553(f)(1) through (f)(5).  In 2018, Congress amended one of the safety valve’s provisions: § 3553(f)(1).  See First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, § 402, 132 Stat. 5194, 5221. Section 3553(f)(1) focuses only on a criminal defendant’s prior criminal history as determined under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. See generally 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(1). As amended, § 3553(f)(1) requires a defendant to prove that he or she “does not have” the following: “(A) more than 4 criminal history points . . . (B) a prior 3-point offense . . . and (C) a prior 2-point violent offense.” Id. § 3553(f)(1)(A)–(C) (emphasis added).

As a matter of first impression, we must interpret the “and” joining subsections (A), (B), and (C) under § 3553(f)(1). If § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” carries its ordinary conjunctive meaning, a criminal defendant must have (A) more than four criminal-history points, (B) a prior threepoint offense, and (C) a prior two-point violent offense, cumulatively, before he or she is barred from safety-valve relief under § 3553(f)(1).  But if we rewrite § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” into an “or,” as the government urges, a defendant must meet the criteria in only subsection (A), (B), or (C) before he or she is barred from safety-valve relief under § 3553(f)(1). Applying the tools of statutory construction, we hold that § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” is unambiguously conjunctive. Put another way, we hold that “and” means “and.”

I believe that this statutory construction means that even more federal drug defendants will be able to benefit from the statutory safety valve thanks to the FIRST STEP Act than some may have thought. But, as the main opinion explains as it concludes, it is the statutory text that ultimately matters:

We recognize that § 3553(f)(1)’s plain and unambiguous language might be viewed as a considerable departure from the prior version of § 3553(f)(1), which barred any defendant from safety-valve relief if he or she had more than one criminal-history point under the Sentencing Guidelines.  See Mejia-Pimental, 477 F.3d at 1104.  As a result, § 3553(f)(1)’s plain and unambiguous language could possibly result in more defendants receiving safety-valve relief than some in Congress anticipated.

But sometimes Congress uses words that reach further than some members of Congress may have expected.  See Bostock, 140 S. Ct. at 1749 (noting that Congress’s plain language sometimes reaches “beyond the principal evil [that] legislators may have intended or expected to address,” but courts remain obligated to give Congress’s language its plain meaning) (citation and quotation marks omitted).  We cannot ignore Congress’s plain and unambiguous language just because a statute might reach further than some in Congress expected.  See id. (“[I]t is ultimately the provisions of [Congress’s] legislative commands rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”) (emphasis added) (citation and quotation marks omitted).

Section 3553(f)(1)’s plain and unambiguous language, the Senate’s own legislative drafting manual, § 3553(f)(1)’s  structure as a conjunctive negative proof, and the canon of consistent usage result in only one plausible reading of § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” here: “And” is conjunctive.  If Congress meant § 3553(f)(1)’s “and” to mean “or,” it has the authority to amend the statute accordingly.  We do not.

May 22, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Mixed messages on mandatory minimums from executive branch in New Jersey witrh a retroactive kicker

In this post last month, I flagged the debate in New Jersey where the Governor was threatening to veto a bill to repeal mandatory minimums for certain non-violent crimes because it repealed too many mandatory minimum sentences.  Sure enough, that veto happened yesterday, but so too did an interesting related action from the NJ Attorney General.  This Politico piece, headlined "Murphy vetoes mandatory minimum bill as Grewal unilaterally eliminates some sentences," provides these details (with some emphasis added):

Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday vetoed a bill that would do away with mandatory minimum prison terms for non-violent crimes, excising sections that would eliminate the sentences for corruption offenses.  At the same time, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal issued a directive requiring that prosecutors make use of a provision in New Jersey law allowing them to set aside mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.

“I am particularly troubled by the notion that this bill would eliminate mandatory prison time for elected officials who abuse their office for their own benefit, such as those who take bribes.  Our representative democracy is based on the premise that our elected officials represent the interests of their constituents, not their own personal interests,” Murphy wrote in his veto message, which also took a shot at former President Donald Trump.  “I cannot sign a bill into law that would undermine that premise and further erode our residents’ trust in our democratic form of government, particularly after four years of a presidential administration whose corruption was as pervasive as it was brazen.”

The two executive actions are the culmination of an eight-month political fight between the Murphy administration and the Democrat-controlled Legislature over what began as benign legislation that followed exactly the recommendations of the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission.  The commission, in a November 2019 report, recommended eliminating mandatory sentences for a wide swath of mostly drug and property crimes with the aim of reducing racial disparities among the incarcerated.

Murphy’s conditional veto essentially returns the legislation, NJ S3456 (20R), to its initial form — which did not address corruption offenses — before state Sen. Nicholas Sacco began a successful effort to change it. Grewal’s directive may help allay the concerns of criminal justice advocates who did not want to see mandatory minimum sentences upheld over a political fight, leading some to throw their support behind the legislative effort.  The directive goes further than the legislation would have, applying retroactively to prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses.  The directive does not apply to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent property crimes, and it was not immediately clear how many inmates are serving time under those laws.

“It’s been nearly two years since I first joined with all 21 of our state’s County Prosecutors to call for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes,” Grewal said in a statement.  “It’s been more than a year since the Governor’s bipartisan commission made the same recommendation. And yet New Jerseyans still remain behind bars for unnecessarily long drug sentences.  This outdated policy is hurting our residents, and it’s disproportionately affecting our young men of color.  We can wait no longer. It’s time to act.”

