Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Broad coalition urges Prez Trump to commute the federal sentences in response to coronavirus crisis

A whole bunch of public policy and civil rights groups have just sent this short letter urging Prez Trump to utilize his clemency power to commute the federal sentences of those "who could benefit from compassionate release, and other populations that are exceptionally vulnerable to coronavirus."  The letter details the COVID-19 emergency emerging in prisons and jails and closes with this ask:

We call upon you to commute the federal sentences of individuals who could benefit from compassionate release, including those who: 

  • Are older and elderly; 
  • Have a terminal medical condition; 
  • Have a debilitated medical condition; 
  • Suffer from a chronic medical condition; or 
  • Have suffered a death of a family member who is a primary caregiver to a child of the person incarcerated.

In addition to commuting the federal sentences of individuals who could benefit from compassionate release, we call upon you to use your clemency power to release those incarcerated at the federal level who are elderly and/or particularly vulnerable to serious illness or death from COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including: 

  • Blood disorders; 
  • Chronic kidney disease; 
  • Chronic liver disease; 
  • Compromised immune system (immunosuppression); 
  • Current or recent pregnancy; 
  • Endocrine disorders; 
  • Metabolic disorders; 
  • Heart disease; 
  • Lung disease; 
  • Neurological and neurologic and neurodevelopment conditions; and 
  • Hypertension.

As we work to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, it is essential that we not forget about the millions of Americans currently incarcerated and working in jails, prisons and detention centers, and that we take action to protect those who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19. Again, we ask you to commute the sentences for those populations at the federal level most vulnerable to coronavirus.

UPDATE: It is worth noting here that this call to Prez Trump to use his clemency powers to move people out of federal prisons could and should also be directed, on similar terms, to Governors across the nation.  Helpfully, I just got word from Margy Love that the Collateral Consequences Resource Center has a new resource on state clemency posers. This CCRC post provides the details and other helpful links:

At this time of pandemic, we have been following the discussions of how jail, prison, and immigration detention conditions are highly concerning, including the very useful collection of links provided by Professor Doug Berman, the demands published by advocacy organizations, and the collection of policy responses by the Prison Policy Institute.  We agree that every available legal mechanism must be enlisted to secure the release of prisoners and detainees who pose little or no threat to public safety, and whose health and safety are themselves severely threatened by their enforced captivity.  This includes the great constitutional powers given to governors and pardon boards.  We therefore commend our newly revised pardon resources to advocates and policy makers to support their advocacy and action.

While our pardon-related research focuses primarily on how the power is used to restore rights and status to those who are no longer in prison, much of our information about how the pardon process is structured and operates is relevant to how the power might be used (or is already being used) to commute prison sentences during the pandemic.  Our revised pardon resources are part of a major revision of the CCRC Restoration of Rights Project, not only to make sure its information is current in light of the many recent changes in the law, but also reorganizing and revising its resources for clarity and easier access.  In the process, we have updated and revamped our state-by-state material on how the pardon process operates in each jurisdiction, noting that the process has become more regular and productive in a few states in the past several years.

Our 50-state pardon comparison is organized into four sections:

  • Section 1 provides a chart comparing pardon policy and practice across jurisdictions.
  • Section 2 lists jurisdictions by frequency and regularity of their pardon grants.
  • Section 3 sorts jurisdictions by how the administration of the power is structured.
  • Section 4 provides state-by-state summaries of pardon policy and practice, with links to more detailed analysis and legal citations.

March 24, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Harvey Weinstein requesting (mandatory minimum) five-year prison sentence

As reported in this CNN piece, headlined "Harvey Weinstein's attorneys ask for him to receive the shortest possible prison sentence," defense attorneys have now filed their sentencing arguments a notable 7-page letter before the judge's scheduled sentencing on March 11.  Here are the basics:

Harvey Weinstein's defense attorneys are requesting a five-year prison sentence, the minimum for his first-degree criminal sexual act conviction, according to a sentencing letter provided by his spokesman.

His attorneys wrote in the letter to Judge James Burke that Weinstein's personal charitable giving, advanced age, medical issues and lack of a criminal history should lead to a lower sentence. They wrote that his life "has been destroyed" since the publication of an article in The New Yorker in October 2017 that alleged systemic abuse of women in the entertainment industry. "His wife divorced him, he was fired from The Weinstein Company, and in short, he lost everything," the attorneys wrote.

Weinstein, 67, was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual act and third-degree rape in a New York courtroom in late February based on accusations by Miriam Haley and Jessica Mann. He was acquitted of two more serious charges of predatory sexual assault, which could have come with a life sentence.

The movie producer faces a minimum of five years and a maximum of 25 years in prison for the criminal sexual act charge, and he faces up to 4 years in prison for the rape charge. His sentencing is scheduled for Wednesday.

The Manhattan District Attorney's office argued in an 11-page court filing last week that Weinstein should receive a sentence that "reflects the seriousness of defendant's offenses." He led a "lifetime of abuse towards others, sexual and otherwise," prosecutors argued, and they highlighted three dozen uncharged incidents and accusations. "Starting in the 1970s, he has trapped women into his exclusive control and assaulted or attempted to assault them," prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon wrote in a letter. Noting that sentencing isn't limited "to the evidence at trial," Illuzzi-Orbon wrote that Burke has "wide discretion" to consider everything known about the defendant when the judge imposes his sentence on the disgraced movie mogul.

However, Weinstein's attorneys argued that the prosecution's request to consider 36 alleged bad acts in sentencing is "inappropriate," adding they intend to expound upon these issues at sentencing....

In the letter, Weinstein's attorneys said his medical issues mean any sentence above five years would effectively be a life sentence. "Given his age and specific medical risk factors, any additional term of imprisonment above the mandatory minimum — although the grave reality is that Mr. Weinstein may not even outlive that term — is likely to constitute a de facto life sentence."...

The attorneys said the trial "did not fairly portray who he is as a person," saying "his life story, his accomplishments, and struggles are simply remarkable and should not be disregarded in total because of the jury's verdict." Besides noting his commercial success and contributions to the entertainment industry, the attorneys highlighted Weinstein's philanthropic endeavors, including that he was an organizer for a 9/11 benefit concert that raised $100 million. The attorneys wrote that Weinstein "always remained involved in the forefront of various social justice causes" during his career.

The defense cited that he has no criminal history and wrote that in providing this information "do not in any way intend to denigrate the seriousness of the conduct for which he was found guilty," adding his background "should be given substantial consideration in reaching a just and appropriate sentence."

The full defense letter is available here, and sentencing fans may be especially interested in the last couple of pages in which the defense makes the case against consideration of uncharged conduct at sentencing. Here are excepts from this portion of the letter:

The People now ask this court to rely on more uncharged conduct in fashioning what they surely hope will be a draconian sentence.  To that end, by and large, the People ask that your honor consider 36 alleged bad acts in arriving at an appropriate sentence.  We submit that this request is inappropriate and intend on expounding upon these issues at sentencing.

First, these allegations have not been admitted, proven, or subject to adversarial testing in any meaningful manner and for the most part mirror allegations made by the People in other filings.  Reliance upon the People’s proffer would be improper.

Second, even under the federal standard, which does not apply, the People neglect to mention that under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) (the “3553(a) factors”), or at least the ones it tendentially cites, federal courts are not permitted by Due Process to consider whatever unsupported conjecture the People ask it to.  Rather, in order for “relevant, uncharged conduct” must be proven by a “preponderance of the evidence” standard” before a sentencing court can give it any weight or effect.  See United States v. Cordoba-Murgas, 233 F.3d 704, 708 (2d Cir. 2000)...

Third, the alleged bad acts cited by the People do not constitute “relevant conduct,” and thus, even in federal court, and even if proven, would not be proper for consideration at sentencing....

Fourth, in the course of the People’s efforts to bootstrap these allegations to its sentencing request, it is unclear if it has met requirements under both C.P.L. § 245.20(1)(k) and Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963)Brady applies equally to material relevant to both guilt itself as well as punishment....

Finally, as the court observed, all of the People’s evidence was vigorously contested at trial.  To add weight to a sentence based upon mere allegations, some of which predate even Ms. Sciorra’s rejected claims, would violate Due Process.

Based on the foregoing, Mr. Weinstein, through counsel, requests the Court expressly disregard the People’s request to use these alleged other bad acts as a basis for it sentencing determination as set forth in its March 6, 2020 letter.

Prior related post:

March 10, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, March 09, 2020

"Data Collected Under the First Step Act, 2019"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new document that the Bureau of Justice Statistics released this morning.  The document reports a range of data about the federal prison system, and here are excerpts from the start of this document:

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

The statistics in this report are for calendar year 2018, which is prior to the enactment of the FSA, and were collected in 2019.  Data for 2019 will be available from BOP in the second half of 2020.  Unless otherwise noted, all counts in this report include federal prisoners held in correctional facilities operated either by the BOP or by private companies contracted by the BOP.  Other reporting required by the FSA, such as the establishment of new methods by BOP to score risk-assessment or recidivism-reduction programs, will be included in BJS’s annual reports when data become available.

Key findings....

  • At year-end 2018, a total of 80,599 prisoners — or 45% of all BOP prisoners — were the parent, step-parent, or guardian of a minor child (dependents age 20 or younger, per BOP definition).
  • At year-end 2018, a total of 51,436 prisoners (about 29% of all BOP prisoners) had not attained a high-school diploma, general equivalency degree (GED), or other equivalent certificate before entering prison.
  • At year-end 2018, a total of 23,567 prisoners identified English as their second language (13% of all BOP prisoners).
  • At year-end 2018, a total of 33,457 prisoners were non-citizens (19% of all BOP prisoners)....
  • In 2018, all 122 BOP-operated facilities had the capability for prisoners to use video-conference technology to participate in judicial hearings, foreign embassy consultations, reentry-related communication from probation offices, pre-reentry preparation, disciplinary hearings, and the Institution Hearing Program....
  • A total of 87,628 prohibited acts occurred in BOP-operated facilities during 2018, of which 39,897 were committed in medium-security facilities (45%).
  • A total of 55,361 individual prisoners committed the 87,628 prohibited acts.
  • During 2018, there were 1,270 physical assaults on BOP staff by prisoners, with 21 of the assaults resulting in serious injury to the staff member.

March 9, 2020 in Data on sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS grants cert on a Mississippi case on the application of Miller to replace dismissed Malvo case

In this new order list, the Supreme Court this morning granted certain in one case, Jones v. Mississippi, No. 18-1259.  Here is the straight-forward question presented in Jones' cert petition:

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

As explained in this post and this post, after Virginia enacted new legislation to make all juvenile offenders eligible for parole, SCOTUS had to dismiss, more than four months after oral argument, the Malvo case which concerned whether infamous DC sniper Lee Malvo was constitutionally entitled to be considered for resentencing for a series of murders committed when he was 17.  It was expected that the Justice would be inclined to take up a "replacement case," and that now appears to be the Jones case.

Notably, the facts and legal realities surrounding the Jones case are strikingly different that the Malvo case.  Lee Malvo was just shy of 18 when he was involved is a high-profile series of thrill killings; Brett Jones had just turned 15 when he stabbed to death his grandfather in an altercation in which Jones claimed (unsuccessfully) he acted in self-defense.  In addition, the Malvo case involved the extra complications of federal habeas review of (unclear) state procedures; the Jones case involves a direct appeal from the state court on the question of what process or finding is required to impose a discretionary life without parole sentence on a juvenile killer.

Because of the somewhat simpler facts and simpler procedural posture, it would seem that Jones will present an interesting opportunity to essentially relitgate a range of issues left behind in the wake of the Miller and Montgomery cases.  I suspect some amici may argue, for example, that is is now time for the Eighth Amendment to be interpreted to categorically ban all juve LWOP (or at least to ban all LWOP sentences for crimes committed under the age of 16).  Some other amici might argue, however, that no particular finding or process should be required for before any juve LWOP sentence is imposed despite suggestions otherwise in Montgomery.

Importantly, because of the timing of all these developments, the oral argument in this case will not be until the Fall and we ought not expect an opinion before early 2021.

March 9, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Federal prosecutors and hundred of victims write in opposition to Bernie Madoff's compassionate release motion

Last month, as noted in this post, Bernie Madoff filed a motion for compassionate release thanks to a provision of federal law modified by the FIRST STEP Act.  This week, filings in response came from federal prosecutors.  This USA Today piece has the filing and reports on it  starting this way:

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday night objected to Ponzi scheme mastermind Bernard Madoff's bid for release from prison, arguing that the reviled and ailing ex-financier should continue serving his 150-year sentence.

Charging that the 81-year-old convict who ran one of history's biggest scams has "demonstrated a wholesale lack of understanding of the seriousness of his crimes and a lack of compassion for his victims," the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York urged a judge to keep him in prison.

"Madoff's crimes were 'extraordinarily evil.' His sentence was appropriately long. It should not be reduced," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Drew Skinner and Louis Pellegrino wrote in the filing to U.S. Circuit Court Judge Denny Chin, who sentenced Madoff more than a decade ago.

I think the first paragraph of the filing is effective:

The Government respectfully submits this memorandum of law in opposition to defendant Bernard L. Madoff’s request for 92% reduction in his sentence.  The nature of Madoff’s crime — unprecedented in scope and magnitude — wholly justified the 150-year sentence this Court imposed and is by itself a sufficient reason to deny Madoff’s motion.  Furthermore, since his sentencing, Madoff has demonstrated a wholesale lack of understanding of the seriousness of his crimes and a lack of compassion for his victims, underscoring that he is undeserving of compassionate release himself.  Finally, the Section 3553(a) factors weigh heavily against his release.

This CNBC piece report on some of the victim letters opposing Madoff's motion. Here is how this article gets started:

Hundreds of victims of Ponzi scheme kingpin Bernie Madoff really don’t want him to get out of prison despite his claim that he is dying. They recently told a judge their reasons in often-heartbreaking letters.

“Our lives, and not just financially, also emotionally, mentally, and physically . . . were Destroyed,” wrote one victim, who noted that her husband lost $850,000 to Madoff.

Another woman wrote, “I lost all my money and my husband of 40 years committed suicide because of his horrific crimes. As far as I am concerned, he should spend the rest of his life in jail,” she wrote to Judge Denny Chin in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

Releasing Maddoff, a third victim told Chin, “would be to put another knife in the hearts of his victims.”

Those three letters are among the approximately 520 that Madoff victims sent Chin on the heels of Madoff’s court filing last month seeking early release from his 150-year prison sentence because he has terminal kidney disease.

Prior related posts:

March 5, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

"Going Back to Jail When You Haven’t Committed a Crime: Early Findings From a Multi-State Trial"

The title of this post is the title of this new report from the Institute for Justice Research and Development (IJRD) prepared by Carrie Pettus-Davis and Stephanie Kennedy. This report is part of a series of quarterly reports designed to provide real-time results of a multistate study on prisoner reentry currently being conducted in over 100 correctional facilities and 21 urban and rural counties in 7 states.  The full report itself is a reader-friendly 17 pages, and there is also this one-pager with key takeaways.  Here are excerpts from the one-pager:

Although the general public often thinks about recidivism as individuals leaving incarceration and committing new crimes, technical violations contribute to the strikingly high rates of recidivism reported for individuals released from prisons and jails across the United States....

