Wednesday, January 12, 2022

"No Justice, No Pleas: Subverting Mass Incarceration Through Defendant Collective Action"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new essay authored by Andrew Manuel Crespo now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The American penal system is a system of massive, oppressive, racially unjust incarceration.  It is also, to quote the Supreme Court, a “system of pleas.”  The latter drives the former, as coercive plea bargaining makes it possible for the state to do two things that are otherwise hard to pull off at once: increase convictions and sentence lengths.  Mass incarceration is a predictable result.

But while plea bargaining is intensely coercive when leveraged against individuals, the system of pleas has a structural weak point.  That Achilles heel is exposed once we see people facing prosecution not as isolated individuals but rather as a potentially collective community of power.  Organized to act together, this community has unique resources. Most notably, they have the power to say “not guilty” when asked “how do you plead?” If done together, this simple but profound act of resistance would grind the penal system to a halt.  Courts and prosecutors simply do not have the resources to sustain mass incarceration while affording everyone accused of a crime the constitutionally guaranteed right to a trial.  This fact is what makes plea bargaining so essential to mass incarceration in the first place.  Plea bargaining unions, with their implicit power to threaten plea bargaining strikes, thus hold a potentially radical transformative power — a decarceral power, a democratic power — that arises from the penal system’s massive overextension.

Susan Burton, a formerly incarcerated organizer, floated this idea in the pages of the New York Times with Michelle Alexander one decade ago. In the years since, it has never received focused academic attention and has seen only sporadic and isolated attempts at implementation.  This essay is the first installment of a broader project that aims to conceptualize, strategize, and test the limits of Burton’s idea. The immediate goals here are to chart some of the contours of Burton’s core insight — examining both its promise and its hurdles — while marking some key questions for future exploration.

January 12, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (24)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overview

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

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

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

Key Findings

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

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

"The Original Criminal Jury"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Jeff Hetzel recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

In early America, the criminal jury decided matters of law.  The prosecutor and defense counsel read aloud to the jury from statutes, precedent, and treatises.  The presiding judge instructed the jury that it had the power to decide matters of law.  Then, the jury deliberated and rendered a verdict based on, among other things, its independent judgment about matters of law, whether that meant the common law, statutes, or the Constitution.

The legal world has for generations failed to recognize the power of the original criminal jury.  Those who have not ignored the evidence of the jury’s power over matters of law have tended to interpret it as an early form of jury nullification, by which the jury could review the morality of the prosecution.  But a careful examination of early practice reveals that the jury held no more power to nullify than it does today.  Rather, the early American jury held the power to do what judges today are expected do — to decide what the law means without deciding its morality.

This Article reintroduces this forgotten — yet still constitutionally binding — model of the criminal jury.

January 12, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

"Compassionate Release as Compassionate Decarceration: State Influence on Federal Compassionate Release and the Unfinished Federal Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Chun Hin Jeffrey Tsoi now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The First Step Act's (FSA) compassionate release reform was a “modest but necessary” step; the pandemic and the threat it posed to the incarcerated population ought to prompt reflections on what the next steps should be.  This Essay is intended to serve as both a brief historical review of state influence on federal compassionate release, and as a reflection on the unfinished compassionate release reform in terms of DOJ’s execution. 

Part I briefly surveys the trajectory of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c) from the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) to the Prisoner-initiated & Court-ordered (PICO) compassionate release provision in the FSA, and its application in the pandemic.  Part II supplements the compassionate release literature by exploring the history of PICO compassionate release in state law as a backdrop of the long-awaited federal reform allowing prisoners to petition for their own release, and it proposes that state practices, especially that of New Jersey, might have influenced the introduction and passage of FSA in part through the Model Penal Code.  Part III suggests that the arc of compassionate release reform in federal law is nevertheless unfinished, with the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) objection practices being part of the necessary change.  Using data and cases from the District of Columbia, whose PICO compassionate release statute is modeled after federal law and clearly intended as a response to the pandemic, this Essay proposes that the DOJ's perspective and practices must change to adapt to the essential purpose of compassionate release: addressing mass incarceration in America with compassion.

January 11, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

New paper explores "Reimagining Judging" in the US "after a decades long love affair with prison"

Retired US District Judge Nancy Gertner, who is now teaches at Harvard Law School, has this great new 44-page report titled "Reimagining Judging" released as part of the the Square One Project's Executive Session on the Future of Justice Policy.  This press release and this executive summary provides an overview of the report, but my post title draws on this passage from the report that helps frame how Judge Gertner approaches this critical project:

Countless papers have been written about the perils of unstructured discretion — discrimination and bias chief among them (Frankel 1973).  But I want to raise another issue: The unique problem of giving judges discretion in sentencing at this moment in time, after a decades long love affair with prison.  How can judges who have been schooled in the extraordinarily punitive system that produced mass incarceration for the past thirty years suddenly operate in a system that — one hopes — will reflect wholly different premises?  How can a judicial system based on one set of assumptions suddenly enact or apply a wholly different approach?  These are precisely the same questions we have asked of police, correctional officers, and prosecutors in a changed criminal legal system.  Is change possible in juvenile correctional facilities that reflected hard-nosed punishment, too often accompanied by physical and sexual abuse scandals?  Is change possible with police schooled to be warriors, not guardians?  Although surprising at first blush, assuming that law-following judges will enforce such institutional changes — much like with these other actors — is not enough.

In this paper, I touch first on judicial resistance to recent modest criminal law reforms, one example of what I have described elsewhere as the phenomenon of “the habits of mass incarceration” (Gertner 2020).  Then I sketch out — very briefly — the factors that make judges resistant to change: constraints that apparently limit a judge’s horizons, cognitive influences that they ignore, and political pressures that are unexamined.  Finally, I propose a way to effect change — a very preliminary suggestion.

Several caveats: I am generalizing from my experiences from 17 years in the federal system.  This is not an empirical paper.  Not all judges fit these descriptions.  Nor is this paper about what needs to be changed in the broader criminal legal system; others are dealing with those profound and overarching questions.  Finally, the message here is not that judicial change is impossible, only that it is difficult.  Any “reimagining project” must take judicial impediments to change into account; this paper considers how to revamp the criminal legal system through the lens of those who must apply that system’s rules.

January 11, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Still more data linking recent surge in gun sales to recent surge in murders

This new Atlantic piece, authored by Jeff Asher and Rob Arthur, provides yet another set of data points detailing the possible connection between an increase in gun purchases and a consequent increase in murders. The piece's full title summarizes its themes: "The Data Are Pointing to One Major Driver of America’s Murder Spike: A massive increase in gun sales in early 2020 seems to have contributed to the recent rise in homicides." Here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece:

After murders in the United States soared to more than 21,000 in 2020, researchers began searching for a definitive explanation why. Many factors may have contributed, such as a pandemic-driven loss of social programs and societal and policing changes after George Floyd’s murder. But one hypothesis is simpler, and perhaps has significant explanatory power: A massive increase in gun sales in early 2020 led to additional murders.

New data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) suggest that that indeed may have been the case. According to the data, newly purchased weapons found their way into crimes much more quickly and often last year than in prior years. That seems to point to a definitive conclusion — that new guns led to more murders — but the data set cannot prove that just yet....

Right now, we know that gun sales rose dramatically starting in March 2020, and that murder—driven by gun murders—increased substantially a few months later. We have strong evidence that more people were carrying guns before murder went up in 2020, and the ATF data tell us that newly purchased firearms were used in more crimes than usual. It stands to reason that new guns helped feed 2020’s murder surge, though the data to confirm this conclusion remain agonizingly out of reach. The data aren’t perfect, but they’re strongly suggestive: More guns are behind America’s murder spike.

A few of many prior related posts:

January 11, 2022 in Gun policy and sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 10, 2022

Advocacy groups giving poor first-year grades to Prez Biden on criminal justice reform

This new Law360 piece, headlined "At 1-Year Mark, Groups Discontent With Biden Justice Reform," reports on an interesting effort to "grade" the Biden Administration for its criminal justice record at the end of its first year. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

President Joe Biden's progress on criminal justice reform after nearly one year in office has dissatisfied some advocacy leaders who were once hopeful that the president would prioritize this reform.

During Biden's presidential campaign, he made more than 100 criminal justice reform promises, including to end mandatory minimum prison sentences, stop use of the death penalty and eliminate cash bail. However, the president hasn't fulfilled these reforms or many of his other justice campaign promises, advocates say.

In a recent Law360 poll of 13 organizations, seven organizations gave Biden a grade of "D" or "F" for his policy and legislative actions in his first year, and the majority of respondents reported being "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with his reform progress....

The 13 organizations were mixed about Biden's rhetoric on criminal justice reform. Roughly half of them gave the president a grade of "A" or "B" and the other half gave him a grade of "D" or "F." One organization gave his rhetoric a grade of "C."

But the majority of organizations gave Biden's overall progress on criminal justice reform in his first year a grade of "D" or "F." Three organizations said his overall progress was "above average" or "very good" and two groups said his progress was "average."

In the early days of Biden's administration, the president did take quick action on justice reform by issuing an order phasing out the use of privately operated prisons. Later, he also restored the U.S. Department of Justice's Office for Access to Justice, implemented restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants for federal law enforcement and opened up access to re-entry services for people who were formerly incarcerated.

