Friday, May 22, 2020

Sharp review of discouraging (and opaque) realities surrounding BOP release of some offenders to home confinement

As regular readers know, I have highlighted a few high-profile cases of federal prisoner being moved into home confinement by the Bureau of Prisons. But I cannot report on all the cases in which seemingly vulnerable inmates have been denied such a transfer, in part because there are far too many of those cases to cover in this space. This notable new Marshall Project piece helps document this reality, and the full headline provide a summery: "Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort Got to Leave Federal Prison Due to COVID-19. They’re The Exception. Just a small fraction of federal prisoners have been sent home. Many others lack legal help and connections to make their case." Here are excerpts from a lengthy article worth reading in full:

New data show that [Michael] Cohen, along with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, released last week, are among the relatively few federal prisoners to win early release in the seven weeks since Attorney General William Barr cited the pandemic in ordering more federal prisoners to be let out. During that time, the number of people in home confinement increased by only 2,578, about 1.5 percent of the nearly 171,000 people in federal prisons and halfway houses when Barr issued his memo.

Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, was sentenced to three years in prison, and Manafort to seven and a half years. Manafort has served less than a third of his sentence, so he, too, did not meet the federal criteria for early release, although he and Cohen do have health conditions that put them at added risk if they contract the virus....

Groups and relatives advocating for the release of prisoners at risk from the virus say they don’t begrudge well-connected people achieving that goal. The problem, they said, is that many other people who could meet Barr’s criteria languish in prison, without legal help, unable to understand the complex process or lacking connections to help them as the pandemic spreads. As of Wednesday, the official tally had 59 federal prisoners dying from COVID-19 and more than 4,600 testing positive, though health experts believe that’s almost certainly an undercount.

Melissa Ketter, a Minnesota woman whose daughter has served just over half of her sentence for a federal nonviolent drug crime, said she almost cried when she heard about Cohen’s release."I'm happy for him don’t get me wrong — but at the same time it was like, the rich white guy gets out early. I don’t wish for bad things to happen to these people, but it’s like can everybody be treated the same?" Ketter said.

The release process has been marked by foot-dragging and confusion, critics say, and a federal judge in a ruling Tuesday labeled the results “paltry.” The Bureau of Prisons won’t release data, won’t answer questions and keeps shifting policy on who qualifies for release, according to Georgetown Law professor Shon Hopwood, an expert on criminal justice reform. “The Bureau of Prisons is operating all behind closed doors, and that’s a big part of the problem,” Hopwood said....

The tally on people in home confinement and other federal prison data, obtained from the Bureau of Prisons and Congress, did not itemize how many people finished their sentences in the last seven weeks and are no longer included in the count.  It also did not specify how many prison-to-home transfers were approved by the bureau, as was the case with Manafort and Cohen, and how many were ordered by judges — many over objections from federal prosecutors, despite Barr’s order.

The total population in federal custody has gone down by about 10,800 people since April 2, the data show.  That includes emergency releases.  But it also includes people whose sentences were set to end during the past seven weeks, a figure the bureau on Thursday put at about 7,600.  The data did not specify how many new prisoners the bureau accepted.... 

Prisoners previously had to finish 90 percent of their sentence before they could be sent to home confinement. But the relief law Congress passed in March gave the attorney general broad powers to release prisoners during the pandemic. That process is internal, with the Bureau of Prisons able to select people for release and prisoners able to request release. But if bureau officials deny a request for home confinement, a prisoner can’t appeal.

By contrast, compassionate release allows prisoners to ask a federal judge for release if they show “extraordinary and compelling” reasons under the 2018 First Step Act. But many prisoners lack the education or skills to navigate the courts, and successful attempts usually require a lawyer.  The latest figures show that since early April, 268 prisoners nationwide received compassionate release. Since Trump signed the law in 2018, only 144 people had been granted such release before April 2, bureau data show.

The Department of Justice has been fighting many coronavirus-related requests for compassionate release in court, according to records and advocates monitoring the process. In a case decided this week, government lawyers called compassionate release a “Get Out of Jail Free Card” and referred to the pandemic as “a red herring.”  Instead, the Bureau of Prisons is starting to put people in home confinement, but slowly, according to Kevin Ring, president of FAMM, a national criminal justice advocacy group.

“I think the mass effort we’re putting into compassionate release is forcing them to designate more people for home confinement because I think they’d rather have these people in home confinement than completely released,” he said of federal officials. “It feels totally contradictory — you’re saying that ‘we’re doing everything we can to get people out of harm’s way,’ but you have this tool that you’re not using at all.”

May 22, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Full issue Columbia Human Rights Law Review devoted to capital sentencing practices and problems

A helpful reader alerted me to the latest issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, which has these nine terrific-looking article about the ugly realities of capital sentencing past and present.  Here are the titles and links:

Symposium: Furman’s Legacy: New Challenges to the Overbreadth of Capital Punishment by Jeffrey Fagan

Local History, Practice, and Statistics: A Study on the Influence of Race on the Administration of Capital Punishment in Hamilton County, Ohio (January 1992-August 2017) by Catherine M. Gross, Barbara O'Brien, and Julie C. Roberts

Hurricane Florida: The Hot and Cold Fronts of America’s Most Active Death Row by Hannah L. Gorman and Margot Ravenscroft

Valuing Black Lives: A Case for Ending the Death Penalty by Alexis Hoag

Double Duty: The Amplified Role of Special Circumstances in California’s Capital Punishment System by Mona Lynch

A Systematic Lottery: The Texas Death Penalty, 1976 to 2016 by Scott Phillips and Trent Steidley

Race, Ethnicity, and the Death Penalty in San Diego County: The Predictable Consequences of Excessive Discretion by Steven F. Shatz, Glenn L. Pierce, and Michael L. Radelet

Hidalgo v. Arizona and Non-Narrowing Challenges by Sam Kamin and Justin Marceau

Restoring Empirical Evidence to the Pursuit of Evenhanded Capital Sentencing by Joseph J. Perkovich

May 22, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Florida Supreme Court seemingly finds way avoid retroactive application of proper determination of who is exempt from execution under Atkins

As reported in this local article, headlined "Conservative Florida Supreme Court reverses itself again on death penalty legal issue," the top court in Florida authored this lengthy opinion which seems to permit the state to go forward with executing a person who would be exempt from execution under the Supreme Court's Atkins decision prohibiting the execution of the intellectually disabled. Here are the press details:

Harry Franklin Phillips, a convict who shot a Miami parole officer to death in 1982, was hoping to get his death sentence reversed by convincing the courts that he is intellectually disabled. But the Florida Supreme Court, backtracking on its own case decided only years ago, on Thursday ruled that Phillips isn’t ineligible, the court’s latest reversal in how sentences in major cases are meted out.

The court ruled that an earlier decision allowed for the broadening of who can be deemed intellectually disabled — generally someone with an IQ of 70 or less — does not apply “retroactively” to older cases such as Phillips’.  The court ruled 4-1. The only dissenter was Justice Jorge Labarga....

The decision in Phillips’ case drew immediate criticism from opponents of the death penalty, who say the Florida Supreme Court has yet again thumbed its nose at the legal concept of stare decisis, or making decisions drawing from legal precedents. “I am personally shocked at the Court’s audacity and frankly its meanness,” said defense lawyer Stephen Harper, of Florida International University’s Florida Center for Capital Representation. “So many people who were already granted relief by the Florida Supreme Court are now being deprived of that relief by the Florida Supreme Court. “And stare decisis has been abandoned, and this will have a much more devastating effect on the public’s trust in the judicial system.”

Two years ago, the Florida Supreme Court backtracked on allowing certain juveniles — who had been eligible for parole because their murder convictions were from decades ago — to get new sentencing hearings. In January, the Florida Supreme Court reversed itself in ruling that unanimous jury verdicts were not needed to mete out the death penalty, a ruling excoriated by opponents of capital punishment. Florida law, however, still require juries to be unanimous in handing down a death sentence.

In Hall v. Florida, 572 U.S. 701 (2014), the US Supreme Court said that the "old" rule that Florida had used to determine who was ineligible to be executed under Atkins was "invalid under the Constitution’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause."  But now the Florida Supreme Court is saying the state does not have to apply the constitutionally proper Atikns rule to "old" cases decided before Hall.  That strikes me as wrong because Atkins is fundamentally a substantive constitutional rule and its proper application should be fully retroactive because it involves "prohibiting a certain category of punishment for a class of defendants because of their status." Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S. Ct. 718, 728-29 (2016).  If the Constitution demands a certain approach to determining the applicable "class of defendants" (which is what Hall says), I do not think a state can dodge its retroactive application.

This matter seems sure to end up in federal courts, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the years ahead. 

May 21, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Feds asking SCOTUS to stay judicial order to transfer vulnerable prisoners "out of Elkton through any means"

Last month, as detailed here, US District Judge James Gwin granted a preliminary injunction ordering federal officials to identify, and then start moving out, medically vulnerable prisoners from the Elkton federal prison in Ohio.  Federal officials appealed this order to the Sixth Circuit, but a Sixth Circuit panel two weeks ago refused to stay it.  And a few days ago, Judge Gwin issued this follow-up order which stated that "Respondents have made poor progress in transferring subclass members out of Elkton through the various means referenced in the Court’s preliminary injunction Order."

Though one might hope federal officials would now really focus on making better progress moving medically vulnerable prisoners from the Elkton prison, they are still trying to get the order stayed by now turning to the Supreme Court.  Amy Howe here at SCOTUSblog reports on the filing from last night, while also providing useful context for this notable battle: 

U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco ... new filing ... was on behalf of the federal Bureau of Prisons and federal prison officials, asking the justices to put a temporary hold on an order by a federal district court that would require the BOP to remove or transfer as many as 800 elderly or medically vulnerable inmates from a federal prison in Ohio where nine inmates have died from COVID-19.

The case was filed last month by inmates at FCI-Elkton, a low-security prison in Ohio that houses 2,500 inmates.  The inmates argued that, as a result of COVID-19, conditions at the prison violated their Eighth Amendment right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.  In an order issued on April 22, the district court ordered the BOP to “determine the appropriate means of transferring” elderly and medically vulnerable inmates out of the prison — for example, by compassionate release or parole or by moving them to another federal facility.

Yesterday, after the district court was unsatisfied with the BOP’s efforts to comply with its original order, it ordered the BOP to revise the criteria for deciding whether an inmate is eligible for home confinement and to quickly reevaluate whether inmates might be eligible under the new criteria.  It also instructed the BOP to explain, within seven days, why ineligible inmates could not be moved to another prison “where social distancing is possible.”

The federal government asked the justices to put these rulings on hold while it appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit and, if necessary, the Supreme Court.  The government emphasized that, “even in normal times, an order requiring the transfer or release of ‘prisoners in large numbers * * * is a matter of undoubted, grave concern’” that runs the risk not only of “jeopardizing public safety” but also interfering in the management of prisons.  Moreover, the government added, the inmates are unlikely to prevail on the merits of their claim: Although “COVID-19 presents significant health risks,” the BOP has worked hard to reduce the risk of the virus in the prison, and the number of inmates in the hospital is on the decline.

The government’s request went to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who fields emergency appeals from the 6th Circuit.  She ordered the inmates to respond to the government’s request by Friday, May 22, at 10 a.m. EDT.

I am inclined to predict that there is at least one Justice inclined to vote against a stay and at least one Justice inclined to vote for a stay (readers can probably guess which ones). It will be quite interesting to see how the Chief Justice steers the Court forward on this matter.

Prior related posts:

May 21, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

After extended resistance (and likely lots of legal fees), Lori Loughlin and her husband agree to plead guilty in college admission scandal with fixed short prison sentence

As reported in this CNN piece, headlined "Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli agree to plead guilty in college admissions scam," perhaps the highest profile remaining defendants in the college admissions scandal have now finally capitulated the prosecutorial pressure and decided to plead guilty. Here are the details:

Actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, have agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy charges in connection to their role in the college admissions scam, the US Attorney's Office in the District of Massachusetts said.

Loughlin, 55, and Giannulli, 56, had been accused of paying $500,000 to get their two daughters into the University of Southern California as fake crew team recruits. They had pleaded not guilty for more than a year and moved to dismiss charges as recently as two weeks ago.

As part of the plea agreement, Loughlin will be sentenced to two months in prison and Giannulli will be sentenced to five months in prison, subject to the court's approval, according to authorities. In addition, Loughlin faces a $150,000 fine, two years of supervised release and 100 hours of community service, and Giannulli faces a $250,000 fine, two years of supervised release and 250 hours of community service.

They are scheduled to plead guilty on Friday at 11:30 a.m., prosecutors said. Loughlin's publicist said she had no comment.

Loughlin will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud, and Giannulli will plead guilty to conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and honest services wire and mail fraud. The actress, best known for her role as Aunt Becky on the sitcom "Full House," and her husband had previously been charged with three counts of conspiracy.

"Under the plea agreements filed today, these defendants will serve prison terms reflecting their respective roles in a conspiracy to corrupt the college admissions process and which are consistent with prior sentences in this case," said US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. "We will continue to pursue accountability for undermining the integrity of college admissions."

Loughlin and Giannulli were some of the most famous names wrapped up in the brazen scheme to cheat, bribe and lie in the hyper-competitive college admissions process.  They allegedly paid $500,000 as part of a scheme with Rick Singer, the scam's mastermind, and a USC athletics official to get their two daughters into the university as members of the crew team, even though they did not participate in crew....

If Loughlin and Giannulli had gone to trial and been convicted, they could have faced up to 20 years in prison for the conspiracy charge. "The stakes at trial were really high for these two," CNN legal analyst Elie Honig said. "Had they gone to trial and lost, they were looking at several years each.  So they really cut their losses here by cutting these pleas."

They are the 23rd and 24th parents to plead guilty in the case. Actress Felicity Huffman pleaded guilty to conspiracy last year for paying $15,000 to the scam's mastermind as part of a scheme to cheat on the SATs and boost her daughter's test scores, and she ultimately served 11 days in prison. 

The way that this plea is described in this press release form the US Attorney leads me to suspect that this is a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea in which the agreement states "a specific sentence ... is the appropriate disposition of the case [which] ... binds the court once the court accepts the plea agreement."  Sure enough, the Loughlin plea agreement makes clear that it is a (c)(1)(C) plea.  I do not recall many of the other defendants in the college admissions scandal who entered plea agreements having a fixed sentence built into the agreement, though that may well have been because, earlier, neither defendants nor prosecutors were inclined to lock in a particular sentence when it was unclear just what "sentencing price" judges were inclined to attached to this conduct.  Now that a few months seems to be the "norm," these latest defendants and the prosecutors now may have been content to lock in the sentence via the plea deal.

As for the "sentencing price" set here by the parties, Lori Loughlin seemingly got a pretty good deal given how much money was spent seeking to get two kids into college.  On the surface, her case seems somewhat similar to Toby MacFarlane's case; as noted here, he spent $450,000 to get his two kids into USC as fake athletic recruits and received a sentence of six month back in November.  But, were anyone concerned about a possible "celebrity discount," it is important to realize that the "Loughlin family" is getting a total of seven month and federal prosecutors may have had many reasons to believe that Loughlin's culpability was reduced compared to her husband and MacFarlane.

A few prior posts focused on these defendants:

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

May 21, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

TRAC data report provides snapshot into impact of COVID-19 on referrals for federal criminal prosecution

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) has this great new online report under the title "How Is Covid-19 Impacting Federal Criminal Enforcement?". The figures in the report are worth checking out by clicking through, but this introductory text highlights the main story:

Law enforcement agencies across the country have been referring fewer criminal cases to federal prosecutors since the coronavirus pandemic began.  While weekly referrals for federal prosecution during February and the first half of March averaged around 4,500 per week, referrals fell to only 1,800 during the last week of March.  The Trump administration issued new guidance on Sunday evening, March 15, allowing some federal employees to work from home.  Previously, only those at high risk of health problems could telework.

Figure 1 plots the number of referrals recorded as received by these federal prosecutors day-by-day during the first six months of FY 2020 (October 2019 - March 2020). Starting in mid-March the numbers decline sharply. (As the plot shows, normally few referrals are recorded during Saturday or Sunday producing a predicable weekly cycle in the plot. A decline during the holidays over Christmas is also evident.)

Each weekday, U.S. Attorney offices from around the country typically receive hundreds of referrals.  Most of these came from federal investigative agencies.  Some originate from local and state law enforcement.  Each referral is typically assigned to an assistant U.S. attorney who determines whether or not to charge the suspect with committing one or more federal crimes.