• Research suggests that 45% of the more than 600,000 annual state prison admissions across the nation are due to probation or parole revocations.

• While probation or parole can be revoked for committing new crimes, 26% of new prison admissions are due solely to technical violations. Unpaid fines and fees also contribute to technical violations and may lead individuals back to incarceration.

• Our goal was to explore the circumstance of re-arrest among our study participants.  At this early point in the study, data are incomplete or unavailable.

• This report examines the reasons for re-arrest provided by study participants as these data were the most complete.  They describe a range of technical violations for expected events — missing check-ins with supervising officers and violating curfew — and unexpected events – being arrested, having one’s charges dropped, and returning to jail for coming into contact with law enforcement. Though not the focus of this report, other common technical violations were related to substance use, carrying guns, and reengagement in crime. We will have more complete data on these rates in the future.

• The 35 individuals highlighted in this report were re-arrested for non-drug related, non-criminal technical violations.

• We ask stakeholders to consider whether current policy and practices are meeting the stated purpose and goals of conditional release.  Are the non-criminal behaviors described in this report reason enough to send someone to jail?  Is it worth the financial costs and associated social costs?

March 3, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Making the case for algorithms to help with criminal justice decision-making

This new Washington Post piece by a group of California professors and data scientists, headlined "In the U.S. criminal justice system, algorithms help officials make better decisions, our research finds," makes a notable case for using algorithms in criminal justice decision-making.  Here are excerpts:

Should an algorithm help make decisions about whom to release before trial, whom to release from prison on parole or who receives rehabilitative services?  They’re already informing criminal justice decisions around the United States and the world and have become the subject of heated public debate.  Many such algorithms rely on patterns from historical data to assess each person’s risk of missing their next court hearing or being convicted of a new offense.

More than 60 years of research suggests that statistical algorithms are better than unaided human judgment at predicting such outcomes.  In 2018, that body of research was questioned by a high-profile study published in the journal Science Advances, which found that humans and algorithms were about equally as good at assessing who will reoffend. But when we attempted to replicate and extend that recent study, we found something different: Algorithms were substantially better than humans when used in conditions that approximate real-world criminal justice proceedings....

Surprised by the finding, we redid and extended the Dartmouth study with about 600 participants similarly recruited online.  This past month, we published our results.  The Dartmouth findings do not hold in settings that are closer to real criminal justice situations

The problem isn’t that the Dartmouth study’s specific results are wrong. We got very similar results when we reran the study by asking our own participants to read and rate the same defendant descriptions that their researchers used. It’s that their results are limited to a narrow context. We repeated the experiment by asking our participants to read descriptions of several new sets of defendants and found that algorithms outperformed people in every case. For example, in one instance, algorithms correctly predicted which people would reoffend 71 percent of the time, while untrained recruits predicted correctly only 59 percent of the time — a 12 percentage point gap in accuracy.

This gap increased even further when we made the experiment closer to real-world conditions. After each question, the Dartmouth researchers told participants whether their prediction was correct — so we did that, too, in our initial experiments. As a result, those participants were able to immediately learn from their mistakes. But in real life, it can take months or years before criminal justice professionals discover which people have reoffended. So we redid our experiment several more times without this feedback. We found that the gap in accuracy between humans and algorithms doubled, from 12 to 24 percentage points. In other words, the gap increased when the experiment was more like what happens in the real world. In fact, in this case, where immediate feedback was no longer provided, our participants correctly rated only 47 percent of the vignettes they read — worse than simply flipping a coin.

Why was human performance so poor? Our participants significantly overestimated risk, believing that people would reoffend much more often than they actually did. In one iteration of our experiment, we explicitly and repeatedly told participants that only 29 percent of the people they were assessing ultimately reoffended, but our recruits still predicted that 48 percent would do so. In a courtroom, these “judges” might have incorrectly flagged many people as high risk who statistically posed little danger to public safety.

Humans were also worse than algorithms at exploiting additional information — something that criminal justice officials have in abundance. In yet another version of our experiment, we gave humans and algorithms detailed vignettes that included more than the five pieces of information provided about a defendant in the original Dartmouth study. The algorithms that had this additional information performed better than those that did not, but human performance did not improve.

Our results indicate that statistical algorithms can indeed outperform human predictions of whether people will commit new crimes. These findings are consistent with the findings of an extensive literature, including field studies, that show that algorithmic predictions are more accurate than those of unaided judges and correctional officers who make life-changing decisions every day.

I blogged about the prior study in this post, and here are some (of many, many) prior related posts on risk assessment tools:

March 3, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 02, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 01, 2020

"The Criminal History of Federal Economic Crime Offenders"

The title of this post is the title of this new report released late last week by the US Sentencing Commission.  Here is a basic summary and key findings from this USSC webpage:

Summary

For the first time, this report provides in-depth criminal history information about federal economic crime offenders, combining the most recently available data from two United States Sentencing Commission projects.

Key Findings
  • The application of guideline criminal history provisions differed among the different types of economic crime offenders.
  • The extent of prior convictions differed among the different types of economic crime offenders.
    • About half of all federal economic crime offenders had at least one prior conviction in their criminal history.
    • Prior convictions were most common among counterfeit and forgery (71.1%), identity theft (70.4%), credit card fraud (68.7%), and financial institution fraud (68.6%) offenders.
    • Prior convictions were least common among computer-related (29.6%) and government procurement (25.4%) fraud offenders.
  • Federal economic crime offenders did not “specialize” in economic crime.
    • Convictions for prior economic offenses were not the predominant types of prior convictions. 
    • Fourteen percent of federal economic crime offenders had convictions for prior economic offenses only, to the exclusion of other types of convictions. 
    • Convictions for prior “other” offenses, such as DUI and public order, were the predominant types of prior convictions.
  • The severity of criminal history differed for offenders in the specific types of economic crime.
    • Financial institution fraud, credit card fraud, identity theft, mail-related fraud, and counterfeit and forgery offenders had relatively serious criminal histories compared to other economic crime offenders.
    • Government procurement and computer-related fraud offenders had comparatively less serious criminal histories compared to other economic crime offenders.
  • Only about one-quarter of federal economic crime offenders with prior convictions were not assigned criminal history points under the guidelines.

March 1, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Will SCOTUS take up another case to address other post-Miller JLWOP issues now that Malvo has gone away?

As noted in this post , earlier this week Virginia enacted new legislation to make all juvenile offenders eligible for parole.  One effect of that new legislation was to moot, more than four months after oral argument, the Supreme Court's consideration of the Malvo case which concerned whether infamous DC sniper Lee Malvo was constitutionally entitled to be considered for resentencing since he was given LWOP for a series of murders committed when he was 17.  Many were wondering whether and how the Justices might use the Malvo case to address broader Eighth Amendment concerns, because the Malvo case touched on, but did not necessarily require resolution of, various issues related to past SCOTUS jurisprudence concerning juvenile sentencing.

Though the dispute in Malvo has gone away, the array of questions about how properly to apply Miller and related SCOTUS precedents in sentencing juveniles to extreme sentencing terms has not.  And it seems quite possible that some Justices, having become sufficiently involved in working through draft opinions for resolving Malvo, may now be eager to now take up a replacement case.  Kent Scheidegger sure seems eager for SCOTUS to take up a replacement case, as he has two new posts over at Crime & Consequences highlighting the range of potential replacements for Malvo:

Because I am always keen for SCOTUS to take up more sentencing issues and to clarify its constitutional jurisprudence, I am hopeful we will see SCOTUS take up another case to address post-Miller issues ASAP.  But SCOTUS often has a way of dashing my hopes (e.g., its recent acquitted conduct cert denials), so I make no firm predictions.

February 27, 2020 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

SCOTUS unanimously rejects effort to narrow ACCA-predicate drug crimes in Shular

Much of the never-ending Armed Career Criminal Act litigation concerns the reach of ACCA's "violent felony" definitions as predicate priors for applying the statute's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term.  But the Supreme Court addressed unanimously today in Shular v. United States, No. 18–6662 (S. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (available here), the reach of the ACCA predicate provision defining "serious drug offense."  And while defendants have often prevailed on challenges to broad application of "violent felony," the unanimous opinion by Justice Ginsburg in Shular turns away a defense effort to limit what qualifies as a "serious drug felony."  Here is the full start to the Court's opinion:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e), mandates a 15-year minimum sentence of imprisonment for certain defendants with prior convictions for a “serious drug offense.”  A state offense ranks as a “serious drug offense” only if it “involv[es] manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.” §924(e)(2)(A)(ii).  This case concerns the methodology courts use to apply that definition.

While the parties agree that a court should look to the state offense’s elements, they disagree over what the court should measure those elements against.  In the Government’s view, the court should ask whether those elements involve the conduct identified in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii) — namely, “manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance.”  Petitioner Eddie Lee Shular, however, contends that the terms employed in the statute identify not conduct, but offenses.  In his view, those terms are shorthand for the elements of the offenses as commonly understood.  According to Shular, the court must first identify the elements of the “generic” offense, then ask whether the elements of the state offense match those of the generic crime.

Under the approach he advances, Shular argues, his sentence is not subject to ACCA enhancement.  The generic offenses named in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii), as Shular understands them, include a mens rea element of knowledge that the substance is illicit.  He emphasizes that his prior convictions were for state offenses that do not make knowledge of the substance’s illegality an element of the offense; the state offenses, he therefore maintains, do not match the generic offenses in §924(e)(2)(A)(ii).

The question presented: Does §924(e)(2)(A)(ii)’s “serious drug offense” definition call for a comparison to a generic offense?  We hold it does not.  The “serious drug offense” definition requires only that the state offense involve the conduct specified in the federal statute; it does not require that the state offense match certain generic offenses.

Even for hard-core ACCA fans (and you know who you are), there does not seem to be all that much of great significance in Shular (beyond a reminder that rulings for prosecutors can still sometimes garner unanimity from this Court).  There is an intriguing coda to the Shular ruling in the form of a three-page concurrence by Justice Kavanaugh in order to "elaborate on why the rule of lenity does not apply here."  In his elaboration, Justice Kavanaugh seems mostly just to reiterate basic doctrinal statements about the rule of lenity from past SCOTUS cases, so I am not quite sure what the separate opinion was designed to achieve (beyond giving the Justice an excuse to cite his own Harvard Law Review article: "Kavanaugh, Fixing Statutory Interpretation, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 2118 (2016)).

February 26, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Ending JLWOP, Virginia makes all juvenile offenders eligible for parole (and thereby moots SCOTUS consideration of Malvo case)

As effectively reported here by Daniel Nichanian at The Appeal: Political Report, Monday brought big news out of Virginia that had an echo effect on the Supreme Court's docket. The report is headlined "Virginia Makes All Children Eligible For Parole, A Major Shift For This Punitive State," and here are the details:

Virginia will give hundreds of people who have been incarcerated for decades, ever since they were kids, a shot at petitioning for release. House Bill 35 will make people who have been convicted of an offense committed before the age of 18 eligible for parole after 20 years in prison. The legislature adopted the bill last week and the governor signed it into law [on Monday], effective July 1.

In practice, the bill abolishes sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors; minors sentenced to sentences that amount to life in prison would also get some chance at parole. “It’s a huge victory,” Heather Renwick, legal director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, told me. Besides banning life without the possibility of parole for minors, “the bill will provide broader relief and parole eligibility for all kids sentenced in the adult system,” she said.

Still, a major question looms over the concrete effect that the reform would have. It will only make people eligible to go in front of a parole board, with no guarantee that anyone gets paroled. And the recent history of Virginia’s board is to quasi-systematically deny the applications it receives. This signals the importance of strengthening the parole process alongside reforms that expand eligibility.

HB 35 also will not address the expansive mechanisms that lead minors to be prosecuted as adults in Virginia, and that trigger lengthy sentences in the first place. But the legislature is also considering separate bills to at least narrow those mechanisms....

In some ways, this bill is a modest reform. For one, it brings Virginia in line with many of its peers. With HB 35 signed into law, Virginia becomes the 23rd state (plus D.C.) to end sentences of life without the possibility of parole for minors. Oregon passed a similar bill last summer, and such proposals are on the table in other states as well.

HB 35, moreover, is a less expansive change than we’ve seen in other states. When neighboring West Virginia adopted a similar law in 2014, it made minors eligible for parole after 15 years, rather than the 20 that HB 35 stipulates. (Oregon’s law also stipulated 15 years.) And when Illinois established new parole rules for youths last year, it made people up to age 21 eligible to apply, affirming that considerations of youth do not just stop when someone is a day over 18. HB 35 still sets a cutoff at age 18.

The bill also better aligns Virginia on the U.S. Supreme Court rulings, such as Miller v. Alabama, which ended mandatory life without parole sentences for minors. The state has been slow at granting resentencing, and there is also litigation on whether the other mechanisms that impose extreme sentences on minors are any more constitutional. HB 35 addresses such concerns by retroactively conferring parole eligibility to minors sentenced to de facto life sentences.

When the bill becomes effective, it will affect 720 currently-incarcerated people, according to a legislative analysis....

Virginia may also soon pass a bill to make about 300 people sentenced between 1995 (when it ended parole) and 2000 (when it began informing juries of this change) eligible for parole.

Expanding eligibility may not by itself change much for anyone, though, including for minors. That’s because Virginia’s parole board has been denying the vast majority of applications it receives.

According to a Capital News Services analysis of Virginia’s parole board published in December, the vast majority of parole applications are denied: 94 percent since 2014. The rate of denial was above 90 percent for all age groups. Earlier analyses have found similar numbers.

This ABC News article explains the echo effect of this new Virginia law on a high-profile Supreme Court case argued last October:

D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo asked the Supreme Court to dismiss his appeal on Monday after a change to Virginia state law now makes him eligible for parole....  In a letter to the Court signed by Malvo's attorney and an attorney for the state of Virginia, both sides agreed the case is now moot and should be dismissed.  Malvo will retain his sentences and remain behind bars, the letter says.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has two posts in this wake of these developments, the first suggesting an alternative case for the Court to now take up and the second urging the Court to think about how best to dismiss the Malvo case:

February 25, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

"The Extraordinary Ordinary Prisoner: Essays From Inside America’s Carceral State"

Jeremiah-book-coverThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book authored by Jeremiah Bourgeois. The book is a collection of columns, mostly written while Jeremiah Bourgeois was serving a term of life imprisonment for a crime committed at the age of fourteen. Here is how the work is described at Amazon:

On June 7, 2016, an email from a prospective writer appeared in the inbox of The Crime Report, a nonprofit criminal justice news site. The last line in the message caught the editors' attention: “I realize that submissions should include more information. However, I hope you overlook that requirement in light of the fact that I am incarcerated.”

Over the next three years, Jeremiah Bourgeois, then confined to the Stafford Creek Corrections Center, a mixed medium-minimum security prison for men near Aberdeen, Washington, contributed 36 columns on his own transformation from self-destructive rage to dedicated writer and on subjects such as the treatment of gay and transgender prisoners, the lack of a #MeToo movement for incarcerated women, and the hypocrisies of prison “family visitation” events.

