Saturday, January 19, 2019

Former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke sentenced in state court to only 81 months for murder of Laquan McDonald

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Jason Van Dyke given relatively lenient sentence of under 7 years in prison for Laquan McDonald shooting," a high-profile killer seems to get a relative low sentence in an Illinois courtroom yesterday. Here are some of the details:

Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced Friday to nearly seven years in prison for the fatal on-duty shooting of Laquan McDonald, bringing to a close one of the most racially fraught and socially significant chapters in recent Chicago history.  Van Dyke remained stoic as Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan announced the sentence about 5:30 p.m. after a long day of often emotional testimony. Moments later, Van Dyke’s teenage daughter seated in the gallery burst into tears.

But the relatively lenient six-year, nine-month sentence for second-degree murder counts as a victory for Van Dyke, who could be out of custody in as little as three years, his attorney told reporters.  “He truly felt great,” the attorney, Daniel Herbert, said of Van Dyke. “He was not just relieved, he was happy. It’s the first time I’ve seen the guy — honestly since this whole ordeal started — where he was happy. He’s certainly not happy about going to jail. He’s certainly not happy about missing his family. But he’s happy about the prospect of life ahead of him.”

In October, Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting.  A jury found him guilty on one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet that hit McDonald’s body in October 2014 as the teen walked away from police on Pulaski Road while holding a knife. Graphic police dashboard camera footage of the shooting released more than a year later sparked weeks of chaos and political upheaval, exposing Chicago’s long-standing racial fault lines and exacerbating the already-fraught relationship between police and minority communities.

Though he had sought a sentence about three times lengthier, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told reporters in the Leighton Criminal Court Building that justice had been served. “I understand the sentence is not exactly what the McDonald and Hunter families wanted,” said McMahon, who requested a prison term of 18 to 20 years.  “But the sentence, like the verdict, does hold the defendant accountable.”...

Gaughan imposed the sentence after a daylong hearing that drew tears from witnesses on the stand and from Van Dyke himself, who sat slouched at the defense table in a bright yellow jail uniform.

While predicting his sentence would disappoint “100 percent” of those in the courtroom, Gaughan made a number of key rulings in favor of the defense. In particular, he sentenced Van Dyke only for the second-degree murder conviction, meaning he will serve just half the sentence if he qualifies for day-for-day good-behavior credit. If instead the judge had sentenced him only on the aggravated battery convictions, Van Dyke could have been subject to a lengthier term behind bars. He also would have had to serve at least 85 percent of that sentence.

In fashioning his decision, Gaughan said the law required him to consider the most serious charge for which Van Dyke was convicted. Common sense, the judge found, dictated that be second-degree murder, not aggravated battery. However, Illinois law considers aggravated battery with a gun the more serious offense of the two, carrying stiffer penalties. “Is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be shot by a firearm or is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be murdered by a firearm?” Gaughan said in explaining his reasoning.

Witnesses called by Van Dyke’s legal team at the marathon hearing said the public attention to the case has emotionally shattered his family. “My life has been a nightmare,” Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, said in a choked voice, echoing similar testimony from the former officer’s father, sister and 17-year-old daughter. “Life is torture. My heart is broken.”...

Toward the end of the hearing, Van Dyke himself stood and said the day he shot McDonald was the worst of his life. It was the first time he had ever had to fire his weapon in the line of duty, he said, bending his head down to read closely from a handwritten statement. “And I’m very proud of that fact,” he said. “… The last thing I wanted to do was to shoot Laquan McDonald.” Van Dyke said he “tried to make the right decision in a rapidly escalating, dangerous situation.”...

McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, read from the witness stand a letter he wrote from the perspective of his grand-nephew, saying McDonald’s death devastated the family. The letter said Hunter used McDonald’s last paycheck from his construction job to buy the suit the teen was buried in.

The killing came just weeks before McDonald was to begin living under the same roof again with his sister and mother, who had overcome drug addiction, he said. “I was so happy for the possibility of that day,” the letter said. “However, Jason Van Dyke … robbed us of this.”

The letter ended with a request to punish Van Dyke for McDonald’s killing, arguing that the former officer had shown no remorse for his actions that night. “What happened to me can never be changed, but other young black men and women will not have to face Jason Van Dyke and his evil and selfish ways,” the letter said. “I’m a real victim of murder and that can never be changed. Please think about me and my life when you sentence this person to prison.”

While the many civilian complaints against Van Dyke were not introduced at trial, prosecutors on Friday called four witnesses — all African-American men — who one after another painted Van Dyke as an abusive, out-of-control officer protected by inept police oversight agencies. One man said Van Dyke choked him to try to get him to spit out a cough drop during a DUI stop. Another said the officer berated him using a racial slur.  A third said Van Dyke deserved prison time simply for the “chaotic” way he handled a traffic stop.

There are so many substantive and procedural elements to this case, one could probably write an entire law review article about the importance and impact of prosecutorial and judicial discretion as it operates within a controversial high-profile case like this one.  For now, I am just inclined to spotlight notable sentencing differences between this case and the arguably comparable case involving former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager who killed Walter Scott on camera.  Van Dyke was convicted by a jury in state court of second-degree murder, and then he was sentenced by a local judge to a prison term of 81 months (with it seems the possibility of released in around 40 months).  Slager, whose sentence was just affirmed on appeal, pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges after a state jury could not reach a verdict, and then he was sentenced by a federal judge to a prison term of 240 months (with perhaps the possibility of being released in around 200 months).

Notably, I am not the only one noticing how state and federal sentencing justice can play out quite differently.  This notable new local article, headlined "Patti Blagojevich ‘speechless’ Van Dyke sentence is less than half her husband’s," begins this way:

As expected, a slew of political candidates rushed to react to the sentencing of Jason Van Dyke. And then there was Patti Blagojevich, wife of a now-disgraced and imprisoned Illinois governor.

“I am speechless,” Patti Blagojevich tweeted Friday. “A 17 year old is dead and the sentence is less than half of my husbands sentence for discussions with his staff and attorney about political fundraising.”

It could be another attempt to grab the attention of the last person who apparently can get former Gov. Rod Blagojevich out of jail early: President Donald Trump. And it comes after Patti Blagojevich last year made some other moves seemingly tailor-made to catch Trump’s eye, with an appearance on Fox News in which she slammed Obama. She also has tried to connect her husband’s case to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Former FBI Director James Comey — favorite Trump targets.

Van Dyke’s 81-month sentence means the former Chicago police officer will likely serve a little more than three years in prison after shooting the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times in 2014.

Trump himself may have gotten Patti Blagojevich’s hopes up in December, when he tweeted about another TV interview she had done with Fox News, calling her “the wonderful wife” of the imprisoned governor. Patti retweeted the president, and that was the last tweet she had sent until Friday, more than a month later.

Rod Blagojevich, serving a 14-year sentence on corruption charges, is not due out of prison until May 2024. Though an appellate court tossed five of his convictions in 2015, federal prosecutors say he remains convicted “of the same three charged shakedowns” for which he was first sentenced in 2011.

January 19, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, January 18, 2019

US Sentencing Commission releases two new documents on FIRST STEP Act

Via email, I was alerted by the US Sentencing Commission to its release of two notable new documents concerning the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is the notice I received and links:

The FIRST STEP Act of 2018 was signed into law on Dec. 21, 2018.  Today the United States Sentencing Commission published two important documents describing the implementation and impact of the new law:·       

Both documents are interesting, and here is how the FAQ gets started:

Question 1

Is the Commission making any changes to the Guidelines in response to the Act?

The Act does not contain any directives to the Commission requiring action.  As it does with all new crime legislation, the Commission will review the Act to determine whether Guideline changes might be necessary or appropriate.  Because the Act did not include “emergency amendment authority,” any changes to the Guidelines in response to the Act may only be made during the Commission’s annual amendment cycle.  (See 28 U.S.C. § 994). 

During the annual amendment cycle, the Commission must publish proposed guideline amendments and solicit public comment.  See 28 U.S.C. § 994(x). In order for an amendment to move forward after that, at least four Commissioners must vote in favor of promulgating the amendment. See 28 U.S.C. § 994(a).  Once at least four Commissioners have voted in favor, the Commission must deliver the promulgated amendment to Congress no later than May 1 for the 180-day congressional review period. See 28 U.S.C. § 994(p).  If Congress takes no action, the amendment can take effect on November 1 of that year.

The Commission has not yet published any proposed amendments responding to the Act.  The Commission currently has two voting members and thus lacks a statutory quorum to promulgate amendments.

January 18, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Impact of Risk Assessment on Judges’ Fairness in Sentencing Relatively Poor Defendants"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN authored by Jennifer Skeem, Nicholas Scurich and John Monahan.  Here is its abstract:

The increasing use of risk assessment algorithms in the criminal justice system has generated enormous controversy. Advocates emphasize that algorithms are more transparent, consistent, and accurate in predicting re-offending than judges’ unaided intuition, while skeptics worry that algorithms will increase racial and socioeconomic disparities in incarceration.  Ultimately, however, judges make decisions — not algorithms.

In the present study, real judges (n=340) with criminal sentencing experience participated in a controlled experiment to test whether the provision of risk assessment information interacts with a defendant’s socioeconomic class to influence sentencing decisions.  Results revealed that risk assessment information reduced the likelihood of incarceration for relatively affluent defendants, but the same risk assessment information increased the likelihood of incarceration for relatively poor defendants.  This finding held after controlling for the sex, race, political orientation, and jurisdiction of the judge. It appears that under some circumstances, risk assessment information can increase sentencing disparities.

January 18, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Big symposium on Lockett v. Ohio now published via University of Akron School of Law Constitutional Law Center

In this post last year I noted a call for papers by the Center for Constitutional Law at the University of Akron School of Law to commemorate the Supreme Court decision in Lockett v. Ohio, 438 U.S. 586 (1978).  I am pleased to see that the papers have now been published and are available at this link.  Here they are:

Introduction to the "Lockett v. Ohio at 40 Symposium": Rethinking the Death Penalty 40 Years After the U.S. Supreme Court Decision by Margery B. Koosed

The Other Lockett by Dennis Balske

Reflections on the Sandra Lockett Case by Peggy Cooper Davis

Justice White's Lockett Concurrence and the Evolving Standards for a Capital Defendant's Mens Rea by Jordan Berman

Lockett v. Ohio and The Rise of Mitigation Specialists by Russell Stetler

Is the Supreme Court's Command on Mitigating Circumstances a Spoonful of Sugar with a Poison Pill for the Death Penalty? by Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier

Lockett As It Was, Is Now, and Ever Shall Should Be by Karen A. Steele

Recollections on the Lockett Case in the U.S. Supreme Court by Joel Berger

Lockett v. Ohio and Its Subsequent Jurisprudence: Between Law and Politics by Cynthia Boyer

January 17, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

NY Times op-ed explores "How to Make New York as Progressive on Criminal Justice as Texas"

The New York Times this week has this notable editorial about criminal discovery that bore the provocative (and fitting) headline that I have quoted in the title of this post.  As practitioners know, these discovery issues can have a profound impact on plea practices and sentencing outcomes.  Here are excerpts:

In New York, prosecutors operate within a draconian system that gives them free rein to leave defendants in the dark about aspects of their cases for months or even years.  In cases big and small, state law authorizes prosecutors to withhold key evidence from defense lawyers and their clients until the eve or sometimes the day of trial.  Prosecutors in New York do not have a legal obligation to turn over in a timely fashion all police reports, witness names, DNA evidence, surveillance footage or anything else from their investigative files.

Though a 1963 Supreme Court decision found that prosecutors have a constitutional duty to turn over anything significant that may exonerate a defendant, that ruling has not been consistently enforced because prosecutors who flout the rule are rarely punished.  Advocates for defendants say this entrenched legal structure in New York puts a “blindfold” over the eyes of defense lawyers and their clients. And it runs up against Americans’ basic understanding of how fairness is meant to work in the legal system.

By preventing access to even the simplest information about a pending case, prosecutors thumb their noses at the presumption of innocence that is owed to every person accused of a crime.  They also run the risk of forcing the accused to make an impossible choice: Plead guilty with little to no information about their case or go to trial and risk an even harsher punishment.

New York’s law means that cases take longer to resolve, leading to backlogs; that defense lawyers are unable to advise their clients about the charges against them, let alone guide them through an often life-altering process; and that wrongful convictions can occur, in both extreme and not-so-extreme cases.

Most states, including the law-and-order bastion Texas as well as North Carolina and New Jersey, have changed their laws and procedures to allow open and early disclosure of evidence in criminal prosecutions, which has led to fairer outcomes and deterred prosecutorial abuse.  Now New York has a chance to join the mainstream on this issue....

Prosecutors defend New York’s current system not on its merits but with fearmongering, arguing that reforms will leave witnesses and victims at risk.  Disclosing the identity of a person with direct knowledge of an incident under investigation, the thinking goes, would hamper the state’s ability to protect him or her and to fight crime.

But there are sensible ways of dealing with witness safety concerns. The Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which has for decades made its evidence files readily available, shows that reform is possible.  Likewise, the states that have left the old model behind have seen no need to go back to it.  It’s time for New York lawmakers to bring the rest of the state in line with this essential notion of justice.

January 17, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

"Mens Rea Reform and Its Discontents"

The title of this post is the title of this great-looking new article authored by Benjamin Levin now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

This Article examines the debates over recent proposals for “mens rea reform.”  The substantive criminal law has expanded dramatically, and legislators have criminalized a great deal of common conduct.  Often, new criminal laws do not require that defendants know they are acting unlawfully.  Mens rea reform proposals seek to address the problems of overcriminalization and unintentional offending by increasing the burden on prosecutors to prove a defendant’s culpable mental state.  These proposals have been a staple of conservative-backed bills on criminal justice reform. Many on the left remain skeptical of mens rea reform and view it as a deregulatory vehicle purely designed to protect defendants accused of financial or environmental crimes.

Rather than advocating for or against such proposals, this Article argues that opposition to mens rea reform should trouble scholars and activists who are broadly committed to criminal justice reform.  Specifically, I argue that the opposition demonstrates three particular pathologies of the U.S. criminal system and U.S. criminal justice reform: (1) an overreliance on criminal law as a vehicle for addressing social problems; (2) the instinct to equalize or level up — when faced with inequality, many commentators frequently argue that the privileged defendant should be treated as poorly as the disadvantaged defendant, rather than using the privileged defendant’s treatment as a model; and (3) the temptation for mass incarceration critics to make exceptions and support harsh treatment for particularly unsympathetic defendants.  Ultimately, this Article argues that achieving sweeping and transformative criminal justice reform will require overcoming the three pathologies.

January 16, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Via distinctive 5-4 vote, SCOTUS concludes Florida robbery satisfies "physical force" requirement as Armed Career Criminal Act predicate

In this post last year, I asked "At just what level of Dante's Inferno does modern ACCA jurisprudence reside?".  This cheeky question flows from the challenges and frustrations that surround trying to figure out which prior convictions do and do not serve as predicates for application of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act's 15-year mandatory minimum term.  And today the Supreme Court added still more color to its modern ACCA jurisprudence by handing down its decision in Stokeling v. US, No. 17-5554 (S. Ct. Jan. 15, 2018) (available here).  Here is how the majority opinion in Stokeling, authored by Justice Thomas, gets started:

This case requires us to decide whether a robbery offense that has as an element the use of force sufficient to overcome a victim’s resistance necessitates the use of “physical force” within the meaning of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2)(B)(i).  We conclude that it does.

Here is how the sole dissenting opinion in Stokeling, authored by Justice Sotomayor, gets started:

In Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133 (2010), this Court ruled that the words “physical force” in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U. S. C. §924(e)(2), denote a heightened degree of force, rather than the minimal contact that would have qualified as “force” for purposes of the common-law crime of battery.  Id., at 139–140.  This case asks whether Florida robbery requires such “physical force,” and thus qualifies as a “violent felony” under the ACCA, even though it can be committed through use of only slight force. See §924(e)(2)(B).  Under Johnson, the answer to that question is no.  Because the Court’s contrary ruling distorts Johnson, I respectfully dissent.

Among the reasons ACCA jurisprudence looks like a hellscape to me is that the 2010 Johnson case being debated in this ACCA case is different from the 2015 Johnson case that declared part of ACCA unconstitutionally vague.  (In The Good Place there are lots of Janets; in the ACCA bad place, it seems, there are lots of Johnsons.)

I may have more to say about the substance of the opinions in Stokeling in a future post, but for now I will conclude my highlight the unique line-up of Justices in the 5-4 split of votes:

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BREYER, ALITO, GORSUCH, and KAVANAUGH, JJ., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and GINSBURG and KAGAN, JJ., joined

Because Justice Kavanaugh is new to the mix, it is not saying much to say this is the first time this group of Justices have come together this way.  But I cannot recall many cases in which the Chief Justice was a fourth vote for a criminal defendant but Justice Breyer served as the key fifth vote for the government.  Interesting times.