I am inclined to guess that this 60% decline in federal prosecutions persisted through April, and that into May there might have started to be a rebound. Whatever the particulars, these TRAC data provide one accounting of how the cornoavirus and lockdowns have dramatically impacts the usual flow of cases into the federal criminal justice system.  Lockdown realities have surely disrupted this flow at other junctures (e.g., indictments, trials/pleas, sentencings), and I suspect it will be many months (maybe even years) before we can take full stock of COVID shock.

May 20, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Shadow Bargainers"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Ronald Wright, Jenny Roberts and Betina Wilkinson.  Here is its abstract:

Plea bargaining happens in almost every criminal case, yet there is little empirical study about what actually happens when prosecutors and defense lawyers negotiate.  This article looks into the bargaining part of plea bargaining.  It reports on the responses of over 500 public defenders who participated in our nationwide survey about their objectives and practices during plea negotiations.

The survey responses create a rare empirical test of a major tenet of negotiation theory, the claim that attorneys bargain in the “shadow of the trial.”  This is a theory that some defenders embrace and others reject.  Describing the factors they believe to be important in plea negotiations, some public defenders — those who emphasize the importance of collateral consequences or the pre-trial custody of their clients — do not stress the likely outcome at trial.  Instead, these attorneys focus on the wants and needs of clients, hoping to persuade the prosecutor to operate outside a trial-prediction framework.  These defense attorneys might ask the prosecutor to dismiss charges, to divert the defendant out of the system, or to recommend a sentence far below the expected outcome.  Such dispositions based on equitable factors, many of them related to the larger life circumstances of the defendant, point the prosecutor towards an outcome that is independent of any likely trial result or post-trial sentence.  These defense attorneys, we argue, bargain in the “shadow of the client” rather than the shadow of the trial.  Multivariate analysis of the survey answers allows us to identify which background factors identify the attorneys that embrace each of the distinct theories of negotiation.

After asking public defenders about their plea bargaining aspirations, our survey turns to actual negotiation practices.  Here, defenders’ self-reported bargaining methods do not measure up to their declared aspirations.  Their own descriptions of the fact investigations and legal research they typically perform ignore some viable outcomes that their clients might prefer.  Particularly for attorneys who aim to negotiate in the shadow of the client, there is a wide gap between theory and practice.

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

Monday, May 18, 2020

An overview of federal compassionate release issues during this pandemic

As regular readers know, in lots of posts since enactment of the FIRST STEP Act, and especially since federal prisons started dealing with the current urgency of a global pandemic, I have made much of a key provision allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  Unsurprisingly, as the number of motions and rulings around this provision increase, others are taking notice of how courts are taking stock.  This new Bloomberg Law piece, headlined "Virus Forces Judges Into Life-or-Death Calls on Inmate Releases," provides a timely overview of this developing jurisprudence.  Here are excerpts:

Judges are interpreting the law on the fly as they face an unprecedented spike in requests for “compassionate release” from prison, coming to different conclusions about what can be done in the context of a pandemic.  The swell of requests for what’s known as compassionate release come after the passage of a law, written before the Covid-19 outbreak, that made it easier for those requests to be filed with the courts.

Federal judges ruled on more than 400 petitions for compassionate release in March and April, compared with only 16 in the same months last year, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis of trial court-level filings.  “I had never seen a compassionate release motion before the pandemic, and now I’ve seen more than 10,” U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York, said in an interview.

Under the law passed in 2018, judges can make a determination about compassionate release after the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has said “no” or doesn’t respond to the inmate’s request in 30 days.  Those determinations are highly individualized and outcomes can vary widely from judge to judge, all of whom are now weighing requests without updated guidance.

The influx is touching every corner of the legal system. Lawyers and advocates are frustrated releases aren’t being granted more often, while probation officers are working with limited resources to respond to an influx of them, and inmates in close quarters fear for their lives....

“A system that normally takes years to resolve disputes suddenly has to resolve a mountain of life-or-death disputes in days. All that judges can do is their level best,” said Matthew Stiegler, an attorney who focuses on federal appeals in the Third Circuit, told Bloomberg Law....

The decision to grant a compassionate release largely hinges on whether that inmate has what the statute calls “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances. That includes failing health in old age, a terminal illness, or caring for a partner or child if they are incapacitated.

In the past, those requests only made their way into court after the Bureau of Prisons agreed the request should be granted.  That system was criticized for being slow and inefficient.  The First Step Act, a bipartisan bill that became law in 2018, addressed those concerns, in part, by giving inmates the route to take their requests to court.

“When Congress passed the law and that language was in there it made sense, but no one expected a pandemic,” Ricardo S. Martinez, chief judge of the Seattle-based U.S. District Court for the District of Western Washington, said in an interview.  “After the First Step Act came into place we immediately saw a jump in those petitions,” said Martinez, who is chair of the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference, the federal judiciary’s policy-making body. That’s been exacerbated by the virus, but even after the pandemic subsides, Martinez said he foresees a continuing high number of petitions each year....

The influx of cases may bring more clarity to the statute those determinations rely on.  “The best that could come out of this is that through this process we really see where the statute could have areas for improvement and definition and those things happen as a result of these decisions being made,” [Sarah] Johnson, the supervising U.S. probation officer, said in an interview.

Judges are making a point to say that their decisions are being made in the special context of the virus, but that doesn’t mean they will adhere to that when the pandemic is over, Rakoff said.  “Many of us, including myself, are taking a much deeper look at this statute than we’ve ever had reason to do before and some of what we’re deciding may shape the law for a long time to come,” he said. 

May 18, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Reviewing the emerging jurisprudence around FIRST STEP Act resentencings

Writing al Law360, Emma Cueto has this notable new piece headlined "With First Step, Courts Diverge In Filling In The Law's Gaps."  Here are excerpts:

More than a year after the passage of the First Step Act — which, among other things, made certain sentencing reforms retroactive — courts have continued to work out the procedural questions surrounding how the act should be applied and what judges must consider when resentencing federal offenders.  And some courts have come to very different conclusions, putting defendants on disparate footing depending on where they are based.

In the most recent case examining a First Step Act resentencing, the Sixth Circuit ruled on May 7 that defendants are entitled to appeal a judge's resentencing decisions based on reasonableness, though the courts reiterated a previous decision that trial courts are not required to give defendants a holistic, or what's known as a plenary, review.  The result was that the appellate court upheld the resentencing decision of Benjamin Foreman, who had been convicted of several drug-related crimes, even though it affirmed his right to appeal the sentence....

In the initial wake of the First Step Act, courts spent some time hashing out questions of who, precisely, was eligible to have their sentences recalculated.  With those questions largely resolved, courts have turned now to pinning down the details of what approach judges should take to resentencing under the new law, with different federal appellate courts coming to different conclusions.

The Fourth Circuit, in a case decided in April, issued a more defendant-friendly decision in USA v. Chambers, in which it concluded in a split decision that the trial court should have taken a broader view and could consider a wider-ranging set of factors, including the conduct of Brooks Chambers, who had been convicted of a drug offense, while incarcerated.

The court stopped short of requiring a plenary resentencing, which would give defendants additional rights, such as the right to an in-person hearing, and which Chambers did not explicitly request in the appeal. However, the decision did send a message that judges should consider a wide variety of factors in First Step Act cases, rather than focusing solely on a few select criteria....

At the other end of the spectrum, the Fifth Circuit ruled in 2019 that the First Step Act does not allow for a plenary resentencing. In that case, USA v. Hegwood, Michael Hegwood also objected to his designation as a career offender during resentencing, arguing that since his conviction in 2008, there had been changes to the law that meant he would not be a career offender if sentenced today.... The Fifth Circuit, however, disagreed, saying that when the court recalculates a sentence it should only make the changes specifically triggered by the First Step Act, and should not consider other changes to the law since the original sentence was imposed....

The difference in opinions between the circuit courts may eventually wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is the final authority in deciding circuit splits.  In the meantime, however, defendants and their attorneys find themselves trying to make the most of the existing frameworks.

"To me, a lot of these doctrines don't matter so much as who your judge is," said Michael Holley, a federal public defender in Tennessee, which is part of the Sixth Circuit.... Some judges choose to consider a wide range of factors when recalculating a sentence, including post-sentencing behavior or changes in the law since the sentence was first imposed, which can result in larger reductions. Others choose to take a more narrow approach, keeping sentences from coming down as much.

May 18, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

After DC Circuit denies en banc review, wondering what might be next for litigation over federal lethal injection plans

As reported in this Bloomberg News piece, headlined "D.C. Circuit Won’t Reconsider President Trump’s Execution Win," on Friday "President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr got one step closer in their quest to resume federal executions, as a full panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington has declined to reconsider last month’s three-judge panel ruling in the government’s favor."  The DC Circuit order, available here, was unanimous with only Judge Tatel adding this statement:

TATEL, Circuit Judge: Even though I believe this case is en banc worthy, I did not call for a vote because, given that the Supreme Court directed this court to proceed “with appropriate dispatch,” Barr v. Roane, 140 S. Ct. 353 (2019), I agree that “[our] review should be concluded without delay,” Opp’n to Pet. for Reh’g En Banc 15.

Normally, it might be a given that this development would prompt the federal capital defendants to seek review in the US Supreme Court. But, critically, I do not believe there are pending execution date from these capital defendants and the split nature of the DC Circuit's panel ruling, as discussed here and here, may make it hard for DOJ to move forward with any execution plans.  The Bloomberg article speaks to some of this enduring uncertainty:

But it’s not clear that the prisoners are in a hurry to get back before the high court. They might prefer to go back down to the district court, whose Nov. 21 preliminary injunction the three-judge panel upended, to further litigate the issues in this complex case.

“The federal death row prisoners’ challenge to the government’s flawed execution protocol will continue,” their lawyer, Cate Stetson, said on Friday after the full-panel denial.  “The Court of Appeals’ fractured decision leaves many questions about the legality of the government’s execution protocol unresolved,” she said. “We will be actively assessing all available avenues to ensure that no federal executions take place until the courts have had an opportunity to review all outstanding issues.”

Given that the federal capital defendants previously got a favorable ruling from the district judge presiding over these matters, and especially given that it seems that at least five SCOTUS Justices are not too keen on litigation over execution protocols, I would be inclined to predict that the defendants here might be content to continue fighting various battles in the low courts before risking a loss in any litigation war waged at SCOTUS.

Prior related posts:

May 17, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Sixth Circuit panel finds district judge gave insufficient justification for not reducing crack sentence after congressional reductions

A little opinion yesterday from a Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Smith, No. 19-5281 (6th Cir. May 15, 2020) (available here), has a lot of noteworthy elements.  For starters, the defendant appealed pro se and prevails. And he did so on a claim that the district court's failure to reduce his crack sentence following passage of the Fair Sentencing Act and FIRST STEP Act was problematic. Here is some of the backstory and the heart of the ruling from the panel opinion:  

In 2006, Smith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine, see 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 845, 851.  Because he had a prior felony drug conviction, he faced a mandatory-minimum sentence of 20 years of imprisonment, even though his advisory sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines would otherwise have been 168 to 210 months.  The district court sentenced him to the mandatory minimum: 240 months of imprisonment plus ten years of supervised release.

In 2018, Smith filed a letter with the district court asking for counsel to be appointed to review whether the First Step Act applied to his sentence.... The district court construed Smith’s letter as a motion seeking a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c).  The court determined that Smith was eligible for a reduction under § 3582(c) and the First Step Act, but declined to grant one.  United States v. Smith, No. CR 6:06- 021-DCR-1, 2019 WL 1028000 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 4, 2019).  Smith now appeals....

The district court acknowledged that under the current sentencing regime, Smith’s guideline range after applying the retroactive guidelines amendments would be 77 to 96 months of imprisonment and he would be subject to a 10-year mandatory-minimum sentence.  Smith, 2019 WL 1028000, at *3.  However, the district court denied Smith’s motion for a reduction, concluding that his original 20-year sentence remained appropriate....

The variance in this case is certainly a major one.  It is twice the maximum of the guideline range set by the statute, and two-and-a-half times what the guideline would otherwise be without the statutory minimum.  Moreover, the fact that Congress was the actor that reduced Smith’s guideline range through the passage of the First Step Act, rather than the Sentencing Commission, if anything increases rather than decreases the need to justify disagreement with the guideline....

The district court’s explanation for denying Smith’s motion for a reduction does not adequately explain why Smith should not receive at least some sentence reduction.  After reciting Smith’s criminal conduct that resulted in his 2006 conviction, the district court recalled that it had examined the § 3553(a)(2) sentencing factors and had explained why a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment was appropriate during Smith’s original sentencing in March 2007.  Beyond relying on the court’s analysis at the original sentencing hearing, the court briefly discussed the nature and circumstances of Smith’s offense and the need to protect the public — two of the § 3553(a) factors.  The court pointed to the scale and harm of Smith’s criminal conduct and determined that Smith has a high risk for recidivism based on statistical information of people who, like Smith, have a significant criminal history.  However, these considerations are accounted for within the guidelines calculation and therefore do not provide sufficient justification for maintaining a sentence that is twice the maximum of the guideline range set by Congress.  See 28 U.S.C. § 991(b); Rita v. United States, 551 U.S. 338, 348–49 (2007).  This is especially true when the district court previously found the at-guideline range sentence to be appropriate.

Ultimately, the district court failed to provide a sufficiently compelling justification for maintaining a sentence that is now twice the guideline range set by Congress. We are confident on remand that the district court can determine whether, in its discretion, a sentence less than 20 years is appropriate after considering the § 3553(a) factors with reference to the purposes of the First Step Act and Fair Sentencing Act.

I am pleased to see that the Sixth Circuit panel was able to see problems with the ruling below without the help of counsel, but I find jarring and disturbing that the district judge here got this matter started by construing a letter requesting counsel as a motion seeking a sentence reduction that the judge then denied seemingly without any briefing. As readers may recall, just last week the Supreme Court dinged the Ninth Circuit in Sineneng-Smith for taking over a case from the parties, and I think the Sixth Circuit might have reasonably assailed the district judge for similarly problematic behavior here.

Last but not least, it should be noted that the district judge in this matter is Danny C. Reeves, who just happens to be one of the two remaining active members of the US Sentencing Commission.  There is a particular irony in the Sixth Circuit panel needing to remind a member of the USSC about which "considerations are accounted for within the guidelines calculation and therefore do not provide sufficient justification for maintaining a sentence that is twice the maximum of the guideline range set by Congress."

May 16, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, May 15, 2020

"Deep Disadvantage, Blameworthiness, and Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Michael Tonry just recently posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Arguments in favor of a “social adversity” or “rotten social background” defense are substantially stronger than those against.  People disagree in principle whether an affirmative defense of deep disadvantage, paralleling the insanity defense, should be recognized and whether judges should routinely mitigate the severity of sentences imposed on deeply disadvantaged offenders.  The defense should be recognized. It would be unlikely often to result in acquittals but it would strengthen many defendants’ positions in plea negotiations. Mitigation of punishment should be routine.  Few credible arguments can be made that a deeply disadvantaged background is not a material characteristic that should be taken into account in sentencing.  Unfortunately, informal mitigation of punishments is not enough. The severity and rigidity of American sentencing laws often deny judges the necessary authority.  The moral challenges presented by deeply disadvantaged offenders cannot adequately be addressed without creation of a new affirmative defense.

May 15, 2020 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

How might an "Office of Plea Integrity" be best constructed and tasked to improve our bargained system of justice?

The question in the title of this post is a riff off this great new commentary from Clark Neily that seeks to turn the many lemons of the Flynn kerfuffle into tasty criminal justice reform lemonade.  The extended piece, headlined "Department of Injustice," is worth a read in full, and here is how it starts and closes:

While the Michael Flynn prosecution is currently imploding, no matter how it ends, the key lesson is clear: The nakedly coercive tactics routinely used by federal prosecutors to obtain admissions of guilt render those admissions utterly unreliable — not just in Flynn’s case, but in every case.  Congress should act immediately to restore public confidence in the integrity of our criminal justice system by reforming this fundamentally lawless and un-American practice.  And the Flynn case shows why that reform should be a top legislative priority....