New Jersey Together, a coalition of criminal justice reform advocates, said in a statement that “ending mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes prospectively and for those currently incarcerated will be a huge step in the right direction.” “Now, the work should begin with the governor and the Legislature to make this permanent and to end mandatory minimum sentencing as a whole,” the group said.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, said in a statement that even though Grewal’s directive takes “significant steps to mitigate the harms of some of the most problematic mandatory minimums,” his group is “disappointed” because “our state falls short by failing to enact legislation that can promote justice for thousands of New Jerseyans.” Sinha urged the Legislature to concur with Murphy’s veto....

Grewal’s directive allows prosecutors to seek periods of parole ineligibility “when warranted to protect public safety based on the specific facts of the case.”  Advocates have long sought to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, especially those that came about as part of the “War on Drugs.”  For instance, New Jersey imposes harsh mandatory sentences for those caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, a crime far more likely to harshly punish dealers in denser urban areas and who are more likely to be Black and Hispanic.  At the time of a 2016 report by The Sentencing Project, New Jersey incarcerated white people at a rate of 94 per 100,000 compared to 1,140 for Black and 206 for Hispanic people.

A bill that mirrored the recommendations of the New Jersey Criminal Sentencing & Disposition Commission was nearing the final stages of the the legislative process when Sacco (D-Hudson) quietly requested an amendment to eliminate the mandatory minimum sentences for official misconduct.  Sacco later acknowledged to POLITICO that he requested the amendment. Walter Somick, the son of Sacco‘s longtime girlfriend, is facing several corruption-related charges, including official misconduct, over an alleged no-show job at the Department of Public Worker in North Bergen, where Sacco is mayor and runs a powerful political machine....

“I am cognizant of the fact that Attorney General‘s directives could be changed in a future administration by the stroke of a pen, and thus recognize that there is still a need to permanently codify these changes in statute,” Murphy said. “I remain hopeful that the Legislature will concur with my proposed revisions, which reflect the Commission’s evidence-based recommendations and its desire that these recommendations apply prospectively and retroactively.”

Because I generally view all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions for nonviolent offenses to be problematic, I am a bit disappointed by the veto of the legislative reform here.  But because I generally favor retroactive reforms to enable excessive prior prison terms to be addressed, the retroactive relief made possible by the NJ AG is a comforting related development.  The basics of the AG action is discussed in this official press statement and the full 11-page directive can be accessed at this link.

Prior related posts:

April 20, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 12, 2021

DEPC-hosted symposium, "Prioritizing Science Over Fear: An Interdisciplinary Response to Fentanyl Analogues," now available online

Fentanyl-Analogues-Conference_for-social_v3As detailed in this press release, a coalition of over drug policy, civil rights, criminal justice and public health organizations are urging Congress and the Biden Administration to allow temporary class-wide emergency scheduling of fentanyl-related substances to expire in May 2021.  This letter to members of Congress on this topic highlights why this issue is, in many ways, a sentencing story because "class-wide scheduling of fentanyl analogues ... expands the application of existing severe mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted by Congress in the 1980s to a newly scheduled class of fentanyl-related compounds":

For example, just a trace amount of a fentanyl analogue in a mixture with a combined weight of 10 grams — 10 paper clips — can translate into a five-year mandatory minimum, with no evidence needed that the seller even knew it contained fentanyl.  In addition, current laws impose a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years for just a trace amount of a fentanyl analogue in a mixture with a combined weight of less than 10 grams."

The advocacy letter also notes the practical realities of existing laws and concludes with a pitch for the Biden Administration to make good of avowed opposition to mandatory minimum sentencing schemes:

Between 2015 and 2019, prosecutions for federal fentanyl offenses increased by nearly 4,000%, and fentanyl-analogue prosecutions increased a stunning 5,000%.  There are significant racial disparities in these prosecutions, with people of color comprising almost 75% of those sentenced in fentanyl cases in 2019.  This holds true for fentanyl analogues, for which 68% of those sentenced were people of color.  In addition, more than half of all federal fentanyl-analogue prosecutions in 2019 involved a street-level seller or other minor role; only 10.3% of these cases involved the most serious functions."...

The expiration of class-wide scheduling is an opportunity for the Biden administration and Congress to make good on a commitment to end mandatory minimums and embrace a public health approach.  The class-wide scheduling discussion allows Congress and this administration the opportunity to choose a new path on drug policy.  The Biden administration has expressed support for ending mandatory minimums. Allowing this policy to expire aligns with Biden’s stated support of ending mandatory minimums and treating drugs as a public health issue

Last month, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law had the honor last month of hosting a multi-panel virtual symposium, titled "Prioritizing Science Over Fear: An Interdisciplinary Response to Fentanyl Analogues," which explored these issues at great length with a great set of speakers.  Here was how the event was set up:

In recent years, the illicit drug market around the world has seen a major rise in the production and use of synthetic drugs, including the rapid development of analogues of conventional drugs such as marijuana, amphetamine, and opiates.  Since 2015, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and its analogues have increasingly emerged in the illegal drug market in the U.S., most often added to heroin or sold in counterfeit opioid prescription pills.  In 2018, 30,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. involved synthetic opioids.

The purpose of this symposium is to educate advocates, congressional staff, administration officials, and scholars about the possibility that class-wide scheduling of fentanyl analogues will yield unintended consequences, and to highlight evidence-based alternatives that can help reduce overdose deaths. Participants will learn about the relationship between class-wide scheduling and public health policy approaches to dealing with fentanyl analogues and overdose.  Participants will be presented with an intersectional discussion of the issue that examines class-wide scheduling and its impact on the criminal legal system, racial inequities, scientific research, medicine, and evidence-based drug policy.

I am pleased to now be able to report that a transcript and captioned recordings of each panel are available now. 