January 15, 2019 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Supreme Court adds three (little?) criminal cases to its docket

The US Supreme Court this afternoon released this order list in which the Court granted certiorari in eight new cases.  Three of these cases are criminal justice matters, and here are the basics with a big assist from SCOTUSblog:

Quarles v. United States, No. 17-778

Issue: Whether Taylor v. United States’ definition of generic burglary requires proof that intent to commit a crime was present at the time of unlawful entry or first unlawful remaining, as two circuits hold; or whether it is enough that the defendant formed the intent to commit a crime at any time while “remaining in” the building or structure, as the court below and three other circuits hold.

Rehaif v. United States, No. 17-9560

Issue: Whether the “knowingly” provision of 18 U.S.C. § 924(a)(2) applies to both the possession and status elements of a § 922(g) crime, or whether it applies only to the possession element.

Mitchell v. Wisconsin, No. 18-6210

Issue: Whether a statute authorizing a blood draw from an unconscious motorist provides an exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.

Quarles is the only true sentencing case of this bunch, but the other two strike me as much more interesting.  But none of this group seems likely to be a blockbuster ruling.

January 11, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Are there constitutional (and ethical) issues raised by allowing the family of murder victims to hire lawyers to assist prosecutors as "associate attorneys" in capital prosecution?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this very interesting local article from Kansas headlined "Despite doubts, judge allows private prosecutors in case of two slain deputies."  Here is the story, with one particular line emphasized:

Over the objections of defense lawyers, and despite his own misgivings, a Wyandotte County judge said Wednesday he must allow private attorneys to assist in the prosecution of a man charged with killing two sheriff’s deputies.

Antoine Fielder, 30, is charged with capital murder in the fatal shooting last June of Wyandotte County deputies Theresa King and Patrick Rohrer as they were escorting him back to jail after a court hearing in a robbery case.

Under Kansas law, crime victims can pay for lawyers to assist prosecutors as “associate attorneys,” and the families of Rohrer and King have hired married law partners Tom Bath and Tricia Bath.

Because Fielder faces a possible death sentence, he is being represented by attorneys from the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit, who objected to what they termed “interference” in the case.

They argued that the Kansas law that allows the hiring of private attorneys to assist in criminal prosecutions has never been used in a death penalty case. They said it raises “novel constitutional, statutory and ethical issues.”

“Counsel for Mr. Fielder is not aware of any direct authority addressing the constitutionality of private prosecutions in obtaining sentences of death,” the defense said in court documents.

In their written response to the defense objections, the Baths noted that the Kansas Supreme Court has upheld the idea of crime victims hiring private attorneys in numerous cases. And while it has never been used in a capital case, there is nothing in the law that excludes it.

At a court hearing Wednesday, defense attorney Jeff Dazey noted that the law has been on the books in Kansas since the early 20th century, “long before the modern era of the death penalty.”

A spokesman for Wyandotte County District Attorney Mark Dupree said he had met with the Baths before they entered the case and had no objection to their participation.

At Wednesday’s hearing, Tricia Bath said they would be operating under the direction of Dupree’s office. She noted that both she and Tom Bath have represented defendants in death penalty cases and are familiar with the rules and ethical requirements for attorneys in death penalty cases.  “The law is clear,” she argued. “We get to be here and the victims get to have an official representative here.”

District Judge Bill Klapper said that, while he finds the inclusion of private associate prosecutors in the case “inherently problematic,” he is bound by Kansas law that mandates they “shall” be allowed. The judge did order that the Baths will not have any role in the case until after the Feb. 1 preliminary hearing.

The constitutionality of victims have a say and a role in various criminal justice proceedings is well established, and I am generally supportive of victim's being allowed to retain a lawyer to help them preserve and exercise their rights in various ways. But one reason I support victim involvement in criminal prosecution is because, if they have independent rights in the process, they can and should often serve as another kind of check on the power of the state (by, for example, advocating for a sentence lower or just different than what prosecutors seek). But here it seems that the victims' lawyers are not going to be an independent voice and advocate for the victims, but rather will be "operating under the direction" of the District Attorney. That does not seem quite right, and arguably raises some unique constitutional and ethical concerns.

January 11, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

"The Accuracy, Equity, and Jurisprudence of Criminal Risk Assessment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper on SSRN authored by Sharad Goel, Ravi Shroff, Jennifer Skeem and Christopher Slobogin.  Here is its abstract:

Jurisdictions across the country, including the federal government through its recently enacted First Step Act, have begun using statistical algorithms (also called “instruments”) to help determine an arrestee’s or an offender’s risk of reoffending.  These risk assessment instruments (RAIs) might be used at a number of points in the criminal process, including at the front-end by judges to impose a sentence after conviction, at the back-end by parole boards to make decisions about prison release, or in between these two points by correctional authorities determining the optimal security and service arrangements for an offender.  At the pretrial stage, RAIs might come into play at the time of the bail or pretrial detention determination by a judge, which usually takes place shortly after arrest.  The increased use of RAIs in the criminal justice system has given rise to several criticisms.  RAIs are said to be no more accurate than clinical assessments, racially biased, lacking in transparency and, because of their quantitative nature, dehumanizing.  This chapter critically examines a number of these concerns. It also highlights how the law has, and should, respond to these issues.

January 9, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spotlighting problems with immediate application of expanded good time credit in the FIRST STEP Act

This new Reuters article, headlined "Error in U.S. prisons law means well-behaved inmates wait longer for release," reports on what appears to be a significant drafting hiccup in the expansion of good time credits through the FIRST STEP Act. Here are the details:

U.S. prisoners who were expecting earlier release for good behavior, thanks to a new criminal justice law enacted last month, must keep waiting due to an error in the bill, said activists working with the White House to fix the mistake.

Potentially thousands of inmates could be affected by the error in the First Step Act, signed into law on Dec. 21 by Republican President Donald Trump in a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington, with both Democrats and Republicans backing it.

The law required the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons (BOP), among other measures, to retroactively recalculate good behavior credits, a step that had been expected to reduce some inmates’ sentences by as many as 54 days per year. Previously, inmates could only earn up to 47 days per year toward early release for good behavior.

Advocates of the law expected the bill’s enactment into law meant that several thousand inmates would get their freedom right away, in time for the 2018 holiday season. But a drafting error in the language of the law has prevented the Justice Department from immediately applying the new method of calculating good-behavior credits, they said.

“You have thousands of families who thought the day this bill passed, their loved ones’ sentence was going to be recalculated and they were going to walk out of their halfway house, their home confinement ... or leave prison,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “It’s a frustrating mistake,” Ring said.

Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department is analyzing changes for the law and plans to “carry out all necessary steps.”

Reuters has seen a letter sent to inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution Coleman, a federal prison in Florida, in which officials acknowledged the new good-behavior credits would not take effect yet. “The law will allow BOP in the future to apply 54 days of credit for every year a sentence was imposed, which is a change to the prior law,” the letter says. “While this change may result in additional credit for inmates in the future, it is not effective immediately nor is it applicable to all inmates,” it says....

Activists said the law, as drafted, confused good-behavior credits, which reduce a sentence, with earned-time credits, which do not. Earned-time credits allow certain inmates to qualify for early transfer to halfway houses. The law also mistakenly said that new rules on good-behavior credits could not kick in until BOP finishes a risk-assessment process for deciding which inmates can get earned-time credits.

Whether the error can be promptly fixed was unclear. A federal judge in Chicago on Jan. 3 denied a prisoner’s request to be released earlier for good behavior, citing the letter of the law. “This court is not unsympathetic to the apparent inequity of petitioner’s situation,” wrote U.S. District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman. “This court, however, is obligated to apply the law as it is written.”

Several activists for prisoners told Reuters their groups are working with the White House on whether the Justice Department can find a work-around or if a legislative fix needs to be tucked into a broader spending bill for action by Congress. Ring said his group is also in talks with lawmakers.

The error comes at a difficult time, with the federal government in a partial shutdown. The Justice Department is one of several agencies partially closed because its funding ran out on Dec. 22 and has not been renewed by Congress.

As I understand this problem, it flows from the fact that the enacted version of the FIRST STEP Act has the expanded good time credits provision tucked within sections of the Act which is said to be effective only when the Attorney General has created "a risk and needs assessment system" that the AG has 210 days to develop.  This placement leads to the view that the expanded good time credits cannot be applied until the risk and needs assessment system gets developed later in 2019.  I am not sure that is the only plausible reading of these provisions of the FIRST STEP Act, but it sounds as though this is the reading now being adopted by the Bureau of Prisons (and maybe some courts).  Such a reading would seem to mean prisoners will not get the benefit of expanded good time credits until at least July 2019.

The expanded good time credits provided by the FIRST STEP Act only amount to an additional week off a sentence for every year served.  So even for those prisoners clearly impacted by this problem, this temporary snafu may only mean a few more week or months in custody before release.  But for prisoners and their families hoping to see freedom a few weeks or months earlier in 2019, this really stinks.

January 9, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Fourth Circuit affirms officer Michael Slager "conviction" (by a judge at sentencing) of murdering Walter Scott

I noted in posts here and here back in December 2017 that, after the high-profile shooting and then state and federal prosecutions of former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager for killing Walter Scott, the real action in his case became a federal sentencing "trial" after Slager pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights offense.  This "trial" was really a judicial inquisition in which a federal sentencing judge took testimony at a sentencing hearing in order to decide whether Slager's crime was "really" second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter for purposes of calculating the appropriate guideline range.  

Notably, the presentence report in Slager's case suggested a prison term of between 10 and 13 years based on the conclusion that his crime should be viewed as voluntary manslaughter (and his defense attorneys requested an even lower sentence).  But federal prosecutors successfully argued that the district court should, after applying the guidelines for second-degree murder and obstruction of justice, impose a prison sentence for Slager within an enhanced guideline range of roughly 17 to 22 years of imprisonment.  The judge, after a multi-day hearing, "convicted" Slager of second-degree murder and ultimately imposed a 20-year prison term.  Yesterday the Fourth Circuit affirmed the sentence in US v. Slager, No. 18-4036 (4th Cir. Jan 8, 2019) (available here). Here is how that opinion gets started and a passage from the heart of the opinion:

Defendant Michael Slager (“Defendant”), a former officer with the North Charleston Police Department, admitted that he “willfully” shot and killed Walter Scott (“Scott”), when Scott was unarmed and fleeing arrest.  Defendant further admitted that his decision to shoot Scott was “objectively unreasonable.”  Based on those admissions, Defendant pleaded guilty to depriving Scott of his civil rights under color of law.  The district court sentenced Defendant to a 240-month term of imprisonment.  Before this Court, Defendant argues that the district court reversibly erred in setting his sentence by: (1) using second-degree murder as the sentencing cross-reference for his offense rather than voluntary manslaughter, and (2) applying a two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice.  Finding no reversible error, we affirm Defendant’s sentence....

“When sentencing courts engage in fact finding, preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard of proof.” United States v. Span, 789 F.3d 320, 334 (4th Cir. 2015) (citations and alterations omitted). We “will not reverse a lower court’s findings of fact simply because we would have decided the case differently.” Id. (quoting Easley v. Cromartie, 532 U.S. 234, 242 (2001)).  Instead, clear error exists only when “the reviewing court on the entire evidence is left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” Id. (quoting Easley, 532 U.S. at 242)....

Because Santana’s video does not capture the entirety of the disputed period, the court based many of its factual findings on its assessment of the credibility of the two testifying eyewitnesses to the encounter: Defendant and Santana.  Examining at length each of Defendant’s four accounts of the encounter, the court discredited Defendant’s testimony as “contradictory,” “self-serving, evolving, and internally inconsistent.” Slager, 2018 WL 445497, at *4–6.  The record amply supports that credibility determination....

In conclusion, the district court did not reversibly err by inferring Defendant’s malice from the facts it found credible. Moreover, the court did not reversibly err by determining that Defendant’s malice was not negated by “sudden quarrel or heat of passion.” Accordingly, the court properly cross-referenced second-degree murder.

I take no issue with the substantive conclusions of the courts here, but I still always find it jarring when district judges at sentencing are resolving factual disputes and reaching judgments about criminal behavior that have long traditionally been classic jury issues. But, thanks to the remedial opinion in Booker, these matters can still be resolved by judges at sentencing because their findings result in only advisory recommendations rather than sentencing mandates.

Prior related posts:

January 9, 2019 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Florida Supreme Court confirms Sixth Amendment rights still of sentencing consequence

Though decided a few weeks ago, I just recently saw the notable Florida Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Florida, No. SC18-323 (Fla. Dec. 20, 2018) (available here). Here is how it begins:

We review the Fifth District Court of Appeal’s decision in Brown v. State, 233 So. 3d 1262 (Fla. 5th DCA 2017). In Brown, the Fifth District expressly declared valid section 775.082(10), Florida Statutes (2015), which requires that a qualifying offender whose sentencing scoresheet totals 22 points or fewer be sentenced to a nonstate prison sanction unless the trial court makes written findings that a nonstate prison sanction could present a danger to the public. We have jurisdiction.  See art. V, § 3(b)(3), Fla. Const. As explained below, because subsection (10) requires the court, not the jury, to find the fact of dangerousness to the public that is necessary to increase the statutory maximum nonstate prison sanction, we hold that subsection (10) violates the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and quash the Fifth District’s decision.

And here is a key part of the court's analysis:

We agree with Brown that subsection (10) unambiguously sets the statutory maximum penalty, for Apprendi purposes as defined by Blakely, as “a nonstate prison sanction,” § 775.082(10), Fla. Stat., for her and similarly situated offenders. This is because, absent a factual finding of “dangerousness to the public” — a finding not reflected in the jury’s verdict on the theft charge — the statute plainly states that “the court must sentence the offender to a nonstate prison sanction,” id. (emphasis added), given the crime charged and Brown’s criminal history as reflected on her criminal punishment code scoresheet.  Although it would have been possible for the Legislature to have written this statute as a “mitigation statute,” giving the court discretion to impose up to five years unless the defendant proved non-dangerousness, the Legislature did not do so. We read statutes as they are written.

Accordingly, we hold that subsection (10) violates the Sixth Amendment in light of Apprendi and Blakely based on its plain language requiring the court, not the jury, to find the fact of dangerousness to the public necessary to increase the statutory maximum nonstate prison sanction.

January 8, 2019 in Blakely in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spotlighting criminal-justice debt and its profound impact on the poorest Americans

The New York Times magazine has this lengthy new article about criminal justice debt under this full headline: "How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor: In many parts of America, like Corinth, Miss., judges are locking up defendants who can’t pay — sometimes for months at a time." I recommend the piece in full, and here is a snippet:

No government agency comprehensively tracks the extent of criminal-justice debt owed by poor defendants, but experts estimate that those fines and fees total tens of billions of dollars.  That number is likely to grow in coming years, and significantly: National Public Radio, in a survey conducted with the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Center for State Courts, found that 48 states increased their civil and criminal court fees from 2010 to 2014.  And because wealthy and middle-class Americans can typically afford either the initial fee or the services of an attorney, it will be the poor who shoulder the bulk of the burden....

In areas hit by recession or falling tax revenue, fines and fees help pay the bills.  (The costs of housing and feeding inmates can be subsidized by the state.)  As the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an advocacy organization based in New York, has documented, financial penalties on the poor are now a leading source of revenue for municipalities around the country.  In Alabama, for example, the Southern Poverty Law Center took up the case of a woman who was jailed for missing a court date related to an unpaid utility bill.  In Oregon, courts have issued hefty fines to the parents of truant schoolchildren. Many counties around the country engage in civil forfeiture, the seizure of vehicles and cash from people suspected (but not necessarily proven in court) of having broken the law.  In Louisiana, pretrial diversion laws empower the police to offer traffic offenders a choice: Pay up quickly, and the ticket won’t go on your record; fight the ticket in court, and you’ll face additional fees.

“What we’ve seen in our research is that the mechanisms vary, depending on the region,” says Joanna Weiss, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.  “But they have one thing in common: They use the justice system to wring revenue out of the poorest Americans — the people who can afford it the least.”  Aside from taxes, she says, “criminal-justice debt is now a de facto way of funding a lot of American cities.”

The jailing of poor defendants who cannot pay fines — a particularly insidious version of this revenue machine — has been ruled unconstitutional since a trio of Supreme Court cases spanning the 1970s and early 1980s....  Still, decades after those cases were decided, the practice of jailing people who cannot pay persists, not least because Supreme Court decisions do not always make their way to local courts.  “Precedent is one thing,” says Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of Civil Rights Corps, a Washington-based nonprofit.  “The way a law is written is one thing. The way a law is actually experienced by poor people and people of color is another.”...

In 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union detailed evidence of what it calls “modern-day ‘debtors’ prisons’ ” — essentially, courts operating in the same way as Judge Ross’s in Corinth — in Georgia, Michigan, Louisiana, Ohio and Washington State.  “If you spent a few weeks driving from coast to coast, you might not find similar policies in place in every single county,” Sam Brooke, the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s economic-justice program, told me.  “But every other county? Probably.  This is a massive problem, and it’s not confined to the South.  It’s national.”...