Simply put, the reason we still have no clear understanding of precisely what Flynn did or didn’t do, and what crimes he did or didn’t commit, is because the entire case against him boils down to an in-court admission that Flynn now claims was coerced by DOJ prosecutors applying intolerable pressure to induce him to waive his right to a trial and simply confess his guilt, just as more than 90% of federal criminal defendants do today.  Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that criminal jury trials are nearly extinct on American soil: Some 97.4% of federal criminal convictions are obtained through plea bargains, and in some judicial circuits, it’s as high as 99%.

Recent developments in the Flynn case, including evidence that senior FBI officials engaged in shockingly inappropriate, perhaps even criminal, behavior during the Flynn investigation, give rise to a stark but crucial question: How many other guilty pleas would disintegrate as spectacularly as Flynn’s if the underlying case were subjected to the same searching review that Flynn’s finally received more than two years after the entry of his guilty plea?

Proponents of the current plea-driven system will likely counter that Flynn’s case was a politicized fluke, nothing more.  But there are good reasons to doubt that assurance. Consider the 2018 prosecution of rancher Cliven Bundy in Nevada for inciting violence against federal agents in the midst of a dispute over federal grazing land.  That case was dismissed with prejudice after the judge determined that DOJ prosecutors showed a “reckless disregard for the constitutional obligation to seek and provide evidence” by withholding documents and misstating facts about the case.  Or consider the 2008 corruption prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens before the same judge in the Flynn case, Emmet Sullivan, during which DOJ prosecutors systematically withheld explosive exculpatory evidence that would have thoroughly gutted their case against Stevens.  Besides dismissing the charges against Stevens, an incensed Sullivan commissioned a thorough investigation of the DOJ’s misconduct in the case that culminated in a 500-page report that documents, in mind-boggling detail, prosecutors’ serial misdeeds in their corrupt attack upon a sitting senator.

Again, defenders of the current system will say those particular examples are rare, which is true — but so are trials in our plea-driven federal system, in which just 2% of cases go to trial.  If every single case went to trial with defense counsel as tenacious and aggressive as Flynn’s new team, how many of those cases might blow up as spectacularly as the Flynn, Bundy, or Stevens cases?  And if every one of those cases got the same internal tire-kicking by the DOJ that Flynn’s finally received, how many of them would simply be dismissed outright, as the DOJ now seeks to do with Flynn?

There’s no reason the latter question has to remain hypothetical, and Congress should move swiftly to ensure that it does not.  The pathologies engendered by the DOJ’s overreliance on coercive plea bargaining are too numerous and too deeply ingrained in our system to address all at once.  But something Congress can do immediately is establish within the Department of Justice an Office of Plea Integrity that would be charged with doing on a full-time basis what Jeff Jensen was brought in to do in the Flynn case, namely, pop the hood and give the whole case a searching and perhaps even skeptical review before clearing it to proceed to a guilty plea.  With upwards of 80,000 federal criminal prosecutions each year, it probably isn’t feasible to review every case, but it should not be unduly difficult to develop a system for selecting a mix of random and specially designated cases, including ones involving prosecutions of particular public interest, such as the Flynn and Stevens cases, for review.

Other reforms Congress should consider in the longer term include a statutory cap on the notorious “trial penalty,” which is the often substantial differential between the sentence offered in a plea bargain and the much harsher sentence the defendant will receive if he exercises his right to trial; imposing a legal duty on prosecutors to provide materially favorable evidence to the defense before any plea discussions occur, something that is not always done currently; and the elimination of absolute prosecutorial immunity, a judicially invented legal doctrine that makes it impossible for victims of even the most blatant misconduct to sue prosecutors for anything they do in the course of their prosecutorial duties.

Again, those are policies Congress may consider in the fullness of time.  But the creation of a Plea Integrity Unit within the DOJ is an obvious and urgent response to a botched high-profile prosecution that has justifiably shaken people’s faith in the competence and the integrity of the federal criminal justice system.

I love the idea of a body committed to ensuring pleas have integrity, but I am not quite sure why Clark Neily would trust the DOJ fox to review critically its favorite fat hen in its prosecutorial henhouse.  As I see it, there needs to be a body, largely independent of prosecutors, that is charged with takes a close and skeptical look at individual pleas and our entire modern bargained system of justice.

In this area, I have long been a fan of Professor Laura Appleman's clever idea of a "plea jury" (as detailed in an article and book): "a lay panel of citizens [that] would listen to the defendant's allocution and determine the acceptability of the plea and sentence, reinvigorating the community's right to determine punishment for offenders."  I do not think a "plea jury" would solve all or even most of the modern problems with modern plea practices, but it strike me as a good start.  Perhaps that case-specific innovation could be coupled with an new independent judicial-branch commission, one perhaps structurally modeled like the US Sentencing Commission, that would be tasked with gathering data and issuing guidelines on sound plea bargaining practices.

As Neily notes, more than nine of every ten convictions come from the plea process, and yet there are few rules and even less data to inform the discretion exercised by prosecutors as they pursue investigation and structure the terms of plea bargains.  Wherever located and however structured, an "Office of Plea Integrity" would not instantly improve our bargained systems of justice, but it strikes me a good place to start. 

May 15, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, May 14, 2020

COVID in prison reaches SCOTUS as it refuses to vacate Fifth Circuit stay ... and Justice Sotomayor has much to say

The Supreme Court this evening denied, via a one-sentence order (available here), a request to vacate a stay that the Fifth Circuit put in place to halt, pending appeal, an injunction requiring a Texas prison take various measure to protect inmates from the dangers of COVID–19.  Though the full court used only one sentence to deny the request to vacate the stay, Justice Sotomayor (joined by Justice Ginsburg) added this statement about that denial that runs seven pages.  Here are a few excerpts from the start and end of her statement:

Under the circumstances of this case, where the inmates filed a lawsuit before filing any grievance with the prison itself, it is hard to conclude that the Fifth Circuit was demonstrably wrong on this preliminary procedural holding.

I write separately to highlight the disturbing allegations presented below.  Further, where plaintiffs demonstrate that a prison grievance system cannot or will not respond to an inmate’s complaint, they could well satisfy an exception to the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.  Finally, while States and prisons retain discretion in how they respond to health emergencies, federal courts do have an obligation to ensure that prisons are not deliberately indifferent in the face of danger and death....

While I disagree with much of the Fifth Circuit’s analysis at this preliminary juncture, the court required reports every 10 days on the status of the inmates in the prison’s care.  I expect that it and other courts will be vigilant in protecting the constitutional rights of those like applicants.  As the circumstances of this case make clear, the stakes could not be higher.  Just a few nights ago, respondents revealed that “numerous inmates and staff members” at the Pack Unit “are now COVID-19 positive and the vast majority of those tested positive within the past two weeks.” Supp. Brief Regarding Emergency Application 1.

Nothing in this Court’s order, of course, prevents the Fifth Circuit from amending its stay.  Nor does anything in our order prevent applicants from seeking new relief in the District Court, as appropriate, based on changed circumstances.  Finally, administrative convenience must be balanced against the risk of danger presented by emergency situations.  The prison, for example, has failed to explain why it could not simply decrease dorm density, despite having an empty unit at its disposal.

It has long been said that a society’s worth can be judged by taking stock of its prisons.  That is all the truer in this pandemic, where inmates everywhere have been rendered vulnerable and often powerless to protect themselves from harm.  May we hope that our country’s facilities serve as models rather than cautionary tales.

May 14, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

As federal prison population continues remarkable decline, can anyone predict what might be a new normal?

Another Thursday brings another new check on the federal Bureau of Prisons' updated general population numbers. In prior posts here and here, I highlighted that, according to BOP's reporting of the numbers, throughout the month of April the federal prison population was shrinking about 1,000 persons per week.  We are now two weeks into May, and the new numbers at this webpage continue to show an even bigger weekly decline in total number of federal inmates as calculated by BOP: the population dropped from 170,435 (as of April 30) to 169,080 (as of May 7, 2020) to now now a total of 167,803 (as of May 14, 2020).

As I have detailed before, upticks in the number of persons placed on home confinement reported on the BOP's COVID-19 Update page seemingly account for less than a third of recent reported BOP population decreases.  Thus the data continue to suggest that a reduced inflow of prisoners — due, I presume, to many sentencings and reportings to prisons being delayed — is playing a huge role in the significant population declines in recent months.

As the question in the title of this post is meant to flag, I really have no idea what the new normal for the federal prison population might look like in the wake of the remarkable disruptions caused by the coronoavirus.  Just like the whole nation is likely to be unsure about what kinds of activities are "safe" for quite some time, it may be quite some time before anyone can state with confidence that federal prisons are "safe."  And, of course, with profound disruptions to federal grand juries and so many other aspects of federal criminal justice administration, it seems likewise impossible to predict just when the huge federal criminal justice machinery that typically sends over 5000 people to federal prisons each month will be operating at full capacity again.  And, as discussed in this prior post, perhaps at least some judges may be more reticent to send some people to prison even after federal officials say their facitlies are "safe" again.

So, dear readers, anyone bold enough to predict what the federal prison population might look like in, say, mid May 2021 or 2025 or 2030?

A few of many prior related posts:

May 14, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Judge Breyer rejects plea agreement seeking to restrict defendant's statutory authority to pursue compassionate release

Amidst my review of the many federal sentence reductions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) that appear each day on Westlaw, a notable new opinion emerged from a notable judicial author.  Specifically, US District Judge Charles Breyer yesterday issued a 10-page "Order rejecting plea agreement" in US v. Funez Osorto, No. 19-cr-00381-CRB-4 (ND Cal. May 12, 20202) (available here).  For sentencing fans, Judge Breyer is notable in part because he is one of only two remaining active US Sentencing Commissioners (others might also think it notable that he is Justice Stephen Breyer's brother).  And the Funez Osorto opinion is notable for its rejection of a plea agreement based on a provision that is especially relevant in these pandemic days. 

I recommend the full Funez Osorto opinion, and here is a small taste including its start and finish:

Must a term of imprisonment be set in stone, no matter what happens after it is imposed?  Should a court be able to reduce a sentence when unforeseeable tragedies change its consequences?  What if the defendant’s children are effectively orphaned by the death of their other parent?  What if a debilitating injury makes it impossible for the defendant to care for him or herself in prison, or recidivate outside of it?  What if a terminal diagnosis turns a brief term of imprisonment for a minor crime into a life sentence?  What if a global pandemic poses a mortal risk to an immunocompromised inmate who nobody intended to die in jail?  When should a court be able to consider such events and revise a previously imposed sentence accordingly?  How difficult should it be for a defendant to request this type of relief?

Congress has provided one set of answers to these questions, in the First Step Act ..... The United States attorney’s office has very different answers in this case, for this defendant.  Because those answers undermine Congressional intent and all but foreclose this defendant’s ability to request a critical form of relief, the Court rejects the proposed Plea Agreement....

The point is this: while the Plea Agreement leaves open a path to compassionate release, it is hardly wider than the eye of a needle. It is far narrower than the avenues to relief provided by § 3582(c)(1)(A), and too narrow to provide meaningful relief in many of the circumstances that would render Funez Osorto eligible for relief.  And there is no doubt the Government would rely on the waiver provision to deny Funez Osorto compassionate release. It has recently attempted to do exactly that in another case before this Court.  That result is unacceptable for two reasons.  First, it undermines Congress’s intent in passing the First Step Act.  Second, it is inhumane....

It is no answer to say that Funez Osorto is striking a deal with the Government, and could reject this term if he wanted to, because that statement does not reflect the reality of the bargaining table.  See Erik Luna & Marianne Wade, Prosecutors as Judges, 67 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1413, 1414–15 (2010).  As to terms such as this one, plea agreements are contracts of adhesion.  The Government offers the defendant a deal, and the defendant can take it or leave it.  Id. (“American prosecutors . . choose whether to engage in plea negotiations and the terms of an acceptable agreement.”).  If he leaves it, he does so at his peril.  And the peril is real, because on the other side of the offer is the enormous power of the United States Attorney to investigate, to order arrests, to bring a case or to dismiss it, to recommend a sentence or the conditions of supervised release, and on and on.  See Robert H. Jackson, The Federal Prosecutor, 24 J. Am. Judicature Soc’y 18, 18 (1940).  Now imagine the choice the Government has put Funez Osorto to.  All that power — and the all too immediate consequences of opposing it — weighed against the chance to request release in desperate and unknowable circumstances that may not come to pass.  That Faustian choice is not really a choice at all for a man in the defendant’s shoes.  But the Court has a choice, and it will not approve the bargain.

That leaves only one question, which is why?  Why would federal prosecutors exercise the tremendous discretion entrusted to them with such a lack of compassion?  Defendants released through the compassionate release program are less than a tenth as likely to recidivate as the average federal prisoner.  Inspector General Report at 49–50.  And the Department of Justice itself estimates that broader use of compassionate release could save taxpayers millions and free desperately needed space in BOP facilities.  Id. at 45–48. The waiver of compassionate release is senseless.

Judge Breyer asks a lot of good questions throughout this great opinion, but the final one seems to me to be depressingly easy to answer. He asks: "Why would federal prosecutors exercise the tremendous discretion entrusted to them with such a lack of compassion?".  The answer, as I see it, is that so many prosecutors get so accustomed to exercising their tremendous discretion in this way that it now seems to be a professional expectation.

May 12, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, May 08, 2020

Yet another Texas execution postponed, though purportedly not for COVID reasons

Texas had an execution scheduled for next Wednesday, but no longer as explained in this local article: "An East Texas man who asserts that he is intellectually disabled has won a reprieve from his execution scheduled for next week for a 2007 shootout that left two sheriff’s officers dead." Here is more:

Randall Wayne Mays was set to receive lethal injection May 13 for the shootings at his Henderson County home.  In an order issued Thursday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued an execution stay and remanded Mays’ case to the trial court in Henderson County for review of his intellectual-disability claim.

Mays’ attorneys say the 60-year-old suffers from delusions and thinks Texas wants to execute him over a renewable energy design he believes he created....  Mays had previously won reprieves in October and in 2015.

Six other executions scheduled in Texas for earlier this year have been postponed because of the novel coronavirus outbreak statewide.  Besides Mays' intellectual-disability claim, his attorneys had also asked the appeals court for an execution stay because of the pandemic. The appeals court did not address that request in its order.

The next execution in Texas is scheduled for June 16.

Though this reprieve was not based on the COVID pandemic, I wonder if the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was just a little bit more willing to grant the defendant his requested relief because of the many challenges posed to courts and corrections officials these days. I suspect that, even when courts and litigants do not make express reference to COVID concerns, they still cannot help but look at all criminal justice issues through a somewhat different lens.

With Texas starting to open up, it will be especially interesting to see if the state's two scheduled excutions for mid June and early July go forward. And, in the meantime, Missouri has an execution schedule for May 19, and it seems that the state is seriously prepared to move forward (see, e.g., press reports from Mother Jones and the St. Louis Dispatch).

Some prior related capital COVID posts:

May 8, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Always pleased to see more opposition to jail time and support for retroactive decarceral reforms ... and hoping to see it in all settings for all people

This new Austin American-Statesman article, headlined "Texas Supreme Court orders release of jailed salon owner who illegally reopened," highlights interesting developments and notable statements in the litigation surrounding a high-profile COVID-related case in the Lone Star State.  Here are the details:

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday ordered Dallas County officials to free salon owner Shelley Luther from jail while its nine judges, all Republicans, weigh an appeal challenging her incarceration as improper.

The emergency order directed county officials to release Luther, who reopened her salon despite state restrictions, on a personal bond with no money required, “pending final disposition of her case.”  County officials also were ordered to file a response to the challenge by 4 p.m. Monday, the same day Luther’s weeklong sentence for contempt of court would have ended.

The order came shortly after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, seeking to end a political firestorm over Luther’s jailing, announced Thursday that local officials will be prohibited from jailing Texans for violating any of his numerous coronavirus-related executive orders.  “Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical, and I will not allow it to happen,” Abbott said in a statement.  “That is why I am modifying my executive orders to ensure confinement is not a punishment for violating an order.” Abbott said this latest executive order, “if correctly applied,” should free Luther....

Luther, who opened Salon à la Mode nearly two weeks ago, was found in contempt for ignoring a court order to close from state District Judge Eric Moyé, who sentenced her to seven days in Dallas County jail Tuesday and hit her with a $7,000 fine.