UPDATE: The GAO has now released this new report on this topic under the title "Synthetic Opioids: Considerations for the Class-Wide Scheduling of Fentanyl-Related Substances."

In addition, as detailed at this webpage, The US House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Health of the Committee on Energy and Commerce will hold a legislative hearing on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, at 10:30 a.m. via Cisco WebEx entitled, "An Epidemic within a Pandemic: Understanding Substance Use and Misuse in America."  The written testimony of the scheduled witnesses suggests that class-wide scheduling of fentanyl analogues will be a major topic of the hearing.

ANOTHER UPDATE: The Intercept has this clear and effective article on these topics under the headline "Biden Looks To Extend Trump’s Bolstered Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing."  Here are its opening paragraphs:

THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION is expected to announce support this week for the temporary extension of a Trump-era policy expanding mandatory minimum sentencing to cover a range of fentanyl-related substances.  More than 100 civil rights, public health, and criminal justice advocacy groups sent a letter last week urging Congress and President Joe Biden to oppose any extension of the Trump policy.

The administration can’t extend the policy without congressional action, which it is expected to support during a Wednesday hearing on substance use before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, according to two groups on the letter and several Democratic aides.  The aides note that the administration will likely request additional time to explore the policy’s ramifications and has not yet decided whether it will adopt a full extension.

April 12, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 04, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 26, 2021

Senators Durbin and Lee re-introduce "Smarter Sentencing Act" to reduce federal drug mandatory minimums

As detailed in this new press release, it looks like some notable US Senators are trying yet again to reform federal mandatory minimums.  Here are the basics from the release:

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) cosponsored the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” bipartisan legislation designed to bring judicial discretion and flexibility to non-violent drug charge sentencing. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D- Ill.) and cosponsored by 11 of their colleagues.

Since 1980, the number of inmates in federal prison has increased by 653%.  About 50% of those federal inmates are serving sentences for drug-related offenses, increasing the taxpayer burden by more than 2,000%.  In short, federal incarceration has become one of our nation’s biggest expenditures, dwarfing the amount spent on law enforcement.

Our burgeoning prison population traces much of its growth to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences.  More than 60% of federal district court judges agree that existing mandatory minimums for all offenses are too high.  In the words of the members of the bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission, “the Commission unanimously believes that certain mandatory minimum penalties apply too broadly, are excessively severe, and are applied inconsistently . . . .”

“Our current federal sentencing laws are out of date and often counterproductive,” said Sen. Lee. “The Smarter Sentencing Act is a commonsense solution that will greatly reduce the financial and, more importantly, the human cost imposed on society by the broken status quo.  The SSA will give judges the flexibility and discretion they need to impose stiff sentences on the most serious drug lords and cartel bosses, while enabling nonviolent offenders to return more quickly to their families and communities.”

“Mandatory minimum penalties have played a large role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population, often leading to sentences that are unfair, fiscally irresponsible, and a threat to public safety,” Sen. Durbin said.  “The First Step Act was a critical move in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done to reform our criminal justice system. I will keep fighting to get this commonsense, bipartisan legislation through the Senate with my colleague, Senator Lee.”

Lee and Durbin first introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act in 2013.  Several important reforms from the Smarter Sentencing Act were included in the landmark First Step Act, which was enacted into law in 2018.  The central remaining sentencing reform in the Durbin-Lee legislation would reduce mandatory minimum penalties for certain nonviolent drug offenses.  The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that implementation of this provision would save taxpayers approximately $3 billion over ten years.

The full list of cosponsors includes: Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Ct.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Angus King (I-Maine), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).

I am not particularly optimistic that the SSA will make it through Congress this time around, but I should note that prior iterations of this bill got votes in Senate Judiciary Committee from the likes of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Moreover, the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is Senator Durbin and the current President campaigned on a platform that included an express promise to "work for the passage of legislation to repeal mandatory minimums at the federal level."  Given that commitment, Prez Biden should be a vocal supporter of this bill or should oppose it only because it does not got far enough because it merely seeks to "reduce mandatory minimum penalties for certain nonviolent drug offenses," rather than entirely eliminate them.

March 26, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Spotlighting ugly reasons and realities surrounding federal gun sentences

Tana Ganeva has this effective Reason piece giving attention to federal gun sentences.  The full headline highlights its themes:  "743 Years and 3 Months. 117 Years. 51 Years. Why Are These Men's Sentences So Long?  For possessing a gun while committing a crime — even when no one is killed — too many defendants are slammed with sentences decades or even centuries longer than justice demands."  Here are excerpts:

The federal statute 924(c) imposes mandatory minimum sentences in offenses involving a firearm. Federal law requires that the lengthy sentences for possessing a gun while committing a crime be served back-to-back instead of concurrently, even though state laws tend to be much more lax: In Indiana, where [Charles] Scott was caught, robbery is punishable by one to six years in state prison, with a recommended time of three years. Scott's original offense, the robberies, account for a little more than six years of his sentence — the other 45 years were from the 924(c) charges. Scott's draconian sentence is actually lighter than others snagged under the same statute — there are people sentenced to centuries in prison because of 924(c) even if their underlying crimes would have earned them far less time than multiple human life spans.

As of 2016, 14.9 percent of the federal prison population — or 24,905 people — was incarcerated due to a firearm offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, according to the Federal Sentencing Commission. Criminal justice reform advocates believe the law wrongly conflates gun violence and crimes where the perpetrator carries, or even just owns, a gun.