After much pleading from criminal justice reform groups, Biden's Justice Department reversed course on a previous decision and said in December that individuals who were released on home confinement because of the COVID-19 pandemic could stay out of prison.

Advocates, however, say that in Biden's first year, the president missed several opportunities to make key reforms including ending unjust prison sentences through the clemency process and dispelling the narrative that justice reforms will lead to more crime....

A spokesperson for the White House did not respond to a request for comment about Biden's progress on criminal justice reform.

According to Law360's poll, the majority of respondents were "hopeful" or "very hopeful" that when Biden first took office, he would prioritize criminal justice reform. However, after Biden's first year in office, only three organizations reported that they were "hopeful" or "very hopeful" the president would prioritize justice reform during the rest of his administration....

Not all advocates have lost hope though. Miriam Krinsky, a poll participant and executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, told Law360 that she remains hopeful because of the people that Biden has appointed to be federal prosecutors, sit on the federal judicial bench and lead the DOJ. "I think [Biden] is taking seriously the need to reset the legal system, and putting people in place in criminal justice positions that are thinking differently," Krinsky said.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

January 10, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Rounding up some notable Sunday criminal justice reads

In recent days, I have seen an assortment of interesting criminal justice pieces on an assortment of topics.  Here is a round up, with full headlines to provide a big of a preview:

From The Atlantic, "Justice Reformers Need to Update Their Priors: As a long decline in murder rates reverses, proponents of draconian law enforcement shouldn’t be allowed to monopolize the discussion."

From The Guardian, "The racist 1890 law that’s still blocking thousands of Black Americans from voting"

From The Marshall Project, "The Criminal Justice Issue Nobody Talks About: Brain Injuries; I know firsthand what it’s like to navigate the criminal justice system with a brain injury caused by domestic violence. I also live with the fact that an injury like mine can turn a victim into a perpetrator." 

From The New Republic, "Most January 6 Defendants Are Getting Light Sentences—and That’s OK; Judges have been relatively merciful in punishing the first tranche of Capitol rioters, with good reason."

From Time, "The Crisis at the D.C. Jail Began Decades Before Jan. 6 Defendants Started Raising Concerns"

From Undark, "The Public Health Case for Decarcerating America’s Prison System: The pandemic has illustrated all too clearly how unsafe conditions in prisons boomerang back on the general population."

January 9, 2022 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 8, 2022

"Count the Code: Quantifying Federalization of Criminal Statutes"

SR-count-the-code-charts-page6The title of this post is the title of this fascinating new Heritage Foundation report authored by GianCarlo Canaparo, Patrick McLaughlin, Jonathan Nelson and Liya Palagashvili. Here is the report's summary and "key takeaways":

SUMMARY

The authors have developed an algorithm to quantify the number of statutes within the U.S. Code that create one or more federal crimes.  As of 2019, we found 1,510 statutes that create at least one crime.  This represents an increase of nearly 36 percent relative to the 1,111 statutes that created at least one crime in 1994.  Although the algorithm cannot precisely count discrete crimes within sections, we estimate the number of crimes contained within the Code as of 2019 at 5,199.  These findings support the conclusion that the number of federal crimes has increased, while also bolstering concerns that federal crimes are too diffuse, too numerous, and too vague for the average citizen to know what the law requires.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • This study quantifies the number of federal statutes that create a crime and estimates 5,199 federal crimes within the United States Code.
  • From 1994 to 2019, the number of sections that create a federal crime increased 36 percent.
  • Because many of these crimes apply to conduct no rational person would expect to be a crime, the government is potentially turning average Americans into criminals.

This report, and its useful but brief discussion of the "Relationship Between Federalization of Crime and Federal Prisoners" which includes the graphic reprinted above, got me to thinking about how hard it would be to effectively quantify and assess changes in federal sentencing law over the last 35 years since the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.  I was thinking about this challenge because, based on a quick read, I cannot quite tell if the algorithm used in this study picked up only federal statutes that created new crimes or also captured statutes that only changed the penalties for existing crimes (which happens fairly often).

Notably, from 1984 through 2009, most new federal sentencing laws enacted by Congress increased statutory penalties (often in complicated ways).  But the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act and the 2018 FIRST STEP Act serve as recent examples lowering statutory penalties (also in complicated ways).  And then, of course, starting in the late 1980s, federal law was significantly shaped by yearly federal sentencing guideline changes, some of which were directed by Congress.  There have been over 800 guideline amendments, some minor (and mandatory before 2005), others major (and advisory after 2005), some even retroactive.  And, thanks to Apprendi-Booker, ACCA interpretations and other jurisprudential messes, the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have been "changing" federal sentencing law in various significant ways almost continuously over this period.

January 8, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, January 7, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some more highlights from among many great new Inquest pieces

It has been a month since my last blog posting about Inquest, "a decarceral brainstorm," which means I am behind in flagging its latest must-read essays.  I will have to be content to just flag here with flagging a handful of the many newer pieces worth checking out:

By Kanav Kathuria, "The Invisible Violence of Carceral Food: There’s no such thing as a ‘humane’ eating environment in a penal system that inherently produces so much illness and death."

By Hannah Riley, "Too Little, Too Late: The bureaucracy in charge of parole in Georgia hasn’t kept up with the reality that the state’s prison system is a hotbed of death and despair."

By Sandhya Kajeepeta, "Community Spread: People in counties with higher jail populations are getting sicker and dying younger. The data shows that mass incarceration is playing a role."

By Hernandez Stroud, "Building Bridges: There’s a direct link between the penal system and community wellbeing. Here’s why, and how, I decided to teach that connection to a group of public-health students."

January 7, 2022 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 6, 2022

"Error Aversions and Due Process"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Brandon Garrett and Gregory Mitchell. Here is its abstract:

William Blackstone famously expressed the view that convicting the innocent constitutes a much more serious error than acquitting the guilty.  This view is the cornerstone of due process protections for those accused of crimes, giving rise to the presumption of innocence and the high burden of proof required for criminal convictions.  While most legal elites share Blackstone’s view, the citizen-jurors tasked with making due process protections a reality do not share the law’s preference for false acquittals over false convictions.

Across multiple national surveys, sampling more than 10,000 people, we find that a majority of Americans views false acquittals and false convictions to be errors of equal magnitude.  Contrary to Blackstone, most people are unwilling to err on the side of letting the guilty go free to avoid convicting the innocent.  Indeed, a sizeable minority views false acquittals as worse than false convictions; this group is willing to convict multiple innocent persons to avoid letting one guilty person go free.  These value differences translate into behavioral differences: we show in multiple studies that jury-eligible adults who reject Blackstone’s view are more accepting of prosecution evidence and more conviction prone than the minority of potential jurors who agrees with Blackstone.

These findings have important implications for our understanding of due process and criminal justice policy.  Due process currently depends on jurors faithfully following instructions on the burden of proof, but many jurors are not disposed to hold the state to its high burden.  Courts should do away with the fiction that the reasonable doubt standard guarantees due process and consider protections that do not depend on jurors honoring the law’s preference for false acquittals, such as more stringent pre-trial screening of criminal cases and stricter limits on prosecution evidence.  Furthermore, the fact that many people place crime control on par with, or above, the need to avoid wrongful convictions helps explain divisions in public opinion on important policy questions such as bail and sentencing reform.  Criminal justice proposals that emphasize deontic concerns without addressing consequentialist concerns are unlikely to garner widespread support.

January 6, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Head of federal Bureau of Prisons has resigned (though will stay on pending a successor)

As reported in this new AP piece: "The director of the federal Bureau of Prisons is resigning amid increasing scrutiny over his leadership in the wake of Associated Press reporting that uncovered widespread problems at the agency, including a recent story detailing serious misconduct involving correctional officers." Here is more:

Michael Carvajal, a Trump administration holdover who’s been at the center of myriad crises within the federal prison system, has told Attorney General Merrick Garland he is resigning, the Justice Department said. He will stay on for an interim period until a successor is in place. It is unclear how long that process would take.

His exit comes just weeks after the AP revealed that more than 100 Bureau of Prisons workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019, including a warden charged with sexually abusing an inmate. The AP stories pushed Congress into investigating and prompted increased calls to resign by lawmakers, including the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee....

The administration had faced increasing pressure to remove Carvajal and do more to fix the federal prison system after President Joe Biden’s campaign promise to push criminal justice reforms. The Bureau of Prisons is the largest Justice Department agency, budgeted for around 37,500 employees and over 150,000 federal prisoners. Carvajal presided over an extraordinary time of increased federal executions and a pandemic that ravaged the system.

After the AP’s story was published in November, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin demanded Carvajal’s firing. Several congressional committees had also been looking into Carvajal and the Bureau of Prisons, questioning employees about misconduct allegations.

In a statement, Durbin, D-Ill., said Carvajal “has failed to address the mounting crises in our nation’s federal prison system, including failing to fully implement the landmark First Step Act,” a bipartisan criminal justice measure passed during the Trump administration that was meant to improve prison programs and reduce sentencing disparities.

“His resignation is an opportunity for new, reform-minded leadership at the Bureau of Prisons,” Durbin said.

Carvajal, 54, was appointed director in February 2020 by then-Attorney General William Barr, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began raging in federal prisons nationwide, leaving tens of thousands of inmates infected with the virus and resulting in 266 deaths.

