Tuesday, March 31, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 30, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Friday, March 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 23, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 23, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 21, 2020

"Communicating Punishment"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 12, 2020

"Valid or Voodoo: A Qualitative Study of Attorney Attitudes Towards Risk Assessment in Sentencing and Plea Bargaining"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper with multiple authors now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Prior research largely has explored judicial attitudes toward risk assessment in sentencing.  Little is known about how other court actors, specifically, prosecutors and defense attorneys, make use of risk information at sentencing hearings and during plea negotiations.  Here, we report a qualitative study on the use of risk assessment by prosecutors and defense attorneys in Virginia.  A prior quantitative study (n=70) pointed to a statistically significant difference in how prosecutors and defense attorneys regard the role of recidivism risk in sentencing hearings and in plea bargaining.  Based on the results of the quantitative study, we collected follow-up qualitative data via interview (n=30) to explain this unexpected difference.

Three themes emerged from the interviews: Who is the lawyer’s identified client? (With prosecutors choosing the general public and defense attorneys choosing the particular defendant); Does past behavior strongly predict future behavior? (With prosecutors being more likely than defense attorneys to believe it does); and Is the Nonviolent Risk Assessment a statistically valid tool for assessing recidivism risk? (With prosecutors and defense attorneys equally likely to believe that the tool was no more valid than their own intuitive professional experience).  Virginia is regarded as one of the leading innovators in the use of risk assessment.  Thus, as more states and the federal government adopt a risk-based approach to sentencing, studies on Virginia can provide useful guidance on the implementation process.

March 12, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Big group of US Representatives urges Acting Pardon Attorney to make sure "trial penalty" is part of clemency considerations

Via email I received this interesting note headed "U.S. Reps. Ask Justice Dept. to Review Trial Penalties in Clemency Considerations."  The note reports on this bipartisan letter from nearly 50 US Representatives to the Acting Pardon Attorney urging that she use here "authority when reviewing requests for clemency to consider individual criminal sentences that are significantly harsher than the original sentence offered by the prosecuting attorney in exchange for a guilty plea." Here is more from the letter:

These harsher sentences — also referred to as the “trial penalty” — can be imposed when a criminal defendant decides against accepting a guilty plea.  Instead of accepting a guilty plea, a criminal defendant decides to pursue their 6th Amendment right to a jury trial.  The trial penalty results in a significantly longer prison sentence than those imposed on more culpable defendants who voluntarily waive their constitutional right to a jury trial.

The “trial penalty” also impacts the criminal justice system when criminal defendants plead guilty to avoid a threatened or perceived consequence of going to trial.  These criminal defendants may have valid claims or a defense that could be raised at a trial.  However, these defendants are made aware of or are advised that taking the chance to go to trial could lead to unduly harsh penalties.

Harsher trial sentences have been used to deter people from exercising their 6th Amendment right to a trial.  A 2018 study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found that 97% of criminal cases are resolved in a plea.  This strongly suggests that the risk of going to trial is too great for all but 3% of federal criminal defendants.

We therefore request that, when reviewing individual petitions for clemency, you request information from U.S. Attorneys on what sentencing offers were extended to the defendant as part of any plea deal.  This information can be compared with the sentence that the criminal defendant received to determine if they received a “trial penalty.” The “trial penalty” should be considered in clemency petitions by the President.

I am very pleased to see reference to the big 2018 NACDL report (blogged here), especially because it provides another to promote follow-up 2019 Federal Sentencing Reporter double-issue that included 16 original pieces on various aspects of "The Trial Penalty" (first blogged here).

A few prior related posts:

March 10, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Monday, March 09, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 07, 2020

Citing Williams v. New York repeatedly, NY prosecutors urge judge to consider Harvey Weinstein's "lifetime of abuse" at sentencing

As reported in this USA Today piece, headlined "Harvey Weinstein prosecutors seek tough sentence for his 'lifetime of abuse'," state prosecutors delivered to the sentencing judge in the Weinstein case a notable 11-page letter urging the judge to focus on a whole lot of uncharged conduct at this week's upcoming scheduled sentencing. Here are the basics:

Harvey Weinstein's sentence for his conviction on two sex crimes should reflect his "lifetime of abuse" as shown at his trial and in 36 other cases of sexual harassment and assault, workplace abuse and even physically assaulting a reporter, Manhattan prosecutors said in a letter to the trial judge released Friday.

The 11-page letter from Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi was sent to Judge James Burke in advance of Weinstein's sentencing on March 11, when prosecutors are expected to make an oral statement in court about the sentence.

The trial evidence, the testimony of the six accusers who took the stand, and additional allegations outlined in the letter, Illuzzi said, "show a lifetime of abuse towards others, sexual and otherwise." She asked the judge to "impose a sentence that reflects the seriousness of defendant's offenses, his total lack of remorse for the harm he has caused, and the need to deter him and others from engaging in further criminal conduct."

Weinstein was convicted Feb. 24 of third-degree rape and first-degree sexual assault involving two women, and was acquitted of three more serious charges. He could be sentenced to prison for a term ranging from five years to 25 years....

Prosecutors, who want Weinstein's sentence to fall at the longer end of the spectrum, compiled a list of accusations they collected over two years to demonstrate that Weinstein is a predator, even if he's been convicted of only two crimes. "As this court is well aware, in imposing what it deems to be a fair and just punishment, a sentencing court is not limited to the evidence at trial," Illuzzi wrote, citing precedent to argue that the judge has "wide discretion to consider all circumstances that shed light on a convicted person's background, history and behavior" in considering a sentence.

"Chief among the information considered at sentencing is the defendant's history of 'misconduct, whether or not it resulted in convictions,' " Illuzzi said, citing precedents in several federal cases.

Arthur Aidala, one of Weinstein's defense lawyers, told USA TODAY his team has no comment on the prosecution's letter. He said they expect to issue their own pre-sentencing letter to the judge on Monday....

The prosecution list of 36 allegations is divided into three categories: alleged acts of sexual assault and harassment; alleged abusive behavior in the work environment; and other alleged "bad acts." The earliest alleged sexual assault occurred in 1978 when an employee of his music promotion company in Buffalo said she was forced to share a New York City hotel room with Weinstein and woke up to find him raping her. The most recent alleged assault occurred in 2014 at the Cannes Film Festival where he allegedly trapped a woman in a hotel room bathroom and groped her while masturbating.

The full 11-page letter is available at this link, and it makes quite the interesting read. Hard-core sentencing fans know that, over seventy years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the use of uncharged conduct at sentencing in a case from New York, Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241 (1949).  Fittingly, Williams is the cited and quoted repeatedly in this sentencing letter from prosecutors to the sentencing judge.

March 7, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Technologies of Crime Prediction: The Reception of Algorithms in Policing and Criminal Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing and timely new article authored by Sarah Brayne and Angèle Christin just published in the journal Social Problems. Here is its abstract:

The number of predictive technologies used in the U.S. criminal justice system is on the rise.  Yet there is little research to date on the reception of algorithms in criminal justice institutions.  We draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted within a large urban police department and a midsized criminal court to assess the impact of predictive technologies at different stages of the criminal justice process.

We first show that similar arguments are mobilized to justify the adoption of predictive algorithms in law enforcement and criminal courts.  In both cases, algorithms are described as more objective and efficient than humans’ discretionary judgment.  We then study how predictive algorithms are used, documenting similar processes of professional resistance among law enforcement and legal professionals.  In both cases, resentment toward predictive algorithms is fueled by fears of deskilling and heightened managerial surveillance.  Two practical strategies of resistance emerge: foot-dragging and data obfuscation.  We conclude by discussing how predictive technologies do not replace, but rather displace discretion to less visible — and therefore less accountable — areas within organizations, a shift which has important implications for inequality and the administration of justice in the age of big data.

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

Thursday, March 05, 2020

"The Saga of Pennsylvania’s 'Willie Horton' and the Commutation of Life Sentences in the Commonwealth"

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

In 1994, Reginald McFadden’s sentence of life without the possibility of parole was commuted by the governor of Pennsylvania, and he was shipped to New York to be supervised by a bunch of amateurs.  Within roughly 90 days, he murdered two people, raped and kidnapped a third, and possibly murdered a fourth. McFadden proved to be Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel’s “Willie Horton.”  Singel, who had voted for McFadden’s release as a member of the Board of Pardons, lost the gubernatorial election to his Republican opponent who ran on a “life-means-life” platform. Compounding the tragedy of McFadden’s actions, the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended to require a unanimous vote of the pardon board for the commutation of life sentences.

In the last 25 years, only 25 lifers have won commutation, 19 of whom were freed by the current chief executive, Governor Wolf.  Drawing on materials culled from the state archives and right-to-know requests, this article, which has the makings of a serial podcast, explores the bureaucratic blunders and biased judgments that have left a large number of aging rehabilitated lifers to await death by incarceration.  The Article ends with proposals for reform the commutation process to counter the fear of the “Willie Horton Effect” experienced by public officials involved in pardon decisions.

March 5, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

"Deal Jumpers"

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

Fundamental fairness dictates that when a criminal defendant enters a plea in exchange for the prosecutor’s sentence concession, the defendant should actually receive the sentence for which he or she bargained.  Surprisingly, however, many states permit the judicial practice of deal jumping: the judge can accept the defendant’s plea, disregard the sentence concession that induced the plea in the first place, and then sandbag the defendant with any punishment the judge wishes to impose.  Worse yet, the hapless defendant is left without recourse, unable to withdraw his or her plea.