In recent years, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other organizations, including the A.C.L.U. and Karakatsanis’s Civil Rights Corps, have been filing class-action lawsuits against dozens of courts across the South and Midwest and West, arguing that local courts, in jailing indigent defendants, are violating the Supreme Court rulings laid down in Williams, Tate and Bearden.  The lawsuits work: As a settlement is negotiated, a judge typically agrees to stop jailing new inmates for unpaid fines or fees.  “No one wants to admit they’ve knowingly acted in this manner,” says Brooke, who partnered with Karakatsanis on lawsuits in Alabama and filed several elsewhere in the South. “So they tend to settle quickly.” The trouble is locating the offending courts.

January 8, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 07, 2019

Purported SCOTUS originalists and liberals, showing yet again that they are faint-hearted, refuse to consider extending jury trial rights to restitution punishments

I noted in this post the array of per curiam rulings and statements that the Supreme Court released today to get 2019 off to an interesting criminal justice start.  Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that one particular decision, namely the decision to deny certiorari in Hester v. US, has me revved up.  Hester involves a claim that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right recognized in Apprendi, Blakely, Booker and Southern Union is applicable to cases in which findings are essential for the imposition of criminal restitution.  Dissenting from the denial of cert in a this lovely little opinion, Justice Gorsuch explains why this is only logical and is consistent with an originalist approach to the Constitution:

[T]he government argues that the Sixth Amendment doesn’t apply to restitution orders because the amount of restitution is dictated only by the extent of the victim’s loss and thus has no “statutory maximum.”  But the government’s argument misunderstands the teaching of our cases.  We’ve used the term “statutory maximum” to refer to the harshest sentence the law allows a court to impose based on facts a jury has found or the defendant has admitted.  Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 303 (2004).  In that sense, the statutory maximum for restitution is usually zero, because a court can’t award any restitution without finding additional facts about the victim’s loss.  And just as a jury must find any facts necessary to authorize a steeper prison sentence or fine, it would seem to follow that a jury must find any facts necessary to support a (nonzero) restitution order.

The government is not without a backup argument, but it appears to bear problems of its own.  The government suggests that the Sixth Amendment doesn’t apply to restitution orders because restitution isn’t a criminal penalty, only a civil remedy that “compensates victims for [their] economic losses.”  Brief in Opposition 8 (internal quotation marks omitted).  But the Sixth Amendment’s jury trial right expressly applies “[i]n all criminal prosecutions,” and the government concedes that “restitution is imposed as part of a defendant’s criminal conviction.”  Ibid.  Federal statutes, too, describe restitution as a “penalty” imposed on the defendant as part of his criminal sentence, as do our cases.  18 U.S.C. §§ 3663(a)(1)(A), 3663A(a)(1), 3572(d)(1); see Paroline v. United States, 572 U.S. 434, 456 (2014); Pasquantino v. United States, 544 U.S. 349, 365 (2005).  Besides, if restitution really fell beyond the reach of the Sixth Amendment’s protections in criminal prosecutions, we would then have to consider the Seventh Amendment and its independent protection of the right to a jury trial in civil cases.

If the government’s arguments appear less than convincing, maybe it’s because they’re difficult to reconcile with the Constitution’s original meaning.  The Sixth Amendment was understood as preserving the “‘historical role of the jury at common law.’” Southern Union, 567 U. S., at 353.  And as long ago as the time of Henry VIII, an English statute entitling victims to the restitution of stolen goods allowed courts to order the return only of those goods mentioned in the indictment and found stolen by a jury.  1 J. Chitty, Criminal Law 817–820 (2d ed. 1816); 1 M. Hale, Pleas of the Crown 545 (1736).  In America, too, courts held that in prosecutions for larceny, the jury usually had to find the value of the stolen property before restitution to the victim could be ordered.  See, e.g., Schoonover v. State, 17 Ohio St. 294 (1867); Jones v. State, 13 Ala. 153 (1848); State v. Somerville, 21 Me. 20 (1842); Commonwealth v. Smith, 1 Mass. 245 (1804).  See also Barta, Guarding the Rights of the Accused and Accuser: The Jury’s Role in Awarding Criminal Restitution Under the Sixth Amendment, 51 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 463, 472–476 (2014).  And it’s hard to see why the right to a jury trial should mean less to the people today than it did to those at the time of the Sixth and Seventh Amendments’ adoption.

Students of the Apprendi-Blakely line of cases have long known that there were not very good arguments to preclude the application of jury trial rights to criminal restitution awards, and those arguments got even weaker when the Supreme Court ruled in Southern Union that the jury trial right also applied to findings needed to impose criminal fines.  And notably, Southern Union was a 6-3 ruling with only the traditional Apprendi haters, Justices Alito, Breyer and Kennedy, in dissent.

So why does the jury trial still mean less to the people today facing restitution punishments than it did to those at the time of the Sixth and Seventh Amendments’ adoption?  The only answer I can provide is hinted in the title of post.  Supposed SCOTUS originalists like Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh apparently do not want to here follow originalist principles to what would appear to be their logical conclusion.  Supposed SCOTUS liberals like Justices Ginsburg and Kagan do not want to here protect a certain type of right of a certain type of criminal defendant. (Justice Sotomayor, who never shrinks from following constitutional rights wherever she thinks they must extend, joined Justice Gorsuch's dissent here). 

When push comes to shove — or rather, when criminal defendants make a serious claim that a serious constitutional right should be given serious meaning — still too many justices seem to become faint-hearted in the application of their purported principles and commitments.  Drat. 

January 7, 2019 in Blakely in the Supreme Court, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Supreme Court order list full of (state-friendly) criminal justice per curiams and notable cert denial with statements

The Supreme Court is full back in action for the New Year, beginning with this new long order list with the always-expected long list of denials of certiorari and denials of rehearing. But the list also includes these two notable per curiam rulings:

City of Escondido v. Emmons, No. 17-1660, which summarily reverses/vacates a Ninth Circuit ruling that two officers were not entitled to qualified immunity in a excessive force case.

Shoop v. Hill, No. 18-56, which summarily vacates a Sixth Circuit ruling that an Ohio capital defendant was entitled to habeas relief because the state courts misapplied precedents concerning an Eighth Amendment intellectual disability claim.

In addition, the SCOTUS order list includes these two cert denials that prompted notable statements from the Justices:

Hester v. US, No. 17-9082, concerned whether the Sixth Amendment requires jury findings in support of restitution orders and Justice Alito issued a concurrence in the cert denial, largely in response to Justice Gorsuch's extended dissent which was joined by Justice Sotomayor.

Lance v. Sellers, No. 17-1382, concerned a Georgia capital defendant's claim that his lawyer was constitutionally ineffective and Justice Sotomayor issued a lengthy dissent from the cert denial which was joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan.

In a separate post, I may have more to say about some of these rulings, particularly Justice Gorsuch's dissenting opinion in Hester.

UPDATE:  I now do have a new post on the Hester case here under the title "Purported SCOTUS originalists and liberals, showing yet again that they are faint-hearted, refuse to consider extending jury trial rights to restitution punishments."  And Amy Howe here at SCOTUSblog has a review of all the action today in the first big SCOTUS order list for 2019.

January 7, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Two helpful reviews of the FIRST STEP Act and what it does (and does not do)

I have seen two recent reviews of the politics, policy, practicalities and potential of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are links to the two helpful pieces, with a small excerpt from each:

From the Brennan Center, "How the FIRST STEP Act Became Law — and What Happens Next"

The FIRST STEP Act changes the conversation on mass incarceration

The FIRST STEP Act is a critical win in the fight to reduce mass incarceration. While the bill is hardly a panacea, it’s the largest step the federal government has taken to reduce the number of people in federal custody. (The federal government remains the nation’s leading incarcerator, and more people are under the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons than any single state system.)

The FIRST STEP Act’s overwhelming passage demonstrates that the bipartisan movement to reduce mass incarceration remains strong. And the bill, which retains major parts of SRCA’s sentencing reform provisions, is now known as “Trump’s criminal justice bill.” This means that conservatives seeking to curry favor with the president can openly follow his example or push for even bolder reforms. Finally, this dynamic creates a unique opening for Democrats vying for the White House in 2020 to offer even better solutions to end mass incarceration.

From FAMM, "Frequently Asked Questions on the First Step Act, S. 756"

Q20: What does the First Step Act do to improve compassionate release?

A: The First Step Act makes a number of important reforms to how the BOP handles compassionate release requests.  The Act requires increased notification to prisoners on the availability of compassionate release and their eligibility for it.  It will also require the BOP to expedite the application review process for terminally ill prisoners and make sure that families are notified of a person’s terminal illness and given a chance to visit that person quickly.

Most significantly, the First Step Act gives federal prisoners the ability to petition directly to the sentencing court for compassionate release in the event that the BOP has waited more than 30 days to respond to a petition or the federal prisoner has been denied compassionate release after exhausting all administrative remedies at the BOP.

January 6, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 04, 2019

Supreme Court grants cert on vagueness challenges to 924(c) provision in wake of Johnson and Dimaya

As detailed in this new order list, the US Supreme Court today granted certiorari in a number of new cases.  The cases involving Maryland and North Carolina partisan-gerrymandering are sure to get the most attention, but criminal law fans should be excited about the grant in US v. Davis, No. 18-431, in which the feds petitioned for review of this question:

Whether the subsection-specific definition of “crime of violence” in 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(3)(B), which applies only in the limited context of a federal criminal prosecution for possessing, using, or carrying a firearm in connection with acts comprising such a crime, is unconstitutionally vague

This paragraph from the government's petition for cert explains why and how federal prosecutors are eager to distinguish the statutory provision at issue in this case from those struck down in Sessions v. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. 1204 (2018) and Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015):

Although the government has previously advocated an ordinary-case categorical approach to the determination whether an offense constitutes a “crime of violence” under Section 924(c)(3)(B), nothing in the statute or the decisions of this Court requires such an approach.  Section 924(c)(3)(B)’s subsection-specific “crime of violence” definition is applicable only to the conduct for which the defendant is currently being prosecuted, not to any conduct for which the defendant may have been convicted in the past.  It can naturally be read as inviting a case-specific determination as to whether that currently at issue conduct — not the hypothetical conduct of an “ordinary case” — satisfies the substantial-risk test in 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(3)(B).  And, so construed, Section 924(c)(3)(B) does not implicate the constitutional infirmity with the ordinary-case approach that was identified in Dimaya and Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551, 2561 (2015).  Indeed, the Court in those cases “d[id] not doubt” that such a case-specific approach, involving a jury finding beyond a reasonable doubt about the “real-world conduct” proved in the case, would be fully constitutional.  Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. at 1215 (quoting Johnson, 135 S. Ct. at 2561).

Got that? Simple stuff here, and simply fascinating to think about whether the Dimaya five (perhaps joined by the new guy) could be prepared to continue its vagueness movement through the bowels of federal law.

January 4, 2019 in Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Vagueness in Johnson and thereafter | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Noting the notable "new crop of reform-minded prosecutors"

Though I do not expect a new wave of progressive prosecutors to radically change American criminal justice system, I do hope they can and will be important contributor to whole new conceptions of how to approach crime and punishment in the USA.  This new AP piece talks about some of the notable new folks taking office this year, and here are excerpts:

To get elected as a district attorney, sounding tough on crime used to be the most effective campaign strategy. But in recent years, district attorneys have been winning elections by sounding big on reform.

Next month, at least eight new reform-minded prosecutors will take office in cities around the country after winning their local elections by promising to be more compassionate toward drug addicts and more evenhanded in the treatment of minorities. Some won their races against long odds and deeply entrenched tough-on-crime attitudes.

In Chesterfield County, Virginia, a Democratic defense attorney who promised to eliminate cash bonds for nonviolent offenders won a traditionally conservative district held by a Republican for 30 years.

In Massachusetts, a lawyer who pledged to stop prosecuting a list of more than a dozen nonviolent crimes became the first African-American woman to win the district attorney’s office in Suffolk County, a district that includes Boston.

And in Dallas County, Texas, former Judge John Creuzot won after promising to reduce incarceration rates by 15 percent to 20 percent and to treat drug crimes as a public health issue. “Justice is HEART work” was part of his campaign slogan.

For decades, that kind of mantra by someone running for district attorney would have been seen as soft on crime and a turnoff for many voters. But a shift began in some communities several years ago when candidates began tapping into public frustration over high incarceration rates, disparate treatment of minorities, and the decades-old war on drugs....

This new crop of prosecuting attorneys is facing resistance to proposals for sweeping reforms, mainly from police and prosecutors in their own offices who are accustomed to decades-old policies of locking up defendants as long as possible....

Rachael Rollins, who won the District Attorney’s seat in Boston, raised the ire of everyone from police to retail store owners when she promised to stop prosecuting crimes such as shoplifting, resisting arrest, larceny under $250, drug possession and trespassing. She pledged to dismiss the cases or require offenders to do community service or complete education programs. “Accountability does not necessarily have to equal incarceration,” Rollins said. “There are many different tools we can use to hold people accountable.”

Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney and public defender in Philadelphia, won a longshot bid for the District Attorney’s office in 2017. During his first year in office, Krasner has let go about 30 assistant prosecutors — 10 percent of the 300 lawyers in his office — and made it mandatory that he personally has to approve any plea deal that calls for more than 15 to 30 years in prison.

One of the challenges he’s faced and the newly elected DAs will likely face is an institutionalized belief that prosecutors should always seek the most serious charge and longest sentence possible. “I think resistance comes in many forms,” Krasner said. “There’s definitely a resistance that comes from the court system itself.”

Many of the new prosecutors have pledged to treat drug cases less like crimes and more like a public health problem. Scott Miles, a longtime defense attorney, won the Commonwealth’s Attorney job in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond, Virginia, after promising to reduce felony drug offenses to misdemeanors in simple possession cases. Miles promised to “replace our outdated war-on-drugs approach to addiction.”

Kevin Carroll, president of the Chesterfield Fraternal Order of Police, said he is concerned that Miles will go too easy on drug offenders who often commit other crimes to support their habit. “If you’re not going to get in trouble for it, what’s the fear?” he said. “The truth of the matter is, unfortunately, for a lot of the people who are addicted to drugs, their ability to understand the difference between right and wrong is compromised. The fact is they’ll do what they need to do to get the drugs, and if they have to steal, they’ll steal.”

Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the new batch of reform-minded prosecutors represents a shift in the public’s attitude toward the criminal justice system. “It’s a little hard to say whether this reflects a massive sea change,” Lang said. “But I do think that this reflects an increase in awareness on the public’s part of the civil rights crisis we have found ourselves in as a result of overpolicing and mass incarceration over the past 50 years.”

January 2, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, December 28, 2018

"Predictions of Dangerousness in Sentencing: Déjà Vu All Over Again"

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

Predictions of dangerousness are more often wrong than right, use information they shouldn’t, and disproportionately damage minority offenders.  Forty years ago, two-thirds of people predicted to be violent were not.  For every two “true positives,” there were four “false positives.”  Contemporary technology is little better: at best, three false positives for every two true positives.  The best-informed specialists say that accuracy topped out a decade ago; further improvement is unlikely. 

All prediction instruments use ethically unjustifiable information.  Most include variables such as youth and gender that are as unjust as race or eye color would be.  No one can justly be blamed for being blue-eyed, young, male, or dark-skinned.  All prediction instruments incorporate socioeconomic status variables that cause black, other minority, and disadvantaged offenders to be treated more harshly than white and privileged offenders.  All use criminal history variables that are inflated for black and other minority offenders by deliberate and implicit bias, racially disparate practices, profiling, and drug law enforcement that targets minority individuals and neighborhoods.

December 28, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

More than 40 months after death sentencing, lawyers for Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev file their 1000+-page appellate brief with First Circuit

As reported in this local article, headlined "Lawyers: Tsarnaev ‘should not have been tried in Boston’," a very long appellate brief has been filed in a very high-profile federal capital case.  A federal jury handed down Dzhokhar Tsarnaev death sentence way back in May 2015, a full month before Donald Trump had even announced he was running for President.  But now, as Prez Trump heads into the second half of his term, Tsarnaev's team of lawyers has fully briefed his complaints about his trial and sentencing.  Here are the basic details:

Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s appellate team presented their oft-delayed opening argument Thursday, urging sparing him a federal execution and allowing him to be retried for the 2013 Patriots Day terror attack that killed an 8-year-old boy and two women.  Their premise is summed up in the opening line: “This case should not have been tried in Boston.

“Forcing this case to trial in a venue still suffering from the bombings was the District Court’s first fundamental error, and it deprived Tsarnaev of an impartial jury and a reliable verdict, in violation of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments,” the brief states.

The partially redacted document filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit spans 1,124 pages, nearly half of which is the 500-page opening brief alone.

Absent a new trial, Tsarnaev’s team is asking the Appeals Court to reverse his death sentence and order a punishment of life imprisonment.

Tsarnaev, 25, has been in solitary confinement at the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., since his 2015 conviction.  Tsarnaev’s trial attorneys made repeated bids for a change of venue.  His appeal focuses on and echoes several familiar protests raised during his trial, chief among them the argument that he was a pawn of his domineering big brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev.