Months after Bourgeois finally won his parole in 2019, The Crime Report is publishing this collection of Jeremiah Bourgeois's most searing and unforgettable work.

The Crime Report provides more of the story in this posting:

When he wrote us, he was 38 years old — and had already spent the previous 24 years behind bars for the May 19, 1992, revenge killing of Seattle store owner Tecle Ghebremichale, who had testified against his brother in an assault case. Aged 14 at the time of his crime, he was sentenced to life without parole in the era before the Supreme Court ruled such sentences for juveniles unconstitutional.  Jeremiah had every expectation of spending the rest of his life in prison. “It was probably the saddest case I’ve ever had,” his lawyer, Michael Trickey, told the Seattle Times in 2005, noting both Jeremiah’s age and length of sentence.

Jeremiah spent much of his first decade in prison in a permanent state of anger and defensiveness, frequently in conflict with corrections officers and fellow inmates.  But then something changed.  Prisoner #708897, as he would later write in his columns, realized that he was on a path to self-destruction.  He began reinventing and reeducating himself through long hours in the prison library.

He is not the first incarceree to write his story.  Prison writing has long been a special genre, and The Crime Report has frequently published work written behind bars — by both juveniles and adults. But Jeremiah’s emergence as an independent, often contrarian, voice has been especially timely as our national debate about mass incarceration approaches a crossroads.

February 23, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Roger Stone gets 40-month federal prison sentence ... but will he ever actually serve it?

As reported in this Politico piece, headlined "Roger Stone was sentenced Thursday to just more than three years in prison, a decision that raises immediate questions about whether President Donald Trump will pardon his longtime political confidant for what the president has decried as a miscarriage of justice." Here is more about notable sentencing:

U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson handed down Stone’s 40-month sentence in a packed Washington, D.C., courtroom after spending more than two hours ticking through the twisted history of his case... "The problem is nothing about this case was a joke,” Jackson said moments before sentencing Stone. “It wasn't funny. It wasn't a stunt and it wasn't a prank.”

Stone, who passed on a chance to address the courtroom, stood silently with his attorneys for nearly 45 minutes while the judge explained the reasoning behind her sentence. The punishment, she said, grew in large part from the severity of his attempts to stymie the Russia probe, violations of a gag order limiting his speech during the pre-trial proceedings and for making a threat to the judge through social media. “He was not prosecuted for standing up for the president,” Jackson added in her closing remarks. “He was prosecuted for covering up for the president.”

Jackson’s sentence for Stone — among the most severe to-date in a case originating from special counsel Robert Mueller — came a week after his potential punishment triggered a furor at the Justice Department. Stone’s case has become a flashpoint for broader concerns about political meddling in high-profile legal cases....

Jackson, an appointee of President Barack Obama, jumped at the chance to press one of the newly-assigned prosecutors, John Crabb, about the issue as he delivered the government’s final comments. “I want to apologize to the court for the confusion the government caused with respect to sentencing,” Crabb said.... Under questioning by Jackson, Crabb confirmed that the original recommendation was approved by a former aide to Barr who was recently installed as U.S. Attorney in Washington, Tim Shea.

Crabb said the confusion stemmed from miscommunication between Barr and Shea, but Crabb declined to elaborate. When the judge asked whether Crabb wrote the revised recommendation, he demurred again, saying that — despite his earlier comments — he was not permitted to discuss “internal deliberations.” While Trump has denounced the decision to prosecute Stone, Crabb took a contrary position, echoing comments Barr made in an interview last week, where he called the prosecution of Stone “righteous.”...

Without mentioning any names, the judge suggested that some critics of the original recommendation seemed unusually moved by Stone’s plight, even though the guidelines that DOJ followed — first adopted in the 1980s to rein in judges’ discretion — sometimes produce extraordinarily long sentences.

“For those of you new to this and who woke up last week to the fact that the...guidelines are harsh, I can assure you that defense attorneys and many judges have been making that point for a long time, but we don’t usually succeed in getting the government to agree,” Jackson scoffed.

Later, Jackson noted that the government’s decision to argue that Stone should get less prison time than federal sentencing guidelines recommend was a definite deviation from standard practices adopted by the Trump administration. “It’s not just a question of good faith, but whether it was fully consistent with current DOJ policy,” she said. “The current policy of this Department of Justice is to charge and prosecute the most serious offense available in order to get the highest guideline level.”

Crabb acknowledged that is “generally” DOJ’s current policy and that line prosecutors are not permitted to deviate from it without approval from higher-ups. And while Trump has suggested the judge has been cruel towards his allies like former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Crabb came to the judge’s defense Thursday, saying “the government has the utmost confidence” in her, and praising her “thoughtful analysis and fair sentences” in related cases....

The judge also said that when making her decision, she took into account Stone's social media attacks on the court during his prosecution that raised security concerns at the courthouse. "This is intolerable to the administration of justice and the courts should not sit idly by, shrug its shoulders and just say it's 'Roger being Roger,’” Jackson said.

Stone, 67, has sought to avoid any prison time. During Thursday’s hearings, his defense argued he had no criminal record and should get a reprieve because he’s a family man about to become a great-grandfather. “Consider the full scope of the person who stands before you in sentencing," said Seth Ginsberg, a new defense lawyer brought on for sentencing. “Mr. Stone has many admirable qualities,” Ginsberg added, urging Jackson to look beyond the "larger than life persona" Stone plays on TV. He noted Stone's charity work to help veterans, animal welfare and NFL players suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

Earlier this week, Judge Jackson indicated that Stone would not have to start serving his sentence until she rules on his motion for a new trial. I expect that Prex Trump will be inclined to hold back on any possible clemency action at least until that motion is resolved and Stone faces the prospect of heading to prison. (As some may recall, Prez GW Bush did not commute Lewis Libby's prison sentence until the DC Circuit denied his request for bail pending appeal.)

Prior related posts:

February 20, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Oklahoma ballot initiative (State Question 805) seeks to block non-violent prior convictions from enhancing statutory range of punishment

Thanks to an ACLU event, I just learned that Oklahoma criminal justice reform advocates are working toward bringing a fascinating (and potentially far-reaching) new reform proposal directly to the voters.  This local press piece from a few weeks ago explains the basics:

Criminal justice reform advocates want to amend the Oklahoma Constitution to prohibit sentence enhancements based on previous felonies for nonviolent offenders. The measure would also allow nonviolent offenders serving enhanced sentences to seek a modification in court.

“A former conviction for one or more felonies shall not be used to enhance the statutorily allowable range of punishment, including but not limited to minimum and maximum terms, for a person convicted, whether by trial or plea of guilty or nolo contendere, of a felony,” reads the proposed measure [which is available here].  I This measure would not apply to those who have been convicted of a violent felony as defined by Oklahoma Statutes. This includes assault, battery, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, child abuse, rape and human trafficking.

Oklahomans for Sentencing Reform, a bipartisan coalition championing the measure, filed the petition in November and began collecting signatures [in December]. State Question 805 requires nearly 178,000 signatures by 5 p.m. March 26 to be put to a statewide vote in 2020.

“The reality is that Oklahoma has an incarceration crisis,” said Kris Steele, executive director of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR). “We have the second-highest incarceration rate per capita of any state in the United States, and we have the highest female incarceration rate in the nation. Unfortunately, we’ve held that distinction since 1991, and the disparity in the number of women we incarcerate continues to grow.”

According to a 2019 report by FWD.us, Oklahoma sends more people to prison than other states, especially for nonviolent crimes, and keeps them incarcerated for much longer. Eight in 10 women go to prison for nonviolent offenses. “Research has shown these long stays in prison have little or no effect on recidivism when people come home,” reads the report. “At the same time, these extra weeks, months and years place emotional and financial burdens on the families of those incarcerated.”

Proponents of the initiative say the state’s incarceration crisis is driven in large part by enhanced sentences, and they hope momentum from recent criminal justice reforms help the initiative succeed. “We’ve been working on responsible criminal justice reform for over a decade, and the good news is that support among voters continues to grow,” Steele said. “We have seen some tremendous momentum in recent years, and we are hoping to build on that momentum and deepen the conversation level of understanding and support statewide for a more effective approach to public safety.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt has publicly opposed the initiative, saying a constitutional amendment is the wrong way to go about criminal justice reform. Steele argues that a constitutional amendment would prevent lawmakers from trying to repeal the measure if approved by voters. He cited an attempt to repeal State Questions 780 and 781 only months after they were approved in November 2016....

District attorneys across the state have also publicly opposed the measure, saying it would negatively impact public safety. But proponents of the measure disagree because they don’t see many positives outcomes from the state’s high incarceration rates.

Some of the concerns of DAs are expressed in this local opinion piece authored by Jason Hicks, President of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association, under the headline "Proposed state question could affect domestic violence sentencing."  Meanwhile, the  "Yes on 805" campaign has this website, but not a lot of details about 

I have no sense of whether proponents of this interesting initiative will be able to get it to voters, nor do I have any sense of whether Oklahoma voters might be supportive of this proposal.  But I think those troubled by mass incarceration, extreme sentencing terms and racially disparate sentencing practices are wise to focus criticism on the often out-sized impact of (even minor) criminal history at sentencing.  I do not know if this Oklahoma ballot initiative might be just the start of a whole new front for sentencing reform efforts, but I hope it can help generate a robust discussion of the many important issues that relate to the use of criminal history at sentencing.

February 13, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

"Remorse and Judging"

The title of this post is the title of this new book chapter authored by Susan Bandes now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

This chapter focuses on the judicial evaluation of remorse.  It is an article of faith that judges can and should evaluate remorse when determining sentence.  Although the dynamics of this evaluation are understudied, the existing literature helps illuminate the assumptions judges employ and the dangers and limitations of those assumptions.  Judges rely on evaluation of demeanor and body language and on allocution, and their interpretations are rife with implicit assumptions and unstated rules about what counts as remorse. 

Many of these assumptions (for example the link between remorse and decreased recidivism and the possibility of assessing remorse from demeanor) lack evidentiary support. These assumptions and implicit rules vary widely from judge to judge.  They often fail to account for the influence of race, ethnicity, gender and social class on the expression and evaluation of remorse.  Moreover, they put a premium on the willingness to plead guilty, and to do so at the earliest possible opportunity.  The chapter draws upon the few existing empirical studies on the topic and identifies areas that require further study.

February 12, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

DOJ now says "sentence of incarceration far less than 87 to 108 months [for Roger Stone] would be reasonable under the circumstances"

As noted in this prior post, yesterday federal prosecutors filed this 26-page sentencing memorandum advocating for a within-guideline sentence of 7.3 to 9 years in prison for Roger Stone.  Prez Trump in the middle on the night tweeted out his displeasure with that advocacy, and today we saw filed this new 5-page supplemental and amended memorandum from federal prosecutors.  This new document is remarkable in many respects, and here are just a few excerpts that I suspect federal defendants may be keen to quote in other cases (in part because this new filing almost reads like a defense submission):

The prior filing submitted by the United States on February 10, 2020 (Gov. Sent. Memo. ECF No. 279) does not accurately reflect the Department of Justice’s position on what would be a reasonable sentence in this matter.  While it remains the position of the United States that a sentence of incarceration is warranted here, the government respectfully submits that the range of 87 to 108 months presented as the applicable advisory Guidelines range would not be appropriate or serve the interests of justice in this case.

It is well established that the prosecutor “is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore, in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done.” Berger v. United States, 295 U.S. 78, 88 (1935).  This axiom does not simply apply to the process of bringing charges or securing a conviction — it also “must necessarily extend” to the point where a prosecutor advocates for a particular sentence.  See United States v. Shanahan, 574 F.2d 1228, 1231 (5th Cir. 1978) (reviewing sentencing conduct of prosecutor). Applying that principle here, to the specific facts of this case, the government respectfully submits that a sentence of incarceration far less than 87 to 108 months’ imprisonment would be reasonable under the circumstances....

Here, as set forth in the government’s initial submission, the defendant’s total offense level is arguably 29 and his criminal history category is I, which would result in an advisory Guidelines range of 87 to 108 months.  Notably, however, the Sentencing Guidelines enhancements in this case — while perhaps technically applicable — more than double the defendant’s total offense level and, as a result, disproportionately escalate the defendant’s sentencing exposure to an offense level of 29, which typically applies in cases involving violent offenses, such as armed robbery, not obstruction cases. Cf. U.S.S.G. § 2B3.1(a)-(b)....  Accordingly, it would be reasonable for the Court to conclude that the Guidelines range as calculated is unduly high on the facts of this case.

After calculating the Guidelines, the Court next turns to the statutory sentencing factors.  Title 18 of the United States Code Section 3553(a) states that a sentencing court should “impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to achieve the statutory goals of sentencing.  In doing so, Section 3553(a) delineates several factors that the court must consider when imposing a sentence, “and the sentencing range . . . as set forth in the Guidelines” is but one of those factors....  Here, there are several facts and circumstances supporting the imposition of a sentence below 87 to 108 months’ imprisonment....

Finally, the Court also should consider the defendant’s advanced age, health, personal circumstances, and lack of criminal history in fashioning an appropriate sentence. As noted above, a sentence of 87 to 108 months more typically has been imposed for defendants who have higher criminal history categories or who obstructed justice as part of a violent criminal organization....

The defendant committed serious offenses and deserves a sentence of incarceration that is “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to satisfy the factors set forth in Section 3553(a).  Based on the facts known to the government, a sentence of between 87 to 108 months’ imprisonment, however, could be considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances.

Interestingly, as reported via The Hill, a changed sentencing recommendation is not the end of the fallout here:

The four Department of Justice (DOJ) prosecutors who recommended Roger Stone be sentenced to seven to nine years in prison left the case Tuesday after top officials sought to reduce their sentencing request.

Prosecutors Michael Marando, Timothy J. Shea, Jonathan Kravis and Aaron Zelinsky all asked the judge in the case for permission to withdraw. Kravis left the DOJ entirely, announcing his resignation as an assistant U.S. attorney. The four were involved in providing the initial sentencing guidance for Stone. But in a rebuke to the career prosecutors, the DOJ on Tuesday told the judge in the case to apply "far less" to Stone's sentence....

The DOJ decision and the withdrawal of career prosecutors from the case stunned legal watchers and Washington and raised questions about potential political interference in the sentencing of a longtime Trump adviser. Reports of the DOJ reversal said top officials found the initial guidelines to be "excessive." Those reports also came after Trump blasted the guidelines on Twitter, saying that Stone was treated unfairly by prosecutors....

Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, Trump said he didn't tell the Justice Department to amend its sentencing guidance but that he would have been within his rights to do so. “I'd be able to do it if I wanted. I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things,” Trump said.

"I didn't speak to them. I thought the recommendation was ridiculous. I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous,” he continued. “I thought it was an insult to our country.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is calling on the DOJ's top watchdog to investigate the decision to suddenly recommend a lighter sentence for Stone, while the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is sending the Justice Department a Freedom of Information Act request for records related to the case. "The DOJ Inspector General must open an investigation immediately. I will be sending a formal request to the IG shortly," Schumer tweeted.