Deal jumping is fundamentally unfair to defendants and harmful to the criminal justice system—a system that relies on plea bargains for more than 95 percent of its convictions.  To ensure fairness, transparency, and integrity in plea bargaining, state legislatures should eliminate deal jumping and require judges to approve or reject sentence concessions at the same time they approve or reject charge concessions: before accepting the defendant’s plea.  Alternatively, if a judge accepts the defendant’s plea but then decides to exceed the agreed-upon sentence, the defendant should be allowed to withdraw his or her plea and proceed to trial.

Legal reform to eliminate deal jumping is simple to implement and has garnered broad-based support; nonetheless, state legislatures often resist change, clinging blindly to the status quo.  Therefore, this Article also provides defense lawyers with a practical plea-bargaining strategy to protect their clients.  Defense counsel should consider invoking little-known but effective legal rules — rules which exist in many states — to constrain judicial abuse, provide greater certainty at sentencing, and even ensure the defendant receives the actual benefit for which he or she bargained.

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

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Trump's three-track clemency process just might work"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Hill commentary authored by Mark Osler. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Once upon a time, there was only one way to have the president consider your petition for a pardon (which mitigates the effects of a conviction) or a commutation (which shortens a sentence) — and it was terrible.  That process required that a petition go through seven levels of sequential review, mostly within the Department of Justice.  It was so inefficient and biased towards rejection that even President Obama, who seemed to have genuine concern for those in prison, granted just one commutation in his first five years in office.

Eventually, Obama got fed up and forced through over 1,700 commutations by cranking the broken machine harder and attempting to marshal an army of volunteer lawyers to advocate for petitioners.  Unfortunately, though, he did not repair or replace that machine itself, and left to his successor a process which remains in the clutches of the very body of prosecutors who sought over-long sentences in the first place.

That successor, of course, was Donald Trump. Within his first year in office he had set a template for action by pardoning Joseph Arpaio, the former sheriff in Maricopa County, Ariz.  This was the beginning of a second track for clemency within the Trump administration, one which favored right-wing heroes whose cases had been trumpeted by Fox News and Trump advisors like Alan Dershowitz and Rudy Giuliani.  That second track developed even as the official path, or first track, continued to flounder and nearly 14,000 petitions piled up in the broken system.

Most recently, that second track produced clemency for eight people on Feb. 18.... In a remarkable press release, the Trump administration actually listed the celebrity insiders who endorsed each grant... For the normally opaque field of federal clemency, that press release displayed remarkable transparency. We may be unsettled by this method of discernment, but it is consistent with the character and history of the man we elected president.

Hidden beneath those high-profile grants of mercy, though, was the emergence of a third track to clemency — one which should give hope to those of us who would like the pardon power to address the chronic over-sentencing of poor and working-class people who don’t have access to the media or celebrities.

Crystal Munoz, Tynice Hall, and Judith Negron — women who have little in common with the likes of Michael Milken — were all granted commutations from long prison terms.  According to an investigative report by the Washington Post, Trump has assembled a small group of advisors who are feeding him the cases of people like Munoz, Hall, and Negron, who were not Fox News darlings.  This could be the start of something very good.

NYU Professor Rachel Barkow and I have long advocated that the clemency process be taken out of the Department of Justice and put in the hands of a bipartisan commission that would make recommendations directly to the president.  The informal group gathered by Trump has some of the characteristics of what we have suggested, and the potential to grow into something of historic significance....

The problem with this working group, though, is that it leaves in limbo the nearly 14,000 people who followed the rules and submitted their petitions to the Pardon Attorney through the official first-track system.  These petitions sit in purgatory, ignored, even though many are for people similar to Munoz, Hall, and Negron.

The solution should be to enlarge the clemency working group and give it the resources it needs to address that backlog systemically.  Trump should sign an executive order that takes the Acting Pardon Attorney and her staff out of the Department of Justice and brings them into the White House, to report directly to the clemency working group. Meanwhile, that working group should be given official status by executive order, and allowed to continue the good work they began on Feb. 18.

President Trump did not invent discord over clemency.  But, somehow, he has created what can be a path to a better way. That path should be followed.

A few prior related posts:

March 3, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split SCOTUS ruling concludes IRCA does not preempt state prosecution for identify theft for SSN fraud

The Supreme Court handed down a criminal law ruling this morning in Kansas v. Garcia, No. 17-834 (S. Ct. March 3, 2020) (available here), that may ultimately interest federalism fans more than sentencing fans. The majority opinion is authored by Justice Alito, and it starts this way:

Kansas law makes it a crime to commit “identity theft” or engage in fraud to obtain a benefit.  Respondents — three aliens who are not authorized to work in this country — were convicted under these provisions for fraudulently using another person’s Social Security number on state and federal tax-withholding forms that they submitted when they obtained employment.  The Supreme Court of Kansas held that a provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), 100 Stat. 3359, expressly preempts the Kansas statutes at issue insofar as they provide a basis for these prosecutions.  We reject this reading of the provision in question, as well as respondents’ alternative arguments based on implied preemption. We therefore reverse.

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorscuh, concurs in an opinion that starts this way:

I agree that Kansas’ prosecutions and convictions of respondents for identity theft and making false information are not pre-empted by §101(a)(1) of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, 8 U. S. C. §1324a.  I write separately to reiterate my view that we should explicitly abandon our “purposes and objectives” pre-emption jurisprudence.

Justice Breyer filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan:

I agree with the majority that nothing in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), 100 Stat. 3359, expressly preempts Kansas’ criminal laws as they were applied in the prosecutions at issue here. But I do not agree with the majority’s conclusion about implied preemption.

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

Monday, March 02, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 28, 2020

Notable new survey and resources concerning sentencing second looks and second chances

Fair and Just Prosecution and The Justice Collaborative this week released a new survey and additional materials on the hot topic of sentencing reviews and how prosecutors might approach second-look sentencing. This report, titled "Policies & Polling On Reducing Excessive Prison Terms," has these passages in its Executive Summary setting out the context and previewing some of the contents:

In recent years, despite an emerging bipartisan consensus around the need for criminal justice reform, there has been insufficient action to address people serving lengthy sentences who no longer pose a serious risk to public safety.  To gauge popular support for policies that provide opportunities for people serving long prison terms to seek release and return to their communities, we conducted a national survey of American voters.

Our results indicate that such policies have overwhelming support among American voters, regardless of ideology or party affiliation.  Voters believe that sentencing policies and practices should be closely connected to public safety — and that people who can be safely returned to their communities should not be warehoused because of excessive prison terms that waste taxpayer dollars and fail to reflect current values.  Voters believe that people deserve a second chance, and they support sentence-review policies that can provide it.

On the whole, voters believe that reviewing and reducing lengthy sentences serves a variety of important policy goals, including: bringing U.S. sentencing more in line with international standards, addressing racial disparities, reducing costs, correcting older excessive sentences that are out of step with current practices, and ensuring that people who pose little risk of committing crimes are not growing old behind bars, separated from their families and communities.

We sought public sentiment on two policies for sentence review that are gaining increased attention and that are the subject of a new policy brief, “Revisiting Past Extreme Sentences: Sentencing Review and Second Chances,” released today by Fair and Just Prosecution.  Those mechanisms include “second-look” legislation (see Appendix A) and sentence review by elected prosecutors (see Appendix B).  The survey results found strong support for both of these reforms:

  • Overall, 69% of voters support “second look” legislation that allows for “the reexamination of old sentences to provide a second chance for people who have been in prison for more than ten years and who can be safely returned to the community.”
  • Support for these reforms is bipartisan and cuts across geography and ideology. Support among “very conservative” voters for second-look legislation is 63% while support among “very liberal” voters is 82%. These numbers track support along party lines, with 81% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans supporting.
  • Similarly, two-thirds (67%) of voters support “elected prosecutors reexamining past sentences to provide a second chance to people who have been in prison for ten years or longer and who can be safely returned to the community.”

In addition to the Fair and Just Prosecution's policy brief, The Justice Collaborative has also released another great document titled "Model District Attorney Sentence Review Guidelines."  Here I will provide links to these two important new second look documents:

I cannot help but note that some years ago I gave a keynote speech at a conference focused on the work of prosecutors that suggested they should be much more involved in reviewing past sentence.  That speech got published as Encouraging (and Even Requiring) Prosecutors to Be Second-Look Sentencers, 19 Temple Political & Civil Rights L. Rev. 429 (2010).  It is nice to see that it only took about a decade for this idea to come into vogue.

February 28, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

"Does Bail Reform Increase Crime? An Empirical Assessment of the Public Safety Implications of Bail Reform in Cook County, Illinois"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Recently bail reform issues have been in the news across the country, as concerns about fair treatment of defendants and possible public safety risks from expanding pretrial release have collided.  These issues involve important empirical questions, including whether releasing more defendants before trial leads to additional crimes.  An opportunity to investigate this public safety issue has developed in Chicago, our nation’s second largest city.  There, the Office of the Chief Judge of the Cook County Courts adopted new bail reform measures in September 2017 and reviewed them empirically in May 2019.  Cook County’s Bail Reform Study concluded that the new procedures had released many more defendants before trial without any concomitant increase in crime.

This article disputes the Study’s conclusions.  This article explains that, contrary to the Study’s assertions, the new changes to pretrial release procedures appear to have led to a substantial increase in crimes committed by pretrial releasees in Cook County. Properly measured and estimated, after more generous release procedures were put in place, the number of released defendants charged with committing new crimes increased by 45%. And, more concerning, the number of pretrial releasees charged with committing new violent crimes increased by an estimated 33%.  In addition, as reported by the Chicago Tribune, the Study’s data appears to undercount the number of releasees charged with new violent crimes; and a substantial number of aggravated domestic violence prosecutions prosecutors dropped after the changes, presumably because batterers were able to more frequently obtain release and intimidate their victims into not pursuing charges.  These public safety concerns call into question whether the bail “reform” measures implemented in Cook County were cost-beneficial.  And because Cook County’s procedures are state-of-the-art and track those being implemented in many parts of the country, Cook County’s experience suggests that other jurisdictions may similarly be suffering increases in crime due to bail reform.

