Thursday, May 12, 2022

New Sentencing Project fact sheet highlights rise (and recent declines) in the incarceration of women and girls

The folks at The Sentencing Project have assembled some fascinating data on the number of incarcerated women at this site and in this fact sheet. Here is part of their description of the fact sheet:

Between 1980 and 2020, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 475%, rising from a total of 26,326 in 1980 to 152,854 in 2020.  The total count in 2020 represents a 30% reduction from the prior year — a substantial but insufficient downsizing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which some states began to reverse in 2021.

Research on female incarceration is critical to understanding the full consequences of mass incarceration and to unraveling the policies and practices that lead to their criminalization. The number of incarcerated women was nearly five times higher in 2020 than in 1980.

Incarcerated Women and Girls examines female incarceration trends and finds areas of both concern and hope.  While the imprisonment rate for African American women was nearly twice that of white women in 2020, this disparity represents a sharp decline from 2000 when Black women were six times as likely to be imprisoned.  Since then Black women’s imprisonment rate has decreased by 68% while white women’s rate has increased by 12%.

Similar to adults, girls of color are more likely to be incarcerated than white girls.  Tribal girls are more than four times as likely, and African American girls are more than three times as likely as white girls to be incarcerated.

All the data in the fact sheet are fascinating, and these particular data points really caught my attention:

May 12, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 09, 2022

"Low Income, Poor Outcome: Unequal Treatment of Indigent Defendants"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Nino Monea. Here is its abstract:

It is no secret that the law treats poor people worse than rich ones.  This is true in criminal law and everywhere else.  But some laws do not simply result in disparate impact upon the poor — the way they are written explicitly targets or disadvantages the poor.  This Article examines the spectrum of expressly biased laws in four major categories.

First, laws that criminalize poverty: bans on poor housing or no housing, traffic laws that require nothing more than paying for things, and cash bail that imprisons people without access to credit.  Second, courts impose an enormous number of unwaivable fees at every step of the criminal justice system, and failure to pay results in incarceration — a modern day debtor prison.  Third, many criminal procedure rules place the needy on unequal footing.  Only indigent defendants are required to suffer reduced expectations of privacy, disclose certain information, face judicial scrutiny, endure low caps on what their attorneys can be paid, or go into hearing without an attorney.  And fourth, after conviction, these defendants face unique hurdles to recover for wrongful imprisonment or expensive expungement processes.

May 9, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 07, 2022

"Prisons and jails will separate millions of mothers from their children in 2022"

The title of this post is the title of this briefing by Prison Policy Initiative authored by Wendy Sawyer and Wanda Bertram and published in time for Mother's Day.  Here is how it gets started:

This Mother’s Day — as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put people behind bars at risk — nearly 150,000 incarcerated mothers will spend the day apart from their children.  Over half (58%) of all women in U.S. prisons are mothers, as are 80% of women in jails, including many who are incarcerated awaiting trial simply because they can’t afford bail.

Most of these women are incarcerated for drug and property offenses, often stemming from poverty and/or substance use disorders.  Most are also the primary caretakers of their children, meaning that punishing them with incarceration tears their children away from a vital source of support.  And these numbers don’t cover the many women preparing to become mothers while locked up this year: An estimated 58,000 people every year are pregnant when they enter local jails or prisons.

150,000 mothers separated from their children this Mother’s Day is atrocious in and of itself — but that’s just one day.  How many people in the U.S. have experienced separation from their mothers due to incarceration over the years?  Unfortunately, these specific data are not collected, but we calculated some rough estimates based on other research to attempt to answer this question:

  • Roughly 570,000 women living in the U.S. had ever been separated from their minor children by a period of imprisonment as of 2010.
  • An estimated 1.3 million people living in the U.S. had been separated from their mothers before their 18th birthdays due to their mothers’ imprisonment, also as of 2010.

May 7, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, May 06, 2022

Continuing to scratch the sentencing surface if Roe is overturned and abortions are criminalized

As mentioned in this post right after the leaked draft SCOTUS opinion suggested Roe v. Wade will soon be overturned, if abortion issues are returned entirely to elected officials, a lot more abortion-related activity will be criminalized in a lot more states raising all sorts of new issues regarding sentencing law and policy.  I flagged a few of the sentencing provisions of some of the recently-enacted criminal prohibitions of abortions in a few states in my prior post, and now Politico is on this beat with this new piece fully headlined, "Abortion bans and penalties would vary widely by state: The penalties vary widely by state, and also can include hefty fines or the suspension of a medical license."  Here are excerpts:

Abortion bans set to take effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned could mean lengthy prison sentences for people who have an abortion, the physicians who perform them or those who help people access the procedure. The penalties vary widely by state, and also can include hefty fines or the suspension of a medical license.

Even as national Republican leaders, many of whom have worked for decades to outlaw abortion, dismiss fears of prosecutions, state lawmakers have already enacted mandatory minimum sentences that would go into effect if Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion is handed down....

[I]n Texas, anyone who performs, induces or attempts an abortion where “an unborn child dies as a result of the offense” is guilty of a first-degree felony — punishable by up to life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine — under the state’s trigger ban.  In Alabama, anyone who performs an abortion, provides abortion pills or “aids, abets or prescribes for the same,” faces up to 12 months in county jail or hard labor and a fine of up to $1,000 under the state’s pre-Roe ban.  And in South Carolina, a person who ends their pregnancy either with a pill or by other means faces up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $1,000 under state law.

Bills moving in some states go even further. Legislation in Louisiana that would classify abortions as homicide and extend legal personhood to fertilized eggs was voted out of committee on Wednesday.  Homicide is punishable in the state by the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole....

And while some states — such as Idaho, Missouri and Kentucky — have legal language saying people who get an abortion can’t be charged, those patients could be forced to testify against their doctor or romantic partner who helped them access the procedure.  “Even if a bill doesn’t allow pregnant people to be charged directly, we’re concerned about the ways increased surveillance could lead to people being criminalized for an abortion or another kind of pregnancy loss,” Farah Diaz-Tello, the senior counsel and legal director of the group If/When/How, told POLITICO.

Notably, this new New York Times article discusses the growing use of "medication abortion" under the headlined "Abortion Pills Stand to Become the Next Battleground in a Post-Roe America." Here is how the lengthy article concludes:

Some abortion rights advocates said that the availability of safe and effective abortion pills has eliminated one of the greatest fears in the years before Roe — but has added a new one.  “One of the sharpest distinctions is really between the idea of hemorrhaging and the idea of handcuffs,” said Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice America.  “In the pre-Roe world, there was a legitimate concern about people bleeding out in back alleys. That’s not the reality we face. What we’re looking at now is a world of criminalization.”

The development of abortion drugs and the eagerness of some to distribute them and of others to prohibit them already has me wondering if we could be on the verge of a whole new frontier for the war on drugs. Remarkable times.

Recent related post:

May 6, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Thursday, May 05, 2022

Federal judge formally accepts below-guideline sentencing terms of Derek Chauvin's plea deal for civil rights violations

As reported in this post from back in December, Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty in federal court to civil rights violations arising from his murder of George Floyd.  He did so with a plea deal in place that would bind the federal judge to impose a sentence of between 20 and 25 years even though Chauvin's advisory guideline range is life imprisonment.  At the time, the judge deferred acceptance of the plea deal pending preparation of the presentence report.  That report is now in, as this AP piece reports that the plea deal was formally accepted by the court yesterday: 

The judge overseeing the federal civil rights cases of four former Minneapolis police officers in the killing of George Floyd said Wednesday that he has accepted the terms of Derek Chauvin's plea agreement and will sentence him to 20 to 25 years in prison.

Chauvin pleaded guilty December 15 to violating Floyd's civil rights, admitting for the first time that he kept his knee on Floyd's neck — even after he became unresponsive — resulting in the Black man's death on May 25, 2020. The White former officer admitted he willfully deprived Floyd of his right to be free from unreasonable seizure, including unreasonable force by a police officer.

Under the plea agreement, which Chauvin signed, both sides agreed Chauvin should face a sentence ranging from 20 to 25 years, with prosecutors saying they would seek 25. He could have faced life in prison on the federal count. With credit for good time in the federal system, he would serve from 17 years to 21 years and three months behind bars.

U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson deferred accepting the agreement pending the completion of a presentence investigation. He said in a one-page order Wednesday that the report had been issued, so it was now appropriate to accept the deal. He has not set a sentencing date for Chauvin.

Chauvin is already serving a 22 1/2 year sentence for his murder conviction in state court last year, though he is appealing that conviction. He would serve the federal sentence concurrently with the state sentence. The federal plea deal means Chauvin will probably spend more time in prison than he faced under his state sentence. State prisoners in Minnesota typically serve one-third of their sentence on parole, which for him would mean 15 years in prison.

I am inclined to predict that Judge Magnuson will give Chauvin the max that this plea deal permits of 25 years, which would likely mean Chauvin will be in the federal pen until the early 2040s. Based on the state murder conviction alone, he would have likely been out by the mid 2030s.

A few prior related posts:

May 5, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Without Roe, what does sentencing law and policy look like surrounding criminalized abortions?

Reproductive rights are not my area of specialty.  But my interest in constitutional jurisprudence and the work of the US Supreme Court has me paying close attention to the remarkable news that broke last night regarding a leaked draft Court opinion (per Justice Samuel Alito) stating that "Roe and Casey must be overruled" so as to "return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives."  And, as the title of this post is meant to suggest, if Roe is overruled, returning the issue of abortion to elected officials means that a lot more abortion-related activity will be criminalized in a lot more states.  And, of course, new arenas of criminalization necessarily mean new issues regarding sentencing law and policy.

At the risk of getting too much of a head start on these issues, I took a look at some of the sentencing provisions of what seem to be among the broadest, recently enacted criminal prohibitions of abortions.  For example, Oklahoma last month enacted this abortion criminalization bill, and here are its sentencing elements:

A person convicted of performing or attempting to perform an abortion shall be guilty of a felony punishable by a fine not to exceed One Hundred Thousand Dollars ($100,000.00), or by confinement in the custody of the Department of Corrections for a term not to exceed ten (10) years, or by such fine and imprisonment.

This section does not authorize the charging or conviction of a woman with any criminal offense in the death of her own unborn child.

Meanwhile, Texas last year passed its "trigger law" to outlaw abortion 30 days after a court ruling allowing such a ban, and here are its key sentencing provisions:

This chapter may not be construed to authorize the imposition of criminal, civil, or administrative liability or penalties on a pregnant female on whom an abortion is performed, induced, or attempted....

An offense under this section is a felony of the second degree [which carries a sentencing range from 2 to 20 years in prison], except that the offense is a felony of the first degree if an unborn child dies as a result of the offense [which carries a sentencing range of 5 to 99 years or life in prison].

Arkansas enacted its Unborn Child Protection Act last year, and its sentencing provisions are very similar to Oklahoma's:

Performing or attempting to perform an abortion is an unclassified felony with a fine not to exceed one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) or imprisonment not to exceed ten (10) years, or both.

This section does not authorize the charging or conviction of a woman with any criminal offense in the death of her own unborn child.

My goal here is not, with Roe still formally the law of the land, to unpack fully all the criminal law and sentencing policy questions that are sure to follow in the wake of Roe's reversal and existing state interest in criminalizing abortions.  Rather, in the wake of last night's leak, I just wanted to flag that it no longer seems too early to start exploring earnestly just what state sentencing law and policy may soon look like surrounding this potential new frontier of criminalized abortions.

May 3, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (47)

Monday, May 02, 2022

Seriously considering resentencing in high-profile Cleveland corruption case (while seriously enjoying rewatching puppet trial parody)

Article-2089091-115F2B80000005DC-234_468x273Though the initial federal sentencing of former Cleveland area county commissioner Jimmy Dimora took place a decade ago, I still recall that Dimora received one of the longest prison terms ever given for political corruption.  My 2012 post about his sentencing to 28 years in federal prison provides some background on the case, and it notes that his attorneys then argued Dimora should get less prison time due to his ailing physical condition and age.  Fast forward a decade, and this local story highlights that what's old is new again in federal sentencing for Dimora.  The article is headlined "Ex-Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora’s health is failing; attorney asks for release from prison at re-sentencing," and here are excerpts:

Disgraced former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora’s health is failing, and his defense attorney asked a judge to consider releasing him from prison when Dimora is re-sentenced on corruption charges next month. Attorney Philip Kushner urged U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi to have leniency for Dimora, according to a court filing last week. Lioi must re-sentence Dimora after the judge overturned convictions on two of Dimora’s 32 charges in one of the largest corruption cases in Ohio history.

Dimora, who will turn 67 in June, has a long list of medical issues that Kushner said should result in Lioi giving Dimora significantly less prison time than the original 28-year sentence. He was convicted of engineering a pay-to-play scandal that led to an overhaul of county government in 2012. “During his 10 years of incarceration, his health has deteriorated,” Kushner wrote in the filing....

Dimora’s cohort and co-defendant, former county Auditor Frank Russo, died last month. His death came about two years after he was released from prison, in part, because of his failing health and the coronavirus pandemic.

