Wednesday, September 21, 2022

"Is Criminal Law Unlawful?"

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

A legal theorist reading contemporary criminal justice scholarship is confronted with a troubling sense of dissonance. Foundational to modern accounts of the concept of law are rules, and the chief modality of law’s operation in ordinary peoples’ lives is said to be in enforcing those (primary) rules.  Normative theories by philosophers of law typically deploy this rule- oriented character as a key virtue of legal systems, whether in Fullerian theories of the moral value of law itself in terms of their facilitation of autonomous self-application of rules, or in theories of the rule of law according to which one of the key criteria of good legal systems is that they only coerce individuals pursuant to rules.

Yet criminal justice scholars have known for decades that rule-enforcement is at best incidental to vast swathes of criminal justice.  Even before the advent of “broken windows” policing, a large portion of police work was focused on coercively organizing public space, with minimal regard to the rules of substantive law.  Scholars of misdemeanor adjudication — the judicial destination of the arrests that result from this mode of policing — have described a process in which the ultimate disposition of defendants is unconnected to any serious effort to determine whether some law has been violated.  This lawlessness of criminal justice is exacerbated by, and itself exacerbates, America’s underlying system of race and class hierarchy.  In short, instead of a system of law enforcement, American criminal justice is a key exemplar of what critical race scholars have called “structural racism,” in which individual and organizational incentives reproduce racially unjust outcomes even in the absence of individual racial malice.

Legal philosophers must reconcile their theories with reality by confronting the fact that a sector of American “law” with immense practical significance does not, in fact, constitute an application of law (for conceptual theorists) or the rule of law (for normative theorists) at all.

In this context, some lessons may be drawn from an analogous juridical context.  A handful of scholars have suggested that the system of criminal justice is more administrative than legal.  Moreover, advocates and scholars have long articulated severe critiques of the federal administrative state on rule of law grounds.  Thus, the discourse around the administrative state can serve as a model for how legal theorists should confront the criminal justice state.

While some scholars appear to have supposed that the notion of legality simply does not apply to the administrative state, others have propounded radical challenges to that state which have reflected a willingness to sacrifice other important interests in the pursuit of legal fidelity.  Results such as the recent Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. E.P.A. have suggested that even the pursuit of existential policy goals like combatting climate change must give way to the concept of legality underneath challenges to the administrative state.  If such challenges are any model to follow, then rule of law advocates and scholars must at least consider similar radical challenges to the criminal justice system, such as police abolition, to be on the table.

September 21, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 10, 2022

"Irrational Collateral Sanctions"

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

In the modern era, a criminal sentence is rarely truly over just because someone has served their time.  Instead, both legal and social barriers continue to haunt most people who have been convicted of crimes for years.  These barriers often persist long past the point of making good sense.

While social barriers like stigma are not always easy for lawyers and lawmakers to address, legal barriers like so-called “collateral sanctions” (also known as “collateral consequences”) are their bread-and-butter.  In Part I of this Essay, I tell an anonymized client story that illustrates many of the existing efforts to blunt the effects of collateral sanctions in Ohio.  In Part II, I discuss in more depth both the problem of collateral sanctions and both the challenges and opportunities posed by existing remedial efforts.  In Part III, I discuss the opportunity for rational-basis challenges to irrational collateral sanctions when other remedial opportunities are unavailing. 

September 10, 2022 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 07, 2022

"Policing Mass Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this recent article available via SSRN authored by Fred O. Smith, Jr.  Here is its abstract:

In Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky issues an indictment of the Supreme Court, charging that institution with facilitating undue state violence, wrongful convictions, invasions of dignity, and racial inequality.  The Supreme Court has produced these consequences by offering needlessly narrow remedies for constitutional wrongs and by issuing crabbed constructions of criminal procedural rights.  Chemerinsky’s indictment is written with clarity, comprehensiveness, and humanity.

This Book Review argues that mass incarceration presents an immense barrier to the author’s goals of producing less violent, more accurate, less invasive, and less racist policing.  First, many of Chemerinsky’s proposals for police reform assume a system of criminal trials.  In our system of mass incarceration, the overwhelming majority of incarcerated persons never receive a trial.  If the criminal legal system did attempt to rely on trials instead of coerced guilty pleas, the system would collapse under the weight of the sheer number of people we prosecute.  Second, Chemerinsky argues that we should revisit and raise the requisite standard for police to search a suspect from reasonable suspicion to probable cause.  But in a system of mass incarceration, probable cause is not hard to come by. The more things we label “crime,” the more reasonable it is to believe that someone is likely committing one.  Third, mass incarceration feeds on legal reforms that are not aimed at decarceration.  A “criminal caste” is more tolerable if the government gives the caste members “rights” before stripping them of humanity and core dimensions of citizenship.

It is imperative to reverse and control mass incarceration to achieve lasting transformation of the police.  There is no equitable way to police in a world of mass incarceration. 

September 7, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, September 02, 2022

"The Miseducation of Carceral Reform"

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

Public education looms large in criminal law reform.  As states debate what to invest in — other than criminal law enforcement — to provide safety and security to the public, public schools have emerged as a popular answer.  Today, legislatures move money from prisons to public education, arguing that this reinvestment can address the root causes of mass incarceration.  This Article analyzes this reinvestment trend from the perspective of public schools.  It takes seriously the possibility that diverting money from incarceration to public education can help address the root causes of mass incarceration and it argues that realizing this possibility requires a more expansive approach to reinvestment than is demonstrated in current legal reforms.  This expansive approach to reinvestment situates the provision of education within a constellation of interconnected needs, increases power over diverted funds for those who have historically been excluded from educational decisions, and confronts the underlying race, class, and gender resentments used to justify asymmetrical spending on incarceration and public education.  By analyzing reinvestment approaches to carceral reform from the perspective of public schools, this Article underscores the contested nature of the reinvestment movement.  It maps both the restrictive and transformative directions carceral reinvestment can take, and it points to several promising efforts that make use of a more transformative approach to reconfigure the relationship between public welfare and the carceral state.

