Sunday, May 15, 2022

Register for "Sentencing Review and Reduction: Open Questions and Next Steps for the Commission"

In this prior post, I noted the great weekly panel series for the month of May titled "The Role of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Decarceration: First Step Act and Beyond."  This series has been put together by the Center for Justice and Human Dignity, a nonprofit organization whose mission is explained here in terms of seeking  "to reduce prison incarceration in the United States while improving conditions for those imprisoned and working inside."

This panel series is running every Tuesdays in May at 12noon ET, which means the third panel is scheduled taking place this coming Tuesday, May 17th.  This panel is titled "Sentencing Review and Reduction: Open Questions and Next Steps for the Commission," and the discussion is especially timely given Prez Biden's nomination of seven people to the US Sentencing Commission just last week.  Everyone can and should register to attend next week's session and the entire series here.  The speakers for all the panels are terrific, and here are the folks participating in this latest panel:

Elizabeth Blackwood, Counsel & Director for the First Step Act Resource Center at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyer

Marisa Taney, Associate at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, Holloway Project

I had the honor of helping to moderate the final panel, which airs next week, and it is titled Looking Ahead: Learning from Past Commission Leadership (Tuesday, May 24 12pm ET).

Prior related posts:

May 15, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 14, 2022

"Plea Bargaining’s Uncertainty Problem"

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

While commentators roundly condemn plea bargaining, the criticism can be as muddled as the practice itself.  Critics’ primary target is the “trial penalty.”  But a differential between guilty-plea and trial sentences seems inevitable in any system that allows defendants to concede guilt.  And, as a new wave of “progressive prosecutors” is demonstrating, gaps between (unusually lenient) plea offers and long (potential) post-trial sentences are not only a strong incentive to plead guilty but also a powerful tool for reducing American penal severity.  Other critiques point to flaws that parallel those found in the broader system, overlooking that plea bargaining is typically a reflection of these flaws, not their source.

Finding the traditional critiques lacking, this Article highlights uncertainty as the core problem with plea bargaining.  It is easy to overlook uncertainty because analysis of plea bargains usually focuses on cases after they have been resolved.  Yet from the perspective of someone accused of a crime who is deciding whether to plead guilty, uncertainty is key.  And while some uncertainty is inevitable, in many scenarios, plea bargaining turns the defendant’s choice into something resembling a floor bet at a Las Vegas casino — a solemn spectacle of plea-bargaining roulette.

Identifying uncertainty as plea bargaining’s distinct contribution to American dysfunction is important for two reasons. First, it provides a realistic blueprint for improving the largely unregulated plea-bargaining process — this country’s dominant mechanism for resolving criminal cases.  Second, by suggesting that plea bargaining is not the primary source of other important problems, like excess severity or wrongful convictions, the analysis helps to redirect reform efforts targeting those important problems to areas where they may be more effective.

May 14, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 13, 2022

Split Second Circuit panel debates required procedures for imposing more than a year when revoking supervised release

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting and lengthy Second Circuit panel discussion in US v. Peguero, No. 20-3798 (2d Cir. May 13, 2022) (available here).  The issue generating lengthy discussion in the case concerns the required procedures for revoking his term of supervised release.  Here is portion of the majority opinion: 

Although the issue was neither raised nor briefed by either party, the dissent asserts that Section 3583(e)(3), which allows a judge to revoke supervised release based upon a finding of new criminal conduct, is unconstitutional.  In particular, the dissent contends that a revocation hearing based on new conduct punishable by more than one year in prison violates a defendant’s right to indictment, right to confront witnesses, right to a jury trial, and right to remain free unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  In support of this proposition, the dissent relies upon the “essential differences” between terms of probation or parole — which the dissent contends do not require such constitutional protections — and supervised release.  We respectfully disagree.

As an initial matter, the dissent’s proposed holding is contrary to our well-settled precedent, from which this panel is not free to deviate.  In addition to the requirement that we adhere to binding precedent, we conclude that the dissent’s approach is unsupported by the Constitution itself in light of the clear and direct connection between a supervised release term (and its accompanying conditions) and the original conviction and sentence.  Moreover, we are unpersuaded by the dissent’s contention that there are distinctive characteristics of a supervised release revocation proceeding, as compared to parole and probation, that would justify the differing constitutional protections the dissent proposes. Finally, we believe that the dissent’s proposed rule would have a drastic and devastating impact on the effective functioning of the criminal justice system.

The dissent by Judge Underhill starts this way:

Carlos Peguero was sentenced to twenty-eight months in federal prison for criminal conduct proscribed by the State of New York.  Peguero was not federally indicted for the felony crime of assault, was denied the right to confront witnesses against him, was never advised of his right to a jury trial, and was found “guilty” by a preponderance of the evidence.  In short, Peguero was imprisoned without being afforded any of the fundamental Constitutional rights that protect citizens from arbitrary imprisonment by the government.

I acknowledge that the district court acted consistently with existing precedent of this Court, and that the majority feels constrained to follow that precedent and to affirm.  Importantly, however, no decision of the Supreme Court or this Court has ever analyzed whether a person on supervised release facing violation charges punishable by more than one year in prison has a right to indictment on those charges.  Nor has either Court ever held that proceedings that require indictment do not constitute a “prosecution” and therefore can be decided without affording the accused his Sixth Amendment rights.  Because this appeal raises Confrontation Clause issues, and because I conclude that Peguero had the right to be indicted for his claimed supervised release violations, I further conclude that he had the right to confront witnesses against him.  In my view, prior decisions allowing a judge to sentence a person to prison for more than a year based on a violation of supervised release without providing such essential Constitutional protections are misguided and based on unsupportable legal fictions.  Accordingly, I respectfully dissent.

May 13, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

"Race-Norming and Statistical Discrimination: Beyond the NFL"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Sonja Starr and now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Article uses the recent NFL “race-norming” scandal — in which Black players with concussion claims were scored differently on cognitive impairment tests, based on the assumption that they were less intelligent at baseline—  as an entry point to a broad-ranging analysis of inconsistencies in the law’s treatment of statistical discrimination.  The Supreme Court has emphatically and repeatedly rejected efforts to justify otherwise-illegal discrimination against individuals by resort to statistical generalizations about groups. This doctrine makes practices like the NFL’s not just repugnant, but illegal — yet such practices are pervasive and persistent, in high-stakes settings far beyond the NFL.  Similar race-norming in diagnostic algorithms is ubiquitous in medicine, for example, but has avoided legal scrutiny.  Moreover, the justice system itself has embraced numerous similar practices, including demographic norming of intellectual-capacity assessments for defendants facing the death penalty, explicit class-based discrimination in criminal justice risk assessments, and the use of race- and sex-specific actuarial data to calculate tort damages.  This Article examines these practices, the law governing them, and the reasons for these disconnects between law and practice.

May 11, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

"When a Second Chance Gets a Second Chance: Reasonableness Review Reigns for Motions Under Section 404(b) of the First Step Act on Appeal"

The title of this post is the title of this new comment now available on SSRN authored by Patrick Riley. Here is its abstract: 

The First Step Act of 2018 was an historic criminal justice reform bill that, among its many provisions, retroactively reduced the disparity in sentencing for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.  Before 2010, federal law mandated the same minimum criminal penalties for conduct involving an amount of crack cocaine one hundred times smaller than an amount of powder cocaine.  In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced this disparity from 100:1 to 18:1.  However, the updated penalties only applied to sentences imposed after the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act.  Those already sentenced under the 100:1 ratio were left without any recourse until the First Step Act was passed in 2018.

Section 404(b) of the First Step Act applied the changes made by the Fair Sentencing Act retroactively to defendants imprisoned for crack cocaine offenses before the Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 2010.  Since the First Step Act was passed, federal courts have diverged in how they interpret their roles and responsibilities under section 404(b). One group of circuit courts interprets section 404(b) to provide limited discretion to the district court and, therefore, the appellate court need only review the district court’s decision under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard.  The second group interprets section 404(b) to provide district courts with broad discretion to resentence defendants in a manner similar to an initial plenary sentencing, which appellate courts are required to review for reasonableness.

This Comment reaches the same result as the second group for two reasons: (1) This Comment applies the sentencing modification in 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(B), rather than § 3582(c)(2), to section 404(b) of the First Step Act; and (2) this Comment interprets the text and purpose of section 404(b) as a sweeping remedy granting district courts broad discretion — like initial plenary sentencings — that must be reviewed for reasonableness.

May 10, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 09, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 05, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior related posts:

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

Monday, May 02, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Sixth Circuit panel grants mandamus because district judge rejected a plea deal with an appeal waiver the wrong way

Earlier this week, a Sixth Circuit panel issued a notable ruling in In Re United States of America, No. 21-1318 (6th Cir. April 26, 2022) (available here).  At issue was the behavior of a District Judge who was unwilling to accept a plea agreement with an appeal waiver, and the panel was troubled the district court failed to provide a case-specific account for why a (somewhat limited) waiver was problematic:

What is particularly troubling is that the court’s reasoning would seemingly prohibit every plea agreement containing appeal waivers, regardless of the defendant’s case, the agreement’s charging or sentencing terms, or the parties’ reasons for negotiating those waivers.  We cannot credit the district court’s argument that it engaged in an individualized assessment simply because it inserted the phrase “the circumstances of this case” at various points in its opinion. Without more explanation from the court, such language is mere surplusage....

To summarize, a district court does not possess unrestrained discretion to reject a plea agreement.  It must, among other things, make an individualized assessment of the agreement and predicate its decision on the specific facts and circumstances presented.  Because the district court here failed to do that, this is the narrow circumstance in which the district court abused its discretion.  Accordingly, the United States has a clear and indisputable right to mandamus on this ground.

Some (now dated?) research has highlighted the "uneven practice of trading sentencing concessions for waivers" and that "some defendants appear to receive neither greater certainty nor leniency in return for signing wide-open and unlimited waivers of their rights to review."  More generally, I generally agree with the District Court's stated policy concerns with all appeal waivers: "The court explained its belief that appeal waivers 'embargo' trial court mistakes, 'insulate' the government’s conduct 'from judicial oversight,' effectively 'coerce' guilty pleas with offers 'too good to refuse,' and 'inhibit[] the development of the Sentencing Guidelines'.” 

But, even though I think appeal waivers should be viewed as void as against public policy, circuit courts have all regularly upheld various versions of this (government labor-saving) device.  (Early on, eager to limit appeals, many circuits claimed that an appeal waiver limited their jurisdiction to consider an appeal, but eventually they moved away from this anti-textual claim.)  Upon first seeing this Sixth Circuit opinion, I was concerned this panel might assert a judge could never reject an appeal waiver (which prosecutors argued), but the message from the opinion instead is that district judges need to provide an "individualized assessment" in order to do so. 

Prof Carissa Hessick, who has written a great book on plea bargaining, calls parts of the Sixth Circuit panel opinion "bonkers" in this Twitter thread.  She hopes the "Sixth Circuit decides to hear this case en banc and to reverse this terrible panel decision," but I am not holding my breath. 

April 28, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (12)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

"Modern Sentencing Mitigation"

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

"Bad Faith Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper on SSRN authored by Ann Woolhandler, Jonathan Remy Nash and Michael G. Collins. Here is its abstract:

In our increasingly polarized society, claims that prosecutions are politically motivated, racially motivated, or just plain arbitrary are more common than ever.  The advent of “progressive” prosecutors will no doubt increase claims of bad faith prosecution.  The Supreme Court has required relatively high standards for claims of race- or speech-motivated prosecution.  Many have condemned the standards used by the Court as unduly limiting bad faith prosecution claims, and as inconsistent with ordinary standards for proving cases of unconstitutional motivation.  In this article we address these criticisms and suggest that current standards may provide an appropriate middle ground between the perils of standards that are too lax or too stringent for bad faith prosecution claims.  We also address other arguable inconsistencies between the standards for bad faith prosecutions claims and those for related areas, and offer resolutions. Finally, we show how the rise of progressive prosecutors may make proof of bad faith prosecutions easier.