Kushner argued for a significantly lesser sentence or release for Dimora based on his age, health and the steep punishment Lioi doled out in 2012. Dimora, he wrote, suffers from a heart defect, an intestinal disorder and an inner-ear equilibrium disease. He needs knee-replacement surgery. He suffered a stroke in prison, is diabetic and uses a wheelchair, according to the filing. Dimora contracted COVID-19 twice in prison, including once in which he became “very ill,” according to Kushner. Dimora is currently serving time in the Federal Medical Center Devens in Massachusetts, which houses seriously ill inmates.

Kushner also argued that similar felons typically serve far less time, somewhere between 12 and 15 years, not the 28 that Dimora is serving.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Lioi to re-examine the case in the wake of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the justices clarified the definition of an “official act” taken by a public official in a bribery case. The ruling meant that Lioi’s instructions to the jury were outdated and incorrect.  Lioi in March overturned two convictions that focused on contractor Nicholas Zavarella, who built an outdoor kitchen and retaining wall at Dimora’s home for free....

Federal prosecutors are expected to file their own sentencing memorandum with Lioi in the days before the hearing June 8.

Whether Dimora receives a significantly reduced federal sentence is a serious matter, perhaps even literally deadly serious for him.  But Dimora's name and his high-profile case reminded me of a not-quite-so-serious aspect of his trial.  Specifically, as this 2012 NBC News piece detailed, one news station's local coverage of the Dimora trial itself made national and international news:

It's courtroom drama crossed with "Sesame Street," as a television station barred from using cameras during a high-profile corruption trial covers the highlights with a nightly puppet show. It stars a talking squirrel "reporter" who provides the play-by-play in an exaggerated, "you won't believe this" tone.

"It's a satirical look at the trial and, again, I think we have it appropriately placed at the end of the newscast," WOIO news director Dan Salamone said Thursday. He said the puppets are in addition to the station's regular coverage of the Akron federal trial of ex-Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, the longtime Democratic power broker in Cleveland. "It's not intended in any way to replace any of the serious coverage of the trial," Salamone said.

Especially on a Monday afternoon when everyone could surely use a bit of levity, I highly recommend watching at least the first few segments of "The Puppet's Court":

Each of these segments is only about 90 seconds long, though I think there are at least 10 of them if you keep watching. I am so glad they are still on YouTube.

May 2, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

"Criminal Acts and Basic Moral Equality"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by John Humbach.  Here is its abstract:

Modern criminal justice presupposes that persons are not morally equal.  On the contrary, those who do wrong are viewed by the law as less worthy of respect, concern and decent treatment: Offenders, it is said, “deserve” to suffer for their misdeeds.  Yet, there is scant logical or empirical basis for the law’s supposition that offenders are morally inferior.  The usual reasoning is that persons who intentionally or knowingly do wrong are the authors and initiators of their acts and, as such, are morally responsible for them.  But this reasoning rests on the assumption that a person’s mental states, such as intentions, can cause physical effects (bodily movements)— a factual assumption that is at odds with the evidence of neuroscience and whose only empirical support rests on a fallacious logical inference (post hoc ergo propter hoc).  There is, in fact, no evidence that mental states like intentions have anything to do with causing the bodily movements that constitute behavior.  Nonetheless, the mental-cause basis for moral responsibility, though it rests on a false factual inference, has enormous implications for criminal justice policy.

While society must obviously protect itself from dangerous people, it does not have to torment them.  The imperative to punish, a dominant theme of criminal justice policy, is not supported by evidence or logic, and it violates basic moral equality.

April 28, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

"Modern Sentencing Mitigation"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by John B. Meixner Jr. now available in the Northwestern University Law Review. Here is its abstract:

Sentencing has become the most important part of a criminal case.  Over the past century, criminal trials have given way almost entirely to pleas.  Once a case is charged, it almost always ends up at sentencing.  And notably, judges learn little sentencing-relevant information about the case or the defendant prior to sentencing and have significant discretion in sentencing decisions.  Thus, sentencing is the primary opportunity for the defense to affect the outcome of the case by presenting mitigation: reasons why the nature of the offense or characteristics of the defendant warrant a lower sentence.  It is surprising, then, that relatively little scholarship in criminal law focuses on mitigation at sentencing.  Fundamental questions have not been explored: Do the Sentencing Guidelines — which largely limit the relevance of mitigating evidence — make mitigation unimportant?  Does the extent or type of mitigation offered have any relationship with the sentence imposed?

This Article fills that gap by examining a previously unexplored data set: sentencing memoranda filed by defense attorneys in federal felony cases.  By systematically parsing categories of mitigating evidence and quantitatively coding the evidence, I show that mitigation is a central predictor of sentencing outcomes and that judges approach mitigation in a modern way: rather than adhering to the strict, offense-centric structure that has dominated sentencing since the advent of the Sentencing Guidelines in the 1980s, judges individualize sentences in ways that consider the personal characteristics of each defendant, beyond what the Guidelines anticipate.  And particular types of mitigation, such as science-based arguments about mental and physical health, appear especially persuasive.

The results have significant implications for criminal justice policy: while my data show that mitigation is critical to judges’ sentencing decisions, both the Guidelines and procedural rules minimize mitigation, failing to encourage both defense attorneys and prosecutors to investigate and consider it.  I suggest reforms to make sentencing more equitable, such as requiring the investigation and presentation of mitigation to constitute effective assistance of counsel, easing the barriers to obtaining relevant information on mental and physical health mitigation, and encouraging prosecutors to consider mitigation in charging decisions and sentencing recommendations.

April 27, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Prison Policy Initiative releases new report providing a "deep dive into state prison populations"

As detailed in this press release, today the "the Prison Policy Initiative published Beyond the Count, a report that examines the most recent and comprehensive demographic data about people in state prisons and provides a groundbreaking view of the lives of incarcerated people before they were locked up."  Here is more about the report from the press release:

The report analyzes data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ “Survey of Prison Inmates,” collected in 2016 and released in late 2020.  The data show what many in the criminal justice reform movement already know: that the U.S. criminal justice system today locks up the least powerful people in society.  Key takeaways include:

  • Many, if not most, people in prison grew up struggling financially. 42% of survey respondents said their family received public assistance before they were 18. Respondents also reported uncommonly high levels of homelessness, foster care, and living in public housing before the age of 18.

  • Most individuals in state prisons report that their first arrest happened when they were children. 38 percent of the people BJS surveyed reported a first arrest before age 16, and 68% reported a first arrest before age 19. The average survey respondent had been arrested over 9 times in their life.

  • The typical person in state prison is 39 years old and has a 10th grade education, a fact that is most likely linked to youth confinement, which disrupts a young person’s life and schooling.

  • Half (49%) of people in state prisons meet the criteria for substance use disorder (SUD), and 65% were using an illicit substance in the immediate lead-up to their incarceration, suggesting that many people who are not locked up for drug offenses are still victims of our country’s choice to criminalize substance use rather than treat it as a health issue.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s report includes more than 20 detailed data tables that allow readers to better understand the people who are in state prisons and the challenges they have faced in their lives.  Beyond the Count also includes a section diving into the data on the race, age, gender identity, and sexual orientation of people in state prisons, explaining that a disproportionate number of incarcerated people are racial minorities, very young or very old, or LGBTQ.  Many of the key demographic findings in Beyond the Count (such as incarcerated people’s age at first arrest) are also broken down by race or gender.  While the data in this report is about people in state prisons, it does not allow statistics to be broken out for individual states.

April 13, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

"Trauma and Blameworthiness in the Criminal Legal System"

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

Violence can result in trauma, but so too can trauma lead to violence.  Neuroscience offers an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the biology of behavior, including the nexus between trauma and criminal behavior.  Yet the criminal legal system consistently fails to account for the traumatic backgrounds of many people charged with crimes. Instead, people who experience trauma as a result of community violence, along with so many others, are ignored or ridiculed when they argue that their traumatic experiences should mitigate their blameworthiness.  Military veterans, on the other hand, provide a unique example of a class of people for whom judges, prosecutors, and other actors in the criminal legal system recognize that context and circumstances matter — that even when someone is criminally responsible for a wrongdoing, their traumatic experiences may mitigate their blameworthiness.

In this article, I explore why we treat trauma as a reason for leniency for some people but not for others, and whether it is morally justifiable for us to approach criminal behavior as situational (a result of environmental circumstances) for certain groups, while insisting that it is characterological (the result of individual character traits) for others. Offering a novel perspective on the issue, I contend that what distinguishes military veterans from defendants for whom trauma and other environmental factors are routinely disregarded is not a difference in the kind or degree of the impact of their circumstances, but rather cognitive assumptions about who is and is not a criminal.  These assumptions in turn lead to a false dichotomy between people whose criminal behavior we deem characterological, and therefore fully morally blameworthy, and people whose criminal behavior we accept as situational, and therefore less blameworthy. I situate the roots of these categorizations in structural racism and show how this dichotomous thinking perpetuates racial injustice.

April 12, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reviewing the application of Miller and juvenile LWOP in the federal system

This AP story, headlined "Juvenile lifer seeks reprieve amid broader push for leniency," focuses on one high-profile juvenile lifer case while also discussing some of the other realities of juve LWOP in the federal system since the Supreme Court's major Eighth Amendment ruling in Miller v. Alabama a decade ago.  Here are some excerpts from a lengthy piece worth reading in full:

Shortly after Riley Briones Jr. arrived in federal prison, he cut his long, braided hair in a symbolic death of his old self. As a leader of a violent gang and just shy of 18, Briones drove the getaway car in a robbery turned deadly on the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community outside Phoenix in 1994. He was convicted of murder and given a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

In prison, he has been baptized a Christian, ministers to other inmates who call him Brother Briones, got his GED and has a spotless disciplinary record, his attorneys say in their latest bid to get the now 45-year-old’s sentence cut short. “He’s clearly on the side of the line where he should be walking free,” said his attorney, Easha Anand.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for that possibility with a 2012 ruling that said only the rare, irredeemable juvenile offender should serve life in prison. Over the past decade, most of the 39 defendants in federal cases who received that sentence have gotten a reprieve and are serving far fewer years behind bars. Meanwhile, more than 60 legal experts and scholars have asked the federal government to cap sentences for juvenile offenders at 30 years, create a committee to review life sentences in the future and reconsider its stance in Briones’ case.

But the move toward greater leniency has been gradual and not without resistance. Briones is among those whose life sentences have been upheld in recent years, though he still has another chance. Prosecutors in his case have opposed a reduced term. They argue despite Briones’ improvements, he minimized his role in the gang and its crimes that terrorized Salt River amid an explosion of gang violence on Native American reservations in the 1990s....

Briones’ case became eligible for resentencing after the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in Miller v. Alabama.  It was part of a series of cases in which the court found minors should be treated differently from adults, partly because of a lack of maturity.  The court previously eliminated the death penalty for juveniles and barred life-without-parole sentences for juveniles except in cases of murder.  A handful of the defendants in the 39 federal cases — most of whom are minorities — have been released from prison.

The Feb. 17 letter seeking reform from the Justice Department pointed to statistics that show the median sentence for adults convicted of murder in the federal system is 20 years — nearly half the median for the juvenile offenders.  “Taking a life is really, really serious, and I don’t belittle that at all,” said Mary McCord, executive director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center, one of the signatories.  “But a full life in prison when you’re a juvenile and you’re talking about 40, 50, 60 years in prison is exceedingly excessive probably in almost every case and not consistent with typical sentences for homicides, even adults.”...

The California-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a victims rights group, said changes in the law that continually allow juvenile offenders to get another shot at freedom are damaging for the families, communities and the criminal justice system. “Some of these crimes are just very horrible, and the impacts on the families are substantial, and they never go away,” said the group’s president, Michael Rushford.

The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth has long argued the changes a person makes once they’ve entered prison should matter, and juveniles offenders should be able to live as adults outside prison walls.  “If the facts of the crime are always going to be the overpowering force, then Miller isn’t going to be meaningfully interpreted to outweigh all this positive growth,” said Rebecca Turner, who tracks the federal cases for the group.

The federal court in Arizona has resentenced more of the juvenile offenders to life in prison than any other state. Texas has two juvenile offenders who are serving life but weren’t able to be resentenced because of how courts interpreted Miller v. Alabama. South Carolina resentenced one inmate to life.  All three federal cases in Arizona were from Native American reservations, where the federal government has jurisdiction when the suspect, victim or both are Native American for a set of major crimes, including homicide. The penalties, in general, are stricter than if the crimes happened off the reservation and the cases ended up in state court.

April 12, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 10, 2022

"Transgender Rights & the Eighth Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Jennifer Levi and Kevin Barry and just posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The past decades have witnessed a dramatic shift in the visibility, acceptance, and integration of transgender people across all aspects of culture and the law.  The treatment of incarcerated transgender people is no exception.  Historically, transgender people have been routinely denied access to medically necessary hormone therapy, surgery, and other gender-affirming procedures; subjected to cross-gender strip searches; and housed according to their birth sex.  But these policies and practices have begun to change. State departments of corrections are now providing some, though by no means all, appropriate care to transgender people, culminating in the Ninth Circuit’s historic decision in Edmo v. Corizon, Inc. in 2019 — the first circuit-level case to require a state to provide transition surgery to an incarcerated transgender person.  Other state departments of corrections will surely follow, as they must under the Eighth Amendment.  These momentous changes, which coincide with a broader cultural turn away from transphobia and toward a collective understanding of transgender people, have been neither swift nor easy.  But they trend in one direction: toward a recognition of the rights and dignity of transgender people.