"Mandatory minimums around firearms are some of the most frustrating cases," says Kevin Ring, the executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a criminal justice reform organization. "In a country with 340 million firearms, the idea that someone is not going to happen to be in possession of a gun if they commit a crime … the law does not distinguish between someone who uses a gun to commit a crime, and someone who happens to be a gun owner. It's a frustrating, stupid law."...

Although Scott and his family hope for federal clemency, his case isn't a neat fit for today's political climate. Democratic lawmakers brand themselves as advocates for gun control, and so don't have a lot to gain from showing mercy to people who break gun laws. Most Republicans still tend to campaign on tough-on-crime platforms that don't leave a lot of room for second chances.

"For Democrats, mandatory minimums for guns can be a plan B for gun control," says Ring. "And for Republicans, for too long, people resisted the idea that people who own guns … some of those people sell drugs. To fend off gun control, they like to hammer people who have a gun when they commit a crime."

March 17, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

En banc Second Circuit needs 120 pages and five opinions to sort out whether NY first-degree manslaughter qualifies as a federal "violent crime"

Great scottI generally do not closely follow lower federal court rulings about what state convictions qualify as predicates for sentencing enhancement under the Armed Career Criminal Act ("ACCA") or the career offender sentencing guidelines. I have a hard time just keeping up with the many Supreme Court ACCA cases, and I have previously suggested in this post a few years ago that modern ACCA jurisprudence must reside as some level of hell in Dante's Inferno because this caselaw is so dang inscrutable. 

But a helpful reader alerted me to a new en banc Second Circuit decision today in US v. Scott, No. 18-163-cr (2d Cir. Mar. 2, 2021) (available here), which seems like a useful reminder of how nuts this jurisprudence can be.  Here is how the majority opinion in Scott gets started:

Defendant-appellee Gerald Scott is a violent criminal, who has repeatedly threatened, and on two occasions taken, human life.  The killings were undoubtedly brutal: Scott shot one of his victims in the head at point-blank range; he stabbed the other to death. For these killings, Scott stands twice convicted in New York State of first-degree manslaughter under N.Y. Penal Law § 125.20(1), a homicide crime second only to murder in its severity.   At issue on this appeal is whether Scott’s manslaughter convictions are for violent crimes. An affirmative answer might appear obvious to a man on the street aware of Scott’s conduct.  But the laws relevant here — the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), see 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B), and the Career Offender Sentencing Guideline, see U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a) — do not identify violent crimes by looking to what a defendant actually did. Rather, they look to the minimum he might have done and still been convicted.  This inquiry focuses on a crime’s elements, asking whether they categorically require a defendant’s use of physical force, specifically violent physical force.  See Curtis Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 140, 144 (2010) (defining physical force required by ACCA).  Applying that standard here, we conclude that first-degree manslaughter is a categorically violent crime because its elements — (1) the causation of death (2) by a person intent on causing at least serious physical injury — necessarily involve the use of violent force.

The occasion for our ruling is the United States’ appeal from an amended judgment of conviction entered on January 12, 2018, in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Laura Taylor Swain, Judge), which resentenced Scott to time served (then totaling approximately 11 years, 3 months) for attempted Hobbs Act robbery and related firearms crimes. Resentencing followed the district court’s grant of Scott’s 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his original 22-year sentence.  See United States v. Scott, No. 06 CR 988- LTS, 2017 WL 2414796, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 2, 2017).  The district court concluded that it had mistakenly relied on ACCA and the Career Offender Guideline in imposing Scott’s initial sentence.  It reasoned that Scott’s two prior convictions for first-degree manslaughter did not qualify as predicate violent crimes because “first degree manslaughter can be committed in New York State by omission and thus without using force.”  Id. at *2 (emphasis added).  A divided panel of this court agreed, with the majority analogizing omission to “complete inaction,” and concluding therefrom that the crime could be committed without the use of force.  See United States v. Scott, 954 F.3d 74, 78 (2d Cir. 2020) (holding first-degree manslaughter “not a predicate crime of violence because it can be committed by complete inaction and therefore without the use of force”).

After rehearing the case en banc, we reject this reasoning, which, carried to its logical — or illogical — conclusion, would preclude courts from recognizing even intentional murder as a categorically violent crime because, presumably, it is just as possible for a defendant to cause a person’s death by omission when the defendant’s specific intent is to kill, see N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25(1) (second-degree murder), as when his specific intent is to cause serious physical injury, see id. § 125.20(1) (first-degree manslaughter).  We decline to take the law down a path leading so far from the violent reality of these two most serious, intentionally injurious homicide crimes.

Disconcertedly, the majority needed 50 more pages to explain why first-degree manslaughter in New York qualifies as a federal "violent crime," and then concurring and dissenting opinions needed 70 more pages to debate a formalistic legal matter that is an awful artifice of poorly conceived and constructed federal sentencing law.  With the rocky jurisprudence of this case and the horrors of so many others, I would love to time warp back to the drafting of ACCA and urge a whole new approach to federal sentencing.  

March 2, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Will NJ Gov veto a bill to repeal mandatory minimums for certain non-violent crimes because it repeals too many?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local story reporting on notable legislative developments our of New Jersey, headlined "Bill to end mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes in N.J. now goes to Murphy’s desk."  Here are highlights of a story with so many interesting elements (with links from the original and my emphasis added):

A landmark criminal justice bill that would end mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes in New Jersey, including non-violent drug offenses, is now heading to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk after being passed by the state Assembly on Monday.

The bill (S2586/A4369) is the major reform recommended by the state’s Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which Murphy convened in 2018 due to the state having the worst disparity in the country for rates of incarceration between Black and white offenders.  The commission found that ending mandatory minimums for certain crimes would help to eliminate the disparity in the state’s criminal justice system, an initiative Murphy has championed as governor.