COVID-19 is again exploding in federal prisons, with more than 3,000 active cases among inmates and staff as of Wednesday, compared with around 500 active cases as of mid-December. All but four BOP facilities are currently operating with drastic modifications because of the pandemic, with many suspending visiting.

Especially with implementation of the FIRST STEP Act on tap (discussed here), on top of all the other challenges prisons face amid a pandemic, leading BOP is anything but an easy job these days.  But I share Senator Durbin's hope that "new, reform-minded leadership" at the BOP will be forthcoming.

January 5, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Highlighting the challenging issues of implementing the FIRST STEP Act's earned time credits

Walter Pavlo has this extended new Forbes piece detailing some of the nettlesome issues that surround implementation of various parts of the FIRST STEP Act. The piece is headlined "Implementation Of The Criminal Justice Reform Law, First Step Act, Will Likely End Up In Court," and here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump signed one of the most sweeping criminal justice reform laws, The First Step Act (FSA), into law on December 21, 2018.  Since then, its interpretation has been debated and argued, mostly behind closed doors in Washington, on how to fully implement it.  One lesser defined part of FSA is whether or not those in custody within the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), could earn credits for participation in classes and meaningful activities in order to get time reduced off of their sentence.  COVID’s wrath on the BOP slowed FSA implementation but we are on the cusp of discovering the extent of the law’s effects on those currently incarcerated....

By January 24, 2022, the BOP is under a mandate to have the FSA fully implemented.  Under the FSA, prisoners who successfully complete recidivism reduction programming and productive activities are eligible to earn up to 10 days of FSA Time Credits for every 30 days of program participation.  Minimum and low-risk classified prisoners who successfully complete recidivism reduction programming and productive activities and whose assessed risk of recidivism has not increased over two consecutive assessments are eligible to earn up to an additional 5 days of FSA Time Credits for every 30 days of successful participation.  However, prisoners serving a sentence for a conviction of any one of multiple enumerated offenses are ineligible to earn additional FSA Time Credits regardless of risk level.  It is complicated.

Many of the BOP’s facilities are understaffed and pressures of COVID combined with prisoner lockdowns has led many institutions to suspend or delay many of the programs that could have counted toward FSA credits.  Now an internal memorandum posted at some prison camps across the country is causing a stir because of how sweeping the FSA may be for prisoners.  The memo stated [with caveats and exclusions]: "Under the First Step Act of 2018 (FSA), eligible inmates may earn Federal Time Credit (FTC) for successful participation in Evidence-Based Recidivism Programs and Productive Activities.... Inmates are now eligible to earn FTC retroactively back to December 21, 2018; this award will be based on criteria established by BOP."...

Far from clarifying things, the implementation of FSA, based on this limited amount of information, will be almost impossible over the near term.  This affects multiple levels of the criminal justice system; prisons, halfway houses, home confinement and supervised release.  It is an intricate web of agencies that manage the incarceration and supervision of hundreds of thousands of people in the federal criminal justice system.

Those in prison want to be out of the institution.  With many programs suspended in institutions, prisoners have been looking to “Productive Activities,” like a job in the prison, as a means to gain FSA credits.  However, interpretation of that term has been the subject of discussion ever since FSA was passed.  The list of program classes eligible for credit is limited and the hours associated with each one must be based on a need assessment of the prisoner.  It is unknown how a BOP case manager can look back until 2018 for classes (programs) that did not even exist because there was no FSA until December 2018.  In order for “Productive Activities” during the time frame of 2018-2021, it must mean that the BOP is interpreting a broad definition of the term ... I know the prisoners’ interpretation....

Indeed, there will be many prisoners on January 15, 2022 who are being detained unlawfully if the law comes into effect on that day and they are still incarcerated ... that is going to happen.  Thousands will file lawsuits whether they are in prison, halfway houses, home confinement or supervised release, fighting for their right to a broadly defined, and subject to BOP discretion, FSA credit.  Rather than Trump’s FSA being a law, it is going to be subject to interpretation by judges across the country.

While this information is welcome news to those incarcerated, it is also a monumental task for BOP case managers.  Case managers are primarily responsible for moving inmates from prison to halfway houses and home confinement.  It requires a tremendous amount of paperwork and coordination, often taking months.  There is also the additional issue of capacity at halfway houses and monitoring.  This is going to be more complicated than anyone ever imagined.

January 5, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Senator Cotton criticizes new OLC opinion on CARES home confinement and asks AG Garland lots of follow-up questions

Though the season of the Grinch may be over, US Senator Tom Cotton is starting the new year full of grinchy grouchiness about various criminal justice issues.  I noted here his recent foolish op-ed fretting about a "jailbreak" and an "under-incarceration crisis," and now a helpful colleague made sure I did not miss this press release from the Senator's office titled "Cotton Demands Answers from DOJ About Releasing Criminals to Home Confinement."  Here is how the release starts:

Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) today wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland regarding the Department of Justice’s recent decision to ignore the clear limits placed by Congress on pandemic-related home confinement of convicted federal criminals.

In part, Cotton wrote, “The Department’s Office of Legal Counsel correctly concluded in January 2021 that the only tenable reading of the CARES Act is that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) could only exercise expanded home confinement placement authority during the coronavirus national emergency, and that the law requires that the BOP return such inmates to prison and follow the limits of longstanding federal law following the end of the emergency.”

“Unfortunately, it seems that you have now decided to bow to the pressure from political activists rather than do your job.  The Office of Legal Counsel, at your direction, issued a slapdash opinion reversing itself in December 2021.  That new opinion is not based on the law, but rather on the policy goals of criminal leniency,” Cotton continued.

The full three-page letter may be found here at this link, and there is more Tom Cotton "tough and tougher" bluster at the start of the letter.  But the questions that make up the heart of the letter are intriguing on a number of fronts, and I would be especially interested to see if and how AG Garland and his team responds to these closing queries:

Please provide a list of all inmates who are currently placed on home confinement under the temporary authority granted by the CARES Act, broken down by primary offense, total sentence length, and the number of months remaining under their sentence. 

How many inmates who were placed on home confinement under the temporary authority granted by the CARES Act have had their home confinement rescinded or have been rearrested for a new offense?  Please provide a description of the offenses for which any such inmates have been rearrested, or the reasons for which their home confinement was rescinded.

Just a few of many prior related posts:

January 4, 2022 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Fascinating sentencing sentiments and commitments in new policy memo from new Manhattan DA

A notable new staff memo from the new Manhattan DA is making new headlines, such as this notable one from the New York Post: "Manhattan DA to stop seeking prison sentences in slew of criminal cases."  Here is a bit of context from the press piece:

Manhattan’s new DA has ordered his prosecutors to stop seeking prison sentences for hordes of criminals and to downgrade felony charges in cases including armed robberies and drug dealing, according to a set of progressive policies made public Tuesday.

In his first memo to staff on Monday, Alvin Bragg said his office “will not seek a carceral sentence” except with homicides and a handful of other cases, including domestic violence felonies, some sex crimes and public corruption. “This rule may be excepted only in extraordinary circumstances based on a holistic analysis of the facts, criminal history, victim’s input (particularly in cases of violence or trauma), and any other information available,” the memo reads.

Assistant district attorneys must also now keep in mind the “impacts of incarceration” including on public safety, barriers to housing and employment, financial cost and race disparities, Bragg instructed.

In cases where prosecutors do seek to put a convict behind bars, the request can be for no more than 20 years for a determinate sentence, meaning one that can’t be reviewed or changed by a parole board. “The Office shall not seek a sentence of life without parole,” the memo states.

This "first memo to staff" includes a three-page introductory accounting of DA Bragg's vision of the work of his office, as well as a seven page "Policy & Procedure Memorandum." These documents, both available here, are fascinating reads and here are just a few notable excerpt from these documents (with footnotes, numbering and some context left out):

I have dedicated my career to the inextricably linked goals of safety and fairness. This memo sets out charging, bail, plea, and sentencing policies that will advance both goals. Data, and my personal experiences, show that reserving incarceration for matters involving significant harm will make us safer....

Invest more in diversion and alternatives to incarceration: Well-designed initiatives that support and stabilize people – particularly individuals in crisis and youth – can conserve resources, reduce re-offending, and diminish the collateral harms of criminal prosecution....

Focus on Accountability, Not Sentence Length: Research is clear that, after a certain length, longer sentences do not deter crime or result in greater community safety.  Further, because survivors and victims of crime often want more than the binary choice between incarceration and no incarceration, we will expand our use of restorative justice programming....

The Office will not seek a carceral sentence other than for homicide or other cases involving the death of a victim, a class B violent felony in which a deadly weapon causes serious physical injury, domestic violence felonies, sex offenses in Article 130 of the Penal Law, public corruption, rackets, or major economic crimes, including any attempt to commit any such offense under Article 110 of the Penal Law, unless required by law.  For any charge of attempt to cause serious physical injury with a dangerous instrument, ADAs must obtain the approval of an ECAB supervisor to seek a carceral sentence....

ADAs shall presumptively indict both top counts and lesser included counts when presenting cases to the grand jury, permitting a wider range of statutorily permissible plea bargaining options. This presumption can be overcome with supervisory approval....