April 10, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 01, 2022

"Releasing Older Prisoners Convicted of Violent Crimes: The Unger Story"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now available via SSRN and authored by Michael Millemann, Jennifer Chapman and Samuel Feder. Here is its abstract:

This article is a retrospective analysis of the significant Maryland decision, Unger v. State, which resulted in one of the most interesting and important unplanned criminal justice experiments in Maryland and national history.  On May 24, 2012, Maryland’s highest court released a decision that shocked the Maryland legal world and gave older life-sentenced Maryland prisoners their first real hope of release in decades.  In Unger v. State, the Maryland Court of Appeals made retroactive a 1980 decision that had invalidated a historic instruction that Maryland judges had given juries in criminal cases for over 150 years.  In that instruction, judges told the lay jurors that they, not the judge, were the ultimate judges of the law, and what the judge said was advisory only. 

A fair reading of the Unger decision was that all prisoners convicted before 1981 were entitled to new trials.  Subsequent decisions confirmed this reading.  Over six years, 200 of these older prisoners impacted by the Unger decision were released on probation.  This article examines the jury-determines-the-law instruction, the Unger decision, and the implementation of Unger, largely through the releases of older prisoners convicted of violent crimes.  In this article, we identify what we believe is important about the Unger story, not just in Maryland but also nationally, including the impact of race in criminal justice, the ability to release older prisoners with appropriate support, and how the lessons learned from the Unger decision can provide a model for reentry programs.

April 1, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Another review of varying concerns about sentencing equity for January 6 rioters and others

This new Washington Post article reviews anew the enduring question of whether and how January 6 rioters are getting equitable treatment at sentencing.  The article is fully headlined "Judge: Nonviolent Jan. 6 defendants shouldn’t get ‘serious jail time’: A Trump appointee disputes that Capitol breach cases are unique, stirring a debate over how to hold individuals accountable in mass crime." I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

A federal judge criticized U.S. prosecutors for seeking jail time for some nonviolent Donald Trump supporters in the Jan. 6 Capitol breach but not for left-wing activists who protested the 2018 Senate confirmation of Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. “I know that the government believes that the January 6 cases are sui generis” — or one of a kind — “and therefore can’t be compared to other cases. But I don’t agree,” said U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden, a 2017 Trump appointee. He called the riots the latest in Washington’s history of high-profile and politically divisive mass demonstrations....

McFadden spoke out Wednesday in sentencing Capitol riot defendant Jenny Cudd, a 37-year-old florist and onetime Republican mayoral candidate from Midland, Tex., who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor trespassing.  Prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office for Washington asked the judge to sentence Cudd to 75 days in jail and one year probation. Instead, he imposed two months’ probation and a $5,000 fine, contrasting her case with that of Tighe Barry, an activist with the liberal advocacy group Code Pink....

McFadden’s outspoken criticism of the Justice Department put him out of step with 18 other federal judges who have sentenced Jan. 6 defendants in the U.S. District Court in Washington. Fifteen of those judges have imposed jail time in misdemeanor cases, and many of them, like McFadden, previously served as federal prosecutors in the District....

While one or two other judges like McFadden have balked at sentencing Jan. 6 misdemeanor offenders to jail, most have pushed the other way, criticizing prosecutors for charging many participants similar to nonviolent protesters who routinely disrupt congressional hearings or simple trespassers....

In responding to similar arguments by Cudd attorney Marina Medvin in court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura E. Hill rejected the comparison. “January 6 was unlike anything in American history,” Hill argued. “There was a vast amount of violence and destruction on January 6 that was not present on the days of the Kavanaugh protests.  The Kavanaugh protesters were escorted out of the Capitol and the hearing continued. Congressmen and congresswomen were not required to evacuate the building. … They didn’t have to pause proceedings and continue into the early morning hours of the next day, after the building was secure.”

Judges appointed by presidents of both parties have condemned the siege of the Capitol as a unique destabilizing event and weighed jail terms as a way to deter defendants and others from a repeat.  “When a mob is prepared to attack the Capitol to prevent our elected officials from both parties from performing their constitutional and statutory duty, democracy is in trouble,” U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss, an Obama appointee, said last summer.  “The damage that [the defendant] and others caused that day goes way beyond the several-hour delay in the certification. It is a damage that will persist in this country for decades.”

“Many politicians are writing a false narrative about what happened. I think they are misleading people,” U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, a Reagan appointee, said in another case this month.  Warning that attempting to whitewash or play down events could lead to future violence, Hogan called Jan. 6 an “unforgivable” day that will “affect this country for many years.”

Prosecutors say they are trying to treat people fairly based on their individual conduct.  But they also want to hold all accountable for participating in a mass crime in which the crowd made mob violence possible, emboldening and facilitating those who engaged in violence, overwhelmed police and escaped arrest by finding safety in numbers.

Some of many prior related posts:

March 29, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution produce "Felony Murder: An On-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing"

The Sentencing Project and Fair and Just Prosecution today released this interesting new report about sentencing in felony murder cases titled "Felony Murder: An On-Ramp for Extreme Sentencing." Here is part of its executive summary:

Murder typically refers to an intentional killing.  But “felony murder” laws hold people like Mendoza liable for murder if they participated in a felony, such as a robbery, that resulted in someone’s death.  These laws impose sentences associated with murder on people who neither intended to kill nor anticipated a death, and even on those who did not participate in the killing.  As such, they violate the principle of proportional sentencing, which is supposed to punish crimes based on their severity.  These excessively punitive outcomes violate widely shared perceptions of justice.  With one in seven people in U.S. prisons serving a life sentence, ending mass incarceration requires bold action to reduce extreme prison terms such as those prescribed for felony murder.

These laws run counter to public safety, fiscal responsibility, and justice.  Although other countries have largely rejected the felony murder doctrine, 48 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government still use these laws.  The only two states that do not have felony murder laws are Hawaii and Kentucky.  Six other states require some proof of intentionality regarding the killing to consider it murder, though the use of a gun — or mere knowledge of a codefendant’s gun use — satisfies this requirement in some jurisdictions.  In any case, all felony murder laws use the underlying felony to either a) treat as murder a killing that would not have otherwise been considered murder, or b) increase the gradation of murder, such as from second to first degree.

This report evaluates the legal and empirical foundation, and failings, of the felony murder rule, profiles impacted individuals, and highlights recent reform efforts in 10 jurisdictions. Key findings include:

1. Felony murder laws widen the net of extreme sentencing and are counterproductive to public safety.

  • For felony murder convictions for adults, eight states and the federal system mandate LWOP sentences, 15 states mandate LWOP in some cases, and 17 states and Washington, DC make LWOP a sentencing option.  Four states permit or require a virtual life sentence of 50 years or longer for some or all felony murder convictions.
  • In Pennsylvania and Michigan, one quarter of people serving LWOP were convicted of felony murder — over 1,000 people in each state.
  • Felony murder laws have not significantly reduced felonies nor lowered the number of felonies that become deadly.
  • The extreme prison sentences associated with felony murder laws add upward pressure on the entire sentencing structure.
  • Felony murder laws spend taxpayer dollars on incarcerating people who no longer pose a danger to the community and divert resources away from effective investments that promote public safety.
2. Felony murder laws have particularly adverse impacts on people of color, young people, and women.
  • In Pennsylvania in 2020, 80% of imprisoned individuals with a felony murder conviction were people of color and 70% were African American.
  • Felony murder laws ignore the cognitive vulnerabilities of youth and emerging adults by assuming that they recognize the remote consequences of their own actions — and those of others in their group. In Pennsylvania, nearly three-quarters of people serving LWOP for felony murder in 2019 were age 25 or younger at the time of their offense, as were over half of Minnesotans charged with aiding and abetting felony murder in recent years.
  • An exploratory survey in California found that 72% of women but only 55% of men serving a life sentence for felony murder were not the perpetrators of the homicide.  The California Coalition for Women Prisoners reports that the majority of their members convicted of felony murder were accomplices navigating intimate partner violence at the time of the offense and were criminalized for acts of survival.

March 23, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

New Sentencing Project report details scope of youth confinement

This new report from The Sentencing Project, titled "Too Many Locked Doors" and authored by Josh Rovner, documents the "wide and deep footprint of youth incarceration." Here is the start of its Executive SUmmary:

The United States incarcerates an alarming number of children and adolescents every year.  Disproportionately, they are youth of color.

Given the short- and long-term damages stemming from youth out of home placement, it is vital to understand its true scope. In 2019, there were more than 240,000 instances of a young person detained, committed, or both in the juvenile justice system.  However, youth incarceration is typically measured via a one-day count taken in late October.

This metric vastly understates its footprint: at least 80% of incarcerated youth are excluded from the one-day count.

This under-count is most prevalent for detained youth, all of whom have been arrested but have yet to face a court hearing. The following are examples of the systemic under-representation of detained youth in the one-day count:

• Thirty-one youths charged with drug offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count.

• Twenty-five youths charged with public order offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count.

• Seventeen youths charged with property offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count.

• Eleven youths charged with person offenses are detained for each one measured in the one-day count.

The variances in commitment are smaller but still noteworthy: more than three youth are committed each calendar year for each youth appearing in the one-day count.

The decade-long drop in detention and commitment masks how common detention remains for youth in conflict with the law. Hundreds of thousands of youth are referred to juvenile courts annually; roughly one-quarter of the time, they are detained.  That proportion has crept upward over a decade in which arrests have declined dramatically.

Data on youth detentions and commitment reveal sharp racial and ethnic disparities. Youth of color encounter police more often than their white peers and are disproportionately arrested despite modest differences in behavior that cannot explain the extent of arrest disparities.  Disparities in incarceration start with arrests but grow at each point of contact along the justice system continuum. In roughly one-quarter of delinquency cases throughout the decade, a youth was detained pre-adjudication. When youth of color are arrested, they are more likely to be detained than their white peers.

March 15, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 11, 2022

North Carolina Gov, following recommendation of state Juvenile Sentence Review Board, commutes sentence of three convicted of murder as teens

As detailed in this North Carolina Gov press release, "Governor Cooper has commuted the sentences of three people who were convicted for crimes committed when they were teenagers. The commutations follow an intensive review of their cases, including the length of their sentences, their records in prison, and their readiness to succeed outside of prison." Here is more from the press release (with links from the original):

The commutations are the first recommended to the Governor by the Juvenile Sentence Review Board which he established by Executive Order last year. The commutation applications were thoroughly reviewed by the Office of Executive Clemency, the Office of the General Counsel and the Governor.  These commutations end prison sentences on time served.

The creation of the Review Board followed the change in North Carolina law which raised the age of juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds, making North Carolina the last state in the nation to do so.  Studies of brain development and psychology show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds and behavior, and state and federal law treat children differently from adults for the purpose of sentencing.

The Review Board was also part of a series of recommendations from the Governor’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice (TREC) that has worked to rectify racial disparities in the criminal justice system. More than 80 percent of people committed to North Carolina prisons for crimes they committed as juveniles are people of color.

“North Carolina law continues to change to recognize that science is even more clear about immature brain development and decision making in younger people,” Cooper said. “As people become adults, they can change, turn their lives around, and engage as productive members of society.”

The three people whose sentences were commuted are:

  • April Leigh Barber, 46, who has served 30 years in prison for her role at age 15 in the murders of her grandparents, Lillie and Aaron Barber, in Wilkes County. While incarcerated, Ms. Barber has been consistently employed and has participated in significant programming, including earning her G.E.D. and paralegal certificate. Link to commutation.
  • Joshua McKay, 37, who has served 20 years in prison for the murder at age 17 of Mary Catherine Young in Richmond County. While incarcerated, Mr. McKay has been consistently employed, including as a carpenter and welder. Mr. McKay’s projected release date absent this commutation would have been in November 2022. Link to commutation.
  • Anthony Willis, 42, who has served 26 years in prison for the murder at age 16 of Benjamin Franklin Miller in Cumberland County. While incarcerated, Mr. Willis has been consistently employed and has completed five college degrees. Link to commutation.

The three people will be subject to post-release supervision by Community Corrections at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety to help them succeed and avoid missteps when they return to their communities.  “Most of the individuals who enter prisons will return to their communities one day. Providing high quality, evidenced based treatment and programming is a top priority for our prison system,” said Department of Public Safety Secretary Eddie Buffaloe. “These commutations should inspire individuals who are incarcerated to use all available resources to better themselves and prepare for a successful return to society.”

The Review Board continues to review petitions from those who were incarcerated for crimes committed as juveniles, and looks at many factors in its review, including rehabilitation and maturity demonstrated by the individual, record of education or other work while incarcerated, record of good behavior or infractions, input from the victim or members of the victim’s family, and more.