April 26, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 25, 2022

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stops execution and remands Melissa Lucio's case for review of her conviction

Because her case had received considerable attention and because she seemed to have a colorable claim of actual innocence, I was expecting that Melissa Lucio's scheduled execution would not go forward this week.  But I was unsure who would stop it and how.  Today we found out, as detailed in this local article headlined "Melissa Lucio’s execution halted by Texas Court of Criminal Appeals."  Here are the details:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Monday halted the scheduled Wednesday execution of Melissa Lucio, whose death sentence has drawn international outcry as more people come to doubt her guilt in her 2-year-old daughter’s death.

The court sent Lucio's case back to the Cameron County court where she was originally tried to weigh whether she is actually innocent, as well as whether the state presented false testimony at trial and hid evidence from the defense.  The court's ruling came minutes before the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles was scheduled to vote on whether to recommend that the governor delay Lucio's execution for at least 120 days.  The board later said that it would no longer make a recommendation because of the court's ruling....

In a statement provided by her attorneys, Lucio said she was thankful for those who spoke out for her and was "grateful the Court has given me the chance to live and prove my innocence. Mariah is in my heart today and always.  I am grateful to have more days to be a mother to my children and a grandmother to my grandchildren."

Questions over Mariah Alvarez’s death and Lucio’s role in it have lingered since the now-53-year-old mother was sentenced to death in 2008.  In recent months, concerns about Lucio’s possible innocence — greatest among them whether Mariah’s fatal head trauma was caused by abuse or an accidental fall down the stairs — have only been amplified.

More than two-thirds of the Texas Senate and a majority of the Texas House of Representatives pleaded for the parole board and governor to halt Lucio’s execution. The lawmakers have been joined by an ever-growing list of people, including at least five of Lucio’s former jurors....

The admissions to child abuse, which Lucio has since recanted, were the main evidence presented at trial, where jurors found she was guilty of capital murder and worthy of a death sentence.  Lucio’s advocates have since condemned the trial judge for not letting the jury hear critical testimony from mental health professionals that could have explained why Lucio, a longtime victim of sexual abuse and domestic violence, would falsely confess.

Texas' highest criminal court sent Lucio's case back to her trial court to weigh multiple questions.  Lucio's latest appeal argued false evidence from the state — largely that jurors heard a Texas Ranger testify he could tell by Lucio's demeanor in her interrogation that she was guilty, and the medical examiner's definitive conclusions that Mariah's injuries were from child abuse — swayed the jury to wrongly convict Lucio.  Her attorneys also argue new scientific evidence has debunked claims made at trial that definitively established the marks on Mariah's back were from a bite.  They said science also now shows Lucio would be very likely to falsely confess.

Finally, the appeal argued the prosecution hid potentially helpful evidence, including interviews of Lucio's older children after Mariah's death that corroborated Lucio's statement that Mariah fell down the stairs. "It would have shocked the public’s conscience for Melissa to be put to death based on false and incomplete medical evidence for a crime that never even happened," Vanessa Potkin, Lucio's lawyer with The Innocence Project, said in a statement after Monday's ruling.

Despite the wide-ranging concerns with Lucio’s police interrogation and trial, appellate courts have previously upheld her conviction and sentence, even though a majority of judges on a conservative court found the case troublesome. 

Prior related posts:

April 25, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Arizona court rejects condemn man's petition objecting to too many law enforcement members on state Board of Clemency

This new NPR piece, headlined "In rejecting death row inmate's case, judge says law enforcement isn't a profession," reports on this interesting state court ruling from last week concerning the Arizona clemency process. Here are the details and context:

An Arizona inmate who is mere weeks away from his scheduled execution argued the state's clemency board was unfairly loaded with law enforcement. But a state judge has disagreed, saying that law enforcement does not meet the definition of a "profession."

Earlier this month, the Arizona Supreme Court issued an execution warrant – the first in eight years – for Clarence Wayne Dixon, a 66-year-old prisoner convicted of first-degree murder. But Dixon's attorneys argued Tuesday that the Arizona Board of Clemency, which is set to meet on April 28 to decide whether to stay the execution, is illegally made up of too many members who had careers in law enforcement.

This past Tuesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Stephen Hopkins ruled against Dixon. "Historically, law enforcement has not been thought of as a "profession," Hopkins said in his decision. "It is not regulated as other professions are, and has little of the characteristics of what is typically considered a profession."...

Arizona law prohibits "No more than two members from the same professional discipline" from serving on the clemency board at the same time. The current board is made up of: one former superior court commissioner and assistant attorney general; a former federal agent with over 30 years' experience; a retired officer who spent 30 years with the Phoenix Police Department; and a 20-plus-year detective, also with the Phoenix PD. The fifth seat on the board is currently vacant.

Dixon was serving seven life sentences for the 1985 kidnapping, rape and assault of a Northern Arizona University student, according to court documents, when investigators connected him with a murder that took place seven years earlier. In 2001, DNA evidence linked Dixon to the January 1978 murder of Deana Bowdoin, a 21-year-old student at Arizona State University. She was found dead in her apartment, having been strangled and stabbed. A jury sentenced Dixon to death in 2008....

Dixon's execution, which appears all but certain at this time, will be the first to be carried out in Arizona since the botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood in 2014. Wood's execution should have taken a matter of minutes, NPR previously reported, but instead, the prisoner took more than two hours to die.

Based on the ruling, it seems that Dixon also asserted a due process violation, perhaps based only on the statutory requirement or maybe independently.  The court address that issue this way: "To be sure, courts have recognized due process rights in connections with boards of parole, pardon, or clemency.  See generally Chapter Three, The Law of Probation and Parole.  However, to the Court’s knowledge no case anywhere has recognized a due process right in the particular makeup of such a board."

April 25, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Supreme Court grants cert on procedural issue relating to federal suits seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence

For the first time in what seems like a while, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari in a couple of new cases this morning.  The two cert grants in this order list has one civil matter and on criminal matter. The criminal case is Reed v. Goertz, No. 21-442, and here is its question presented via SCOTUSblog:

Issue: Whether the statute of limitations for a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim seeking DNA testing of crime-scene evidence begins to run at the end of state-court litigation denying DNA testing, including any appeals (as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit has held), or whether it begins to run at the moment the state trial court denies DNA testing, despite any subsequent appeal (as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, joining the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, held below).

April 25, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Though executions are declining, questions about methods and how to litigate them persist

From 1995 to 2005, there were nearly 750 executions in the United States (747 to be exact, an average of 68 per year), almost all of which were by lethal injection, and relatively few of which were significantly delayed by uncertainty or litigation over execution methods.  But by the mid 2000s, litigation challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection began to pick up steam and the Supreme Court began to take up a number of different matters relating to this litigation.  (I blogged, somewhat cheekily, about all the lethal injection "scrummages" during this period.)

Fast forward another 16 years, and there have been "only" another 540 executions in the US from 2006 until today (an average of 34 per year), and there have been fewer executions in the last five years than in a number of single years in the 1995-2005 period.  The considerable amount of litigation over lethal injection is surely part of the reason for the modern decline, even with the Supreme Court repeatedly upholding lethal injection as a method of execution in landmark cases like Baze v. Kentucky (2008) and Glossip v. Gross (2015).

I provide all this background as a mini preview and prelude to the execution method litigation that SCOTUS will be hearing oral argument on Monday.  Nance v. Ward is about what procedural means condemned prisoners must use to challenge execution methods, and I suspect the history just recounted could impacting how various Justices approach this case.  Still, as discussed in the  SCOTUSblog preview post here authored by Lee Kovarsky, complicated procedural precedents may make this matter hard to predict.  That post concludes this way:

Nance is ultimately a case about how aggressively the Supreme Court wants to suppress method-of-execution claims, which it generally views as legalistic ploys to delay imposition of valid death sentences.  If it adopts Georgia’s preferred rule, then it will meaningfully alter the form and timing of Eighth Amendment challenges, and it will substantially reduce judicial enforcement against the states.  The court’s general disposition towards method-of-execution claims notwithstanding, the court agreed to review a lower court decision against a prisoner — which raises the very real prospect that Nance might be a case in which the court is actually prepared to rule in the prisoner’s favor.

April 24, 2022 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Interesting example of federal judge rejecting white-collar plea deal as too lenient

A story this week out of Utah provides a reminder that federal judges can still have control over sentencing outcomes even in our plea bbargained justice system of pleas.  The headline of this local article captures the essence of the story: "Judge demands harsh sentence for ex-attorney accused of embezzling millions from Utah clients: Former Salt Lake City attorney Calvin Curtis faced about six years in prison as part of a plea agreement. The judge insisted on more prison time."  Here are some of the details:

A federal judge in Utah tossed out a sentencing proposal Tuesday for former Salt Lake City estate attorney Calvin Curtis, demanding that the man accused of defrauding his clients out of millions receive a harsher prison sentence.

The proposal of about six years in prison had been agreed upon by federal prosecutors and Curtis’ defense attorney ahead of the hearing. U.S. District Judge David Barlow was expected to take it into consideration before imposing a sentence.

Instead, rejecting the proposal altogether, Barlow said that as Curtis allegedly stole $12.7 million from 26 of his clients — all elderly, disabled or incapacitated — over about 13 years, the suspected fraud was “cold-blooded, premeditated and repeated.” Curtis “perverted” the law, Barlow continued, and “enriched himself on the backs of those who needed his help.”

Prosecutors have argued Curtis used that money to fund a “lavish lifestyle,” which included frequent travel, expensive gifts, tickets to basketball and football games, and pricey renovations and mortgage payments on his former mansion home and office on South Temple.  Assistant U.S. attorney Ruth Hackford-Peer said in Tuesday’s hearing that the proposed sentence of 73 months in prison was not a perfect resolution, “but it’s a good one.”

Several of Curtis’ victims attended the hearing, filling the courtroom along with family members and caregivers.... As the victims shared their stories of how devastating it has been to lose money that they would have used for various needs such as food, clothing, medicine and health care, a common refrain was for Barlow to impose the maximum sentence. “I don’t think Calvin is human,” one woman said quietly. “I feel that he’s the devil.”...

When it came time for Barlow to announce a decision, he said the proposed prison sentence — plus a restitution judgment of $12.7 million and supervised release for three years as part of Curtis’ plea agreement — was not harsh enough.  Since Curtis’ crimes were “so heinous,” Barlow said, he should receive a prison sentence at the higher end of the range that is customary in such a case, which is 10 years. The judge added that he is “not convinced” that Curtis — who is charged with wire fraud and money laundering — takes responsibility for his actions or feels remorse.

Barlow asked the attorneys for both sides to negotiate again and come up with a new sentencing proposal. A new hearing date was not immediately set....

Laura Milliken Gray, an attorney for a woman with Alzheimer’s disease from whom Curtis has admitted to embezzling more than $9 million, called Barlow’s decision a “surprise.”  Her client’s daughter-in-law, Sherry McConkey, said she is “excited” at the prospect of Curtis getting more time in prison than expected. But she added that it’s “hard” the case will go on longer, “because I just want it to be over and done with.”

April 21, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (44)

Ruling 6-3, SCOTUS sets out added requirements for federal habeas petitioners

The Supreme Court this morning handed down an opinion in Brown v. Davenport, No. 20–826 (S. Ct. April 21, 2022) (available here), that perhaps only a fed courts junkie could love. The opinion produced a familiar ideological split and here is how Justice Gorsuch's opinion for the Court starts:

After a state court determines that an error at trial did not prejudice a criminal defendant, may a federal court grant habeas relief based solely on its independent assessment of the error’s prejudicial effect under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993)?  Or must a federal court also evaluate the state court’s decision under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA)? The Sixth Circuit ruled that an individual who satisfies Brecht alone is entitled to habeas relief.  This was mistaken.  When a state court has ruled on the merits of a state prisoner’s claim, a federal court cannot grant relief without first applying both the test this Court outlined in Brecht and the one Congress prescribed in AEDPA.