Among other things, the public defenders accuse Tsarnaev’s jury forewoman, a restaurant manager his attorneys tried to get removed, of retweeting a social media post calling the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth sophomore a “piece of garbage”  before she received a juror summons, but that she claimed during questioning for her suitability to serve she had not “commented on this case.”  A second juror, a male municipal worker, outright “disobeyed the Court’s instructions,” the brief asserts, by joining a Facebook discussion about the case before he was seated....

Tsarnaev’s appeal blames his 26-year-old brother for his involvement, calling Tamerlan “a killer, an angry and violent man” who “conceived and led this conspiracy.” And but for his influence, “Jahar would never have been on Boylston Street on Marathon Monday.

“Tsarnaev admitted heinous crimes,” the lawyers acknowledge, “but even so — perhaps especially so — this trial demanded scrupulous adherence to the requirements of the Constitution and federal law. Again and again this trial fell short.”

The Tsarnaevs detonated two homemade pressure-cooker bombs packed with shrapnel near the marathon finish line in Copley Square 12 seconds apart on April 15, 2013.  Three spectators were killed — 8-year-old Martin Richard of Dorchester, Krystle Campbell, 29, a restaurant manager from Medford, and Boston University graduate student Lingzi Lu, 23.  More than 260 other people were injured. Sixteen of them lost limbs in the blasts.  Three days later, the brothers shot and killed MIT Police Officer Sean Collier, 27, in his cruiser during an ambush on campus and failed attempt to steal his service weapon.

UPDATE: Thanks to a helpful tweet, I now see that the 500-page brief is available at this link. And there I noticed the final notable section starts this way:

XV. Under The Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment Jurisprudence, This Court Should Vacate Tsarnaev’s Death Sentences Because He Was Only 19 Years Old At The Time Of The Crimes.

Tsarnaev was just 19 years old when he committed the crimes for which he was sentenced to death. According to now well-established brain science, and increasingly reflected by changing law around the country, the physical development of the brain and related behavioral maturation continues well through the late teens and early 20s. Consistent with the Supreme Court’s Eighth Amendment jurisprudence and a recent resolution adopted by the American Bar Association, this Court should hold that those who commit their crimes as “emerging adults,” when they were under 21 years old, are categorically exempt from the death penalty.

December 27, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Spotlighting the enduring challenges posed by risk-assessment mechanisms built into FIRST STEP Act

LawProf Brandon Garrett has this important new Slate commentary headlined "The Prison Reform Bill’s Implementation Will Be Tricky; Here’s how to ensure it’s a success." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The First Step Act, the federal prison reform bill that President Donald Trump signed into law on Friday, represents a bipartisan and major effort at making the criminal justice system fairer.  This step will only be a baby step, however, if the engine that drives the entire piece of legislation — risk assessments of federal prisoners’ likelihood to reoffend — is not used carefully and with sound scientific and public oversight.

The statute ... allows federal prisoners, who now number about 180,000, to earn credits toward early release based on rehabilitative programs and their risk of reoffending.  The statute states that an algorithm will be used to score every prisoner as minimum, low, medium, or high risk.  But the legislation does not say how this algorithm will be designed. The Senate’s version of the First Step Act, which refers to “risk” 100 times, calls for a “risk and needs assessment system” to be developed in 210 days, and then made public and administered to every federal prison within the following 180 days.

That may not be nearly enough time to carefully study all of the questions raised by creating such a massive system.  Take as an example the experience in Virginia, which has been hailed as a national model and “leading innovator” by the American Law Institute for using risk assessment to divert low-risk offenders from prison.  Virginia spent several years developing its risk assessment system.  The Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission carefully obtained public input, scientific evaluations, and pilot studies, before implementing it statewide.

But in a recent series of studies of the effort to divert prisoners in Virginia, John Monahan, Alexander Jakubow, Anne Metz, and I have found that there is wide variation in how courts and judges apply this risk assessment....  People are not algorithms.  The statute’s fairness will hinge on the discretion that prison officials exercise, informed by the scores from a risk assessment but also by their own judgment.  The First Step Act’s success will similarly depend on resources for real rehabilitative programs.  It calls for evidence-based evaluation of such programs, but that research will also take time.

While using an evidence-informed tool can be better than simply leaving everything to prison officials’ discretion, there needs to be more than buy-in by the decision-makers — the right tools need to be used.  Michelle Alexander and others have raised concerns, for example, with risk assessments that rely on information about prior arrests or neighborhood information that can produce stark racial bias.  The Senate’s version of the act speaks to the potential for bias and asks the comptroller general to conduct a review after two years to identify “unwarranted disparities.”  The act also calls for an independent review body that includes researchers who have studied risk assessment and people who have implemented it.  These are important steps.  Involvement of scientists and the public will be needed to consider whether invidious and potentially unconstitutional discrimination results — otherwise, protracted constitutional litigation challenging these risk assessments will be a foregone conclusion.

Still, there is much that is positive about the bill’s many provisions dealing with risk.  The First Step Act emphasizes not just recidivism but also programs that support rehabilitation.  It is noteworthy that the legislation calls for re-evaluation of prisoners each year so that risk scores are not set in stone. All prisoners are able to reduce their classification.  This should be taken seriously.  The risk of any person may decline dramatically over time simply as a matter of age, as the U.S. Sentencing Commission documented in a study last year.

The statute also makes the attorney general the risk assessor in chief — with input from the independent scientific reviewers — of the risk assessment used on 180,000 prisoners each year.  That scientific input is critical, and it should be solicited from the broader scientific community.  It’s also worth noting that the Department of Justice has recently shut down key science advisory groups; this law hopefully takes an important first step toward bringing science back in.

December 27, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Another dive into the choppy waters of Miller and Montgomery implementation

I am sure I have posted any number of articles highlighting that implementation of the Eighth Amendment limit of juvenile life without parole sentences has been choppy at best (see here and here and here for a few more examples). The latest iteration of this depressingly evergreen story comes from Mother Jones here under the headline "The Supreme Court Said No More Life Without Parole for Kids. Why Is Antonio Espree One of the Few to Get Out of Prison?".  I recommend this long piece in full, and here is a taste:

As a result of [the Graham and Miller and Montgomery] decisions, the number of states banning life without parole for children in all cases, not just in mandatory sentencing schemes, has quadrupled since 2012. Of the more than 2,600 juvenile lifers in 2016, about 1,700 have been resentenced.

But although Justice Kennedy stated that all but the “rarest of juvenile offenders” should get a shot at parole, some prosecutors continue to argue that many do not deserve this benefit, or that they should serve years longer in prison before they can get out. So far, only 400 juvenile lifers nationwide have been freed.

In part, that’s because the Supreme Court gave states leeway to decide how to review lifers’ cases, leading to inconsistencies across the country. In Pennsylvania, home to the nation’s second-biggest juvenile lifer population, prosecutors are required to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant can never be rehabilitated if they want to deny the option of parole during resentencing; otherwise, the presumption is he should be given a second chance. So far, the state has released more than 150 juvenile lifers, many under the jurisdiction of Philadelphia’s District Attorney Larry Krasner, who campaigned last year on a platform of reducing mass incarceration.

But in Michigan, where 363 juvenile lifers were serving mandatory sentences in 2016, there is no such requirement, and prosecutors have argued that nearly two-thirds of juvenile lifers are those rarest offenders who should be kept in prison for good. “Justice in this country is largely based on where you live,” says Jody Kent Lavy, director of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, an advocacy group.

Even Henry Montgomery, who won his Supreme Court case, isn’t free. In February, the Louisiana parole board rejected his request for release, arguing that he had not finished enough classes in prison.  His lawyers countered that he hadn’t been given much of a chance: For his first three decades at Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison, lifers like him were prohibited from taking classes. (About a third of juvenile lifers nationally say they have been denied access to prison educational programs.)  When the courses opened up, he was deemed ineligible to complete his GED.  A judge described him as a model inmate, but family members of the sheriff’s deputy he killed testified against him at the parole hearing.  So Montgomery, now 72 years old, was denied.  He’ll have to wait a year to reapply.

December 26, 2018 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable pipeline provisions in FIRST STEP Act in the wake of litigation history surrounding FSA of 2010

Long-time readers surely recall the legal uncertainty that followed the last congressional reduction of severe mandatory sentencing provisions in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 with respect to "pipeline" cases, i.e., cases in which offense conduct took place, but a sentence had not yet been imposed, before the enactment of the FSA's new crack sentencing provisions.  This legal uncertainty made it all the way up the Supreme Court in Dorsey v. US, 567 U.S. 260 (2012), and here is how the Court's 5-4 majority explained and resolved the issue:

In 2010, Congress enacted a new statute reducing the crack-to-powder cocaine disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. Fair Sentencing Act, 124Stat. 2372. The new statute took effect on August 3, 2010. The question here is whether the Act’s more lenient penalty provisions apply to offenders who committed a crack cocaine crime before August 3, 2010, but were not sentenced until after August 3. We hold that the new, more lenient mandatory minimum provisions do apply to those pre-Act offenders.

Fast forward to the present day, and Congress this time around has figured out that it can and should address these pipeline issues directly when making statutory sentencing modifications. Specifically, here are the operative pipeline instructions that appear in the FIRST STEP Act with its three important sentencing changes:

SEC. 401. REDUCE AND RESTRICT ENHANCED SENTENCING FOR PRIOR DRUG FELONIES....

(c) APPLICABILITY TO PENDING CASES. This section, and the amendments made by this section, shall apply to any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of this Act, if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.

SEC. 402. BROADENING OF EXISTING SAFETY VALVE....

(b) APPLICABILITY. The amendments made by this section shall apply only to a conviction entered on or after the date of enactment of this Act.

SEC. 403. CLARIFICATION OF SECTION 924(c) OF TITLE 18, UNITED STATES CODE.... 

(b) APPLICABILITY TO PENDING CASES. This section, and the amendments made by this section, shall apply to any offense that was committed before the date of enactment of this Act, if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed as of such date of enactment.

Put simply, Congress in the FIRST STEP Act has expressly provided that all cases in the pipeline, as long as a defendant has not yet been sentenced, are to be sentenced in accord with the new and lowered mandatory minimums (section 401) and without stacked 924(c) charges (section 403).  But, in slight contrast, only those pipeline defendants who have not yet been convicted, are able to be sentenced with the benefit of the new and expended safety valve provision (section 402) which allows defendants with a bit more criminal history to avoid the application of otherwise applicable drug mandatory minimums.

I am pleased to see Congress this time around directly addressing pipeline issues and thereby answering the most basic questions about how pending cases are to be handed.  And yet, ever eager to issue spot, I already have some follow-up questions:

  1. Imagine a defendant already sentenced earlier in 2018, but his sentence is reversed on some other ground and now he faces resentencing in 2019.  Can a defendant get the benefit of any new provisions of the FIRST STEP Act upon resentencing?
  2. Or imagine a defendant who might benefit from the broader safety valve and has not yet been sentence but did plead guilty earlier in 2018. Could this defendant move to vacate his plea simply in order to plead guilty anew in 2019 so that his conviction will then be "entered on or after the date of enactment of" the FIRST STEP Act?

The pipeline issues after the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 impacted perhaps thousands of defendants, whereas the issues I raise above may only impact dozens. But for those particular defendants, what is still left uncertain might still certainly be a very big deal.  (I also suspect there are additional pipeline issues I have not yet imagined, and I welcome input on this issue and all other relating to FIRST STEP Act implementation.)

December 26, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Bernie Madoff's secretary wants to use new Trump law to get out of jail early"

The title of this post is the juicy headline of this notable new ABC News article about a notable defendant eager of make use of the FIRST STEP Act to seek release from federal prison.  I call the headline juicy in part because of the Bernie Madoff connection, as well as the fact that the FIRST STEP Act is described as the "new Trump law."  Here are excerpts:

One of the five employees of Bernie Madoff convicted in a $20 billion Ponzi scheme is seeking early release from prison based in part on the new criminal justice reform law signed last week by President Donald Trump. Annette Bongiorno, who was Madoff’s longtime secretary, has been in prison since February 2015 and asked the judge to order her release no later than March 2019, more than a year before her scheduled release date.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, defense attorneys cited the First Step Act that they contend makes Bongiorno, 70, eligible for home confinement, since she is at an advanced age and has served two-thirds of her sentence. "The new statute permits her to make a direct application to the court for this relief, and Mrs. Bongiorno respectfully makes the application," defense attorney Roland Riopelle wrote.  "She remains an 'old fashioned' family oriented person who would benefit greatly from the release to home confinement that the First Step Act provides," he wrote.

A spokesperson for federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York was not immediately available to respond to a request for comment on Bongiorno's bid for early release.  The office declined to comment to a similar request for comment by the Associated Press....

Bongiorno was convicted in 2014 after a six-month trial during which she insisted she did not know her boss was running what is widely-seen as the biggest Ponzi scheme in American history.  Madoff, who is now 80, is serving a 150-year sentence following conviction on a fraud that was exposed a decade ago.

In his letter to the judge, Riopelle called Bongiorno a "model prisoner" who has served her sentence at FCI Coleman medium security prison in Sumterville, Florida, "without a disciplinary violation of any kind." Riopelle said she was in decent health and in "generally good spirits" though finds the holiday season "a bit depressing."

Without seeing the filing referenced in this article, it is unclear to me if Bongiorno is seeking so-called "compassionate release" or is seeking relief under an elderly prisoner reentry pilot program.  The FIRST STEP Act has important new provisions making available two different possible means for elderly prisoners to seek release to home confinement or sentence modification, but the legal requirements and process are distinct in important ways.  Bongiorno certainly will not be the only older prisoner looking to take advantage of the FIRST STEP Act, and I expect there could be a lot of interesting jurisprudence emerging in the weeks and months ahead on these fronts.

December 26, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 24, 2018

Lamenting lack of retroactive application of new sentencing changes in FIRST STEP Act (... and so rooting again for robust clemency)

This recent piece from The Guardian, fully headlined "Current inmates feel left behind by Trump's criminal justice reform bill; First Step Act reduces the mandatory sentence for three-strikes offenders but the provisions will not be made retroactive," spotlights how certain inmates have gotten left behind even as the inappropriateness of their sentences inspired key sentencing reforms in the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are excerpts:

On paper, Chris Young seems exactly the kind of person a prison reform bill ought to release from federal custody. In the eight years since he was last free, Young has become an avid reader, taught himself to write computer code and worked as a tutor for fellow prisoners. Right now he’s reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus “for fun”.  He also says that since he can’t get real-world practice, he re-reads the same passage of a programming book every day after lunch, to make sure it’s committed to memory.

When he was 22, Young was arrested on a third low-level drug charge. Under so-called “three strikes” laws, he was given a mandatory life sentence.  For decades, in cases involving repeat drug offenders, such laws have stripped federal judges of discretion. The judge who sentenced Young, Kevin Sharp, was so shaken by the experience he retired shortly after.  “What I was required to do that day was cruel,” Sharp tweeted earlier this year.

The bipartisan First Step Act, signed into law by Donald Trump on Friday, softens that “cruel” requirement for federal judges, reducing the mandatory sentence in such cases to 25 years. But it will not do anything for Young.  In one of many compromises made by progressive reform advocates to secure conservative support, this and several other provisions were not made retroactive.  “I’m human and I would have loved to have benefited from the bill, but unfortunately I don’t,” Young told the Guardian from federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky. “I don’t necessarily feel left behind, I just feel [lawmakers] don’t understand what goes on with the … actual humans that their choices and politics affect.”...

Advocates believe [the Act] can be a launching point for state and local reform which could have a much greater impact on the US inmate population. After all, just 10% of people incarcerated in the US are in the federal system.  “I absolutely think that this one is going to be catalytic towards other de-carceration campaigns on the local and state level,” said Glenn Martin, a formerly incarcerated reform advocate who helped bring dozens of former inmate-led groups on board for the First Step Act.

“I think that the Senate — a conservative Republican Senate — has just given permission to conservatives all over the country [to become] engaged in criminal justice reform.” Nonetheless, the lack of retroactivity on a majority of the sentencing reforms was “a tough pill to swallow”.

“It’s one of the concessions that hurts the most,” said Martin. “It’s about fairness, and yet there’s this group of people who continue to be harmed because of the lack of retroactivity.”

That includes people like John Bailey, a 71-year-old inmate of the federal prison in Hazleton, West Virginia which is nicknamed “misery mountain”. Bailey’s brother Oliver said he was struggling to understand the logic of the changes not applying to inmates like John, who was imprisoned in 1992 on a non-violent drug charge. “If you recognize the injustice now,” asked Bailey, “how come it doesn’t apply to those that suffered the same injustice before?”

Advocates who worked on the bill said conservatives and politically vulnerable Democrats opposed retroactivity because of how releasing prisoners early might resonate with voters.

There is one bright spot for the Baileys. One provision of First Step that does apply to current inmates is a requirement that prisoners be housed no more than 500 driving miles from their home. Bailey, who is from St Petersburg, Florida, has spent his prison life in Leavenworth, Kansas and now West Virginia, thousands of miles away. Oliver has not seen John since he was jailed. “At this point something’s better than nothing,” he said. “We need to progress from here.”