The petition challenging Luther’s incarceration, filed Wednesday by lawyers who included state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, argued that she was exercising her right to run a business in ways that protected customer health by, among other steps, requiring stylists to wear face coverings, seating patrons 6 feet apart and sanitizing regularly touched surfaces. “There is no evidence that her business posed any greater risk to the public than businesses being allowed to operate, such as movie theaters, day cares, and home improvement stores,” the Supreme Court petition said.

The fine and jail sentence came as barber shops and hair salons were allowed to reopen Friday under an executive order issued Tuesday by Abbott. Under Abbott’s previous stay-at-home order, issued in March, salons and other nonessential businesses were required to close....

On Wednesday, Abbott said jail time should be the last resort for those who disobey his executive order. But after receiving pushback from some conservative activists and lawmakers, who argued that his comments didn’t go far enough in criticizing government overreach, Abbott modified his orders Thursday.

State law sets the punishment for violating disaster-related executive orders at a fine of up to $1,000 and up to 180 days of jail time.

Abbott’s latest executive order suspended “all relevant laws” that allow jail time “for violating any order issued in response to the COVD-19 disaster.” The new order also allowed salons and barber shops to open immediately, instead of Friday, and made the change retroactive to April 2 to nullify any local regulations that could form the basis of jail time for business owners who violated a shutdown order.

Republicans took to Twitter to praise Abbott’s action Thursday. “I am pleased to see @GregAbbott_TX has removed jail as a punishment for violating exective orders.  Some local officials have been reckless, imprisoning women for wanting to work to put food on the table for their children,” said state Rep. Matt Shaheen, R-Plano....

“Gov. Abbott, throwing Texans in jail whose businesses shut down through no fault of their own is wrong. Thank you for admitting that,” said state Rep. Mike Lang, R-Granbury.

As many have noted in a variety of settings, there is a particularly ridiculous irony to enforcing social distancing rules by sending a person into a carceral environment in which social distancing is all but impossible.  But this story is a useful reminder that any number of judges, even in the midst of a pandemic, are still inclined to use jail time in what one Texas official calls a  "reckless" manner.  It is great to see criticism of the use of jail in this particular instance, but there are lots and lots and lots of examples of jail being used excessively.  I sure hope state Rep. Matt Shaheen and the many others speaking out in this case (including the Texas Attorney General and Senator Ted Cruz and many others) will keep speaking out against reckless jail sanctions.

Similarly, this story also shows that some Texas officials strongly believe that, upon recognizing that a problematic law has led to problematic incarceration, the law should be changed and that change should be given retroactive effect to free those subject to problematic incarceration.  I sure hope state Rep. Mike Lang and others will keep speaking up in support or decarceral legal reforms and ensure that any and all such reforms always get full retroactive effect to free those subject to laws that have been reformed for the better.

Of course, I am not at all confident that concern for poor use of incarceration and support for reparative efforts will be expressed in all setting from all these Texas officials or others.  Indeed, this Houston Chronicle report notes that "In April, two Latina women in Laredo were arrested and jailed for defying the lockdown by running nail salons out of their homes. No state officials intervened in their cases."

May 7, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Justice Dept dropping Flynn’s criminal case"

The title of this post is the title of the notable news in this new AP report.  Here is the first part of the article:

The Justice Department on Thursday said it is dropping the criminal case against President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, abandoning a prosecution that became a rallying cry for Trump and his supporters in attacking the FBI’s Russia investigation.

The move is a stunning reversal for one of the signature cases brought by special counsel Robert Mueller.  It comes even though prosecutors for the last three years had maintained that Flynn had lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in a January 2017 interview.  Flynn himself admitted as much, and became a key cooperator for Mueller as he investigated ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.

In court documents being filed Thursday, the Justice Department said it is dropping the case “after a considered review of all the facts and circumstances of this case, including newly discovered and disclosed information.”  The documents were obtained by The Associated Press.  The Justice Department said it had concluded that Flynn’s interview by the FBI was “untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn” and that the interview on January 24, 2017 was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis.”

The U.S. attorney reviewing the Flynn case, Jeff Jensen, recommended the move to Attorney General William Barr last week and formalized the recommendation in a document this week.  “Through the course of my review of General Flynn’s case, I concluded the proper and just course was to dismiss the case,” Jensen said in a statement. “I briefed Attorney General Barr on my findings, advised him on these conclusions, and he agreed.”

The decision is certain to be embraced by Trump, who has relentlessly tweeted about the case and last week pronounced Flynn “exonerated,” and energize supporters who have taken up the retired Army lieutenant general as something of a cause celebre.  But it may also add to Democratic concerns that Attorney General William Barr is excessively loyal to the president, and could be a distraction for a Justice Department that for months has sought to focus on crimes arising from the coronavirus.

The Justice Department’s action comes amid an internal review into the handling of the case and an aggressive effort by Flynn’s lawyers to challenge the basis for the prosecution.  The lawyers cited newly disclosed FBI emails and notes last week to allege that Flynn was entrapped into lying when agents interviewed him at the White House days after Trump’s inauguration.  Though none of the documents appeared to undercut the central allegation that Flynn had lied to the FBI, Trump last week pronounced him “exonerated

The decision is the latest dramatic turn in a years-old case full of twists and turns.  In recent months, his attorneys have leveled a series of allegations about the FBI’s actions and asked to withdraw his guilty plea.  A judge has rejected most of the claims and not ruled on others, including the bid to revoke the plea.

Prior related posts:

May 7, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

SCOTUS dings Ninth Circuit panel for its "takeover of the appeal" of convictions for encouraging illegal immigration

I had not been following that closely the Supreme Court's consideration of the immigration case examining the proper reach of 8 U.S.C. §1324, United States v. Sineneng-Smith, No. 19-67 (S. Ct. May 7, 2020) (available here). But the Court's opinion in the case this morning caught my attention because the Justices decided not to decide the merits and instead decided to assail the Ninth Circuit's handing of the case.  Justice Ginsburg's opinion for the Court gives an account of how the Ninth Circuit panel solicited amicus briefs of the case, and then concludes this way: 

No extraordinary circumstances justified the panel’s takeover of the appeal.  Sineneng-Smith herself had raised a vagueness argument and First Amendment arguments homing in on her own conduct, not that of others.  Electing not to address the party-presented controversy, the panel projected that §1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) might cover a wide swath of protected speech, including political advocacy, legal advice, even a grandmother’s plea to her alien grandchild to remain in the United States. 910 F. 3d, at 483–484.  Nevermind that Sineneng-Smith’s counsel had presented a contrary theory of the case in the District Court, and that this Court has repeatedly warned that “invalidation for [First Amendment] overbreadth is ‘strong medicine’ that is not to be ‘casually employed.’” United States v. Williams, 553 U. S. 285, 293 (2008) (quoting Los Angeles Police Dept. v. United Reporting Publishing Corp., 528 U. S. 32, 39 (1999)).

As earlier observed, see supra, at 4, a court is not hidebound by the precise arguments of counsel, but the Ninth Circuit’s radical transformation of this case goes well beyond the pale.

For the reasons stated, we vacate the Ninth Circuit’s judgment and remand the case for reconsideration shorn of the overbreadth inquiry interjected by the appellate panel and bearing a fair resemblance to the case shaped by the parties.

Justice Thomas concurs in an opinion that starts this way:

I agree with the Court that the Ninth Circuit abused its discretion in reaching out to decide whether 8 U.S.C. §1324(a)(1)(A)(iv) is unconstitutionally overbroad.  In my view, however, the Court of Appeals’ decision violates far more than the party presentation rule.  The merits of that decision also highlight the troubling nature of this Court’s overbreadth doctrine.  That doctrine provides that “a law may be invalidated as overbroad if ‘a substantial number of its applications are unconstitutional, judged in relation to the statute’s plainly legitimate sweep.’”  United States v. Stevens, 559 U.S. 460, 473 (2010) (quoting Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, 552 U. S. 442, 449, n. 6 (2008)).  Although I have previously joined the Court in applying this doctrine, I have since developed doubts about its origins and application.  It appears that the overbreadth doctrine lacks any basis in the Constitution’s text, violates the usual standard for facial challenges, and contravenes traditional standing principles.  I would therefore consider revisiting this doctrine in an appropriate case.

May 7, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Noting some new tales of the COVID-era challenges of criminal justice administration

In reviewing the news of the day, I came across a number of notable new stories about the (many) unique challenges that now arise as a global pandemic dramatically alters the administration of criminal justice.  Here are headlines and a highlight from a few of these pieces:

From The Appeal, "Covid-19 Is Creating A State Of Emergency For Incoming Public Defenders. Diploma Privilege Is The Only Solution."

The public defender system that sprung out of Gideon, however, has faced crises ranging from underfunding to staggering caseloads that make it impossible for defenders to effectively represent their clients.  Now, COVID-19 is ushering in a new crisis: several states including California as well as the District of Columbia have postponed their bar exams, while other states have enacted a provisional licensing scheme, meaning that while law school graduates may be able to work in temporary, limited capacities performing the work that Gideon mandates, they will also bear the burden of preparing for the bar.  So, what will happen to the marginalized — and Gideon’s mandate — when an entire class of public defenders cannot begin their jobs as scheduled in the fall of 2020?

From Law360, "Grand Jury Suspensions A Looming Problem For Prosecutors":

As court closures stretch on during the coronavirus pandemic, the suspension of federal grand juries is causing headaches for prosecutors by jeopardizing older cases and slowing down complex ones, requiring judges to consider how to bring the panels back.

From The Marshall Project, "A Dangerous Limbo: Probation and Parole in the Time of COVID-19":

When people are accused of violating their probation or parole, they often have to wait behind bars for a series of hearings and procedural hurdles to determine if they are guilty and what the consequences will be.  Think of a criminal trial, but less formal and with fewer constitutional protections.  Even “one day in custody can totally disrupt someone’s life to the point of almost no return,” says Michael Nail, Georgia’s commissioner of community supervision.  Now, coronavirus can make custody downright dangerous.

p>From WSYX/WTTE, "Ohio prosecutors have backlog of cases, courtrooms not expected to fully reopen until June":

Right now many victims and cases are in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic.  Court systems all across Ohio are looking at how to handle the volume of cases that haven't been touched in weeks and new cases too. In Fairfield County, Prosecutor Kyle Witt says they've been working diligently to figure out how to give those arrested and victims their day in court.  The county's grand jury met for the first time today in weeks. "We're resuming today, we're limiting the number of people in that room. We are providing masks and gloves and social distancing," said Witt.

May 6, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 04, 2020

SCOTUS wastes no time taking up new case to address whether new Ramos jury unanimity rule is retroactive

In the US Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment unanimous jury ruling a couple of weeks ago, Ramos v. Louisiana, No. 18–5924 (S. Ct. April 20, 2020) (available here, basics here), a couple of the Justices already started debating whether the ruling would be give retroactive effect.  Interestingly, this new SCOTUS order list includes this new certiorari grant revealing that the Justices were eager to formally take up this issue before lower courts even had a chance to try to hash it out:

EDWARDS, THEDRICK V. VANNOY, WARDEN

The motion of petitioner for leave to proceed in forma pauperis is granted, and the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question: Whether this Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U. S. ___ (2020), applies retroactively to cases on federal collateral review.

Long-time readers should know that I generally view getting matters "right" in the criminal justice system as much more important than keeping that which is wrong "final."  (This is especially true  in the sentencing area as I explained in "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences" a few years ago.)  I always believe it especially important for new substantive laws and rules to be retroactive, and Ramos is obviously "just" a procedural rule.  But I have long hoped that the Supreme Court's Teague doctrine for limiting the retroactivity of procedural rules would someday identify the long-discussed "watershed" procedural rule that implicates the fundamental fairness and accuracy of the trial and thus should be fully retroactive.  See 489 U. S. 288, 311-312 (1989) (plurality opinion).  I suspect and hope jury unanimity might prove to be just such a rule (though I am certainly not holding my breath in light of the opinions in Ramos).

Prior related posts:

May 4, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 01, 2020

Exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

Second-Look-Contest_for-web-email-survey-2I am pleased to be able to note — and everyone should be prepared for me to repeatedly promote — an exciting new project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  The basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

A robust national discussion about how best to remedy extreme and unwarranted prison sentences has prompted various new proposed remedies. In hopes of encouraging discussion and debate around the creation of a comprehensive “second-look sentencing provision” in Ohio law, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC), a statewide criminal-justice nonprofit, are sponsoring a legislative-drafting contest for law students and recent law school graduates.

Contest Objective and Deliverable

DEPC and OJPC encourage law students and recent graduates (from class years 2015-2020) to submit (1) proposed language for a new Ohio statutory provision and (2) accompanying commentary to allow courts to take a second look at Ohio prison sentences.  The proposal should address both substance (e.g., when and to whom does it apply) and procedure (e.g., how should such a second look be initiated and decided).  Entrants may, but are not required to, address the public-health issues that have come to the fore with COVID-19 (e.g., the proposal might have a special provision allowing more prisoners to seek resentencing when a public-health emergency has been declared).  Group submissions are acceptable and encouraged.

Contest Timeline and Awards

Submissions are due June 30, 2020.  The winning submission will receive a prize of $2,000, and up to two runner-up prizes of $1,000 will also be awarded.  If a group submission is awarded prize money, it will be divided equally among the groups members.  All winning submissions will be published via DEPC and OJPC’s websites.  The full version of the winning proposal will also be presented to the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission at a forthcoming meeting and may be used in DEPC and OJPC’s ongoing efforts to advocate for improvements in Ohio law.

May 1, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

"Policy Reforms Can Strengthen Community Supervision: A framework to improve probation and parole"

Figure1_650The title of this post is the title of this lengthy new report produced by The Pew Charitable Trusts Public Safety Performance Project. Here are excerpts from the report's "Overview":

Since 1980, the nation’s community supervision population has ballooned by almost 240 percent. As of 2016, 1 in 55 U.S. adults (nearly 4.5 million people) are on probation or parole, more than twice the number incarcerated in state and federal prisons and local jails. Historically, probation and parole were intended to provide a less punitive, more constructive alternative to incarceration, but a growing body of evidence suggests that a frequent emphasis on surveillance and monitoring of people under supervision rather than on promoting their success, along with the resource demands of ever-larger caseloads, has transformed community supervision into a primary driver of incarceration. This shift has produced an array of troubling consequences, not only for individuals on probation and parole but for taxpayers and communities as well.

In recent years, a growing body of evidence on what works in community supervision has revealed a set of key challenges that undermine the system’s effectiveness and merit attention from policymakers:

• Community supervision is a leading driver of incarceration....

• Excessive rules can present barriers to successful completion of supervision....

• Agencies often inappropriately supervise low-risk individuals....

• Overextended supervision officers have less time to devote to high-risk, high-need individuals....

• Many people with substance use or mental health disorders do not receive treatment.... 

To address these problems, some supervision agencies have begun to embrace evidence-based practices that have been shown to improve outcomes and reduce recidivism. These include the use of research-based assessment tools to identify an individual’s level of risk for reoffending, graduated sanctions, such as increased reporting or short-term incarceration, to respond to violations of supervision rules, and incentives to encourage rule compliance.  As a result of these and other policy changes, 37 states have experienced simultaneous reductions in crime and community supervision rates.

Although those results are encouraging, states and agencies need time to analyze their systems and enact reforms on a much larger scale to ensure that probation and parole function more effectively.  To help states meet this challenge, The Pew Charitable Trusts, in partnership with Arnold Ventures, established the Advisory Council on Community Supervision to develop a policy framework for state lawmakers, court officers, and community corrections personnel. The council featured a diverse group of representatives from probation and parole agencies, the courts, law enforcement, affected communities, the behavioral health field, and academia. Drawing on its members’ extensive experience and knowledge, the council agreed on three broad goals for the next generation of community supervision: better outcomes for people on supervision, their families, and communities; a smaller system with fewer people on supervision; and less use of incarceration as a sanction for supervision violations, particularly breaches of the rules.

With those goals in mind, the council developed a menu of policies that state decision-makers and supervision administrators can use to reshape community supervision. Arnold Ventures supported the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota to examine the research underlying the policies and practices identified by the council, and where such an evidence base exists, it is summarized and cited in this framework. The recommendations are arranged according to seven broad objectives:

• Enact alternatives to arrest, incarceration, and supervision....

• Implement evidence-based policies centered on risks and needs....

• Adopt shorter supervision sentences and focus on goals and incentives....

• Establish effective and appropriate supervision conditions....

• Develop individualized conditions for payment of legal financial obligations....

• Reduce use of and pathways to incarceration.... 