Prior related post:

February 11, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

For Roger Stone, federal prosecutors advocate for within-guideline sentence of 7.3 to 9 years in prison ... which Prez Trump calls a "miscarriage of justice!"

As reported in this Politico piece, "Federal prosecutors are urging that longtime Donald Trump adviser and Republican political provocateur Roger Stone be sent to prison for about seven to nine years for his conviction on charges of lying and witness tampering during investigations of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign." Here is more about the sentencing filings in this high-profile case that emerged late yesterday:

The stern recommendation is starkly at odds with a suggestion from Stone's defense team that he should be sentenced to probation — and no jail time — in the case.

Following a weeklong trial last November, a Washington jury found Stone guilty on all seven felony counts he faced: five of making false statements to Congress, one of obstruction of Congress, and one of witness tampering with both the House Intelligence Committee inquiry and special counsel Robert Mueller's probe.

In a sentencing filing Monday, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington argued that Stone's conduct was exceptionally sinister because of the importance of those investigations and the danger of overseas influence on U.S. elections. "Foreign election interference is the 'most deadly adversar[y] of republican government,'” prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington wrote, quoting Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Paper No. 68....  The argument was strikingly similar — in some cases borrowing from the exact passages from the same Constitution-era text — as that lodged by the House's prosecutors during Trump's impeachment trial. "Alexander Hamilton cautioned that the 'most deadly adversaries of republican government may come 'chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,'" the House members argued in their trial brief....

While prosecutors tied the gravity of Stone's crimes to their impact on the electoral system, the bulk of the prison time authorities are calling for is a product of the prosecution's decision to treat hostile and vulgar messages Stone sent to longtime associate Randy Credico as genuine threats of violence, or at least as having the potential to stir up violence against Credico or others.  Prosecutors pointed, in particular, to a message Stone sent to Credico after he indicated plans to cooperate with the House committee. "Prepare to die, cocksucker," Stone wrote.  In another instance, Stone told Credico, who has a therapy dog, that he would "take that dog away from you."

Stone said during the trial his comments were in jest and part of the brash banter often exchanged between the two men, whose views are usually at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Prosecutors insisted that the barbed remarks mean Stone deserves between four and five years longer under federal sentencing guidelines than in cases involving witness tampering efforts that involve no physical threats.... Prosecutors acknowledged that Credico — a liberal New York city talk show host, comedian and activist — recently wrote to the court saying he did not think Stone was threatening him physically. Credico's letter urged that Stone get probation.  However, prosecutors also noted that during the trial, Credico said he was concerned about Stone's statements because they could encourage others to get violent.

Defense lawyers, who weighed in with U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson late Monday night, vigorously disputed the notion that Stone's statements to Credico were actual threats to do anything.  They noted that at the trial Credico called Stone's comments "hyperbole" and said Stone "loves all dogs," so he could not have actually intended to harm Credico's service dog, a tiny Coton de Tulear who's almost constantly at his side. "Stone’s indecorous conversations with Randy Credico were many things, but here, in the circumstances of this nearly 20-year relationship between eccentric men, where crude language was the norm, 'prepare to die cocksucker' and conversations of similar ilk, were not threats of physical harm, 'serious acts' used as a means of intimidation, or 'the more serious forms of obstruction' contemplated by the Guidelines," Stone's lawyers wrote....

Stone, 67, faces a maximum of 50 years in prison at the sentencing, which Jackson has set for Feb. 20. Prosecutors say federal sentencing guidelines urge between 87 to 108 months in prison for Stone.  The defense disputes several aspects of that calculation and argues that the guidelines call for just 15 to 21 months.  Judges have the right to sentence above or below the guidelines, but are required to calculate the recommended sentence and take it into account.

Stone's defense also submitted a collection of letters from his wife and acquaintances in the political sphere and elsewhere.  "I can't tell you that Roger is a saint — he pushes everything to the limit even with you," Stone's wife Nydia wrote, alluding to Stone's run-ins with the judge over her gag orders and perhaps to an Instagram post he sent during the trial that included a picture of Jackson next to what appeared to be crosshairs. She also proclaimed her husband "loyal, kind, loving, considerate, generous and good-natured," as well deeply committed to Trump's re-election.

Among others asking for leniency for Stone were Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf and former New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino.  Stone's supporters saluted him as an early backer of gay rights and marriage equality, an opponent of animal testing and a strong advocate for the easing of New York state's tough Rockefeller drug laws.

I am not surprised to see the upcoming Roger Stone sentencing to engender an interesting debate over both guideline calculations and 3553(a) factors (not to mention the real meaning of colorful phrases).  Here are the full filings from the parties:

Unsurprisingly (and I think importantly), President Donald Trump is not at all keen about the sentencing advocacy of his Department of Justice in this case. Among other tweets on the topic, Prez Trump retweeted a lament about federal prosecutors seeking "A *9 year* prison recommendation for non-violent crimes committed by a 67-year-old man." In addition, Prez Trump had this original tweet on the topic in the wee hours (just before 2am EST):

Regular readers know that plenty of extreme (and within-guideline) sentencing recommendations by federal prosecutors have kept me up at night, although I usually turn to blogging rather than tweeting to express my concerns about the banal severity and cruelty of the federal criminal justice system.  (For the record, all US Presidents — current, former and wanna-be — have an open invitation to guest-blog here about any sentencing matters!) 

Based on the submissions, I am inclined to (tentatively) predict that Judge Amy Berman Jackson will come to a lower guideline calculation than urged by prosecutors and yet still impose a below-guideline sentence.  But I still expect the sentencing judge to impose some prison time on Stone, at which point it will be interesting to see if Prez Trump will make another controversial use of his clemency power.  If Stone gets less than a year, I suspect Trump will leave him to serve his sentence at least until the upcoming election, as he has with Paul Manafort. 

As always, I welcome comments and other predictions from readers.

UPDATE: This Fox News article, headlined "DOJ expected to scale back Roger Stone's 'extreme' sentencing recommendation: official," suggests that federal prosecutors may soon be changing their sentencing tune in this high-profile case.

February 11, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 07, 2020

Nine-month federal prison term (the longest yet) given to former CEO who paid nearly $1 million to benefit four kids in college admission scandal

As reported in this Los Angeles Times piece, "Douglas Hodge, once the leader of an international bond manager and now an admitted felon, was ordered Friday to spend nine months in federal prison for paying bribes totaling $850,000 to get four of his children into USC and Georgetown as fake athletic recruits."  Here is more about the latest sentencing in Operation Varsity Blues:

Hodge, 62, received the longest prison term of any of the 14 parents who have so far been sentenced for fraud and money laundering crimes they admittedly committed with William “Rick” Singer, a Newport Beach college admissions consultant who has acknowledged defrauding some of the country’s most selective universities for years with rigged exams, fake athletic credentials and bribes.  In addition to his prison term, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton ordered Hodge to pay a $750,000 fine, serve 500 hours of community service and remain on supervised release for two years.

“I know that I unfairly, and ultimately illegally, tipped the scales in favor of my children over others, over the hopes and dreams of other parents, who had the same aspirations for their children as I did for mine,” Hodge said in a statement. “To those children, and their parents, I can only express my deepest and sincerest regret.”

From the day he surrendered to authorities last March, Hodge, a resident of Laguna Beach, was among the highest-profile names in a scandal headlined with them. He rose to the head of Pimco, the bond management company based in Newport Beach, before retiring from the post of chief executive in 2016.

Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston had asked Gorton to send Hodge to prison for two years. In a memo filed before his sentencing, they criticized Hodge as a hypocrite, appearing to the world the image of success and integrity while leading “a secret double life, using bribery and fraud to fuel a mirage of success and accomplishment.”

Hodge’s lawyers said the request for a two-year prison term reflected the Boston prosecutors’ “single-minded obsession” with obtaining undeservedly lengthy sentences in the high-profile case. Gorton handed down in November what was previously the longest sentence in the case, a six-month term, to Toby Macfarlane. The Del Mar title insurance executive is incarcerated in Tucson scheduled to be released in June, according to Bureau of Prison records.

Hodge pleaded guilty in October to conspiring to commit fraud and money laundering. Along with three other parents, he reversed his not-guilty plea after prosecutors warned of a new indictment carrying a bribery charge.

Eleven parents — a group that includes the actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, J. Mossimo Giannulli — balked at the threat, maintained their not-guilty pleas and were indicted on a bribery charge. Fifteen parents have pleaded not guilty; 21 have admitted their guilt or said they plan to do so...

Justin D. O’Connell, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston, said Hodge did more than look away from Singer’s scheme. Hodge, he wrote in a memo, “engaged in the scheme more often, and over a longer period of time, than any of the defendants charged to date.” After his daughter was admitted to Georgetown, Hodge repeated the scam at the school for his oldest son and at USC for two more children, spending $850,000 in all. In arguing for a two-year sentence, O’Connell pointed to what he said was Hodge’s willingness to bring his children into his crimes.

He told his daughter to “stay under the radar,” and not tell a Georgetown interviewer that she had already been admitted through tennis, O’Connell wrote. Hodge vehemently disputed this. “The government simply has the facts wrong on this,” he said. His lawyers said he took “great steps” to hide from his children the scheme to transform them into elite athletes on paper, and that prosecutors have no evidence they were aware of, let alone complicit in, the fraud.

Prior related Varsity Blues posts:

February 7, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 31, 2020

Effective accounting of Miller implementation four years after Montgomery made ruling retroactive

A few days ago marked four years since the US Supreme Court decided Montgomery v. Louisiana, a ruling which made retroactive the Court's prior decision in Miller v. Alabama declaring mandatory LWOP for juvenile murderers unconstitutional.  The folks at The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth marked the occasion by producing this short effective review of juve homicide sentencing past and present.  Here are some portions of the report:

When the Supreme Court decided Montgomery, over 2,800 individuals in the U.S. were serving life without parole for crimes committed as children — a sentence that the United States alone is known to impose on children. In the four years since Montgomery was decided, the number of individuals serving life without parole for crimes committed as children has been reduced by nearly 75 percent.

Fewer than 100 individuals have been resentenced to life without parole to date, which is less than 5 percent of all individuals whose sentences have been modified to date. And a number of those cases are on appeal.

Since Montgomery, close to 600 individuals have been released from prison who formerly were sentenced to life without parole as children, and that number continues to grow....

Today 22 states and the District of Columbia ban life-without-parole sentences for children, and in at least four additional states, no one is serving life without parole for a crime committed as a child.  Therefore more than half the country has rejected life-without-parole sentences for children in law or in practice....

Over 70 percent of all youth ever sentenced to life without parole are people of color — primarily Black and Latinx.

Strikingly, racial disparities in the imposition of life without parole on children continue to worsen.  The Supreme Court in Miller and Montgomery guaranteed all children an individualized sentencing hearing before life without parole can be imposed.  Yet despite the now-discretionary nature of life without parole, and the Supreme Court’s unequivocal language that the penalty may be imposed only if a child has no capacity for rehabilitation, racial disparities have increased under this new framework.

Of new cases tried since Montgomery, approximately 70 percent of children sentenced to life without parole have been Black — as compared to approximately 61 percent before Montgomery...

With little guidance from the Supreme Court in Miller and Montgomery on the specifics of the resentencing process, states have varied significantly in the procedural protections afforded.  This patchwork of interpretations raises a high risk that resentencings to life without parole will be arbitrary, based more on the jurisdiction and the idiosyncrasies of individual judges than on whether the individual is capable of positive change.

Some states — including Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, and Michigan — have continued to sentence children to life without parole in new cases at a rate that far outpaces the rest of the country, and in contravention of the constitutional mandate established in Miller and Montgomery that the sentence be uncommon.

Approximately 1,600 of the individuals whose sentences have been modified following Montgomery will go before a parole board, and the likelihood of release through the parole process varies greatly by state.  For example, Henry Montgomery — who was deemed a model prisoner by the Supreme Court in Montgomery v. Louisiana — has been denied parole twice by the Louisiana parole board.

January 31, 2020 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Rehearing petition (and guest post) in Mississippi Supreme Court case upholding 12-year prison term for mere possession of cell phone in jail

6a00d83451574769e2022ad3762ba2200c-320wiIn this post earlier this month, I noted a disheartening ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court upholding 12-year prison term for mere possession of cell phone in jail.  Will Bardwell, an attorney in the Mississippi office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, last week sent me a copy of a motion for rehearing that he helped file in the case (which can be accessed below).  I asked Will if he might want to do a guest posting to go along with my posting of the motion, and here is what he sent my way:

On its edges, sentencing law can be a bit of a technical thicket — difficult to navigate for laymen, or even for practitioners who don’t often work in that field. But at its heart, sentencing law — and the constitutional demands under which it exists – embodies our society’s sense of fairness. Above all else, sentencing demands that punishment must fit the crime.

It is not news that a consensus has developed among Americans that our criminal justice system’s priorities must be recalibrated. Nor is it news that our laws have failed to keep pace with that consensus. Unfortunately, though, the human toll of that failure does continue to make news.

In early January, the Mississippi Supreme Court added another ignominious chapter to that story when it affirmed the 12-year prison sentence of my client, Willie Nash.  In 2017, Willie was arrested for a misdemeanor in Newton County, Mississippi. The county jail’s policy is to strip-search all arrestees, but when Willie arrived, the jail violated that policy — so the cell phone that a search would have uncovered remained with Willie.  Willie never lied about the phone or made any effort to conceal it.  And guards might never have discovered the phone if Willie had not offered it up and provided the passcode to unlock it.

For this, Willie was convicted of taking a cell phone into a jail — and sentenced to an astonishing 12 years in prison.  No fewer than 36 states punish cell phone possession in a correctional facility with no more than five years in prison.  If anyone in American history has ever gotten 12 years for doing what Willie did, then my partners and I at the Southern Poverty Law Center are unaware of it. 

When Willie’s sentencing judge announced that decision, he pointed to Willie’s two prior burglary convictions some two decades earlier and explained that, if prosecutors had indicted Willie as a habitual offender, then Willie could have received 15 years — “so I want you to consider yourself fortunate,” the judge said.

It is no exaggeration to say that the Mississippi Supreme Court’s affirmance of that sentence shocked the world: the decision made headlines as far as way as New Zealand. And you don’t need a law degree to be as alarmed by the Mississippi Supreme Court’s reasoning as by its result.

Like Willie’s sentencing court, the Mississippi Supreme Court rested its decision heavily on Willie’s prior convictions. It pointed out the sentencing judge’s reliance on “evidence of Nash’s criminal history;” and it distinguished authority favorable to Willie by explaining that “Nash’s prior felony convictions subjected him to fifteen years’ imprisonment, to be served day for day, had the State charged him as a habitual offender.”

Like Willie’s sentencing judge, the Mississippi Supreme Court seems to think that Willie should consider himself lucky. But I’ve been in a room with Willie. I’ve looked into his tired eyes, heard his quiet voice, and seen how his oversized prison uniform hangs over his thin, slumping frame.