For any case in which a person violates the terms of a non-carceral sentence or pre-plea programming mandate, the Office will seek a carceral “alternative” only as a matter of last resort. The Office will take into account that research shows that relapses are a predictable part of the road to recovery for those struggling with substance abuse, and the Office will reserve carceral recommendations for repeated violations of the terms of a mandate.

January 4, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tenth Circuit panel find sentence increase for open plea to be procedurally unreasonable

One of many challenges in the world of sentencing policy and practice, especially when it comes to appellate review, is that a sentencing judge who often extensively explains his or her sentencing decision-making at length is often more likely to articulate a legally problematic reason that then provides the basis for a sentence reversal.   This reality is demonstrated in a new Tenth Circuit panel decision in US v. Cozad, No. 20-3233 (10th Cir. Jan. 3, 2022) (available here).  Cozad is a really interesting opinion for lots of reasons, and it starts with the district court at sentencing explaining why the defendant was here getting a sentence a few months above the bottom of the guideline range in this particular way:

[I]t’s always been my practice to say if someone agrees to a plea agreement, the additional conditions that are obtained in that, they’re entitled to additional consideration, which is where I start at a low end guideline range.  But in my calculation, without a plea agreement, I have always started with looking more at the mid-tier of the guideline range, which is where I think the guidelines initially envisioned that courts would operate, and not giving them the additional credit for actually entering into a plea agreement to do that.

Here is how the Tenth Circuit panel framed the issue that this statement of sentencing reasons presented on appeal:

This appeal raises one issue: whether, under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), it is unreasonable for a district court to impose a harsher sentence based on a defendant’s decision to plead guilty without a plea agreement. For the reasons explained below, we hold that it is.

There are lots of parts to the opinion that follows which serves as an effective overview of various aspects of reasonableness review and plea policies and practices. I highly recommend the full opinion for federal sentencing fans, and here are some notable excerpts (with lots of cites omitted):

[A]lthough the district court stated that its practice was not “a hard-and-fast rule by any means,” the court did not explain why it was applying the rule in Ms. Cozad’s case.  Similarly, although the district court made a passing reference to “the agreements that typically happen in a plea agreement,” the court did not specify what those “agreements” are. On this record, therefore, we cannot but conclude that the district court gave Ms. Cozad a longer sentence than she otherwise would have received simply because she pled guilty without a plea agreement. Whether it was permissible for the district court to do so appears to be a question of first impression in this or any other circuit....

For reasons of history, as well as congressional intent, appellate courts have interpreted § 3553(a) liberally.  Nevertheless, a district court does not enjoy boundless discretion with respect to the facts it relies on at sentencing.... Even when the fact ostensibly relates to the defendant’s conduct or characteristics, its consideration may be grounds for remand when the fact has no bearing on any of the aims of punishment set forth in § 3553(a)(2)....

The government argues that a district court may consider the absence of a plea agreement because such agreements often include certain conditions, such as appellate waivers.... When the parties reach an agreement, a district court can evaluate the terms, including any waivers, in the context of the agreement as a whole to determine the degree to which the waivers may show some additional acceptance of responsibility. By contrast, when the defendant enters an open plea, the court may not know whether any plea agreement was offered, let alone under what terms. Indeed, there is no evidence in this case that an appellate waiver was ever discussed. In these circumstances, without more information, it is unreasonable to penalize the defendant for the absence of an appellate waiver in a nonexistent agreement....

The government further argues that courts may “for uniformity purposes” grant “additional leniency” to defendants who enter into plea agreements and withhold it from those who do not.  The government reasons that, were a court required to sentence a defendant who pleads open “to the same sentence he would have had, had he taken a plea agreement,” there would be “no compelling reason” for a defendant to accept the conditions of a plea bargain.  We are not convinced....

[E]ven in cases where there is only a single viable charge, the government could threaten to recommend a harsher sentence or to pursue an aggressive interpretation of the guidelines.  Consequently, because courts are free to take the government’s recommendation into account, a defendant who refuses to plea bargain would still risk receiving a higher sentence in many cases.

More fundamentally, the government’s argument fails because providing a “compelling reason” for a defendant to enter a plea agreement, whether by granting “additional leniency” or withholding it, is not a valid sentencing rationale.  Section 3553(a) provides that courts are to impose no more punishment than is necessary to comply with the four penological goals enumerated in § 3553(a)(2). When a court imposes a sentence to achieve some other purpose, that sentence is unlawful.

January 4, 2022 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Racial Attitudes and Criminal Justice Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new paper soon to be published in the journal Crime and Justice.  The article is authored by Francis Cullen, Leah Butler and Amanda Graham, and here is its abstract:

Empirical research on public policy preferences must attend to Whites’ animus toward Blacks.  For a quarter-century, studies have consistently found that Kinder and Sanders’s four-item measure of “racial resentment” is a robust predictor of almost every social and criminal justice policy opinion.  Racial animus increases Whites’ opposition to social welfare policies that benefit Blacks and their support for punitive policies that disadvantage this “out-group.”  Any public opinion study that fails to include racial resentment risks omitted variable bias.  Despite the continuing salience of out-group animus, recent scholarship, especially in political science, has highlighted other racial attitudes that can influence public policy preferences.  Two developments are of particular importance.  First, Chudy showed the progressive impact of racial sympathy, a positive out-group attitude in which Whites are distressed by incidents of Blacks’ suffering (such as the killing of George Floyd).  Second, Jardina and others documented that Whites’ in-group racial attitudes, such as White identity/consciousness or white nationalism, have political consequences, reinforcing the effects of racial resentment.  As the United States becomes a majority-minority nation, diverse in-group and out-group racial attitudes are likely to play a central role in policies — including within criminal justice — that the public endorses.

January 3, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senator Cotton leans into political foolishness rather than serious policy issues in latest "jailbreak" commentary

Senator Tom Cotton is always eager to provide a "tough-and-tougher" perspective on criminal justice issues, and he has long responded to advocacy against mass incarceration by claiming that the US actually has an "under-incarceration problem."  Some time ago, I was described at least some of his takes on criminal justice issues as at least somewhat thoughtful, but more recently it seems Senator Cotton has been content to make op-ed claims which are quite suspect and have been described as "horrifically dishonest" and are disconnected from political and social reality.  His latest commentary, published here today at Fox News, sets the bar especially low to start 2022 because he turns serious criminal justice policy issues into political posturing.  Here are some key parts of this piece (with a few phrases highlighted for follow-up commentary): 

In 2020, our nation’s state and federal prison populations plummeted 15% to the lowest levels since 1992 — at the same time, murders skyrocketed nearly 30% to the highest level since 1998.  By the middle of last year, local jail populations similarly shrank by an astonishing 25%.  In raw numbers, state and federal authorities reduced their prison populations by 214,000 in 2020 and local authorities reduced their jail populations by 185,000 compared to 2019.  This is the worst jailbreak in American history and was committed in broad daylight.  Our nation has paid the price.

So-called "coronavirus protocols" caused most of these reductions.  Last year, the federal government sent thousands of inmates home in response to the pandemic.  Rikers Island in New York City released 1,500 criminals, and Chicago’s largest prison released a quarter of its inmates.

Democrat-run states also released convicted murderers and an untold number of violent felons in the name of "public health."  In Virginia, an accused rapist murdered his accuser.  In Florida, a documented gang member murdered a 28-year-old.  In my home state of Arkansas, a career criminal murdered a police officer.  What did these murderers have in common?  They had all been released early from jail due to concerns about coronavirus....

The rash of early releases is not the entire story.  The drop in incarceration in 2020 was also fueled by a shocking 40% nationwide decline in the admission of newly sentenced criminals — which indicates a massive decrease in prosecutions.  In New York, there was an even starker 60% drop in admission of newly sentenced criminals.  In California, there was a 66% drop, the biggest decline of any state.  This concentrated drop in prosecutions is virtually unexplainable, except by the proliferation of progressive "Soros prosecutors" and a shrinking willingness to hold the guilty accountable.

There were certainly plenty of crimes to prosecute last year when over 100,000 Americans died from homicide and drug overdoses and the nation was wracked with the worst rioting in a generation. Initial data also shows that California experienced a 31% increase in murders, while New York experienced a 142% increase in gang killings and a 42% increase in murders overall.... This under-incarceration crisis must end.

All serious people should be taking seriously how the COVID pandemic has been impacting US crime rates, criminal justice case processing, and prison and jail populations. But talking about these issues in terms of "Democrat-run states" and "the proliferation of progressive Soros prosecutors" is so foolish simply in light of the data. 

For starters, it is notable and amusing that, right after complaining about releases in "Democrat-run states," Senator Cotton then gives examples of crimes in GOP-run states of Arkansas and Florida.  More systematically, the uptick in murders in 2020 was a nationwide phenomenon as this Pew report highlights, and many GOP states had the highest uptick in murder rates: "At least eight states saw their murder rates rise by 40% or more last year, with the largest percentage increases in Montana (+84%), South Dakota (+81%), Delaware (+62%) and Kentucky (+61%), according to the CDC."  (Indeed, this US News piece reveals that the top seven states in terms of homicide rates in 2020 were all "red" states.)