March 11, 2022 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Highlighting some disparities identified in recent "Dealing in Lives" report on federal life sentences for drug offenses

In this post a few days ago, I spotlighted this terrific new research paper authored by Alex Fraga, who serves as a Senior Research Associate at Ohio State's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).  The paper, titled "Dealing in Lives: Imposition of Federal Life Sentences for Drugs from 1990–2020," is the focal point of this new Filter article titled "Federal Life Sentences for Drugs: Unconscionable and Massively Biased." Here is some of the coverage:

Studying federal life and de facto life sentences for drugs in federal courts from 1990 to 2020, Dr. Fraga found stunningly awful racial disparities.  Federal life sentences are practically reserved for defendants who are Black (62.4 percent) or Hispanic (22 percent).  Crack cocaine was the drug involved in roughly half of federal life sentences, yet the disparities held independent of drug type.

In addition, many people were punished more harshly for wanting to exercise their constitutional rights.  As Fraga writes, “An astonishing 72% percent of those sentenced to life or de facto life for drug trafficking exercised their right to trial.”

When the system is largely a conveyor belt of plea bargains, with over 90 percent of cases never going to trial, “astonishing” is right.  Defendants who demand that prosecutors meet their burden of proof are often hit with harsher charges and sentencing outcomes.... 

Yet another layer of inconsistency and arbitrariness in federal drug sentencing exposed by the report covers is geography-based. Just five districts — three in Florida, one in Virginia and one in South Carolina — accounted for 25 percent of all federal life and de facto life sentences imposed for drug trafficking during the study period.  For context, there are 93 federal court districts in the nation. Each has its own presidentially-appointed US attorney, who enjoys a wide band of discretion on who to charge and with what.

How could this happen? Despite ostensible efforts toward uniformity, federal courthouses in different parts of the country have developed their own local legal cultures. For example, in southern Georgia, there is no public defender office for impoverished people charged with federal crimes; they receive appointed attorneys who are often uninvested and lack expertise in criminal law.  That district also has some of the harshest sentencing outcomes in the country.

I am grateful to see this engagement with some of the data in the new report, and there are so many other interesting findings therein.  As mentioned previously, a number of the paper's key findings (and visuals) can be viewed at this DEPC webpage.

Prior related post:

March 10, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (12)

Monday, March 07, 2022

SCOTUS rules unanimously in favor of defendant in latest Armed Career Criminal Act ruling

The US Supreme Court handed down one opinion this morning, and it is a win for a federal criminal defendant in US v. Wooden, No. 20-5279 (S. Ct. March 7, 2022) (available here).  Here is how Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court gets started:

In the course of one evening, William Dale Wooden burglarized ten units in a single storage facility. He later pleaded guilty, for that night’s work, to ten counts of burglary — one for each storage unit he had entered. Some two decades later, the courts below concluded that those convictions were enough to subject Wooden to enhanced criminal penalties under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).  That statute mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for unlawful gun possession when the offender has three or more prior convictions for violent felonies like burglary “committed on occasions different from one another.” 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(1).  The question presented is whether Wooden’s prior convictions were for offenses occurring on different occasions, as the lower courts held, because the burglary of each unit happened at a distinct point in time, rather than simultaneously.  The answer is no.  Convictions arising from a single criminal episode, in the way Wooden’s did, can count only once under ACCA.

Interestingly, this ruling also generated four distinct concurrences (some quite short, some longer). Because I need to be off-line most of the rest of today, I will not have a chance to comment on these opinions right away. But I hope commenters might help me try to map out how many hundreds (thousands?) of cases this ruling could impact.

March 7, 2022 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (13)

Monday, February 28, 2022

Previewing the notable criminal drug prosecution cases before SCOTUS

Tomorrow morning the Supreme Court hears oral argument in a couple of the relatively few criminal cases it will be addressing this Term.  Two cases are consolidated for one argument, Ruan v. United States and Kahn v. United States, and here is the question presented:

Whether a physician alleged to have prescribed controlled substances outside the usual course of professional practice may be convicted of unlawful distribution under 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) without regard to whether, in good faith, he “reasonably believed” or “subjectively intended” that his prescriptions fall within that course of professional practice.

The setting for SCOTUS to be addressing this question is quite interesting and still timely, and a number of media outlets have these helpful previews:

From JD Supra, "Pain Management or Pill Mill? Supreme Court to Weigh in on Standards for Prosecutions of Practitioners Prescribing Narcotics"

From Law360, "DOJ Has Few Allies, Many Foes In High Court Opioid Brawl"

From the New York Times, "Were These Doctors Treating Pain or Dealing Drugs?: The Supreme Court will hear from two convicted pill mill doctors in cases that could have significant implications for physicians’ latitude to prescribe addictive painkillers."

From SCOTUSblog, "Amid overdose crisis, court will weigh physician intent in “pill mill” prosecutions and more under the Controlled Substances Act"

From STAT, "Fight over opioid prescribing — and when it turns criminal — heads to Supreme Court"

February 28, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 19, 2022

"Death by Dehumanization: Prosecutorial Narratives of Death-Sentenced Women and LGBTQ Prisoners"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article now available via SSRN authored by Jessica Sutton, John Mills, Jennifer Merrigan and Kristin Swain.  Here is its abstract:

At the core of every capital sentencing proceeding is a guarantee that before condemning a person to die, the sentencer must consider the humanity and dignity of the individual facing the ultimate sanction.  This principle — that “death is different” and, therefore, requires consideration of the “diverse frailties of humankind” — echoes throughout the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence.  And yet courts are reluctant to remedy the devastating impact of prosecutorial arguments that dehumanize marginalized persons facing the death penalty, condemning these arguments while nevertheless “affirm[ing] resulting convictions based on procedural doctrines such as harmless error.”

These dehumanizing prosecutorial narratives are particularly problematic — and effective — when used against LGBTQ+ people, whose very identities have been criminalized, pathologized, and used as justification for condemning them to death.  Dehumanizing stereotypes not only reinforce and leverage social biases as factors in aggravation, but also “other” LGBTQ+ defendants in such a way as to minimize the impact of mitigating evidence.

This paper explores the use of dehumanizing prosecutorial narratives that target LGBTQ+ people in the pursuit of state-sponsored execution and argues that such narratives violate the Constitution’s protection of the dignity of persons facing loss of life or liberty.  Part I of this paper examines the history of dehumanization and criminalization of LGBTQ+ people, particularly those with multiple marginalized identities.  Part II sets forth examples of the most common death-seeking portrayals of LGBTQ+ defendants, including the Woman-Hating Gay Predator, the “Hardcore” Man-Hating Lesbian, and the Gender-Bending Deviant.  Part III analyzes how these dehumanizing stereotypes further disadvantage LGBTQ+ defendants by undermining mitigating evidence.  Finally, Part IV, drawing inspiration from the work of Pauli Murray, proposes a reframing of the constitutional doctrines limiting prosecutorial arguments in support of a death sentence, proposing that a focus on the dignity of the individual and the dignitary harm to the individual should be at the center of the inquiry.

February 19, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Trial penalties lead to longest (but still not so long) sentences for two Varsity Blues defendants

It has been a while since I have blogged about the Varsity Blues case and the sentences given to the high net-worth individuals who were federally prosecuted (though some of lots and lots of prior blogging can be found below).  However, four months ago I noted in a post the fate of a couple defendants who did not plead guilty and I asked "With two defendants now convicted after trial, how steep might the "trial penalty" be in the Varsity Blues cases?".  This week we got an answer to that question through two sentencings reported in this Bloomberg piece headlined, "‘Varsity Blues’ Dad Gets Longest Sentence in Scandal Yet."  Here are the basics:

A private equity investor convicted in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal received a 15-months prison sentence, the longest meted out to date.  John B. Wilson was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Boston after being convicted last year of paying more than $1.2 million to get his three children into elite colleges.  He was also ordered to pay a $200,000 fine and $88,546 in restitution.

Wilson’s sentencing comes about week after former Wynn Resorts Ltd. executive Gamal Abdelaziz was ordered to spend a year and a day in prison.  Before Abdelaziz, the highest sentence handed out in the case had been the nine months given to former Pimco Chief Executive Officer Douglas Hodge.  Unlike Hodge and dozens of others charged in the case, however, Wilson and Abdelaziz chose to contest their charges at trial.  A jury found them guilty in October.

Prosecutors had asked for Wilson to be sentenced to 21 months behind bars, saying he still refused to accept responsibility for his crimes.  Wilson asked for 6 months, saying he deeply regretted his participation in the scheme orchestrated by disgraced college counselor William “Rick” Singer.

Helpfully, DOJ has assembled here all the cases charged and sentenced in the Varsity Blues investigation, and a quick scan reveals that the vast majority of the defendants who pleaded guilty received sentences of four month or less.  So one might reasonably assert that the choice to exercise their rights to trial contributed to Abdelaziz getting roughly three times, and Wilson getting roughly four times, the prison sentence given to the average Varsity Blues defendant who pleaded guilty.  That can be viewed as a pretty hefty trial penalty. 

And yet, because no mandatory minimum sentencing provisions or big guideline enhancements were in play (and perhaps because of the high-profile nature of these cases), the extent of the "trial penalty" as measured in extra prison time imposed is a lot less for these Varsity Blues defendants than for other federal defendants in a lot of other settings.  A 2013 Human Rights Watch report calculated that "in 2012, the average sentence of federal drug offenders convicted after trial was three times higher (16 years) than that received after a guilty plea (5 years and 4 months)."  Three times higher in the federal drug sentencing context can often mean decades of more prison time; three times higher for Abdelaziz and Wilson is a matter of months. 

Still, I cannot help but wonder what the decision to go to trial cost Abdelaziz and Wilson in other respects, e.g., attorneys fees, personal and professional stigma and uncertainty.  Exercising trial rights can be quite costly for defendants even without accounting for the longer (sometimes much longer) sentence that will almost always follow.  

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

February 19, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Friday, February 18, 2022

Minnesota judge, finding mitigating circumstances, imposes below-guideline sentence of 2 years on former officer Kim Potter convicted of manslaughter for killing Daunte Wright

As reported in this AP piece, "Kim Potter, the former suburban Minneapolis police officer who said she confused her handgun for her Taser when she fatally shot Daunte Wright, was sentenced Friday to two years in prison, a penalty below state guidelines after the judge found mitigating factors warranted a lesser sentence." Here is more:

Judge Regina Chu said the lesser sentence was warranted because Potter was “in the line of duty and doing her job in attempting to lawfully arrest Daunte Wright” when she said she mistook her gun for her Taser.  And, Chu said, Potter was trying to protect another officer who could have been dragged and seriously injured if Wright drove away.  “This is this is one of the saddest cases I’ve had on my 20 years on the bench,” said Chu, who also said she received “hundred and hundreds” of letters supporting Potter. “On the one hand, a young man was killed and on the other a respected 26-year veteran police officer, made a tragic error by pulling her hand gun instead of her Taser.”

Wright’s mother, Katie Wright, said after the sentencing that Potter “murdered my son,” adding: “Today the justice system murdered him all over again.” Speaking before the sentence was imposed, the tearful mother said she could never forgive Potter and would only refer to her as “the defendant” because Potter only referred to her 20-year-old son as “the driver” at trial....

Wright family attorney Ben Crump said they don’t understand why such consideration was given to a white officer in the killing of a young Black man when a Black officer, Mohamed Noor, got a longer sentence for the killing of a white woman, Justine Ruszczyk Damond. “What we see today is the legal system in Black and white.”

But the judge said the cases are not the same as other high-profile killings by police. “This is not a cop found guilty of murder for using his knee to pin down a person for 9 1/2 minutes as he gasped for air. This is not a cop found guilty of manslaughter for intentionally drawing his firearm and shooting across his partner and killing an unarmed woman who approached approached his squad,” Chu said. “This is a cop who made a tragic mistake.”

For someone with no criminal history, such as Potter, the state guidelines on first-degree manslaughter range from slightly more than six years to about 8 1/2 years in prison, with the presumptive sentence being just over seven years. Prosecutors said the presumptive sentence was proper, but defense attorneys asked for a sentence below the guidelines, including a sentence of probation only.

I have not previously blogged about the sentencing advocacy in this high-profile case, but this Hill piece usefully links to the written submissions. Here is an excerpt with links:

Prosecutors in a sentencing memo asked the judge to give Potter 86 months, a little more than seven years. First-degree manslaughter has a sentencing of 15 years in Minnesota, but judges can lower the sentence if a person, like Potter, has no criminal history....

Defendants argued in their filing the sentence should be lower due to Potter having no criminal record and her remorsefulness at the situation.  “To impose a prison term here sends the message that if an officer makes a mistake, the Attorney General will be quick to charge (the Complaint was filed within days), and that officer will immediately be ruined by the publicity alone. And a few in the community will try to kill you,” Potter’s lawyers wrote, noting the threats Potter has received. The lawyers believed her house would have been burned down without protection.

My understanding of Minnesota law is that Potter will serve 2/3 of her sentence in prison, so she will be released on parole after serving 16 months.