September 2, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, August 27, 2022

"The Injustice of Under-Policing in America"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani and published in the American Journal of Law and Equality. Here is part of its introduction:

Since 2014, viral images of Black people being killed at the hands of the police — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others  — have convinced much of the public that the American criminal legal system is broken. In the summer of 2020, nationwide protests against police racism and violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were, according to some analysts, the largest social movement in the history of the United States.  Activists and academics have demanded defunding the police and reallocating the funds to substitutes or alternatives. And others have called for abolishing the police altogether.  It has become common knowledge that the police do not solve serious crime, they focus far too much on petty offenses, and they are far too heavy-handed and brutal in their treatment of Americans — especially poor, Black people.  This is the so-called paradox of under-protection and over-policing that has characterized American law enforcement since emancipation.

The American criminal legal system is unjust and inefficient.  But, as we argue in this essay, over-policing is not the problem.  In fact, the American criminal legal system is characterized by an exceptional kind of under-policing, and a heavy reliance on long prison sentences, compared to other developed nations . In this country, roughly three people are incarcerated per police officer employed.  The rest of the developed world strikes a diametrically opposite balance between these twin arms of the penal state, employing roughly three and a half times more police officers than the number of people they incarcerate.  We argue that the United States has it backward.  Justice and efficiency demand that we strike a balance between policing and incarceration more like that of the rest of the developed world.  We call this the “First World Balance.”

We defend this idea in much more detail in a forthcoming book titled What’s Wrong with Mass Incarceration.  This essay offers a preliminary sketch of some of the arguments in the book.  In the spirit of conversation and debate, in this essay we err deliberately on the side of comprehensiveness rather than argumentative rigor.  One of us is a social scientist, and the other is a philosopher and legal scholar.  Our primary goal for this research project, and especially in this essay, is not to convince readers that we are correct — but rather to encourage a more explicit discussion of the empirical and normative bases of some pressing debates about the American criminal legal system.  Even if our answers prove unsound, we hope that the combination of empirical social science and analytic moral and political philosophy we contribute can help illuminate what alternative answers to those questions might have to look like to be sound.  In fact, because much of this essay (and the underlying book project) strikes a pessimistic tone, we would be quite happy to be wrong about much of what we argue here.

August 27, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 22, 2022

"Legal Fiction: Reading Lolita as a Sentencing Memorandum"

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

The idea of a legal narrative often focuses on identifying a narrative within the law, for example, the persuasive power of storytelling in a trial court motion or an appellate brief.  The story emerges from the law.  This Article proposes inverting that focus so that we identify the law within a narrative.  Using the example of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita, the Article explains how we can read the novel as a prolonged sentencing memorandum.  That memorandum casts the infamous first-person narrator, recounting his crimes under the pseudonym of Humbert Humbert, as a defendant writing pro se.

In Lolita, the law emerges from the story, showing that an entire legal document may be redrawn as a narrative.  The legal document and the narrative are one, with a distinct point of view in favor of the criminal defendant.  This unity between law and narrative illuminates a deep, essential goal shared by both genres: garnering sympathy.  The notion of law without sympathy thus rings hollow.  Finally, this essential link between law and sympathy shines a new light on the law’s role to promote justice.  Justice must be measured at least partly as an expression of sympathy rather than solely as a cold calculation of costs and benefits.

August 22, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

"Countermajoritarian Criminal Law"

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

Criminal law pervades American society, subjecting millions to criminal enforcement, prosecution, and punishment every year.  All too often, culpability is a minimal or nonexistent aspect of this phenomenon.  Criminal law prohibits a wide range of common behaviors and practices, especially when one considers the various federal, state, and municipal levels of law restricting people’s actions.  Recent scholarship has criticized not only the scope and impact of these laws, but has also critiqued these laws out to the extent that they fail to live up to supermajoritarian ideals that underlie criminal justice.

This Article adds to and amplifies this criticism by identifying “countermajoritarian laws.”  While some critics argue that criminal law often fails to live up to supermajoritarian ideals, this Article identifies instances in which criminal law is resistant to the will of the community, and can remain in place even if a majority of the community seeks to legalize or decriminalize certain conduct.  These instances include vetoes of decriminalization and legalization efforts, criminal provisions in federal and state constitutions, and local crimes enacted by officials who are voted into office by a tiny subset of the community.

Having identified the phenomenon of countermajoritarian criminal laws, this Article discusses how these laws may be addressed — and considers a range of potential reforms and their impact on countermajoritarian criminal laws. Countermajoritarian criminal laws should be a focal point in calls for criminal justice reform.  Addressing these laws provides a basis for arguments regarding criminal law’s larger problem of democratic illegitimacy, and helps add a level of criticism on top of existing critiques of criminal law’s broad, discriminatory, and oppressive impacts on communities. 

August 17, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

"When a Prison Sentence Becomes Unconstitutional"

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

Mass incarceration has many evils.  One of them is the length and apparent fixedness of many criminal sentences — a relatively new development in the history of American criminal adjudication.  Sympathetic system actors, concerned about this problem, often complain that they lack the ability to revisit sentences that have outlived commonsense value. This complaint has prompted incarcerated people, their families, attorneys, scholars, judges, and even many prosecutors to call for “second-look” legislation that would create the authority they say is needed.