Willie doesn’t feel lucky.  And the many Mississippians that I’ve spoken to, from the widest imaginable political perspectives, don’t think Willie is lucky.

In fairness, the Mississippi Supreme Court must view Willie’s case through a different lens than most people.  For most of us, the shock to our consciences has been enough for us to know that Willie’s punishment does not fit his actions. For the Mississippi Supreme Court, though, that question has been complicated by the United States Supreme Court’s contorted precedent concerning the Eighth Amendment’s proportionality requirement.

That the Eighth Amendment requires proportionality is no longer up for debate.  Aside from its existence, though, the Court’s decisions over the past 40 years have left nearly every other detail of the proportionality requirement unsettled.  Seemingly irreconcilable decisions have been left unreconciled, and ambiguities have been left unclarified. In recent years, the Court has seemed content to keep its silence on the issue, perhaps hoping that lower courts will clarify what it has muddled.

But the outcome in lower courts has been predictably chaotic.  These unanswered questions are not merely fodder for academic debate.  There are human beings languishing in prison because of this case law jumble. Willie is one of them.

In particular, one unanswered question lies at the heart of Willie’s case: the Mississippi courts’ use of his prior convictions to justify his sentence.  Despite his two burglary convictions nearly 20 years ago, Willie was not charged as a habitual offender.  Mississippi’s courts relied on those convictions anyway -- and urged him to “consider yourself fortunate.”

But none of the United States Supreme Court’s proportionality decisions hold that prior convictions contribute to a crime’s gravity when the defendant was not charged as a recidivist.  In Ewing v. California, the Court insisted that “weighing the gravity of Ewing’s offense” required it to “place on the scales not only his current felony, but also his long history of felony recidivism.” But Ewing had been sentenced under California’s “three strikes” law. Likewise, the defendants in Rummel v. Estelle and Lockyer v. Andrade – both of whose challenges to their life sentences failed – were sentenced under habitual offender statutes.

But Willie wasn’t charged as a habitual offender. And if Mississippi courts wanted to sentence him like a habitual offender, then prosecutors should have charged him as a habitual offender.  But they didn’t.

Not surprisingly, lower courts have taken this unworked detail in different directions.  In 2016, for example, the South Dakota Supreme Court held that “[f]or purposes of challenging the constitutionality of a sentence in a noncapital case, it appears that a defendant’s criminal history is only relevant when the sentence is enhanced under recidivism statutes.”  That court is not alone in its view. Obviously, Willie’s case illustrates that the Mississippi Supreme Court has reached the opposite result; neither is it alone.

I’m hopeful that the Mississippi Supreme Court will correct the injustice of Willie’s case [based on the rehearing motion below] without the need to petition the United States Supreme Court.  Willie’s case certainly does not rely on novel legal theories; even under the proportionality requirement’s framework as unsettled as it is, Willie’s sentence is grossly disproportionate.  If, instead of taking a cell phone into jail, Willie instead had committed second-degree arson or poisoned someone in an effort to kill them, Mississippi law would have imposed a shorter sentence than the one he is serving today.  A 12-year sentence for something so much more innocuous simply doesn’t pass the straight-face test.

But even if the Mississippi Supreme Court reconsiders Willie’s case, our society’s sense of basic fairness cries out for the United States Supreme Court to begin cleaning up the mess that its predecessors have made of the proportionality doctrine.  The cost of that confusion is human lives like Willie’s.  And that cost is growing.

Download Nash v State - Motion for Rehearing (filed)

Prior related post:

January 30, 2020 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

"Financial Hardship and the Excessive Fines Clause: Assessing the Severity of Property Forfeitures After Timbs"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Beth Colgan and Nicholas McLean now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs v. Indiana — which held that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates against the states the Eighth Amendment’s ban on the imposition of “excessive fines” — it is likely that state and lower federal courts around the nation will be called upon to further develop Excessive Fines Clause doctrine.  The Court’s historical exegesis in its Timbs opinion, as well as aspects of existing Eighth Amendment doctrine, support an analytical framework under which courts would look to the effects of property forfeiture on individuals and their families — in particular, the infliction of financial hardship — when assessing the severity of a forfeiture in the proportionality review context.  In this Essay, we sketch the outlines of a forfeitures jurisprudence that would take into account the ways that property deprivations may restrict employment and educational access, interfere with the ability to meet basic needs (including food, shelter, and medical care), create family and social instability, and impede the ability to satisfy legal obligations.

January 28, 2020 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Sixth Circuit panel declares one-day prison sentence (plus 10 years on supervised release) for large child porn possession substantively unreasonable

In a series of rulings in recent years, most notably United States v. Bistline, the Sixth Circuit has found sentences for child porn possession that lacked some significant prison time to be unreasonable.  Another such ruling was handed down this past on Friday in United States v. Demma, No. 18-4143 (6th Cir. Jan 24, 2020) (available here).  The 15-page panel ruling, authored by Judge Gilman, gets started this way: "This is yet another case raising the issue of whether a one-day sentence for a defendant convicted of possessing child pornography is reasonable. For the reasons set forth below, we determine that it is not."  The full opinion is worth a read, and here are some key passages:

At the sentencing hearing, the district court focused almost entirely on Demma’s individual characteristics in deciding not to impose a term of incarceration. It relied, in particular, on the testimony of Dr. Peterson and Dr. Tennenbaum, both of whom opined that Demma’s use of child pornography was directly caused by his service in the military and his resulting PTSD.

To be sure, the district court did not err by recognizing Demma’s military service and PTSD diagnosis under § 3553(a)(1) as considerations relevant to his sentence.  See United States v. Reilly, 662 F.3d 754, 760 (6th Cir. 2011) (explaining that the defendant’s military service and lack of criminal history were “permissible considerations in the ‘variance’ determination under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)”).  But the court in the present case gave these considerations unreasonable weight in deciding to vary downwards to an essentially noncustodial sentence....

Moreover, in focusing on the role of Demma’s military service as purportedly causing his crimes, the district court cast Demma more as the victim than the perpetrator, stating that Demma’s crimes were “the result of his voluntary service to his community and his country” and “an unintended consequence” of his decision to serve in the Army.  This court has explained, however, that “[k]nowing possession of child pornography . . . is not a crime that happens to a defendant.”  Bistline I, 665 F.3d 758, 765 (6th Cir. 2012)....

Our overall conclusion is that, based on the totality of the circumstances, the district court weighed some factors under § 3553(a) too heavily and gave insufficient weight to others in determining Demma’s sentence.  This is not to say that some other defendant possessing far fewer and less offensive images over a much shorter period of time might justify such an extreme downward variance, but that is not Demma’s case.  As this court noted in United States v. Elmore, 743 F.3d 1068 (6th Cir. 2014), a United States Sentencing Commission report states that “fully 96.6 percent of first-time child-pornography-possession convictions led to at least some prison time.” Id. at 1076 (emphasis in original).  We find no basis in the record for Demma to not become part of this overwhelming statistic.  

January 27, 2020 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

SCOTUS dismisses Walker ACCA case after death of petitioner (and after robust amicus efforts)

As noted in this post, back in November the Supreme Court granted cert in Walker v. United States to consider whether a criminal offense that can be committed with only a reckless mens rea can qualify as a "violent felony" under the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Even more than the average ACCA case, the Walker case caught my attention because it involved an elderly man, James Walker, who received 15 years in prison under ACCA based on his possession of 13 bullets that he had found while cleaning a house.

Though the cert grant in Walker involved ACCA statutory interpretation concerning predicate prior offenses, I have long been troubled by any application of ACCA's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term to simple possession of a small amount of ammunition.  (Indeed, long-time readers may recall I helped file an amicus brief in the Sixth Circuit and another amicus brief in support of a cert petition in a similar case, US v. Young, a few years ago.)  After seeing the cert grant in Walker, I reached out to some law professor colleagues and we filed earlier this month this SCOTUS amicus brief in US v. Walker, and here is part of the brief's Summary of Argument:

This Court’s interpretation of the reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), if properly informed by constitutional principles, must avoid application to Petitioner of the ACCA’s fifteen-year mandatory minimum prison term based on his possession of thirteen bullets in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).  Because mere possession of ammunition is the most passive of crimes — in fact, most States do not even criminalize this behavior and it almost never results in severe punishment — a mandatory fifteen-year prison term is arguably disproportionately harsh.  That Petitioner possessed a small amount of ammunition, that he lacked any vicious or menacing mens rea, and that his prior convictions are decades old serve as additional factors suggesting that a mandatory minimum fifteen-year federal sentence for Petitioner’s offense is constitutionally suspect under any and all jurisprudential approaches to the Eighth Amendment.

As this Court has explained, the “canon of constitutional avoidance is an interpretive tool, counseling that ambiguous statutory language be construed to avoid serious constitutional doubts.” F.C.C. v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., 556 U.S. 502, 516 (2009)....  Given extensive litigation over what predicate offenses qualify for ACCA’s enhanced penalties, there is little question that this Court confronts ambiguous statutory language in this case.  In turn, because any sound approach to the Eighth Amendment suggests serious constitutional doubts about the application of a fifteen-year mandatory sentence for “one of the most passive felonies a person could commit.”  Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277, 296 (1983), the canon of constitutional avoidance provides support for the narrower interpretation of ACCA advanced by Petitioner.  Further, the absence of a modern Court application of the Eighth Amendment to a federal non-capital adult sentence suggests that this constitutional right is precisely the kind of constitutional norm that cautions judicial restraint when interpreting an ambiguous statute.

As this case highlights, broad interpretations of ACCA present a heightened risk of constitutionally questionable mandatory minimum sentences.  This Court should limit that risk by adopting the ACCA interpretation put forward by the Petitioner.

Notably, though I believe our amicus brief was the only one to raise Eighth Amendment issues, another half dozen amicus briefs were filed earlier this month supporting the petitioner.

But, sadly, petitioner's counsel filed this notice last week reporting that James Walker passed away on January 22, 2020.  In accord with its practice, the Supreme Court via this morning's order list, dismissed the writ of certiorari in this case.  I suspect that SCOTUS will before too long take up a replacement case to address the ACCA statutory issue, though I sincerely hope there are not a lot of other cases in the pipeline that also involve application of ACCA's extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term to simple possession of a small amount of ammunition.  If there are, I surely will continue to complain about this extreme sentencing provision.

January 27, 2020 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Different type of drug dealers get lengthy (though still way-below-guideline) sentences for RICO conspiracy to push opiods

There are nearly 400 drug dealers sentenced in federal courts every single week in the US, but a number of notable defendants were sentenced last week for their role in a somewhat different kind of drug conspiracy.  This Forbes article provides the basic details:

John Kapoor, the 76-year old billionaire founder of Insys Therapeutics, has been sentenced to 66-months in prison for orchestrating a system of bribery and kickbacks to physicians across the US in exchange for prescribing and over prescribing large amounts of the powerful fentanyl spray, Subsys, to patients with little to no need of the drug. Kapoor is the first ever CEO of a drug company to be convicted by the federal government in their fight to combat the opioid crisis.

Kapoor’s sentence was handed down by U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs in a Boston federal court on Thursday January 23rd.... It is the lengthiest prison sentence imposed on any of the seven former Insys executives who were found guilty of racketeering charges in May of 2019. In addition to Kapoor’s 66-month sentence he was sentenced to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

Similar sentences have been handed down in recent days to Kapoor’s seven co-conspirators.  Michael Gurry, Insys' former vice president, along with Richard Simon, Insys’ national director of sales, each received 33-months in prison; Michael Babich, Insys’ former CEO,was sentenced to 30-months; Joseph Rowan, the company's regional sales director, received 27 months; Alec Burlakoff, the former vice president of sales, was sentenced to 26 months Thursday; and Sunrise Lee, the former regional sales director, to a year and a day in prison....

The landmark case has been notable on two major fronts, the first being big pharma’s hand in the perpetuation and exacerbation of the opioid epidemic in the US and second, Insys’ systematic defrauding of the American healthcare system. From 2012 and 2015, Insys allegedly paid physicians to prescribe Subsys to patient and then went on to lie to insurance companies and defraud hundreds of thousands of dollars from Medicare from physician to physician to ensure that the expensive fentanyl-based painkiller would be covered....

Kapoor’s five and a half year sentence is considerably less than the 15-year prison sentence that was being sought by prosecutors who asserted that Kapoor was the ‘fulcrum’ of the racketeering scheme and was the only defendant who could not have been replaced by another conspirator.  Federal prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo, "He was the principal leader, who personally approved, and thereafter enforced, the corrupt strategies employed throughout the conspiracy," continuing, "This crime would not have happened, could not have happened, without John Kapoor. It was, in almost every way, Kapoor’s crime."

Kapoor and his four co-defendants were faced with seven victims and family members of victims whose gave emotional statements about how their lives had been destroyed by Insys’ actions.  “By the grace of God, I am here to speak for all of us including the ones who lives you took,” said victim Paul Lara, who says he still suffers from being prescribed a drug that was never meant for him. Subsys, the powerful fentanyl spray is intended for terminal cancer patients to ease the pain during end of life care....

"Today's convictions mark the first successful prosecution of top pharmaceutical executives for crimes related to the illicit marketing and prescribing of opioids," U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement.  "Just as we would street-level drug dealers, we will hold pharmaceutical executives responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic by recklessly and illegally distributing these drugs, especially while conspiring to commit racketeering along the way." Lelling continued,  "This is a landmark prosecution that vindicated the public's interest in staunching the flow of opioids into our homes and streets."

Though Kapoor will now have to be in federal prison until he is in his 80s and might not live out the term, this CBS News article reports that victims are not content with the sentences imposed. The piece is headlined "Pharmaceutical executives 'got away with murder,' says mom of woman who died of an overdose," and here is an excerpt:

The prison sentence given to the pharmaceutical executive who helped fuel the opioid crisis "wasn't fair," the mother of a woman who died of an overdose said.  Deb Fuller was at the Boston courthouse Thursday, where Insys Therapeutics founder John Kapoor was sentenced to five and a half years for his role in bribing doctors to prescribe the powerful painkiller Subsys.  "I don't think it was fair. It wasn't fair to all the victims," Fuller told CBS News consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner....

Former Insys Therapeutics Vice President of Sales Alec Burlakoff, who was featured in a video of company employees rapping about increasing sales, also was sentenced.  He got a shorter term of 26 months in prison, reflecting the fact that he cooperated with prosecutors.  Outside the courthouse, when asked if there was anything he would say to families of people who overdosed on Subsys, he said, "I'm sorry, very sorry."

Four other executives received sentences ranging from a year and a day to 33 months, not long enough for many families. "They all got away with murder because that's exactly what they did because it's more than Sarah that died from it," Fuller said.

January 26, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 20, 2020

SCOTUS to contemplate yet another level of ACCA jurisprudential hell with Shular oral argument

In this post a few years ago, I asked "At just what level of Dante's Inferno does modern ACCA jurisprudence reside?".   That post and that question was prompted by the headaches I get when trying to make sense of the the modern federal court jurisprudence over application of the Armed Career Criminal Act as it relates to whether a defendant's prior conviction qualities as a "violent felony."  But the US Supreme Court is due to hear oral argument tomorrow in Shular v. United States wherein the petitioner is presenting this question:

Whether the determination of a “serious drug offense” under the Armed Career Criminal Act requires the same categorical approach used in the determination of a “violent felony” under the Act.