Prior related post:

February 18, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 10, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Recidivism of Federal Violent Offenders Released in 2010"

As I keep noting in recent years, it is has been great to see the US Sentencing Commission continuing to produce a lot of useful data reports even as its policy work is necessarily on hiatus due to a lack of confirmed Commissioners.  The latest example released today is this 116-page new report titled "Recidivism of Federal Violent Offenders Released in 2010."  This USSC webpage provides an overview of the report along with a bunch of "Key Findings," some of which are reprinted here:

Overview

This report is the third in a series continuing the Commission’s research of the recidivism of federal offenders.  It provides an overview of the recidivism of the 13,883 federal violent offenders released from incarceration or sentenced to a term of probation in 2010, combining data regularly collected by the Commission with data compiled from criminal history records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  This report provides an overview of recidivism for these offenders and information on key offender and offense characteristics related to recidivism.  This report also compares recidivism outcomes for federal violent offenders released in 2010 to non-violent offenders in the study group....

Key Findings

  • This study demonstrated substantially greater recidivism among violent federal offenders compared to non-violent federal offenders.
    • The recidivism rates of violent and non-violent offenders released in 2005 and 2010 remained unchanged despite two intervening major developments in the federal criminal justice system — the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker and increased use of evidence-based practices in federal supervision.
    • This finding is consistent with other Commission reports demonstrating higher recidivism among violent offenders...
  • Violent offenders recidivated at a higher rate than non-violent offenders.  Over an eight-year follow-up period, nearly two-thirds (63.8%) of violent offenders released in 2010 were rearrested, compared to more than one-third (38.4%) of non-violent offenders.
  • Violent offenders recidivated more quickly than non-violent offenders.  The median time to rearrest was 16 months for violent offenders and 22 months for non-violent offenders.
  • Among offenders who were rearrested, violent offenders were rearrested for a violent offense at a higher rate than non-violent offenders, 38.9 percent compared to 22.0 percent.
    • Assault was the most common type of rearrest for both violent and non-violent offenders, but a larger proportion of violent offenders (24.9%) than non-violent offenders (15.4%) were rearrested for assault.
  • Age at release is strongly correlated with recidivism for both violent and non-violent offenders. Rearrest rates decrease steadily with each age group for both groups of offenders.  However, violent offenders had higher rearrest rates than non-violent offenders in each age group.  Among offenders aged 60 and older, the oldest group of offenders studied, 25.1 percent of violent offenders were rearrested compared to 11.5 percent of non-violent offenders.
  • Criminal History Category (CHC) is strongly correlated with recidivism for both violent and non-violent offenders. Rearrest rates increase steadily with each CHC for both groups of offenders. However, violent offenders had higher rearrest rates than non-violent offenders in every CHC. Analyzed separately, violent instant offenders (59.9%) and violent prior offenders (64.8%) were rearrested at a higher rate than non-violent offenders (38.4%)....
  • The current recidivism findings for violent and non-violent offenders released in 2010 replicate the Commission’s findings for offenders released in 2005. Nearly two-thirds (63.8%) of violent offenders released in 2010 were rearrested, the same rate for violent offenders released in 2005 (63.8%). More than one-third (38.4%) of non-violent offenders released in 2010 were rearrested, a comparable rate to non-violent offenders released in 2005 (39.8%).

February 10, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Fourth Circuit panel upholds a "quirk" in Virginia’s sex-offender registry against various constitutional challenges

Though Justice Scalia passed away nearly six years ago, I still recall him preaching the simple (and perhaps controversial) idea that the Constitution does not always invalidate stupid laws. (Here is an account of a speech he gave 20 years ago at Princeton university where he said "the Constitution sometimes requires upholding a law that does not make sense.") The late Justice came to mind today when I saw the recent Fourth Circuit ruling in Doe v. Settle, No. 20-1951 (4th Cir. Jan 28, 2022) (available here). Here is how the lengthy unanimous panel opinion in Doe starts and concludes:

Two months after he turned 18, John Doe was caught having sex with his 14-yearold girlfriend.  Given the facts of his arrest, Doe may well have been charged with “carnal knowledge of a child,” a Class 4 felony that prohibits sex with 13- and 14-year-old children.  But instead he was charged with and pleaded to a lower-class felony, “taking indecent liberties with children,” which only prohibits behavior like propositioning a child for sex.  Doe’s plea may have gotten him a shorter prison sentence, but due to a quirk in Virginia law, it also led to worse treatment by Virginia’s sex-offender registry.  Both crimes generally put an offender on the highest tier of the registry for life, but there is a narrow exception to that rule.  When an offender is less than 5 years older than his victim, he may be removed from the registry in time.  But that mitigating exception only applies to carnal knowledge, the crime with the higher sentencing range, and not to indecent liberties.  So while Doe may have felt lucky to only be charged with indecent liberties, given the potential for a lower prison sentence, that plea ended up condemning him to worse treatment on the registry.  Because of that oddity, Doe will spend the rest of his life on Virginia’s sex-offender registry with no hope for relief.

Doe — now in his 30s — sued Colonel Gary T. Settle, Superintendent of the Virginia Department of State Police, hoping to persuade a court to remove him from that registry and its burdens.  Doe argues that the registry and the 5-year-gap provision violate multiple constitutional principles.  In his Fourteenth Amendment equal protection claim, Doe asks us to consider why an offender convicted of having sex with a child, as Doe might have been, should be treated better than an offender convicted only of propositioning a child for sex, Doe’s actual charge.  In his Eighth Amendment claim, Doe asks us whether a lifelong registration requirement is an appropriate sanction for a single nonviolent crime committed by a high-school student.

Both appeals present significant issues of fairness, but at bottom, they ask us to question the wisdom of the Virginia legislature and its sex-offender registry.  That is not our place.  When the Constitution is invoked, our place is to determine whether state laws comply with the specific dictates of that document.  And Virginia’s sex-offender registry complies with the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.  So we affirm the district court’s dismissal.....

If an 18-year-old man in Virginia has “consensual” sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend, and the next day, sends her a text message asking her to do it again, he will have committed two crimes.  But under the letter of the law in Virginia, only one of those crimes will place him on the worst tier of sex offenders on the registry with the rapists and the murderers: the text message.  That may not make much sense.

But our Constitution “presumes that even improvident decisions will eventually be rectified by the democratic process.”  See Cleburne, 473 U.S. at 440.  The judiciary is not meant to revise laws because they are clumsy, unwise, or — even in some cosmic sense — unfair.  In cases like this, courts are asked to make judgments about what is inside and what is outside the precise lines drawn by the Constitution.  And whatever else they may be, Virginia’s sex-offender registry and its narrow Romeo-and-Juliet provision are constitutional.  Accordingly, the district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.

February 1, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Notable new report on juve LWOP reviews "Montgomery v. Louisiana Six Years Later: Progress and Outliers"

This morning I received this email from the folks at the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth that highlighting this new report "Montgomery v. Louisiana Six Years Later: Progress and Outliers." The full short report is worth a full read, and the emails provides this brief accounting of the report's coverage:

Six years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, making Miller v. Alabama’s requirement that judges consider the mitigating attributes of youth retroactive and offering new hope to thousands of people who had been sentenced to life without parole as children.  For many, that hope has led to shorter prison sentences, and for hundreds of others, it’s meant freedom.  At the time of the decision, 2,800 individuals in the U.S. were serving life without parole for crimes committed as children.  In the six years since, 835 individuals formerly serving this sentence have been released from prison. 

Today, 25 states and the District of Columbia ban life-without-parole sentences for children, and in six additional states, no one is serving life without parole for a crime committed as a child.  While we celebrate this inspiring progress, we recognize that far too many others have not yet received the relief they rightfully deserve.  Thus, we are pressing forward in the fight for these individuals across all areas of our work, with a particular focus on state legislatures and advocacy in outlier states. You can read more about how far we have come and the challenges we still face in this report authored by Rebecca Turner, the CFSY’s Senior Litigation Counsel.  

The full report gives particular attention to developments in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana, which "each had more children sentenced to life without parole than any other state in the country" when Montgomery was handed down.  Here is how the report describes subsequent developments in those states and nationwide:

A majority of the 2,800 individuals serving juvenile life without parole (JLWOP) following Miller have been resentenced in court or had their sentences amended via legislation, depending on the jurisdiction in which they were convicted.

Yet despite the 80% reduction in people serving JLWOP, jurisdictions have varied significantly in their implementation of Miller. As a result, relief afforded to individuals serving JLWOP is based more on jurisdiction than on whether the individual has demonstrated positive growth and maturation.

The uneven implementation of Miller disproportionately impacts Black individuals, who represent 61% of the total JLWOP population....

Within that population [serving JLWOP when Montgomery was decided], 29% have been released, over 50% have had their sentences reduced from JLWOP, about 17% have not yet been afforded relief, and approximately 3% have been resentenced to JLWOP.

January 25, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 24, 2022

Connecticut Supreme Court reverses sentence based "materially false information" that defendant was in "mythical group of teenage 'superpredators'"

A few helpful folks made sure I did not miss the notable ruling by the Connecticut Supreme Court this past Friday in State v. Belcher, No. SC 20531 (Conn. Jan 21, 2022) (available here). The start of the unanimous opinion sets out the basics:

The defendant, Keith Belcher, a juvenile offender, appeals from the trial court’s denial of his motion to correct an illegal sentence. After his conviction, the defendant received a total effective sentence of sixty years of incarceration.  He claims, inter alia, that the trial court improperly denied his motion to correct on the basis of the court’s conclusion that the sentencing court did not impose the sentence in an illegal manner by relying on materially false information.

Our review of the record reveals that the defendant established that the sentencing court substantially relied on materially false information in imposing his sentence, specifically, on the court’s view that the defendant was a ‘‘charter member’’ of a mythical group of teenage ‘‘superpredators.’’  Therefore, we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to correct.  Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the trial court, and the case is remanded with direction to grant the defendant’s motion and for resentencing.

The full opinion merits a full read for many reasons.  Therein, one learns that the defendant here was only 14 when committing his crimes way back in 1993 (meaning he has now already served nearly three decades).  Also of note, the court avoids resolution of constitutional claims by deciding he gets resentencing based on the illegal manner of the original sentence's imposition. Here are a few highlights from the interesting opinion:

We conclude that the superpredator theory was baseless when it originally was espoused and has since been thoroughly debunked and universally rejected as a myth, and it therefore constituted false and unreliable information that a sentencing court ought not consider in crafting a sentence for a juvenile offender....

In the context of the sentencing of the defendant, a Black teenager, the court’s reliance on the materially false superpredator myth is especially detrimental to the integrity of the sentencing procedure for two reasons.  First, reliance on that myth invoked racial stereotypes, thus calling into question whether the defendant would have received as lengthy a sentence were he not Black.  Second, the use of the superpredator myth supported treating the characteristics of youth as an aggravating, rather than a mitigating, factor....

In summary, by invoking the superpredator theory to sentence the young, Black male defendant in the present case, the sentencing court, perhaps even without realizing it, relied on materially false, racial stereotypes that perpetuate systemic inequities — demanding harsher sentences — that date back to the founding of our nation.  In addition, contrary to Roper and its progeny, in relying on the superpredator myth, the sentencing court counted the characteristics of youth as an aggravating factor against the defendant.  Although we do not mean to suggest that the sentencing judge intended to perpetuate a race based stereotype, we cannot overlook the fact that the superpredator myth is precisely the type of materially false information that courts should not rely on in making sentencing decisions.  Whether used wittingly or unwittingly, reliance on such a baseless, illegitimate theory calls into question the legitimacy of the sentencing procedure and the sentence.

January 24, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, January 22, 2022

SCOTUS takes up reach of McGirt's limit on state prosecution in "Indian country"

The Supreme Court via this order last night granted cert in one case, Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, a criminal case concerning the reach of a notable Court ruling from a few terms ago.  This SCOTUSblog post provides the details and context, and here is an excerpt:

Less than two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in McGirt v. Oklahoma by a vote of 5-4 that a large portion of eastern Oklahoma, which was reserved for the Creek Nation in the 19th century, remains a reservation for purposes of a federal law that gives the federal government sole power to try certain major crimes committed by “any Indian” in “Indian country.” On Friday, the justices — with Justice Amy Coney Barrett having replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was in the McGirt majority — agreed to consider how broadly McGirt applies, but they declined to reconsider the decision itself, which the state describes as having a “more immediate and destabilizing effect on life in an American State” than any of the court’s other recent decisions.

The justices granted review in the case of Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta, who was convicted of neglecting his five-year-old stepdaughter.  Although Castro-Huerta is not a Native American, his stepdaughter is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals vacated his conviction because the crime occurred in Indian country.  The decision rested on the court’s conclusion that McGirt applies not only to major crimes committed by Native Americans but also to crimes committed by others in Indian country.

Oklahoma filed more than 30 separate petitions asking the justices to overrule McGirt.  It told the justices that the effects of the decision have been “calamitous and are worsening by the day.”  Thousands of crime victims are now seeking justice from federal and tribal prosecutors, the state wrote, overwhelming those offices and federal district courts and leaving many crimes “uninvestigated and unprosecuted.”...

In a brief order on Friday afternoon, the justices agreed to take up only the first question presented by the state’s petition, relating to the application of McGirt to bar state prosecutions of non-Native defendants who commit crimes against Native Americans in “Indian country.”  The court set the case for argument in its April 2022 argument session, with a decision to follow by summer.