This Article argues that such legislation is unnecessary: the same authority should already exist, under current doctrine, in the substantive component of the federal Due Process Clause and (or) its state analogues.  Though the Supreme Court’s approach to incarceration is anomalous as compared with other fundamental rights, the Court has made clear that incarceration pursuant to a criminal conviction must satisfy rational-basis scrutiny.  Some sentences are plainly irrational: for example, when a person is factually innocent, their incarceration was never rational (though it may have once looked that way).  But a sentence can also become irrational over time.  And there can be no rational basis for continuing to imprison a person when the branch of government responsible for identifying such a basis expressly disclaims it.  In other words, any prosecutor who recognizes a sentencing injustice should, at any point in time, be able to trigger second-look resentencing — a conclusion that provides a previously unexplored doctrinal basis for what some federal courts informally call the “Holloway doctrine.”  (This Article’s account likewise provides a doctrinal grounding for the proposition that the Constitution prohibits the execution of an actually innocent person and requires the retroactive application of a new substantive rule.)

Furthermore, just because a prosecutor asserts a rational basis does not mean that there is one.  Rational-basis scrutiny is forgiving, but it is not altogether toothless, and it offers additional values to social movements — including forcing adverse parties to give reasons for their actions.  Incarceration must be supported by one of the recognized purposes of punishment, and there are instances in which none of those purposes meets the test.  Courts themselves, therefore, have due-process authority to release prisoners whose sentences have come to be irrational, regardless of the prosecutor’s position.  Finally, if the Court ever resolves its fundamental-rights anomaly and subjects prison sentences to strict scrutiny, that scrutiny should apply with equal force to ongoing incarceration.

August 10, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

"Is the Principle of Desert Unprincipled in Practice?"

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

Scholars have long debated whether criminal penalties should be based on what defendants deserve (as retributivists argue) or on the practical benefits that sanctions may achieve (as utilitarians believe).  In practice, most states take a pluralistic approach: they treat both desert and utility as important to punishment, with desert operating, at least on paper, as a limiting principle.

Can desert, however, actually limit punishment?  Critics answer no.  They claim that desert is an indefinite and malleable notion, easily invoked to mask discrimination and rationalize draconian sanctions.  Laws in America often emphasize desert, they observe, while feeding mass incarceration.

But the principle of desert is not to blame.  A focus on punishing defendants no more than they deserve can constrain punitive impulses, as it has in the context of capital punishment.  The real problem lies with our current procedures for judging desert, which sap its power as a limiting principle.  These procedures allow sentencing authorities to consider desert and utility at the same time, which blurs two incommensurate concerns and prevents either from serving as a meaningful limit.  Furthermore, they often allow judges to define desert without reference to legitimating community norms.

Desert can limit punishment if it is addressed in a more principled way. Sentencing should begin with desert, before any consideration of utility, so that the moral boundaries of punishment are clearly established.  Lay juries, not judges, should assess desert, and should have the power to limit punishment based on it, even below statutory minimums.  If states allowed defendants to waive this jury sentencing procedure, many might do so in exchange for more favorable plea deals.  But the pleading process would become more fair, for prosecutors could no longer threaten statutory penalties no reasonable jury would deem deserved.

August 9, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Rethinking the Civil-Criminal Distinction"

The title of this post is the title of this book chapter authored by Lauren Sudeall and now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

In the legal world, we operate on the premise that our civil and criminal justice systems are distinct.  As a result of this siloed approach, courts, court rules, procedural protections, legal services, and legal communications typically turn or focus exclusively on one side of this divide or the other.  Yet individuals’ lived experiences do not always fall cleanly along those lines — they may experience sanctions differently than the law has categorized them or encounter one situation that gives rise to civil and criminal legal issues.  Today, civil sanctions are increasingly punitive, while fines and incarceration are no longer distinctly criminal consequences.  These realities undermine historical rationales for the civil-criminal divide and make the justifications for that divide increasingly incoherent.

The civil-criminal divide presents more than a conceptual or theoretical problem.  The rigid line between civil and criminal legal issues prevents us from addressing all facets of an individual’s situation in a single court system. Instead, we require that people have multiple interactions with civil and criminal court systems, which can drain both their time and their resources.  It becomes harder for them to address or protect against civil consequences arising from a criminal charge or conviction.  By failing to inform people engaged with one sphere of the system about legal problems in the other sphere, we lose critical opportunities for intervention and education — particularly among populations in need of assistance.  Because people do not silo their problems into criminal and civil categories, they face additional barriers to obtaining assistance: people go to the wrong legal systems and find courts and legal providers who may be ill-equipped to redirect them.  The resulting frustration and the inability to find the help they need may give some people a cramped view of the law’s potential to address their problems.

In this chapter, I explain how the civil-criminal distinction influences our understanding of the legal system and explore the problems it creates for litigants and those assisting them.  In doing so, I employ a broad definition of “evidence-based” reform.  In my view, evidence relevant to criminal justice reform consists not only of quantitative data, such as the likelihood of recidivism and incarceration rates, but also of qualitative and even perceptual data, which shed light on how the system works (or doesn’t) and how and why quantitative data are generated.  In the context of this chapter, I focus specifically on how the civil-criminal distinction fails to align with — and may even exacerbate — the lived experience of many system-impacted individuals, demonstrable primarily through qualitative data.  I encourage readers to question the civil-criminal distinction and to ask: What would happen if we didn’t view the two as distinct?  To what degree are the differences between civil and criminal justice a function of the separation we have chosen to create rather than any inherent distinction? And is the civil-criminal divide born more from a need to organize the courts and service providers than it is to resolve problems most effectively for litigants?  I conclude that a merged vision of civil and criminal justice may better align with the understanding and experiences of system-impacted individuals and may better equip the legal system to respond to their problems.

In this chapter I call on systemic actors and service providers to minimize the different treatment of civil and criminal issues and to collaborate to the greatest extent possible, wherever the civil-criminal distinction creates barriers to justice for individuals or inefficiencies for courts.  Even if doctrinal divisions persist, policy makers can engage in practical applications of this idea, rethinking how to structure the resolution of legal issues, provide legal services, and disseminate legal education to individuals and communities.  