It is unclear if Murphy, a Democrat, will sign the bill into law.  “We’ll have further comment when we are ready to take action on the bill,” a spokesman for the governor said Monday afternoon.

As the bill was moving through the legislature, state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-Hudson, added an amendment to the bill to make the legislation also apply to official misconduct charges, which is sometimes used to prosecute politicians, police officers and other public workers.  The son of Sacco’s girlfriend is facing an official misconduct offense for allegedly submitting false timesheets in North Bergen, where Sacco is the mayor. 

Murphy has been publicly steadfast in that he does not support a bill that included ending mandatory sentences for official misconduct. “Let me say unequivocally, official misconduct was not on the list. I just want to say as clearly as I can, I do not support official misconduct being roped into this legislation,” the governor said in September.

But advocates continued to press lawmakers to move forward with the bill with or without the official misconduct charge included in it due to the number of people impacted, and the few number of people charged with official misconduct in recent years.

“Pass it for the thousands of people who will see earlier parole,” NJ Together, a non-partisan coalition of faith groups, wrote in a letter to lawmakers last week. “Pass it for the tens of thousands who will benefit in the future because they will not be subject to these unfair sentencing practices. Pass it for their families and for a more just criminal justice system here in New Jersey.”...

“This legislation, if signed by Gov. Murphy, will serve as a national model for criminal justice reform,” said Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti, D-Hudson. “This is an important social justice issue.”

The bill retroactively applies to inmates serving certain mandatory minimum sentences, including non-violent drug offenses, making more than 2,000 inmates immediately eligible for parole, if signed into law.  More than 80% of inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are either Black or Hispanic, Joseph Krakora, the state’s top public defender, previously said.

Assemblyman John DiMaio, R-Warren, said he recognized the “social injustice issues that would be addressed by this bill,” but added, “I just do not understand where the social justice issue comes in” when removing official misconduct from the list of mandatory minimum sentences.  “Those sections that deal with the public trust, elected officials and public officials should not be in this bill,” he said before Monday’s vote.

However, NJ Together also found that official misconduct charges overwhelming are handed down to Black New Jerseyans.  It found that Black people in New Jersey are three and a half times as likely to spend time in state prison for official misconduct than others, according to an analysis of 36,000 prison records....

A spokesman for Murphy did not immediately respond when asked when the governor may make a decision.

I am instinctually against all (prison-time) manadtory minimums, which fundamentally shift sentencing powers from judges to prosecutors and make sentencing more opaque and often less consistent.  Mandatory minimums seem especially pernicious when applied to non-violent offenses where there can be a broad array of offense conduct and offender circumstances that a judge ought be able to consider in open court (and be subject to appeal).  Against that backdrop, from the get-go I think it is problematic (and telling) that reform-minded officials are so quick to oppose the repeal of the official misconduct NJ mandatory minimums (which seem pretty severe, though do include some waiver opportunities).

Even more important, and kudos for this reporting, racial disparity would seem to be a real concern in the application of this particular mandatory minimum in New Jersey, just as there tends to be disparity in the application of so many other mandatory minimums in so many jurisdictions.  If a primary goal of this whole bill is to reduce racially disparate sentencing laws, then repealing the misconduct minimums seems very much in service to a main goal of this bill.

FInally, and perhaps most important in service to criminal justice reform generally, any vision of the best reforms cannot and should not be the enemy of good reforms.  Today, tomorrow and every day until misguided sentencing laws are reformed and made retroactive, real people and their families are subject to real excessive prison time (and taxpayers are paying the economic and other  costs of excessive and unfair sentences).  If Gov Murphy were to veto this bill, he would be denying immediate relief and hope for more than 2,000 folks now serving problematic sentences in order to .... just preserve prosecutorial sentencing powers that they seem to be using unevenly and that should be in the hands of judges.

Prior related post:

March 2, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Notable reviews of extreme sentences in Pennsylvania

The tail end of this week brought a number of notable stories about notably extreme sentences (and a few releases therefrom) in Pennsylvania.  I will use headlines and links to cover a lot of ground involving a number of intersecting and overlapping stories:

"Report raises questions with second-degree murder sentencing in Pennsylvania"

"Pa.’s second-degree murder charge is outdated, unfair, Fetterman says"

"‘They don’t deserve to die in prison’: Gov. Wolf grants clemency to 13 lifers"

"The nation’s oldest juvenile lifer, Joe Ligon, left a Pa. prison after 68 years"

The first pair of stories relate to this notable new report by the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity titled "Life Without Parole for Second-Degree Murder in Pennsylvania: An Objective Assessment of Sentencing."

February 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

New California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code issues report urging sweeping sentencing reforms

As reported in this local article, headlined "California Commission Recommends Ending Mandatory Minimum Sentences," a notable new government body in the Golden State is recommending an array of notable new sentencing reforms.  Here are the basics:

A newly formed state commission is recommending that California end mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and allow judges to reconsider all criminal sentences after someone has spent 15 years in prison.

Those are two of the 10 recommendations laid out in an 89-page report by the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, which is charged with examining California’s criminal sentencing laws and recommending changes.

Among their findings: That the state’s legal system has racial inequality at its core and that many laws are outdated, unsupported by data and don’t make the public more safe. "We really tried to do a complete survey of punishments in California from driving infractions, all the way to life in prison," said commission Chair Mike Romano, who runs the Three Strikes Clinic at Stanford Law School.

"What we found is that California has an unbelievably bloated criminal legal system and that there are a tremendous number of people who are serving punishments that are unnecessary in terms of enhancing public safety, in fact quite the opposite," he said.