• Support community supervision agencies.... 

April 28, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 27, 2020

Feds appealing last week's judicial order to transfer vulnerable prisoners "out of Elkton through any means"

As reported in this local article, "Federal prosecutors on Monday said they would appeal a federal judge's decision to order the Bureau of Prisons to release or transfer hundreds of inmates at an Ohio federal lock-up where an outbreak of the novel coronavirus killed several inmates."  Here is more:

Assistant U.S. Attorney James Bennett filed a motion asking the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati to review U.S. District Judge James Gwin’s Wednesday granting of the ACLU of Ohio for a temporary injunction seeking the release of prisoners from the Federal Correctional Institution Elkton. The BOP announced on Sunday that a seventh inmate at the facility, identified as 55-year-old Richard Nesby, had died due to complications related to the COVID-19 virus.

The filing came just before a scheduled 10:30 a.m. teleconference hearing in which Bennett told Gwin he would also on Monday ask Gwin to put his order on hold.  BOP identified more than 800 prisoners who would fall under Gwin's order for the prison to either release or relocate prisoners who are 65 years old and older and those who have certain pre-existing conditions that put them at risk of serious illness associated with the virus.

Gwin gave the government two weeks to determine which prisoners it can release on parole, furlough, compassionate release or home confinement.  The government also has the option to move the inmates to other prisons "where appropriate measures, such as testing and single-cell placement, or social distancing, may be accomplished."  

Bennett last week requested Gwin's permission to file the list of prisoners under seal. He argued in Monday's hearing that publicly naming those prisoners would divulge their personal and private medical information.  Gwin rejected the motion and ordered the government to make public a list that includes the name and prison identification number of each prisoner, and the underlying court and case number for each one.  Gwin separately ordered the bureau to give the plaintiffs' lawyers a list of the specific medical conditions that it included in its search criteria....

The ACLU sued after the coronavirus spread among prisoners and staff.  It said staff members didn't take proper precautions to protect the inmates and prisons violated the constitutional rights of the inmates.  Attorneys for the prisons bureau had urged the judge not to release any inmates, saying the staff was taking the proper precautions to isolate those with the virus, conduct health screenings and identify suitable candidates for home confinement.  Gwin, however, wrote that staff wasn't doing enough and believed the prison bureau's number constitutes an undercounting of the actual number of cases at Elkton.

This BOP page on FCI Elkton indicates the facility has an inmate population of just over 2400 persons. I find it remarkable, though not all that surprising, that a full one-third of this population is at-risk according to CDC guidelines.

Prior related post:

April 27, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

A dozen GVRs based on Ramos (with Justice Alito always commenting along the way, and Justice Thomas dissenting in a few)

Of criminal justice interest on this order list released by the Supreme Court this morning are a series of orders sending cases back to lower courts for reconsideration in light of the Court's unanimous juries ruling last week in Ramos v. Louisiana (basics here).  I count 12 total cases being remained, nearly all from Louisiana and one from Oregon.  Here is how the first of these orders reads:

The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted.  The judgment is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Court of Appeal of Louisiana, First Circuit for further consideration in light of Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U. S. ___ (2020).  Justice Alito, concurring in the decision to grant, vacate, and remand: In this and in all other cases in which the Court grants, vacates, and remands in light of Ramos v. Louisiana, I concur in the judgment on the understanding that the Court is not deciding or expressing a view on whether the question was properly raised below but is instead leaving that question to be decided on remand.  Justice Thomas would deny the petition for a writ of certiorari.

Notably, this comment by Justice Alito appears with every remand order, but Justice Thomas indicates he would deny the petition in only five of the twelve cases.  (I would guess that the five cases that Justice Thomas would deny are in a distinct procedural posture from the other seven.)

Prior related posts:

April 27, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 24, 2020

Some exhausted musings on the so-called "exhaustion" procedural requirement for sentence-reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I tend to start many mornings these COVID-tainted days on Westlaw checking out new district court opinions responding to motions by persons in federal prison seeking a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A).  A dozen or more new opinions appear each day now, but many deny relief simply on the basis of the so-called "exhaustion" procedural requirement in § 3582(c)(1)(A).  A few weeks ago, I discussed in this post the sloppy Third Circuit panel dicta on this issue in Raia, and it is frustrating (but not surprising) that many district courts nationwide are now citing Raia when rejecting motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) on this procedural ground.  At the end of another long week, I wanted to explain why it seems to me misguided, on various grounds, to interpret this "exhaustion" procedural requirement as an absolute bar to courts considering the merits of sentence-reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A). 

First, the statutory basics. The text now of § 3582(c)(1)(A), after amendment by the FIRST STEP Act (in bold), provides: "the court, upon motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, or upon motion of the defendant after the defendant has fully exhausted all administrative rights to appeal a failure of the Bureau of Prisons to bring a motion on the defendant's behalf or the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of such a request by the warden of the defendant's facility, whichever is earlier, may reduce the term of imprisonment..."  In other words, this text provides that a sentence reduction motion can be acted upon by the court (1) immediately if brought by BOP, or (2) as soon as a defendant requests such a motion and that request is formally/finally denied by BOP or 30 days has lapsed, "whichever is earlier." 

Based on the text alone, I can understand why courts read this provision as precluding consideration of a prisoner's sentence-reduction motion until at least 30 days after a BOP request is made by the defendant.  As I explained in my Raia post, this provision is pretty clearly not jurisdictional because the language and structure make it much more what the Supreme Court calls a "nonjurisdictional claim-processing rule."  Fort Bend County v. Davis, No. 18-525 (S. Ct. June 3, 2019) (available here).  Still, even as a claim-processing rule, the text is seemingly clear and mandatory: "The statute provides no exceptions to the exhaustion requirement, and the Supreme Court has clearly stated that courts may not manufacture exceptions where they do not exist." United States v. Miamen, No. 18-130-1 WES, 2020 WL 1904490 (D RI Apr. 17, 2020).  Further, as another court has put it: "the administrative exhaustion requirement for compassionate release motions serves important policy functions [because the] BOP is often in the best position to evaluate the scope of an inmate’s medical condition, the adequacy of the release plan, and any danger posed to the community if they are released."  United States v. Gamble, No. 3:18-cr-0022-4(VLB), 2020 WL 1955338 (D Conn Apr. 23, 2020).

Though this basic textual and policy analysis is not misguided, it largely looks past all the reasons that Congress in the FIRST STEP Act enabled district judges to consider the merits of a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting even full consideration of a request by BOP.  For years, BOP failed to use its authority to seek reductions even in the most compelling of cases, and Congress decided to district courts could and should assess sentence-reduction requests without BOP serving as any kind of gatekeeper.  Critically, with the FIRST STEP Act revision, Congress did not actually require defendants to exhaust the BOP motion-request process before turning to the courts — which would have made sense if Congress still trusted the BOP process to some extent; Congress added, critically, that a sentence-reduction motion could be considered after "the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of such a request."  Put another way, this statute actually does have an express exception to a true exhaustion requirement in the form of the "lapse of 30 day" provision.

But, so the argument might go, even though Congress did create an exception to BOP exhaustion in the form of a "30 day" lapse requirement, why should courts even consider short-circuiting that express timeline?  Well, in the midst of a pandemic, a timeline intended by Congress to give a prisoner quick access to the court sensibly can and should be sped up consistent with the overall goals of § 3582(c)(1)(A).  In the word of one court:  "The question therefore becomes whether applying equitable exceptions to section 3582(c)(1)(A) would be incompatible with Congressional intent .... [and] this Court agrees with Judge Rakoff that 'Congress cannot have intended the 30-day waiting period ... to rigidly apply in the highly unusual situation in which the nation finds itself today'."  United States v. Bess, No. 16-cr-156, 2020 WL 1940809 (WDNY Apr. 22, 2020). 

Especially important here seems to be a consideration emphasized in this New York Times editorial: "Releasing these prisoners during this crisis is not just an act of mercy to protect prisoners’ health, [it also serves] the health of the prison staff.  Fewer sick inmates means less strain on the already burdened prison hospital system."  Does it really make sense to believe Congress would want courts to refuse to consider (for a few weeks) a request for a sentence reduction when any delay will further imperil prison staff as well as inmates?  In normal times, the procedural requirement of § 3582(c)(1)(A) shows some respect for BOP officials; in COVID times, rigid application may inadvertently cost the lives of some BOP officials.

Last but not least, at a time when at least 24 federal inmates have died from COVID and in a week in which a federal judge has found that federal inmates in one facility "have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits" of an Eighth Amendment claim, an equitable exception to the procedural requirement of § 3582(c)(1)(A) arguably has a strong constitutional foundation.  I say this because, in order to prevail substantively, a defendant seeking a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A) must make the case that "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant" a reduction with consideration given also to "the factors set forth in 3553(a)."  In other words, the only persons who are ultimately impacted by so-called "exhaustion" requirement are those who can make a truly compelling case to a federal judge that, consistent with congressional sentencing purposes, a shorter sentence is now justified.  Amidst a pandemic which has already killed dozens of federal prisoners, to deny deserved substantive relief on questionable procedural grounds strikes me as quite constitutionally suspect. 

April 24, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

In praise of (split) Fourth Circuit panel prioritizing sentencing fitness over finality

A few years ago, I wrote this article, titled "Re-Balancing Fitness, Fairness, and Finality for Sentences," in which I urged policy-makers and judges to be "less concerned about sentence finality, and to be more concerned about punishment fitness and fairness, when new legal developments raise doubts or concerns about lengthy prison sentences."  The article came to mind as I reviewed a new (split) panel ruling from the Fourth Circuit in US v. Chambers, No. 19-7104 (4th Cir. Apr. 23, 2020) (available here).  Here is how the majority opinion gets started:

Erroneously sentenced as a career offender, Brooks Tyrone Chambers is currently serving an almost 22-year prison sentence on a pre-2010 crack-cocaine offense.  In 2019, he moved to reduce his sentence to time served under the First Step Act.  Because the First Step Act gives retroactive effect to sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, his statutory minimum would drop from 20 years to 10 years.  In his motion, he asked the district court to apply retroactive intervening case law, under which he would not be a career offender.  Without the enhancement, Chambers’s Guidelines range would also drop to 57 to 71 months; with it, his Guidelines range would remain the same — 262 to 327 months.

The district court determined that Chambers was eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act, but it proceeded to perpetuate the career-offender error when recalculating the Guidelines.  Nor did it exercise its discretion to vary downward.  Instead, the court denied Chambers’s motion to reduce his custodial sentence, though it granted the motion as to his supervised release term.  Because the First Step Act does not constrain courts from recognizing Guidelines errors, and because the district court seemingly believed that it could not vary from the Guidelines range to reflect post-sentencing information, we vacate the district court’s resentencing order.  Additionally, we now hold that any Guidelines error deemed retroactive, such as the error in this case, must be corrected in a First Step Act resentencing.

Here is how the dissent gets started:

Modification of a final sentence requires express congressional authorization.  The majority’s decision sidesteps this statutory imperative and instead reasons that district courts are free — and here, required — to modify final sentences unless specifically prohibited from doing so.  Congress enacted Section 404 of the First Step Act to retroactively reduce disparities between the crack and powder cocaine sentencing schemes; the statute is silent about other changes to a defendant’s final sentence.  The majority finds in this silence an implicit grant of authority to retroactively correct Sentencing Guidelines errors based on intervening law, an authority this Court has rejected in the context of collateral challenges to final sentences.  I would instead conclude that 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B) authorizes only the modification “expressly permitted” by the First Step Act, which does not include reevaluating a defendant’s career-offender Guidelines designation in light of a post-sentencing change in the law.

Since a judge at any full resentencing is now obligated to "impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes set forth" in 18 USC 3553(a)(2), it really ought not matter too much what sentencing range gets spit out in a guideline calculation.  But because many judges still focus a lot on guideline calculations, I am pleased to see the majority here is eager to make sure the district court is focused on a correct guideline calculation.

April 23, 2020 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 20, 2020

A reminder of why "acquitted conduct" sentencing enhancements should be seen as a constitutional abomination

I am only through the first part of the Supreme Court's first opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana, No. 18–5924 (S. Ct. April 20, 2020) (available here), which finally declares that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right, as incorporated against the states, requires unanimous juries for conviction.  I was drawn back to blogging because a passage early in Justice Gorsuch's opinion for the Court reminder me why "acquitted conduct" sentencing enhancements still make me crazy.  Here are the passages from the Ramos opinion slip op. at 3-4) to set the table (emphasis in original):

The Sixth Amendment promises that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law.”  The Amendment goes on to preserve other rights for criminal defendants but says nothing else about what a “trial by an impartial jury” entails.

Still, the promise of a jury trial surely meant something — otherwise, there would have been no reason to write it down.  Nor would it have made any sense to spell out the places from which jurors should be drawn if their powers as jurors could be freely abridged by statute.  Imagine a constitution that allowed a “jury trial” to mean nothing but a single person rubberstamping convictions without hearing any evidence — but simultaneously insisting that the lone juror come from a specific judicial district “previously ascertained by law.” And if that’s not enough, imagine a constitution that included the same hollow guarantee twice — not only in the Sixth Amendment, but also in Article III.  No: The text and structure of the Constitution clearly suggest that the term “trial by an impartial jury” carried with it some meaning about the content and requirements of a jury trial.

Here is how the second paragraph could and should be modified if (and I hope when) the Supreme Court finally sees it needs to give the jury trial right real meaning by limiting sentencing enhancements based on acquitted conduct:

Still, the promise of a jury trial surely meant something — otherwise, there would have been no reason to write it down.  Nor would it have made any sense to spell out the places from which jurors should be drawn if their powers as jurors could be freely overridden by judges at sentencing.  Imagine a constitution that allowed a “jury trial” to mean nothing but a single judge rotely enhancing sentences without regarding any acquittals — but simultaneously insisting that jurors not be told that acquitted conduct will be used to make guideline calculations “previously ascertained by law.”  And if that’s not enough, imagine a constitution that included the same hollow guarantee twice — not only in the Sixth Amendment, but also in Article III.  No: The text and structure of the Constitution clearly suggest that the term “trial by an impartial jury” carried with it some meaning about the content and requirements of a judge's sentencing acquittals by a jury trial. See generally Blakely v. Washington, 542 U. S. 296 (2004).

I obviously added the citation to Blakely, in part because I continue to by aghast that the Justices have work so hard to avoid confronting the this issue for now 16 years since it handed down the opinion that should have helped bring the ugliness of acquitted conduct enhancement to an end.

April 20, 2020 in Blakely Commentary and News, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

In lengthy split opinion (with interesting splits), Supreme Court holds Sixth Amendment applies to states to require unanimous verdict to convict of serious offense

The Supreme Court this morning handed down a lengthy (surprisingly?) split decision in Ramos v. Louisiana, No. 18–5924 (S. Ct. April 20, 2020) (available here). At issue in Ramos was a set of hlaf-century old SCOTUS precendents in which the Court had held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, as incorporated against the states, did not require states to adopt a unanimity requirement even for serious cases. Those precedents went up in smoke today, but the break down of votes shows that not all of the Justices were eager to blaze a Sixth Amendment new path:

GORSUCH, J., announced the judgment of the Court, and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II–A, III, and IV–B–1, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined, an opinion with respect to Parts II–B, IV–B–2, and V, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, and SOTOMAYOR, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part IV–A, in which GINSBURG and BREYER, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed an opinion concurring as to all but Part IV–A. KAVANAUGH, J., filed an opinion concurring in part. THOMAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., joined, and in which KAGAN, J., joined as to all but Part III–D.

I am going to need some time (and perhaps a number of posts) to process all that appears here, but for now I can spotlight Justice Gorsuch's notable closing paragraph:

On what ground would anyone have us leave Mr. Ramos in prison for the rest of his life?  Not a single Member of this Court is prepared to say Louisiana secured his conviction constitutionally under the Sixth Amendment.  No one before us suggests that the error was harmless.  Louisiana does not claim precedent commands an affirmance.  In the end, the best anyone can seem to muster against Mr. Ramos is that, if we dared to admit in his case what we all know to be true about the Sixth Amendment, we might have to say the same in some others.  But where is the justice in that?  Every judge must learn to live with the fact he or she will make some mistakes; it comes with the territory.  But it is something else entirely to perpetuate something we all know to be wrong only because we fear the consequences of being right.  The judgment of the Court of Appeals is Reversed.