August 9, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

"Punishment as Communication"

The title of this post is title of this new book chapter authored by R.A. Duff and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

This chapter defends a communicative theory of punishment, as making plausible sense of the retributivist idea that wrongdoers should not enjoy impunity.  In the context of criminal law, the wrongs that matter are public wrongs that concern the whole polity: the criminal law defines those wrongs, and provides for those who commit them to be called to formal public account, for them through the criminal process.  That calling to account is a communicative process: it culminates in a conviction that censures the offender, and seeks an apologetic response from him.  The punishment that typically ensues furthers this communicative exercise: the offender is required to undertake, or undergo, a penal burden that constitutes an apologetic reparation for his crime, and so communicates to him the need for such reparation.

Central to this communicative conception is that punishment is a two-way process, which seeks an appropriate response from the offender, who has an active role in the process. The role of prudential deterrence in such an account is discussed: it is a necessary condition of a justifiable system that it has some dissuasive efficacy, and deterrence might be a dimension of that dissuasion — inextricably interwoven with the moral message that is the core of the communication.  A purely communicative account that allows no room for deterrence might be implausible as an account of what human punishment ought to be; but one that portrays a two-way moral communication as the primary, distinctive aim of criminal punishment can be defended.

August 3, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Notable review of research on public safety and criminal justice reform from Arnold Ventures

This new webpage at Arnold Ventures explores in thoughtful ways the important question that it is title of the webpage: "What Does the Research Say About Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform?".  Here is an explanation of the effort (with emphasis in the original) along with the links to the research papers most focused on reform of the back-end of the criminal justice system:

As a philanthropy dedicated to improving lives by driving sustainable change to the justice system, the spike in homicides and the resulting political pushback by some against criminal justice reform led Arnold Ventures to reflect on the relationship between community safety and justice reform. Arnold Ventures’ programmatic work, from policing to pretrial justice to corrections, is built on the idea that reform and safety are not opposite ends of a spectrum, but can operate in tandem. 

That is why we turned to the experts to help us understand what the evidence says about the relationship between community safety, the justice system, and reform. We collaborated with eight scholars who have deep substantive and methodological expertise in their respective issue areas, and asked that they write discussion papers looking at the state of research around specific aspects of the criminal justice system. These papers each respond to two broad prompts. 

First, how does a particular aspect of the justice system advance or undermine community safety? 

Second, what is your summary or assessment of the evidence, and are there remaining research questions that need to be answered? 

The following six papers are the scholars’ independent and thoughtful reviews of the available evidence in response to those prompts:...

[Other papers looked at community-based, policing and pre-trial reforms...]

  • Dr. Jennifer Doleac (Texas A&M University) and Dr. Michael LaForest (Penn State University) discuss the limited empirical evidence of the effect of community supervision (probation and parole) policy and practice on community safety despite the scale of its use as a sanction for criminal behavior and alternative to incarceration. 
    Read the paper: Community Supervision & Public Safety
  • Dr. Daniel Nagin (Carnegie Mellon University) discusses how the current incarceration practices in the United States, particularly multi-decade sentences, are an inefficient use of public resources and are not shown by evidence to have a deterrent effect on crime. 
    Read the paper: Incarceration & Public Safety
  • Dr. Megan Denver and Ms. Abigail Ballou (Northeastern University) discuss how widespread post-conviction sanctions, restrictions, and disqualifications for individuals with criminal records and histories of justice system involvement can interact and accumulate in ways that are counterproductive to safety. 
    Read the paper: Collateral Consequences & Public Safety

These papers make a significant contribution to the public conversation as individual products, but they can also be read together as concluding: The evidence suggests there are real public safety benefits associated with the functions of the justice system.  At the same time, some of the current practices remain inefficient, produce serious harms, and operate in ways that are counterproductive to community safety.

August 2, 2022 in Data on sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 01, 2022

"Sex Exceptionalism in Criminal Law"

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

Sex crimes are the worst crimes.  People widely believe that sexual assault is graver than nonsexual assault, uninvited sexual compliments are worse than nonsexual insults, and sex work is different from work.  Criminal codes create a dedicated category for sex offenses, uniting under its umbrella conduct as different as violent attacks and consensual commercial transactions.  This exceptionalist treatment of sex as categorically different rarely evokes discussion, much less debate.  However, sex exceptionalism is not natural or neutral, and its political history should give us pause. This Article is the first to trace, catalogue, and analyze sex exceptionalism in criminal law.  Through a genealogical examination of sex-crime law from the late eighteenth century to today, it makes several novel contributions to the debate over how criminal law should regulate sex.

First, the Article casts doubt on the conventional account that rape law’s history is solely one of sexist tolerance — an account that undergirds contemporary calls for broader criminal regulations and higher sentences.  In fact, early law established rape as the most heinous crime and a fate worse than death, but it did so to preserve female chastity, marital morality, and racial supremacy.  Sex-crime laws were not underenforced but selectively enforced to entrench hierarchies and further oppressive regimes, from slavery to social purity.  Second, this history suggests that it is past time to critically examine whether sex crimes should be exceptional.  Indeed, in the 1960s and 70s, the enlightened liberal position was that rape law should be less exceptional and harmonized with the law governing “ordinary” assault.

Third, the Article spotlights the invisible but powerful influence sex exceptionalism exerts on scholarship and advocacy.  Despite the liberal critique, sex exceptionalism flourished, and today it is adopted without hesitation.  Sex dazzles theorists of all types.  For sex crimes, retributivists accept exorbitant sentences, and utilitarians tolerate ineffective ones.  Critics of mass incarceration selectively abandon their principled stance against expanding the penal state.  Denaturalizing sex exceptionalism and excavating its troubling origins forces analysts to confront a detrimental frame underlying society’s perpetual enthusiasm for punitive sex regulation.