The group heard from a wide range of experts, including every major law enforcement group in the state, current and former prosecutors and judges and state officials. The commission learned that California is spending $83,000 a year to lock up each prisoner, for a total of $16 billion. Yet the report also details evidence that California is enjoying the lowest crime rates since statewide tracking began in 1969, even as the state has enacted laws that reduce the number of people incarcerated.

“Aspects of California’s criminal legal system are undeniably broken," the report states. “The current system has racial inequity at its core," the commission wrote, adding that inequality may be worse than imagined as "people of color are disproportionately punished under state laws.”

The group is made up of legal experts and two state lawmakers. There are 10 recommendations in its inaugural report — all focusing on changes that could be made by the Legislature, without going to voters.

The full report is available at this link, and here is its executive summary:

When the Legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom established the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, California launched its first concerted effort in decades to thoroughly examine its criminal laws. The Legislature gave the Committee special data-gathering powers, directing it to study all aspects of criminal law and procedure and to make recommendations to “simplify and rationalize” the state’s Penal Code. This is the Committee’s first report, and it details 10 reforms recommended unanimously by Committee members. Our recommendations span California’s entire criminal legal system, ranging from traffic court to parole consideration for people serving life sentences. If enacted, these reforms would impact almost every person involved in California’s criminal system and, we believe, measurably improve safety and justice throughout the state.

Our recommendations follow a year of studying California’s criminal punishments. We were guided by testimony from 56 expert witnesses, extensive public comment, staff research, and over 50 hours of public hearings and Committee deliberation. We believe the recommendations represent broad consensus among a wide array of stakeholders, including law enforcement, crime victims, civil rights leaders, and people directly impacted by the legal system. The report contains extensive support for each recommendation, including empirical research, experiences from other jurisdictions, and available data on California’s current approach to these issues.

The recommendations are: 

  1.  Eliminate incarceration and reduce fines and fees for certain traffic offenses.
  2.  Require that short prison sentences be served in county jails. 
  3.  End mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.
  4.  Establish that low-value thefts without serious injury or use of a weapon are misdemeanors.
  5.  Provide guidance for judges considering sentence enhancements.
  6.  Limit gang enhancements to the most dangerous offenses.
  7.  Retroactively apply sentence enhancements previously repealed by the Legislature.
  8.  Equalize custody credits for people who committed the same offenses, regardless of where or when they are incarcerated.
  9.  Clarify parole suitability standards to focus on risk of future violent or serious offenses.
  10.  Establish judicial process for “second look” resentencing.

February 9, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Prison Policy Initiative sets out long list of "Winnable criminal justice reforms" for state systems

Prison Policy Initiative has produced this effective ten-page document titled "Winnable criminal justice reforms: A Prison Policy Initiative briefing on promising state reform issues for 2021."  I count well over two dozen notable suggested reforms on the list, each of which comes with helpful links and additional information.  Check out the whole document, and here are two of the many sentencing items to whet appetites:

Make it easier to change excessive prison sentences

Problem: Nationally, one of every six people in state prisons have been incarcerated for a decade or more. While many states have taken laudable steps to reduce the number of people serving time for low-level offenses, little has been done to bring relief to people needlessly serving decades in prison.

Solutions: State legislative strategies include: enacting presumptive parole, second-look sentencing, and other common-sense reforms, such as expanding “good time” credit policies. All of these changes should be made retroactive, and include people convicted of both violent and nonviolent offenses.

Example bill: The Second Look Act of 2019 https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/2146, which proposed to allow people to petition a federal court for a sentence reduction afer serving at least 10 years.

More information: See our reports Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/longsentences.html and Reforms Without Results: Why states should stop excluding violent offenses from criminal justice reforms https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/violence.html.

Repeal or reform mandatory minimum sentences and automatic “sentencing enhancements”

Problem: Mandatory minimum sentences and similar automatic sentencing structures like “sentencing enhancements” have fueled the country’s skyrocketing incarceration rates, harming individuals and undermining our communities and national well-being, all without significant increases to public safety.

Solutions: The best course is to repeal these laws so that judges can craft sentences to fit the unique circumstances of each crime and individual, but where that option is not  possible, states should adopt sentencing “safety valve” laws, which give judges the ability to deviate from the mandatory minimum under specified circumstances.

Model and example bills: Several examples of state and federal statutes are included in Families Against Mandatory Minimums’ (FAMM) Turning Off the Spigot: How Sentencing Safety Valves Can Help States Protect Public Safety and Save Money https://famm.org/wp-content/uploads/State-Safety-Valve-Report-Turning-Off-the-Spigot.pdf; see also American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Justice Safety Valve Act https://www.alec.org/model-policy/justicesafety-valve-act/

More information: See FAMM’s Turning Off the Spigot: How Sentencing Safety Valves Can Help States Protect Public Safety and Save Money and our Geographic Sentencing Enhancement Zones page https://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones.html.

January 31, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Download McDonel opinion

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

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

Download Nafkha Grant

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

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Interesting account of folks in Washigton state having second thoughts about three-strikes sentences

This lengthy new local article, headlined "New laws lead some Washington prosecutors to rethink three-strike life sentences," is an interesting review of efforts to review extreme sentences in the Evergreen State. Here are some excerpts from the piece:

Following the law enforcement killing of George Floyd, policing has grabbed the lion’s share of attention when it comes to reforming criminal justice. Yet, statistics reveal stark racial disparities in who goes to prison, and for how long.