Turning toward prison populations and drops in prosecutions, this dynamic is again not an issue involving only "blue" states and "progressive Soros prosecutors."  Senator Cotton appears to be cherry picking some numbers from this recent BJS report titled "Prisoners in 2020 – Statistical Tables."  But Figure 3 of that report shows that the top four jurisdictions with biggest 2020 reductions in prison population were, in order, California, the federal system, Texas and Florida.  In 2020, three of those four jurisdictions were under GOP control.  Similarly, though I do not recall Prez Trump appointing any "progressive Soros prosecutors," the data show that the federal system saw a 40% decline in prison admissions; "red" states ranging from Florida to Idaho to Indiana to Kentucky to Kansas to South Carolina all saw above-national-average declines in the admission of sentenced prisoners.

Political foolishness aside, if Senator Cotton really wants to get serious about pandemic era crime and punishment issues, why is he not seriously trying to help develop more and deeper data about all these important and complicated trends and others.  Exactly what types of offenders have been released during pandemic?  What types of cases were prosecuted less in 2020?  Have these trends continued through 2021?  We have decent (but not great) homicide data from local police departments, but we need much better and richer data.  Notably, in 2022, Senator Cotton still references "Initial data" from 2020 on homicides.  Is this really the best we can do at the start of 2022?  And how about better data on other crimes? 

Moreover, despite two more big COVID waves in 2021, we have very little data in real-time about the national prison population (this VERA accounting as of March 2021 is the last data I have seen).  And reports suggest declines in prison populations have slowed or stopped, while jail populations have risen through 2021.  Notably, we do have real time data from the federal BOP revealing that there are now "157,654 Total Federal Inmates," which is over 6000 more federal prisoners compared to the first full day of the Biden Administration when BOP reported  151,646.  Since the federal prison population went down nearly 38,000 persons(!) under Prez Trump, and now has gone up over 6,000 persons during the first year of the Biden Administration, maybe Senator Cotton ought to consider if he should target a very different ""jailbreak" bogey-man than "progressive Soros prosecutors" is he really thinks we have an "under-incarceration crisis."  Sigh.

January 3, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Reviewing federal criminal prosecutions of January 6 rioters one year later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of many prior related posts:

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

Friday, December 31, 2021

Colorado Gov Polis demonstrates, with high-profile commutation and mass pardons, the many powers of clemency

This press release from yesterday, headlined "Governor Polis Grants Clemency, Including Marijuana Pardons," documents that it is never too late in the year for an executive leader to lead with the clemency pen.  Here are a few highlights from the release:

Governor Jared Polis announced that he has granted three commutations, fifteen individual pardons, and signed an Executive Order granting 1,351 pardons for convictions of possession of two ounces or less of marijuana.... 

The marijuana pardon applies to state-level convictions of possession for two ounces or less of marijuana, as identified by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The individuals who have these convictions did not need to apply for pardons, and the Governor’s Office has not conducted individual assessments of the people who have been pardoned through this process.  Individuals convicted of municipal marijuana crimes, or individuals arrested or issued a summons without a conviction, are not included in the pardon.... 

“Adults can legally possess marijuana in Colorado, just as they can beer or wine. It’s unfair that 1,351 additional Coloradans had permanent blemishes on their record that interfered with employment, credit, and gun ownership, but today we have fixed that by pardoning their possession of small amounts of marijuana that occurred during the failed prohibition era,” said Governor Polis.

The Governor also granted commutations to Ronald Johnson, Nicholas Wells, and Rogel Aguilera-Mederos. Mr. Johnson is granted parole effective January 15, 2022, with terms and conditions of parole to be set by the Parole Board. Mr. Wells is parole eligible on January 15, 2022. Mr. Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence is reduced to 10 years. 

The Governor granted pardons to Travis Cleveland, Anthony Formby, Rudolph Garcia, Stephanie Gssime, Michael Jordan, Timothy Lewis, Reginald McGriff, Henry Moreno, Joseph Murillo, Michael Navarro, Ryan Nguyen, Shawn Phillips, Armando Solano, Mohammed Suleiman, and Theresa Yoder.

The name Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, who had his sentence reduced to 10 years, may sound familiar. He is the trucker whose case was discussed in this post a few week ago originally sentenced to 110 years for a deadly crash due to mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

Here is some press coverage of Gov Polis' clemency work:

December 31, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 30, 2021

"How the Economic Loss Guideline Lost its Way, and How to Save It"

I have been overdue in blogging about this recent article which shares the title of this post and was published earlier this year in the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law.  This piece was authored by Barry Boss and Kara Kapp, and it is still very timely as we think about priority concerns for a new US Sentencing Commission (whenever it gets members).  In addition, the enduring issues discussed in this article could soon become a focal point of a very high-profile sentencing if a jury brings back fraud convictions against Elizabeth Holmes.  Here is this article's introduction:

This Article revisits a stubborn problem that has been explored by commentators repeatedly over the past thirty years, but which remains unresolved to this day.  The economic crimes Guideline, Section 2B1.1 of the United States Sentencing Manual, routinely recommends arbitrary, disproportionate, and often draconian sentences to first-time offenders of economic crimes.  These disproportionate sentences are driven primarily by Section 2B1.1’s current loss table, which has an outsized role in determining the length of an economic crime offender’s sentence.  Moreover, this deep flaw in the Guideline’s design has led many judges to lose confidence entirely in the Guideline’s recommended sentences, leading to a wide disparity of sentences issued to similarly situated economic crime offenders across the country.  Accordingly, this Guideline has failed to address the primary problem it was designed to solve — unwarranted disparities among similarly situated offenders.  Worse still, it not only has failed to prevent such unwarranted disparities, its underlying design actively exacerbates them.  In the wake of the United States Sentencing Commission’s recent launch of its Interactive Data Analyzer in June 2020, the authors have identified new evidence that this pernicious problem continues to persist.

In Part I, we review the history and purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines, generally, and the economic crimes Guideline specifically.  In Part II, we explain how the current version of the economic crimes Guideline operates in practice, the extraordinarily high sentences it recommends in high-loss cases, and the resulting overemphasis on loss that overstates offenders’ culpability.  In Part III, we analyze data made available through the Commission’s Interactive Data Analyzer and discuss our findings.  In Part IV, we offer a series of reforms designed to restore the judiciary’s and practitioners’ respect for this Guideline so that it may serve its animating purpose — to reduce unwarranted sentencing disparities among similarly situated offenders

December 30, 2021 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 29, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Methods of Calculating the Marginal Cost of Incarceration: A Scoping Review"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Stuart John Wilson & Jocelyne Lemoine published in the Criminal Justice Policy Review. Here is its abstract:

Criminal justice reforms and corrections cost forecasts require appropriate estimates of the marginal costs of incarceration to adequately assess cost savings and projections. Average costs are simple to calculate while marginal cost calculations require much more detailed data and advanced methods.  We undertook a scoping review to identify, report, and summarize the existing academic and gray literature covering the different estimation methods of calculating the marginal costs of incarceration, following the Arksey and O’Malley framework.  Eighteen publications met criteria for inclusion in this review, with only one from the peer-reviewed literature.  The three main approaches in the literature and their use are reviewed and illustrated.  We conclude that there is a lack of, and need for, peer-reviewed literature on methods for calculating the marginal cost of incarceration, and marginal cost estimates of incarceration, to assist program evaluation, policy, and cost forecasting in the field of corrections.

December 28, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Catching up on some criminal justice holiday commentary

A bit of a holiday blogging slow down, as well as having a pile of exams to grade, means I will need to be content here to catch up for lost time with a round-up post here. So here goes, mostly with commentary pieces along with a few notable news items:

By Carissa Byrne Hessick, "The Constitutional Right We Have Bargained Away: Instead of protecting defendants’ right to have their guilt or innocence decided by their peers, judges routinely punish defendants for exercising that right."

By Rory Fleming, "The Lack of Prosecutor Accountability Behind Trucker’s 110-Year Sentence"

By Tony Messinger, "The Conservative Case For Prison Reform"

By Walter Pavlo, "Operation 'Varsity Blues' Goes Out With Perfect Prosecution Record And A Reflection Of How The System Works"

By Austin Sarat, "How 2021 Changed the Death Penalty"

By Kenneth Starr, "To uphold the rule of law, US Supreme Court must act in Texas death penalty case"

 

From The Hill, "Report finds groups working with incarcerated women passed over for funding by feminist organizations"

From The Marshall Project, "Omicron Has Arrived. Many Prisons and Jails Are Not Ready."

From NBC News, "States make headway on criminal justice reform after Congress falls short"

December 26, 2021 in Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, December 24, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Might we celebrate this Festivus with a polite airing of sentencing grievances?

I am not quite sure if Festivus is still something in the pop culture ether, but I am sure that I still get a kick out of reviewing the faux-holiday's grand traditions,   And I am especially sure that, thanks to a seemingly endless pandemic and a toxic political environment, the Festivus tradition of airing grievances seems to be now an almost daily ritual for many. 

That all said, especially as another notable sentencing year winds down, I am eager to yet again welcome and encourage any and all readers eager to air their sentencing grievances in the comments.  As the title of this post suggests, I urge everyone to make extra efforts to be extra polite in any Festivus grievances being aired.  I hope that is not too much to ask in a holiday season.  