February 27, 2020 in National and State Crime Data, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Hidden Cost of the Disease: Fines, Fees, and Costs Assessed on Persons with Alleged Substance Use Disorder"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Meghan O'Neil and Daniel Strellman and available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The age-old adage “crime doesn’t pay” is true in more ways than one. This article stems from two years of field work in problem-solving treatment courts; circuit, district, and federal courts; addiction treatment centers; and probation offices throughout the State of Michigan.  Persons experiencing substance use disorder (SUD) can rapidly amass criminal charges on any given day, given that the private use of controlled substances is illegal, as is driving while intoxicated.  These repeated behaviors can, and frequently do, culminate in incarceration, supervision (e.g., probation or parole), and hefty fines and fees.  Moreover, persons experiencing SUD are far from uncommon: overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and in 2018, focus groups with state district court judges in Michigan estimated that four out of every five criminal defendants were experiencing problematic substance use, illuminating the overwhelming degree to which SUD permeates our criminal justice system.

Practitioners, academics, and policymakers involved with the justice system ought to be concerned with the costs assessed in SUD cases because they can be potentially expensive to collect, excruciatingly burdensome on vulnerable people involved with the justice system trying to maintain sobriety and re-enter society, and present a generally inefficient method of punishment when the cost of collection outweighs the total amount which is ultimately collected by the state.  While crime doesn’t pay generally, it is particularly costly for vulnerable defendants experiencing SUD.  Identifying best practices for supervision of SUD offenders might present avenues to improve the cost effectiveness and efficiency of fines in ways that actually reduce subsequent offending — as fines were meant to do.

February 27, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Sentencing is Dang Hard... And So..."

The title of this post is the (silly?) title that I gave to a speech I delivered a few years ago when having the honor to receive the 2018 Richard P. Kern Memorial Award from the National Association of Sentencing Commissions. A cleaned-up version of the speech appears now in the February 2020 issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter, and I have posted the text here via SSRN. Here is the short piece's abstract:

This essay, adapted from a speech upon receipt of the 2018 Richard P. Kern Memorial Award from the National Association of Sentencing Commissions, details why sentencing is “dang hard” and explores implications of that reality.  The essay argues that the challenges of sentencing not only demand that all jurisdictions have a sentencing commission as an essential permanent agency, but also call for these commissions always to think big and to strive to work deep and wide to study all facets of modern criminal justice systems.  The essay also contends that sentencing errors may be quite common and that, even if we manage to get sentencing “right” at the outset, changes in society and in individuals can make even “right” sentences wrong over time.  Sensible humility about the likelihood of sentencing errors further suggests, for example: at the rule-making stage, having sentencing laws include sunset provisions and having sentencing commissions review and audit major guidelines and related sentencing practices on a regular basis; at the case-specific stage, having far more robust substantive appellate review of sentences and more robust mechanisms for parole and judicial reconsideration and clemency, and even developing more creative means to apply and revise different forms of punishment as time passes and new information is gathered.

February 27, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

SCOTUS unanimously clarifies (in narrow way) that no special words are needed to preserve substantive reasonableness review

In this post when cert was granted in Holguin-Hernandez last June, I rejoiced because it has been nearly a decade since SCOTUS has said anything significant about reasonableness review.  But, recognizing that the case concerned only an appellate procedural issue, I was prepared for the ultimate ruling to be a narrow one.  And this morning in Holguin-Hernandez v. United States, No. 18–7739 (S. Ct. Feb. 26, 2020) (available here), the Justices through a unanimous opinion said about as little as possible while ruling for the defendant.  Here are some key excerpts from Justice Breyer's opinion for the Court, with my favorite and least favorite passages bolded (and lots of cites removed):

Congress has instructed sentencing courts to impose sentences that are “‘sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with’” (among other things) certain basic objectives, including the need for “just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.” Dean v. United States, 581 U.S. ___, ___ (2017)... If the trial court follows proper procedures and gives adequate consideration to these and the other listed factors, then the question for an appellate court is simply, as here, whether the trial court’s chosen sentence was “reasonable” or whether the judge instead “abused his discretion in determining that the §3553(a) factors supported” the sentence imposed....

Judges, having in mind their “overarching duty” under §3553(a), would ordinarily understand that a defendant [advocating for a shorter sentence] was making the argument (to put it in statutory terms) that the shorter sentence would be “‘sufficient’” and a longer sentence “‘greater than necessary’” to achieve the purposes of sentencing. Nothing more is needed to preserve the claim that a longer sentence is unreasonable.

We do not agree with the Court of Appeals’ suggestion that defendants are required to refer to the “reasonableness” of a sentence to preserve such claims for appeal.  The rulemakers, in promulgating Rule 51, intended to dispense with the need for formal “exceptions” to a trial court’s rulings....  The question is simply whether the claimed error was “brought to the court’s attention.” Rule 52(b).  Here, it was.

The Court of Appeals properly noted that, to win on appeal, a defendant making such a claim must show that the trial court’s decision was not “reasonable.” Gall, 552 U.S., at 56.  But that fact is not relevant to the issue here.  Our decisions make plain that reasonableness is the label we have given to “the familiar abuse-of-discretion standard” that “applies to appellate review” of the trial court’s sentencing decision. Id., at 46 (emphasis added); ... The substantive standard that Congress has prescribed for trial courts is the “parsimony principle” enshrined in §3553(a).  Dean, 581 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 4).  A defendant who, by advocating for a particular sentence, communicates to the trial judge his view that a longer sentence is “greater than necessary” has thereby informed the court of the legal error at issue in an appellate challenge to the substantive reasonableness of the sentence.  He need not also refer to the standard of review.

The Government and amicus raise other issues.  They ask us to decide what is sufficient to preserve a claim that a trial court used improper procedures in arriving at its chosen sentence.  And they ask us to decide when a party has properly preserved the right to make particular arguments supporting its claim that a sentence is unreasonably long.  We shall not consider these matters, however, for the Court of Appeals has not considered them.  We hold only that the defendant here properly preserved the claim that his 12-month sentence was unreasonably long by advocating for a shorter sentence and thereby arguing, in effect, that this shorter sentence would have proved “sufficient,” while a sentence of 12 months or longer would be “greater than necessary” to “comply with” the statutory purposes of punishment. 18 U.S.C. §3553(a).

I am pleased to see that this decision clarifies, yet again, that district judges under Booker are duty-bound to impose sentences that are "sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with" statutory requirements.  A full 15 years after Booker, more than a few courts still talk about their obligation to impose a "reasonable" sentence even though this is an appellate standard of review.  Kudos to SCOTUS for stressing in this case that "the substantive standard that Congress has prescribed for trial courts is the 'parsimony principle' enshrined in §3553(a)."

But I am displeased to see that this decision refuses to address any other reasonableness review issues.  I respect the Court's decision to be circumspect in a case only raising a small issue, but there are thousands of sentence appeals each year that could benefit from additional clarity about how reasonableness review should proceed and how various issues are properly (or improperly) preserved.

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, Justice Alito (joined by Justice Gorsuch), feels compelled to write a short concurring opinion in order "to emphasize what we are not deciding."  His opinion asserts that "the plain-error rule serves many interests" and he suggests that there are many ways even after Holguin-Hernandez to apply this limited review standard to various sentencing claims on appeal.

February 26, 2020 in Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Oregon discovering it might have Apprendi problems with its new first-degree murder sentencing provisions

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting article from Oregon, headlined "New law throws true life sentence in doubt for MAX train killer Jeremy Christian, other murderers, experts say," which highlights that states are still struggling with the modern meaning of the Sixth Amendment a full two decades since Apprendi v. New Jersey.  Here are the details:

Now that a Portland jury has found Jeremy Christian guilty of the first-degree murders of two men on a MAX train, many people might assume that -- given the horrific nature of his crimes -- he’ll end up serving the rest of his life with the possibility of never being released.  Think again.

A growing chorus of legal experts say they believe there’s a glaring flaw in Oregon’s new first-degree murder law that effectively eliminates the possibility that Christian and other convicted murderers in the future will end up serving “true life” prison terms.

Critics say the new law, passed last summer as Senate Bill 1013, is unconstitutional and vague.  They say it disregards two landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that invalidate the procedure laid out in the law for handing down true life sentences.  In a flurry of paperwork filed Monday, Christian’s lawyers told Multnomah County Circuit Judge Cheryl Albrecht that given the law’s constitutional problems, her only remaining option under the law is to sentence Christian to life in prison with the possibility of release after 30 years.

Other lawyers representing first-degree murder defendants across Oregon are beginning to make similar arguments, as the first batch of accused killers head toward trials since the law took effect Sept. 29.  Defense attorneys aren’t the only ones pointing to a problem. “In the prosecution community, there’s considerable concern,” said former prosecutor Josh Marquis. “It’d be naive to say this is some idle speculation.”...

He said few lawyers are aware of the impact that the Supreme Court cases -- Apprendi v. New Jersey in 2000 and Blakely v. Washington in 2004 -- have on true life in Oregon....  The Supreme Court rulings require a jury, not a judge, to decide on an elevated prison sentence, such as true life, critics of SB 1013 say.  And criteria -- or specific questions asked of jurors -- must be laid out by the law before the jury can hand down the harsher sentence, they say.

The problem with Oregon’s law is that it grants sentencing powers solely to a judge and doesn’t include sentencing criteria.  As a result, retired Multnomah County prosecutor Norm Frink believes there’s “a high degree of probability” that the Oregon Supreme Court will overturn true life sentences for defendants convicted of first-degree murder....