Justice Kagan authored the dissent, which starts this way:

Twice in recent years, this Court has addressed how a federal habeas court is to evaluate whether a state trial error was harmless.  See Fry v. Pliler, 551 U.S. 112, 119–120 (2007); Davis v. Ayala, 576 U.S. 257, 267–270 (2015).  And twice, we have made clear that the habeas court need apply only the standard prescribed in Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619 (1993); it need not also run through the test set out in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). That is because, we have both times explained, the Brecht standard “obviously subsumes” the “more liberal” AEDPA one: If a defendant meets the former, he will “necessarily” meet the latter too.  Fry, 551 U.S., at 120; Ayala, 576 U.S., at 270.

Today, the Court discards those crystal-clear statements, subscribed to on each occasion by every Justice.  The majority reverses the Court of Appeals for following our prior guidance, allowing the use of the Brecht test alone.  And in declaring Brecht insufficient, the majority consigns future habeas courts to a regimen of make-work.  Now those courts will have to jump through AEDPA’s hoops as well, even though that extra analysis will never lead to a different result.  I respectfully dissent from that pointless demand.

April 21, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Justice Department tweaking prison PATTERN risk tool "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible"

This new NPR piece, headlined "Justice Department works to curb racial bias in deciding who's released from prison," reports on the latest steps being taken to tweak the operation of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here  are the details:

The Justice Department is moving to reduce racial disparities in a tool it uses to assess a prisoner's risk of a return to crime, after scholars and justice advocates pressed for change. Among other steps, it plans to make tweaks that would significantly increase the number of Black and Hispanic men in prison who are eligible to take educational classes or work-life programs that could lead to an earlier release.

But the tool, known as Pattern, continues to overestimate the number of Black women who will engage in recidivism, compared to white women in prison.  And in its latest effort to overhaul the troubled risk assessment algorithm, the Justice Department said it is still unable to resolve other racial disparities. The department outlined the new developments in a report sent to Congress on Tuesday and obtained by NPR, pledging that it would continue to work "to ensure that racial disparities are reduced to the greatest extent possible."

"When using factors with criminal history, prison discipline, and education, the tool is almost inevitably going to have disparities — unless they correct for systemic biases in policing, prosecution, corrections, and education," said Melissa Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Surrey who has closely followed the process.

NPR dissected problems with Pattern in a report earlier this year. It uncovered sloppy math mistakes and other flaws that put thousands of prisoners in the wrong risk category and treated them differently in part because of their ethnic backgrounds. The Justice Department will roll out the new version of Pattern early next month, which it said "will neither exacerbate nor solve these racial bias issues." But the department said it was making other adjustments that could translate into a real difference for people of color in prison.

A law called the First Step Act that passed with bipartisan majorities during the Trump administration offers people in prison a path to early release, by earning time credits for performing work and taking educational classes behind bars. Only low and minimum risk prisoners are eligible for those programs, so how the Bureau of Prisons assesses risk has major consequences for their lives and their release plans.

In its new report, DOJ said it would make no changes to how it evaluates violent recidivism risks, saying that measure provided an essential check for "public safety." Instead, the department shifted the boundaries between other risk levels for its general recidivism algorithm. DOJ estimated that 36 percent more Black men and 26 percent more Hispanic men might now qualify as minimum or low risk, with smaller increases for Black and Hispanic women in prison.

UPDATE: I am pretty sure the report referenced in this NPR piece is this one just released by the Justice Department titled simply "First Step Act Annual Report."  As stated at the start of the executive summary: "This Report reflects the ongoing efforts of the Department of Justice (the Department) to make the goals of the First Step Act a reality and summarizes the Department’s activities in that respect during the period since the publication of the last annual Report, in December 2020."

April 19, 2022 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, April 15, 2022

Split Iowa Supreme Court finds Sixth Amendment jury trial rights apply to (unique?) state law restitution provision

A helpful reader made sure I saw the interesting ruling today from the Iowa Supreme Court in Iowa v. Davison, No. 20–0950 (Iowa Apr. 15, 2022) (available here).  The start of the majority opinion should highlight why all Apprendi fans will want to check out this notable new decision:

A jury found the defendant guilty of assault causing serious injury and conspiracy to commit murder in connection with a shooting death.  The district court later awarded restitution against the defendant under Iowa Code section 910.3B (2017).  That law mandates an award of at least $150,000 restitution when “the offender is convicted of a felony in which the act or acts committed by the offender caused the death of another person.” Id. § 910.3B(1).  The defendant now argues that the restitution was statutorily and constitutionally impermissible because the offenses of which he was convicted did not include, as an element, causing the death of another person.

We conclude that Iowa Code section 910.3B does not require a jury finding that the defendant caused the death of another person.  But the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution is a different matter.  The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Sixth Amendment requires facts that increase the defendant’s minimum or maximum punishment to be determined by a jury.  Because the $150,000 restitution is punitive in part, awards of such restitution must be based on jury findings.  No jury found that the defendant caused the death of the victim of the shooting.  Therefore, we reverse the award of restitution in this case and remand for further proceedings.

Here is part of the substantive discussion from the majority in Davison:

Courts have generally declined to apply Apprendi to restitution because restitution is usually compensatory and indeterminate. At first glance, Davison’s argument faces a steep climb. Courts considering the matter have ruled overwhelmingly that Apprendi and Southern Union do not apply to criminal restitution. See, e.g., State v. Leon, 381 P.3d 286, 289 (Ariz. Ct. App. 2016) (“Leon acknowledges that no court has applied Apprendi to restitution awards.”); State v. Arnett, 496 P.3d 928, 933 (Kan. 2021) (“[A]t least 11 of 13 federal United States Circuit Courts of Appeal have refused to extend Apprendi and its progeny to orders of restitution, not to mention the many state courts which have followed suit.”)...

Restitution under Iowa Code section 910.3B is punitive and determinate. By contrast, Iowa Code section 910.3B establishes a mandatory minimum of $150,000 awardable only if the defendant’s felonious acts caused the death of another person. It may be a low number for the nonmonetary loss attributable to a death of a human being, but it is a floor—and it is awarded only if certain facts are found to exist.  Under normal circumstances, a victim of crime in Iowa is limited to recovery of “pecuniary damages,” which exclude “damages for pain, suffering, mental anguish, and loss of consortium.” Iowa Code §§ 910.1(6), .2(1)(a).  Only when the defendant is convicted of a felony in which their acts caused the death of another person may the minimum amount of $150,000 be recovered in additionSee id. § 910.3B(1).

Like other forms of restitution, the restitution authorized by Iowa Code section 910.3B provides compensation. “It serves a remedial purpose in compensating the victim’s estate.” Klawonn, 609 N.W.2d at 520.

But section 910.3B restitution is also punitive. In our 2000 decision, Izzolena, we detected “several punitive elements” in the statute. 609 N.W.2d at 548.  Restitution under section 910.3B “is awarded in addition to separate restitution for pecuniary damages.” Id. Also, the statute “establishes a minimum threshold amount of $150,000 for all cases, with no required proof of evidence to support damages excluded from the definition of pecuniary damages.” Id. at 548–49. For this reason, we found that the $150,000 restitution was subject to the Excessive Fines Clause of the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and article I, section 17 of the Iowa Constitution. Id. at 549.

One concurring opinion frames the ruling in a notable way that seems worth highlighting (and which might entail that the Supreme Court would be disinclined to take this case up if there were a future cert petition):

The opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part argues that Apprendi should not be extended to restitution awards, but this merely begs the question. It is not disputed that courts almost uniformly have held that Apprendi does not apply to restitution awards....  And the court’s opinion in this case says nothing different. The question in this case is not, as the dissenting opinion frames it, whether Apprendi should be extended to restitution awards.  Instead, the question is whether section 910.3B is merely a restitution award or whether it also amounts to criminal punishment.  The dissent assumes the former, but our precedents dictate the latter.

And here is the start of the partial dissent:

I join the court’s opinion except for part III.B. I respectfully dissent from the court’s holding extending Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) and its progeny to victim restitution awards.  Our court is the first appellate court in the nation to do so.  Only two justices of the United States Supreme Court have concluded that Apprendi should be applied to require a jury to find all the facts needed to justify a restitution order.  Hester v. United States, 139 S. Ct. 509, 509–11 (2019) (Gorsuch, J., joined by Sotomayor, J., dissenting from the denial of certiorari).  Seven justices declined to take the bait. See id. at 509 (mem.).  Every federal circuit court of appeals to reach the issue has refused to extend Apprendi to victim restitution awards.  So too has every state appellate court to reach the issue.  I would follow the wisdom of that crowd.

It is not a given that Iowa would seek SCOTUS review of this ruling, and the distinctiveness of Iowa law here might make the SCOTUS Justices disinclined to take up this case even if Iowa does seek cert. That said, it seems worth noting that any forthcoming cert petition on this issue could possible engage some of the Justices who were not on Court back in 2019 when cert was denied in the Hester case.  Back then, Justice Ginsburg and Breyer were apparently disinclined to take up this issue.  But I suspect the new Justice Jackson might be much more interested in expanding Apprendi rights than her former boss has been.  And, as I suggested in this post about Hester, if Justice Barrett is really the originalist that she claims to be, she too might be inclined to join Justice Gorsuch's call to consider this important Sixth Amendment procedural matter.

Though there is much to say about restitution and procedural rights in general (e.g., there is not discussion of burdens of proof or other due process issues in Davison), this cases has me inclined to talk up the broader question of whether the "new" Supreme Court might be somewhat more eager consider and question a lot of pro-state/pro-prosecution doctrines that seem inconsistent with the text and original public meaning of the Bill of Rights.  The Apprendi line of cases helped me to understand that lots of established sentencing doctrines and precedents ought to make real textualists and originalists blush.  If lots of precedents are going to start to be reexamined on textualist and originalist grounds, those ought also to include an array of (mostly pro-state/pro-prosecution) criminal law and procedure precedents.

April 15, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 14, 2022

"An Algorithmic Assessment of Parole Decisions"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now on SSRN authored by Hannah Laqueur and Ryan Copus. Here is its abstract:

Objectives: Parole is an important mechanism for alleviating the extraordinary social and financial costs of mass incarceration.  Yet parole boards can also present a major obstacle, denying parole to low-risk inmates who could safely be released from prison.  We evaluate a major parole institution, the New York State Parole Board, quantifying the costs of suboptimal decision-making.

Methods: Using ensemble Machine Learning, we predict any arrest and any violent felony arrest within three years to generate criminal risk predictions for individuals released on parole in New York from 2012–2015.  We quantify the social welfare loss of the Board’s suboptimal decisions by rank ordering inmates by their predicted risk and estimating the crime rates that could be observed with counterfactual risk-based release decisions.  We also estimate the release rates that could be achieved holding arrest rates constant.  We attend to the “selective labels” problem in several ways, including by testing the validity of the algorithm for individuals who were denied parole but later released after the expiration of their sentence.

Results: We conservatively estimate that the Board could have more than doubled the release rate without increasing the total or violent felony arrest rate, and that they could have achieved these gains while simultaneously eliminating racial disparities in release rates.

Conclusions: This study demonstrates the use of algorithms for evaluating criminal justice decision-making.  Our analyses suggest that many low risk individuals are being unnecessarily incarcerated, highlighting the need for major parole reform.

April 14, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Discouraging update on various sentencing and prison reform bills from inside the Beltway

This new Politico article, "Criminal justice reform faces political buzzsaw as GOP hones its midterm message," provides an unsurprising, but still disappointing, update on the current political realities facing a set of small but important sentencing and prison reform bills pending in Congress. I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

The Senate delivered former President Donald Trump a bipartisan criminal justice reform deal shortly after the last midterm election.  Staging a sequel for President Joe Biden this year won’t be so easy.