I will try to set the tone with a grievance that will be familiar to regular readers: I am disappointed we did not get nominations to the US Sentencing Commission in 2021.  But I am quite optimistic that we will be getting nominations in early 2022, and I am hoping a new USSC will demonstrate all sorts of "feats of strength" as it gets to work on long overdue federal sentencing reform projects.

Others?

December 23, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (14)

BOP chief from Trump Administration says "prisons are in crisis, riddled with deep and systemic ills that won’t be cured by simply replacing the BOP chief"

Hugh Hurwitz, who served as Acting Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons from May 2018 to August 2019, has this notable new Hill commentary headlined "To fix our prison system, we need far more than a change in leadership."  It is worth reading in full, and here are some extended excerpts:

U.S. prisons are in crisis, riddled with deep and systemic ills that won’t be cured by simply replacing the BOP chief.  In fact, we’ve already tried that. Carvajal, appointed last year, became the sixth director or acting director in just five years.

The reality is that one person can only do so much. I should know. I was one of those six.

The news that sparked Durbin’s ire was an Associated Press report revealing that numerous federal prison workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019.  Sadly, corruption and other malfeasance within prison systems are not uncommon.  But as Durbin rightly noted, “it’s clear that there is much going wrong in our federal prisons, and we urgently need to fix it.”...

How do we move forward?  We must rethink our overall approach to incarceration to ensure that only the right people — those who need to be separated from society or require intensive reentry programming — are confined for the appropriate amount of time.

Common-sense sentencing reforms are a good place to start.  These include mandating a greater reliance on drug courts, community service and other alternatives to prison, such as halfway houses. It also means eliminating mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes, which, among other problems, result in long sentences that drive prison populations up.

On the back end of the system, we need more intensive reentry programs to ensure that the more than 650,000 people leaving prison annually find the jobs, housing and healthcare they need to lead stable lives — and remain crime-free. Congress started this effort with bipartisan passage of the First Step Act of 2018 (co-sponsored by Durbin), but BOP needs sufficient resources to fully implement this law.

We also must invest in the recruitment, retention and training of correctional officers, while paying them on par with what other law enforcement officers earn. While the conduct spotlighted in recent news reports was reprehensible, it does not reflect the majority of BOP officers who put their lives on the line every day, and suffer disproportionately high rates of PTSD and suicide. They deserve to lead healthy lives, and their mental health has a direct impact on the orderly functioning of our prisons. It must be our concern.

Beyond such measures, Congress must tackle what should be the easiest, but may be the most divisive, piece of the debate: closing some of America’s oldest and costliest federal prisons.  Shuttering these aging lock-ups, some of which are more than a century old, would allow the BOP to reallocate staff and resources to the remaining facilities, improving safety and security while strengthening programs and services.

Closing prisons may be a hard sell to some, particularly to those in Congress.  But it has been done recently, at least at the state level. South Carolina, for example, has closed six correctional centers in the past decade, as its prison population declined following bipartisan passage of sentencing and corrections reforms in 2010.

One step the Attorney General and Congress should quickly consider is a recommendation from the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Federal Priorities, which called for creation of an independent oversight board for BOP.  This would bring outside expertise to bear on the agency’s multiple challenges while retaining the career leadership that historically has served the agency well.  The board would also provide political cover for harder choices that agency leaders and elected officials are sometimes reluctant or unable to make.

While the recent news about the BOP is disturbing, I hope it serves as a reminder of the need to rebuild our criminal justice system so that it is smaller, less punitive, more humane and safer for all.  With political will, independent oversight and an unwavering commitment, we can make holistic change to a system long in need of it.

December 23, 2021 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Legislative Regulation of Isolation in Prison: 2018-2021"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now on SSRN authored by Judith Resnik, Jenny E. Carroll, Skylar Albertson, Sarita Benesch and Wynne Muscatine Graham. Here is its abstract:

Legislative activity seeking to limit or abolish the use of solitary confinement (often termed “restrictive housing”) has increased in recent years.  Efforts to “stop” solitary (nationally and internationally) are underway through organizing, hunger strikes, litigation, administrative reform, and media campaigns.  The goal is to end the practice of leaving people in cells for hours, days, months, and years on end.

This paper provides an overview of recent pending and enacted legislative proposals. From 2018 to 2021, legislation aiming to limit or end the use of isolation in prison was introduced in more than half of the states and in the U.S. Congress.  As of the summer of 2021, legislators had proposed statutes in 32 states and in the U.S. Congress, and both states and the federal system have enacted a variety of provisions.

The statutes vary in scope.  Some are comprehensive and address the treatment of all people incarcerated within a prison or jail system and impose limits on the reasons that prison authorities can use to put individuals into isolation, the duration of such confinement, and/or the extent to which the conditions of isolation can depart from those in general population.  In addition, some statutes focus on the use of solitary confinement for subpopulations, such as pregnant or young people, or people who have received certain medical or mental health diagnoses.  Many statutes have reporting requirements to create some measures of transparency and data collection.  A few aim to create monitoring and oversight beyond the prison administration.

This paper hones in on examples of enactments by detailing statutes in Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York.  This paper also provides an integrated overview of the features of the various statutory regimes.  In addition, because Pennsylvania legislators invited members of the Liman Center to testify in August of 2021 on a proposed bill, the paper contextualizes the proposed Pennsylvania bill within the recent nationwide waves of legislative activity and analyzes the text of the proposed bill.  This paper also draws on other work of the Liman Center's researchers, who are part of collaborative efforts underway since 2013 to track the rules governing solitary confinement, the numbers of people held in prison in isolation, and the conditions of their confinement. Time-In-Cell 2019: A Snapshot of Restrictive Housing, published in September 2020, is the latest report documenting these efforts. It is available at: https://law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/area/center/liman/document/time-in-cell_2019.pdf.

This legislative analysis will, we hope, be helpful in formulating and evaluating means to limit or end the use of isolation as a disciplinary or “protective” measure.  The Liman Center will also provide periodic updates of legislative activity and trends.

December 23, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

With new OLC memo allowing home confinement cohort to stay home, what now of Prez Biden's nascent clemency efforts?

As noted in this post yesterday, some federal prisoners released due to COVID to serve their sentences on home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act received a holiday present in the form of a new opinion from the Justice Department concluding the Bureau of Prisons has "discretion to permit prisoners in extended home confinement to remain there" even after the pandemic ends.  Prior to this new opinion, there was serious concern that thousands of federal prisons might have to be sent back to prison en masse when the pandemic was declared over. 

Indeed, the concerns about having to send thousands of low-risk and well-behaving folks back to federal prison was so strong that it prompted, as detailed in prior post here and here, the Biden Administration reportedly started to gear up a screened program for (mass?) clemency program focused on nonviolent drug offenders on home confinement with less than four years remaining in their sentences.  And now I am wondering what will come of those (still nascent) clemency plans.

In this ACLU press release, ACLU Justice Division Director Udi Ofer explains why clemency is still a concern for the home confinement cohort: 

“We also recognize that the threat of eventual return to prison is still present, so we ask President Biden to use his clemency powers to provide permanent relief to families.  A future administration can still force people back to prison, and families will not have permanent closure until their cases are fully resolved.  So while we celebrate today, we also commit to continuing to advocate for President Biden to use his power of clemency to commute these sentences.”

For all sorts of reasons, a commutation of sentence to time served would surely be preferred by nonviolent drug offenders on home confinement with less than four years left on their sentences as well as by all other persons in the home confinement cohort.  Will the clemency process keep churning in DOJ and the White House for this group now?  Will advocates keep pushing clemency for this group or now turn its attention to those still stuck in federal prison during the on-going pandemic?  And will Prez Biden actually use his clemency power for anyone anytime soon?

December 22, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Japan hangs three persons for "extremely ghastly" crimes, completing first executions in two years

As reported in this CBS News piece, "Japan hanged three death-row inmates on Tuesday, its first executions in two years, amid growing criticism by human rights groups of the country's use of the death penalty."  Here is more about those executed and unique way Japan goes about carrying out death sentences:

One of the three, Yasutaka Fujishiro, was convicted of killing seven people and setting fire to their house in 2004, while the other two, Tomoaki Takanezawa and Mitsunori Onogawa, were convicted in the 2003 killings of two pinball parlor employees.

Executions are carried out in high secrecy in Japan, where prisoners are not informed of their fate until the morning they are hanged.  Since 2007, Japan has begun disclosing the names of those executed and some details of their crimes, but information is still limited.

Justice Minister Yoshihisa Furukawa said at a news conference that the three had committed "extremely ghastly" crimes and the punishment was appropriate.

Furukawa declined to comment on the timing of the executions, often carried out during the year-end holiday season when parliament is in recess, which opponents say is an attempt by the government to reduce criticism.  Japan's parliament had its final session of the year on Tuesday. "As justice minister, I authorized their executions after giving extremely careful considerations again and again," Furukawa said.

Japan now has 107 people on death row at detention centers, instead of regular prisons.  It has maintained the death penalty despite growing international criticism, saying the punishment is needed to take into consideration the victims' feelings and as a deterrence for heinous crime.

Japan and the U.S. are the only two countries in the Group of Seven industrialized nations that use capital punishment. A survey by the Japanese government showed an overwhelming majority of the public supports executions, Furukawa said.