January 22, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, 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)

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Split New Jersey Supreme Court rules NJ constitution requires allowing juvenile offenders "to petition for a review of their sentence after they have served two decades in prison"

A helpful reader ensured I did not miss the fascinating New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in NJ v. Comer, A-42-20)(NJ Jan 10, 2022) (available here), regarding limits on extreme juvenile sentencing.  The start of the opinion for the Court provide the context and the essentials of the ruling:

This appeal raises challenging questions about the constitutional limits that apply to sentences for juvenile offenders.

The law recognizes what we all know from life experience -- that children are different from adults.  Children lack maturity, can be impetuous, are more susceptible to pressure from others, and often fail to appreciate the long-term consequences of their actions. Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 477 (2012).  They are also more capable of change than adults. Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 68 (2010).  Yet we know as well that some juveniles -- who commit very serious crimes and show no signs of maturity or rehabilitation over time -- should serve lengthy periods of incarceration.

The issue before the Court is how to meld those truths in a way that conforms to the Constitution and contemporary standards of decency.  In other words, how to impose lengthy sentences on juveniles that are not only just but that also account for a simple reality: we cannot predict, at a juvenile’s young age, whether a person can be rehabilitated and when an individual might be fit to reenter society.

The question arises in the context of two juveniles who committed extraordinarily serious crimes for which they received long sentences.  In one case, the juvenile offender, who was convicted of felony murder, will not be released for three decades and cannot be considered for parole throughout that time.  In the other appeal, it will be more than four decades before the 14-yearold offender, convicted of purposeful murder, will first be eligible to be considered for parole.

Both juveniles argue that their sentences violate federal and state constitutional provisions that bar cruel and unusual punishment.  See U.S. Const. amend. VIII; N.J. Const. art. I, ¶ 12.  They ask the Court to find that a mandatory sentence of at least 30 years without parole, which N.J.S.A. 2C:11- 3(b)(1) requires, is unconstitutional as applied to juveniles.

We decline to strike that aspect of the homicide statute. But we recognize the serious constitutional issue defendants present under the State Constitution. The Court, in fact, anticipated the question in 2017 and asked the Legislature to consider amending the law to allow juvenile offenders who receive sentences with lengthy periods of parole ineligibility to return to court years later and have their sentences reviewed. State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422, 451-53 (2017).

Today, faced with actual challenges that cannot be overlooked, we are obligated to address the constitutional issue the parties present and cannot wait to see whether the Legislature will act, as the State requests. That approach is consistent with the basic roles of the different branches of government.  The Legislature has the responsibility to pass laws that fix the range of punishment for an offense; the Judiciary is responsible to determine whether those statutes are constitutional.  Under settled case law, courts also have the authority to act to protect statutes from being invalidated on constitutional grounds.

Here, the statutory framework for sentencing juveniles, if not addressed, will contravene Article I, Paragraph 12 of the State Constitution.  To remedy the concerns defendants raise and save the statute from constitutional infirmity, we will permit juvenile offenders convicted under the law to petition for a review of their sentence after they have served two decades in prison.  At that time, judges will assess a series of factors the United States Supreme Court has set forth in Miller v. Alabama, which are designed to consider the “mitigating qualities of youth.” 567 U.S. at 476-78 (quoting Johnson v. Texas, 509 U.S. 350, 367 (1993)).

We provide for the hearing, rather than strike the homicide statute on constitutional grounds, because we have no doubt the Legislature would want the law to survive. The timing of the hearing is informed by a number of sources, including acts by the Legislature and other officials.

At the hearing, the trial court will assess factors it could not evaluate fully decades before -- namely, whether the juvenile offender still fails to appreciate risks and consequences, and whether he has matured or been rehabilitated.  The court may also consider the juvenile offender’s behavior in prison since the time of the offense, among other relevant evidence.

After evaluating all the evidence, the trial court would have discretion to affirm or reduce the original base sentence within the statutory range, and to reduce the parole bar to no less than 20 years.  A juvenile who played a central role in a heinous homicide and then had a history of problematic behavior in prison, and was found to be incorrigible at the time of the later hearing, would be an unlikely candidate for relief.  On the other hand, a juvenile who originally acted in response to peer pressure and did not carry out a significant role in the homicide, and who presented proof at the hearing about how he had been rehabilitated and was now fit to reenter society after two decades, could be an appropriate candidate for a lesser sentence and a reduced parole bar.

The Appellate Division rejected the juveniles’ constitutional claims. We therefore reverse and remand both matters for resentencing. We express no opinion on the outcome of either hearing.

Three Justices dissented from this holding by the NJ Supreme Court, and the dissenting opinion begins this way:

The majority today holds that the New Jersey Constitution requires a 20- year lookback period for juvenile offenders who were waived to adult court and tried and convicted as adults of homicide offenses.  We acknowledge our colleagues’ view that the New Jersey Constitution permits our intervention here.  But we are not legislators imbued by our Constitution with such authority. In our view, the majority today act “as legislators” instead of as judges. Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 175 (1976). Thus, we respectfully dissent.

The majority asserts that it is required to act by our Constitution and landmark juvenile sentencing cases from both this Court and the United States Supreme Court. See Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012); Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010); State v. Zuber, 227 N.J. 422 (2017).  The cited cases hold that, for the purpose of sentencing, the Constitution requires courts to treat juveniles differently and to consider certain factors before sentencing them to life without parole or its functional equivalent.  We believe that our current sentencing scheme fulfils that constitutional mandate.  Thus, it is not our prerogative to impose an additional restriction on juvenile sentencing.

In our view, a 30-year parole bar for juveniles tried as adults and convicted of homicide conforms with contemporary standards of decency, is not grossly disproportionate as to homicide offenses, and does not go beyond what is necessary to achieve legitimate penological objectives.

Accordingly, we believe that the majority’s imposition of a 20-year lookback period for homicide offenses is a subjective policy decision rather than one that is constitutionally mandated.  As such, it must be left to the Legislature, which could have considered all of the factors the majority has, and some it has not.  Instead, the majority joins a small minority of states with lookback periods imposed by judicial fiat rather than by statute.

January 12, 2022 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

US Sentencing Commission issues new report on "Recidivism of Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders Released in 2010"

Cover_recidivism-drugs-2021The US Sentencing Commission today published some more findings from its big eight-year recidivism study of federal offenders released from prison in 2010. This new 144-page report is titled "Recidivism of Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders Released in 2010," and this USSC webpage provides this overview with key findings:

Overview

This report is the third in a series continuing the Commission’s research of the recidivism of federal offenders.  It provides an overview of the recidivism of the 13,783 federal drug trafficking offenders released from incarceration or sentenced to a term of probation in 2010, combining data regularly collected by the Commission with data compiled from criminal history records from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  This report provides an overview of recidivism for these offenders and information on key offender and offense characteristics related to recidivism. This report also compares recidivism outcomes for federal drug trafficking offenders released in 2010 to drug trafficking offenders released in 2005.

The final study group of 13,783 drug trafficking offenders satisfied the following criteria:

  • United States citizens
  • Re-entered the community during 2010 after discharging their sentence of incarceration or by commencing a term of probation in 2010
  • Not reported dead, escaped, or detained
  • Have valid FBI numbers that could be located in criminal history repositories (in at least one state, the District of Columbia, or federal records)

Key Findings

  • The rearrest rate for drug trafficking offenders released in 2010 was similar to the rate for those released in 2005 despite intervening changes in the criminal justice system: the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker, adjustments to sentencing of crack cocaine offenses, and increased use of evidence-based practices in federal supervision.
  • The rearrest rate for a new offense or an alleged violation of supervision conditions was similar for drug trafficking offenders (47.9%) as compared to all other offenders released in 2010 (50.4%).
  • Of those drug trafficking offenders released in 2010 who were rearrested, the median time from re-entry to the first rearrest was 23 months. By comparison, the median time from re-entry to the first rearrest for all other offenders was 16 months.
  • Crack cocaine trafficking offenders were rearrested at the highest rate (57.8%) of any drug type, while powder cocaine trafficking offenders were rearrested at the lowest rate (41.8%). Rearrest rates for other primary drug types ranged from 42.7 percent to 46.7 percent.
  • Approximately one-third (32.0%) of drug trafficking offenders who were rearrested had drug-related offenses (either drug trafficking, drug possession, or another drug offense) as their most serious new charge at rearrest. Nearly one-fifth (19.9%) were charged with assault at rearrest.
  • Criminal history was strongly correlated with rearrest. Drug trafficking offenders’ rearrest rates ranged from 29.9 percent for offenders with zero criminal history points to 74.9 percent for offenders with 13 or more criminal history points.
  • Age at release into the community also was strongly correlated with likelihood of rearrest. Drug trafficking offenders released prior to age 21 had the highest rearrest rate of 70.1 percent, while drug trafficking offenders who were 60 years or older at the time of release had the lowest rearrest rate of 16.4 percent.
  • Over an eight-year follow-up period, 47.9 percent of drug trafficking offenders in the 2010 release cohort were rearrested compared to 50.0 percent of drug trafficking offenders in the 2005 release cohort.

January 12, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 10, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

“A Family-Centered Approach to Criminal Justice Reform.”

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new report authored by Christopher Bates, a legal fellow at the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.  This 100+-page report is styled a "Hatch Center Policy Review," and here is part of its introduction:

Conversations about criminal justice typically center around two groups of individuals: individuals who are convicted of crimes, and individuals who are victims of crime.  The former receive perhaps the lion’s share of attention, as policymakers and commentators debate what consequences they should face, how such consequences should be meted out, what procedural protections should apply, and what can be done to reduce the likelihood that an individual will offend or reoffend. As to victims of crime, discussions may focus on the individual level — how to ensure justice is done in particular cases — or on a broader level—what can be done to reduce crime and improve public safety.

There is another group, however, that can and must be part of the conversation — the family members of convicted individuals.  These include spouses and intimate partners, parents and siblings, and, perhaps most importantly, children....

For decades, researchers have documented the deleterious effects that incarceration and criminal involvement have on the families of individuals who engage in criminal activity. They have also recorded the ways in which strong family ties benefit communities and reduce recidivism. Taking into account both sides of this equation—the impacts on, and the impacts of, family members — is essential to designing effective criminal justice policy.

This paper seeks to do just that — to suggest an approach to criminal justice policy that builds on the decades of research regarding the interrelationship between family ties, incarceration, and criminal behavior....

This paper proceeds in five parts.  Part I surveys the research on family relationships, incarceration, and recidivism, with a focus on how incarceration impacts family members and children and how family relationships affect recidivism.  It also discusses the research on prison visitation and recidivism and how maintaining stronger family ties during incarceration can lead to better reentry outcomes.  Part II turns to the topic of prison policy and how this research can inform decisions about inmate placement, visitation, and contact with family members.  Part III considers the issue of reentry and how policymakers can design laws and programs that aid, rather than impede, the ability of formerly incarcerated individuals to find employment, housing, and other necessities so they can provide for their families and avoid cycles of recidivism and reincarceration.  Part IV turns to punishment and asks what insights a family-centered approach to criminal justice reform can offer regarding sentencing practices and determining what conduct should be subject to criminal penalties in the first place.  It suggests that a principle called parsimony — which says policymakers should seek the least amount of criminal punishment necessary to accomplish a law’s legitimate ends — can fit well with a family-centered approach because it seeks to avoid inflicting more harm than is necessary on convicted individuals and their families.  Part V discusses police reform and offers suggestions for how the principles that can be drawn from the research described in this paper can inform discussions about improving police transparency, accountability, and officer-resident interactions.  A brief conclusion follows.

January 5, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 03, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will SCOTUS take up challenge to Georgia's remarkable standard for implementing Eighth Amendment's ban on executing the intellectually disabled?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Sidebar piece by Adam Liptak for the New York Times about Georgia's unique way for (not quite) protecting the intellectually disabled from an unconstitutional execution. The full piece is a great read under this full headline: "Language Mistake in Georgia Death Penalty Law Creates a Daunting Hurdle: The Supreme Court will decide whether to hear a challenge to the law, which requires that defendants in capital cases who are intellectually disabled prove it 'beyond a reasonable doubt' — a phrase that was inserted in error."  Here are excerpts:

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear [an Eighth Amendment] case, which challenges a Georgia law that places an extraordinary burden on capital defendants seeking to be spared execution.  In the process, the justices could clarify whether it is just the words or also the music of their precedents that binds lower courts.

The case concerns Rodney Young, who was convicted in 2012 of killing the son of his estranged girlfriend.  Mr. Young grew up in New Jersey, where his schools classified him, in the language of the time, as “mentally retarded.”  These days, they would call him intellectually disabled.

A 2002 Supreme Court decision, Atkins v. Virginia, ruled that the Eighth Amendment forbids putting intellectually disabled people to death.  But the Georgia law at issue in the case, unique in the nation, requires capital defendants seeking to be spared execution to prove they are intellectually disabled beyond a reasonable doubt.

That is the standard that ordinarily applies to the government in criminal cases. It is intended to be hard to meet and, in the context of prosecutions, is meant to tolerate letting some guilty people go free rather than risk sending innocent ones to prison. The Georgia law inverts this dynamic, tolerating the executions of some intellectually disabled people.... The Atkins decision largely let states decide who qualified as intellectually disabled. But two later decisions, in 2014 and 2017, struck down measures creating, as Justice Anthony M. Kennedy put it, “an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed.”