Dick Durbin and Chuck Grassley, the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, are still in talks over finalizing a package that would serve as a more narrow follow-up to the 2018 prison and sentencing reform bill known as the First Step Act.  But both senior senators acknowledge it’s not a glide path forward, particularly given the GOP messaging on rising crime ahead of the 2022 midterms — a focus that was on full display during Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court hearings last month.

“That’s dampened the interest in doing what we call the Second Step Act, but we’re still seeing what can be worked out,” Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a brief interview.  He added that if Democrats agree to certain provisions related to law enforcement, “that might make it possible to get something done.”  Durbin (D-Ill.), meanwhile, said he’s concerned about the bill’s prospects, particularly given Republican accusations during Jackson’s confirmation hearings that the justice-in-waiting was soft on crime.  The Judiciary chair ranked criminal justice as high on his list of priorities, though he said legislation addressing crime and law enforcement “may be just as challenging as immigration” — a famously tough area of bipartisan compromise on Capitol Hill.

While both Durbin and Grassley say the sequel legislation is necessary to fully implement and expand on the sentencing updates in the First Step law, the campaign-season politics surrounding criminal justice reform threaten broader GOP support. Though 38 Republican senators backed the 2018 bill, it took Trump’s personal appeals to get many on board. And with Democrats in full control of Washington, Republicans’ emerging midterm message — that liberals are to blame for rising violent crime — could make sentencing changes that much harder.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee and a close adviser to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has yet to review the proposal but predicted a tough road ahead. “Particularly given the spike in violence in the inner cities, it would probably be controversial depending on what the specific proposal was,” Cornyn said. “The timing is not great given the closeness of the midterms and the primaries that still remain to be run.”

The Judiciary panel already passed the foundation for Durbin and Grassley’s potential criminal justice reform package last year. It would give inmates who were sentenced prior to the First Step law’s passage the ability to petition for its reduced sentencing guidelines, applying them retroactively if approved. Another bill included in it would increase eligibility for a program that allows certain elderly prisoners to serve the rest of their sentences at home. There’s also discussion around expanding the scope of a federal carjacking statute, according to a GOP Judiciary Committee aide....

A separate but related criminal justice push in the upper chamber, however, illustrates that reform advocates aren’t exactly pinning their hopes on a broader agreement this year. Supporters of eliminating the long-standing federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses originally discussed including that provision in the committee’s bigger proposal.

Now advocates for change want the Senate to move a standalone bill on the crack-cocaine disparity, citing its support from 11 Senate Republicans — enough to overcome a filibuster. “They have been working on that package for the better part of a year now, and the [standalone bill] is ready right now,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, who is urging the Senate to act shortly after the Easter recess. “My hope is obviously that we can see the [standalone bill] through to fruition here. I mean, it’s literally on the goal line.”... Backers of the legislation eliminating the crack-cocaine disparity, which passed the House overwhelmingly in September, range from conservative Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. It’s backed by law enforcement groups, including the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the National District Attorneys Association.

While Schumer hasn’t yet laid out a timeline for when he’d bring the crack-cocaine disparity bill to the floor, members of the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this month wrote to him and Durbin urging the Senate to consider the bill “without delay.” The legislation is a top priority for the caucus, which has already faced setbacks on police reform and voting rights bills. And proponents of the reform are framing it as legislation about “fairness” instead of crime, highlighting support from Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

But Senate aides on both sides of the aisle warn that despite the disparity-closing bill’s bipartisan support, it could still face a challenging path to final passage, including a potentially arduous debate over amendments. Republicans who oppose the bill would almost certainly want to force vulnerable Senate Democrats to take tough amendment votes amid reports of rising violent crime in major cities and the approaching November election. Grassley, who is not a co-sponsor, has also outlined concerns about whether there would be enough Republican support in the Senate to get the legislation over the finish line. While the Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the crack-cocaine disparity bill last year, it has yet to schedule a markup.

Meanwhile, Durbin isn’t giving up on his broader criminal justice reform package. At least not yet. While the Jackson hearings highlighted the “extremes” of GOP opposition, he said he remains hopeful that “there are fair-minded Republicans and Democrats who can form the basis of an agreement.”

Sigh. From the very start of this Congress, many folks have been stressing (see here and here) that the criminal justice arena as presenting opportunities for bipartisan reforms.  And nearly a year ago, as noted here, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act of 2021, the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 and the First Step Implementation Act of 2021.  Since then, the House in September 2021 passed, as detailed here, the EQUAL Act by a margin of 361-66 and last month passed, as detailed here, the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 by a margin of 405-12.  Not sure we can expect more bipartisan agreement than these votes reflect, and so I continue to believe the relatively modest reforms in all of these bills could have and should have been low-hanging fruit for bipartisan legislative achievements in this Congress.  Instead, it now appears that none of these bills may get to the finish line in this Congress. 

I understand fully the challenging politics presented by rising homicide rates and other crime challenges now facing the nation.  But these reforms are all sound tweaks to a federal sentencing and prison system that have rightly garnered strong bipartisan support because they are modest and sensible reforms that are long-overdue and have very little to do with violent offenders.  The apparent failure of this Congress to get any of these bills enacted so far strikes me as much more a story of problematic policy priorities than of modern crime politics.  Sigh.

April 14, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Notable example of federal prosecutors and crime victims advocating for sentences way below applicable mandatory minimums

This lengthy local press piece, headlined "After pleas for leniency, mosque bombers receive 16-, 14-year sentences: Prosecution, defense agreed the two were manipulated by militia ringleader," reports on an interesting federal sentencing that took place yesterday in Minnesota.  Here are some of the details:

Following a rare display of both victims and prosecutors advocating mercy, U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank sentenced two Illinois men Tuesday to 14 and 16 years in federal prison for bombing Bloomington's Dar al-Farooq Islamic Center in 2017.

Frank said the "substantial assistance" of Michael McWhorter, 33, and Joe Morris, 26 — including testifying against Emily Claire Hari, their "White Rabbits" militia leader — permitted him to render penalties that each amounted to less than half of the 35-year statutory minimums in the domestic terror case.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys described McWhorter and Morris as patsies in Hari's terror plot, manipulated to participate in a string of violent crimes that included robbing a Walmart with airsoft guns, a home invasion, attempting to extort the Canadian railroad and an unsuccessful attempt to bomb a women's health clinic.

Acknowledging that they were under Hari's influence, Frank also condemned McWhorter's and Morris' seventh-month crime spree as "contrary to everything America stands for," rejecting the 10-year sentences requested by their defense attorneys. "When all is said and done," Frank said, lesser sentences would not "promote respect for the law."

Frank sentenced Hari to 53 years in prison last year, higher than the mandatory minimum but lower than prosecutors' request for life, for civil rights and hate crime convictions.

The sentencings brought to a close a saga that began four-and-a-half years ago, when a black-powder bomb exploded in Imam Mohamed Omar's office early on Aug. 5, 2017, while several mosque members gathered for morning prayer. Throughout the trial, Dar al-Farooq leaders testified to the horror they continued to feel after that day, worried another attack could be imminent.

Still, in court Tuesday, Muslim, Jewish and Christian faith leaders asked Frank for mercy. Omar, who in Hari's trial described feeling he was in a "nightmare" when the bomb went off, told Frank he'd come with "a message of peace" in the name of "solidarity as a human family" on behalf of Dar al-Farooq. Omar said McWhorter sent him a seven-page letter from jail expressing remorse and explaining how he'd fallen into the "dark web of Hari's manipulation" and described Hari as a "cultish" figure....

McWhorter and Morris pleaded guilty in 2019 to their role in the group known as the "White Rabbits 3 Percent Illinois Patriot Freedom Fighters."  In the trial for Hari — then known as Michael Hari — the two men testified that he took advantage of their financial desperation to recruit them for the attacks. Morris, who described Hari as a father figure, said Hari told him they were taking orders from Steve Bannon and a CIA agent called "Congo Joe" to harass "untouchables."...

The day of the bombing, Hari waited until they'd driven through the night and were an hour away from Bloomington to reveal the plot to bomb the mosque. Neither McWhorter nor Morris knew what a mosque was, according to their lawyers. McWhorter said he feared Hari and Morris would kill him if he didn't go through with the plan. "I bombed a mosque. But it was not by choice," he said. "I feared for my life when I bombed the mosque. I didn't do it out of just pure hatred. I don't have any hate" for Muslims.

For their roles in helping convict Hari, Assistant U.S. Attorney Allison Ethen asked Frank for a 50% reduction from the mandatory minimum sentences for McWhorter and Morris — a request both Ethen and Frank remarked was rare. While they were not the masterminds, Ethen said, the two men still committed grave crimes that cannot be "uncommitted" and a light penalty could send the wrong message.  "We need to make sure this sentence also reaches the Haris of the world," she said. Ethen also said she was representing victims from Illinois who couldn't appear in court to speak for themselves, including "countless women" whose doctor's office became the target of a hate crime.

Frank said he calculated the sentence while balancing the need for deterrence of similar crimes, noting the men participated in "very serious premeditated behavior."

April 13, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Why Should Guilty Pleas Matter?"

The title of this post is the title of this forthcoming book chapter authored by Thom Brooks now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Most offenders plead guilty without a trial.  Their guilty plea typically earns a reduced punishment. It raises the issue of why should guilty pleas matter.  This chapter considers the use of plea bargaining in the United States and guilty plea discounts in England and Wales.  While the former is found deeply problematic, a limited defence of the latter is made. Offenders should normally receive discounted punishment and for more than instrumental reasons.  However, there must be more robust safeguards in place to ensure greater consistency and fairness for the use of guilty plea reductions to be justified more substantially.

April 13, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 04, 2022

SCOTUS, via 6-3 ruling in Thompson v. Clark, clarifies requirements for certain § 1983 claims for malicious prosecution

The Supreme Court handed down one opinion this morning, and it concerns criminal justice issues.  Justice Kavanaugh wrote the relatively short opinion (12 pages) for the Court in Thompson v. Clark, No. 20-659 (S. Ct. April 4, 2022) (available here), and it begins this way:

Larry Thompson was charged and detained in state criminal proceedings, but the charges were dismissed before trial without any explanation by the prosecutor or judge.  After the dismissal, Thompson alleged that the police officers who initiated the criminal proceedings had “maliciously prosecuted” him without probable cause.  App. 33–34.  Thompson sued and sought money damages from those officers in federal court. As relevant here, he advanced a Fourth Amendment claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for malicious prosecution.

To maintain that Fourth Amendment claim under §1983, a plaintiff such as Thompson must demonstrate, among other things, that he obtained a favorable termination of the underlying criminal prosecution.  Cf. Heck v. Humphrey, 512 U.S. 477, 484, and n. 4 (1994).  This case requires us to flesh out what a favorable termination entails.  Does it suffice for a plaintiff to show that his criminal prosecution ended without a conviction?  Or must the plaintiff also demonstrate that the prosecution ended with some affirmative indication of his innocence, such as an acquittal or a dismissal accompanied by a statement from the judge that the evidence was insufficient?

We conclude as follows: To demonstrate a favorable termination of a criminal prosecution for purposes of the Fourth Amendment claim under § 1983 for malicious prosecution, a plaintiff need only show that his prosecution ended without a conviction.  Thompson satisfied that requirement in this case.  We therefore reverse the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Alito also wrote a 12-page opinion as a dissent, and it was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch.  Here is how it starts:

Homer described the mythical chimera as a “grim monster” made of “all lion in front, all snake behind, all goat between.” The Iliad p. 201 (R. Fagles trans. 1990).  Today, the Court creates a chimera of a constitutional tort by stitching together elements taken from two very different claims: a Fourth Amendment unreasonable seizure claim and a common-law malicious-prosecution claim.