He defended the short notice given to inmates about to be executed, citing a "serious mental impact" on them if they learn their fate way in advance. Two death-row inmates recently filed a lawsuit against the government saying the system causes psychological distress and seeking compensation over mental suffering from living in uncertainty until the last day of their lives....

The executions were the first since Dec. 26, 2019, when a Chinese citizen convicted in the 2003 killing of a family of four in Fukuoka was put to death. He was one of three hanged that year. In 2018, Japan executed 15, including 13 Aum Shinrikyo cult members convicted in a deadly 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways.

December 22, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

New OLC opinion memo concluding CARES Act "grants BOP discretion to permit prisoners in extended home confinement to remain there"

Regular readers are familiar with the legal issues surrounding what I have called the "home confinement cohort," those people who had been released due to COVID concerns from federal prison to serve their sentences on home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act, but who were at risk of being sent back to prison at the end of the pandemic because the US Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued a 15-page opinion on Jan 15, 2021 that the CARES Act required as much. But now that group has been given a notable holiday present in the form of a a new OLC 15-page opinion that concludes that "a better reading of section 12003(b)(2) grants BOP discretion to permit prisoners in extended home confinement to remain there." Here is a key starting and closing paragraph from the new memo:

We do not lightly depart from our precedents, and we have given the views expressed in our prior opinion careful and respectful consideration. Based upon a thorough review of the relevant text, structure, purpose, and legislative history — and a careful consideration of BOP’s analysis of its own authority — we conclude that the better reading of section 12003(b)(2) and BOP’s preexisting authorities does not require that prisoners in extended home confinement be returned en masse to correctional facilities when the emergency period ends.  Even if the statute is considered ambiguous, BOP’s view represents a reasonable reading thatshould be accorded deference in future litigation challenging its interpretation...

For the reasons described in Part II, we conclude that our prior opinion failed to address important and persuasive counterarguments. We now believe that a better reading of section 12003(b)(2) grants BOP discretion to permit prisoners in extended home confinement to remain there.  Even if the statute were considered ambiguous, BOP’s view represents a reasonable reading that should be accorded deference in future litigation challenging its interpretation.  It accords with section 12003(b)(2)’s text, structure, and purpose, and it also makes eminent sense in light of the penological goals of home confinement.  BOP’s interpretation avoids requiring the agency to disrupt the community connections these prisoners have developed in aid of their eventual reentry. Instead, it allows the agency to use its expertise to recall prisoners only where penologically justified, and avoids a blanket, one-size-fits-all policy.  We thus depart from the view of our January 2021 opinion concerning section 12003(b)(2).

I certainly think this new OLC opinion reaches a much better policy outcome, and one that certainly seems consistent with both the goals and the text of the CARES Act.  I will need more time to read and re-read this new OLC effort before reaching a firm conclusion on its legal analysis, but I recall some months ago being moved by this long letter from advocates making the legal case for reconsidering the original OLC opinion.  

interestingly Attorney General Garland issued this statement along with the new OLC memo (with my emphasis added): "Thousands of people on home confinement have reconnected with their families, have found gainful employment, and have followed the rules. In light of today’s Office of Legal Counsel opinion, I have directed that the Department engage in a rulemaking process to ensure that the Department lives up to the letter and the spirit of the CARES Act.  We will exercise our authority so that those who have made rehabilitative progress and complied with the conditions of home confinement, and who in the interests of justice should be given an opportunity to continue transitioning back to society, are not unnecessarily returned to prison.”  This statement by AG Garland suggests that DOJ is now going to engage in "rulemaking" that will create a set of requirements or criteria about who may get to stay on home confinement and who might be returned to prison after the pandemic ends.  I am not sure how that rulemaking process will work, but I am sure the AG statement is hinting (or flat-out saying) that there will still be some in the "home confinement cohort" who may need to worry about eventually heading back to federal prison.

Some of many prior related posts:

December 21, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (14)

A deep dive into extreme sentences in the Pelican State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 20, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ACLU releases new poll showing broad support for clemency for home confinement cohort

This new press release reports that "the American Civil Liberties Union released a poll today showing broad bipartisan support for President Joe Biden to issue clemency to those who were selected to be transferred home under the CARES Act."  Here are more details from the press release:

During the pandemic, thousands of people have been released from prison to finish their sentences on home confinement, many of whom are elderly or especially vulnerable to COVID-19.  Now, thousands are at risk of being sent back to prison when the pandemic recedes if President Biden does not take action.  Sending all of these people back to federal prison would be the single largest act of incarceration in U.S. history....

Among the poll’s findings:

  • 63 percent of voters nationally support clemency for those who are serving their sentences at home due to COVID-19;
  • Among voters in swing House districts, 70 percent of voters support allowing those who were transferred home to serve the reminder of their sentences at home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19;
  • 68 percent of voters nationwide and 58 percent of voters in swing House districts agree that it’s not fair to return people to prison after they have been successfully released to their families and communities and re-entered society;
  • 53 percent of Republican voters agree that it’s unfair to release people back to their families and communities and then return them to prison;
  • 64 percent of voters nationwide — including 84 percent of Democrats — support using the president’s power of clemency to end or shorten prison sentences of people deemed safe for release; and
  • While only 38 percent of independents approve of Biden’s job as president, a majority of them (57 percent) say they would support the president using clemency.

I am a bit surprised that these numbers are not stronger, though it is unclear from the ACLU "fact sheet" just how the poll questions were presented and how much the average poll participant fully knows or understands about all those in the "CARES home confinement cohort."   In fact, I still have not seen a lot of detailed data on just how many persons are still serving time on home confinement whose sentences goes beyond 2022 and would be at risk of a return to prison if the pandemic (miraculously) ends in the next few months.  I have also not seen much information about the sentences still to serve, the offenses of conviction and other details regarding exactly who would benefit from mass clemency om behalf of the home confinement cohort.  Though these details likely would not undermine my general support for bringing relief to this low-risk group, they might shape my view of whether everyone ought to have their sentences commuted to time served or if some perhaps ought to be receive some other form of relief in some cases.

Given that we are now into the final holiday weeks of the year, I am now getting close to giving up any hope that  that Prez Biden will grant even a single clemency in 2021.  (Of course, holiday season clemencies late into December are not uncommon.  Four years ago today, for example, Prez Trump granted a commutation to Sholom Rubashkin.)  And, of course, the omicron surge of the COVID pandemic now suggests that we are clearly many months away, and perhaps even years away, from a return to normal BOP operations when the CARES home confinement cohort would be at risk of a return to prison.  All these realities lead me to think we will be discussing these issues (and doing more polling?) well into 2022.

Some of many prior related posts:

December 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Despite lacking a quorum, US Sentencing Commission still has an interesting and productive year

Regular readers are likely tired of hearing me complain about the US Sentencing Commission being crippled by a lack of Commissioners, but I hope some have noted my eagerness to compliment the "short-staffed" USSC for all the data and reports produced and promulgated through 2021.  This morning I received an email from the Commission providing a "year in review," and I was struck again at what the Commission has achieved this past year even absent a quorum.  I cannot find this email in a web form, so I will here just reproduce some highlights (with links from the USSC and to the USSC website):

1. Preliminary FY21 data reveal a continued decline in sentencings and a historic shift in the makeup of the federal drug caseload. Learn more ...
2. With the advent of COVID-19, tens of thousands of offenders sought compassionate release. The Commission tracked and reported this data throughout 2021. Learn more

In early 2022, look for a comprehensive new research report on compassionate release providing even greater analysis regarding the courts’ reasoning for granting or denying motions for compassionate release....

6. The Commission expanded its catalog of interactive tools designed for those working in the federal criminal justice system.
IDA Expansion: Interactive Data Analyzer feedback has been very positive and users continue to #AskIDA for even more data. The Commission has listened to your feedback. IDA is now updated with enhanced filtering capabilities—including a brand new data filter for career offenders. Learn more

JSIN Development: The Judiciary Sentencing INformation (JSIN) platform is an online sentencing data resource specifically developed with the needs of judges in mind. The platform provides quick and easy online access to average prison length and other sentencing data for similarly-situated defendants. Learn more

December 20, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Vera Institute updates its Incarceration Trends website

As discussed in this press release, titled "Vera Institute of Justice Unveils Updated Incarceration Trends Website," the Vera Institute has updated this cool website. Here are the basics as described in the press release:

The Vera Institute of Justice [has] a new, updated version of its Incarceration Trends website, which now includes analysis of more than five decades of local jail and state prison data at the national, state, and county levels.  The updated site brings many of the data points current to spring 2021 and represents the most comprehensive look to date at the growth of mass incarceration across states, counties, and urban-to-rural geographies....

The nation’s biggest cities once had the highest rates of incarceration, but over the past several decades, jail incarceration and state prison admissions have declined in major metro areas as they rose precipitously in smaller cities and rural communities.  Today in the United States, approximately two out of three people in local jails have not been convicted of a crime — many are being detained in civil matters, such as people incarcerated pretrial for immigration cases or those who can’t pay child support or fines and fees.  The updated analysis presented in Incarceration Trends highlights that the disproportionate criminalization and incarceration of Black people and other people of color is also most pronounced in rural counties, as is the rise of women’s incarceration.