It’s a common sentiment. Chad Marks is serving a 40-year sentence on drug conspiracy charges, thanks to another provision First Step will restrict. Marks’ sentence was enhanced by “stacking” language in federal law which dramatically increases a sentence if an offender possesses a firearm in the commission of a drug crime, whether or not it is used. “I don’t understand how lawmakers can say that doing this is wrong,” he said, “and that they are going to fix it, but not apply it retroactively. That was a big blow. What has my focus and attention right now is the fact that lawmakers did something, but my focus is also on a second step coming.”...

Young, Bailey and Marks continue to wait for a second step. While they do, all three must place their primary hope for release in an act of clemency: a pardon or commutation issued by the president. Young’s case has been endorsed by Kim Kardashian, who successfully lobbied for the release of another federal prisoner, Alice Johnson, in June. Marks said he was “more than hopeful that I will find relief through clemency”.

“I am praying that president Trump will find me worthy of mercy and grace,” he said. “I won’t let him down or disappoint him.”

As regular readers know, Prez Trump has been letting me down and disappointing me by having so far failed to make good on all the talk from earlier this year that he was looking at "3,000 names" for possible clemencies. I sincerely hope that Prez Trump and those assisting him on clemency matters are going to give extra attention to persons serving extreme sentences that would no longer be applicable under the new sentencing provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.  (I also think persons serving particularly extreme sentences should file (or seek to re-file) constitutional or other challenges to their sentences that might be emboldened by FIRST STEP Act reforms, but I will discuss this idea in a subsequent post.)

A few of many recent related posts: 

December 24, 2018 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Fifty Years of American Sentencing Reform — Nine Lessons"

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

Efforts to standardize sentences and eliminate disparities in a state or the federal system cannot succeed; distinctive practices and norms, diverse local cultures, and practical and political needs of officials and agencies assure major local differences in sentencing practice.  Presumptive sentencing guidelines developed by sentencing commissions, however, are the most effective means to improve consistency, reduce disparity, and control corrections spending.  Federal sentencing guidelines have been remarkably unsuccessful; they should be rebuilt from the ground up.  Mandatory sentencing laws should be repealed, and no new ones enacted; they produce countless injustices, encourage cynical circumventions, and seldom achieve demonstrable reductions in crime.  Black and Hispanic defendants are more likely than whites and Asians to be sentenced to imprisonment, and for longer; presumptive sentencing guidelines reduced racial disparities initially and over time, but most states do not have presumptive guidelines.  Use of predictions of dangerousness to determine who is imprisoned and for how long is unjust; predictive accuracy has improved little in 50 years and current methods too often lengthen prison terms of people who would not have committed violent crimes.  Except in the handful of states that have effective systems of presumptive sentencing guidelines, parole release is an essential component of a just and cost-effective sentencing system in the United States.

December 24, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Second Circuit panel reverses federal death sentence based on "prosecutorial error" during sentencing phase

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss this 146-page(!) Second Circuit opinion in US v. Aquart, No. 12‐5086 (2d Cir. Dec. 20, 2018) (available here). Here is an overview from the start of the opinion for the panel:

Aquart here appeals both his conviction and his death sentence. As to conviction, he argues that (1) the trial evidence was insufficient to support guilty verdicts on any of the charged VICAR counts, (2) the prosecution suborned perjury by witnesses John Taylor and Lashika Johnson, and (3) he was prejudiced by prosecutorial misconduct in summation. As to sentence, Aquart’s challenges fall into three categories: (1) prosecutorial misconduct at the penalty phase, (2) insufficiency of the evidence as to certain identified aggravating factors, and (3) unconstitutionality of the death penalty both generally and as applied to his case.

The panel affirms Aquart’s conviction but, based on prosecutorial error, vacates his death sentence and remands the case for a new penalty hearing.

There is too much in the 139-page Aquart opinion for the court for me to summarize it here.  But I noticed that a former boss of mine, Judge Calabresi, has this amusing paragraph on an important issue in his short concurrence:

§2.b. Whether Aquart’s Death Sentence is Constitutionally Disproportionate. Because, as the Majority correctly explains, existing Supreme Court Law does not mandate proportionality review, the question of whether, if it did, Aquart would pass that test is entirely hypothetical. (I’m too much an academic to call it academic.) It need not be reached, and I decline to do so

December 20, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

After hinting prison term might be in works, federal judge delays Michael Flynn sentencing to allow further cooperation

Given that both the Special Prosecutor and Michael Flynn were advocating for him to receive a sentence without any incarceration, I thought his sentencing today could have ended up being a staid affair.  But, as reported in this BuzzFeed News account, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan had different ideas: 

Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, decided to delay his sentencing on Tuesday after a judge harshly criticized him for lying to the FBI and acting as an unregistered agent for Turkey, and warned him that he might get a better sentence if he finished his cooperation with the government first.

It was a stunning turn of events two hours after what was supposed to be Flynn's sentencing hearing began. Throughout the proceedings, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan had repeatedly asked Flynn if he wanted to go ahead with sentencing, given his lawyers' comments about the conduct of the FBI agents who interviewed him and the fact that he might not be completely finished cooperating.

Flynn each time said he wished to proceed. But following a particularly harsh string of criticism from the judge about the crimes he'd committed, Flynn asked for a break to speak with his lawyers. When they returned, Flynn's lawyer Robert Kelner said they wanted to postpone sentencing to give Flynn time to complete his cooperation. The judge agreed. The parties are now due to file a report with the court on the status of his case by March 13.

Flynn's change of heat came after Sullivan warned him that he couldn't guarantee Flynn wouldn't get prison time, given the seriousness of his crimes. Sullivan noted that Flynn had lied to the FBI while serving as a senior official in the White House, and had acted as an unregistered agent for the Turkish government. (The judge initially implied that Flynn did work for Turkey while he was in the White House, but later said he misspoke; the prosecutor said Flynn's work for Turkey ended in November 2017.)

"Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for," Sullivan said, gesturing to an American flag displayed behind his chair. "Arguably you sold your country out." Sullivan continued: "I'm not hiding my disgust, my disdain for this criminal offense."

Flynn at that point took up the judge's offer of additional time to consult with his lawyers. Before the judge took a break, however, he asked special counsel prosecutor Brandon Van Grack if Flynn could have been charged with treason for his conversations with now-former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016, after then-president Barack Obama had entered sanctions against Russia for interfering in the election.

Van Grack replied that given the evidence prosecutors had, treason was not something that the government was considering charging Flynn with at the time. Sullivan pressed him, asking if they could have charged Flynn with that crime. Van Grack demurred, saying he was hesitant to answer that question because the offense was so serious.

After the recess, Sullivan said that he hadn't meant to imply that Flynn might have committed treason, he said he was just probing the extent of Flynn's offenses and "was just curious." Van Grack said the government had no reason to believe Flynn committed treason.

Flynn pleaded guilty on Dec. 1, 2017, to one count of making false statements. He admitted lying to FBI agents about his communications in December 2016 with Kislyak while he was serving on Trump's presidential transition team. (He was later accused of lying to Vice President Mike Pence about those contacts as well and resigned). Flynn agreed to cooperate with the government as part of his plea deal; over the past year, according to court filings, he's met with special counsel prosecutors and other Justice Department offices 19 times, for a total of nearly 63 hours.

Flynn was set to become the fifth person sentenced in connection with Mueller's investigation.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump (in)famously called his former lawyer a "RAT" on Twitter based on his cooperation with federal prosecutors. I wonder if Michael Flynn might soon be getting the same moniker from the President of the United States.

Prior related posts:

December 18, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Convicted poacher sentenced to watch Bambi (really) ... and imagining other crime and Disney movie pairings

Bambi-860x726A couple of helpful colleagues have already made sure I did not miss this local story of a Missouri sentencing.  The press account is headlined "'Bambi' as punishment?  Sentence in SW Missouri poaching case includes mandated viewings," and here are the details:

Four members of a southwest Missouri family have been caught in a multi-year poaching case where authorities say hundreds of deer were killed illegally. “The deer were trophy bucks taken illegally, mostly at night, for their heads, leaving the bodies of the deer to waste," said Lawrence County Prosecuting Attorney Don Trotter.

Conservation agents are calling it one of Missouri's largest cases of deer poaching. The case was so egregious that Lawrence County Judge Robert George ordered a special addition to the jail time one of the poachers received.

Court records show the defendant "is to view the Walt Disney movie Bambi, with the first viewing being on or before December 23, 2018, and at least one such viewing each month thereafter, during Defendants incarceration in the Lawrence County Jail."

The southwest Missouri case involves David Berry Sr. of Springfield, David Berry Jr. of Brookline, and Kyle Berry of Everton. The trio were involved in a multi-year investigation by state, federal and Canadian law enforcement agencies and conservation officers involving suspects in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Canada. David Berry Jr. is the defendant who was ordered to watch Bambi....

On Thursday, Dec. 13, David Berry Jr. received a 120-day sentence in Barton County Circuit Court for a felony firearms probation violation. On Dec. 6, he received a one-year jail sentence in Lawrence County Associate Court after pleading guilty to taking wildlife illegally on Oct. 11. The 120-day sentence Berry Jr. received in Barton County Circuit Court will be served in addition to the one-year sentence he received in Lawrence County.

These convictions were made with information obtained from Operation Game Thief, a hotline sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Conservation Federation of Missouri. “It is unknown how many deer the main group of suspects has taken illegally over the past several years,” Lawrence County Conservation Agent Andy Barnes said. “It would be safe to say that several hundred deer were taken illegally.”

Prior to the July 2016 interviews, David Berry Sr. and Eric Berry, 20, Everton, were convicted of taking gamefish by hand in Dade County. During the 2017 firearms deer season, while awaiting his court appearance for violations from the 2016 investigation, Eric Berry and an accomplice were caught spotlighting in Lawrence County. To date, this group of poachers has paid $151,000 in bonds and $51,000 in fines and court costs and collectively served 33 days in jail.

David Berry Sr. and David Berry Jr. had their hunting, fishing and trapping privileges revoked for life by the Missouri Conservation Commission. Eric Berry and Kyle Berry had hunting and fishing privileges revoked for 18 years and 8 years, respectively. Jerimiah Cline, of Republic, who took wildlife illegally and assisted the Berrys, had hunting privileges revoked for five years....

Why take just the deer heads and leave the rest to rot? "In situations like this, with serial poachers who have no regard for the animals, rules of fair chase, or aren’t bothered by the fact that they’re stealing from others, it’s all about greed and ego," said Randy Doman, MDC Protection Division Chief. "Taking just the heads is their version of obtaining a 'trophy' and leaving the carcass behind is merely an afterthought. While there are some cases where poachers go after the antlers for profit, with this bunch it was more about the thrill of the kill itself."

The report that some of these defendants had previously gotten in trouble for "taking gamefish by hand" has me thinking (only half-jokingly) that they should have been ordered to watch Disney's Little Mermaid. And, of course, Disney's Lion King should be a must-watch for that infamous guy who went hunting illegally for Cecil the Lion.  

Especially when we all could use an extra bit of levity in our lives, I have in the title of this post sought to encourage everyone to come up with clever crime and Disney movie pairings.   Would it be so wrong to suggest that Michael Cohen should have been ordered to watch Disney's Robin Hood?  Or that anyone convicted of conducting illegal experiments has to watch Disney's Lilo & Stitch?  (I know that last one is really a stretch, but I wanted to suggest I will no judge silly efforts to spotlight a lesser-known Disney movie in this parlor game).

So, dear readers, what crime and Disney movie sentencing would you find fitting and amusing?

December 18, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 17, 2018

"Equitable Gateways: Toward Expanded Federal Habeas Corpus Review of State Court Criminal Convictions"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Eve Brensike Primus now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

State prisoners who file federal habeas corpus petitions face a maze of procedural and substantive restrictions that effectively prevent almost all prisoners from obtaining meaningful review of their convictions.  But it is a mistake to think that habeas litigation is just a Kafkaesque nightmare with no constructive potential.  Federal courts do sometimes cut through the doctrinal morass to consider state prisoners’ claims, relying on what this Essay terms equitable gateways to federal habeas relief.  Litigants and courts generally underestimate the potential these gateways offer, with the result that habeas litigation does not focus on them as often as it should.

Here I consider one important category of equitable gateways animated by a concern about ensuring that federal claims get fair consideration in the courts.  When a federal court believes that a state prisoner has not yet had a full and fair opportunity to present her federal claims and have them fairly considered, it is more likely to bypass procedural and substantive restrictions on review.  But state prisoners often fail to highlight certain kinds of fair consideration failures, thus depriving themselves of potential access to the equitable gateways.  This Essay suggests that this blind spot is partly due to the history of fair consideration principles: for decades, the idea of a fair consideration gateway was a central feature of proposals for further restricting the scope of federal habeas review.  In current circumstances, however, fair consideration is a rubric for expanded habeas review, and habeas litigants should take note.

December 17, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some of Senator Cotton's suspect claims in his latest case for amendments to the FIRST STEP Act

As noted in an update to this prior post, Senator Tom Cotton has this new National Review commentary making the case for his proposed amendments to the latest version of the FIRST STEP Act under the headline "Fix the First Step Act and Keep Violent Criminals behind Bars."  This commentary closes with a passage that troubled me, especially when I looked up the facts of the case he discusses.  Here is how Senator Cotton concludes (with a few details emphasized by me for further commentary):

So far the debate over First Step has been clouded by euphemism and abstraction, which has prevented the public from understanding what the bill actually does. A concrete example will help clarify the stakes. Richard Crawford is a former NASCAR driver who was convicted in August of trying to force a twelve-year-old girl to have sex with him. Crawford was sentenced to nearly 11 years in federal prison, but the statute he was convicted under does not appear in First Step’s “ineligible prisoners” list.  If the bill passes, he will therefore be eligible for time credits that would reduce his time in prison by up to one-third, or nearly four years.  At the end of his prison sentence he would be moved into pre-release custody or supervised release.  He would essentially be a free man.

Crawford’s sex crime was not obscure, low-level, or “victimless.”  Quite the opposite.  His crime had the potential to shatter a child’s life.  It was punished accordingly by a judge and a jury of his peers.  That is how criminal justice ought to work in America.  Now a group of politicians and activists are in a position to overturn that public judgment with the First Step Act.  Conservatives should resist this revolution.

The last few sentences of this passage initially troubled me because nothing in the FIRST STEP Act serves to "overturn" a jury conviction or even a sentencing term.  Rather, the FSA creates additional incentives, through "time credits," for offenders to engage in recidivism-reducing programs.  I think the FSA is popular because the "public judgment" is that it would generally be better for Crawford to be released in 2025 after having successfully engaged in this programming than to be released in 2028 without having made any effort to better himself.

But even more irksome to me is how Senator Cotton portrays his poster child, Richard Crawford, because it seems a bit much to say he tried "to force a twelve-year-old girl to have sex with him" given that he was convicted based on law enforcement posing as a man soliciting people to have sex with a fictitious 12-year-old.  This article about the case explains:

Crawford was accused of agreeing to pay $50-$75 to have sex with a 12-year-old girl, making arrangements with a man named Mike on Craigslist.  Mike and the 12-year-old girl were fictitious and used by law enforcement to catch Crawford in the act.  He responded to an undercover federal agent via e-mail and text between Feb. 10 and Feb. 28. According to the agent, Crawford texted him, “Love for her to be naked and ready,” and asked for photos of the girl.  Crawford was arrested at a location at which he agreed to meet “Mike” on March 1 by the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and was indicted March 30.

Crawford claimed he agreed to the scenario because he didn’t believe it really involved a child.  His defense was detailed in a recent court filing, arguing against a lengthy sentence.  "Mr. Crawford testified that he thought 'Mike,' the person he was corresponding with, was engaging in a fantasy and that he agreed to participate," the filing read. "Mr. Crawford did not believe there would be a minor present; instead, he thought there would be an adult woman, presumably 'Mike's' wife or girlfriend, and that he and this woman would act the roles in 'Mike's' fantasy."

"Mr. Crawford consistently maintained that he had no intent to have sex with a minor, and if a minor had been present, he would not have had sex with the minor.”

A jury rejected Crawford's claims of innocence and convicted him of "attempted enticement of a minor to engage in sexual activity."  But to say he tried to force a 12-year-old to have sex seems off since there never was an actual 12-year-old.  Indeed, I think it fair to call Crawford's crime "victimless," though the case really serves as a great indication of how hard it is to place accurate short-hand labels on various crimes (and how easy it is for Senator Cotton to make a crime sound worse than it was is using short-hand labels).  To allow Crawford, who is 60 years old and appears to have no criminal history, the chance to earn "time credits" by completing evidence-based programming to reduce his risk of recidivism seem to me sensible, not scary.  (And, as I understand matters, if a risk assessment procedure were to classify Crawford as "high-risk" he would not in fact get any sentence reductions.)

We will see in the coming days whether Senator Cotton gets his proposed amendments added to the FIRST STEP Act.  But if Richard Crawford is the worst version of Willie Horton that he can conjure up for the coming debate, I am not at all convinced there is any need to carve out still further exceptions to the prison reform provisions that seem well-conceived to try to reduce the recidivism risk of as many federal prisoners as possible.