April 20, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

"Governors Must Use Clemency Powers to Slow the Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this new memorandum from Courtney Oliva and Ben Notterman. Here is how it gets started:

Nearly 3 in 4 Americans have now been ordered to stay home and remain indoors, while many states have ordered non-essential businesses to shutter.  These steps may seem drastic, but they are being taken in order to safeguard public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Government actors who are truly serious about protecting people must take comprehensive and coordinated action to combat the spread of the virus.  This means acknowledging and explicitly considering the health risks of vulnerable populations — including people serving sentences in state prisons — when crafting and implementing gubernatorial responses to reduce the risk of transmission.

Jails and prisons are unable to comply with CDC hygiene standards and are accelerating the pandemic.  People who are incarcerated are more likely to have chronic health conditions than the general public.  Likewise, the percentage of people age 55 or older in state prisons has more than tripled between 2000 and 2016.  Incarceration also has negative “knock on” effects.  Incarcerated people tend to age faster than the general population, and their physiological age outpaces their chronological age by anywhere from 7 to 10 years.

In some states, local government actors have responded to the growing threat of COVID-19 by taking steps to reduce jail populations and to limit the number of people being admitted to jails.  Police departments are also adjusting by issuing citation and misdemeanor summons for certain offenses.  But while local government officials have begun tackling the risk that jail populations pose, little movement has occurred to reduce prison populations and the attendant risk of transmission of COVID-19 to people serving sentences in prisons, prison employees, their families, and their communities.

If states are serious about preventing the spread of COVID-19, they must take immediate action to reduce the number of people in state prisons. While every state’s mechanisms will differ according to constitutional and statutory provisions, there are a number of actions that state actors — including governors — can take.

See Appendix for a state-by-state overview of these legal mechanisms.

April 14, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split Eleventh Circuit panel rules Jeffrey Epstein's victims had no rights under federal CVRA before any complaint or indictment

A divided Eleventh Circuit panel today handed down a very long opinion on an very interesting issue concerning the rights of victims of a very high profile (and now very dead) federal defendant. The opinion for the court authored by Judge Newsom in In re Courtney Wild, No. 9:08-cv-80736-KAM (11th Cir. April 14, 2020) (available here), gets started this way:

This case, which is before us on a petition for writ of mandamus, arises out of a civil suit filed under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act of 2004.  Petitioner Courtney Wild is one of more than 30 women — girls, really — who were victimized by notorious sex trafficker and child abuser Jeffrey Epstein.  In her petition, Ms. Wild alleges that when federal prosecutors secretly negotiated and entered into a non-prosecution agreement with Epstein in 2007, they violated her rights under the CVRA — in particular, her rights to confer with the government’s lawyers and to be treated fairly by them.

Despite our sympathy for Ms. Wild and others like her, who suffered unspeakable horror at Epstein’s hands, only to be left in the dark — and, so it seems, affirmatively misled — by government lawyers, we find ourselves constrained to deny her petition.  We hold that at least as matters currently stand — which is to say at least as the CVRA is currently written — rights under the Act do not attach until criminal proceedings have been initiated against a defendant, either by complaint, information, or indictment.  Because the government never filed charges or otherwise commenced criminal proceedings against Epstein, the CVRA was never triggered.  It’s not a result we like, but it’s the result we think the law requires.

Judge Hull issued a near 60-page dissenting opinion (roughly matching the length of the majority opinion). Here is are key passages from its opening:

This appeal presents legal questions of first impression in this Circuit regarding the Crime Victims’ Rights Act (“CVRA”), 18 U.S.C. § 3771, which grants a statutory “bill of rights” to crime victims.  In my view, the Majority patently errs in holding, as a matter of law, that the crime victims of Jeffrey Epstein and his co-conspirators had no statutory rights whatsoever under the CVRA.  Instead, our Court should enforce the plain and unambiguous text of the CVRA and hold that the victims had two CVRA rights — the right to confer with the government’s attorney and the right to be treated fairly — that were repeatedly violated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida....

I dissent because the plain and unambiguous text of the CVRA does not include this post-indictment temporal restriction that the Majority adds to the statute.  Although, as I discuss later, the two rights provisions at issue include other limiting principles, there is no textual basis for the bright-line, post-indictment only restriction the Majority adds to the statute.  Rather, the Majority’s contorted statutory interpretation materially revises the statute’s plain text and guts victims’ rights under the CVRA.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, in the CVRA’s plain text requires the Majority’s result.

It will now be very interesting to see if this this matter gets further attention from either the full Eleventh Circuit and/or the US Supreme Court.

April 14, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 13, 2020

"Tips For Prisoner Release Requests During Pandemic"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new Law360 piece authored by William Athanas, JD Thomas and Charles Prueter.  Here are excerpts:

This article reviews the legal framework applied to assess compassionate release requests seeking relief based on the pandemic, and endeavors to extract guiding principles from 70 of the decisions issued by federal courts in the past three weeks in an effort to inform eligibility determinations and increase the likelihood of success of future motions....

Defendants began to file motions for compassionate release premised on COVID-19 fears in the third week of March. In reviewing 70 of the orders issued in response to these motions since March 17, it is interesting to note that only one was filed by an inmate actually suffering from the disease. Instead, those seeking relief premised their requests on risk of harm that would result were they to become infected.

A review of decisions issued as of April 10 reveals a number of guiding principles:

  • Exhaustion of administrative remedies is the key factor.  In all but three of the 43 cases where courts denied relief, failure to exhaust administrative remedies was the primary reason given.  In the 24 cases where relief was granted, the defendant was found to have exhausted administrative remedies, or the court determined that an exception to the exhaustion requirement existed.
  • Government consent is an important, but not essential, factor.  To be sure, a defendant’s ability to secure government consent to the motion was valuable.  Compassionate release was granted in all of the cases where the government consented to the relief sought.  But even in the remaining cases where the government objected to the motion, compassionate relief was granted in 13 instances (note that it was unclear whether the government opposed relief in the remaining cases).
  • Types of health conditions matter.  As one would expect, motions filed by inmates with significant respiratory issues were granted most frequently.  Success was not limited to inmates experiencing those conditions, however, as courts also granted compassionate release for those suffering from diabetes, hypertension, Crohn’s disease, and other instances where inmates suffered from chronic conditions which left them immunocompromised.  Note that not all inmates suffering from such conditions have been deemed eligible for relief, however, if they failed to exhaust administrative remedies.
  • Length of sentence remaining was not a determinative factor.  While many of the defendants successful in gaining release had a relatively short amount of time left before completing their sentences, courts have not required deemed that a perquisite.  In fact, of the defendants whose motions have been granted, 10 had a year or more left to serve.
  • Presence of the virus in the facility.  Several courts which granted relief cited this factor as evidence of “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” including one which distinguished cases denying relief on the grounds on the fact those defendants were not housed in facilities where “where COVID-19 was spreading.”  At least half the cases made no mention of this factor, however, suggesting that it is not a necessary prerequisite. In one instance, relief was granted even though the defendant had already been released to a residential reentry center....

The number of compassionate release motions premised on COVID-19 is likely to increase as pandemic worsens in the days and months to come.  Because the law governing evaluation of such motions is so recent, those seeking relief on the basis of “extraordinary and compelling reasons” are well served by understanding which factual scenarios and legal arguments best position those requests for successful outcomes.

Prior recent related posts:

April 13, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Still more COVID-influenced grants of sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A), with waivers of exhaustion/waiting period

I have detailed in posts, here and here and here, a growing number of federal court decisions granting sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A) based, at least in part, on the "extraordinary and compelling" public health crisis created by COVID-19 (though the procedural issue flagged in this post is leading many motions to be denied for the time being).  When periodically reporting on the sentence reduction orders I find on Westlaw or that get sent to me, I always make the point that I am sure my listing does not represent all the sentence reductions being granted by federal district courts these days.   And, sure enough, a Sunday afternoon check of Westlaw turned up four more recent sentence reduction orders:

United States v. Sawicz, No. 08-cr-287 (ARR), 2020 WL 1815851 (EDNY Apr. 10, 2020) ("The COVID-19 outbreak at FCI Danbury, combined with the fact that the defendant is at risk of suffering severe complications if he were to contract COVID-19 because of his hypertension, justifies waiver here [of the exhaustion/waiting period].... I agree with the defendant that the risk of serious illness or death that he faces in prison constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason militating in favor of his release.")

United States v. Almonte, No. 3:05-cr-58 (SRU), 2020 WL 1812713 (D. Conn. Apr. 9, 2020) ("[A] combination of factors convinces me that there are extraordinary and compelling reasons to reduce Almonte’s sentence.  Almonte’s medical condition may alone amount to an extraordinary and compelling reason to do so because his cervical myelopathy is a serious physical condition that will soon leave Almonte unable to care for himself in prison. If Almonte does not get the surgery he needs, he will not recover from his condition.  If he remains in BOP’s custody, Almonte will not get the surgery quickly enough. The surgery has already slipped through the cracks for a year and a half, and there is little chance for any improvement, given the rise of COVID-19 and concomitant logistical complications. Further, Almonte’s rehabilitation from his former life of crime has been total, and he has a supportive network of family ready to help him reintegrate into society.  Finally, because of changes in the law that did not affect him, Almonte’s more culpable co-conspirators have been afforded leniency while Almonte has not.")

Miller v. United States, No. 16-20222-1, 2020 WL 1814084 (E.D. Mich. Apr. 9, 2020) ("Both exceptions apply here [to waiver justify of exhaustion/waiting period when] a delay would unduly prejudice Miller....  Miller squarely fits the definition of an individual who has a higher risk of falling severely ill from COVID-19. The CDC also states that individuals with underlying medical conditions, such as a chronic lung disease, a serious heart condition, and liver disease, have a higher risk of severe illness. Id. Miller suffers from all three. Continuing Miller’s incarceration under the current circumstances could be a lethal decision. Therefore, the Court finds that extraordinary and compelling reasons exist for his immediate compassionate release.")

United States v. Gentille, No. 19 Cr. 590 (KPF), 2020 WL 1814158 (SDNY Apr. 9, 2020) ("To its credit, the Government has determined to waive the exhaustion requirement in this case... [The defendant's] remaining term of incarceration is short. And his medical conditions place him at a higher risk for developing serious medical complications were he to contract COVID-19. Gentille and his counsel have also put forward a plan for his reentry into society in a way that is aimed to protect him from exposure to COVID-19.")

Notably, in three of these four decisions, the district court (rightly in my view) concluded that it was not precluded from granting a sentence reduction by the exhaustion/waiting period provision in § 3582(c)(1)(A).  And kudos to prosecutors in Gentille for their decision to expressly waive this requirement so that the court could turn to the merits of the motion at this time of great urgency and uncertainty.

Prior recent related posts:

April 12, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Does splintered nature of DC Circuit panel ruling suggest federal executions are now unlikely until at least 2022?

As reported in this post yesterday, a divided DC Circuit panel lifted an injunction on federal executions via this 88-page opinion in In Re: Federal Bureau Of Prisons’ Execution Protocol Cases, No. 19-5322 (DC Cir. April 7, 2020).  Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger here provides an effective summary of the three opinions from the three judges on the panel while noting that the "division on the panel clearly requires further review, and the court on its own motion stayed the issuance of its mandate to allow it."  In other words, the defendants subject to possible execution now have time and every good reason to ask the full DC Circuit and also SCOTUS to address just how federal executions must be conducted under existing statutory authority.

I cannot imagine any reason why defendants would not first seek en banc DC Circuit review.  I am not an expert in en banc procedures, but I do know just the process of just seeking such review and having it rejected can itself often take at least a few months.   In this case, given the issue and the split among the panel judges, I would guess the odds of a grant of en banc review are much higher than usual.  If such review is granted, I would be surprised to see a full opinion from the full DC Circuit until sometime in (early?) 2021.

Whatever the DC Circuit does and whenever it does it, an appeal to the US Supreme Court is a near certainty.  If the full DC Circuit takes up this case and provides a clear script for federal executions to go forward, I suppose it is possible that SCOTUS would not grant review.  But I think it quite likely, no matter what the DC Circuit does, that this matter will be considered on the merits by SCOTUS.  And, roughly speaking, it can often take up to 18 months or 2 years between a lower court's ruling and a disposition on the merits by the Supreme Court.  (The Fourth Amendment case of Kansas v. Glover decided by SCOTUS this week, for example, had been decided by the Kansas Supreme Court 21 months ago in July 2018.)

Of course, the Justice Department could urge for this matter to be litigated more quickly, and maybe could even ask immediately for SCOTUS review by claiming it could not operate an execution protocol effectively on the terms set out in the DC Circuit panel decision.  But, of course, the Justice Department has a lot on its plate these days; it hardly clear, practically or politically, that DOJ will want to press forward with any suggestion that this case involves priority matters at this time.  

Future litigation realities aside, there are other political/legal possibilities that might change this federal capital landscape and timeline.  Congress could alter the text of the statute that is the focal point of this legal battle.  But that seems unlikely when Congress is itself busy with more pressing matters, and a legislative change would itself likely engender just another type of litigation.  Perhaps more likely, as we are now less than seven months to a scheduled election, is a change in administration.  For the first time since 1988, it appears that the Democratic nominee for president will campaign as an opponent of capital punishment.  If a Democrat is in charge come 2021, it is possible (though not a certainty) that the Justice Department will not continue to seek conduct federal executions).

Long story short: though the death-row defendants lost a battle yesterday, the always lengthy capital litigation war is still a long way from final resolution.

Prior related posts:

April 8, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Split DC Circuit panel (after taking twice as long as Justice Alito urged) vacates preliminary injunction blocking resumption of federal executions

As regular readers may recall, Attorney General William Barr last July announced a new Federal Execution Protocol in order to enable the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two decade lapse.  AG Barr set execution dates for five (mysteriously selected) federal murders starting in December 2019, which of course got lots of federal capital litigation going.

In late November 2019, as noted here, a federal district judge enjoined the scheduled federal executions based on the view that the planned execution protocol "exceeds statutory authority."  In short order, the DC Circuit and then SCOTUS refused to vacate that injunction, but SCOTUS on December 6 urged the DC Court of Appeals to render a full decision on the matter "with appropriate dispatch."  Justice Alito issued a statement, joined by Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, said her could "see no reason why the Court of Appeals should not be able to decide this case, one way or the other, within the next 60 days." 

We are now 123 days from when these matters were addressed by the Supreme Court on December 6, 2019, and we have also now experienced a global pandemic.  But the federal capital punishment train is still on the tracks, it seems, as today a divided DC Circuit panel handed down an 88-page opinion in In Re: Federal Bureau Of Prisons’ Execution Protocol Cases, No. 19-5322 (DC Cir. April 7, 2020) (available here).  Here is how the opinion gets going:

Opinion for the Court filed PER CURIAM.

Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge KATSAS.

Concurring opinion filed by Circuit Judge RAO.

Dissenting opinion filed by Circuit Judge TATEL.

PER CURIAM: The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994 (FDPA) requires federal executions to be implemented “in the manner prescribed by the law of the State in which the sentence is imposed.” 18 U.S.C. § 3596(a). It is common ground that this provision requires the federal government to adhere at least to a State’s choice among execution methods such as hanging, electrocution, or lethal injection. The district court held that the FDPA also requires the federal government to follow all the subsidiary details set forth in state execution protocols—such as, in the case of lethal injection, the method of inserting an intravenous catheter. On that basis, the court preliminarily enjoined four federal executions.

Each member of the panel takes a different view of what the FDPA requires. Because two of us believe that the district court misconstrued the FDPA, we vacate the preliminary injunction.

I presume the federal death row defendants in this case will now seek en banc and/or SCOTUS review, so more litigation is much more certain than more executions in the federal system.

Prior related posts:

April 7, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 06, 2020

Attorney General Barr instructs federal prosecutors to consider "vulnerability to COVID-19" when litigating pre-trial detention issues

As reported in this new Politico piece, "Attorney General Bill Barr is taking another step to adjust the federal criminal justice system to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, encouraging prosecutors to consider the dangers posed by sending a defendant to await trial in jail as the virus sweeps into such facilities."  Here is more:

Barr sent a memo Monday to top federal prosecutors across the country urging them to consider not only the risks a defendant might face in detention, but the risk inherent in increasing the jail population at a time when cases of the virus are on the increase.

“You should now consider the medical risks associated with individuals being remanded into federal custody during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Barr wrote in his two-page missive. “Even with the extensive precautions we are currently taking, each time a new person is added to a jail, it presents at least some risk to the personnel who operate that facility and to the people incarcerated therein.”