The newly visualized data also features the rebound in jail incarceration after an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020 (bringing the total incarcerated population from 2.1 million to 1.8 million people) in response to the spread of COVID-19.  As of spring 2021, state prison decarceration had stalled and jail populations continued to trend upward.

Incarceration Trends offers insight on national-, state-, and county-level pages, enabling users to compare county-level data to state and national trends.  The website includes:

  • analysis of the race, ethnicity, and gender of people in the nation’s jails and prisons;

  • visualizations of state incarceration trends across major metros, smaller cities, suburbs, and rural communities;

  • rankings of all of the counties in a given state by the incarceration rate and growth of incarceration;

  • a visualization of each county’s jail population, representing the most recently available data about what proportion is held pretrial, sentenced, and held on behalf of other authorities, including state departments of corrections and federal agencies;

  • the ability to toggle between the average number of people held in a jail on any day and the rate of incarceration, accounting for resident population changes; and

  • data on regional jail systems that serve multiple counties.

The new Incarceration Trends website shows both the significant increase in jail incarceration across the urban to rural spectrum since 1970 and the more recent divergence in incarceration trends, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationally, the rate at which people are incarcerated in local jails declined 26 percent between late 2019 and mid-2020. However, jail incarceration had rebounded sharply by spring 2021.

December 19, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Lots of new January 6 riot sentencings producing lots of notable new headlines and sentencing stories

In this post about a week ago, I flagged this CNN piece reporting on the first 50 sentences imposed on those convicted for federal crimes as part of the January 6 riot.  That article noted that sentences were still forthcoming in the most serious cases; one such case was sentenced yesterday setting a new "record" as reported in this Washington Post article headlined "Fla. man sentenced to 5 years for attacking police, the longest Jan. 6 riot sentence yet."  Technically, the WaPo headline is off, as the defendant got sentenced to 63 months, and I am not too keen on at least one element accounting for the severity of this sentence: 

Robert S. Palmer, 54, of Largo, Fla., pleaded guilty in October to assaulting law enforcement officers with a dangerous weapon, and his original plea agreement called for a sentencing range of 46 to 57 months.  But after his plea, and his entry into the D.C. jail, Palmer arranged to make an online fundraising plea in which he said he did “go on the defense and throw a fire extinguisher at the police” after being shot with rubber bullets and tear gas.

That was a lie, Palmer admitted Friday.  He had thrown a fire extinguisher — twice — a large plank and then a four-to-five-foot pole at police before he was struck with one rubber bullet.  The falsehood indicated a failure to accept responsibility for his actions, prosecutors argued, and when U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan agreed, she increased his sentencing range to 63 to 78 months, ultimately imposing a 63-month term.

Based on the rest of the WaPo article, it seems as of the day of sentencing Palmer had truly accepted responsibility.  Though it is understandable that prosecutors and the sentencing judge may have considered previous statements trying to minimize his culpability as undercutting his claims of remorse, I find it troubling that Palmer ends up facing 1 to 2 years longer in a cage simply for a few stupid comments while trying to raise money for his defense.  I have long thought some prosecutors and judges are too eager to deny acceptance of responsibility credit under the guidelines based on a defendant's dumb statement or two, and this case highlights the stakes potentially involved in doing so.

Palmer's sentence, because of its length, generated the most recent January 6 sentencing headlines.  But I saw a few more notable headlines and stories this past week that seemed worth rounding up here:

"Judge: Lack of charges for Trump over Jan. 6 is no basis for leniency for others"

"New York man sentenced to nearly 3 years in prison for threatening Sen. Raphael Warnock"

"Judge goes beyond prosecutors' request with sentence for Jan. 6 couple"

"Jan. 6 riot ‘not patriotism’ judge says in sentencing Ga. man"

"UK student gets 30-day sentence for involvement in Jan. 6 Capitol riot"

"Federal judge ordered Fort Pierce man to serve probation for activities at U.S. Capitol Jan. 6"

"Guardsman in Jan. 6 Mob Gets Probation, Still Serving in the Guard"

December 18, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (36)

Friday, December 17, 2021

Sixth Circuit reversal of denial of compassionate release shows how appellate review can sometimes reduce sentencing disparities

A few months ago in this post I flagged a lengthy CNN article discussing disparities in who was receiving compassionate release sentencing reductions in federal courts.  That CNN article featured the case of Horacio Estrada-Elias, an ill 90-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for marijuana trafficking crime, who had his request for compassionate release denied by Judge Danny Reeves in July 2021.  I was pleased to learn this week about notable updates to this story, reported in this new CNN piece headlined "A 90-year-old was serving life for marijuana despite serious illness. Now he's going home."   Here are some of the details:

In a dramatic reversal, a 90-year-old, seriously ill federal inmate serving life in prison for a nonviolent marijuana trafficking crime will go free after a judge granted him compassionate release on Tuesday -- overturning his previous order denying release.  Horacio Estrada-Elias, who was the subject of a CNN investigative story in September, is set to be freed this week after more than a dozen years behind bars....

Estrada-Elias suffers from congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation and chronic kidney disease, and also contracted the coronavirus while in prison, according to court affidavits filed by doctors.  His prison doctor predicted in April 2020 that he had "less than 18 months" to live, and his warden recommended release, noting his spotless disciplinary record and writing last year that "he has been diagnosed with an incurable, progressive illness in which he will not recover."

Federal Judge Danny Reeves denied Estrada-Elias' motion for compassionate release in July, arguing that a life sentence is "the only sentence that would be appropriate."  But last month, an appeals court ordered Reeves to reconsider.  Two judges on a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that Reeves had "abused (his) discretion" by ignoring the fact that Estrada-Elias is unlikely to reoffend and "overly emphasizing" his nonviolent crimes. One judge dissented.

On Tuesday, the day after the formal appeal mandate was transmitted to his court, Reeves issued a new opinion approving compassionate release.  "The defendant's medical condition constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason for release... when considered in conjunction with the defendant's advanced age," Reeves wrote, reducing Estrada-Elias' sentence to time served....

Reeves has an especially tough record on compassionate release, rejecting the vast majority of more than 100 release motions that came before him since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a CNN analysis of court records.  In his earlier opinion, he had argued that the large volume of marijuana that Estrada-Elias trafficked had shown "a flagrant disrespect for the law that can only be reflected in an equally severe sentence."

His reversal "seems to be rooted in common sense and human dignity as opposed to legal formalities," said Alison Guernsey, a University of Iowa law professor who has studied compassionate release cases and reviewed Reeves' opinion.  She said it is uncommon for inmates who are denied compassionate release to win on appeal.

Estrada-Elias was sentenced to life in April 2008 after pleading guilty to a conspiracy to traffic tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana into and around the United States. Reeves, who handled his case, was required to give him a life sentence because he had previous drug convictions.  But the mandatory minimum law that applied was taken off the books in 2018.  If Estrada-Elias hadn't been subject to the mandatory minimum, the guideline for his sentence range would have been about 12 to 16 years in prison, according to court documents.

Estrada-Elias' case is an example of the wide disparities across the country in compassionate release during the pandemic.  In 2020 and the first half of 2021, some federal courts granted more than 40 percent of compassionate release motions in their districts, while others granted less than 3 percent, according to data from the US Sentencing Commission -- even though judges in all of the districts are applying the same laws, which allow compassionate release in "extraordinary and compelling" cases.

In Estrada-Elias' district, the Eastern District of Kentucky, judges granted about 6% of compassionate release motions, the data shows. Guernsey, the law professor, said the vast disparity in grant rates between courts "really calls into question the equity of compassionate release." "It appears to depend not on the gravity of your medical condition or the type of extraordinary and compelling circumstances that will dictate whether you're released," she said, "but almost a fluke of geography."

As the title of this post is meant to highlight, I think appellate review can and should play a significant role in reducing extreme sentencing outcomes that seem like a "fluke of geography." Notably, Justice Breyer's opinion for the Supreme Court in the remedial section of Booker stated that appellate review for reasonableness "would tend to iron out sentencing differences," but harsh sentencing outcomes are almost never reversed as unreasonable.  The panel Sixth Circuit opinion in US v. Estrada-Elias, No. 21-5680 (6th Cir. Nov. 24, 2021) (available here), which is unpublished(!?!) and a split decision, is a real rarity that shows reasonableness review can function to improve equity.  The majority opinion in this case starts this way:

Horacio Raul Estrada-Elias, a ninety-year-old man suffering from a terminal illness, appeals the district court’s order denying his motion for compassionate release filed pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  Estrada-Elias has spent fifteen years in prison for conspiracy to distribute marijuana.  Because of his illness, Estrada-Elias is bedridden.  He has never been convicted of a violent crime and has not received a single disciplinary infraction in prison.  The warden of the prison in which Estrada-Elias is incarcerated agrees that Estrada-Elias should be released from custody.  Despite Estrada-Elias’s age, illness, incapacity, and lack of any violent convictions, the district court denied his compassionate-release motion, finding that life in prison is “the only sentence that would be appropriate and that would protect the public” from this ninety-year-old terminally ill grandfather. R. 210 (Dist. Ct. Order at 14) (Page ID #2214) (quotation omitted).  We hold that the district court abused its discretion in denying Estrada-Elias’s compassionate-release motion.

December 17, 2021 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is some other notable recent coverage of this case:

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

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

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

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