In Washington, there is probably no greater example than the three-strikes law approved by voters in 1993 — the nation’s first and an embodiment of the tough-on-crime era, designed to ensure “persistent offenders” would never be free to commit more crimes.  Judges are required to hand down life sentences to repeat offenders of a wide array of crimes, from murder and rape to robbery and assault, and every year, more men and women are sentenced under the law.

While a majority of three-strikes prisoners are white, ... Black people, representing about 4% of the state’s population, account for 38% of 289 current three-strikes prisoners sentenced in Washington (including eight transferred to other states), according to the most comprehensive data released to date by the Department of Corrections (DOC), provided to The Seattle Times in December.  An additional six of 16 people who died in prison while serving three-strikes sentences were Black....

Ever since three strikes was enacted, people have argued about whether those it targets deserve their fate.  And yet, it has been surprisingly hard to track what crimes they committed.  The state stopped reporting the records of three strikes prisoners after 2008 and only recently resumed.

But a Seattle Times analysis of DOC data for the 289 current three-strikes prisoners shows more than half, 155 people, received a life sentence after assault, burglary, robbery or drug-related convictions triggered the third and final strike. Some previously committed more severe crimes.  About half of current three-strikes prisoners have murder, manslaughter or sex crimes on their record.

January 3, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 08, 2020

"What Biden’s Win Means for the Future of Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended new piece from The Marshall Project, which begins this way:

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to end private prisons, cash bail, mandatory-minimum sentencing and the death penalty.  Candidate Biden also said the U.S. could reduce its prison population by more than half.  While he didn’t put forward as progressive or as detailed a platform as many of his competitors for the Democratic nomination (including his running mate Kamala Harris), Biden has nevertheless, quietly, been elected on the most progressive criminal justice platform of any major party candidate in generations.  So what can he actually do?

Biden will face the same constraints as all incoming presidents after a campaign of big promises.  Government moves slowly, time and political capital are limited, and his administration will likely need to prioritize the pandemic and the related economic fallout in the early days.  But if he’s serious about tackling criminal justice, here’s what experts say to expect from the Biden administration on key issues.

I recommend checking out the full lengthy discussion, and here are snippets from a few of its sentencing pieces:

The Death Penalty

Biden can’t unilaterally end the death penalty, but he can speed up its demise and use symbolism to signal a new era.  Ultimately, the death penalty is symbolic. It has never been used to punish more than a tiny fraction of the most serious murders, but it makes very long prison sentences appear lenient by comparison.

On the campaign trail, Biden said he’d work to end the federal government’s use of the death penalty.  His record is mixed.... Although only Congress can fully abolish the federal death penalty, the president can do a great deal to speed its yearslong decline across the country.  Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, oversaw the most federal executions of any presidential administration since Eisenhower.  A new attorney general could stop them immediately, and return to the Obama-era practice of seeking no executions. A new attorney general could tell U.S. attorneys to only seek new death sentences for rare crimes like terrorism and mass shootings, which would still apply to defendants like Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev.... — Maurice Chammah

Mandatory Minimums

Biden has said he wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, a legacy of the tough-on-crime ’80s.  To make this happen at the federal level, he’d need to appoint a range of officials who share this view, and get buy-in from Congress....

Biden’s criminal justice platform pledges to eliminate federal mandatory minimums.  Biden hasn’t specified which ones, but advocates say if he does tackle them, he will likely focus on drug crimes.  There are more than 60,000 people currently serving mandatory minimum sentences in federal prison, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. 10,000 entered the system last year alone.  A broad clemency effort or a law change, if it were retroactive, could reduce the federal prison population by a quarter almost overnight.

Repealing mandatory minimums — or passing a “safety valve” law that doesn’t repeal them but gives judges the discretion to sidestep them — would require an act of Congress. Part of the problem, say scholars who study the issue, are the Attorney General and the Department of Justice, whose opinions carry a lot of weight with Congress.  So the first step a President Biden could take to signal his commitment to repealing mandatory minimums is to appoint officials who share his view, says Rachel Barkow, a law professor at NYU and a former member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which helps draft federal sentencing guidelines.  An Attorney General who is skeptical of mandatory minimums could also instruct federal prosecutors to use them judiciously, as Eric Holder did in 2013.... — Beth Schwartzapfel

Clemency

Biden has lots of power to revamp and supercharge the clemency process — but he hasn’t given much indication that he intends to use it. Clemency, which includes reversing criminal convictions (pardons) and shortening sentences (commutations), is the president’s most direct means to reduce incarceration. Biden made no bold promises on these topics during the campaign. He has promised to “broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes,” as Obama did at the end of his administration....

Biden could ask Harris to take the lead on clemency since she laid out a more detailed plan than his own during the Democratic primary. Harris said she would remove clemency decisions from the Department of Justice and open a federal sentence review unit, where a team of lawyers would be exclusively tasked with reviewing old sentences and considering reductions.... — Jamiles Lartey

Private Prisons

Biden can move the 14,000 federal prisoners currently held in private facilities without too much struggle. After that it gets harder.  Biden and Harris both pledged to end the federal government’s use of private prisons during the 2020 campaign, a position that is extremely popular among Democrats partywide.  Experts say the incoming administration is likely to build on guidance issued under the Obama administration in 2016, rescinded by Trump, that encourages the director of the Bureau of Prisons to stop renewing contracts with private facilities when they expire, in an effort to ultimately phase out their use.... — Jamiles Lartey

Reducing The Prison Population

Biden can’t implement new programs or rewrite outdated sentencing laws at the state level.  But he can use federal funding to send a message.  Crime prevention is a central feature of Biden’s criminal justice plan.  He has pledged to set aside $20 billion in federal funding to states that adopt evidence-based crime prevention programs and that opt for diversion programs over incarceration....