The Court justifies this creation on the ground that malicious prosecution is the common-law tort that is most analogous to an unreasonable seizure claim.  And because a common-law malicious-prosecution claim demanded proof of a favorable termination, the Court holds that its new creation includes that element.  But this Court has never held that the Fourth Amendment houses a malicious-prosecution claim, and the Court defends its analogy with just two sentences of independent analysis and a reference to a body of lower court cases.

I cannot agree with that approach.  The Court’s independent analysis of this important question is far too cursory, and its reliance on lower court cases is particularly ill-advised here because that body of case law appears to have been heavily influenced by a mistaken reading of the plurality opinion in Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266 (1994).

What the Court has done is to recognize a novel hybrid claim of uncertain scope that has no basis in the Constitution and is almost certain to lead to confusion.

April 4, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, April 03, 2022

"Invisible Victims"

the title of this post is the title of this intriguing recent paper authored by Mihailis Diamantis that I just found on SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The halls of justice are forever closed to many who suffer grievous wrong.  They need not have done anything to forfeit their claim.  No matter how certain the evidence is or how eager prosecutors may be, no criminal court will admit them.  These victims are, for all intents and purposes, invisible to the criminal law.

Invisible victims exist because of doctrines that shield certain categories of people from any criminal justice inquiry.  These people include those whose alleged misdeeds occurred long ago, diplomats, legislators, pardon recipients, and the deceased, among many others.  Immunizing such individuals from criminal sanction often makes sound policy sense.  But criminal law has yet to reckon with the moral cost of deferring unconditionally to their interests.

This Article offers a more balanced approach.  Criminal law should permit courts to try suspects who are immune from punishment.  Trial could memorialize invisible victims’ narratives in the solemn forum of the courtroom.  Where the evidence warrants, juries could validate invisible victims by condemning the wrongs they suffered.  Familiar procedural safeguards could protect unpunishable suspects’ weightiest interests even as invisible victims finally receive the recognition they deserve.

April 3, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 02, 2022

"The Trouble with Time Served"

The title of this post is the title of this new article recently posted to SSRN and authored by Kimberly Kessler Ferzan. Here is its abstract:

Every jurisdiction in the United States gives criminal defendants “credit” against their sentence for the time they spend detained pretrial.  In a world of mass incarceration and overcriminalization that disproportionately impacts people of color, this practice appears to be a welcome mechanism for mercy and justice.  In fact, however, crediting detainees for time served is perverse.  It harms the innocent.  A defendant who is found not guilty, or whose case is dismissed, gets nothing.  Crediting time served also allows the state to avoid internalizing the full costs of pretrial detention, thereby making overinclusive detention standards less expensive.  Finally, crediting time served links prevention with punishment, retroactively justifying punitive, substandard conditions.  The bottom line is this: Time served is not a panacea.  To the contrary, it contributes to criminal justice pathologies.

This Article systematically details the rationales for pretrial detention and then analyzes when, given those rationales, credit for time served is warranted.  The analysis reveals that crediting time served is a destructive practice on egalitarian, economic, expressive, and retributive grounds.  Time served should be abandoned.  Detainees should be financially compensated instead.  Given that many detentions are premised upon a theory similar to a Fifth Amendment taking, compensation is warranted for all defendants — both the innocent and the guilty — and can lead to positive reforms.  Only by abandoning credit for time served can the link between prevention and punishment be severed, such that detention will be more limited and more humane.

April 2, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, April 01, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

US House overwhelmingly votes, by a margin of 405-12, for "Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021"

I continue to believe that federal sentencing reforms can continue to be an arena for bipartisan achievements in Congress (as we saw with the Fair Sentencing Act during the Obama Administration and with the FIRST STEP Act during the Trump Administration).  Of course, the recent SCOTUS confirmation hearings provided a reminder that some legislators on some criminal justice issues are going to favor partisan attacks over responsible discourse.  Nevertheless, my hope springs eternal and news from Congress last night bolsters this hope. 

Specifically, as detailed in this press release from the office of Congressman Steve Cohen, a bipartisan bill which prohibits the consideration of acquitted conduct in sentencing received overwhelming bipartisan support last night.  Here are excerpts from the press release:

Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, today addressed the House of Representatives and urged passage of his bill, the Prohibiting Punishment for Acquitted Conduct Act. The bill later passed the House on a vote of 405 to 12.

Congressmen Cohen and Kelly Armstrong (N.D., at large) introduced the measure last year to end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has not been convicted.  In his speech on the House floor today, Congressman Cohen said, in part:  “I want to thank Mr. Armstrong for working with me on it. He was a strong proponent of the bill and it is truly bipartisan and bicameral...I’ve got a few pages of speeches here but there’s no reasons to – a long time ago I was told – you make the sale and you sit down. The sale has been made, I believe.”  See those remarks, including part of the debate, here.

When the Judiciary Committee voted to advance the measure in November, Congressman Armstrong made the following statement: “The right of criminal defendants to be judged by a jury of their peers is a foundational principle of the Constitution. The current practice of allowing federal judges to sentence defendants based on conduct for which they were acquitted by a jury is not right and is not fair.”

A similar measure introduced by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was considered in the Senate Judiciary Committee last June and has been advanced to the full Senate.

I am so very pleased to see this very modest bill, but still very meaningful proposal, move forward and receive such overwhelming support from Representatives in both parties.  I hope this legislation can get a vote in the Senate ASAP.  

A few of many, many, many prior related posts:

March 29, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, March 28, 2022

SCOTUS grants cert in Arizona capital case to address state limits on collateral review

The US Supreme Court granted cert in three cases this morning, and one involved a cert petition from a defendant on Arizona's death row.  However, the issue on which SCOTUS granted cert in Cruz v. Arizona is likely only to excite collateral review and habeas fans:

Issue: Whether the Arizona Supreme Court’s holding that Arizona Rule of Criminal Procedure 32.1(g) precluded post-conviction relief is an adequate and independent state-law ground for the judgment.

But while this statement of the issue may not seem all that exciting, these paragraphs from this amicus brief in support of cert from Habeas Scholars suggests a lot is at stake here:

Amici urge this Court to grant certiorari — or summarily reverse — to stop Arizona’s use of collateral procedure to discriminate against established constitutional rights.  “[S]tate courts have the solemn responsibility, equally with the federal courts ‘to guard, enforce, and protect every right granted or secured by the constitution of the United States.…’” Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452, 460-61 (1974) (quoting Robb v. Connolly, 111 U.S. 624, 637 (1884)). They cannot selectively disregard particular constitutional rights....

This Court’s intervention is both necessary and appropriate.  The Arizona decision results in the clear violation of a federal right, and the Arizona Supreme Court’s violation of the Supremacy Clause itself merits this Court’s intervention. Moreover, there is jurisdiction to review the judgment because the state ground is neither adequate to bar review nor independent of federal law. And because Arizona appears to be a singular outlier in its treatment on collateral review of the federal rights at issue here, correction of this error would not affect the practices of other states. Instead of being disruptive, reversal here would restore the appropriate federal-state balance, in accord with this Court’s Supremacy Clause precedents.

March 28, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Varying perspectives on Illinois's new prosecutor-initiated resentencing law

A helpful colleague made sure I did not miss some notable recent stories about the implementation of Illinois's new prosecutor-initiated resentencing law (and some noable resistance thereto).  Here are headlines and links:

From Injustice Watch, "Man walks out of prison 28 years early — with the help of a prosecutor"

From the Chicago Sun-Times, "Judge questions constitutionality of resentencing law as prosecutors ask him to reconsider case of convicted burglar"

From the Chicago Tribune, "Questions remain as resentencing initiative championed by Kim Foxx is slow out of the gate in Cook County"

Here is the start of the Tribune piece that highlights just some of the terms of the Illinois resentencing debate:

Cook County prosecutors’ new effort to reduce sentences for some longtime inmates — hailed by State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and other reform advocates as a way to right the wrongs of the tough-on-crime era — will have an uphill climb before some judges, if its first week in court is any indication.

Associate Judge Stanley Sacks sat on the bench with a scowl Thursday as prosecutors presented their request to resentence Charles Miles, who was given a total of 25 years in two burglary cases. “I’ve been doing this for 30-plus years. I make up my own mind, not Gov. (J.B.) Pritzker, not Kimberly Foxx, either,” he said.

Miles is one of three people initially identified by prosecutors as a candidate for resentencing under a new state law allowing prosecutors to proactively request more lenient sentences for people, though the ultimate decision is still up to a judge.

On the bench Thursday, Sacks insisted he had not yet made any decisions about whether Miles deserved a new sentence and said he would not weigh in on the statute’s constitutionality.

But he could not disguise his contempt for the idea in general. He repeatedly questioned why Miles had a pro bono attorney in the courtroom if prosecutors were also advocating for his release, and wondered openly if he had jurisdiction to determine a new sentence. “It’s constitutional? Takes away the governor’s only right? What he does is resentence people through clemency,” Sacks said. “Isn’t that something for the governor to do?”

“That’s one avenue, but that’s mercy. There’s also justice,” said Assistant State’s Attorney Nancy Adduci, who explained the new law simply “re-vest(s) jurisdiction” back to the courts so a judge can consider a new sentence.

March 28, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (20)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

"Charging Time"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Pamela Metzger and Janet Hoeffel. Here is its abstract:

On the day William Haymon turned 16, it was his 511th day in jail in Mississippi and a prosecutor had yet to formally charge him with a crime.  William is one of thousands of people across the country arrested and jailed for weeks, months, and even years without charges.  In one year in New Orleans, 275 people each spent an average of 115 days in jail only to have the prosecution decline all charges against them.  Together, these men and women spent 31,625 days in one of the nation’s most dangerous jails, with no compensation for their incarceration, fear, lost wages, shame and distress. Yet this violates no laws; it circumvents no constitutional protections.

To date, there has been no study of the necessity of the extended time period between arrest and charging.  Until a prosecutor decides to accept or decline charges, the arrestee is in a procedural abyss.  In this Article, we explore the equities at stake and the realities at play in this dark period. State statutes give prosecutors extended or indefinite time periods to make the formal charging decision and prosecutors appear to take that time.

A recent original study reveals that prosecutors’ crushing caseloads, shoddy and inadequate investigative work by police officers, and a lack of training or written policies on charging contribute to the delay. From the detained defendants’ perspective, the consequences of delayed charging are steep.  Extended time in jail risks lives, health, jobs and case outcomes.  Yet we explain how neither the constitutional protections granted to criminal defendants nor statutory provisions provide any remedy at this uncharged stage.  After exposing this disturbing state of affairs, we offer practical, subconstitutional solutions to minimize needless delay in the charging decisions of prosecutors across the country.

March 27, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, March 24, 2022

In praise of the continued sentencing sensibility of the National Review's Andrew McCarthy

Though I have been intrigued by the considerable attention given to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's sentencing record even since Senator Josh Hawley's tweets flagged his concerns about about her writings, comments and sentencings in some sex offense cases (background here), I have been quite disappointed by what seemed to me to be a general failure by all of Senators on both sides of the aisle to engage thoughtfully with the deep challenges and profound humanity in any and all sentencing determinations.  District judges often say sentencing is the hardest part of their job, and this is true even in the run-of-the-mill cases when the facts are routine and the applicable statutory law is clear and the applicable guidelines are helpful.  (A few years ago, I gave a talk (written up here) partially titled "Sentencing is So Dang Hard" which details just some reasons I think judge are right to describe sentencing this way.)