The uncertainty over how the law will affect the first batch of defendants found guilty of first-degree murder is beginning to play out in courtrooms across the state.  In Christian’s case, Albrecht could go along with the law as stated and decide to sentence him to true life by simply giving what the law calls “the reasons” she thinks he deserves that sentence.

But Albrecht appears to recognize a problem with this because, after jurors found Christian guilty last week, she asked them to return to court Tuesday and Wednesday.  She plans to ask them questions about Christian that will help her decide his sentence.

In court filings Monday, prosecutors came up with their own suggestions for what she should ask, including: Is there a high probability that Christian can’t be rehabilitated? Were his crimes fueled by “unreasonable racial and religious bias”? Has Christian shown remorse for plunging the knife into the necks of the three men?

Tuesday, defense attorney Greg Scholl cautioned the judge that she is stepping onto shaky ground. “There’s nothing in the statute that says this is how they (jurors) are supposed to do it," Scholl said. “We’re operating in a new and somewhat gray area," prosecutor Jeff Howes responded.  Howes said just because SB 1013 doesn’t lay out a process for the judge and jury, that doesn’t mean the judge can’t create a process that is constitutional.  Regardless of how Albrecht handles this, Christian’s attorneys are likely to appeal whatever process she devises....

Outside Portland, other Oregon judges also have been grappling with what to do.  In November, a Hillsboro jury found Martin Allen Johnson guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of a 15-year-old girl whose body washed up on the banks of the Columbia River more than 20 years ago.

Using suggestions from prosecutors, Washington County Circuit Judge Eric Butterfield also came up with a list of questions for jurors.  Among them was whether the defendant knew he was preying on a particularly vulnerable person and if prior punishment in the criminal justice system had deterred him from reoffending.  Butterfield then sentenced Johnson to true life.  Johnson is appealing.

In Linn County, Brenton Wade Richmond faces a double murder trial in the shooting deaths of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend in her home in 2019.  Wade’s defense attorney asked Circuit Judge David Delsman to prevent the prosecution from seeking true life because of what they see as the first-degree murder law’s many constitutional issues.

Lawyers for the Oregon Department of Justice, however, have weighed in, saying in court filings that the true life option is legal and valid.  Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the Eugene Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he wasn’t aware of the deep concerns some critics have over the validity of the law’s true life option for first-degree murder. His committee backed the bill.  “Well, that’s their opinion, their interpretation,” said Prozanski, who is a municipal prosecutor and handles misdemeanor cases.  “I had not heard that.  And I will say that the law is pretty clear... The intent was not to do away with what’s called true life.”

The new law causing all this trouble appears in bold here, and it says in one section that the "court shall" impose a 30-to-life term and in the next section that "the court may sentence the person to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole."  That next section then provides that the "court shall state on the record the reasons for imposing the sentence." 

I understand the Sixth Amendment worry with this statutory scheme which seems to require that "reasons" be given for an elevated "true life" sentence.  But, ironically, because the statute does not specify what "reasons" are required for the elevated "true life" sentence, I think an argument might be made that the Oregon statute requires only reasoned judgment, not discreet fact-finding, to justify the higher sentence and thus does not create Sixth Amendment problems.  (In a 2006 article titled, "Conceptualizing Booker," I developed the argument that broad judicial power at sentencing can be justified if and only when judges are exercising reasoned judgment.)

February 25, 2020 in Blakely in the States, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Why prosecutorial discretion must be less discreet for criminal justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Hill commentary authored by Lars Trautman. Here are excerpts:

Although the term “prosecutorial discretion” is familiar to most people, the extent to which it influences the direction and outcomes of each case may not be.  Does an offense deserve criminal charges, and if so which charges?  Should an individual receive bail or await trial in a jail cell? Is that trial even necessary, or will a plea deal suffice? Prosecutorial discretion lies at the heart of the answer to these questions and more.

Yet legislators are in an uproar because some prosecutors have started using their discretion to presumptively dismiss or divert all cases involving certain low level offenses. In Indiana, this includes the Marion County prosecutor declining to prosecute cases involving under an ounce of marijuana.  Likely ignorant of the fact that prosecutors routinely get rid of these cases without a conviction anyway, legislators have taken this replacement of individual decisions with an office wide policy as an affront. The result is a push to let no law go unprosecuted.

That is of course impractical. There are simply too many offenses and possible offenders to actually prosecute them all.   This means that some prosecutorial discretion is inevitable.... General policies favoring alternatives to prosecution extend the benefits of this discretion universally in those cases where the consequences of a conviction are counterproductive to the aims of justice.  Such policies also recognize that scarce prosecutorial resources are generally better spent pursuing much more serious conduct. Ignoring marijuana possession to focus on violent crime should not be a controversial call.

But just because the legislature is attempting to solve a fictional problem does not mean very real ones do not exist.  Prosecutorial discretion suffers from unaccountability and lack of transparency that could undermine its potential for good.  It operates as a kind of black box that only prosecutors can see inside as facts go in, decisions come out, and explanations are rarely forthcoming.  Policies are seldom public, and prosecutors do not usually disclose why they reached an outcome in any given case.

This immunity from scrutiny becomes protection against any challenge.  After all, a bad outcome alone is standard fare in our justice system.  Without any information on why it was reached, who is to say it was not the natural and normal result?  But attempting to eliminate prosecutorial discretion does not address any of these issues.  With more than 13 million misdemeanor charges alone filed every year in the country, and annual prosecutorial caseloads exceeding a thousand in some places, the evidence suggests that discretion is probably not used enough.

Instead, legislators should work to verify that prosecutors exercise their discretion fairly.  They can do this by pushing prosecutors to release relevant policies to the public, explain individual decisions, and collect and publish data on these decisions.  Trying to remove discretion from prosecution is sheer folly.  But as a necessary force behind many of the decisions that occur in criminal justice, it should be brought further into the light.  Only then will the public be able to see that it is correcting imbalances and injustices rather than continuing them.

February 25, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 24, 2020

Without any comment, SCOTUS quickly denies cert on two big cases raising the constitutionality of acquitted conduct sentencing

For a number of months, I have been keeping an eye on two certiorari-stage cases being briefed to the Supreme Court, Asaro v. United States and Michigan v. BeckAsaro is a not-too-uncommon case involving a federal defendant whose sentence was enhanced on the basis of so-called "acquitted conduct,” Beck is a somewhat unusual case involving a split Michigan Supreme Court finding due process precludes acquitted conduct being used to enhance a sentence. 

The fact that the state was appealing in Beck, as well as various past comments by newer Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, had me thinking maybe enough current members of the Supreme Court would be prepared to take up these important and challenging issues that have been churning with uncertainty in the wake of Fifth and Sixth Amendment rulings like Watts, Apprendi, Blakely and Booker.  But, via this lengthy order list, SCOTUS on its very first opportunity and without any comment from any Justice, quickly denied certiorari in both Asaro and Beck

I am a lot disappointed, and I suppose a little bit surprised, that these cases did not even generate a relist or any comment from any Justice.  I welcome spculation from others about why the Court seems so very eager to avoid taking up these issues.

February 24, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Via statement after cert denial, Justice Sotomayor makes lengthy case highlighting doubts about guilt of Texas capital defendant

In the middle of a lengthy order list with mostly just cert denials of interest to criminal justice fans (two of which I will discuss in a coming post), Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued this lengthy statement respecting the denial of certiorari in the capital case of Reed v. Texas, No. 19–411.  The bulk of the seven-page statement discusses the evidence raising doubts about the guilt of Rodney Reed, and here are the Justice's closing paragraphs:

In the instant petition for a writ of certiorari, Reed has presented a substantial body of evidence that, if true, casts doubt on the veracity and scientific validity of the evidence on which Reed’s conviction rests.  Misgivings this ponderous should not be brushed aside even in the least consequential of criminal cases; certainly they deserve sober consideration when a capital conviction and sentence hang in the balance.  In the pending tenth state habeas proceeding, however, Reed has identified still more evidence that he says further demonstrates his innocence.  It is no trivial moment that the Texas courts have concluded that Reed has presented a substantive claim of actual innocence warranting further consideration and development on the merits.  While the Court today declines to review the instant petition, it of course does not pass on the merits of Reed’s innocence or close the door to future review.

In my view, there is no escaping the pall of uncertainty over Reed’s conviction.  Nor is there any denying the irreversible consequence of setting that uncertainty aside.  But I remain hopeful that available state processes will take care to ensure full and fair consideration of Reed’s innocence — and will not allow the most permanent of consequences to weigh on the Nation’s conscience while Reed’s conviction remains so mired in doubt.

Prior related post:

February 24, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

"Can algorithms help judges make fair decisions?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent public radio piece.  Here are some excerpts from a lengthy article worth the time to read in full:

[I]n 2010, the [Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing] worked on an algorithm, a formula, that would allow a computer to predict how likely a person was to commit another crime and recommend when judges should get more information about a case. The goal was to make sentencing more consistent, reduce prison populations, and lead to less crime.

Mark Bergstrom, executive director of the Commission on Sentencing, said compared to judges, an algorithm can process lots of data. “When we started our project, we didn’t look at a handful of cases, we looked at over 200,000 cases to try to see what factors sort of related to positive and negative outcomes. And that’s information that judges didn’t have or didn’t have in a … structured … way.”

The formula will look for patterns based on age, gender, what crime someone is being convicted of, prior convictions and for which crimes, and whether the offender has a juvenile record. It cannot take race into account, or county, which is seen as a proxy for race.

The judge will still make the ultimate decision on sentencing. The algorithm will be rolled out this year, and evaluated after 12 months. It took 10 years to create because it was so controversial.