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

December 17, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Making the case against amendments to the FIRST STEP Act proposed by Senators Cotton and Kennedy ... UPDATED with a response on 12/17

In this post a few days ago, I provided details and links concerning three amendments that Senator Tom Cotton and Senator John Kennedy will seek to have made to the FIRST STEP Act this coming week.  Unsurprisingly, advocates of significant sentencing reform are not fans of the Senators' proposed changes.  The Brennan Center, for example, has this release explaining that it "strongly rejects attempts by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and John Kennedy (R-La.) to add a series of 'poison pill' amendments that would unacceptably weaken the FIRST STEP Act....  These amendments would stigmatize incarcerated people, block incentives that encourage those who need it most from participating in recidivism-reduction programming, and risk retraumatizing victims of crime."

FreedomWorks has this even longer posting on this front titled "The Senate Must Reject Poison Pill Amendments to the First Step Act."  Here are excerpts that provide a taste of the arguments being made against these amendments:

Aside from the fact that the Cotton-Kennedy amendments have been introduced to hurt the First Step Act’s prospects of passage, there are a number of problems with the amendments that we’ve identified. For these reasons, we encourage the Senate to reject the amendments when they are brought to the floor for a vote.

Amendment 1: Excluding serious felons from early release to prerelease custody and supervised release

This amendment seems to be more of the same type of objections raised by Sen. Cotton in the past regarding the exclusions list on the prison reform side of the bill. The exclusions list is already superfluous because of the risk and needs assessment, which in its operation ensures that those who have committed such heinous crimes as Sen. Cotton has identified, will not become low- or minimum-risk of recidivism in order to earn time credits....

Amendment 2: Notifying victims before a offender is allowed to transfer out of prison early

This amendment masquerades as a harmless addition to promote victims’ rights, which is certainly a sympathetic cause. However, the amendment is not only redundant to current law and policy but its approach is also counterproductive and harmful for victims....

Amendment 3: Tracking the effectiveness of the anti-recidivism programs

This amendment creates redundancy. The U.S. Sentencing Commission already provides detailed information on the recidivism rates of federal offenders. Although the measure of recidivism varies by report, the rates of rearrest, reconviction, and reincarceration are accounted for in many reports.

Although the rate of recidivism defined by rearrest is a common data point in U.S. Sentencing Commission reports, this is a poor measure. It is likely, though, that this measure is the one included in the amendment by its authors on purpose and for that very reason....

Additionally, the First Step Act as it stands already includes multiple mechanisms to ensure the effectiveness of the anti-recidivism programming and other aspects of the legislation as well. The First Step Act includes its own reporting requirements, establishes an Independent Review Committee to report on the system, and requires a Government Accountability Office report of the risk and needs assessment and the programming together.

Some of the most recent of many prior related posts:

MORNING UPDATE on Dec. 17, 2018: I have receive a one-page response to the arguments linked above in a document titled "Myths vs. Facts on the Cotton-Kennedy-Toomey-Kyl-Barrasso amendments to First Step." Here it is for downloading: Download Final Cotton-Kennedy Myths v. Facts

In addition, Senator Cotton has this new commentary at the National Review making the case for his proposed amendments under the headline "Fix the First Step Act and Keep Violent Criminals behind Bars."    This commentary closes with a passage that I will be discussing in a subsequent post, but here I will reprint how it starts:

This week, the Senate will vote on the latest version of the First Step Act, a criminal-justice bill that would release thousands of dangerous criminals from federal prison earlier than under current law.  This effort is misguided and dangerous, as I have written before.  Thankfully, there is still time to limit the damage.

Along with Senator John Kennedy, I have introduced an amendment to categorically exclude violent felons and sex offenders from the bill’s time-credit program, which can be used for early release.  We also have amendments to notify victims before a prisoner is released early, and to monitor whether prisoners who are released early commit more crimes. If advocates of First Step want to protect public safety, they will support all three amendments.

December 16, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Iowa Supreme Court dodges due process challenges to use of risk-assessment tools at sentencing

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss a trio of rulings handed down late last week by the Iowa Supreme Court which all raised issues concerning the permissibility of courts using risk-assessment tools at sentencing. The rulings came in Iowa v. Gordon, Iowa v. Guise and Iowa v. Buesing, and in each instance the court decided that a constitutional challenges to the use of Iowa Risk Revised risk assessment tool (IRR) at sentencing was not properly raised and preserved at sentencing.  The Gordon case addresses this point most fully, and here is how the other cases describe the Gordon ruling:

Today, we filed an opinion in State v. Gordon, ____ N.W.2d ____ (Iowa 2018).  In Gordon, we held a defendant could not raise this due process argument for the first time on appeal when the defendant did not bring the issue to the district court at the time of sentencing.  Id. at ___. Furthermore, we held we could not address this due process issue under the rubric of ineffective assistance of counsel because the record is insufficient to reach this claim. Id.

Though the Gordon case has the fullest discussion of the merits in this trio of decisions, the Guise case is the best read  because of the Justice Appel's extended opinion "concurring specially." This concurrence talks through various concerns about the use of risk-assessment instruments at sentencing (with lots of cites to lots of academic scholarship), and here are a few notable passages:

Guise’s argument that due process requires accurate information about risk assessments beyond a mere conclusion, as demonstrated by Malenchik and Loomis, is certainly not frivolous. Certainly the shiny legal penny of a new risk assessment tool should be carefully scrutinized by the courts....  The relentless and potentially corrosive drive for efficiency and certainty in a resource-scarce public sector should not drive courts to use risk assessments in an unjustified “off label” manner or in a fashion that otherwise lacks meaningful empirical support to drive sentencing.

Even if the emerging risk assessment tools are found to have a place in sentencing as a “relevant” factor, our law does not allow mere conclusions to be mounted on spikes and paraded around our courtrooms without statistical context....

We do not know whether the IRR was normed with an appropriate Iowa population.  We do not know whether the tool has been renormed and monitored.  We do not know anything, really, about the database, assuming there is a database, behind the IRR.

I am also concerned about process issues lurking behind this case.  Ordinarily, the PSI report is made available to the defendant only a few days before sentencing.... But a few days’ notice is not enough time for a defendant to mount a serious challenge to the underlying reliability of the risk assessment evidence as being so unreliable as to be hocus pocus. A full-court press on the question of reliability of the risk assessment would likely require the hiring of a highly qualified expert.  Even if the defendant does not wish to mount a full-blown attack on the statistical model and instead wishes to make a more limited point — say, for instance, the disproportionate impact of use of housing, employment, and level of educational attainment of people of color — the defense will not be able to develop the attack in a few days, particularly when the defendant is indigent and will require court approval prior to the hiring of an expert to challenge the statistical information....

In conclusion, I want to make clear that I do not categorically reject any use of risk assessment tools in the sentencing process.  I recognize that the PEW Center on the States, the National Institute of Corrections, the National Center for State Courts, and the American Law Institute have all expressed interest in evidence-based sentencing.  See J.C. Oleson, Risk in Sentencing: Constitutionally Suspect Variables and Evidence-Based Sentencing, 64 SMU L. Rev. 1329, 1343, 1394 (2011).  I also recognize that sentencing based solely on “intuition” or “gut” runs the risk of allowing implied bias a free reign and can be lawless in nature.  See Chris Guthrie et al., Blinking on the Bench: How Judges Decide Cases, 93 Cornell L. Rev. 1, 5 (2007) (urging the justice system to take steps to limit the impact of overreliance on intuition).  Further, the “intuition” or “gut” of a judge who was a former prosecutor may well differ from the “intuition” or “gut” of a public defender.  Undisciplined intuitive sentencing runs the risk of telling us more about the judge than the person being sentenced.

A fully-developed record may well show that risk and needs assessment tools that assemble variables in a statistically valid way may be of some assistance as a check on unregulated sentencing discretion and may promote deeper thinking by discretionary decision-makers into the sentencing process.  In short, it is possible that when a full record is developed, properly designed and utilized risk assessment tools may enhance and inform the exercise of judicial discretion.  In addition to the binary question of whether a risk assessment may or may not be used in sentencing, however, more nuanced additional questions must be asked regarding how any such tool may be used. In light of the procedural posture of this case and the companion cases, these questions must await further legal developments.

December 16, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Justice at any cost? The impact of cost–benefit salience on criminal punishment judgments"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting article recently published in the journal Behavioral Sciences & the Law and authored by Eyal Aharoni, Heather Kleider‐Offutt, Sarah Brosnan and Julia Watzek.  Here is its abstract, along with a couple of paragraph's from the paper's discussion section:

This study investigated the effect of cost–benefit salience on simulated criminal punishment judgments.  In two vignette‐based survey experiments, we sought to identify how the salience of decision costs influences laypeople's punishment judgments.  In both experiments (N1 = 109; N2 = 398), undergraduate participants made sentencing judgments with and without explicit information about the direct, material costs of incarceration.  Using a within‐subjects design, Experiment 1 revealed that increasing the salience of incarceration costs mitigated punishments.  However, when costs were not made salient, punishments were no lower than those made when the costs were externalized (i.e., paid by a third party).  Experiment 2 showed the same pattern using a between‐subjects design.

We conclude that, when laypeople formulate sentencing attitudes without exposure to the costs of the punishment, they are prone to discount those costs, behaving as if punishment is societally cost‐free.  However, when cost information is salient, they utilize it, suggesting the operation of a genuine, albeit labile, punishment preference.  We discuss the implications of these findings for psychological theories of decision making and for sentencing policy, including the degree of transparency about the relevant costs of incarceration during the decision process....

One might wonder whether these results offer any insights into the sentencing judgments of real trial court judges.  Importantly, this study was not designed to generalize to judicial populations and, therefore, is agnostic to the potential role of legal expertise in cost discounting.  However, to the degree that our results capture a general property of human reasoning, they provide justification to separately test judges in future extensions of this work.  Presently in the USA, judges are not typically required or advised to consider sentencing costs in their punishment decisions, but this norm is beginning to be challenged, with some jurisdictions now requiring prosecutors to disclose sentencing cost information to judges (Ewing, 2018).  Presumably judges are well‐versed in such cost information, but the question implied by the new policy and raised by this study is whether recruiting transient attention to this information might influence punishment attitudes.

Research suggests that experts, including judges, are not immune to heuristic reasoning.  Experts have demonstrated susceptibility to many of the same heuristic processes that shape lay reasoning, such as anchoring, base rate neglect, and opportunity cost neglect (Bennett, 2014; Northcraft & Neale, 1987; Vera‐Muñoz, 1998; West et al., 2012; Wong, Aharoni, Aliev, & DuBois, 2015).  Thus, it would not be especially surprising if punishment recommendations by professional judges are also affected by cues that increase the saliency of the costs of incarceration.  If attention to cost information affects judicial punishments, this would confer great power to the external, situational cues that draw our attention.  Such cues might include explicit prompts, for example, about the costs of incarcerating versus releasing a defendant, or the other allowable uses of the available funds.  How best to communicate risk and benefit information to fact finders (e.g., probationary presentencing reports? appellate review?) is the subject of a growing body of scholarship (Chanenson, 2005).  Efforts to understand judicial decision making must necessarily consider the role of communication strategies within existing legal policy and practice.

December 16, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Second Circuit refuses to enforce appeal waiver because it "was unsupported by consideration"

I have never been a big fan of appeal waivers in plea agreements that require defendants to waive any challenge to a sentencing that has not yet taken place. Consequently, I am a big fan of appellate courts that put limits on when and how they will enforce such waivers, and the Second Circuit had a notable recent decision in this area in US v. Lutchman, No. 17-291 (2d Cir. Dec 6, 2018) (available here). In this case, a Second Circuit panel refused to enforce an appeal waiver because the defendant clear got no benefit for agreeing to it. Here are a few key passages from the opinion:

“We construe plea agreements according to contract law principles . . . .” United States v. Riggi, 649 F.3d 143, 147 (2d Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks omitted).  So, “a guilty plea can be challenged for contractual invalidity, including invalidity based on a lack of consideration.”  United States v. Brunetti, 376 F.3d 93, 95 (2d Cir. 2004).  Yet, “because plea agreements are unique contracts, we temper the application of ordinary contract principles with special due process concerns for fairness and the adequacy of procedural safeguards.” Riggi, 649 F.3d at 147 (internal quotation marks omitted).  Accordingly, “courts construe plea agreements strictly against the Government,” which “is usually the party that drafts the agreement” and “ordinarily has certain awesome advantages in bargaining power.” Ready, 82 F.3d at 559.

Lutchman’s waiver of the right to appeal his sentence was unsupported by consideration.  The plea agreement provided that Lutchman would waive indictment, plead guilty to a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2339B(a)(1), and waive the right to appeal any sentence lesser than or equal to the 240‐month maximum.  The government would achieve “a conviction without the expense and effort of proving the charges at trial beyond a reasonable doubt” and save the time and expense of an appeal.  United States v. Rosa, 123 F.3d 94, 97, 101 n.7 (2d Cir. 1997).  Lutchman, however, received no benefit from his plea beyond what he would have gotten by pleading guilty without an agreement.  The government refused to agree with Lutchman’s contention that a three‐level reduction under Guidelines § 2X1.1(b)(2) was applicable, and specifically reserved the right to argue to the district court that the reduction was inappropriate.  True, the government agreed not to oppose a two‐level reduction under Guidelines § 3E1.1(a) for Lutchman’s acceptance of responsibility and agreed to move the district court to apply an additional one‐level reduction under Guidelines § 3E1.1(b) for Lutchman’s timely notification to the government of his intention to plead guilty.  But a three‐level reduction under Guidelines § 3E1.1 was available to Lutchman even in the absence of an agreement to waive his right to appeal. See U.S.S.G. § 3E1.1 cmt. 6 (“The government should not withhold [a § 3E1.1(b) motion] based on . . . whether the defendant agrees to waive his or her right to appeal.”).

Moreover, those reductions had no practical impact.  Even after a three‐level reduction to the respective Guidelines ranges advocated by each party, the bottom of the resulting ranges exceeded the statutory maximum.  In fact and effect, the agreed‐upon Guidelines range equaled the 240‐month statutory maximum ‐‐ a sentence the government expressly stated in the agreement that it would recommend.  Furthermore, Lutchman pleaded guilty to the only count charged in the information, and the government has not articulated or identified any additional counts that could have been proven at trial.

The plea agreement here provided Lutchman with no increment of “certainty as to the extent of his liability and punishment,” Rosa, 123 F.3d at 97, and it provided him no “chance at a reduced sentence,” Brunetti, 376 F.3d at 95 (emphasis omitted).  Because the agreement offered nothing to Lutchman that affected the likelihood he would receive a sentence below the statutory maximum, the appellate waiver was unsupported by consideration, and we will not enforce it to bar this appeal .... and [will] proceed to the merits of Lutchman’s arguments.

Unfortunately, for this defendant, after achieving a procedural victory to get his appeal on the merits heard, the panel affirmed his sentence, rejecting his challenges based on procedural and substantive reasonableness. But fortunately for others, this ruling serves as a good precedent for raising concerns about any appeal waivers foisted upon defendants without any clear benefits in return.

December 15, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 14, 2018

Federal judge frets about trend to conceal from public view information about cooperation sentencing credits

A helpful reader made sure I saw the work of US District Judge D. Brock Hornby published this week online in the ABA Journal discussing the history and recent trends in the federal system concerning defendants getting sentencing credit for cooperation and the pressure to disguise these realities due to concern about the threat of violence against cooperators in federal custody. My understanding is a longer version of this work with appear in the Spring 2019 print issue of Judicature, but the substance of his commentary can be seen now in these two spots under these headlines:

Here are a few paragraphs from each part of this work:

Defendants want their cooperation secret for their safety; prosecutors want it secret, so that defendants are not afraid to cooperate.  Many judges comply with these requests, and some districts have adopted standing orders to preserve cooperation secrecy.  But nationally, and sometimes even within individual districts, it is a patchwork quilt.

Today’s federal sentencing landscape includes courts where the courtroom is physically closed for any cooperation discussion; courts where the courtroom is not closed but any cooperation discussion occurs out of public hearing in chambers or at a private sidebar (some judges hold a pro forma sidebar even where there is no cooperation so that observers cannot infer cooperation from the sidebar); courts where everything is done in open court without sidebars; courts where the lawyers submit cooperation details under seal but the judge announces the sentencing rationale in open court; courts where transcripts of some or all of the above are sealed; courts where virtually nothing is sealed; courts where docket entries are structured so that outsiders cannot determine whether a defendant has cooperated; and probably other variations....

No federal judge wants to be responsible for the death or assault of a sentenced defendant who cooperated.  The judge has determined the offender’s punishment, and it does not include violence in prison.  But the judge’s role is limited.  The judge cannot determine the facility that the BOP will select for a particular defendant and the resulting risks. The judge cannot disguise the nature of the crime of conviction — for example, a crime such as child molesting that might provoke violence against the offender in prison.  The judge cannot ensure the adequacy of prison medical care.  These and other consequences are all outside the federal judiciary’s role.