The Georgia law has a curious origin story.  Enacted in 1988, it was the first in the nation to ban the execution of intellectually disabled people, predating the Atkins decision by 14 years. But it was drafted in haste. “I dropped the ball,” Jack Martin, one of the provision’s drafters, told the Georgia House of Representatives in 2013. He and his co-author, Mr. Martin said, had not meant to impose a reasonable doubt standard, but they put a key clause in the wrong place. “It was sloppy draftsmanship, pure and simple,” Mr. Martin said. “I don’t think anybody intended that to happen.”

Almost every other state requires defendants to prove they are intellectually disabled by just a preponderance of the evidence — that is, by showing it to be more likely than not. The difference in the two standards matters, lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents Mr. Young, told the Supreme Court in a recent petition asking the justices to hear his case. “In the states that apply a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, approximately one-third of those asserting that they are intellectually disabled succeed in invoking the Eighth Amendment’s protection,” they wrote. “In Georgia, not a single person convicted of intentional murder has prevailed at trial in establishing that he is intellectually disabled.”...

Dissenting from the Georgia Supreme Court’s decision upholding the state law, Justice Charles J. Bethel said simple logic demonstrated that the law created, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, “an unacceptable risk” that some intellectually disabled people would be executed. In his concurring opinion, Justice Nahmias, who served as a law clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and is now the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, acknowledged that the question in the case was a close one and that the reasoning in U.S. Supreme Court precedents “certainly casts doubt on this state’s uniquely high standard of proof.”

Justice Nahmias added another consideration, one seemingly grounded in a realistic assessment of the U.S. Supreme Court’s new conservative supermajority. “If I had to guess today,” he wrote, “I would say that it is likely that if the United States Supreme Court, as currently comprised, is called on to decide whether Georgia’s beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard for proof of intellectual disability violates the Eighth Amendment, a majority of the justices would not extend the holdings” of the decisions in 2014 and 2017 “to strike down our state’s statute, notwithstanding the reasoning of the majority opinions in those two cases.”

January 3, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, January 02, 2022

Reviewing federal criminal prosecutions of January 6 rioters one year later

A few weeks ago, I flagged this CNN piece reporting on the first 50 sentences imposed on those convicted for federal crimes for their involvement in the January 6 riot at the US Capitol.  Today I see this lengthy new AP piece, headlined "Capitol rioters’ tears, remorse don’t spare them from jail," providing another overview of the state of federal prosecutions as we approach the one-year anniversary of these high-profile crimes.  Here are excerpts:

Judges are hearing tearful expressions of remorse — and a litany of excuses — from rioters paying a price for joining the Jan. 6 insurrection, even as others try to play down the deadly attack on a seat of American democracy.

The Justice Department’s investigation of the riot has now entered the punishment phase.  So far, 71 people have been sentenced for riot-related crimes.  They include a company CEO, an architect, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, a gym owner, a former Houston police officer and a University of Kentucky student.  Many rioters have said they lost jobs and friends after their mob of Donald Trump loyalists disrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

Fifty-six of the 71 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building. Most of them were sentenced to home confinement or jail terms measured in weeks or months, according to an Associated Press tally of every sentencing.  But rioters who assaulted police officers have gotten years behind bars.

With hundreds of people charged, the Justice Department has taken heat for not coming down harder on some rioters, and it has failed to charge anyone with sedition or treason despite hints early on in the investigation.  But lower-level cases tend to be easier to prosecute and typically get resolved before more complex ones.

At least 165 people have pleaded guilty so far, mostly to crimes punishable by a maximum sentence of six months.  There are dozens of cases involving more serious offenses still moving through the system.  More than 220 people have been charged with assaulting or impeding law enforcement officers at the Capitol, according to the Justice Department.  Since November, three of them have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from more than three years to just over five years.

The District of Columbia federal court is overloaded with Jan. 6 cases.  More than 700 people have been charged so far and the FBI is still looking for more.  Among the most serious charges are against far-right extremist group members accused of plotting attacks to obstruct Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election.  Their cases haven’t yet gone to trial.

The rioters’ refrains before the judges are often the same: They were caught up in the moment or just following the crowd into the Capitol. They didn’t see any violence or vandalism.  They thought police were letting them enter the building.  They insist they went there to peacefully protest.

Their excuses often implode in the face of overwhelming evidence.  Thousands of hours of videos from surveillance cameras, mobile phones and police body cameras captured them reveling in the mayhem.  Many boasted about their crimes on social media in the days after the deadly attack....

Eighteen judges, including four nominated by Trump, have sentenced the 71 defendants.  Thirty-one defendants have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment or to jail time already served, including 22 who received sentences of three months or less, according to the AP tally.  An additional 18 defendants have been sentenced to home confinement. The remaining 22 have gotten probation without house arrest.

A seemingly genuine display of contrition before or during a sentencing hearing can help a rioter avoid a jail cell.  The judges often cite remorse as a key factor in deciding sentences.

Some of many prior related posts:

January 2, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 29, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11)

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Friday, December 24, 2021

Previewing sentencing facing former officer Kim Potter after manslaughter convictions for killing Daunte Wright

This extended AP article provide a helpful accounting of what we might now expect in sentencing of former Minneapolis police officer Kim Potter after a jury convicted her yesterday on two counts of manslaughter.  Here are excerpts:

The former suburban Minneapolis police officer who said she confused her handgun for her Taser when she killed Daunte Wright will be sentenced in February after a jury convicted her Thursday on two counts of manslaughter.  The most serious charge against Kim Potter — first-degree manslaughter — carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison....

Under Minnesota statutes, Potter, who is white, will be sentenced only on the most serious charge of first-degree manslaughter.  That’s because both of the charges against her stem from one act, with one victim.

The max for that charge is 15 years.  But state sentencing guidelines call for much less.  For someone with no criminal history, like Potter, the guidelines range from just more than six years to about 8 1/2 years, with the presumptive sentence being slightly over seven years.

Prosecutors have said they'd seek a sentence above the guideline range, while the defense said they would seek no prison time.  In order for Judge Regina Chu to issue a sentence that's outside the guideline range, she would first have to find either mitigating or aggravating factors.  Both sides are expected to file written arguments.

Prosecutors say aggravating factors in Potter's case include that she caused a greater-than-normal danger to the safety of other people when she fired into the car, including danger to her fellow officers, to Wright’s passenger and to the couple whose car was struck by Wright’s after the shooting.... Prosecutors also say Potter abused her authority as a police officer.

Defense attorney Paul Engh said the defense would be seeking a “dispositional departure” from sentencing guidelines. Under state statutes, a mitigated dispositional departure occurs when guidelines recommend a prison sentence, but a judge allows the sentence to be “stayed" — meaning the defendant doesn't go to prison....

In arguing that Potter should remain free on bail until she is sentenced, Engh said: "She is amenable to probation. Her remorse and regret for the incident is overwhelming.  She’s not a danger to the public whatsoever.  She’s made all her court appearances.” Chu was unmoved, and Potter was taken into custody after the verdicts were read....

The defense can also make the argument that as a police officer, Potter's confinement would likely be harsher than most because of the need to keep her safe.  The former Minneapolis police officer convicted in George Floyd's death, Derek Chauvin, has been in solitary confinement for that reason....

In determining a final sentence, Chu will consider the arguments made by both sides, as well as victim impact statements.  She has also ordered a pre-sentence investigation of Potter.  And Potter can make a statement at her sentencing hearing — a time when judges are typically looking to see if a person takes responsibility for the crime or shows remorse....

No matter what sentence Potter gets, in Minnesota it’s presumed that a defendant with good behavior will serve two-thirds of their penalty in prison and the rest on supervised release, commonly known as parole.  That means if Potter is sentenced to the presumptive seven years, she would likely serve about four years and nine months behind bars, and the rest on supervised release.  Once on supervised release, she could be sent back to prison if she violates conditions of his parole.  If she gets the maximum 15 years, she could be behind bars for 10 before being placed on parole.

December 24, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

More timely new Prison Policy Initiative briefings on the many challenges of incarceration

I am often not able to keep up with all the great "briefings" produced by the folks at Prison Policy Initiative. Last month in this post, I noted a set of important recent work detailing ugly economic realities and disparities intertwined with prison experience. I am pleased now to have a chance to flag three more important and timely new briefings about other incarceration realities:

"Research roundup: The positive impacts of family contact for incarcerated people and their families: The research is clear: visitation, mail, phone, and other forms of contact between incarcerated people and their families have positive impacts for everyone — including better health, reduced recidivism, and improvement in school. Here’s a roundup of over 50 years of empirical study, and a reminder that prisons and jails often pay little more than lip service to the benefits of family contact."

"Since you asked: What information is available about COVID-19 and vaccinations in prison now?: Despite the new variants of COVID-19, prison systems are failing to publish up-to-date and necessary data and we don’t know much about booster shot access."

"Recent studies shed light on what reproductive 'choice' looks like in prisons and jails: States that are otherwise hostile to abortion rights are especially likely to make it difficult for incarcerated people."

December 22, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A deep dive into extreme sentences in the Pelican State

61bbccc672eb3.imageThe Marshall Project with the Times-Picayune and The Advocate has a new series of pieces exploring extreme sentences in Louisiana.  Here are headlines, links and a few passages:

"Her Baby Died After Hurricane Katrina. Was It a Crime?: An expansive definition of murder in Louisiana leaves many behind bars forever."

Louisiana sentences people to life without parole at one of the highest rates in the nation, data shows. Nearly 4,200 men and women are serving lifetime sentences in the state, for crimes that range from homicide and rape to rarer cases of repeat purse snatchings and child neglect, an investigation by The Marshall Project and The Times-Picayune | The Advocate found.

Second-degree murder charges, like the ones Woods and Scott were found guilty of, are a big driver of life-without-parole sentences. The state has long had the highest homicide rate in the nation. But Louisiana law contains an unusually sweeping definition of second-degree murder that includes even some accidental deaths, legal experts say. And despite the wide variations in circumstances that can produce a second-degree murder conviction — from a premeditated ambush to a getaway car accident — the sentence is the same: mandatory life without parole. Judges have almost no discretion.

"‘The Only Way We Get Out of There Is in a Pine Box’: Elderly, ailing and expensive, lifetime prisoners cost Louisiana taxpayers millions a year."

Total medical spending for state corrections eclipsed $100 million last year. That’s an increase of about 25% from 2015, according to state budget figures....

Now, one in six people incarcerated in Louisiana has been sentenced to die in state custody. Nearly 1,200 lifers are over 60. Those geriatric lifers make up nearly 5% of the state prison population.

"A life sentence for $20 of weed? Louisiana stands out for its unequal use of repeat offender laws."

The crime that landed Kevin O’Brien Allen a spot among the more than 4,100 Louisianans now serving life-without-parole sentences wasn’t a bloody one: He sold $20 in marijuana to a childhood friend....

Agents booked Allen on two counts of marijuana distribution, and prosecutors in District Attorney Schuyler Marvin’s office made him an offer: a 5-year sentence if he pleaded guilty. Allen, a father of two with a steady job but a handful of drug convictions, balked....

Louisiana law affords prosecutors wide discretion to increase a repeat offender’s sentence, up to life, and Marvin’s office drew on Allen’s past convictions: possession with intent to distribute marijuana in 2004, marijuana possession in 2007 and 2011, and methamphetamine possession in 2013.

Once invoked by a prosecutor, the habitual-offender law gives little leeway to judges. They can sentence a defendant to less time if they find the minimum is so far out of line that it defies “acceptable goals of punishment” or serves as “nothing more than the purposeful imposition of pain and suffering.” But courts have described those scenarios as “exceedingly rare.”...

Allen [received a life sentence and] now works in the prison kitchen, making juice for pennies a day, serving a sentence that ends when he dies. He’s among nearly 300 people serving life without parole in Louisiana prisons based on their status as habitual offenders, an analysis of recent state corrections data show. In 40% of those cases, the incarcerated person is locked up for life on a non-violent crime....

Corrections data show wide variances in how district attorneys around the state have used the habitual offender law. Nearly two-thirds of habitual lifers in the state were sentenced in one of four large parishes: Caddo, Orleans, St. Tammany or Jefferson, according to the data. The practice is somewhat less common in East Baton Rouge Parish, the state’s most populous.

Overall, Louisiana prosecutors have mostly aimed the law at Black defendants, like Allen. Black people make up 31% of Louisiana’s population, but 66% of its state prisoners; 73% of those serving life sentences; and 83% of those serving life as habitual offenders, corrections and census data show.

December 21, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

BJS releases "Employment of Persons Released from Federal Prison in 2010"

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has just released this fascinating new accounting of employment dynamics for over 50,000 persons who were released from federal prison in 2010.  Here is how the report starts to explain its scope:

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) produced this study to fulfill a congressional mandate in the Fair Chance to Compete for Jobs Act, part of the 2019 Defense Reauthorization Act (P.L. 116-92, Title XI, Subtitle B, Section 1124).  Congress tasked BJS and the U.S. Census Bureau with reporting on post-prison employment of persons released from federal prison. The study population in this report includes 51,500 persons released from the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) whose release records could be linked by the U.S. Census Bureau to employment and wage files from the Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics (LEHD) program.