For one thing, critics were afraid that a tool built from criminal justice data would still discriminate against people of color. Pennsylvania is more than 80% white. Almost half the prison population is black....

There is research on what a risk assessment algorithm will do: Virginia started using one in the early 2000s. Megan Stevenson, assistant professor of law at George Mason University, studied the effects: The number of people in prison did not go down, recidivism did not go down, and black people were slightly more likely to be incarcerated compared to white people, all else being equal.

“The impacts of a risk assessment tool don’t just depend on the statistical properties of the algorithm,” Stevenson said. “They depend on how human beings respond to the algorithm, when they choose to follow it, when they choose to ignore it.”

For example: When young people committed a crime, the risk assessment tool said those people are likely to commit more crime, sentence them harshly. But judges systematically said no. Were the judges wrong? On one hand, it’s well documented that criminals tend to do more crime when they’re young and less when they’re older. Statistically, young age is a strong predictor of future crime. But Stevenson said there is more to a sentencing decision than risk of future crime.

February 23, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Lots of notable clemency news and notes and commentaries after Prez Trump's flourish of mercy

Unsurprisingly, a number of reporters and commentators have lots to report and comment upon in the wake of Trump's latest clemency work (basics noted here and here and here).  Here are just a few pieces that seem like must reads in full (with a taste to whet appetites):

From the Washintong Post, "White House assembles team of advisers to guide clemency process as Trump considers more pardons":

The White House is moving to take more direct control over pardons and commutations, with President Trump aiming to limit the role of the Justice Department in the clemency process as he weighs a flurry of additional pardon announcements, according to people familiar with the matter.... The group, essentially an informal task force of at least a half-dozen presidential allies, has been meeting since late last year to discuss a revamped pardon system in the White House. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is taking a leading role in the new clemency initiative and has supported the idea of putting the White House more directly in control of the process that in past administrations has been housed in the Justice Department, officials said....

Trump, who prefers granting clemency to people with compelling personal stories or lengthy sentences, is inclined to grant more pardons before facing voters in November, one official said. “He likes doing them,” the official said...  While several of the pardons Trump granted Tuesday went to well-connected or wealthy associates, the president also commuted the sentences of three women who had been convicted of nonviolent offenses — part of the new task-force effort.

The women were recommended by [Alice] Johnson, who had her life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense commuted by Trump in 2018. Johnson has been working with the White House’s new clemency effort after Trump publicly asked her last year to submit a list of names of other people who deserved commutations, officials said. She recommended Crystal Munoz, Tynice Hall and Judith Negron, who each had their sentences commuted by Trump on Tuesday. Johnson is a member of the informal network of advocates providing clemency recommendations. Former acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, Democratic commentator Van Jones and Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah, are also part of the group, according to a senior administration official.

From the New York Times, "The 11 Criminals Granted Clemency by Trump Had One Thing in Common: Connections":

The clemency orders that the president issued that day to celebrity felons like Mr. Kerik, Rod R. Blagojevich and Michael R. Milken came about through a typically Trumpian process, an ad hoc scramble that bypassed the formal procedures used by past presidents and was driven instead by friendship, fame, personal empathy and a shared sense of persecution. While aides said the timing was random, it reinforced Mr. Trump’s antipathy toward the law enforcement establishment.

From Zak Cheney-Rice in New York, "The Valuable Lesson Trump Pardonees Learned in Prison: Prison Is Bad and Unfair":

The president is not against aggressive sentencing. His entire foray into electoral politics is a testament to the opposite. The incoherence of his shifting positions on criminal justice and imprisonment is best accounted for by a simpler principle: He bristles when people he likes or who share his ideologies are held accountable for their misdeeds, and to fend off accusations of impropriety, he has found a convenient laundering mechanism for letting them off the hook by pardoning random black people. Reports suggest that Trump’s recent efforts to recast this dubious moral position as a broader commitment to criminal-justice reform is the brainchild of Jared Kushner, his son-in-law turned adviser, whose father spent several months in federal prison for tax evasion, witness tampering, and illegal political campaign contributions. Kushner and Trump seem to have come by their recent objections to the American criminal-legal system the same way that many people do: by having been personally affected by it and witnessing firsthand how unjust and destructive it is.

A few prior related posts:

February 20, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Roger Stone case generating some useful reflections on federal sentencing challenges and problems and lessons

Roger Stone is scheduled to be sentencing on Thursday and this Bloomberg piece provides a bit of the lay of the land starting this way:

Roger Stone’s sentencing on Thursday is shaping up as a test of judicial independence after President Donald Trump inserted himself in the court’s deliberations over the fate of his longtime confidant. If U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentences Stone in line with the Justice Department’s new and lower recommendation, partisans will see that as caving to Trump, former federal prosecutor Harry Sandick said. If she gives a jail term closer to the maximum, she’ll be seen as defying the pressure.

“Given how polarized the country is, some people will look to Jackson to be a hero and give him a long sentence, and others will look to her to be a hero and give him a short sentence, but she’ll likely come in somewhere in between,” Sandick said. “She doesn’t need to be a hero. She’s a federal judge.”

Jackson said Wednesday that she’ll allow Stone to remain free regardless while she considers his bid for a new trial and any other motions filed after the sentencing. Speculation that sending him straight to prison could prompt Trump to swiftly pardon him rose after the president issued a slate of high-profile clemencies Tuesday in cases often supported by conservatives.

I am a bit sad that I am not teaching my sentencing course this semester because so many of the elements around, and the challenges that surround, federal sentencing decision-making could be effectively taught through the lens of the Stone case.  Helpfully, a number of thoughtful folks have taking already penned thoughtful pieces that use the Stone case to spotlight various federal sentencing challenges and problems and lessons.  Here are some that have caught my eye that are worth reading in full (and that I quote from too briefly just to whet appetites):

By Michael Zeldin at CNN, "In Stone case, a blast from the Obama past":

Barr's approach, in this instance involving a Trump ally, was more consistent with the DOJ guidance for charging and sentencing issued by Attorney General Eric Holder under President Barack Obama -- a policy that the Sessions memorandum essentially reversed. What, you may be asking? Yes, in my opinion, in this case, Barr appears to have followed more closely DOJ's policy as it stood under Obama's attorney general, rather than under Sessions, who said at the time that he was ushering in the "Trump Era."

By Rory Fleming at Filter, "Can Roger Stone Case Spark Debate on the Dreadful US Sentencing Guidelines?"

Arguably the worst part is that federal sentencing under the Guidelines takes into account all the defendant’s “relevant conduct”—including conduct as a kid, including whether or not the conduct was charged and including charges that have resulted in acquittal. And the standard of proof in court for aggravators is ”proof” by the preponderance of the evidence—which means considered more likely than not—rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

By Timothy Zerillo at Medium, "The Roger Stone Sentencing Highlights the Impact of Federal Sentencing Enhancements":

Every day, in all 94 of the District Courts throughout the United States, defendants will be sentenced and enhancements will be metered out. These enhancements, along with mandatory minimums and a desire to punish rather than rehabilitate, all serve to contribute to our culture of mass incarceration. Regardless of your opinion about Roger Stone, his situation highlights how sentences can skyrocket based on sometimes fair, sometimes ridiculously unfair, sentencing enhancements.

By Sarah Lustbader at The Appeal, "One Thing Barr Gets Right: The Sentencing Guidelines Are Indeed Too Harsh":

Given that disparities between rich and poor still run rampant in the criminal system, it is tempting for those of us in the social justice community to take the DOJ at its word in its amended sentencing memo when it urges a tailored, nuanced, and lenient outcome. The government even included in the memo a reminder that “the Supreme Court has stated that a sentencing court ‘may not presume that the Guidelines range is reasonable but must make an individualized assessment based on the facts presented.’” One civil rights attorney suggested on Twitter that federal defense lawyers file memos in all of their cases, stating that the DOJ believes that guidelines sentences are not presumptively reasonable.

By Mike Scarcella at The National Law Journal, "The Hardest Thing About Being a Judge? What Courts Say About Sentencing":

“It is just not a natural or everyday thing to do—to pass judgment on people, to send them to prison or not," one federal appeals judge once remarked.  Here's a look at how judges across courts have described the challenge of sentencing, as Roger Stone prepares to learn his fate.

Prior related posts:

February 19, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another thoughtful and thorough opinion finds statutory reform among "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for reducing sentence under § 3582(c)(1)(A)

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

I have previously flagged here and here and here  and here some notable examples of judges finding notable reasons sufficient to reduce a sentence.  But I have not blogged lately about any recent § 3582(c)(1)(A) rulings because my Westlaw searches have largely turned up only denials rather than grants of these motions.  Thanks to a helpful reader, though, I learned of a notable recent grant in US v. Maumau,  No. 2:08-cr-00758-TC-11, 2020 WL 806121 (D. Utah Feb. 18, 2020) (also available for download below).  This decision, authored by District Tena Campbell, provides an extended, thoughtful review of recent compassionate release jurisprudence and the changes to § 3582(c)(1)(A) brought by the FIRST STEP Act. 

I recommend review of the Maumau ruling in full for anyone working on or thinking about these isssues.  Here are some excerpts from the opinion that help highlight its importance:

Having reviewed all of the above cases, this court joins the majority of other district courts that have addressed this issue in concluding that it has the discretion to provide Mr. Maumau with relief, even if his situation does not directly fall within the Sentencing Commission’s current policy statement. Under the First Step Act, it is for the court, not the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, to determine whether there is an “extraordinary and compelling reason” to reduce a sentence....