What the judge can do — must do — is preserve the American public’s trust in the integrity and transparency of the federal judicial system.  Americans are entitled to know the role that cooperation plays in federal criminal law and sentencing.  If the threat of violence deters some defendants from cooperating, then the Justice Department must deal with that consequence in evaluating how it prosecutes cases, or it must find the resources and the way to help the BOP do its job of making prisoners — including cooperating prisoners — safe.

At the end of the day, encouraging or discouraging cooperation is not the business of federal judges.  That is the executive branch’s role.  Judges constitute an independent branch of government with distinctive responsibilities.  Our charge is to sentence convicted defendants fairly, based on all the facts and circumstances and the law, and to explain as clearly as possible to the public, the defendant and the victims how we reach the sentence we pronounce.

As some of us say, a sentencing proceeding is a community morality play in which society’s values are publicly applied and affirmed.  We should not let the violence of prisoners — even a violence that the BOP apparently cannot control — drive federal sentencing underground.

December 14, 2018 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 13, 2018

US Sentencing Commission published proposed amendment, including a big change to determining a "crime of violence"

As reported in this press release, the "United States Sentencing Commission voted today to publish for comment proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines, including a proposal concerning how sentencing courts determine if a prior conviction is a “crime of violence” under the guidelines."  Here is more:

At a public meeting, Circuit Judge William H. Pryor Jr., the Acting Chair of the Commission remarked, “The ‘crime of violence’ definition continues to cause extensive litigation with inconsistent sentencing outcomes, often resulting in offenders whose conduct is obviously violent in nature failing to qualify for sentencing enhancements. These results are particularly troublesome given the risk to public safety posed by violent offenders.”

The sentencing guidelines provide increased penalties for offenders with a prior conviction that is a “crime of violence” or “controlled substance offense” (e.g., the career offender guideline). Under the guidelines, the sentencing court must determine whether a prior conviction falls into either of those categories. Circuit caselaw currently limits the sentencing court’s analysis of the prior conviction to the elements of the statute of conviction (referred to as the “categorical approach”), without any consideration of the defendant’s actual conduct in the offense. Today’s proposed amendment would enable the sentencing courts to consider the conduct that formed the basis of the offense of conviction as well as the elements of the statute of conviction. The Commission is requesting input on this proposal and the appropriate sources of information the courts might use to ensure that clear and reliable evidence of prior violent conduct is accounted for at sentencing.

The Commission also published a proposal to clarify the definition of certain enumerated offenses and provide clearer guidance how to treat inchoate offenses in determining whether an offense is a crime of violence.  The proposed amendment addresses specific application issues and general concerns raised by the Department of Justice in their August 2018 annual letter to the Commission.

The Commission is finalizing a study in which it found that violent federal offenders recidivate much more often, more quickly, and commit more serious offenses than non-violent federal offenders.  The Commission expects to publish its full findings and other reports on revocations and mandatory minimum penalties in early 2019 (view related studies).

Acting Chair Pryor also provided an update at the meeting on the Commission’s top priority this amendment cycle — examining the current federal sentencing system and operation of .... the guidelines.  In the coming weeks, the Commission will release a report comparing federal judges’ sentencing practices within 30 major metropolitan U.S. cities.  “These findings raise important questions about the advisory guidelines system. We need to study and consider new approaches that more adequately achieve the goals of the Sentencing Reform Act—including the goal of avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparity — within the constitutional parameters set forth by the Supreme Court in Booker,” stated Acting Chair Pryor.

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Koons v. United States and recent circuit conflicts, the Commission also proposed revisions to how retroactive sentence reductions are determined when mandatory minimum penalties are present in the case. The Commission also published several proposed amendments responding to recently enacted legislation.

These proposed amendment could prove to be quite consequential if they become actual amendments, but the press release further explains why the USSC may not have a quorum to start the new year and will need to have new confirmed members quickly to be able to complete  official business (my emphasis added):

Today’s public meeting gave the current commissioners the opportunity to work together for the last time, as the terms of Acting Chair Pryor and Commissioner Rachel E. Barkow expire at the end of the 115th Congress.  “I have had the privilege of working alongside Commissioner Barkow since she was confirmed by the Senate five years ago. Her steadfast commitment to fair sentencing and quick ability to process sentencing data served the Commission and the public well,” said Acting Chair Pryor.  “She has made substantial contributions to the work of the Commission.  I will miss her.”

Acting Chair Pryor also thanked the advisory group members whose terms are expiring, including Ronald Levine, Chair of the Practitioners Advisory Group and T. Michael Andrews, Chair of the Victims Advisory Group.

As the terms of Acting Chair Pryor and Commissioner Barkow expire, two voting commissioners will continue to serve terms (Senior District Judge Charles R. Breyer and District Judge Danny C. Reeves).  The Commission must have at least four voting commissioners for a quorum. At least three of the commissioners must be federal judges and no more than four may belong to the same political party.  Commissioner Patricia K. Cushwa (ex officio, U.S. Parole Commission), and Commissioner David Rybicki (ex officio, U.S. Department of Justice) serve as non-voting members.

December 13, 2018 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"An Unappreciated Constraint on the President's Pardon Power"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new article authored by Aaron Rappaport now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Most commentators assume that, except for the few textual limitations mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the President’s pardon power is effectively unlimited.  This paper suggests that this common view is mistaken in at least one unexpected way: Presidential pardons must satisfy a specificity requirement.  That is, to be valid, the pardon must list the specific crimes insulated from criminal liability.

This claim bears a significant burden of persuasion, since it runs so counter to accepted opinion.  Nonetheless, that burden can be met.  The paper’s argument rests on an originalist understanding of the Constitution’s text, an approach that leaves little doubt that a specificity requirement is an implicit limitation on the President’s pardon power.  It also demonstrates that the main objections to the argument — that the requirement runs contrary to the Constitutional text or historical practice – are misguided and unpersuasive.

Of course, even if a specificity requirement exists, one may wonder about its significance.  After all, the requirement does not prevent a President from issuing a pardon to any person or for any crime.  Nonetheless, as the paper explains, a specificity requirement may prove more powerful than it first appears.  Most importantly, it both limits the scope and raises the cost of issuing pardons for criminal violations, including violations of the electoral process.  In so doing, the specificity requirement serves as an unexpected ally in the fight for political accountability and in defense of the rule of law.

December 13, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Noting possible Miller follow-up cases on the latest SCOTUS relist list

I continue to wonder when the Supreme Court will take up a new case to clarify (or, ideally, extend) its Eighth Amendment jurisprudence limiting extreme prison sentences set forth in Graham and Miller.  The latest Relist Watch from John Elwood at SCOTUSblog spotlights a few cases that might be in the works as the next possible Miller follow-up:

Newton v. Indiana17-1511, and Mathena v. Malvo18-217, both raise the same issue involving the lawfulness of imposing a discretionary life sentence on a juvenile offender. In Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court held that “mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’”  Four years later, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the court held that “Miller announced a substantive rule of constitutional law” that must be given retroactive effect in cases in which direct review was complete when Miller was decided.  Numerous state courts and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit have held that Montgomery expanded the prohibition against “mandatory life without parole for those under 18 at the time of their crimes” to include discretionary life sentences as well; other courts have concluded that Montgomery did no such thing.  Petitioner Larry Newton, a prisoner, and Randall Mathena, the chief warden of Virginia’s high-security Red Onion State Prison, seek resolution of the issue.

As an aside, the respondent in Mathena v. Malvo will be familiar to anyone who lived in the D.C. area in fall 2002. When he was 17 years old, Lee Boyd Malvo, along with the much older John Allen Muhammad, committed a series of murders known as the “D.C. sniper” attacks. Currently, Malvo is serving multiple life sentences at Red Onion for his role as the triggerman in 10 of the shootings (Virginia executed Muhammad in 2009.).

Because the next SCOTUS conference is not until January 4, we will not know anything more on this front until next year.

December 12, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Any recommendations or predictions for Michael Cohen's upcoming sentencing?

Prez Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is scheduled to be sentenced by US District Judge William Pauley in New York City on December 12 after his guilty plea to charges including campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress.  As detailed in prior posts linked below, Cohen is asking for "time served," while federal prosecutors seek a "substantial term of imprisonment" of around 3.5 years.  This lengthy CNN commentary by Elie Honig, headlined "Why sentencing judge may not show Cohen 'mercy'," predicts that prosecutors are more likely to be happy with the outcome than Cohen.  Here are excerpts:

First, what sentence is Judge William Pauley likely to impose? I've appeared in front of Judge Pauley in many cases. He is fair but tough. Lawyers and defendants often find him intimidating. He has administered tongue-lashings to many prosecutors (yes, including me), defense attorneys and litigants. He has a serious, formal demeanor on the bench....

In my experience, Judge Pauley is a stern sentencer, particularly where the defendant has exploited a position of authority and acted out of greed or arrogance. The SDNY prosecutors, clearly aware of this tendency, noted in its sentencing memo last week that Cohen, "an attorney and businessman ... was motivated to do so [commit crimes] by personal greed, and repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends."

Judge Pauley can show mercy to a truly unfortunate or disadvantaged defendant, but he does not usually take kindly to abuse of power. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the SDNY argues that Cohen faces a sentencing range of 51 to 63 months.  The federal guidelines are based on a chart: one axis reflects the defendant's prior criminal history (for Cohen, none) while the other reflects the seriousness of the offenses (for Cohen, fairly serious -- offense level 24 out of a maximum of 43).  The range is not binding but it is important. Judge Pauley must consider the range, but he can sentence within, above or below it at his discretion....

Judge Pauley likely will give Cohen some credit for providing useful information to Mueller, but almost certainly won't let Cohen walk, given the SDNY's tepid support for only a modest reduction....

The big question then is whether Cohen will continue cooperating after sentencing. Cohen vows in his sentencing memo that he will. However, once he has been sentenced, his incentive to cooperate diminishes.

There is a mechanism in the federal rules -- Rule 35 -- that permits the prosecutor to ask the judge for a reduced sentence if the defendant provides valuable cooperation after his original sentence was imposed. If Cohen receives a sentence that he simply cannot bear, he will be highly motivated to continue providing assistance to Mueller, and perhaps to come clean on previously undisclosed topics, in hopes of earning an eventual Rule 35 motion.  Paradoxically then, the more time Cohen gets on Wednesday, the more likely he may be to cooperate fully with Mueller as the investigation builds to a crescendo.

The stakes on Wednesday undoubtedly will be high for Cohen and for his ability and incentive to cooperate moving forward.  Cohen's future cooperation, in turn, will affect Mueller's ability to penetrate into the heart of corruption in the Trump campaign and the White House.

In a discussion with a member of the media, I predicted that Cohen would get a sentence in the 2.5 to 3 year range. I am incline to stick with that prediction for now, though I would like to hear reader predictions of what they Judge Pauley will do at sentencing or even recommendations as to what they think Judge Pauley should do at sentencing.

Prior related posts:

December 11, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sixth Circuit panel overturns ruling that Ohio's lifetime sex-offender registration rules violate procedural due process rights

A panel f the Sixth Circuit handed down an interest opinion today in Doe v. DeWine, No. 17-3857 (6th Cir. Dec. 11, 2018) (available here).  Here is how it gets started and some key passages:

Defendants-Appellants Michael DeWine, Ohio Attorney General, and Tom Stickrath, Superintendent of the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, appeal the district-court judgment declaring that Ohio’s sexual-offender registration and notification laws violate Plaintiff-Appellee Jane Doe’s procedural due process rights because they subject her to lifetime registration requirements, which rest on an implicit finding that she remains likely to reoffend, without an opportunity to rebut that finding.  We REVERSE....

The statute unambiguously provides that the sentencing judge’s determination that a person convicted of a sexually oriented offense “is likely to engage in the future in one or more sexually oriented offenses” is “permanent and continues in effect until the offender’s death.”  O.R.C § 2950.09(D)(2) (2003).  In eliminating an offender’s right to petition the sentencing court for a reclassification hearing and declaring the classification permanent, the Ohio legislature made clear that the initial “classification or adjudication” could never “be removed or terminated,” id., and that an offender’s duties and restrictions stemming from that classification could not “be removed or terminated” either, id. § 2950.07(B)(1).

Thus, Doe’s current sexual-predator classification is based on her likelihood of reoffending as of the time of the classification hearing because under Ohio’s scheme, that assessment operated to require that her name be placed in the sex-offender registry permanently.  As in DPS, no fact other than that assessment is relevant to Doe’s present classification.  538 U.S. at 7.  In other words, Doe’s duty to register and the attendant restrictions stem not from her current dangerousness, but from the assessment of her dangerousness at her classification hearing, which resulted in a permanent sexual-predator classification.  Therefore, she has not been deprived of constitutionally guaranteed process because “due process does not require the opportunity to prove a fact that is not material to the State’s statutory scheme.” Id. at 4....

In sum, because Doe’s registration requirement stems from the determination of her likelihood of reoffending at the time of her classification hearing and is not dependent on her current dangerousness, she has no procedural due process right to a reclassification hearing.  Further, the wisdom of Ohio’s decision to make the determination of a sexual offender’s future dangerousness permanent is not subject to a procedural due process challenge.

December 11, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Charlottesville Jury Recommends 419 Years Plus Life For Neo-Nazi Who Killed Protester"

The title of this post is the headline of this NPR piece reporting on a high-profile jury sentencing verdict this afternoon.  Here are the details:

The 21-year-old avowed neo-Nazi who murdered a woman when he plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters last year at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

A jury in Charlottesville said Tuesday that James Alex Fields Jr. should be sentenced to life plus 419 years in prison and $480,000 in fines, for killing Heather Heyer and seriously injuring 35 others.

Judge Richard Moore will decide whether to sign off on the recommended sentence at a hearing on March 29.

The life sentence was in response to Fields' first-degree murder conviction. The jury arrived at 419 additional years, The Associated Press reports, by recommending "70 years for each of five malicious wounding charges, 20 for each of three malicious wounding charges, and nine years on one charge of leaving the scene of an accident."

A day earlier, jurors heard emotional testimony from Heyer's mother, Susan Bro, and from several victims struck by Fields on Aug. 12, 2017, during the Unite the Right rally that weekend. "Heather was full of love, justice and fairness," Bro said, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "Mr. Fields tried to silence her. ... I refuse to let him."

Bro also told the jury that she does not hate Fields for killing her daughter, a loss she described as an "explosion" that has blown up her family.

Meanwhile, Fields' attorneys asked the jury to consider their client's mental state on the day of the murder. A psychologist "testified that Fields was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoid personality disorder at the ages of 6 and 14, respectively," the Times-Dispatch reported....

Fields also faces federal hate crime charges, which allow for the death penalty.

I think it at once silly and telling when defendants are facing or are given sentences that are much longer than the United States has been a country. And here, of course, Fields will have to be in prison until the year 2437 and then face a life sentence!

Jokes aside, the interesting questions now are (1) whether the Virginia judge will adopt the jury's sentencing recommendation, and (2) whether federal prosecutors will still be eager to pursue federal charges to possibly seek a death sentence for Fields.

Prior related post:

December 11, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 10, 2018

Congress finally enacts "Paroline fix" that should improve victim restitution in federal child porn cases

Long-time readers may recall regularly blogging here about federal district and circuit opinions struggling to figure out whether and how courts could impose restitution awards/punishments on federal offenders convicted only of downloading child pornography images.  Because the child porn restitution questions produced various splits in the lower courts, the Supreme Court took up and "resolved" these issues in Paroline v. US, No. 12-8561 (Apr. 23, 2014) (available here).  But because Paroline required federal judges, in the words of one district court, to make "essentially a wild-ass guess" when trying to determine the appropriate level of restitution for a victim in a child porn downloading case, this issue continued to cry out for a legislative fix in the wake of the Paroline ruling.

A few days after the Supreme Court ruled in Paroline, I asked in a post "Will Congress fix (quickly? ever? wisely?) the "puzzle of paying Amy" after Paroline?".  And a few years after the Supreme Court ruled in Paroline, victim advocates Paul Cassell and James Marsh talking through these issues in a law review article "Full Restitution for Child Pornography Victims: The Supreme Court's Paroline Decision and the Need for a Congressional Response".  Now, a little more than 55 months after the Supreme Court ruled in Paroline, Congress managed to get a Paroline fix done in a bipartisan fashion. 

Specifically, Congress used its lame duck session to finalize a long-discussed Paroline fix in the form of an amendment to federal restitution statutes called the "Amy, Vicky, and Andy Child Pornography Victim Assistance Act of 2018."   President Trump, as reported in this press release, on Friday signed this legislation into law.  Senator Orrin Hatch, who played a leading role in getting this enacted, released this press statement celebrating and explaining this new legislation:

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the senior Republican and President Pro Tempore of the US Senate, released the following statement after the President signed the Amy, Vicky, and Andy Child Pornography Victim Assistance Act into law. Senator Hatch introduced the legislation alongside Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Pat Toomey (R-PA). This bill recognizes the unique kind of harm caused by child pornography and requires restitution in a manner that will support victims.