Over at SCOTUSblog in this post titled "Argument preview: Category is: the categorical approach," Leah Litman sorts through the arguments made by the petitioner and the government.  Here are parts of the start and the end of her intricate discussion:

Most of the Supreme Court’s ACCA cases address the meaning of ACCA’s various definitions of “violent felony.”  But Shular’s case concerns the meaning of an ACCA provision that defines “serious drug offense.”  In Section 924(e)(2)(A)(ii), Congress defined a “serious drug offense” to include an “offense under State law, involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance … for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law.”

The probation office determined that Shular’s prior Florida convictions were serious drug offenses and recommended that Shular be sentenced under the ACCA.  Shular objected, arguing that Congress defined “serious drug offense” as a series of generic offenses (manufacturing, distributing or possessing with intent) that do not match Florida’s drug offense.  (Specifically, Shular argued that the generic definitions of the drug offenses contain mens rea, or criminal intent, elements, while Florida’s drug laws do not.)....

There is a good amount of text and structure for the Supreme Court to work with in this case.  But the court may be interested in the implications of both sides’ interpretations. Shular is offering the court a tried-and-true approach that has come under fire in recent years.  The government is asking the court to venture into new terrain, but also does not want the court to consider some of the harder questions and greyer areas that might result from the government’s approach.  Oral argument could allow the justices to test out how the government’s proposed interpretation might work.

January 20, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Former US Rep Chris Collins sentenced to 26 months for insider trading

As reported in this Politico piece, on Friday "former Rep. Chris Collins was sentenced to 26 months in prison for an insider trading scheme that led to his arrest and resignation from Congress." Here is more about a notable federal sentencing:

The Western New York Republican pleaded guilty in October, accused of passing illicit stock tips to his son from the White House lawn during a Congressional picnic.

Judge Vernon Broderick handed down the sentence Friday in Manhattan federal court along with a $200,000 fine, after the disgraced Congressman broke down in sobs as he pleaded for mercy for himself and his son. “I violated my core values and there is no excuse,” Collins said, breathing heavily. “What I have done has marked me for life.”

Collins, the first member of Congress to back Donald Trump for president, was charged in August 2018 with securities fraud, wire fraud and making false statements to FBI agents — part of an alleged scheme to share confidential information about an Australian biotech company whose board he sat on.

When he learned of the results of a failed trial for a multiple sclerosis drug, he called his son Cameron Collins to alert him — allowing the son and his fiancee’s father to unload Innate Immunotherapeutics stock before it tanked and avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses.

He initially denied any wrongdoing and was reelected despite being under federal indictment, but ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and one count of lying to the FBI. He resigned his seat ahead of the plea....

Broderick said prison time was necessary to instill respect for the law. He said he did not buy Collins’ argument that his crime was one of emotion and faulted him for leaving his constituents with no representation in Congress. “I don’t view this as a spur of the moment loss of judgment,” Broderick said.

Collins faced a maximum of ten years in prison, but agreed in a plea deal to accept a sentence of up to 57 months. Prosecutors asked the judge to hit him with a sentence of 46 to 57 months, arguing that a hefty sentence was necessary to send the message that abuse of power would not be tolerated....

The former congressman asked to be spared jail time and be sentenced to probation, saying he had shown remorse and already paid a price for his crimes through the loss of his political career. “Chris is a fundamentally good and decent human being,” said his attorney, Jonathan Barr.

His son Cameron and Stephen Zarsky, the father in law of Cameron’s fiancee, have also pleaded guilty for their role in the insider trading scheme. Collins asked the judge to show mercy for his son, even if he himself was not spared.

January 18, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Mississippi Supreme Court upholds 12-year prison term for mere possession of cell phone in jail

If anyone is looking for a recent example of why and how America persistently earns its status as incarceration nation, look no further than this local article, headlined "Miss. Supreme Court upholds 12-year sentence of man convicted for having cellphone in jail."   Here are the ugly details:

The Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the 12-year sentence of a man convicted for having a cellphone in jail on Thursday.

Willie Nash was originally booked in the Newton County Jail for a misdemeanor charge when he asked a jailer to charge his smartphone. The jailer confiscated the phone and brought it to the sheriff’s deputy in charge....

A jury convicted Nash of possessing the cellphone in a correctional facility, a felony that carries three to 15 years in prison.  On Aug. 23, 2018, a judge sentenced Nash to 12 years in prison, telling Nash to “consider himself fortunate” for not being charged as a habitual offender based on his prior burglary convictions. Nash was also fined $5,000....

On appeal, Nash challenged the sentence, arguing a 12-year sentence was “grossly disproportionate to his crime” and in violation of the Eighth Amendment....  As for the proportionality of the sentence, the court ruled that while “obviously harsh," the sentence was not grossly disproportionate, and the court affirmed the conviction and sentence.

In a separate written opinion, Presiding Justice Leslie D. King agreed the court reached the correct ruling based on case law, but wrote of his concern that the case as a whole “seems to demonstrate a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”

King said it is probable that the Newton County Jail’s booking procedure was not followed in Nash’s case, allowing him to enter the jail with his phone.  King also noted that Nash’s behavior indicated that he was not aware that inmates could not bring phones into the correctional facility.  Justice King pointed out that Nash voluntarily showed the jailer his phone when asking him to charge it, suggesting that he was not told during booking that he was not allowed to keep his phone.

King also noted that Nash’s criminal history reveals a change in behavior, with his last conviction of burglary being in 2001, which he was sentenced to seven years in prison for.  For eight to 10 years, King said Nash had stayed out of trouble with the law. He also has a wife and three children who depend on him. Based on the nature of his crime, King said the judge should have used his discretion to consider a lesser sentence....

According to the Mississippi Department of Corrections website, Nash’s tentative release date is Feb. 2, 2029.

The full Mississippi Supreme Court opinion in this case is available at this link, and it serves to highlight how easy it is to use extreme and cruel punishments to justify more extreme and cruel punishments.  Because the defendant here is apparently parole eligible in as few as three years, the trial judge was not off-base when telling him that he was lucky not to be facing a true 15-year mandatory minimum under the state's habitual offender law. And the Supreme Court of Mississippi was able to cite to other cases of defendants getting even harsher sentences(!) for mere cell phone possession to conclude that this harsh sentence was not constitutionally problematic.

With the scale of punishments set so severely for so long in so many places throughout our country, I fear it has become almost routine for many judges and prosecutors to send people off to live in cages for years and years without deep reflection on just what these sentences really mean for the defendant and what they say about American as a nation.  I suspect that, if told in general terms that a citizen had been sent to prison for more than a decade for having a cell phone in the wrong place, most of us would think that this story was coming from China or Russia or some other country with a poor human rights record.  But, in fact, it is just another day in the United States, the supposed land of the free. Sigh.

January 12, 2020 in Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Noting the discouraging connection between criminal justice involvement and overdose deaths

This recent Connecticut Mirror piece, headlined "From prison to the grave: Former inmates now account for more than half of all drug overdose deaths in Connecticut," spotlights the disconcerting link between involvement with the criminal justice system and overdose deaths:

Accidental drug overdose deaths tripled in Connecticut between 2010 and 2018, with the proportion of overdose victims with prior involvement in the criminal justice system slowly increasing during that time.

Former inmates account for more than half of the people who died from drug overdoses between 2016 and 2018, according to an analysis of new state data. In 2015, this same group made up 44% of the people who died from an overdose.

Officials with the Office of Policy and Management’s Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division discovered the uptick in drug deaths among former inmates when examining data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Department of Correction.

While the data shows an overlap between criminal justice involvement and overdose deaths, many details are still missing.  While officials believe the majority of the overdose deaths are from fentanyl, for example, OPM did not specify this in its analysis.  There has been a dramatic increase in fentanyl-related deaths statewide over the past half-decade, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.  Of 1,017 opioid deaths last year, 75% involved fentanyl. In 2012, fentanyl deaths accounted for 4% of the total.

There are other unanswered questions, as well. “We don’t know whether they were admitted pretrial or served a sentence,” said Marc Pelka, Gov. Ned Lamont’s undersecretary of criminal justice policy and planning. “We don’t know how soon after their release they experienced an accidental drug overdose death.”

Pelka said his office likely would do a deeper dive into the data to learn more about the intersection between arrests and overdose fatalities.  Even without that detail, however, the data is startling, officials said.  “I hope that this whole commission really understands what this shows. Because I’m seeing this come across my desk every day,” Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook told his colleagues on the Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission during a recent presentation on the data.  Cook said one of his jobs is to sign off on investigations into overdose deaths of people who have been released from prison but are still under state supervision.

Those reports, Cook said, often show the overdose victims were attending recovery programs and adhering to the terms of their parole.  “They’re doing everything they’re supposed to do,” he said. “Yet we’re still losing them. They’re dying.”

People released from prison are at greater risk of certain early deaths compared to the general population.  Research shows people who get out of prison are 40 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose within two weeks of their release than those who haven’t spent time behind bars.  In Connecticut, white ex-prisoners are more likely to die from drug overdoses, while black former inmates are more likely to die by homicide....

The overlap between criminal justice system involvement and addiction makes sense to Louis Reed, an organizer for the national criminal justice reform group Cut 50.  Criminal records function as scarlet letters, making it hard for people to secure housing or land jobs even after their sentences have ended. “The moment they get a door slammed in their face they most likely are going to go right back to what it is they felt was more comfortable to them,” Reed explained.  Using drugs after a long period of sobriety while incarcerated also poses problems, said Reed. Tolerances decrease when people don’t use for a while.  That puts them at risk of an accidental overdose because their first hit “shocks their system.”

January 5, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 30, 2019

Split Second Circuit panel finds 17-year (way-below-guideline) prison sentence in terrorism case substantively unreasonable

On Friday, the Second Circuit released a notable sentencing opinion in US v. Mumuni, No. 18‐1604 (2d Cir. Dec. 27, 2019) (available here).  The start of the panel's majority opinion provides a basic overview of the key issue in the appeal:

In this terrorism case, the Government appeals the substantive reasonableness of the sentence imposed on Defendant‐Appellee Fareed Mumuni (“Mumuni”).  He was convicted of, inter alia, conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State of Iraq and al‐Sham (“ISIS”) and attempting to murder a federal agent in the name of ISIS.  His advisory sentence under the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines” or “U.S.S.G.”) was 85 years’ imprisonment. The sole question on appeal is whether the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York (Margo K. Brodie, Judge) erred — or “abused its discretion” — by imposing a 17‐ year sentence, which constitutes an 80% downward variance from the advisory Guidelines range. We conclude that it did. Accordingly, we REMAND the cause for resentencing consistent with this opinion.

Just over 30 pages later, the majority provides this summary of its rulings:

(1) Mumuni’s sentence of 17 years’ imprisonment — which constitutes an 80% reduction from his recommended Guidelines range of 85 years — is substantively unreasonable in light of his exceptionally serious conduct involving a domestic terrorist attack against law enforcement in the name of ISIS.

(2) Where a district court has accepted a defendant’s guilty plea and his allocution to the elements of each charged offense, it cannot make findings of fact during sentencing that contradict or otherwise minimize the conduct described at the defendant’s plea hearing.

(3) Where a sentencing court opts to compare the relative culpability of co‐defendants, it cannot selectively rely on a factor when it serves a mitigating function in one case, but then subsequently ignore the same factor when it serves an aggravating function in the other case.

(4) A defendant’s legally‐required compliance with institutional regulations during his term of pre‐trial and pre‐ sentencing detention is not a substantially mitigating factor for purposes of sentencing.

(5) At Mumuni’s resentencing, the District Court, on the basis of the record that supported Mumuni’s guilty plea, shall accord substantially greater weight to the following 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) factors: (a) the nature and circumstances of the offense; (b) the need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense; (c) the need for the sentence imposed to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct; and (d) the need to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant.

Judge Hall partially dissents, explaining that he thinks that the sentencing court needs to better explain its chosen sentence but making this point at the start of his opinion:

“We set aside a district courtʹs sentence as substantively unreasonable only if affirming it would damage the administration of justice because the sentence imposed was shockingly high, shockingly low, or otherwise unsupportable as a matter of law.” United States v. Douglas, 713 F.3d 694, 700 (2d Cir. 2013) (quotation marks and ellipsis omitted) (emphasis added). As an initial matter, I do not believe the seventeen‐year sentence is shockingly low and, therefore, I must dissent in part.

December 30, 2019 in Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 27, 2019

Fitting criticisms of unfit attack on Washington DC's proposed Second Look Amendment Act

The revised sentencing provisions of the ALI's Model Penal Code include a section, titled "Modification of Long-Term Prison Sentences," calling upon jurisdictions to allow resentencing of all individuals sentenced to long terms after they have served 15 years in prison.  Senator Cory Booker has introduced a federal Second Look Act which would allow all persons to petition for resentencing after having served at least 10 years in prison.

Against backdrop, the proposed Second Look Amendment Act being considered by the Washington DC Council might look quite modest; it will allow only persons serving lengthy sentences who committed their crimes before age 25 to petition for a reduced sentence after having spending 15 years in prison (and DC law already allows this for those who committed their crimes before age 18).  But this recent Washington Post editorial, headlined "A bill to reduce sentences for violent D.C. felons goes too far," launches an immodest attack on the proposal. The very headline of this editorial had me troubled, as the DC bill does not itself actually reduce any sentences, it just provides a chance for some individual offenders serving extremely long terms to seek sentence reconsideration.

The text of the WaPo editorial is no more accurate.  In a closing paragraph, for example, the editorial asserts that "the measure would embrace a radical rejection of transparency in sentencing and straight dealings with victims."  Huh?  Given that this proposal is less ambitious than what the MPC now urges, there is really nothing "radical" about what this bill proposes.  Plus, the operation of the proposed sentence reconsideration would by entirely "transparent" and should operate with crime victims having an opportunity to be involved in sentencing reconsideration.   (Indeed, an article linked in the WaPo editorial highlights that some victims have been supportive of resentencings in the past.)

Helpfully, I have see two astute criminal justice commentators already busy on Twitter criticizing many more aspects of this WaPo editorial.  Scott Hechinger here has multiple tweets highlighting the problems in the language used throughout the editorial.  And John Pfaff here has multiple tweets highlighting how extreme US sentencing policies and practices are compared to the rest of the world.  Pfaff's tweet thread concludes with this fitting final thought: "the attitudes embodied in this editorial — the cruel punitiveness that doesn’t even require a trace of justification — is why we are where we are, and why we risk staying here indefinitely."