August 1, 2022 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sex Offender Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Spotlighting legal fight over revocation of CARES Act releases to home confinement

USA Today has this lengthy article discussing the revocation of home confinement for hundreds of persons released under the CARES Act. The piece is headlined "They were released from prison because of COVID. Their freedom didn't last long." Here are excerpts:

[Eva] Cardoza and two other women are at the center of federal lawsuits saying that people released from prison because of COVID-19 are now being sent back over minor infractions, such as not picking up a call from staffers overseeing their home confinement. The lawsuits come as the Bureau of Prisons is facing scrutiny for re-incarcerating people in home confinement over minor offenses, even as the agency has increasingly relied on the program to help reduce recidivism and prison populations....

During the pandemic, Cardoza was one of more than 43,000 people nationwide who were released from prison to home confinement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The BOP website said around 50,000 people incarcerated at its facilities had recovered from coronavirus and around 300 had died.

The massive CARES ACT granted then-Attorney General Bill Barr the option to broaden the use of the home confinement program, which had previously only been allowed to be used at the very end of a person's sentence. Barr opted to allow thousands of people to receive home confinement much earlier, shaving off years from a person's sentence in some cases....

Last year, more than 3,000 people were released to CARES ACT home confinement, according to a records request put in by the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonpartisan public think tank.

Those who were released to home confinement were told they must follow specific rules. They have to keep re-entry professionals — specialists who are often working for companies contracted by the BOP — updated on their whereabouts. They often wear electronic monitoring and receive special permission to visit stores or other locations. They can go to work or school. But if someone on home confinement was found to have an infraction, such as missing a check-in or a failed drug test, they could be returned to prison.

The Bureau of Prisons told USA TODAY that 407 people had their home confinement revoked. Of those, 212 were returned due to misconduct in violation of program rules, such as alcohol use and drug use; 69 were returned after an escape, such as an unauthorized absence from custody; and 11 were for new criminal conduct and other violations.

The Bureau of Prison's Inmate Discipline Program requires several steps before returning a person in home confinement to prison, including a disciplinary hearing, written notice of the allegations and the ability to present evidence. The BOP told USA TODAY its Administrative Remedy Program allows people to have "any issue related to their incarceration formally reviewed by high-level" officials.

But lawyers involved in the lawsuits said their clients did not have hearings, written notice or the ability to present evidence. They said their pleas for review were ignored and noted that the cumbersome, months-long process can lead to collateral damage, such as a child going back into foster care while the parent is in prison.

July 21, 2022 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 15, 2022

New issue brief urges prosecutors to stop pursuing drug-induced homicide charges

The group Fair and Just Prosecution, which brings together and focuses on the work of elected local prosecutors, has this notable new issue brief titled simply "Drug-Induced Homicide Prosecutions." Here is "Summary" found at the start of the 12-page document:

This is one of a series of FJP’s “Issues at a Glance” briefs addressing strategies for improving responses to overdose deaths and incorporating harm reduction approaches into prosecutors’ work.  As prosecutors face the tragedy of rising overdose deaths in their communities, this series of briefs urges them to embrace interventions grounded in the philosophy of harm reduction.  This brief focuses on drug-induced homicide prosecutions.  It describes why they are inherently problematic, while offering more effective, humane, and fiscally responsible alternatives.  It is intended as a guide for prosecutors who are grappling with how to respond effectively to an increased number of overdose deaths in their communities and seeking to do so with evidence-based and compassionate approaches.

“Drug-induced homicide” (DIH) prosecutions – the practice of charging individuals who supply drugs that result in a fatal overdose with homicide, even in the absence of specific intent to cause death — have dramatically increased in the wake of the overdose crisis.  While an estimated 28 individuals faced DIH prosecutions in 2007, close to 700 DIH cases were filed in 2018 based on media reports.  This brief outlines the evidence regarding DIH prosecutions, including their inefficacy in reducing overdoses, the proportionality and racial injustice concerns they raise, and their role in ultimately exacerbating the harms of the overdose crisis.  The brief recommends that prosecutors cease to seek DIH charges absent evidence of specific intent to kill, and delineates more effective approaches that have the potential to save lives.

July 15, 2022 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Thursday, July 07, 2022

Notable Seventh Circuit panel discussion of judicial challenges when revoking supervised release

As detailed in this post last month, the latest issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter explores in depth the huge (but too often overlooked) issue of community supervision in the federal criminal justice system.  That issue came to mind when I reviewed the very interesting new Seventh Circuit decision in US v. Shaw, No. 21-1692 (7th Cir. July 6, 2022) (available here), which was brought to my attention by a kind reader.  Here is how the thoughtful and thorough majority opinion in Shaw starts and a key passage:

Terrance Shaw violated multiple conditions of his supervised release. The district court revoked his supervised release and sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment — well above the range recommended by the Sentencing Commission’s policy statements.  The court did not mention the sentencing factors from 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e), the statute that governs revocation of supervised release, as grounds for the upward variance.  The court instead explained that it was sending Shaw to prison to “help” him and give him a chance to access rehabilitative programs.  Congress has directed sentencing courts to recognize that “imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.” 18 U.S.C. § 3582(a).  Courts are thus precluded from imposing or lengthening a prison term to promote an offender’s rehabilitation. Tapia v. United States, 564 U.S. 319, 325–26 (2011). Because the record suggests that the district court lengthened a term of imprisonment to rehabilitate Shaw, we vacate Shaw’s sentence and remand for further proceedings....

[W]e recognize that courts are free to discuss the availability of rehabilitative programs and even encourage defendants to use them.  But by relying on rehabilitation as the sole basis for an upward variance, the court crossed the line from permissible comments to impermissible consideration. Because Tapia applies to both the imposition of a prison sentence and the lengthening of one, the court’s reliance on rehabilitation to impose the upward variance warrants remand.