Under Biden’s plan, states would have access to federal funding if they agreed to implement programs designed to keep people out of prison.  The funding comes with some stipulations: States must eliminate mandatory minimums and they must create earned credit programs for people currently serving time.  It’s unclear what kinds of programs states could or should adopt in order to get the funding.  Biden has emphasized the need for states to invest in programs that address several underlying drivers of crime such as illiteracy and limited early education.  Congress would have to enact Biden’s plan.  — Nicole Lewis

Though indirectly mentioned in the Mandatory Minimum section, I am a bit disappointed that appointments to the US Sentencing Commission is not mentioned. The USSC, with the right appointees, could provide to be a particularly important and consequential agency at a moment in which implementation of the FIRST STEP Act is really still just getting started and during which other legislative reforms are being widely discussed.

November 8, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Listening to today's SCOTUS oral argument in two big sentencing cases

The year 2020 has been remarkable for so many reasons, and this morning it means for me a focus on the Supreme Court rather than on voting on this historic 2020 Election Day.  This is because I already voted early (about two weeks ago, in fact), and COVID realities mean that oral arguments are now available in real time.  And because SCOTUS this morning just happens to be hearing its two biggest sentencing cases on the docket, I plan to listen in live.  Here are the basics thanks to SCOTUSblog with links to where all can listen:

Jones v. Mississippi, 18-1259 

Issue: Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.

 LISTEN to Jones HERE

 

Borden v. United States, 19-5410

Issue: Whether the “use of force” clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act encompasses crimes with a mens rea of mere recklessness.

LISTEN to Borden HERE

November 3, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Some notable (and mostly heartening) criminal justice discussion in final Prez debate of 2020

Few months ago in this post I wished that we could somehow arrange for one of the then-planned Prez debates to be entirely about criminal justice issues.  Of course, that did not happen (and only two of the three planned debates even happened).  Still, during the final Prez debate of this election cycle, criminal justice issues received more discussion than in any other Prez debate in recent memory, and I am tempted to call the discussion heartening for a variety of reasons.

For starters, Prez Trump bragged repeatedly about his role in achieving "criminal justice reform and prison reform," and he also criticized former VP Biden for his past role in enacting federal criminal justice legislation in the 1980s and 1990s that "put tens of thousands of mostly Black young men in prison."  It was not that long ago that candidates were regularly competing to claim they were tougher than their opponents, but tonight Prez Trump assailed Biden for his tough-on-crime past while claiming credit for most progressive federal criminal justice reform in a generation (the FIRST STEP Act).

Meanwhile, VP Biden stated that the drug offense part of federal criminal legislation in the 1980s and 1990s was "a mistake," and he bragged that during the Obama administration "38 thousand prisoners [were] released from federal prison [and] over 1000 people given clemency."  And even more notable was Biden's plain statement that "there should be no minimum mandatories in the law."  Again, it was not that long ago that politicians were eager to brag about enacting mandatory minimums and about putting more people in prison.  Now the talking points focus on releasing prisoners and the pledge it to repeal mandatory minimums.

For these reasons and others, I remain mildly optimistic that we will see some measure of progress on some kind of follow up to the FIRST STEP Act or some other form of criminal justice reform in the coming years no matter who prevails in the coming election.  But I think the scope and contents of reform will surely look a look different, and the pace and implementation of any reform will surely transpire a lot differently, depending on who is in the White House and who is in charge in Congress.  Interesting times.

October 22, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

New report details racial disparities in every stage of the Massachusetts criminal justice system

Via email I received word of this notable new report released today by the Harvard Law School Criminal Justice Policy Program (CJPP) titled simply "Racial Disparities in the Massachusetts Criminal System."  Here is a brief account of the 100+-page report and its findings from the text of the email that I received:

People of color are drastically overrepresented in Massachusetts state prisons.  According to the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission’s analysis of 2014 data, the Commonwealth significantly outpaced national race and ethnicity disparity rates in incarceration, imprisoning Black people at a rate 7.9 times that of White people and Latinx people at 4.9 times that of White people.

In an attempt to better understand the sources of these disparities, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts asked Harvard Law School to research racial disparities in the Massachusetts criminal system.

CJPP collected administrative data from several criminal justice agencies, analyzing over 500,000 cases. In our report, we detail the results of our analysis of every stage of the criminal process. Our findings include:

  • Black and Latinx people are overrepresented in the criminal system.  Although Black people make up only 6.5% of the state’s population, African Americans are the subjects of 17.1% of criminal court cases. Similarly, Latinx people constitute only 8.7% of the Massachusetts population but 18.3% of the cases.  By contrast, White people, who make up roughly 74% of the Massachusetts population, account for only 58.7% of cases in the criminal system.
  • Black and Latinx people sentenced to incarceration in Massachusetts receive longer sentences than their White counterparts, with Black people receiving sentences that are an average of 168 days longer and Latinx people receiving sentences that are an average of 148 days longer.
  • Racial and ethnic differences in the type and severity of initial charge account for over 70 percent of the disparities in sentence length, overshadowing all other factors, including defendants’ criminal history and demographics, court jurisdiction, and neighborhood characteristics.
  • Among the subset of cases where the person was sentenced to incarceration in a state prison (i.e. cases involving charges that carry the longest potential sentences and where the racial disparity is largest), Black and Latinx people are convicted of charges roughly equal in seriousness to their White counterparts despite facing more serious initial charges and longer sentences.
  • Black and Latinx people charged with drug offenses and weapons offenses are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer incarceration sentences than White people charged with similar offenses. This difference persists after controlling for charge severity and other factors.

September 9, 2020 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)