Critically, in federal child pornography (CP) cases, the basic facts are rarely routine, the applicable statutory law is rarely clear, and the applicable guidelines are the very opposite of helpful.  In the CP setting, applicable statutory law is quite messy — e.g., what is the real difference between child pornography "possession" and "receipt", how should USSC policy statements be considered here — and the applicable guidelines are widely regarded as badly broken.  Those legal realities mean federal sentencing takes on extra layers of challenge in CP cases.  The challenges become especially profound when difficult and distinctive facts come along, such as in the oft-discussed Hawkins case where, according to this New York Times article, the prosecutor described "very unique circumstances" involving teenage offender and the defense presented an "evaluation by a psychologist asserting that Mr. Hawkins did not 'demonstrate sexual deviation' but was instead driven to watch the pornographic images as 'a way for him to explore his curiosity about homosexual activity and connect with his emotional peers'."

Under difficult circumstances during questions from mostly GOP Senators, Judge Jackson tried hard to explain her sentencing process and goals, and she did highlight some of the unique challenges these cases present in light of problematic guidelines.  But, based on the parts of the hearing I was able to watch, I was generally underwhelmed by the efforts of Judge Jackson's supporters to discuss with her more broadly the deep challenges and profound humanity that all sentencing decision-making involves.  And I heard precious little discussion of the particulars of the Hawkins case or other cases in which defendants present significant mitigating circumstances that find little or no expression is problematic guidelines. 

But, as the title of this post suggest, there is one commentator who has done a great job in this arena this week, and I want to give a particular shout out to the work he has done to consistently and effectively contextualizing these stories.  Specifically, the National Review's Andrew McCarthy has now done three lengthy pieces that are must-reads for everyone following these stories:

"Senator Hawley’s Disingenuous Attack against Judge Jackson’s Record on Child Pornography"

"Ho-Hum: The Cases Senator Hawley Cites Show Judge Jackson Is an Unremarkable Sentencer in Child-Porn Cases"

"Judge Jackson and Judiciary Committee Republicans Joust on Child-Porn-Possession Case against 18-Year-Old . . . Again"

I flagged the first of these pieces in a prior post, but I want to especially laud Mr. McCarthy for not being content with his important first salvo against this line of attack on Judge Jackson.  Mr. McCarthy makes clear that he is not a fan or supporter of Judge Jackson, but he has still been willing to write a significant series of detailed pieces documenting in so many ways why the sentencing discourse by the GOP here is so misguided.  Kudos to him (and the National Review) for such sentencing sensibility.

March 24, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

"Bargaining Without Bias"

The title of this post is the title of this article authored by Cynthia Alkon and recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Bias, disparate treatment, and racism are embedded into the U.S. criminal legal system.  A key player within the criminal legal system who could dramatically reduce or eliminate these disparities are prosecutors.  Prosecutors enjoy extraordinary power and they exercise that power with few constraints. For most defendants the single most important prosecutorial decision, after charging, is the plea offer.  Yet, there are virtually no limitations on prosecutors during the plea bargaining stage and relatively little attention given to how standard plea bargaining practices can exacerbate bias. The prosecutor is the key decision maker and, unfortunately, standard prosecutorial practices can exacerbate the biases that are already embedded into the criminal legal system.  There are multiple challenges that make it difficult for prosecutors to reduce or eliminate their biases.  The first core problem is that plea bargaining is largely unsupervised and prosecutors have extraordinary power and virtually unlimited discretion in the process. Prosecutors regularly engage in hard bargaining tactics and there is no meaningful check on prosecutorial bias in deciding what offers to make on what cases.  The second core problem is that plea bargaining can exacerbate racial disparities and bias.  The third core problem is that once a case comes into the criminal legal system, and the case is charged, a prosecutor’s first offer acts as an anchor in the negotiation, regardless of whether the offer reflects bias.  Unlike in other negotiation contexts, the defendant in a criminal case most often has no meaningful option to counter or walk away from the prosecutor’s offer.

In this article, to work towards decreasing bias in plea bargaining, I propose a structural fix and an individual fix to these core problems.  The structural fix is that prosecutors' offices should adopt policies for blind assessment of cases when the first plea offer is made.  All indicia of race or ethnicity (including names and neighborhoods) should be removed when prosecutors review a case and make the initial plea offer.  This would help prosecutors focus on the facts and their evidence when making a plea offer and prevent bias in decision making.  However, it is not realistic to expect that prosecutors, even in offices that adopt blind charging and plea bargaining policies, would remain blind to who the individual defendant is in all cases, particularly in cases where the first offer is made after arraignment.  Therefore, the individual fix is to train prosecutors on empathy.  Prosecutors' offices should expand and improve training and programs on empathy to change how prosecutors view defendants.  People tend to have empathy for, and in the criminal context give the benefit of the doubt to, those who are "more like them" — including being the same race and socio-economic group. Empathy for others is a skill that can be taught, like trial skills, negotiation, or writing.  Prosecutors' offices need to include empathy skills as an integral part of their overall training. Improved empathy skills would help prosecutors to stop looking at defendants as simply "criminals" — a label that is often racially-based. Instead, more prosecutors could learn to see defendants, in the words of Bryan Stevenson, as "more than the worst thing" they have ever done.

March 22, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Right on Crime highlights "Second Look for conservative justice and cost-savings"

ROC-Thumbnails-18The folks at Right on Crime has this interesting new coverage of "Second Look in Texas."  This one-pager, produced by Nikki Pressley, carries the title that is quoted in this title of this post, and here is the main text (along with the interesting graphic I have reprinted):

Texas has the harshest parole eligibility guidelines for juvenile offenders of any state, allowing some to be imprisoned without the possibility of parole for 40 years. Even worse, many of these youth are convicted through the Law of Parties, meaning they were merely an accessory to the actual crime and never pulled the trigger.  Science proves that continued brain development allows a healthy brain to mature and make more logical decisions far before someone completes a 40-year sentence, and recidivism rates for these offenders is extremely low.

Second Look legislation would lower the time until parole eligibility for juvenile offenders from 40 years to 20 years.  This change should also be retroactive, allowing adults currently serving time in prison for a crime committed as a juvenile to also have the opportunity for earlier parole.  Proving to be little or no threat to public safety and simultaneously saving hundred of thousands of taxpayer dollars, Second Look legislation is a win-win reform.

And here are "key points" stressed:

March 22, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, March 21, 2022

Recalling the text of the applicable law which helps account for Judge Jackson's sentencing rulings

I was able to listen to some of the opening statements of Senate Judiciary Committee members during today's installment of the hearings concerning the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.  Unsurprisingly, various GOP Senators extolled the importance of judges following the law and being committed to the rule of law:

Senator Grassley: "We depend on judges to interpret the laws as we write them."

Senator Cornyn: "Part of that judgment requires a judge to go where the law commands."

Senator Cruz: "Will you follow the law?" 

Senator Cotton: "I am looking for a Justice who will make decisions based on the law."

Senator Kennedy: "Sometimes Justices have to uphold the rule of law when it is not popular."

These various statement led me to reflect on my recent post about Judge Jackson's sentencings of persons involved with child pornography, and I realized that Judge Jackson’s critics have not asserted that Judge Jackson failed to follow the sentencing laws set out by Congress.  Through 18 USC § 3553(a), Congress has instructed judges in to impose a sentence "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with the purposes" of sentencing, and also demands that district judges consider "the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct."  Since the Booker ruling made the guidelines advisory, guideline ranges are still to be considered, but only as one of multiple statutory factors in service to a "sentencing judge’s overarching duty under §3553(a) to 'impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary' to comply with the sentencing purposes set forth in §3553(a)(2)."  Pepper v. US, 562 U.S. 476, 491 (2011).

Senator Hawley reiterated during his opening statement what seems to be his chief concern with Judge Jackson's sentencing efforts: “What concerns me, and I've been very candid about this, is that in every case, in each of these seven, Judge Jackson handed down a lenient sentence that was below what the federal guidelines recommended and below what prosecutors recommended and so I think there’s a lot to talk about there.”  Critically, applicable federal sentencing law does not call upon a judge to follow "what the federal guidelines recommended" or "what prosecutors recommended."  Indeed, a sentencing judge who adhered only to guideline or prosecutorial recommendations would arguably violate a judge's obligation of independence and the express text of the law Congress enacted to guide judges at sentencing.

Of course, "what the federal guidelines recommended" is one of many 3553(a) factors to be considered by sentencing judges and "what prosecutors recommended," though not part of the text of federal sentencing law, can still provide judges with insights concerning the proper application of all the 3553(a) factors.  But, to repeat, those recommendations are not the applicable law: Judge Jackson when on the district court was duty bound, to use Senator Cotton's words, to "make decisions based on the law" which means she had "to 'impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary' to comply with the sentencing purposes set forth in §3553(a)(2)."  Pepper, 562 U.S. at 491.  To parrot Senators Cornyn's and Kennedy's words, Judge Jackson was required at sentencing "to go where the law commands" and to "uphold the rule of law [even] when it is not popular."  Based on insights from her time on the US Sentencing Commission and her considerable judicial service, Judge Jackson surely understood the importance of all the 3553(a) factors in reaching a sentencing outcome, and nobody has suggested otherwise.

Some prior related coverage:

March 21, 2022 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

"Punishment without Trial: Why Plea Bargaining is a Bad Deal"

Go directlyThe title of this post is the title of this exciting panel discussion being hosted this week by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.  It is also the title of this book authored by Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick, and she is the featured speaker at the event.  But, as detailed in this event description, the panel is full of headliners: 

When Americans think of the criminal justice system, they picture a trial. The right to a trial by jury is supposed to undergird our entire justice system – but that bedrock constitutional right has all but disappeared thanks to plea bargaining. In 2018, more than 97 percent of defendants pleaded guilty.

Join the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center for a panel discussion featuring Professor Carissa Byrne Hessick on how plea bargaining undermines justice. In her latest book, Punishment Without Trial: Why Plea Bargaining is a Bad Deal, Hessick makes the case against plea bargaining and illustrates why and how we need to fix it if we ever hope to achieve lasting criminal justice reform. 

Panelists

Carissa Byrne Hessick, Ransdell Distinguished Professor of Law, University of North Carolina School of Law; Director, Prosecutors and Politics Project
The Honorable Justice Michael Donnelly, Ohio Supreme Court
Ric Simmons, Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer Professor for the Administration of Justice and Rule of Law, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Michael Zuckerman, Visiting Assistant Professor, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

About the event

This is currently a hybrid event and registrants may attend in person or via Zoom. Note however, that depending on university guidance, the event may become online only. Both in-person and virtual attendees should register via the Zoom registration form and select their attendance preference there.  For in-person attendees, the event will be held in Room 244 Drinko Hall, 55 West 12th Avenue, Columbus, OH 43210-1391, and boxed lunches will be available to take away following the event.

March 21, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, March 17, 2022

"Reasonable Moral Doubt"

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

Sentencing outcomes turn on moral and evaluative determinations.  For example, a finding of “irreparable corruption” is generally a precondition for juvenile life without parole.  A finding that the “aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors” determines whether a defendant receives the death penalty.  Should such moral determinations that expose defendants to extraordinary penalties be subject to a standard of proof?  A broad range of federal and state courts have purported to decide this issue “in the abstract and without reference to our sentencing case law,” as the Supreme Court recently put it.  Kansas v. Carr, 577 U.S. 108, 119 (2016).  According to these courts, “it would mean nothing” to ask whether the defendant “deserves mercy beyond a reasonable doubt” or “more-likely-than-not deserves it” because moral questions are not “factual.” Instead, moral determinations are highly subjective “value calls” to which concepts of doubt and certainty do not intelligibly apply.

Implicit in these rulings is a controversial view of the nature of moral judgment.  This Article traces the contours of the view and argues that it is out of step with the way the broader public thinks about morality and fails to address the issues defendants have raised. Courts should avoid wading into such controversial waters for two reasons.  First, the judiciary has historically maintained neutrality on issues of significant public concern.  Second, even if moral determinations are not factual, applying a standard of proof to at least some moral decisions at sentencing would change the outcome of the sentencer’s deliberations, and improve the legitimacy of the legal system.  For the “reasonableness” of doubt depends on context; and moral questions — "are you certain the defendant deserves death?” — make salient the stakes relative to which a person should decide what to believe about ordinary empirical matters.  On the resulting view, reasonable doubt in the final moral analysis is not just intelligible, but essential for correcting a bias in the structure of the bifurcated criminal trial that systematically disadvantages defendants: the tendency for de-contextualized “factual findings” in the guilt phase to control outcomes at sentencing.