We also recognize the difficult position that district courts find themselves in under Tapia.  On one hand, 18 U.S.C. § 3583(e) requires courts to consider several purposes of sentencing — including rehabilitation — before revoking an offender’s supervision or imposing a sentence.  On the other, § 3582(a) forbids courts from relying on rehabilitation as a reason for prison time.  Combined, these provisions seemingly force courts to walk a tightrope where they must both demonstrate their consideration of the offender’s need for rehabilitation while also disavowing that consideration as a reason for any resulting term of imprisonment.

Judge Hamilton wrote a concurring opinion to highlight how "Tapia and the statute put district judges in a difficult position."  Here is how his interesting discussion concludes:

When I read this sentencing transcript, I see a judge who was patient, humane, wise, and fair.  Judge McDade was dealing with an unusually difficult case.  The defendant had been provided multiple opportunities to straighten out his life, including a path to an unusually well-paying job in the middle of the pandemic.  He kept wasting those opportunities. The judge’s choice to revoke Shaw’s supervised release and to send him to prison was reasonable and easily predictable.  As the lead opinion notes, Shaw had repeatedly violated important conditions of his supervised release.  Sanctions less severe than prison had not had any noticeable effect.  The judge was not required to credit Shaw’s assurances that this time he would finally follow through on therapy and other rehabilitative programs if they were imposed again as conditions of supervised release.  A more legalistic explanation of Shaw’s revocation sentence on remand should pass muster as long as the district court makes explicit reasons that were left implicit in this transcript and avoids hinting that goals of rehabilitation in prison affected the fact or length of the prison sentence.

Tapia is just one example of how federal sentencing law has become more and more complex, with more and more opportunities for reversible error.  A district judge can reduce the risk of reversible error by disengaging from the individual defendant and the difficult challenges: Just calculate the Guidelines and follow them, perhaps noting that any tricky guideline issue had no effect on the bottom line and that the § 3553(a) factors control.  As was sometimes true during the years when the Sentencing Guidelines were binding, an error-free sentencing hearing can still sound a lot like an arithmetic problem.  A remand like this one further encourages that sort of mechanical march through the Guidelines and the statutory factors.

Yet we hope for more.  We want the sentencing judge to engage with the defendant, the offense, and victims — understanding the stories behind the crime and the prospects for the future.  We want the judge to sentence the defendant as an individual with his own history and characteristics and to tailor the sentence to those individual circumstances. See generally Concepcion v. United States, 142 S. Ct. —, — (2022).

That’s what Judge McDade was doing in this difficult case, trying to reach Shaw in any way he could: drawing on his own history, drawing on concepts of faith, ethics, and sin, and explaining in almost parental terms why the sentence needed to be more severe than the time-served slap on the wrist that Shaw sought. I view this remand as compelled by § 3582(a) and Tapia, but unfortunate and otherwise unnecessary.

July 7, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 06, 2022

"Revenue Over Public Safety: How Perverse Financial Incentives Warp the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this big new report from the Brennan Center for Justice.  Here is how the report's introduction gets started:

Bipartisan efforts to change the criminal justice system have gained momentum around the country in recent years. Nearly all 50 states, many counties, and the federal government have sought to reduce imprisonment and mitigate its harms. A remarkable wave of legislation has shortened custodial sentences and widened eligibility for sentences served in the community.  States and localities have also invested in rehabilitation and reentry services.

Yet the impact of these efforts has been relatively modest.  While the nation’s imprisoned population has declined since peaking in 2009, incarceration levels remain extraordinarily high.  Nearly 1.2 million people are serving sentences in state and federal prisons, and 10.3 million are admitted to local jails every year.  Mass incarceration — a term now entrenched in the popular lexicon — is proving remarkably resistant to well-intentioned reforms.

One explanation can be found in the infrastructure erected to support the United States’ reliance on imprisonment as the country’s primary crime control policy.  Mass incarceration did not result simply from increased policing and harsher criminal penalties.  Economic and financial incentives established by local, state, and federal agencies also played a role.  Police, prosecutors, and corrections agencies competed for these benefits by escalating their enforcement practices.  Law enforcement came to depend on these funding sources, particularly as declining tax receipts and intergovernmental transfers left them grasping to fill budget holes.  These incentives are a persistent structural driver of punitive enforcement and mass incarceration.

The perverse financial incentives of direct federal funding programs for incarceration are relatively easy to identify.  So too are laws passed by Congress that encourage more punitive policies.  This report focuses instead on an interlocking set of economic incentives that are more deeply entrenched and difficult to unravel.  These incentive structures raise the risk that officials will chase revenue rather than pursue public safety and justice, giving law enforcement agencies a stake in perpetuating mass incarceration.  This report catalogs some of the most corrosive practices.

July 6, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 16, 2022

"Letting Offenders Choose Their Punishment?"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN and authored by Gilles Grolleau, Murat C. Mungan and Naoufel Mzoughi. Here is its abstract:

Punishment menus allow offenders to choose the punishment to which they will be subjected from a set of options.  We present several behaviorally informed rationales for why punishment menus may serve as effective deterrents, notably by causing people to refrain from entering a calculative mindset; reducing their psychological reactance; causing them to reconsider the reputational impacts of punishment; and reducing suspicions about whether the act is enforced for rent-seeking purposes.  We argue that punishment menus can outperform the traditional single punishment if these effects can be harnessed properly. 

Our observations thus constitute a challenge, based on behavioral arguments, to the conventional view that adding (possibly unexercised) punishment options to an existing punishment scheme is unlikely to increase deterrence or welfare.  We explain how heterogeneities among individuals can pose problems to designing effective punishment menus and discuss potential solutions.  After explaining how punishment menus, if designed and implemented benevolently, can serve socially desirable goals, we caution against their possible misuse by self-interested governments.