As part of the First Step Act, Congress eliminated the consecutive stacking previously required for violations of § 924(c) [which had led to a 55-year sentence for the defendant for crimes committed at age 20]... When considered together, the court is inclined to find that Mr. Maumau’s age, the length of sentence imposed, and the fact that he would not receive the same sentence if the crime occurred today all represent extraordinary and compelling grounds to reduce his sentence.

The United States points out in its opposition that Mr. Maumau’s request is unlike the vast majority of compassionate release requests because he is not suffering from any medical- or age-related physical limitations.  But the fact that such cases are uncommon does not mean that Mr. Maumau’s request must be denied.  First, the lack of such cases is, at least arguably, part of what spurred Congress to pass the First Step Act.... Finally, and perhaps most importantly here, at least one district court has modified a sentence based solely on the First Step Act’s changes to § 924(c) sentencing.... Like the Urkevich court, this court concludes that the changes in how § 924(c) sentences are calculated is a compelling and extraordinary reason to provide relief on the facts present here.

The United States objects to this conclusion because, it notes, Congress could have made its changes to § 924(c) retroactive but it chose not to do so. See Brown, 2019 WL 4942051 at *5.  While this is a relevant consideration, it ultimately has little bearing on the court’s conclusion. It is not unreasonable for Congress to conclude that not all defendants convicted under § 924(c) should receive new sentences, even while expanding the power of the courts to relieve some defendants of those sentences on a case-by-case basis.  As just noted, that is precisely the approach taken by the Urkevich court.

Based on the above, the court concludes that a combination of factors — Mr. Maumau’s young age at the time of the sentence, the incredible length of the mandatory sentence imposed, and the fact that, if sentenced today, he would not be subject to such a long term of imprisonment — establish an extraordinary and compelling reason to reduce Mr. Maumau’s sentence....

Regarding what type of sentence to impose, Mr. Maumau “urge[s] the Court to ... hav[e] him brought to the district, where he can be interviewed by Probation and perhaps have an opportunity to address the Court.” (Def.’s Reply at 1 (ECF No. 1744).)  The court agrees that this is the best way for the court to determine an appropriate sentence modification.

Accordingly, the court sets this matter for a hearing at 2:00 p.m. on April 7th.  At that time, Mr. Maumau and the United States will be permitted to present their arguments regarding what would be an appropriate sentence for Mr. Maumau in light of the above factors.  The court further orders Mr. Maumau, in advance of the resentencing hearing, to meet with the Probation Office, and for the Probation Office to prepare a new Presentence Report that addresses Mr. Maumau’s character, his danger to the public, his likelihood of rehabilitation or recidivism, the type of sentence he likely would have received had he been charged and convicted after the First Step Act had been passed, and any other relevant considerations.

Download Maumau.DistrictCourtOpinion.Feb18.2020

Some (of many) prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

February 19, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Expansive Reach of Pretrial Detention"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new paper authored by Paul Heaton now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Today we know much more about the effects of pretrial detention than we did even five years ago.  Multiple empirical studies have emerged that shed new light on the far-reaching impacts of bail decisions made at the earliest stages of the criminal adjudication process.  The takeaway from this new generation of studies is that pretrial detention has substantial downstream effects on both the operation of the criminal justice system and on defendants themselves, causally increasing the likelihood of a conviction, the severity of the sentence, and, in some jurisdictions, defendants’ likelihood of future contact with the criminal justice system.  Detention also reduces future employment and access to social safety nets.  This growing evidence of pretrial detention’s high costs should give impetus to reform efforts that increase due process protections to ensure detention is limited to only those situations where it is truly necessary and identify alternatives to detention that can better promote court appearance and public safety.

February 19, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Effective looks at an effective look at the reality of community supervision

The-second-chance-club-9781982128593_lgI have now seen a number of positive review of the new book by Jason Hardy, The Second Chance Club: Hardship and Hope After Prison.  Here is the description of the book from the publisher's website:

A former parole officer shines a bright light on a huge yet hidden part of our justice system through the intertwining stories of seven parolees striving to survive the chaos that awaits them after prison in this illuminating and dramatic book.  Prompted by a dead-end retail job and a vague desire to increase the amount of justice in his hometown, Jason Hardy became a parole officer in New Orleans at the worst possible moment.  Louisiana’s incarceration rates were the highest in the US and his department’s caseload had just been increased to 220 “offenders” per parole officer, whereas the national average is around 100.  Almost immediately, he discovered that the biggest problem with our prison system is what we do — and don’t do — when people get out of prison.

Deprived of social support and jobs, these former convicts are often worse off than when they first entered prison and Hardy dramatizes their dilemmas with empathy and grace. He’s given unique access to their lives and a growing recognition of their struggles and takes on his job with the hope that he can change people’s fates — but he quickly learns otherwise.  The best Hardy and his colleagues can do is watch out for impending disaster and help clean up the mess left behind.  But he finds that some of his charges can muster the miraculous power to save themselves. By following these heroes, he both stokes our hope and fuels our outrage by showing us how most offenders, even those with the best intentions, end up back in prison — or dead — because the system systematically fails them. Our focus should be, he argues, to give offenders the tools they need to re-enter society which is not only humane but also vastly cheaper for taxpayers.

As immersive and dramatic as Evicted and as revelatory as The New Jim Crow, The Second Chance Club shows us how to solve the cruelest problems prisons create for offenders and society at large.

I hope to find time to read this new book, but in the meantime I have already seen these helpful substantive reviews from some notable reviewers:

February 18, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 17, 2020

Spirited (but problematic?) advocacy for Bernie Madoff to receive compassionate relief

The New York Times has this notable new opinion piece authored by headlined "Let Bernie Madoff, and Many More, Out of Prison: Compassionate release has to apply to unsympathetic prisoners, if we mean what we say about ending mass incarceration."  I think the spirit of this piece is quite sound, but I am not entirely sold on all of its particulars.  Here are excerpts (with a few lines emphasized for comments to follow):

Recently, Mr. Madoff re-entered the news, as he filed for compassionate release from federal prison.  He is entering the final stages of kidney disease and has less than 18 months to live. The Bureau of Prisons denied his petition, as it does to 94 percent of those filed by incarcerated people.  But the reforms provided in the First Step Act of 2018 allow him to file an appeal with the sentencing court.

Even some who claim to detest the ravages of mass incarceration argue that Mr. Madoff should be denied compassionate release.  He is as close to the financial equivalent of a serial killer as one might encounter.  Still, there is a good argument to be made for compassionate release.  It has little to do with Bernie Madoff, though, and how we feel about his horrendous actions.

If our societal goal is to reduce incarceration, we are going to have to confront the inconvenient truth that retribution cannot be our only penological aim, and justice for victims has to be much more extensive than the incarceration of those who have caused them harm.  We desperately need to shift our cultural impulse to punish harshly and degradingly, and for long periods.

The visceral, retributive reactions to Mr. Madoff’s petition, including from liberals who claim to want to end mass incarceration, reveal the obstacles to transformational criminal justice reform.  The truth is, there is only a small number of entirely “sympathetic” people in prisons who could be released without any scruples by the public or affront to their victims.  Those incarcerated for violent offenses compose a vast majority of our prison population, in spite of a false narrative that most people are in there for nonviolent drug offenses.  The pain and harm experienced by their victims is real, and that’s also true for Mr. Madoff’s victims.  But criminal justice policy cannot be constructed in response to our feelings about individual, high-profile cases — the so-called worst of the worst. 

This “worst of the worst” argument, for example, has long undergirded the death penalty, which still stands in 30 states despite its racial and class biases and other flaws that have led hundreds of innocent people to death row.  It is also part of why the Democratic presidential candidates, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, don’t support the enfranchisement of those in prison.  But creating a separate category for Mr. Madoff, sex offenders or those “others” in the criminal justice system will not help end mass incarceration.  There will always be another high-profile case that can impede the implementation of more humane policies.

Those on the left who press for criminal justice reform emphasize “empathy” in their attempts to reframe the conversation about people who have committed crimes. Conservatives use the word “redemption.”  These words carry a profound responsibility: What do they mean for sympathetic and unsympathetic prisoners?  There are 200,000 people over the age of 55 incarcerated in the United States.  The question of compassionate release for Mr. Madoff affects not only him but these others and their victims as well.

Mr. Madoff lost both his sons while incarcerated (one died of cancer) and was unable to attend their funerals; is a social pariah, almost universally condemned; and has spent 11 years in federal prison.  This is not to say he deserves sympathy, but he has been punished.  In Norway, where Anders Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison for a horrific mass murder, 11 years would be considered harsh enough.  Our American punitiveness has distorted our sense of what is an adequate sentence for serious offenses.

When considering compassionate release, we also have to ask: Has the person been rehabilitated?  Does the punishment serve legitimate penological objectives (like deterrence and public safety) other than retribution?  (Something to consider, for instance: The number of Ponzi schemes prosecuted went up, not down after Mr. Madoff’s incarceration.)

Criminal justice reform will fall far short of the dramatic institutional changes needed if the dominant impulse continues to be retribution, and if high-profile cases continue to drive policy.  Compassionate release for those who are aging, terminally ill and dying should be assumed after they’ve served at least 10 years.  It was the offenders’ worst impulses that led them to commit their crimes.  Our justice system should appeal to our higher ethical ambitions.

I agree fully that "retribution cannot be our only penological aim, and justice for victims has to be much more extensive than the incarceration of those who have caused them harm." I also agree fully that criminal justice policy should not "be constructed in response to our feelings about individual, high-profile cases — the so-called worst of the worst" and that we should be troubled if "high-profile cases continue to drive policy." And whether a person has been rehabilitated also seem to me to be an important consideration here.  But I am not sure granting compassionate relief to Bernie Madoff furthers these interests, and I worry it could undermine them.