March 17, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

"Ruined"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new article authored by Maybell Romero now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Judges play a critical role in one of the most important states of a criminal case’s adjudication — sentencing.  While there have been substantial limitations placed on the discretion judges can exercise in devising punishments, there are little to none on what judges say at such hearings when articulating their rationales for the sentences they impose on convicted defendants.  This Article examines the language judges use when sentencing defendants convicted rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse that describes victims of those crimes and the harms they have sustained, especially language that describes victims as “ruined,” “broken,” or “destroyed.”  The use of such language, while apparently meant to be empathetic, only serves to uphold misogynistic understandings of rape and sexual assault and actively harms victims. Judges trying to justify harsh sentences for defendants convicted of sex crimes also engage in shaming and exploitation of victims when saying that defendants have left victims “ruined” at sentencing.

In this Article I use traditional scholarly methods of reviewing and analyzing cases and legal doctrine to show why the use of such language is harmful to victims and flouts the purposes of criminal punishment.  However, I also engage in autoethnographic methods, relying on my own experiences of rape and sexual assault, as well as prosecuting such cases. This Article considers at how other fields such as medicine and public health have approached destigmatizing other historically stigmatized conditions like substance use and mental illness, arguing that judges should take similar steps to destigmatize being a victim of rape and sexual assault by more carefully considering their language use at sentencing.  I conclude by reflecting on the use of personal narrative in legal scholarship and in the classroom and argue that it can be a powerful tool that scholars should more openly embrace.

March 16, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 14, 2022

"The Constitutional Guarantee of Criminal Justice Transparency"

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

This article identifies and explores a transparency guarantee that permeates the Constitution’s criminal procedure provisions.  This trans-substantive guarantee protects multiple dimensions of transparency — which I categorize as participatory, informational, and corporal — through overlapping structural safeguards and individual rights, and through protections afforded to both the public and the accused. 

Despite the strength and pervasiveness of the overarching transparency guarantee, the discrete provisions from which it is derived are often peripheral in today’s criminal justice system, which is dominated by plea bargaining and incarceration, rather than trials and public-square punishment.  And, because the constitutional transparency protections are viewed in clause-bound isolation, modern transparency deficits are generally viewed as policy problems, not constitutional ones.  I urge that renewed attention to the overarching constitutional transparency guarantee can support doctrinal and legislative efforts to strengthen criminal justice transparency in modern times.

March 14, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 13, 2022

New DOJ memo says plea agreements should generally not require waivers of compassionate release rights

In this post last month, I spotlighted the news report that some federal prosecutors had been seeking to limit defendants' statutory rights to ever seek a sentence reduction or compassionate release under Section 3582(c)(l)(A).  This new NPR piece, headlined "Justice Department ends limiting compassionate release in plea deals after NPR story," reports on the encouraging news that Main Justice has a new directive on this matter to rein in this problematic practice.  Here are the basics:

The Justice Department is directing prosecutors to stop limiting defendants' ability to seek compassionate release in most federal plea agreements, after advocates criticized the practice as cruel and against the intent of Congress.

DOJ officials handed down the order a month after an NPR story detailed the practice, which curtailed peoples' ability to petition for release from prison because of severe illness or other extraordinary circumstances.  That story drew the attention of Attorney General Merrick Garland who this week said it seemed "wrong" and pledged to fix the issue.

In a new letter, members of the U.S. Senate also expressed alarm at the waivers, which they said had been used in Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Illinois.  "This is a particularly pernicious practice because 97 percent of convictions are obtained through plea agreements," said a new letter from Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and 15 other lawmakers....

The lawmakers want the Justice Department to share how many people have signed federal plea deals that include those waivers. For now, they're relying on a few stories of people across the country.  One 65-year-old man in Arizona fought for months to withdraw his guilty plea after realizing it included limits to his ability to seek compassionate release. In another case, in northern California, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer called the limits "unconscionable" and "inhumane."

The new directive, obtained by NPR and signed by Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, said that the majority of U.S. attorneys have not been requiring defendants to waive their rights to ask for compassionate release.  Still, she said, making the change apply nationally is important as a matter of consistency and "in the interests of justice."

"As a general matter, plea agreements should not require broad waivers of the right to file a compassionate release motion," Monaco wrote in a memo dated March 11.  Monaco added that if defendants had already entered a plea, prosecutors should "decline to enforce the waiver."  The Justice Department memo said there are "select instances" where prosecutors still may ask for a "much narrower" waiver, such as "exceptionally rare" terrorism and homicide cases.

The two-page DOJ memo to all federal prosecutors, dated March 11, 2022, is available at this link, and here is its key paragraph: 

In order to ensure a consistent practice across the Department, as well as an approach that accords with the statute, the relevant guidelines promulgated by the Sentencing Commission, and the interests of justice, the Department now issues the following guidance: As a general matter, plea agreements should not require broad waivers of the right to file a compassionate release motion under Section 3582(c)(l)(A). Specifically, prosecutors should not, as a part of a plea agreement, require defendants to waive: (1) the general right to file a compassionate release motion; (2) the right to file a second or successive such motion; or (3) the right to appeal the denial of a compassionate release.  If a defendant has already entered a plea and his or her plea agreement included a waiver provision of the type just described, prosecutors should decline to enforce the waiver.

Prior related posts:

March 13, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Some first-cut musings on US v. Wooden, the latest SCOTUS effort to make ACCA less wacky

The US Supreme Court started the past work week by handing down one opinion, a sentencing win for a federal criminal defendant in US v. Wooden, No. 20-5279 (S. Ct. March 7, 2022) (available here).  Though all nine Justices voted in favor of the defendant, there were five opinions (with Justice Kagan writing for the Court, and four concurrences).  I could rattle off a few dozen thoughts about all the opinions, but I will close out the week with just these five musings, presented roughly from the general to the specific:

1.  Sentencing at SCOTUS: By various metrics the current Supreme Court is extremely conservative, and yet every single Justice voted in favor of William Wooden on a statutory issue after a majority of circuit courts had sided with the government.  In the Blakely, Booker, Roper, Gall, Kimbrough, Graham era, I had gotten in the habit of calling SCOTUS the most pro-defendant appellate court in the nation on sentencing issues.  I no longer think that is an accurate description, but Wooden is still a very important reminder that certain sentencing issues can and will garner votes from an array of Justices across the jurisprudential spectrum.

2.  ACCA in application is ridiculous: The idea behind the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) makes sense: give longer sentences to dangerous people with guns who have a really bad criminal history.  But Wooden is also a reminder how crazy this statute functions in operation.  The actual offense behavior is largely irrelevant — William Wooden merely had a gun in his home for self protection, some have been tripped by merely possessing shotgun shells — and figuring out what criminal history triggers a 15-year mandatory minimum (as opposed to a 10-year maximum) is often a parlor game of such nonsensical semantics it would make Franz Kafka blush.

3.  Justices as magistrates with no majesty: Though a few concurrences had some flair (see below), the opinion of the Court and some others felt technocratic, resolving only this one case without having much to say about ACCA or any other issues.  Some may praise an opinion with so little majesty as a model of judicial modesty, but Justice Gorsuch's concurrence highlighted that not much really got resolved even as the Justices remained modest.  More generally, though the Wooden case implicates issues ranging from violent crimes to mandatory minimums, from Second Amendment rights to repeat offenders, few Justices wanted to do much more than parse definitions, hypos and legislative history.  Perhaps saying so little is how this case came out unanimously, but label me uninspired.

4.  Justice Kavanaugh as a mens rea maven: I have been wondering what criminal justice issues might be of particular interest and concern to Justice Kavanaugh, and his Wooden concurrence reveals he could develop into a mens rea maven.  Though his concurrence was mostly to push back against Justice Gorsuch's paean to the rule of lenity, Justice Kavanagh concludes by stressing his eagerness to "continue to vigorously apply (and where appropriate, extend) mens rea requirements" in statutory interpretation cases.  We might see more of what he means later this Term, as the pending case concerning doctors federally prosecuted for over-prescribing opioids turns on mens rea matters.  And litigants should be looking out for "appropriate" cases in which Justice Kavanaugh might be inclined to "extend" mens rea requirements.

5.  Justice Gorsuch as liberty lover: The US Constitution's preamble speaks of the document as a means to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."   William Wooden, for possessing a gun in his home with his past criminal history, was punished with liberty deprivation for 15+ years in federal prison.  Only Justice Gorsuch mentions liberty in any of the many Wooden opinions, and he does so seven times.  Here are just a few choice mentions:

I was pleased that Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Sotomayor, stressed liberty and thus brought the opinions in the Wooden case to a somewhat more satisfying end.  And I hope some of these "liberty in the face of uncertainty" sentiments find future expression in the work of many judges and Justices.

Prior related posts:

March 12, 2022 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, March 10, 2022

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report titled "Compassionate Release: The Impact of the First Step Act & COVID-19 Pandemic"

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The US Sentencing Commission indicated that is was working on a big new compassionate release report, and I am pleased to see from my email inbox that it was released today.  Here is the text about the report that was in the email I received:

The United States Sentencing Commission (“Commission”) today released a new report that examines trends in compassionate release during fiscal year 2020 in light of the enactment of the First Step Act of 2018, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer, Acting Chair of the Commission, stated “I am pleased that the Commission has issued this comprehensive report on compassionate release trends in fiscal year 2020. This report builds on the Commission’s significant work in this area, including a report on the first year of implementation of the First Step Act and the Commission’s previously released quarterly data reports analyzing motions for compassionate release.”

Acting Chair Breyer noted, “Prior to the enactment of the First Step Act, only the Director of the Bureau of Prisons could file compassionate release motions. The First Step Act enables defendants to file these motions directly in federal court after exhausting administrative requirements. These changes, coupled with the pandemic, resulted predictably in a dramatic increase in both motions for and grants of compassionate release.”

According to the report, in fiscal year 2020, courts decided 7,014 compassionate release motions, granting compassionate release to one-quarter (25.7%) of those offenders. The number of offenders granted relief increased more than twelvefold compared to 2019 — the year immediately following passage of the First Step Act. Courts cited health risks associated with COVID-19 as at least one reason for relief in 71.5% of grants.

“Unfortunately, in the intervening time between enactment of the First Step Act and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commission lost its quorum, rendering it unable to amend the compassionate release policy statement. The absence of this guidance has resulted in a lack of uniformity in how compassionate release motions are considered and applied across the country,” said Judge Breyer. The Report identified considerable variability in the application of compassionate release across the country among those offenders in the study group—ranging from a grant-rate high of 47.5% in the First Circuit to a low of 13.7% in the Fifth Circuit.

“This report underscores why it is crucial for the Commission to regain a quorum to again have the ability to address important policy issues in the criminal justice system, such as compassionate release,” added Breyer. “Nevertheless, I am proud of the extensive work the Commission did to compile this insightful data. I believe this report will provide valuable information to lawmakers, the Courts, advocacy organizations, and the American public.”

This full USSC report, available here, runs 86 pages and I hope to find time in the coming days to highlight a variety of findings from the report. The USSC has created this two-page infographic about the report with a few data highlights, and this USSC webpage provides an overview and an extended list of "key findings."