December 27, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 20, 2019

"Punishing Pill Mill Doctors: Sentencing Disparities in the Opioid Epidemic"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Adam Gershowitz just posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Consider two pill mill doctors who flooded the streets with oxycodone and other dangerous opioids.  The evidence against both doctors was overwhelming.  They each sold millions of opioid pills.  Both doctors charged addicted patients hundreds of dollars in cash for office visits that involved no physical examinations and no diagnostic tests.  Instead, the doctors simply handed the patients opioids in exchange for cash.  To maximize their income, both doctors conspired with street dealers to import fake patients — many of them homeless — so that the doctors could write even more prescriptions.  Both doctors made millions of dollars profiting off the misery of people addicted to opioids.  Even though juries convicted both doctors of similar criminal charges, they received drastically different sentences.  The first doctor was sentenced to 5 years, while the second doctor received a 35-year-sentence.

This article reviews 25 of the worst opioid pill mill doctors to be sentenced in the last five years, and it details drastic sentencing disparities in the federal system.  In more than half the cases, judges departed well below the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to impose sentences that were decades less than would be expected.

The sentencing variations in pill mill cases are not driven by traditional explanations such as the trial penalty or the defendant’s criminal history.  Instead, the sentencing variations are explained primarily by the age of the doctors.  Many pill mill doctors are in their 60s and 70s, and judges appear to be tailoring their sentencing decisions to ensure that older doctors will not spend the rest of their lives in prison.  Additionally, prosecutors face an uphill battle in proving the drug quantity against white-collar doctors (rather than street dealers) who can claim that some of their prescriptions were legitimate.  This article documents the difficulty of equitably punishing pill mill doctors, as well as the significance of age in sentencing older, white-collar offenders.

December 20, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 19, 2019

PPI releases "Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019"

Youth_pie_2019The Prison Policy Initiative has today posted the latest of its remarkable pie charts and reports providing an extraordinary look at confinement realities in the United States.  This new report by Wendy Sawyer is focused on youth confinement, and here is part of the report's introductory text and some other excerpts (along with the great infographic):

On any given day, over 48,000 youth in the United States are confined in facilities away from home as a result of juvenile justice or criminal justice involvement. Most are held in restrictive, correctional-style facilities, and thousands are held without even having had a trial. But even these high figures represent astonishing progress: Since 2000, the number of youth in confinement has fallen by 60%, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.

What explains these remarkable changes? How are the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems different, and how are they similar? Perhaps most importantly, can those working to reduce the number of adults behind bars learn any lessons from the progress made in reducing youth confinement?

This report answers these questions, beginning with a snapshot of how many justice-involved youth are confined, where they are held, under what conditions, and for what offenses. It offers a starting point for people new to the issue to consider the ways that the problems of the criminal justice system are mirrored in the juvenile system: racial disparities, punitive conditions, pretrial detention, and overcriminalization. While acknowledging the philosophical, cultural, and procedural differences between the adult and juvenile justice systems, the report highlights these issues as areas ripe for reform for youth as well as adults.

This updated and expanded version of our original 2018 report also examines the dramatic reduction in the confined youth population, and offers insights and recommendations for advocates and policymakers working to shrink the adult criminal justice system....

Black and American Indian youth are overrepresented in juvenile facilities, while white youth are underrepresented.  These racial disparities are particularly pronounced when it comes to Black boys and American Indian girls.  While 14% of all youth under 18 in the U.S. are Black, 42% of boys and 35% of girls in juvenile facilities are Black.   And even excluding youth held in Indian country facilities, American Indians make up 3% of girls and 1.5% of boys in juvenile facilities, despite comprising less than 1% of all youth nationally.

Racial disparities are also evident in decisions to transfer youth from juvenile to adult court.  In 2017, Black youth made up 35% of delinquency cases, but over half (54%) of youth judicially transferred from juvenile court to adult court. Meanwhile, white youth accounted for 44% of all delinquency cases, but made up only 31% of judicial transfers to adult court.  And although the total number of youth judicially transferred in 2017 was less than half what it was in 2005, the racial disproportionality among these transfers has actually increased over time.  Reports also show that in California, prosecutors send Hispanic youth to adult court via "direct file" at 3.4 times the rate of white youth, and that American Indian youth are 1.8 times more likely than white youth to receive an adult prison sentence.

December 19, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

"Opioids, Addiction Treatment, and the Long Tail of Eugenics"

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

Our attitude, treatment, and punishment of opioid addiction partly results from the long, intertwined history of eugenics and incarceration.  There is a thread of eugenics-based philosophy undergirding our widespread imprisonment of the poor, disabled, and dependent.  The current approach to opioid addiction in the criminal justice and sentencing worlds reflects this bias, hindering our ability to best treat the opioid crisis.  Our 21st century tactics to combat the opioid addiction crisis unwittingly track the methods used to address the widespread use of opioids in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with equally troubling results.  Indeed, addiction to pharmaceutical opiates is no recent problem; historically, iatrogenic drug use has been far more extensive than illicit drug use.  Old errors are being re-enacted as we attempt to solve the problems of opioid-addicted offenders during sentencing, inside correctional facilities, and on release.  Accordingly, before we craft workable policies to combat the opioid crisis, we must fully explore and understand the history of iatrogenic opioid addiction, to avoid making the same mistakes.

December 18, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Rick Gates gets sentence of 45 days in jail and a fine and community service (while co-defendant Paul Manafort has five more years in prison)

As reported in this CBS News piece, "Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign official and onetime business partner of Paul Manafort, was sentenced to 45 days in jail on counts of conspiracy and lying to federal investigators." Here is more:

Gates, 47, appeared in federal court in Washington to learn his sentence Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced him to 36 months probation and 45 days behind bars, which he will be allowed to serve on weekends or under a schedule set by probation officers. He must also pay a fine of $20,000 over the course of 20 months, and complete 300 hours of community service.

Gates was one of six Trump associates charged in connection to special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He pleaded guilty to two counts in February 2018, admitting he lied to federal investigators and helped Manafort conceal millions of dollars in overseas payments. Gates agreed to cooperate with the government, becoming the star witness in high-profile trials of three others charged in the Mueller probe: Manafort, Roger Stone and Greg Craig.

Because of his extensive cooperation with the government, federal prosecutors recommended that Jackson sentence Gates to probation, a much lighter punishment than the maximum 10 years in prison the charges allowed under federal guidelines.

Gates was Manafort's right-hand man and became his deputy when Manafort was named chairman of the Trump campaign in 2016. After Manafort was forced to step down over revelations about his work in Ukraine, Gates stayed on, becoming a liaison between the campaign and the Republican National Committee. He helped plan President Trump's inauguration before leaving for a job with a pro-Trump outside group.

At Manafort's trial on charges of bank fraud and other financial crimes, Gates provided crucial testimony against his former boss, telling jurors Manafort had instructed him to forge financial documents and IRS forms.

As folks may recall, Manafort was convicted at trial of some counts, pleaded guilty to another set of charges and he ultimately received 7.5 years in total imprisonment after two sentencings.  And, according to the Bureau of Prisons inmate locator, Manafort now has a release date of Christmas Day 2024.

Prior related post:

December 17, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 16, 2019

"Algorithmic Risk Assessment in the Hands of Humans"

The title of this post is the title of this new empirical paper authored by Megan Stevenson and Jennifer Doleac.  Here is its abstract:

We evaluate the impacts of adopting algorithmic predictions of future offending (risk assessments) as an aid to judicial discretion in felony sentencing.  We find that judges' decisions are influenced by the risk score, leading to longer sentences for defendants with higher scores and shorter sentences for those with lower scores.  However, we find no robust evidence that this reshuffling led to a decline in recidivism, and, over time, judges appeared to use the risk scores less.
Risk assessment's failure to reduce recidivism is at least partially explained by judicial discretion in its use.  Judges systematically grant leniency to young defendants, despite their high risk of reoffending.  This is in line with a long standing practice of treating youth as a mitigator in sentencing, due to lower perceived culpability.  Such a conflict in goals may have led prior studies to overestimate the extent to which judges make prediction errors.  Since one of the most important inputs to the risk score is effectively off-limits, risk assessment's expected benefits are curtailed. 
We find no evidence that risk assessment affected racial disparities statewide, although there was a relative increase in sentences for black defendants in courts that appeared to use risk assessment most. We conduct simulations to evaluate how race and age disparities would have changed if judges had fully complied with the sentencing recommendations associated with the algorithm.  Racial disparities might have increased slightly, but the largest change would have been higher relative incarceration rates for defendants under the age of 23.  In the context of contentious public discussions about algorithms, our results highlight the importance of thinking about how man and machine interact.

December 16, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 13, 2019

"Incapacitating Errors: Sentencing and the Science of Change"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Eve Hanan and recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Despite widespread support for shifting sentencing policy from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime,” reflected in legislation like the federal First Step Act, the scope of criminal justice reform has been limited.  We continue to engage in practices that permanently incapacitate people while carving out only limited niches of sentencing reform for special groups like first-time nonviolent offenders and adolescents.  We cannot, however, be “smart on crime” without a theory of punishment that supports second chances for the broadest range of people convicted of crimes.

This Article posits that the cultural belief that adults do not change poses a major impediment to “smart on crime” policies.  Current sentencing policies focus on long-term incapacitation of adults with criminal records because of our folk belief that adult personality traits are immutable.  Whereas adolescents are expected to mature over time, and thus can rarely be determined to require permanent incapacitation, adults lack the benefit of the presumption of change.

Standing in contrast to our folk belief that adults do not change is a growing body of neuroscientific and psychological literature that this Article refers to as, “the science of adult change,” which demonstrates that adult brains change in response to environmental prompts and experience.

The science of adult change has powerful implications for punishment theory and practice. In its broadest sense, the science of adult change supports an empirically grounded, normative claim that sentencing should not attempt to identify the true criminal to permanently exclude.  Rather, sentencing policy should engage in only modest predictions about future behavior.  The presumption of reintegration as a full member of society should be the norm.  Moreover, because adult change occurs in response to environmental stimuli, the science of adult change supports both public accountability for the conditions of confinement and, ultimately, a challenge to incarceration as our primary means of responding to social harm.

December 13, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Sentencing recommendation for Rick Gates highlights what a difference a guilty plea and lots of cooperation can make

All federal practitioners know, and all federal defendants should know, that what a defendant actually did can often matter a lot less in the sentencing process than whether that defendant pleads guilty and cooperates with authorities.  The latest reminder of this reality comes from the upcoming sentencing of Rick Gates, who was indicted two years ago in a 31-page indictment of  available via this link in which he was portrayed as a "partner in crime" with Paul Manafort. 

Manafort, of course, fought the charges and after being found guilty (on less than half of the charges given to the jury), federal prosecutors calculated his applicable guideline range as nearly 20 to 25 years in prison and seemed to argue that Manafort deserved a 20-year prison term for his criminal behaviors.  (Matters get complicated thereafter because Manafort pleaded guilty to another set of charges and he ultimately received 7.5 years in total imprisonment after two sentencings.) 

Gates, in telling contrast, decided to plead guilty and cooperate with authorities.  Doing so contributed to a guideline calculation setting this advisory Guidelines range at 46 to 57 months of imprisonment.  And, as this Politico article highlights, it has now also led the federal prosecutors not to oppose Gates' request for a sentence of probation and no fine in this 19-page sentencing memo.  Here is part of the Politico piece providing highlights:

Rick Gates should be rewarded with probation after serving as a critical high-profile government witness whose testimony helped net convictions against two of President Donald Trump’s campaign aides, the Justice Department and an attorney for the former Trump deputy campaign chairman said in a pair of new court filings.

Gates — who pleaded guilty in February 2018 to financial fraud and lying to investigators — quickly became a fountain of information for Robert Mueller’s investigators, eventually testifying against both former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, Trump’s long-time political whisperer.

The 47-year-old GOP operative spent more than 500 hours with federal and state prosecutors, both before and after he officially flipped on Trump and his allies. He also responded to three congressional subpoenas for documents and testimony. Gates’ voice dominates the final Mueller report, as he recounts details about how Trump and his 2016 campaign coordinated and planned for the release of stolen Democratic emails at critical moments of the White House race.

In a filing Monday, Gates’ attorney pleaded with U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson to give his client probation and impose no fines when she sentences him Dec. 17. “We believe that the parties are in agreement that Mr. Gates has fulfilled every obligation he agreed to (and then some) and that he has devoted enormous energy and commitment to this task while telling the truth and maintaining his composure,” wrote Gates’ attorney, Tom Green.

Federal prosecutors — who inherited the Gates case from Mueller — said in a filing Tuesday that they wouldn’t oppose the request for probation. The former Trump deputy had “provided the government with extraordinary assistance,” wrote Molly Gaston, an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington D.C.  That included 50 meetings with investigators, during which Gates provided “truthful information” to Mueller and several other DOJ offices, as well as a vow to testify in any ongoing cases.  "Gates’ cooperation has been steadfast despite the fact that the government has asked for his assistance in high-profile matters, against powerful individuals, in the midst of a particularly turbulent environment," Gaston added.

Without elaborating, Gaston also said Gates had "received pressure not to cooperate with the government, including assurances of monetary assistance."  Gates has already helped the government at several high-profile moments.  In August 2018, he incriminated Manafort from the witness stand in several crimes, including multimillion-dollar tax evasion, bank fraud and hiding offshore accounts.  A jury later convicted Manafort, who is now serving a 7 1/2-year prison sentence. Gates also appeared last month as a star witness in the trial against Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress about his efforts to contact WikiLeaks in the 2016 presidential race.

For so many reasons, the crimes and subsequent behaviors of Manafort and Gates are unique in many ways.  But federal practitioners know well that it is actually quite common for one defendant who goes to trial to be facing a prosecutorial recommendation of decades in prison while a cooperating co-defendant involved in comparable criminal behavior receives a recommendation for only probation.

December 11, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 09, 2019

Third Circuit panel finds error where district court "improperly relied on [defendant's] bare arrest record in determining his sentence"

I just saw the Third Circuit panel ruling from late last week in US v. Mitchell, No. 17-1095 (3d Cir. Dec. 5, 2019) (available here), which makes a strong statement against the reliance on an arrest record at sentencing.  Here is how the opinion starts and key passages thereafter:

A jury found Tyrone Mitchell guilty of seventeen drug distribution and firearms offenses.  Mitchell appeals his judgment of conviction and sentence of 1,020 months’ imprisonment, raising eight arguments nearly all of which are unavailing.  We do, however, agree with Mitchell as to one sentencing-related argument — that the District Court plainly erred by relying on Mitchell’s bare arrest record to determine his sentence.  We therefore affirm Mitchell’s judgment of conviction, vacate the judgment of sentence, and remand for resentencing....

Under the Due Process Clause, “[a] defendant cannot be deprived of liberty based upon mere speculation.”  Accordingly, in determining a sentence, although a court can mention a defendant’s record of prior arrests that did not lead to conviction, it cannot rely on such a record.  As we recognized in United States v. Berry, “a bare arrest record — without more — does not justify an assumption that a defendant has committed other crimes.”...