June 16, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 11, 2022

"The Dangerous Few: Taking Seriously Prison Abolition and Its Skeptics"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay by Thomas Ward Frampton just published in the Harvard Law Review.  Here is its abstract:

Prison abolition, in the span of just a few short years, has established a foothold in elite criminal legal discourse.  But the basic question of how abolitionists would address “the dangerous few” often receives superficial treatment; the problem constitutes a “spectral force haunting abolitionist thought . . . as soon as abolitionist discourses navigate towards the programmatic and enter the public arena.”  This Essay offers two main contributions: it (1) maps the diverse ways in which prison abolitionists most frequently respond to the challenge of “the dangerous few,” highlighting strengths and infirmities of each stance, and (2) proposes alternative, hopefully more productive, responses that interrogate and probe the implicit premises (empirical, ideological, or moral) embedded in and animating questions concerning “the dangerous few.”

June 11, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

"Sounds of Silence: A Thematic Analysis of Victim Impact Statements"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN and authored by Tali Gal and Ruthy Lowenstein Lowenstein lazar.  Here is its abstract:

Victim Impact Statement (VIS) is a legal document which crime victims submit to court as part of the sentencing stage, informing the court about the harms they have suffered.  VIS enhances victims’ sense of procedural justice, voice, and inclusion in the process, as well as their overall wellbeing.  At the same time, their use raises concern about defendants’ due process rights. 
The Article argues that VIS make a novel contribution to the criminal proceeding, beyond their formal goals of providing information to the court about the impact of the crime on its victims.  Using a thematic analysis of 25 VISs which were submitted to Israeli criminal courts by victims of sexual, physical and property offenses as well as by relatives of homicide victims, the Article identifies four types of functions that VISs play for the victims who submit them.  VISs were used to portray the offense as a life-changing event; to describe the hardships of the criminal justice process; to transform the victim into 'more than just a name’; and to deliver a message or request.  By bringing this content to the courtroom, the statements expanded the legal discourse and created an integrated therapeutic-legal discourse, which was accepted and formally acknowledged by the justice system.  The openness of the legal system to accept and acknowledge exogenous content that is not required by law, even if indirectly, suggests a need to rethink the social function of the court for victims and communities.  It is possible that the courts may be more inclusive of and more attentive to non-legal narratives, emotional expression, and interpersonal connectedness than it is generally believed.

May 31, 2022 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 29, 2022

"A Lost Chapter in Death Penalty History: Furman v. Georgia, Albert Camus, and the Normative Challenge to Capital Punishment"

Though we are still a full month away from the exact date marking the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark Eighth Amendment ruling in Furman v. Georgia, this new article on SSRN (which shares the title of this post) seem like a fitting way to start reflecting on capital punishment.  The article is authored by Mugambi Jouet, and here is its abstract:

Overlooked historical sources call into question the standard narrative that the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Furman v. Georgia (1972), which temporarily abolished the death penalty, reflected a challenge to its arbitrary, capricious, and discriminatory application.  This Article examines materials that scholars have neglected, including the main brief in Aikens v. California, a companion case to Furman that presented the fundamental constitutional claim: the death penalty is inherently cruel and unusual.

Aikens was largely forgotten to history after it became moot, leaving Furman as the main case before the Court.  The Aikens brief’s humanistic claims and rhetoric are at odds with the widespread idea that Furman was a case about administrative or procedural problems with capital punishment.  This is truer of the Furman decision itself than of the way the case was litigated.  Depicting any execution as “barbarity,” as an “atavistic horror,” the Aikens brief marshaled an argument that has garnered much less traction in modern America than Europe: the death penalty is an affront to human dignity.  Yet the transatlantic divergence in framing abolitionism was not always as pronounced as it came to be in Furman’s aftermath.  Since the Enlightenment, American and European abolitionists had long emphasized normative arguments against capital punishment, thereby revealing why they played a central role in Aikens-Furman.

Strikingly, the Aikens brief insistently quoted a European figure whose role in this seminal Supreme Court case has received no attention: Albert Camus.  “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Camus’s denunciation of the death penalty’s inhumanity, is among the sources prominently featured in the Aikens-Furman briefs.  The architect of this strategy was Anthony Amsterdam, a famed litigator.  Subsequent generations of American abolitionists have placed less weight on humanistic objections to executions, instead stressing procedural and administrative claims.  This shift has obscured how a lost chapter in death penalty history unfolded.

These events are key to understanding the evolution of capital punishment, from its resurgence in the late twentieth century to its present decline as the number of executions nears record lows.  On Furman’s fiftieth anniversary, the Article offers another window into the past as scholars anticipate a future constitutional challenge to the death penalty in one or two generations. 

May 29, 2022 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (10)

Friday, May 27, 2022

Helping to spread a federal sentencing "message" for a "corruption superspreader"

I always find it is interesting when judges in relatively low-profile cases talk about "sending a message" at sentencing, and I suppose I should try to make a habit of helping judges spread the messages they hope to be sending.  To that end, here I will flag this recent sentencing story out of Chicago headlined "‘You were a corruption superspreader’: Judge sentences ex-state Rep. Luis Arroyo to 57 months in prison in bribery case involving sweepstakes machine bill."  Here are excerpts:

Saying he needed to send a message on the cost of public corruption, a federal judge on Wednesday sentenced former state Rep. Luis Arroyo to nearly five years in federal prison for trying to bribe a state senator to help with legislation expanding the shadowy world of sweepstakes gambling machines.

Rejecting a defense plea for probation, U.S. District Judge Steven Seeger railed against Arroyo’s “dirty” conduct, saying in a lengthy speech that he sold out an already corruption-weary public and committed a “frontal assault on the very idea of representative government.”

“You were a corruption superspreader,” Seeger said near the end of a nearly four-hour hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.  “The public did not get what they deserved.  They voted for an honest representative, and what they got was a corrupt politician.”

Arroyo’s lawyers had maintained that a prison sentence for the longtime Chicago Democrat would do nothing to stop the state’s seemingly intractable corruption problem and would be akin to “draining Lake Michigan with a spoon.”