Though I am VERY excited to dig into this report and look forward to exploring what lessons these data may have for any possible revision of guidelines and practices related to compassionate release, I am a bit disappointed that this new USSC report only covers developments and data through September 2020.  Though these data capture the many developments through the first part of the COVID pandemic, there still had then not been any significant circuit rulings about the operation of compassionate release and other USSC data runs have detailed that there were an additional 10,000 motions and about 1500 addition compassionate release grants in just the six months after September 2020.  I fully understand why the USSC could not do this kind of detailed report on all cases up to the present, but everyone should not lose sight of the fact that this new report is already somewhat dated because it only captures data through September 2020.

March 10, 2022 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)

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

"Does Mens Rea Matter?"

The title of this post is the title of this fascinating new article now available via SSRN authored by Matthew Mizel, Michael Serota, Jonathan Cantor and Joshua Russell-Fritch. Here is its abstract:

Does mens rea matter to the criminal legal system?  Our study addresses this question by performing the first-ever empirical analysis of a culpable mental state’s impact on administration of a criminal statute.  We focus on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2019 decision in Rehaif v. United States, which applied a culpable knowledge requirement to the federal felon-in-possession statute, 18 U.S.C. § 922(g).  Prior to Rehaif, federal courts uniformly treated the critical objective element under 922(g) — whether a firearm or ammunition possessor meets the conditions for one of nine prohibited legal categories — as a question of fact for which an actor could be held strictly liable.  Adding a knowledge requirement to this element resulted in a significant decline in the likelihood of a defendant being charged with 922(g), the number of 922(g) charges per defendant, the total number of defendants charged with 922(g), and the total number of 922(g) charges filed each month.

We estimate that these charging reductions prevented 2,365.32 convictions and eliminated 8,419.06 years of prison sentences for 922(g) violations during the eight-month period following issuance of the Rehaif opinion.  At the same time, prosecutors were just as likely to secure convictions of those they charged with 922(g) after the Rehaif decision as they were before it.  All told, our study suggests that adding culpable mental states to criminal statutes can meaningfully constrain prosecutorial discretion, lower convictions, and reduce punishment without bringing criminal administration to a halt.

March 9, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Prosecutorial Nonenforcement and Residual Criminalization"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article on SSRN authored by Justin Murray.  Here is its abstract:

In recent years a small but influential group of locally elected prosecutors committed to criminal justice reform have openly refused to enforce various criminal laws — laws prohibiting marijuana possession, sentence enhancements, laws authorizing the death penalty, and much more — because they see those laws as unjust and incompatible with core reform objectives.  Condemned by many on the political right for allegedly usurping the legislature’s lawmaking role and praised by many on the left for bypassing dysfunctional state legislatures in favor of local solutions, these prosecutorial nonenforcement policies are commonly said to have the same effect as nullifying, or even repealing, the laws that they leave unenforced.

Yet this idea — the idea that prosecutorial nonenforcement is functionally equivalent to the nullification or repeal of statutory law — is deeply mistaken.  This Essay shows why.  It uncovers a number of underappreciated mechanisms through which criminal laws may continue to get enforced or to structure social relations despite a district attorney’s policy against enforcing them, producing what this Essay calls residual criminalization.  The Essay also explains why grappling with this phenomenon of residual criminalization can help reframe ongoing discussions concerning prosecutorial nonenforcement by, on one hand, deflating certain prominent objections to nonenforcement and, on the other hand, revealing that nonenforcement cannot by itself satisfy criminal justice reformers’ deeper aspirations.

March 9, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

With first defendant now convicted after trial, how steep might the "trial penalty" be in the Jan 6 riot cases?

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "1st trial in Capitol riot ends with conviction all counts," we now have  a new conviction in the January 6 riot cases that can perhaps reveal some of the sentencing consequences of going to trial rather than pleading guilty.  Here are the basic details:

A Texas man was convicted on Tuesday of storming the U.S. Capitol with a holstered handgun, a milestone victory for federal prosecutors in the first trial among hundreds of cases arising from last year’s riot.

A jury also convicted Guy Wesley Reffitt of interfering with police officers who were guarding the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and of obstructing justice for threatening his two teenage children if they reported him to law enforcement after the attack. Jurors deliberated about three hours and convicted him on all counts.

The verdict could be a bellwether for many other Capitol riot cases. It could give Justice Department prosecutors more leverage in plea negotiations and discourage other defendants from gambling on trials of their own. Reffitt, 49, of Wylie, Texas, didn’t testify at his trial, which started last Wednesday. He didn’t visibly react to the verdict, but his face was covered by a mask.

During the trial’s closing arguments on Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Risa Berkower told jurors that Reffitt drove to Washington, D.C., intending to stop Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s electoral victory.  Reffitt proudly “lit the fire” that allowed others in a mob to overwhelm Capitol police officers near the Senate doors, the prosecutor said.

Reffitt was not accused of entering the Capitol building.  Defense attorney William Welch said there is no evidence that Reffitt damaged property, used force or physically harmed anybody.  The defense lawyer urged jurors to acquit Reffitt of all charges but one: He said they should convict him of a misdemeanor charge that he entered and remained in a restricted area.

Reffitt faced a total of five counts: obstruction of an official proceeding, being unlawfully present on Capitol grounds while armed with a firearm, transporting firearms during a civil disorder, interfering with law enforcement officers during a civil disorder, and obstruction of justice.

Jurors saw videos that captured the confrontation between a few Capitol police officers and a mob of people, including Reffitt, who approached them on the west side of the Capitol. Reffitt was armed with a Smith & Wesson pistol in a holster on his waist, carrying zip-tie handcuffs and wearing body armor and a helmet equipped with a video camera when he advanced on police, according to prosecutors. He retreated after an officer pepper sprayed him in the face, but he waved on other rioters who ultimately breached the building, prosecutors said.

Before the crowd advanced, Reffitt used a megaphone to shout at police to step aside and to urge the mob to push forward and overtake officers. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said Reffitt played a leadership role that day. During last Friday’s testimony, prosecutors zoomed in on a video image of Reffitt at the Capitol. FBI Special Agent Laird Hightower said the image shows “a silvery metallic linear object” in a holster protruding from under Reffitt’s jacket as he leaned forward....

Reffitt’s 19-year-old son, Jackson, testified last Thursday that his father threatened him and his sister, then 16, after he drove home from Washington. Reffitt told his children they would be traitors if they reported him to authorities and said “traitors get shot,” Jackson Reffitt recalled. Jackson Reffitt, then 18, said the threat terrified him. His younger sister, Peyton, was listed as a possible government witness but didn’t testify....

More than 750 people have been charged with federal crimes related to the riot.  Over 220 of them have pleaded guilty, mostly to misdemeanors. and over 110 of them have been sentenced. Approximately 90 others have trial dates.

This AP description of Reffitt's behaviors makes him sound like a more serious offender that some of those prosecuted for Jan 6 activities. but also less serious than some others.  I will be interested to see how guideline calculations and sentencing arguments play out for Reffitt in the months ahead.

Some of many prior related posts:

March 8, 2022 in Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13)

Monday, March 07, 2022

"Plea Bargaining and Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Albert Alschuler available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The United States, which imprisons a higher proportion of its population than any other nation, is also the nation most dependent on plea bargaining.  This Article shows that plea bargaining was a major cause of mass incarceration. Bargaining not only increased the number of people sent to prison but also produced harsher sentences than would have existed in its absence.

American incarceration rates rose sharply just after the Supreme Court and the American Bar Association declared plea bargaining legitimate and beneficial. This Article shows how courts and legislatures then enhanced the power of prosecutors and how prosecutors used their power to charge more people with crimes, induce more guilty pleas, exact broader waivers of rights, and obtain more severe sentences.

March 7, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 05, 2022

"Algorithm v. Algorithm"

286-2869560_spy-vs-spy-clipart-2-by-thomas-white-spy-black-spyThe title of this post is the title of this new Duke Law Journal article authored by Cary Coglianese and Alicia Lai. Though not discussing sentencing at length, regular readers know of the many ways the algorithm debate has purchase for the criminal justice system. (In addition, the title of the article reminded me of a cartoon from my youth noted here.) Here is the abstract:

Critics raise alarm bells about governmental use of digital algorithms, charging that they are too complex, inscrutable, and prone to bias.  A realistic assessment of digital algorithms, though, must acknowledge that government is already driven by algorithms of arguably greater complexity and potential for abuse: the algorithms implicit in human decision-making.  The human brain operates algorithmically through complex neural networks.  And when humans make collective decisions, they operate via algorithms too—those reflected in legislative, judicial, and administrative processes.

Yet these human algorithms undeniably fail and are far from transparent.  On an individual level, human decision-making suffers from memory limitations, fatigue, cognitive biases, and racial prejudices, among other problems. On an organizational level, humans succumb to groupthink and free riding, along with other collective dysfunctionalities. As a result, human decisions will in some cases prove far more problematic than their digital counterparts.  Digital algorithms, such as machine learning, can improve governmental performance by facilitating outcomes that are more accurate, timely, and consistent. 

Still, when deciding whether to deploy digital algorithms to perform tasks currently completed by humans, public officials should proceed with care on a case-by-case basis.  They should consider both whether a particular use would satisfy the basic preconditions for successful machine learning and whether it would in fact lead to demonstrable improvements over the status quo.  The question about the future of public administration is not whether digital algorithms are perfect.  Rather, it is a question about what will work better: human algorithms or digital ones.

March 5, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 04, 2022

Voting 6-3, SCOTUS reinstates vacated death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its ruling in US v. Tsarnaev, No. 20-443 (S. Ct. March 4, 2022) (available here).  When the US Supreme Court back in March 2021 decided to grant cert on the federal government's appeal of the First Circuit's reversal of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's death sentence, the smart bet would have been that a majority of Justices were inclined to reinstate that death sentence.  Such a bet looked even smarter after the Supreme Court oral argument in October 2021 which revealed a predictable ideological split and strongly suggested a majority of Justices were inclined to reinstate Tsarnaev's death sentence.  Here is how Justice Thomas's opinion for the Court gets started:

On April 15, 2013, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev planted and detonated two homemade pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  The blasts hurled nails and metal debris into the assembled crowd, killing three while maiming and wounding hundreds.  Three days later, the brothers murdered a campus police officer, carjacked a graduate student, and fired on police who had located them in the stolen vehicle.  Dzhokhar attempted to flee in the vehicle but inadvertently killed Tamerlan by running him over. Dzhokhar was soon arrested and indicted.

A jury found Dzhokhar guilty of 30 federal crimes and recommended the death penalty for 6 of them. The District Court accordingly sentenced Dzhokhar to death. The Court of Appeals vacated the death sentence. We now reverse.

Justice Barrett authored a concurrence joined by Justice Gorsuch which starts this way:

In this case, the First Circuit asserted “supervisory power” to impose a procedural rule on the District Court. Because that rule (which required a district court to ask media-content questions on request in high-profile prosecutions) conflicts with our cases (which hold that a district court has broad discretion to manage jury selection), I agree with the Court that the First Circuit erred.

I write separately to note my skepticism that the courts of appeals possess such supervisory power in the first place.

Justice Breyer authored the sole dissent, which was joined by Justice Sotomayor and mostly by Justice Kagan.  It starts this way:

During the sentencing phase of his murder trial, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev argued that he should not receive the death penalty primarily on the ground that his older brother Tamerlan took the leading role and induced Dzhokhar’s participation in the bombings.  Dzhokhar argued that Tamerlan was a highly violent man, that Tamerlan radicalized him, and that Dzhokhar participated in the bombings because of Tamerlan’s violent influence and leadership.  In support of this argument, Dzhokhar sought to introduce evidence that Tamerlan previously committed three brutal, ideologically inspired murders in Waltham, Massachusetts. The District Court prohibited Dzhokhar from introducing this evidence.  The Court of Appeals held that the District Court abused its discretion by doing so. 968 F. 3d 24, 73 (CA1 2020).

This Court now reverses the Court of Appeals.  In my view, the Court of Appeals acted lawfully in holding that the District Court should have allowed Dzhokhar to introduce this evidence.

March 4, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (35)