Contrary to the Government’s assertions, Mitchell did not just demonstrate that the District Court “noticed that he had a number of arrests that did not result in convictions.”  To the contrary, Mitchell has “bridge[d] the gap between reference and reliance,” and has thus shown plain error.  Looking at the record below in its entirety, we conclude that the District Court improperly relied on Mitchell’s bare arrest record in determining his sentence.  For example, the Court interrupted the prosecutor to highlight Mitchell’s arrests and later recited all 18 of Mitchell’s arrests.  The Court also explicitly referred to Mitchell’s arrests when describing his “long and serious” criminal record and identified Mitchell’s “extensive criminal history” as the sole justification for his sentence.  Resentencing is therefore required.

December 9, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

"Race and Class: A Randomized Experiment with Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new research just published in the December 2019 issue of the Journal of Empirical Studies and authored by Christopher Robertson, Shima Baradaran Baughman and Megan Wright.  Here is its abstract:

Disparities in criminal justice outcomes are well known, and prior observational research has shown correlations between the race of defendants and prosecutors’ decisions about how to charge and resolve cases.  Yet causation is questionable: other factors, including unobserved variation in case facts, may account for some of the disparity.  Disparities may also be driven by socioeconomic class differences, which are highly correlated with race.  This article presents the first blinded, randomized controlled experiment that tests for race and class effects in prosecutors’ charging decisions.

Case vignettes are manipulated between subjects in five conditions to test effcts of defendants’ race and class status.  In the control condition, race and class are omitted, which allows baseline measures for bias and pilot testing of a blinding reform.  Primary outcome variables included whether the prosecutor charged a felony, whether the prosecutor would pursue a fine or imprisonment, and the amounts thereof.  With 467 actual prosecutors participating nationwide, we found that race and class did not have detectable prejudicial effects on prosecutorial decisions.  This finding, contrary to the majority of observational studies, suggests that other causes drive known disparities in criminal justice outcomes.

December 4, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Two new disconcerting reports on southern justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 21, 2019

"Prosecuting Opioid Use, Punishing Rurality"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Valena Elizabeth Beety no available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The opioid crisis spotlights rural communities, and accompanying that bright light are long-standing, traditional biased tropes about backwards and backwoods White Appalachians. These stereotypes conflate rurality with substance use disorder as the next progression in dehumanizing stereotypes.  Widespread attention to our nation’s use disorder crisis, however, also brings an opportunity to recognize these fallacious stereotypes and to look more closely at the criminal legal systems in rural communities.  In this Article, I use drug-induced homicide — what has become a popular prosecutorial charge in response to the opioid crisis — as a prism to identify and critique the failings in rural criminal courts more broadly.  This Article includes modest recommendations that acknowledge and respond to these inadequacies while attempting to preserve people’s constitutional rights and decrease opiate-related overdoses.

November 21, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 15, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Jersey commission releases big report recommending numerous big sentencing reforms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Create a new mitigating sentencing factor for youth.

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Longest prison sentence (six months) imposed in college admission scandal on big-spending dad

As reported in this USA Today piece, today in Boston "Toby MacFarlane, a former real estate and title insurance executive from California, was sentenced to six months in prison Wednesday for paying $450,000 to get his daughter and son admitted into the University of Southern California as fake athletic recruits."  Here is more:

It marks the longest prison sentence so far handed down among 13 parents and one college coach in the nation's college admissions scandal.

U.S. District Judge Nathaniel Gorton stressed that MacFarlane participated in the nationwide admissions scheme led by college consultant Rick Singer "not once, but twice," taking seats at USC away from two deserving students. He told MacFarlane his actions should be tolerated no more than a common thief's actions, "because that's what you are — a thief."...

Gorton also sentenced MacFarlane to two years of supervised release, 200 hours of community service and a $150,000 fine....

Addressing the court, MacFarlane, himself a USC graduate, apologized to his family, friends, former business partners and his alma mater, as well as "all of the students who applied and didn't get in."...

Gorton opted to impose a harsher sentence than called for in sentencing guidelines, citing the “fraudulent, deceitful" nature of MacFarlane's conduct. The judge's decision could be a preview of how he will approach other parents who go before him — including actress Lori Loughlin — who have pleaded not guilty.

MacFarlane, a former senior executive at WFG National Title Insurance Company, made two separate payments of $200,000, one in 2014 and on in 2017, to the sham nonprofit operated by Singer. Singer, in turn, facilitated his children's admissions into USC through bribes to one current and two former USC employees. MacFarlane also made a $50,000 payment to USC athletics.

The first transaction involved the admission of MacFarlane's daughter into USC as a fake soccer recruit. He then paid Singer again to admit his son into USC posing as a basketball recruit. "The defendant knew what he was doing was wrong. He knew it wasn't accepted at the school," Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Rosen told the judge. "So what does he do? He does it again with his son.”

Rosen said MacFarlane deserved prison because he was the first parent who paid into Singer's "side-door" recruitment scheme twice. He asked the judge to "send a message" as a result.

MacFarlane's defense attorney, Ted Cassman, sought a lighter sentence, arguing his client was less culpable than other parents sentenced in the admissions scheme. Unlike other parents, he said MacFarlane did not seek out Singer for cheating but for his consulting services. He said MacFarlane already suffered "swift and severe" collateral consequences from his conduct. He also pointed to MacFarlane's divorce, which separated his family and pressured him to buckle to Singer's offer....

The toughest prison sentence previously ordered was five months for Agustin Huneeus, a Napa Valley, California winemaker. Huneeus, who agreed to pay Singer $300,000 is the only defendant to take part in both the recruitment scheme and Singer's plot to cheat on college entrance exams. U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani handed down the sentence of Huneeus and 11 other parents while Judge Douglas Woodlock sentenced one other parent.

Twenty-nine defendants, including 19 parents, have either pleaded guilty in court or agreed to plead guilty to charges in the historic admissions case. Igor Dvorsiky, a former administrator for the ACT and SAT, pleaded guilty in court Wednesday to racketeering charges for accepting nearly $200,000 in bribes to opening a private school he operated in Los Angles for cheating in Singer's scheme. He admitted to opening it on 11 occasions, involving 20 students, for cheating.

Prior related Varsity Blues posts:

November 13, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, November 10, 2019

"The Effect of Scaling Back Punishment on Racial Disparities in Criminal Case Outcomes"

The title of this post is the title of this recent research paper authored by John MacDonald and Steven Raphael that I just came across.  Here is its abstract:

Research Summary

In late 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47 that redefined a set of less serious felony drug and property offenses as misdemeanors.  We examine how racial disparities in criminal court dispositions in San Francisco change in the years before (2010-2014) and after (2015-2016) the passage of Proposition 47.  We decompose racial disparities in court dispositions into components due to racial differences in offense characteristics, involvement in the criminal justice system at the time of arrest, pretrial detention, criminal history, and the residual unexplained component.  Before and after Proposition 47 case characteristics explain nearly all of the observable race disparities in court dispositions. However, after the passage of Proposition 47 there is a narrowing of racial disparities in convictions and incarceration sentences that is driven by lesser weight placed on criminal history, active criminal justice status, and pretrial detention in effecting court dispositions.

Policy Implications

The findings from this study suggest that policy reforms that scale back the severity of punishment for criminal history and active criminal justice status for less serious felony offenses may help narrow racial inequalities in criminal court dispositions.  Efforts to reduce the impact of racial inequalities in mass incarceration in other states should consider reforms that reduce the weight that criminal history, pretrial detention, and active probation status has on criminal defendants’ eligibility for prison for less serious drug and property offenses.

November 10, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

"Taking a second look at life imprisonment"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Boston Globe commentary authored by Nancy Gertner and Marc Mauer. Here are excerpts:

While there has been a great deal of attention in recent years to the impact of the drug war on growing prison populations, in fact, the main drivers of the prison system now are excessive sentences for violent offenses.

The statistics are troubling.  There are as many individuals [in Massachusetts] serving life sentences as the entire state prison population in 1970, and more than half are black or Latino. Of the 2,000 lifers in the state, about half are not eligible for parole.  Barring executive clemency, they will die in prison after spending decades behind bars.

Since 90 percent of lifers nationally have been convicted of serious violent crimes, supporters of lifelong incarceration argue that incapacitating such people is an effective crime-control mechanism.  In fact, it is the opposite: It is counterproductive for public safety.

Criminologists know that individuals “age out” of crime.  Any parent of a teenager understands that misbehavior, often serious, is all too common at this stage.  FBI arrest data show that the rate of arrest for teenage boys rises sharply from the mid-teen years through the early 20s but then declines significantly. Arrests for robbery, for example, peak at age 19 but decline by more than half by age 30 and by three-quarters by age 40. The same is true for other violent crimes.

The reason is clear.  As teenage boys enter their 20s, they lose their impulsivity, get jobs, find life partners, form families, and generally take on adult roles.  Violent behavior becomes less attractive.

For public safety purposes incarcerating people past age 40 produces diminishing returns for crime control; less and less crime is prevented by incapacitation each year.  This impact is magnified by resource tradeoffs.  National estimates for the cost of incarcerating an elderly person are at least $60,000 a year, in large part due to the need for health care.  With finite public safety resources, these costs are not available to invest in family and community support for the new cohort of teenagers, for whom proactive initiatives could lower the risk of antisocial behavior.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone of Boston and Senator Joe Boncore of Winthrop, along with 34 cosponsors, would help to ameliorate this problem in Massachusetts.  Under the bill’s “second look” provision, individuals serving life without parole would be eligible for a parole review after serving 25 years....

Recently, there has been a bipartisan critique of the effects of mass incarceration, particularly on low-income communities of color.  State policy makers across the country are exploring ways to reduce excessive prison populations without adverse effects on public safety.  The proposed “second look” provision offers one significant alternative.  It should be passed.

November 7, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Lots of capital headlines from the Lone Star State

Texas is always making news when it comes to the administration of the death penalty, and yesterday had a number of notable headlines about a number of notable cases:

An execution: "El Paso death row inmate Justen Grant Hall executed for woman's strangulation in 2002"

A removal from death row: "Bobby Moore's death sentence is changed to life in prison after lengthy court fights over intellectual disability"

Increasing attention to innocence claim for person scheduled to be executed Nov 20: "Texas is about to execute a man for murder. His lawyers say someone else confessed to the crime."

UPDATE:  A helpful reader made sure I did not miss another notable Texas capital headline today:

A stay: "Federal judge delays execution of “Texas Seven” prisoner over claims of religious discrimination"

 

November 7, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Notable Wall Street Journal commentaries decry injustices highlighted by college admission scandal prosecutions

I have blogged a lot about the college admission scandal prosecutions because they provide a high-profile setting for shinning a bright light on some ugly features of criminal justice in America.  The Wall Street Journal editors this week have been eager to do such light-shinning as evidenced by these two notable new commentaries in its pages:

Authored by William McGurn, "Free Lori Loughlin: The feds are treating the actress as if she and her husband were Bonnie and Clyde." Some excerpts:

If convicted of all the charges federal prosecutors have piled up against them, Ms. Loughlin and her husband could be sentenced to as much as 45 years in prison.  This is nuts.

The same operation that caught Ms. Loughlin also snared dozens of other high-powered people, including CEOs, lawyers and venture capitalists.  They too are accused of paying fixer William “Rick” Singer either to cheat on their kids’ college entrance exams, to present them fraudulently for college admission as athletes, or both.  But Ms. Loughlin’s celebrity status has ensured that she and fellow actress Felicity Huffman remain the face of the scandal for most Americans.

With this difference: While Ms. Huffman pleaded guilty, apologized profusely and served out her sentence (14 days, but released after 12 because it was a weekend) at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., Ms. Loughlin and Mr. Giannulli are insisting, perhaps unwisely, on taking their case to a jury.  Meanwhile, in the same way the sans-culottes jeered Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, today’s equivalent — Twitter mobs and gossip sheets — are thirsting to see this icon of Tinseltown wealth and privilege cut down to size by a stint in federal prison.

Now, it may well be standard procedure for prosecutors to add new charges when their targets refuse to plead. But does anyone else think it a stretch to argue that two California residents bribing their children’s way into a private California university are committing a crime against the federal government? Or that the statutes she’s accused of violating, such as bribery or money laundering in connection with a program that receives federal funding, were really intended to go after people such as Ms. Loughlin?

All of which has yours truly hoping Ms. Loughlin and her husband prevail. Not because they are innocent. But because the case reeks of overreach, as well as my unease with the idea that the FBI and Justice are the vehicles to deliver fairness in college admissions....

There are many ways to punish Ms. Loughlin. Some of them have already happened even without a conviction: The Hallmark Channel severed all ties; Netflix will film the last season of the reboot “Fuller House” without her; and her daughters were forced to leave USC under humiliating circumstances.  Ms. Loughlin, remember, is a nonviolent first-offender.  By all means, stick her with a fat fine and community service. But it’s just overkill for federal prosecutors to be devoting so much of their time and resources to make sure this woman goes to prison.

Authored by Alan Dershowitz, "Most Plea Bargains Are Unconstitutional: Harsh punishments for defendants who exercise their right to trial violate the Sixth Amendment." Some excerpts:

When is a constitutional right not a right? When you’re punished for exercising it.  If the government arrests or fines you for something you say, everyone recognizes a violation of the First Amendment, even though you had your say.  Yet when prosecutors and courts impose massive punishments on criminal defendants for exercising their Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, it’s considered business as usual — even by the Supreme Court.

In my own practice I’ve seen cases in which defendants declined a plea bargain, were convicted, and received sentences more than 10 times as severe as prosecutors had offered them.  A doctor was offered one year if he pleaded guilty to Medicaid fraud and received 11 years at trial.  He rejected the plea offer because he believed he was innocent and had expert testimony to back him up.  In another case, two businessmen accused of financial fraud were offered sentences of seven years and sentenced to 80 years after a trial....

Or consider two actresses charged in the college-admissions scandal. Felicity Huffman received 14 days after waiving a trial. Lori Loughlin could face as long as 45 years (although likely less) if she exercises her right to go to trial. The prosecutor has been clear: “If it’s after trial, we would ask for something substantially higher. If she resolves it before trial, something lower than that.”

In justifying the practice, prosecutors and courts play word games, denying that a far harsher sentence is a “punishment.”  Rather, they say, it’s what the defendant deserved for the crime, and the relative lenience of a plea bargain is a “reward” for saving the government the expense, inconvenience and risks of a trial.  As the Supreme Court put it: “We cannot hold that it is unconstitutional for the State to extend a benefit to a defendant who in turn extends a substantial benefit to the State” (emphasis added).

Yet imagine if the government, instead of directly punishing disfavored speech, accomplished the same objective in a roundabout way by offering a tax rebate for people who waive their First Amendment rights.  Any judge would see through the maneuver.  So why do the courts invoke the same meaningless distinction when it comes to the right to trial?

Because more than 90% of defendants waive the right to trial, usually for fear of the trial penalty.  If the penalty were held unconstitutional, it could overwhelm the system.  But is that a good enough reason to trample a constitutional right?  Under America’s Constitution, rights are the absolutes to which practical considerations must adapt.  We can build more courthouses and appoint more judges and prosecutors to accommodate the right to trial.  We can also decriminalize many actions that are today treated as crimes, beginning with drug use....  

The time has come to end the unconstitutional trial penalty.

November 6, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)