“I’m thrilled the President has signed the Amy, Vicky, and Andy Act into law. This is a momentous day and many years in the making.” Hatch said. “This bipartisan legislation will provide meaningful assistance for child pornography victims to support their recovery and allow them to reclaim their lives. I am proud of this legislation and look forward to seeing it change the world for good.” The legislation establishes more relevant standards for child pornography victims who seek restitution from defendants and gives victims the alternative of a one-time fixed compensation payment from the existing Crime Victims Fund. The bill also allows victims access to the images depicting them, which can be important for victim identification, expert testimony, forensic review, and treatment.

The bill passed in the Senate by unanimous consent in January. With the help of Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), the House sponsor of the bill, and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the House of Representatives passed an amended version of the bill by unanimous consent. In November, the Senate passed the amended bill by unanimous consent, and ... was signed by the President into law.

The bill is named after victims depicted in some of the most widely circulated child pornography series in the world. “Amy,” “Vicky,” and “Andy” all strongly support the bill.

The Amy, Vicky, and Andy Child Pornography Victim Assistance Act includes the following provisions:

  • Findings that focus on the unique nature of child pornography crime and how it harms victims
  • A more relevant and predictable definition of “full amount of a victim’s losses”
  • Restitution: --- Child pornography production: victims receive full amount of their total losses; ----Child pornography trafficking: victims receive from each defendant a minimum of $3,000
  • Compensation: --- Victims of child pornography trafficking are entitled to receive a one-time payment of $35,000 in defined monetary assistance (which is indexed to inflation) from a Child Pornography Victims Reserve (CPVR) within the federal Crime Victims Fund (CVF); --- Caps fees for attorneys representing a victim seeking defined monetary assistance at 15%; --- The court must assess defendants in child pornography cases to contribute to the CPVR: up to $17,000 for possession, up to $35,000 for distribution, and up to $50,000 for production crimes; --- The CPVR will be capped at $10 million
  • Victims of child pornography trafficking will enjoy the same priority in restitution payments as victims in other restitution statutes
  • Child pornography victims have equal rights with criminal defendants to review the child pornography depicting them at a government facility or court for the purposes of furnishing expert testimony
  • The Department of Justice must deliver a report to Congress within two years after passage about the Act’s implementation including an assessment of the funding levels for the Child Pornography Victims Reserve

I have long been a support of more effective and predictable restitution mechanisms in these  kinds of cases and others, so I welcome this overdue development.  Because few have been reporting consistently on the impact of the Paroline ruling in federal cases, I am especially glad this legislation give the Justice Department a responsibility to report on this new legislation's effectiveness.

A few (of many) prior posts on Paroline and child porn restitution issues mostly from some years ago:

December 10, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Class v. United States: Bargained Justice and a System of Efficiencies"

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

In 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Class v. United States that a defendant does not inherently waive his or her right to appeal constitutional claims simply by entering an unconditional plea of guilty. Rather, the Court determined such waivers must be express.  While the issue decided in Class was relatively straightforward, the case stands more importantly as another pillar in the growing body of modern plea-bargaining jurisprudence.  In particular, Class is of note because the facts of the case and the discussions surrounding the appeal raise fundamental questions regarding the operation of the plea-bargaining machine, the psychology of defendant decision-making, and the voluntariness of plea bargaining given our growing understanding of the phenomenon of factually innocent defendants falsely pleading guilty.

This article begins with an examination of Class, including the incentives that led the defendant to plead guilty despite his belief that the statute of conviction infringed his constitutional rights.  The article then examines the shadowy rise of plea bargaining during the 19th and 20th centuries and the recent focus on plea bargaining by the Supreme Court since its 2010 decision in Padilla v. Kentucky.  This analysis of recent plea-bargaining case law will illustrate that fundamental issues are beginning to rise to the surface regarding defendant decision-making and voluntariness in the plea context, including the reliability of admissions of guilt in return for plea bargains and the phenomenon of false pleas.  The article, therefore, next examines recent psychological research on these topics, including research demonstrating that factually innocent individuals will falsely confess in return for the benefits of a bargain and research finding that pretrial detention is a driver of false pleas.

Finally, the piece considers the ramifications of growing evidence that plea bargaining has a voluntariness and reliability problem.  Along with considering ways to address these concerns, the article proposes that these revelations will inevitably lead us to face a broader question.  What does it mean if we have adopted a criminal justice system that embraces efficiency at the expense of accuracy?

December 10, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS rules unanimously that ACCA predicates can include all sorts of burglary

The Supreme Court this morning handed down its first full sentencing opinion of the Term, and the opinion in yet another Armed Career Criminal Act dispute over statutory interpretation is not all that interesting or all that surprising.  Justice Breyer wrote a short opinion for a unanimous court in US v. Stitt, No. 17-765 (S. Ct. Dec. 10, 2018) (available here), and it gets started this way:

The Armed Career Criminal Act requires a federal sentencing judge to impose upon certain persons convicted of unlawfully possessing a firearm a 15-year minimum prison term.  The judge is to impose that special sentence if the offender also has three prior convictions for certain violent or drug-related crimes.  18 U. S. C. §924(e).  Those prior convictions include convictions for “burglary.” §924(e)(2)(B)(ii).  And the question here is whether the statutory term “burglary” includes burglary of a structure or vehicle that has been adapted or is customarily used for overnight accommodation.  We hold that it does.

And here are a few paragraphs from the opinion's substantive discussion:

The word “burglary,” like the word “crime” itself, is ambiguous.  It might refer to a kind of crime, a generic crime, as set forth in a statute (“a burglary consists of behavior that . . . ”), or it might refer to the way in which an individual offender acted on a particular occasion (“on January 25, Jones committed a burglary on Oak Street in South San Francisco”).  We have held that the words in the Armed Career Criminal Act do the first.  Accordingly, we have held that the Act requires us to evaluate a prior state conviction “in terms of how the law defines the offense and not in terms of how an individual offender might have committed it on a particular occasion.”  Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 141 (2008). A prior state conviction, we have said, does not qualify as generic burglary under the Act where “the elements of [the relevant state statute] are broader than those of generic burglary.” Mathis v. United States, 579 U. S. ___, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 19).  The case in which we first adopted this “categorical approach” is Taylor v. United States, 495 U. S. 575 (1990).  That case, which specifically considered the statutory term “burglary,” governs here and determines the outcome.

In Taylor, we did more than hold that the word “burglary” refers to a kind of generic crime rather than to the defendant’s behavior on a particular occasion.  We also explained, after examining the Act’s history and purpose, that Congress intended a “uniform definition of burglary [to] be applied to all cases in which the Government seeks” an enhanced sentence under the Act.  Id., at 580–592.  We held that this uniform definition includes “at least the ‘classic’ common-law definition,” namely, breaking and entering a dwelling at night with intent to commit a felony.  Id., at 593.  But we added that it must include more.  The classic definition, by excluding all places other than dwellings, we said, has “little relevance to modern law enforcement concerns.” Ibid. Perhaps for that reason, by the time the Act was passed in 1986, most States had expanded the meaning of burglary to include “structures other than dwellings.” Ibid. (citing W. LaFave & A. Scott, Substantive Criminal Law §§8.13(a)–(f) (1986)).

For a small number of federal defendants facing ACCA's long mandatory minimum based on a quirky prior crime, this ruling is very important and consequential.  For others, not much too see here.

December 10, 2018 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

After Virginia jury convicts James Fields of first-degree murder for killing in Charlottesville, same jury to begin considering sentence

As indicated in this brief AP report headlined "Jury to recommend sentence for white nationalist," a high-profile jury sentencing gets started today:

A man convicted of first-degree murder for driving his car into counterprotesters at a white nationalist rally in Virginia faces 20 years to life in prison as jurors reconvene to consider his punishment.

The panel that convicted James Alex Fields Jr. will hear more evidence Monday before recommending a sentence for Judge Richard Moore.

Fields was convicted Friday of killing Heather Heyer during last year's "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, organized to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederal Gen. Robert E. Lee. The 21-year-old Fields, of Maumee, Ohio, also was found guilty of injuring dozens of others by driving into a crowd of people who were marching peacefully after the rally.

I know very little about Virginia's sentencing process, and I am now very curious about what they are allowed to hear at this stage.  I do know that Virginia jurors are not told about sentencing guidelines that would be applicable and considered at a judicial sentencing.  And I wonder if they can be told about the fact that the defendant here is also facing dozens of federal charges.  Here is a little about recent history of jury sentencing from the Virginia Sentencing Commission's 2018 Annual Report (from pages 25-27):

There are three methods by which Virginia’s criminal cases are adjudicated: guilty pleas, bench trials, and jury trials.  Felony cases in circuit courts are overwhelmingly resolved through guilty pleas from defendants, or plea agreements between defendants and the Commonwealth.  During the last fiscal year, 91% of guideline cases were sentenced following guilty pleas.  Adjudication by a judge in a bench trial accounted for 8% of all felony guidelines cases sentenced.  During FY2018 1.2% of cases involved jury trials. In a small number of cases, some of the charges were adjudicated by a judge, while others were adjudicated by a jury, after which the charges were combined into a single sentencing hearing....

In FY2018, the Commission received 270 cases adjudicated by juries.  While the concurrence rate for cases adjudicated by a judge or resolved by a guilty plea was at 82% during the fiscal year, sentences handed down by juries concurred with the guidelines only 39% of the time.  In fact, jury sentences were more likely to fall above the guidelines than within the recommended range.  This pattern of jury sentencing vis-à-vis the guidelines has been consistent since the truth-in-sentencing guidelines became effective in 1995. By law, however, juries are not allowed to receive any information regarding the sentencing guidelines....

In cases of adults adjudicated by a jury, judges are permitted by law to lower a jury sentence.  Typically, however, judges have chosen not to amend sanctions imposed by juries. In FY2018, judges modified 16% of jury sentences.

December 10, 2018 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, December 08, 2018

"Bias In, Bias Out"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article authored by Sandra Mayson that I just came across on SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Police, prosecutors, judges, and other criminal justice actors increasingly use algorithmic risk assessment to estimate the likelihood that a person will commit future crime.  As many scholars have noted, these algorithms tend to have disparate racial impact. In response, critics advocate three strategies of resistance: (1) the exclusion of input factors that correlate closely with race, (2) adjustments to algorithmic design to equalize predictions across racial lines, and (3) rejection of algorithmic methods altogether.

This Article’s central claim is that these strategies are at best superficial and at worst counterproductive, because the source of racial inequality in risk assessment lies neither in the input data, nor in a particular algorithm, nor in algorithmic methodology.  The deep problem is the nature of prediction itself.  All prediction looks to the past to make guesses about future events.  In a racially stratified world, any method of prediction will project the inequalities of the past into the future.  This is as true of the subjective prediction that has long pervaded criminal justice as of the algorithmic tools now replacing it.  What algorithmic risk assessment has done is reveal the inequality inherent in all prediction, forcing us to confront a much larger problem than the challenges of a new technology.  Algorithms shed new light on an old problem.

Ultimately, the Article contends, redressing racial disparity in prediction will require more fundamental changes in the way the criminal justice system conceives of and responds to risk.  The Article argues that criminal law and policy should, first, more clearly delineate the risks that matter, and, second, acknowledge that some kinds of risk may be beyond our ability to measure without racial distortion — in which case they cannot justify state coercion.  To the extent that we can reliably assess risk, on the other hand, criminal system actors should strive to respond to risk with support rather than restraint whenever possible.  Counterintuitively, algorithmic risk assessment could be a valuable tool in a system that targets the risky for support.

December 8, 2018 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 07, 2018

Feds request for Michael Cohen a "substantial term of imprisonment" though with a "modest downward variance" from Guideline range of 51-63 months in prison

Michael Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced by US District Judge William Pauley in New York City on December 12 after his guilty plea to charges including campaign finance fraud and lying to Congress.  As noted in this prior post, late last Friday, Cohen's lawyers filed this 30-page sentencing memorandum making a plea for leniency and a sentence of "time-served and restitution to the IRS."  Today it was time for federal prosecutors to weigh in, and the Acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York has now delivered this 40-page government sentencing memorandum making a case for a "substantial prison term."  Here is this latest filing's preliminary statement:

Defendant Michael Cohen is scheduled to be sentenced on December 12, 2018. The United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York (the “Office”) respectfully submits this memorandum in connection with that sentencing and in response to the defendant’s sentencing memorandum dated November 30, 2018 (“Def. Mem.”). 

Cohen, an attorney and businessman, committed four distinct federal crimes over a period of several years.  He was motivated to do so by personal greed, and repeatedly used his power and influence for deceptive ends. Now he seeks extraordinary leniency — a sentence of no jail time — based principally on his rose-colored view of the seriousness of the crimes; his claims to a sympathetic personal history; and his provision of certain information to law enforcement. But the crimes committed by Cohen were more serious than his submission allows and were marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life (and was evidently hidden from the friends and family members who wrote on his behalf).

Cohen did provide information to law enforcement, including information that assisted the Special Counsel’s Office (“SCO”) in ongoing matters, as described in the SCO’s memorandum to the Court, and the Office agrees that this is a factor to be considered by the Court pursuant to Title 18, United States Code, Section 3553(a).  But Cohen’s description of those efforts is overstated in some respects and incomplete in others.  To be clear: Cohen does not have a cooperation agreement and is not receiving a Section 5K1.1 letter either from this Office or the SCO, and therefore is not properly described as a “cooperating witness,” as that term is commonly used in this District.

As set forth in the Probation Department’s Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”), the applicable United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”) range is 51 to 63 months’ imprisonment.  This range reflects Cohen’s extensive, deliberate, and serious criminal conduct, and this Office submits that a substantial prison term is required to vindicate the purposes and principles of sentencing as set forth in Section 3553(a).  And while the Office agrees that Cohen should receive credit for his assistance in the SCO investigation, that credit should not approximate the credit a traditional cooperating witness would receive, given, among other reasons, Cohen’s affirmative decision not to become one.  For these reasons, the Office respectfully requests that this Court impose a substantial term of imprisonment, one that reflects a modest downward variance from the applicable Guidelines range.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE:  My posting above initially failed to note that there big sentencing memo linked above came from the Southern District of New York.  I have clarified this above because there was another filing from the Special Counsel's Office to address Cohen's offense of lying to Congress.  This SCO sentencing filing runs only seven pages, and it paints Cohen in a somewhat better light, concluding this way:

The defendant’s crime was serious, both in terms of the underlying conduct and its effect on multiple government investigations.  The sentence imposed should reflect the fact that lying to federal investigators has real consequences, especially where the defendant lied to investigators about critical facts, in an investigation of national importance.

However, the defendant has made substantial and significant efforts to remediate his misconduct, accept responsibility for his actions, and assist the SCO’s investigation. Accordingly, the Government respectfully submits that the Court should give due consideration to the defendant’s efforts set forth above and that it would be appropriate to allow the defendant to serve any sentence imposed in this case concurrently with any sentence imposed in United States v. Cohen, 18-cr-602 (WHP).

December 7, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (15)

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Tennessee Supreme Court rule in high-profile case that juve life sentence allows for possible release after 51 years

As reported in this local article, "Tennessee Supreme Court said Thursday that Cyntoia Brown, a Nashville woman serving a life sentence in prison for a murder she committed at 16, could be eligible for release after she serves 51 years in prison." Here is more about a notable ruling in a high-profile case:

Brown, now 30, has been locked up since 2004, when she was convicted of shooting 43-year-old Nashville real estate agent Johnny Allen. Her legal team launched a challenge to her life sentence in the federal court system, pointing to a 2012 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court saying that giving juveniles life sentences without parole was cruel and unusual in most cases.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is considering Brown’s case, said Tennessee sentencing laws are unclear. Some sections suggested Brown's conviction should lead to life without parole while others suggested she should eventually be released.

During a hearing this summer, Sixth Circuit judges suggested that if Brown would never be eligible for release under state law, her sentence could be overturned. The appeals court asked Tennessee's high court to weigh in before it made a final decision.

The Tennessee Supreme Court’s unanimous answer that Brown would eventually be eligible for release sometime after her 69th birthday could complicate her legal team’s argument.

In its eight-page decision released Thursday, the state Supreme Court determined that a defendant sentenced to life in prison for a first-degree murder committed on or after July 1, 1995, will become eligible after serving a minimum of 51 years in prison. The rule also applies to 14 other offenses including rape, kidnapping and aggravated child abuse. The opinion will be handed over to the federal appeals court for review.

Brown also is asking Gov. Bill Haslam for clemency. The state parole board, which was split in its recommendations, sent the case file to the governor's office in July....

At 16, Brown climbed into a pickup truck on Murfreesboro Pike with Allen, a stranger, drove to his home, got into his bed — then shot him in the back of the head with a .40-caliber handgun as he lay naked beside her. Brown's advocates say she was forced into prostitution in fear of her life and wronged by the legal system. Prosecutors say Brown killed the man to rob him. Following her trial in 2006, Brown was convicted of Allen's murder.

Pop stars such as Rihanna and Kim Kardashian West have taken to social media encouraging Brown's freedom.

The full ruling from the Tennessee Supreme Court is available at this link.  Given the SIxth Circuit's existing jurisprudence applying Miller, it now seems quite unlikely Brown will succeed with an Eighth Amendment challenge to her sentence.

December 6, 2018 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)