For starters, it is critical at this stage to realize that we are not really dealing with a "policy" matter, as the FIRST STEP Act altered the policy for compassionate relief and did so in a way that included Bernie Madoff and all other federal prisoners.  Though the FIRST STEP Act has some "worst of the worst" carve-outs in other parts of the Act, but its new process for pursuing compassionate relief applies to all federal prisoners (which is one reason I think it is such an important and valuable part of the Act).  in other words, in this context there is no need to worry about creating any "separate category for Mr. Madoff, sex offenders or those 'others' in the criminal justice system."  If a federal judge decided to deny Madoff compassionate relief, after considering all the facts of Madoff's case and all the factors of 3553(a), that judge will be adjudicating and resolving a single case, not creating any broad "criminal justice policy."

As to the facts of Madoff's case, I have seen little evidence that Madoff has been truly remorseful or rehabilitated.  In fact, this 2016 ABC News article reports that "Madoff has done little to express his remorse or regret to the estimated 20,000 investors in his scheme, many of whom lost their life savings in the $64 billion fraud.  Other than a brief reference to his victims during his sentencing hearing, Madoff has spent a lot of his time behind bars in an effort to rehabilitate his own image and actually shift the blame to the investors for expecting unrealistic returns which he claims is why he set up his fraud."   And though surely Madoff's victims may not speak in one voice on these matters, I suspect many are open to a vision of "justice ... much more extensive than the incarceration," but are concerned that they have not seen any other form of extensive justice achieved here (though a whole lot of assets have been recovered after a decade of work).  Madoff not only committed arguably the worst white-collar offense in US history, but it seems he has not really done all that much to try to make amends.

Though I may be getting too nitpicky here, I wanted to comment on this piece because I found one particular sentence to be particularly disturbing: "The truth is, there is only a small number of entirely “sympathetic” people in prisons who could be released without any scruples by the public or affront to their victims."  The truth is, there are tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of entirely "sympathetic" people in US prisons who could be released without any scruples by the public or affront to their victims.  Just a quick look at "The Whole Pie" of incarceration shows over 275,000 persons imprisoned for drug offenses and another 200,000 in for "public order" offenses.  Not all of these the underlying crimes were victimless, but even if only one of every ten of these prisoners are "sympathetic," that still gets us to nearly 50,000 sympathetic prisons to consider for release.  Mass incarceration is so very troubling in part because there really are quite a large number of sympathetic cases, and I am particularly eager for there to be continued efforts to give voice to, and get relief for, the huge number of sympathetic folks wasting time (and taxpayer resources) in unduly lengthy prison terms.

This piece rightly notes "there are 200,000 people over the age of 55 incarcerated in the United States" and it is rightly concerned that "compassionate release for Mr. Madoff affects not only him but these others and their victims as well."  But these data and my fears tethered to Madoff's failure to demonstrate remorse run the argument the other way in my view: though I hope there would not be a backlash were Madoff to receive compassionate relief, I worry he could become the poster child for restricting this important relief mechanism for tens of thousands of other prisoners who would seem a lot more sympathetic.  That said, I do like imagining a (realistic?) future in which a decision to release Madoff prompts many more federal judges to grant compassionate release to many more federal prisoners.

Prior related post:

February 17, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

As Virginia and other states consider expanding parole, might the federal system do the same in a SECOND STEP Act?

In this 2017 Federal Probation article, titled "Reflecting on Parole's Abolition in the Federal Sentencing System," I imagined various ways modern federal sentencing reform might have been less problematic if some form of parole had been retained in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.  I also noted how the legislation that became the FIRST STEP Act served as a kind of "parole light" while also explaining why I thought reformers "troubled by the punitive policies that the SRA helped usher into the federal system ought to think about talking up the concept of federal parole anew."

This not-so-old-but-already-dated article came to mind as I saw this piece from the New York Times this week under the full headline "‘It Didn’t Work:’ States That Ended Parole for Violent Crimes Are Thinking Again; Virginia, newly dominated by Democrats, may broaden parole for the first time in a generation. Others states are watching."  Here are excerpts:

After Zenas Barnes was convicted of three robberies in the 1990s, he accepted a plea deal that stunned even veteran lawyers for its severity: 150 years in state prison. Mr. Barnes, who was 21 at the time, said that he had not realized when he took the deal that the Virginia Legislature had, only months before, abolished the most common type of parole, meaning that there was a good chance he would die in prison.

Twenty-five years later, the State Legislature, newly dominated by Democrats, is poised to broaden parole for the first time in a generation.  The move would give Mr. Barnes and thousands of other prisoners convicted of violent crimes a chance for parole, which allows inmates to be released early.

Watching closely are lawmakers across the nation, including in California, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania.  Like Virginia those states decades ago virtually eliminated discretionary parole, granted by appointed boards on a conditional basis, during an era of surging violent crime and the imposition of progressively harsher punishments.

“We thought we were fighting crime, and it didn’t work,” said David Marsden, a Democratic state senator in Virginia, who has previously introduced bills to restore parole but was blocked by Republican majorities.  “But more recently, we’ve stopped trying to teach lessons and started trying to solve problems.  People are now more likely to believe that people deserve a second chance.”...

Even in Virginia, where Democrats won majorities in both chambers of the Legislature in November, and which also has a Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, the question of expanding parole remains politically perilous.  This month, Democrats shelved a bill that would have restored the possibility of parole for nearly 17,000 inmates — more than half the state’s prison population.  Instead, Democrats have focused on more modest efforts to restore parole to older inmates.

“The prevailing attitude of policymakers is we’ve come to the limit because they don’t want to release violent offenders,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates shorter sentences and other policy changes to the criminal justice system.  There is no significant difference in violent crime rates between states that allow parole and those that do not, according to federal data.  But Mr. Mauer said many people associate parolees with recidivism and violence, and their crimes often garner significant public attention.

Republican lawmakers have warned that restoring parole would make Virginia — which has the fourth lowest violent crime rate of any state — more dangerous.  “When parole is granted, it will result in violent criminals being released into our communities,” said Robert Bell, a Republican member of the House of Delegates.  Mr. Bell added that parole “will force victims of violent crimes and their families to relive the worst day of their lives over and over again.”...

Both chambers of the Virginia Legislature have already approved a bill that would make hundreds of prison inmates eligible for parole because they were convicted by juries that were not informed by courts that defendants were no longer eligible for parole after the practice was abolished in 1995.  Governor Northam has said he will support it.

Mr. Northam has also said he supports a bill that would grant parole eligibility to prisoners who are older than 50, a group that may number in the thousands.  He has not yet said whether he would sign a measure that would restore the possibility of parole to thousands of inmates who have served 20 years or more of their sentences.  Both bills are expected to be passed by both chambers of the Legislature.  The governor has not taken a position on the shelved bill that would have restored the possibility of parole for more than half the state’s prison population.

I think it wise for any parole reform, at the state or federal level, to move forward incrementally.  Given the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment rulings, jurisdictions ought to have general parole mechanism that are available to all young offenders sentenced to very long prison terms.  Likewise, public safety concerns would be minimized if and when parole eligibility is at least initially focused upon defendants imprisoned for long periods for non-violent offenses (especially for first offenses and for offenses without victims).

Notably, the federal prison system likely has many more defendants imprisoned for long periods for non-violent offenses than do state systems because, according to federal prison data, roughly 40% of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses and nearly half are serving terms of 10 years or longer.  In other words, I think the federal system would be one in which it would be ideal to develop a new modern (and initially modest) system of parole.

Notably, as reported in this post back in November, at a Senate Judiciary oversight hearing with the head of the federal Bureau of Prisons, Senator Lindsay Graham raised the idea of "reinstituting parole in the federal system."  I am sorry we have not yet seen any follow-up on this idea from Senator Graham or others, but I am encouraged that parole appears to no longer be a dirty word in various criminal justice reform conversations.  And, as the title of this post indicates, I think it would be a great idea to include in any SECOND STEP federal reform proposals to follow up the "parole light" elements in the FIRST STEP Act.

February 16, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Over 1000 former DOJ employees calling for Attorney General William Barr to resign

As this Politico piece details, "more than 1,100 former Justice Department employees have signed an online petition pressing Attorney General Bill Barr to resign and commending the four prosecutors who withdrew from the Roger Stone case."  In this context, I am tempted to make a sour joke that it would seem that AG Barr's eagerness to recommend a below-guideline sentence for a non-violent first offender finally  crossed a line in the sand in the eyes of all these former DOJ employees.  But, of course, this controversy has much more to do with political interference rather than with sentencing decision-making (although I recall few took note when DOJ decided to seek the death penalty in a high-profile New York case after Prez Trump tweeted they should).

Here is more from the Politico piece about the online petition (which is available here and it still seeking signatures):

Last week, all four prosecutors quit the Stone case after what they perceived as interference from the White House.  The prosecutors had recommended a seven- to nine-year prison sentence after Stone — President Donald Trump’s longtime friend — was convicted of lying to Congress and of obstruction....

Barr and other top officials then pushed for a softer prison recommendation in a revised filing that offered no specific sentence term, though the attorney general has said he didn’t speak to the president about it.  The sentencing is set for Thursday, though the judge has set a conference call with the lawyers in the case for Tuesday.

“Such behavior is a grave threat to the fair administration of justice.  In this nation, we are all equal before the law.  A person should not be given special treatment in a criminal prosecution because they are a close political ally of the President,” the online petition read. Signatures for the letter were gathered by Protect Democracy, a nonprofit legal group that had also gathered signatures for a letter claiming the Mueller report presented enough evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice. That letter was also critical of Barr.