I cannot readily summarize all the findings from this report, but here are a few passages I found notable:

More than two-thirds (67%) of the study population released from federal prison in 2010 obtained formal employment at any point during the 16 quarters following release. However, the total study population’s employment did not exceed 40% in any of the individual 16 quarters after release. The highest percentage of persons in the study population who were employed occurred in the first full quarter after prison release for whites (46%) and American Indians and Alaska Natives (37%), in quarter 2 for blacks (37%) and Hispanics (34%), and in quarter 5 for Asians and Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders (38%). Males who obtained post-prison employment worked for an average of 9.1 quarters during the 16 quarters following release, while females worked an average of 10.2 quarters....

A third (33%) of persons in the study population were employed 12 quarters prior to their admission to federal prison. This percentage declined in each subsequent quarter, with 18% employed in the last full quarter before admission to prison and 11% employed in the quarter of prison admission....

A higher percentage of persons in the study population who served time in federal prison for drug offenses before their 2010 release were employed during the 16 quarters after release (72%) compared to other offense types, while persons who served time for public order offenses had the lowest (60%).  Seventy percent of persons in the study population who returned to federal prison during the time from their 2010 release to yearend 2014 found employment in at least 1 quarter of the follow-up period, compared to 66% of persons who were not reimprisoned by the BOP....

Persons in the study population worked in a wide range of jobs after prison, but five industrial sectors employed the majority of persons released in 2010: administrative support and waste management and remediation services; accommodation and food services; construction; manufacturing; and retail trade (table 7). Together, these sectors employed 72% of persons in the study population who obtained work in the first quarter after their 2010 prison release, declining to 66% in quarter 16. During each of the 16 quarters after release, the top nine employment sectors accounted for more than 85% of the jobs worked by the employed persons in the study population.

Because I do not see this report including any data about education levels or any in-prison vocational training efforts, I am not sure quite what to make of all these particulars. But the particulars are still quite interesting.

December 21, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 20, 2021

Eighth Circuit panel affirms time-served sentence for enticement of a (fake) minor when guidelines recommended 46-57 months

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this interesting Eighth Circuit panel ruling today in US v. Davis, No. 21-1283 (8th Cir. Dec. 20, 2021) (available here). Here are portions from the opinion's start and heart:

Fredrick M. Davis pled guilty to attempted coercion or enticement of a minor in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(a).  The district court sentenced him to time served and 120 months’ supervised release, including one year of home confinement. The United States appeals the below-guidelines sentence....

In 2019 Davis contacted “Addyson” and “Sara” online.  They identified themselves as 14-year-old girls, but were actually personas of undercover law enforcement. Davis asked them to meet with him in a hotel in Dickinson, North Dakota.  He sent them sexually explicit messages and a graphic picture, and asked them to send him explicit pictures.

Davis was arrested at the North Dakota hotel where he intended to meet the girls. Under a pretrial agreement, Davis pled guilty to one charge—attempted coercion or enticement of a minor. His advisory guideline range was 46-57 months.  As required by the pretrial agreement, the parties jointly recommended a 60-month sentence and five years of supervised release.  The district court sentenced Davis to time served (two months) and 120 months of supervised release, including one year of home confinement, participation in sex offender treatment, and registration as a sex offender....

The government objected to the sentence for failing to afford adequate deterrent effect (the district court noted the objection).  But a district court has “wide latitude” to weigh factors, and it “may give some factors less weight than a [party] prefers or more weight to other factors, but that alone does not justify reversal.”  United States v. Brown, 992 F.3d 665, 673–74 (8th Cir. 2021).  In its written statement of reasons, the district court did acknowledge the need to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct. It chose to give other factors more weight than the deterrence factor, which is not a clear error of judgment.

The government also argues that the district court erred in weighing the Post Conviction Risk Assessment.  The record shows the district court considered the PCRA in conjunction with other factors.  In fact, at sentencing, the court asked the prosecutor: “do you agree with the assessment in the PSR that the risk level is very low for this offender to reoffend?”  He replied, “I do agree, yes, Your Honor.”  It is within the district court’s discretion to weigh such factors.

The government contends Davis’s commendable 20-year military career and his exemplary behavior on pretrial release are not “sufficiently compelling” to justify his below-guidelines sentence.  See Gall, 552 U.S. at 50.  But, this court “may not require ‘“extraordinary” circumstances to justify a sentence outside the Guidelines.’” Feemster, 572 F.3d at 462, quoting Gall, 552 U.S. at 47.  The district court’s rationale for granting the variance does not need to be extraordinary, only substantively reasonable.

18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1) instructs the sentencer to consider a defendant’s history and characteristics.  In his meritorious military career — half his adult life — he earned numerous awards and commendations, including the Combat Action Ribbon and recognitions for service in Iraq and Somalia.  Cf. U.S.S.G. § 5H1.11 (“Military service may be relevant in determining whether a departure is warranted, if the military service, individually or in combination with other offender characteristics, is present to an unusual degree and distinguishes the case from the typical cases covered by the guidelines.”).  He also did more than simply staying out of trouble while on pretrial release: he acknowledged his conduct, expressed remorse, sought ongoing treatment for his service-related PTSD, and got and maintained a job....

The ten years of supervised release, one year of home confinement, and other restrictions here are a substantial punishment.  “[T]he Guidelines are only one of the factors to consider when imposing a sentence, and § 3553(a)(3) directs the judge to consider sentences other than imprisonment.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 59.  “[C]ustodial sentences are qualitatively more severe than probationary sentences of equivalent terms,” but “[o]ffenders on probation are nonetheless subject to several standard conditions that substantially restrict their liberty.” Id. at 48.  In Gall itself, the Court reversed for not giving due deference to the district court’s “reasoned and reasonable decision that the § 3553(a) factors, on the whole, justified the sentence” of probation. Id. at 59-60. 

December 20, 2021 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 16, 2021

New BJS reports on "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2020" and "Profile of Prison Inmates, 2016"

Earlier this week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics released its latest detailed accounting of US prison populations (discussed here), and today brought two more notable data reports from BJS.  Here is a brief summary (with links) via the email I received this morning from the office of Justice Programs:

The Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics today released Probation and Parole in the United States, 2020.  The report is the 29th in a series that began in 1981. It includes characteristics of the population such as sex, race or ethnicity and most serious offense of adult U.S. residents under correctional supervision in the community. The report details how people move onto and off community supervision, such as completing their term of supervision, being incarcerated, absconding or other unsatisfactory outcomes while in the community.  Findings are based on data from BJS’s 2020 Annual Probation Survey and Annual Parole Survey.

BJS also released Profile of Prison Inmates, 2016.  This report describes the characteristics of state and federal prisoners in 2016, including demographics, education and marital status.  Findings are based on data from BJS’s 2016 Survey of Prison Inmates (SPI), which is conducted periodically and consists of personal interviews with prisoners.  For the first time, the 2016 SPI measured sexual orientation and gender identity, and those estimates are included in this report.  Statistics on prisoners’ offenses, time served, prior criminal history and any housing status prior to imprisonment, including homelessness, are also presented.  The report concludes with a summary of the family background of prisoners while they were growing up and any family members who have ever been incarcerated.

I am hoping in the weeks ahead to find some time to really mine some interesting factoids from all this notable new BJS data. For now I will be content to flag just a few "highlights" from the start of these two new document:

December 16, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

After Missouri expands parole eligibility for certain juve offenders, Bobby Bostic secures parole 25 years after getting 241-year sentence

The name Bobby Bostic may be familiar to some readers, as he became a focal point for debate and litigation over the application of the Supreme Court's Graham Eighth Amendment ruling prohibiting LWOP sentences for juvenile nonhomicide offenders.  Back in the 1990s, Bostic received in Missouri state court a sentence of 241 years for armed robberies and would possibly not be eligible for parole for nearly 100 years under Missouri law at that time.  Back in 2018, I blogged here about the sentencing judge's op-ed urging the US Supreme Court to take up Bostic's cert petition, but the Justices declined to do so.

Fast forward a few years, and Bostic's case in the news again reporting that MIssouri law has changed and that Bostic has now secured parole after serving a quarter century behind bars.  This local article, headlined "Sentenced to 241 Years as a Teen, Bobby Bostic Wins Parole," provides these details:

A Missouri man sentenced to 241 years in prison for crimes committed when he was just sixteen will be released next year after a quarter-century behind bars.  The ACLU announced today that 42-year-old Bobby Bostic has been granted parole.  He will be released late next year after being provided courses designed to aid him in his re-entry.

On December 12, 1995, Bostic and 18-year-old Donald Hutson were high on PCP when they robbed a group of St. Louisans delivering holiday gifts to a needy family. In the course of the armed robbery, Bostic shot one victim in the side.  Hutson shot another individual.  Both the gunshot victims survived.

Bostic was charged with 18 felonies.  He took his case to trial and in 1997 was found guilty on all counts. His earliest parole date was set for the far-flung year of 2201.  The trial's judge, Evelyn Baker, told Bostic at his sentencing, "You're gonna die with your choice," and added, "Nobody in this room is going to be alive in the year 2201."

Baker retired in 2008.  Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a ruling in Graham v. Florida that “prohibits the imposition of a life without parole sentence on a juvenile offender who did not commit homicide.” Bostic's 241-year sentence, however, was not technically a life sentence. In theory, he would have been eligible to be considered for parole at the age of 112....

In recent years, Judge Baker has come to regret the 241-year sentence she handed down to Bostic, writing in an op-ed published in Riverfront Times last year that, "At the time, I didn’t know, and the criminal justice system didn’t understand how the juvenile brain worked and how long it took to mature."

In August of this year, the Missouri legislature passed a state statute allowing individuals who are serving "de facto" life sentences for nonhomicide crimes committed as juveniles to receive parole hearings after 15 years of incarceration.  The ACLU says that, in addition to Bostic, there are about 100 other individuals in Missouri prisons who meet this criteria.

Bostic had a parole hearing in November that, according to the ACLU, was "one of the first under the new law."  At Bostic's side was the same judge who had sentenced him to nearly a quarter of a millennium in prison.  At the parole hearing, Baker advocated for Bostic's release....

Donald Hutson, Bostic's accomplice in 1995, died in prison in 2018.

Prior related post:

December 14, 2021 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, December 04, 2021

Fourth Circuit panel finds probation sentence for abusive police officer procedurally and substantively unreasonable

I just saw a notable Fourth Circuit per curiam panel ruling which was handed down on Thanksgiving Eve.  The (unpublished) opinion in US v. George, No. 19-4841 (4th Cir. Nov. 24, 2021) (available here), gets started this way:

A jury convicted Robert Michael George, a former sergeant with the City of Hickory Police Department, of using objectively unreasonable force against a pretrial detainee, Chelsea Doolittle, depriving her of the constitutional right to due process of law, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242.  The presentence report calculated an advisory guidelines sentencing range for George’s crime of 70 to 87 months of imprisonment, but the district court sentenced him to a downward variance term of four years’ probation.  The Government appeals, arguing that George’s sentence is procedurally and substantively unreasonable. Because the district court grounded its reasoning for the chosen sentence in conclusions contrary to the evidence and the jury’s verdict, we cannot uphold the sentence as either procedurally or substantively reasonable.  Accordingly, we vacate the sentence and remand to a different judge for resentencing.

Here are some passages toward the end of a fairly lengthy opinion in George:

In its reasoning, the district court relied heavily on its view, counter to the weight of the evidence and George’s conviction, that the incident was “almost accidental.”  Through the prism of that impermissible belief, the district court determined that the Guidelines range, reflecting the appropriate sentence for an officer that willfully deprives someone of their constitutional rights, did not apply to George because he was not in that category of offender.  Other circuits have vacated sentences as substantively unreasonable in instances in which the trial court took an impermissible view of the facts, and that is the predominant reason for our holding as to substantive reasonableness today....

Further, the district court gave excessive weight to its favorable perceptions of George as a former police officer, and in turn the post-conviction consequences for George, dismissing other considerations set forth in the Guidelines.  However, “a defendant’s status as a law enforcement officer is more akin to an aggravating as opposed to a mitigating sentencing factor, as criminal conduct by a police officer constitutes an abuse of public position.”  United States v. Thames, 214 F.3d 608, 614 (5th Cir. 2000).  Rather than acknowledge an abuse of public trust, the court relied heavily on its positive perception of George as a former law enforcement officer in its discussion of the first and second § 3553(a) factors, failing to significantly weigh the seriousness of the crime.  As to the goals of the § 3553(a) factors to “promote respect for the law,” “provide just punishment,” “afford adequate deterrence”, and “protect the public,” the court spoke first and foremost of the “total life changes to Mr. George,” enumerating collateral consequences, including George’s loss of his job and pension, as sufficient deterrent to justify the variance. J.A. 512.  But such outcomes are common in § 242 cases and do not justify this significant variance to a probationary sentence.  Indeed, “it is not unusual for a public official who is convicted of using his governmental authority to violate a person’s rights to lose his or her job and to be barred from future work in that field.”  Koon, 518 U.S. at 110.  That reasoning does not provide the “significant justification” necessary for such a substantial departure.  Gall, 552 U.S. at 50.

December 4, 2021 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)