While Barr’s directive seems intended to prod prosecutors to show more flexibility in considering release, bail or home confinement pending trial, the memo is replete with caveats and warnings that defendants who pose a threat to public safety still need to be detained despite the challenges the virus is creating for jails and prisons nationwide....

The new directives from Barr come as the Justice Department is increasingly besieged with lawsuits, writs and legal motions seeking release of individual inmates as well as large classes of prisoners considered most vulnerable to serious illness or death from Covid-19.

As of Sunday, the federal Bureau of Prisons reported 138 inmates have been confirmed as infected with the virus.  Eight deaths from it have been recorded.  Barr’s memo from Friday urged prison official to make a priority of considering early releases for three prison complexes suffering serious outbreaks — those in Oakdale, La., Elkton, Ohio and Danbury, Conn.

One new suit filed Monday seeks release of prisoners at the Oakdale complex considered at highest risk from the illness.

The full text of this new two-page Barr memo is available at this link.

April 6, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Exciting new (COVID-free) reduction of LWOP sentence, based in part on "sentencing disparity," using § 3582(c)(1)(A) in US v. Millan

In this post a few weeks ago, just before the COVID-19 outbreak became the urgent basis for lots of sentence reductions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), I flagged a number of new positive rulings granting sentencing reductions using 3582(c)(1)(A) on various grounds.  I am now pleased to be able spotlight another great ruling that adds to the list of reasons (other than COVID) that have now served as the basis for a sentence reduction, even of a life sentence. 

I must disclose that this new ruling, in US v. Millan, No. 91-CR-685 (LAP) (SDNY April 6, 2020) (download below), is especially meaningful to me because I had the honor of helping Harlan Protass a bit with the motion papers.  But I think all those working on sentence reduction motions will find value in the 45-page Millan opinion's discussion of the factors that justified reducing Eric Millan's sentence from LWOP to time served of 28 years.  I recommend the opinion in full, and the opening and closing paragraphs highlight the essentials:

Before the Court is Eric Millan’s motion, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), for an Order reducing his life sentence (of which he has already served more than 28 years) to time served.1 The Government opposed the motion, and the parties filed additional letters. For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted....

Mr. Millan’s extraordinary rehabilitation, together with his remorse and contrition, his conduct as model prisoner and man of extraordinary character, his leadership in the religious community at FCI Fairton, his dedication to work with at-risk youth and suicide prevention, and the support of BOP staff at FCI Fairton, including their opinion that if released, Mr. Millan would be a productive member of society and no danger to others, and the sentencing disparity that would result from further incarceration all constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons justifying a reduction in sentence.  Accordingly, for all of the foregoing reasons, pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), Eric Millan’s motion for a reduction of sentence is granted, and his life sentence is reduced to time served.

Download US v. Millan 91-CR-685 (LAP). Order Granting Compassionate Release

As the title of this post highlights, I think it is especially notable and important that the court stressed "the sentencing disparity that would result from further incarceration" as one of the bases for finding that this case involved "extraordinary and compelling reasons justifying a reduction in sentence."  Many persons who are serving the most extreme federal sentences have often been subject to a mandatory minimum term or a trial penalty or some other case-processing sentencing reality that has resulted in a much longer sentence for one defendant than has been served by a number of similarly situated defendants.  Given that Congress stressed to judges in § 3553(a)(6) "the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct," this kind of application of § 3582(c)(1)(A) seems to be a sound and sensible way to remedy problematic sentencing disparities in appropriate cases like Eric Millan's.

UPDATE: I learned this afternoon of another (COVID-free) sentence reduction ruling today in US v. Decator, No. CCB-95-0202 (D. Md. April 6, 2020) (download below).  Here is how this opinion starts and some key passages:

Kittrell Decator is a federal prisoner who is serving a 633-month sentence for convictions stemming from his participation in several armed bank robberies in the early 1990s. To date, Decator has served over 25 years of his sentence. Now pending is Decator’s motion for sentence reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i) (the “compassionate release” statute). The government opposes the motion, and Decator has replied. For the reasons explained below, the motion will be granted and Decator’s sentence reduced to time served....

Multiple district courts have reasoned that “the First Step Act’s change in how sentences should be calculated when multiple § 924(c) charges are included in the same indictment constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).” See United States v. Owens, No. 97-CR-2546-CAB, ECF 93 at 4 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2020) (collecting cases). The court agrees with this reasoning. The fact that Decator, if sentenced today for the same conduct, would likely receive a dramatically lower sentence than the one he is currently serving, constitutes an “extraordinary and compelling” reason justifying potential sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i)....

The court acknowledges that Decator’s offenses were indeed serious. While no one was physically injured, Decator’s actions caused psychological pain to his victims. The court believes that the 25-plus years in prison Decator has already served reflect the seriousness of his conduct and demonstrate the need for deterrence, public safety, and respect for the law. But Decator’s continued incarceration would be both disproportionate to the seriousness of his offense and to what Congress now deems appropriate for this kind of conduct.

Download Decator Decision

April 6, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS upholds, by vote of 8-1, traffic stop after run of vehicle plate shows revoked driver's license

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its opinion in Kansas v. Glover, No. 16-556 (S. Ct. Apr. 6, 2020) (available here). Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, which start this way:

This case presents the question whether a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment by initiating an investigative traffic stop after running a vehicle’s license plate and learning that the registered owner has a revoked driver’s license.  We hold that when the officer lacks information negating an inference that the owner is the driver of the vehicle, the stop is reasonable.

The short majority opinion is sure at the end to reiterate that "the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness;" the Court makes sure to "emphasize the narrow scope of our holding" by stressing "the presence of additional facts might dispel reasonable suspicion." Ergo, keep litigating.

A five-page concurrence authored by Justice Kagan and joined by Justice Ginsburg makes an interest collateral consequences point. Here is an excerpt (with cites removed):

I would find this a different case if Kansas had barred Glover from driving on a ground that provided no similar evidence of his penchant for ignoring driving laws.  Consider, for example, if Kansas had suspended rather than revoked Glover’s license.  Along with many other States, Kansas suspends licenses for matters having nothing to do with road safety, such as failing to pay parking tickets, court fees, or child support.  Indeed, several studies have found that most license suspensions do not relate to driving at all; what they most relate to is being poor. So the good reason the Court gives for thinking that someone with a revoked license will keep driving — that he has a history of disregarding driving rules — would no longer apply.

A lengthy concurrence authored by Justice Sotomayor gets started and ends this way:

In upholding routine stops of vehicles whose owners have revoked licenses, the Court ignores key foundations of our reasonable-suspicion jurisprudence and impermissibly and unnecessarily reduces the State’s burden of proof. I therefore dissent....

Vehicle stops “interfere with freedom of movement, are inconvenient, and consume time.” Prouse, 440 U. S., at 657.  Worse still, they “may create substantial anxiety” through an “unsettling show of authority.” Ibid.  Before subjecting motorists to this type of investigation, the State must possess articulable facts and officer inferences to form suspicion. The State below left unexplained key components of the reasonable-suspicion inquiry.  In an effort to uphold the conviction, the Court destroys Fourth Amendment jurisprudence that requires individualized suspicion.  I respectfully dissent.

April 6, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 04, 2020

Misguided dicta from Third Circuit panel on procedural aspects of sentence reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A)

In many prior posts since the FIRST STEP Act was enacted, I have made much of the provision that allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without needing a formal motion brought and supported by the Bureau of Prisons.  Well before anybody had heard of COVID-19, this provision seemed so very significant because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have their excessive federal prison sentences reduced.

Of course, as I have highlighted in recent posts here and here, sentence reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) have become hugely important in the coronavirus world of federal sentencing.  As SDNY Chief Judge Coleen McMahon astutely stated this week in US v. Resnik, No. 1:12-cr-00152-CM (SDNY Apr. 2, 2020) (download here), "releasing a prisoner who is for all practical purposes deserving of compassionate release during normal times is all but mandated in the age of COVID-19."   As noted in this post, FAMM has wisely urged tens of thousands of federal prisons to consider pursuing sentence reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) during this terrible time when any federal prison term can become a potential death sentence.

But, importantly, a procedural issue can complicate sentence reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) because the text now now provides: "the court, upon motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, or upon motion of the defendant after the defendant has fully exhausted all administrative rights to appeal a failure of the Bureau of Prisons to bring a motion on the defendant's behalf or the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of such a request by the warden of the defendant's facility, whichever is earlier, may reduce the term of imprisonment..."  In other words, this text provides that a sentence reduction motion can be acted upon by the court (1) immediately if brought by BOP, or (2) as soon as a defendant requests such a motion and that request is formally/finally denied by BOP or 30 days has lapsed, "whichever is earlier."  Because the Director of the Bureau of Prisons rarely brings motions on behalf of prisoners and because BOP's administrative process for reviewing requests is historically quite slow, this provision has often functionally meant that courts would consider these motions 30 days after a BOP request is made by the defendant.

Under normal circumstances, this procedural provision struck me as a reasonable way to give the Bureau of Prisons a first opportunity to consider supporting a sentence reduction motion before the defendant heads to court. (That said, I have heard various ugly reports about the BOP treating an inmate poorly in various ugly ways after he has requested  a sentence reduction motion).  But in a COVID-19 word in which every day brings increasing positive cases and deaths among federal inmates and staff, waiting 30 days to rule on a compelling sentence reduction motion under § 3582(c)(1)(A) could literally have deadly consequences for an inmate and others he comes into contact with.  (It was only roughly 30 days ago that the US had its first COVID death, we could be over 10,000 US deaths by the end of this weekend.)   Consequently, I was not surprised to see, in US v. Perez, No. 17 Cr. 513-3 (AT) (SDNY Apr. 1, 2020) (download here), a federal judge waive the "30-day lapsing" requirement based on the determination that, for the defendant, "remaining incarcerated for even a few weeks increases the risk that he will contract COVID-19," and so "requiring exhaustion ... would be directly contrary to the purpose of identifying and releasing individuals whose circumstances are 'extraordinary and compelling'."  

This extended discussion is a prelude to noting a troubling opinion handed down by a Third Circuit panel in United States v. Raia, No. 20-1033 (3d Cir. Apr. 2, 2020) (available here).  This case involved a 68-year-old New Jersey politician given a three-month sentence who reported to a federal prison on March 3 while the government was pursuing an appeal of his sentence as to low.  With his appeal pending, the defendant first "asked BOP to move for compassionate release on his behalf. But before BOP responded, and before thirty days passed, Raia filed his own motion with the District Court for compassionate release given the present pandemic caused by COVID-19. The district court dismissed the motion because it decided the "pending appeal divested it of jurisdiction," but it also indicated it would grant the motion if it could.

In the Third Circuit, Raia did not appeal this order but instead "filed a motion asking this Court to decide his compassionate release motion [or] to return jurisdiction to the District Court by dismissing the government’s appeal without prejudice [under FRAP 3(a)(2)." In response, the Third Circuit panel starts on solid ground: "We cannot decide Raia’s compassionate-release motion in the first instance. Section 3582’s text requires those motions to be addressed to the sentencing court." That strikes me as right not only as a matter of statutory text, but also as a matter of sound policy: district motions for sentence reductions ought to be addressed in the first instance by sentencing courts, not appeals courts. Continuing to address points raised by Raia, the panel then says (cites and quote removed): "Nor can we dismiss the government’s appeal under Rule 3(a)(2). Rule 3(a)(2) dismissal is a sanction for failing to comply with procedural rules. Here, there is nothing the government has failed to do."

Having addressed are rejected claims by the appellant, things go sideways as the Third Circuit panel says the following (which I am calling dicta it does not respond to claims actually brought by the litigant):

We could, however, remand the case to the District Court while retaining jurisdiction over the government’s appeal under Rule 12.1.  That would allow the District Court to consider Raia’s compassionate-release request in the first instance.

But any remand would be futile.  As noted, Raia failed to comply with § 3582(c)(1)(A)’s exhaustion requirement: BOP has not had thirty days to consider Raia’s request to move for compassionate release on his behalf, nor has Raia administratively exhausted any adverse decision by BOP.  Although the District Court’s indicative ruling did not mention the exhaustion requirement, it presents a glaring roadblock foreclosing compassionate release at this point.

Accordingly, since Rule 3(a)(2) is inapt and since remanding the matter under Rule 12.1 would be futile, we will deny Raia’s motion outright.

This "futile" language here creates the problematic impression that "30-day lapsing/exhaustion" language in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) is tantamount to a jurisdictional bar to the granting of a sentence reduction motion.  But the language and structure of this requirement makes it appear much more like what the Supreme Court calls "nonjurisdictional claim-processing rules."  Fort Bend County v. Davis, No. 18-525 (S. Ct. June 3, 2019) (available here).  With COVID-19 making every day matter, this is a critically important distinction because claim-processing rules can be forfeited if not raised by a party and might be subject to equitable exceptions.  In other words, if and when the "30-day lapsing/exhaustion" language is properly understood by courts as a claim-processing rules, then courts can (1) ask federal prosecutors if they are willing to waive/forfeit the requirement in a particular case, and courts may be able (2) on their own, as in the Perez case, to decide that the requirement need not be meet given the equities of a particular case.

I hope that counsel might be seeking reconsideration or even an emergency rehearing en banc in Raia.  Because it is not at all clear that a remand would be futile, and especially because the Third Circuit panel here spun off some misguided dicta on an issue that appears not to have even been briefed, this portion of the opinion ought to be retracted at least until a court considers these (now life-and-death) issues with the assistance of full briefing.

UPDATE: I just noticed that the same panel that decided Raia also handed down last week a more defendant-friendly COVID opinion in United States v. Roeder, No. 20-1682 (3d Cir. Apr. 1, 2020) (available here).  Here is how this (unpublished) opinion starts and ends:

Calvin Roeder filed an emergency appeal seeking review of the District Court’s denial of his motion to postpone his self-surrender date in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We reversed the District Court’s denial on March 29, 2020. We now provide the reasons for our order....

Under ordinary circumstances, it would be our preference to vacate the District Court’s order and permit it to provide substantive conclusions concerning the merits of Roeder’s motion.  These are not, however, ordinary times.  In light of the exigent circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and the timing of our ruling (less than 24 hours before Roeder’s scheduled surrender date), we were compelled to grant relief and reverse the District Court’s order — even though the existence of a widespread health risk is not, without more, a sufficient reason for every individual subject to a properly imposed federal sentence of imprisonment to avoid or substantially delay reporting for that sentence.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to exceptional and exigent circumstances that require the prompt attention of the courts, it is imperative that they continue to carefully and impartially apply the proper legal standards that govern each individual’s particular request for relief.  If, in the future, Roeder seeks an additional modification of his self-surrender date, we expect that the District Court will provide an adequately reasoned decision so that, if an appeal follows, we may engage in a thorough appellate review.

April 4, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

California working toward accelerating release dates for 3,500 inmates who were to to be released in next two months

This local piece from California report that, "California is granting early release to 3,500 inmates in an effort to reduce crowding as coronavirus infections begin spreading through the state prison system." Here is more:

Lawyers for Gov. Gavin Newsom on Tuesday told a panel of federal judges the state is taking “extraordinary and unprecedented protective measures” to slow the spread of the virus and protect those who live and work within California’s 35 prisons.  The accelerated parole policy — affecting inmates due to be released over the next 60 days — comes in the face of pressure to do much more.

Lawyers representing inmates in long-standing civil rights litigation against the prison system have asked those judges for broader prison releases, as well as protective measures to reduce the threat to older or medically vulnerable inmates not likely to be considered for release.  A court hearing on the emergency motion is set for Thursday.

In court filings, state lawyers said California intends to accelerate parole dates for 3,500 inmates serving terms for nonviolent crimes and already due to be released within 60 days. The releases are to be conducted “within the next several weeks.”

March 31, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 30, 2020

Justice Sotomayor gets in (last) shot complaining about the Supreme Court's unwillingness to take up challenges to old (vague?) guidelines

In this post a few months ago I flagged an article noting that in "at least 27 cases, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg have gone out of their way to dissent from their colleagues’ rejection of petitions by 'career offenders'" arguing that the Johnson vagueness ruling made their (pre-Booker) guideline sentences unconstitutional. (The Justices in Beckles decided that post-Booker sentences were not constitutionally problematic because the guidelines were advisory.)