The petition's signatories include Justice Department employees dating back to the administrations of President Dwight Eisenhower and President John F. Kennedy, though most are of more recent vintage.  Among them are three who served as assistant attorney general: Sanford Litvack, Jimmy Gurule and Laurie Robinson. The current total is 1,143, though Protect Democracy said it would continue to add names.

The former Justice Department employees welcomed Barr’s “belated acknowledgment that the DOJ’s law enforcement decisions must be independent of politics.”  On Thursday, Barr had offered a rare rebuke of his boss, telling ABC, "I think it's time to stop the tweeting about Department of Justice criminal cases.”

However, the online petition read, “Mr. Barr’s actions in doing the President’s personal bidding unfortunately speak louder than his words.  Those actions, and the damage they have done to the Department of Justice’s reputation for integrity and the rule of law, require Mr. Barr to resign.” 

Since they said they had little expectation Barr would actually step down, the former employees called on the Justice Department’s career officials to report unethical conduct.  They applauded the prosecutors for upholding their oaths and standing up for the department’s independence.  “We call on every DOJ employee to follow their heroic example and be prepared to report future abuses to the Inspector General, the Office of Professional Responsibility, and Congress; to refuse to carry out directives that are inconsistent with their oaths of office; to withdraw from cases that involve such directives or other misconduct; and, if necessary, to resign and report publicly — in a manner consistent with professional ethics — to the American people the reasons for their resignation.”

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: One notable former DOJ employee, namely Donald Ayer, former Deputy AG for Prez George H. W. Bush, has this notable new extended Atlantic piece under the full headline "Bill Barr Must Resign: The attorney general is working to destroy the integrity and independence of the Justice Department, in order to make Donald Trump a president who can operate above the law."

February 16, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Just some (of lots and lots of) commentary about Roger Stone(d) federal sentencing process

Unsurprisingly, lots of folks have lots of things to say about the upcoming federal sentencing of Roger Stone and the sentencing process and controversy that has already unfolded.  Here are links and short passages from three notable pieces that recently caught my eye:

From Jacob Sullum at Reason, "Roger Stone Deserves a Lighter Sentence, but Not Because He Is Trump's Buddy":

This week President Donald Trump and his appointees at the Justice Department intervened in the sentencing of Roger Stone, a longtime Trump crony who was convicted last November of obstructing a congressional investigation, lying to a congressional committee, and witness tampering. Yesterday, the day after four prosecutors assigned to the case recommended a sentence of seven to nine years, Timothy Shea, the interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, overrode them, suggesting "a sentence of incarceration far less" than the one originally proposed.

That reversal, which came after Trump called the original recommendation "horrible and very unfair," is unseemly and smacks of legal favoritism. At the same time, a prison sentence of seven to nine years is disproportionate given the nature and consequences of Stone's crimes....

Regardless of its motivation, the revised memorandum is admirably measured and fair-minded, noting that prosecutors have a duty to pursue justice, not simply to clobber defendants with the heaviest penalties the law allows. It would substantially improve the quality of justice in this country if prosecutors more often took that approach with defendants who are not the president's buddies.

From Andrew McCarthy at The National Review, "The Roger Stone Sentencing Fiasco":

But for his connection to Trump, Stone would never have been pursued in a collusion fever dream that Mueller’s prosecutors knew was bogus when they charged him. Yet his crimes, while exaggerated, were real. He was convicted by a jury and, under federal law, that presumptively warrants incarceration, though he could be spared by the judge (whom the president has picked a strange time to antagonize). If the president thinks that Stone and Flynn (among others) have been given a raw deal, the Constitution empowers him to pardon them, or at least commute their sentences.

If President Trump is afraid, in an election year, to take the political hit that a pardon for Stone would entail, that is understandable. But then he should bite his tongue and click out of Twitter. The Justice Department’s job is to process cases, including Mueller cases, pursuant to law. If the president wants to make those cases disappear, he has to do it himself and be accountable. His provocative running commentary only ensures that the DOJ will be accused of kowtowing to him. It also guarantees that, if the ongoing criminal probe of the Russiagate investigation eventually yields any indictments, they will be assailed as political persecutions rather than good-faith law enforcement.

From David Oscar Marcus at The Hill, "Let's use Roger Stone's case to fix our broken justice system":

People are rightly upset that DOJ is saying that the sentencing guidelines apply to everyone — except the president’s friends.  That’s a huge problem, and it’s no wonder that the prosecutors handling the case resigned.  How can they go into court every day and ask for monster sentences across the board except for FOT (Friends of Trump)?

But the larger problem, and the one that no one is talking about, is that the system itself is fatally flawed because it is set up for prosecutors and judges to issue unjustifiably harsh sentences.  Stone shouldn’t be thrown in a cage for 7-9 years — and neither should any other first-time non-violent offender.  There are two important fixes available:

First, we should abandon the sentencing guidelines.  Often prosecutors fall back on the sentencing guidelines for cover when asking for these crazy high sentences. Those “guidelines” are a complicated point system that calculate potential sentences by adding and subtracting points based on factors like the amount of loss, whether the person is a leader, and so on.  The problem with this point system is that it is not based on any empirical data or study. The numbers are plucked out of thin air.  Further, they don’t take into account the characteristics of the individual being sentenced.  Has the defendant led a good life?  Did she serve in the military?  Donate to charity?  Raise a good family?  The guidelines don’t care.  The Supreme Court recognized these problems and said that judges should simply consult the guidelines but should not be bound by them.  That was a good start, but the truth is that they aren’t even worth consulting.  They don’t work, and — since their implementation back in 1984 — our jail population has exploded.

Second, we should eliminate the trial tax.  This case is a good example of the trial tax in action. Had Stone pleaded guilty, he would have been looking at a sentence of closer to 24 months under the guidelines.  And had he met with prosecutors and cooperated, he likely would have been sentenced to probation.  Because he had the audacity to go to trial, his sentence goes from probation to 7-9 years.  It’s no wonder that innocent people plead guilty. It’s no wonder that trials are vanishing.  Before the sentencing guidelines and the trial tax, 20 percent of cases went to trial.  Now it’s less than 3 percent.  That is pretty stark evidence that the trial tax has become too severe.

Lots of people are rightly saying that Trump was wrong to jump in for his friend and overrule the line prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation.  But what was wrong about it was not overruling an overly harsh sentence.  What was wrong about it was that he did it for a friend instead of across the board. We are in bad need of criminal justice reform. Let’s overrule all of these insane sentencing recommendations for first time non-violent offenders — not just the FOT.

Prior related posts:

February 13, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

"Remorse and Judging"

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Would it be improper for a President to write a character letter for a defendant facing federal sentencing?

The question in the title of this post is obviously precipitated by the extraordinary developments surrounding federal prosecutors' multiple sentencing submissions in the Roger Stone case (details here and here).  Prez Trump apparently told reporters today that he did not tell the Justice Department to change its sentencing advocacy, but he did claim that he would have "the absolute right to do it."  I do not know enough about DOJ rules and executive authority to weigh in on this claim, but I do know that this discussion got me to thinking about whether and how it might be proper for a President to share his or her perspective on a federal defendant facing federal sentencing.

Federal defense attorneys know how common it is, especially in high-profile, white-collar cases, to argue for sentencing leniency with the help of character letters often written by the most prominent and compelling of individuals who know the defendant well.  (I know I have seen such letters authored by elected officials in past cases.)  In this case, according to this article in The Atlantic, Roger Stone "has been a presence in the president's life for more than 30 years."  Consequently, I cannot help but wonder if Stone's defense attorneys gave any thought to seeking a character letter from Prez Trump.

Whether such a letter was sought or not, I would love to hear from thoughtful readers about whether they think it would be improper for any President to write any character letter for any defendant facing federal sentencing.  Does simply being President (perhaps because of clemency powers) serve to make it improper to share knowledge of the character of a defendant?

Prior related posts:

February 11, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Monday, February 10, 2020

"The Peter Parker Problem"

Standard_incredibleThe title of this post is the title of this new article authored by W. David Ball now available via SSRN.  Here is the piece's abstract:

Sandy Mayson, in her article "Dangerous Defendants," points out the ways in which pretrial detention violates the parity principle-treating those of like risk alike.  There is no justification for the preventative detention of arrestees that would not also apply to those of a similar risk level at large.  In other words, merely having an arrestee in custody does not logically change our analysis of the risk they present or what we should do with them.

But what if these views are psychological, not actuarial?  What if different decisions about these populations (and the differences in how we view them) are not based in different assessments of risk, but about the psychological heuristics we use to analyze them?  In this paper, I explore the possibility that counterfactuals — the "if only I had" scenarios that create an alternative universe where tragedy is avoided — drive decisionmaking without our being aware of it.  The human tendency to desire certainty and simplicity may help explain why our default seems to be to keep someone locked up, "just in case" — and why this desire is resistant to information and argument.

This Article adds an important dimension to the ongoing debates about whether judicial discretion or actuarial tools should govern pretrial release.  Judicial discretion may be biased towards incapacitation by operating on the "gut level" of psychology — even if these decisions result in suboptimality from a cost-benefit perspective.  It adds an additional perspective to the existing literature on the political economy of headline-grabbing crimes (the "Willie Horton" effect). 

The insights from pretrial release also apply more generally to a host of similar problems, including parole release, executive clemency, diversion programs, and removal of children from potentially abusive parents, and suggest that policymakers and reformers be cognizant of the way in which current criminal justice thinking is short-sighted, overly reactive, and biased towards incapacitation.  By applying theories of the counterfactual proposed by Roese and other behavioral psychologists to regret-minimization problems, the Article provides an explanation for why, even when regulations change, judicial decisions to release may remain low.  It suggests that experimental research specifically targeting judicial counterfactual thinking should take place.

February 10, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)