In this morning's SCOTUS order list, these two dissent in another such case, though it seems this may be the last time they will:

19-7755 PATRICK, SCOTT M. V. UNITED STATES

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied. Justice Sotomayor, with whom Justice Ginsburg joins, dissenting from the denial of certiorari: I dissent for the reasons set out in Brown v. United States, 586 U. S. ___ (2018) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).  Recognizing that the Court has repeatedly declined to grant certiorari on this important issue — whether the right recognized in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. 591 (2015), applies to defendants sentenced under the mandatory Sentencing Guidelines — I will cease noting my dissent in future petitions presenting the question.  I hope, however, that the Court will at some point reconsider its reluctance to answer it.

Prior related posts:

March 30, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 27, 2020

Colorado Gov issues big executive order to address the impact of coronavirus on criminal justice administration

As reported in this local article, the "signing of two new executive orders by Gov. Jared Polis to combat coronavirus were announced Thursday [including] one to limit COVID-19 in prisons." Here are the basics:

Executive order D 2020 016 concerns “protocol for state prisons and community corrections facilities,” the release said.  Directives of the order include:

  • Colorado Department of Corrections can temporarily limit the amount of prisoners it accepts, based on certain criteria, keeping offenders in pre-transfer facilities.
  • DOC can award “earned time credits” to reduce the current prison population.
  • Qualifying inmates can be referred to a “Special Needs Parole” program.
  • A $17 daily subsistence payment required from community corrections clients will be suspended.

“The potential spread of COVID-19 in facilities and prisons poses a significant threat to prisoners and staff who work in facilities and prisons, as well as the communities to which incarcerated persons will return,” the release said.

The governor’s order also calls for making 650 beds available in the DOC’s East Cañon Complex, Cañon City, to “house persons of mixed classification for operational needs related to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who has worked extensively on prison issues, supports the order. “The Executive Order is a critical recognition that something needs to be done to contain COVID-19 in our prisons and community corrections. The virus will strike there, as it will all of our communities, and I’m encouraged that the governor recognizes this fact and is taking important steps to contain its spread,” Herod said. “This is vital and I support it. We must keep offenders and our correctional officers safe and as healthy as possible.”

Dean Williams, executive director of CDOC, also applauded and supports the order. “This Executive Order from the Governor allows us to pursue potential options to manage our prison population without jeopardizing safety during this crisis,” Williams said in a statement. “We will be working diligently over the coming days and weeks to put into action the directives from the order in a thoughtful and measured way.”

Though I am not familiar enough with Colorado law to assess all the particulars of this executive order, which is titled "Temporarily Suspending Certain Regulatory Statutes Concerning Criminal Justice," I am familiar enough with the challenges that COVID is creating that I can praise Gov Polis for being proactive in this arena. 

March 27, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 23, 2020

Notable recent (pre-COVID) grants of sentence reductions from coast to coast using § 3582(c)(1)(A) ... as FAMM urges thousand more filings in response to coronavirus

As regular readers know, in lots of prior posts since enactment of the FIRST STEP Act, I have made much of a key provision that Act which allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have long considered this provision a big deal because I have long thought that, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.

A few weeks ago before the COVID-19 outbreak became the most urgent of stories, I was starting to notice on Westlaw a growing number of rulings granting sentencing reductions using 3582(c)(1)(A).  I was drafting a detailed post on this topic when COVID started taking up all of my attention, but it now seems wise to just list some of the positive cases from the last few weeks:

United States v. O’Bryan, No. 96-10076-03-JTM, 2020 WL 869475 (D. Kan. Feb 21, 2020)

United States v. Mondaca, No. 89-CR-0655 DMS, 2020 WL 1029024 (S.D. Cal. March 3, 2020)

United States v. Young, No. 2:00-cr-00002-1, 2020 WL 1047815 (M.D. Tenn. March 4, 2020)

United States v. Davis, No. PJM 00-424-2, 2020 WL 1083158 (D. Md. March 5, 2020)

United States v. Perez, No. No. 88-10094-1-JTM, 2020 WL 1180719 (D. Kansas March 11, 2020)

United States v. Redd, No. 1:97-cr-00006-AJT 2020 WL 1248493 (E.D. Va. Mar. 16, 2020)

I felt compelled to post this list tonight because of notable news from FAMM detailed in this press release titled "FAMM urges most vulnerable people in federal prison to immediately apply for compassionate release":

 In response to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, FAMM sent a letter to nearly 40,000 federal prisoners today encouraging all federal prisoners who are most vulnerable to immediately apply for early release.  FAMM is working with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs to assist those who apply.

“There are thousands of sick and elderly people in federal prison whose continued incarceration serves no public safety purpose.  This same population is the most vulnerable to coronavirus,” said FAMM President Kevin Ring.  “They were not sentenced to death, and they should be released immediately.”

Ring noted that people in prison cannot take the same precautions that health experts have recommended to avoid contracting the virus.  People in federal prison can’t practice social distancing.  Moreover, the prisons are not clean and many do not have adequate medical care.

The Centers for Disease Control consider the most vulnerable to include people over 65 years old, and people with a condition that affects their lungs, heart, kidney, immune system, or who have another serious chronic medical condition.  There are more than 10,000 people in federal prison who are over 60 years old.  Many are in poor health.

FAMM worked with Congress to expand the compassionate release program in the First Step Act.  One of the most important reforms gave people in prison the right to go to federal court and ask a judge to grant compassionate release if the Bureau of Prisons either denies a request or does not answer a request within 30 days.

“We are urging at-risk people to make the request to their wardens immediately.  That starts the clock.  If Congress and the president don’t act before then, the courts will have the chance to do the right thing,” said Ring.

March 23, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notable SCOTUS summary reversal on plain error review and brief statement on successive federal 2255 review

This mornings order list from the US Supreme Court has a brief summary reversal and an even briefer statement respecting the denial of certiorari.  The per curiam decision summary in Davis v. United States, No. 19–5421 (S. Ct. March 23, 2020) (available here), is a swift smack-down of the Fifth Circuit that substantively concludes this way:

In this Court, Davis challenges the Fifth Circuit’s outlier practice of refusing to review certain unpreserved factual arguments for plain error. We agree with Davis, and we vacate the judgment of the Fifth Circuit.

Rule 52(b) states in full: “A plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was not brought to the court’s attention.”  The text of Rule 52(b) does not immunize factual errors from plain-error review.  Our cases likewise do not purport to shield any category of errors from plain-error review.  See generally Rosales-Mireles v. United States, 585 U. S. ___ (2018); United States v. Olano, 507 U. S. 725 (1993).  Put simply, there is no legal basis for the Fifth Circuit’s practice of declining to review certain unpreserved factual arguments for plain error.

In Avery v. United States, No. 19–633, Justice Kavanaugh issued this statement respecting the denial of certiorari, which wraps this way:

The text of that second-or-successive statute covers only applications filed by state prisoners under § 2254.  Yet six Courts of Appeals have interpreted the statute to cover applications filed by state prisoners under §2254 and by federal prisoners under § 2255, even though the text of the law refers only to § 2254....

After Avery’s case was decided, the Sixth Circuit recently rejected the other Circuits’ interpretation of the second-or-successive statute and held that the statute covers only applications filed by state prisoners under § 2254. Williams v. United States, 927 F. 3d 427 (2019).

Importantly, the United States now agrees with the Sixth Circuit that “Section 2244(b)(1) does not apply to Section 2255 motions” and that the contrary view is “inconsistent with the text of Section 2244.”  Brief in Opposition 10, 13.  In other words, the Government now disagrees with the rulings of the six Courts of Appeals that had previously decided the issue in the Government’s favor.

In a future case, I would grant certiorari to resolve the circuit split on this question of federal law.

March 23, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 21, 2020

"Communicating Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Marah Stith McLeod just posted to SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Does it matter whether convicted offenders understand why they are being punished? In the death penalty context, the Supreme Court has said yes; a prisoner who cannot understand the state’s reasons for imposing a death sentence may not be executed.  Outside the capital context, the answer is less clear.  This Article focuses on why and how states should help all offenders make sense of their sanctions, whether imposed for retribution, for deterrence, for incapacitation, or for rehabilitation.

Judges today sometimes try to explain sentences to criminal offenders so that they know the purposes of their suffering. But judges are busy, defendants are not always interested, and the law often treats such explanations as unimportant or even unwise.  Legislatures, moreover, rarely convey the purposes of statutory penalties, plea bargaining obscures the reasons for punishment, and the experience of punishment does not always reflect its social aims.

Scholars and critics of American criminal justice tend to pay little attention to these deficits.  Perhaps explaining individual sentences seems unimportant compared to the larger effort to humanize and rationalize penal policy.  In fact, however, the two are intertwined.

Communicating the reasons for punishment humanizes offenders by engaging with them as reasoning beings worthy of society’s continued concern — not as unreasoning animals simply to be harnessed or caged. The process of articulating punishment goals also can rationalize sentencing by reducing error, bias, and excess.

We can build a legal culture that respects offenders and advances punishment rationality by communicating the reasons for criminal sanctions. Legislatures can clarify the purposes of statutory penalties, prosecutors can explain how sanctions based on plea deals serve legitimate goals, judges can spell out the social objectives of sentences in terms that offenders can understand, and prison and probation authorities can convey sentencing rationales during the experience of punishment itself.

I had the honor and pleasure of reading an earlier draft of this paper as part of an AALS event, and upon first read I considered this piece a very important contribution to the literature.  A few months later, amidst a global pandemic, I think it even more important to consider how decisions in the criminal justice system communicate that offenders are still "worthy of society’s continued concern."

March 21, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noticing potency of our culture of death as Denver capital trial moves forward amidst global pandemic

Those of a certain age can recall a time in which certain politicians regularly preached about the importance of promoting a "Culture of Life."  As one who follows closely the administration of the death penalty in the US,  I have long been inclined to derisively lament what I called a "culture of death" too often leading too many courts and other legal actors to devote, in my view, too much of their scarce resources to capital cases.  (I wrote a 2008 article on the topic focused particularly on the Supreme Court: "A Capital Waste of Time? Examining the Supreme Court's 'Culture of Death'.")

These thoughts all came to mind today in these fraught times upon seeing this local article from Denver headlined "Court will not test potential jurors for coronavirus in Adams County death penalty case."  Here are the remarkable particulars:

A high-profile death penalty trial in the killing of an Adams County Sheriff’s deputy is going forward despite defense attorneys’ concerns for the health of their client, jurors and court personnel during the novel coronavirus pandemic.  Public defenders for Dreion Dearing, 24, argued in court filings that jury selection should not go on as scheduled Friday without screening and testing procedures for the virus in place for prospective jurors.

Dearing is accused of fatally shooting sheriff’s deputy Heath Gumm, 31, during a January 2018 chase.  He is charged with first-degree murder and faces the death penalty if convicted, despite the state legislature’s vote to repeal the death sentence in cases filed on or after July 1.  The bill has yet to be signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis.  The repeal would not apply to Dearing’s case even if Polis signs the bill, which he is expected to do.

Adams County District Court Judge Mark Warner denied the defense’s request for testing Thursday in part because the 17th Judicial District Court has already taken a variety of precautions, including cancelling most proceedings and ordering those who show symptoms or think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 not to come to the courthouse. Chief Judge Emily Anderson also ordered that people in the courthouse be allowed to wear masks and gloves and carry hand sanitizer.

“Based on the foregoing and the reasons set forth on the record on March 18, 2020, the Court will deny the Defendant’s requests concerning individual virus screening of prospective jurors,” Warner wrote in an order filed Thursday, adding that he would have court staff monitor jurors for potential infection and alert any prospective jurors who might have been exposed to the virus if such exposure is discovered. Jury selection will continue as planned on Friday, Warner wrote in his order. Already, jurors have been called to the courthouse in groups of 250 to complete questionnaires, and public defenders have raised concerns about the closeness of those prospective jurors and the possibility that the novel coronavirus is unknowingly spreading among the groups.

“We remain seriously concerned that the court has exposed, at this point, 1,700 people to a virus and we believe a doctor or medical professional needs to tell us how we can safely proceed,” Maureen Cain, director of legislative policy and external communications for the Colorado State Public Defender’s office, said Thursday.

The process to select the 18 jurors in the trial will begin in earnest Friday, despite a request from the district attorney’s office that the proceedings be moved to April 6, which the defense objected to. The trial is expected to last for weeks.

Despite the fact that the President's Coronavirus Guidelines urges all of us to avoid social gatherings "in groups of more than 10 people," it seems that trying to make sure a defendant can be condemned to death is thought so important that we have to bring together nearly 2000 prospective jurors in groups of 250.  What?!!?!?!?   

If this was going on in Texas (where, notably, two scheduled executions have been postponed as noted here and here), I suppose I could wrap my head around the eagerness for capital business as usual despite a global pandemic.  But as the article above highlights, death penalty repeal legislation was passes earlier this year in Colorado, which means it is extraordinarily unlikely the defendant here would get a death sentence or face execution even if convicted.  So, in the pursuit of a capital verdict that will not even be worth the paper it is written on, this court is prepared to expose hundred of people to a deadly virus.  Got it.

March 21, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Are federal prosecutors getting any guidance from Main Justice about federal sentencing policy and practice amidst coronoavirus pandemic?

The latest standard data from the US Sentencing Commission, specifically its FY19 Fourth Quarterly Sentencing Update which was published on January 8, 2020, details that in Fiscal Year 2019 there were over 75,000 federal criminal cases sentenced in the federal district courts.  Given that there are roughly 250 business days in a year, this year-end number converts to an average of 300 federal sentences imposed every day, 1500 federal sentences imposed every week, 6200 federal sentences imposed every month in US courts nationwide.  Of course, those data reflect normal times, and these are obviously not normal times.

I am certain many federal sentencings that were scheduled for the current week have been postponed.  But I also have a sense that some, maybe many, federal sentencings have gone forward despite the fact that formal and informal lockdowns are taking place nationwide.  As but one example, this new FoxNews piece reports that "Former Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., was sentenced on Tuesday to 11 months in prison and three years of supervised probation after pleading guilty to a single corruption charge."  This AP piece about the sentencing notes:

The hearing was held despite many state and federal courts across California and the country all but shutting down or holding hearings by teleconference to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. The judge said the full courtroom did not exceed 50 people, complying with federal recommendations....

Hunter was ordered to report May 29 to a prison in an undisclosed location in the western United States. The judge also ordered Hunter to participate in a drug and alcohol program. He will be under supervised release for three years.

Of course, the President's Coronavirus Guidelines actually say to avoid social gatherings "in groups of more than 10 people," though a sentencing hearing is obviously not really a social gathering.  I do not know if Hunter's lawyers sought a delay in his sentencing hearing yesterday, but I do know it would be malpractice if they do not seek a delay in his prison report date if we have not gotten the spread of the coronavirus under control in the next few months.  And if I was currently representing a person who was at home and had an upcoming federal sentencing, I would likely be seeking a postponement simply to give me and my client more time to prepare for sentencing in light of all the uncertainty created by a global pandemic.

Because I have not yet seen or heard of any guidance emerging from the US Department of Justice on whether and how federal sentencings should proceed during these uncertain times, I am assuming that individual US Attorney offices (and likely individual federal prosecutors) are making up their own "rules" about all sorts of challenging new issues regarding federal sentencing practice amidst this coronoavirus pandemic.  Should federal prosecutors generally agree to or generally oppose requests for postponements?  Should it matter whether the defendant making such a request is currently in federal custody?  Should prosecutors themselves be seeking postponements and for how long?  Should prosecutors agree to or oppose proposals to conduct sentencing "online" (whatever that might mean)?

Question of sentencing practice are immediate, but those of sentencing policy are even more challenging.  Should federal prosecutors generally agree or generally oppose claims that the general pandemic is a proper consideration under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2) in all cases?  How about if a defendant can make arguments based in being a special caretaker for high-CDC-risk relatives?  How about if a defendant has history as a medical professional or law enforcement officers and he says he is eager to do community service during this period of extreme need for certain kinds of national service?

Because I could rattle off literally dozens of hard questions of federal sentencing policy and practice amidst the coronoavirus pandemic, I suppose I am not too surprised that Attorney General William Barr and other senior members of the Justice Department have not yet issued public statements about how these kinds of matters ought to be addressed in federal courthouses around the country.  But I sincerely hope they are working on this ASAP (with advice from health professionals), especially because these matters now really do involve life-and-death issues.

March 18, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)