But the judge took particular umbrage with attempts to downplay what Arroyo did, and at one point asked defense attorney Michael Gillespie specifically about the spoon comment.  “What does that mean?” the judge asked.  ”What am I supposed to do with that?”  As Gillespie fumbled for an answer, Seeger interrupted in a stern voice: “Maybe judges need a bigger spoon.”

Arroyo, 67, entered a blind guilty plea in November to one count of honest services fraud, a move that came without an agreement with prosecutors on what sentencing recommendations should be made to the judge.  The 57-month term imposed by Seeger was above the four years in prison recommended by prosecutors on Wednesday....

Arroyo resigned his seat shortly after he was arrested in 2019 on the bribery charges. A superseding indictment later added new wire and mail fraud charges against Arroyo and also charged James T. Weiss with bribery, wire fraud, mail fraud and lying to the FBI....

The case centers on the largely uncharted world of sweepstakes machines, sometimes called “gray machines,” for which Arroyo was moonlighting as a lobbyist.  The machines allow customers to put in money, receive a coupon to redeem for merchandise online and then play electronic games like slot machines.... According to the 15-page indictment, Weiss paid bribes to Arroyo beginning in November 2018 in exchange for Arroyo’s promotion of legislation beneficial to Weiss’ company, Collage LLC, which specialized in the sweepstakes machines....

In his remarks, Seeger said it was clear that Arroyo was a devoted family man and “a pillar of his community,” but chastised him repeatedly for trying to downplay the severity of his corrupt acts. The judge also noted that while there was no evidence of any other crimes committed in the wiretapped conversations, Arroyo certainly knew the language of corruption and seemed to be “in familiar territory.”

“I need to make sure that the message gets out that public corruption isn’t worth it,” Seeger said. “For whatever reason, that message isn’t getting through.”

May 27, 2022 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

"Criminal Law Exceptionalism"

The title of this post is the title of this new article on SSRN authored by Benjamin Levin.  Here is its abstract:

For over half a century, U.S. prison populations have ballooned and criminal codes have expanded.  In recent years, a growing awareness of mass incarceration and the harms of criminal law across lines of race and class has led to a backlash of anti-carceral commentary and social movement energy.  Academics and activists have adopted a critical posture, offering not only small-bore reforms, but full-fledged arguments for the abolition of prisons, police, and criminal legal institutions.  Where criminal law was once embraced by commentators as a catchall solution to social problems, increasingly it is being rejected, or at least questioned.  Instead of a space of moral clarity, the “criminal justice system” is frequently identified by critical scholars and activists as a space of racial subordination, widespread inequality, and rampant institutional violence.

In this Article, I applaud that critical turn.  But, I argue that, when taken seriously, contemporary critiques of the criminal system raise foundational questions about power and governance — issues that should transcend the civil/criminal divide and, in some cases, even the distinction between state and private action.  What if the problem with the criminal system isn’t exclusively its criminal-ness, but rather is the way in which it is embedded in and reflective of a set of problematic beliefs about how society should be structured and how people should be governed? What if the problems with criminal law are illustrative, rather than exceptional? Ultimately, I argue that the current moment should invite a de-exceptionalization of criminal law and a broader reckoning with the distributive consequences and punitive impulses that define the criminal system’s functioning — and, in turn, define so many other features of U.S. political economy beyond criminal law and its administration.

May 18, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 01, 2022

"Donald Trump’s Clemencies: Unconventional Acts, Conventional Justifications"

The title of this post is the title of this paper now available via SSRN and authored by Austin Sarat, Laura Gottesfeld, Carolina Kettles and Olivia Ward.  Here is its abstract:

During his four years as president Donald Trump’s use of the clemency power generated considerable controversy.  Much scholarship documents the fact that he ignored the traditional procedures for reviewing and approving requests for pardons and commutations and used clemency to favor a rogues’ gallery of cronies, celebrities and those whose crimes showed particular contempt for the law.  However, few scholars have examined the justifications he offered when he granted pardons and commutations.  This paper fills that gap.  We argue that because the clemency power sits uneasily with democracy and the rule of law when presidents use this power they feel the need to supply justifications.  We report on a study of Trump’s clemency justifications that suggests that while his clemencies themselves were often controversial and his means of communicating about them unconventional, the reasons he gave for them were generally quite conventional and continuous with the justifications offered by his predecessors for their pardons and commutations.

May 1, 2022 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Abolishing the Evidence-Based Paradigm"

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

The belief that policies and procedures should be data-driven and “evidence-based” has become criminal law’s leading paradigm for reform.  This evidence-based paradigm, which promotes quantitative data collection and empirical analysis to shape and assess reforms, has been widely embraced for its potential to cure the emotional and political pathologies that led to mass incarceration.  It has influenced reforms across the criminal procedure spectrum, from predictive policing through actuarial sentencing.  The paradigm’s appeal is clear: it promises an objective approach that lets data – not politics — lead the way and purports to have no agenda beyond identifying effective, efficient reforms.

This Article challenges the paradigm’s core claims.  It shows that the evidence-based paradigm’s objectives, its methodology, and its epistemology advance conventional assumptions about what the criminal legal system should strive to achieve, whom it should target, and whose voices and interests matter.  In other words, the evidence-based paradigm is political, and it does have an agenda.  And that agenda, informed by neoliberalism and the enduring legacy of white supremacy in the criminal legal system, strengthens — rather than challenges — the existing system.

The Article argues that, if left unchallenged, the evidence-based paradigm will continue to reproduce the system’s disparities and dysfunctions, under the veneer of scientific objectivity.  Thus, it must be abolished and replaced with a new approach that advances a true paradigm shift about the aims of criminal legal reform and the role and definition of data and empiricism in advancing that vision.

May 1, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 28, 2022

"Criminal Acts and Basic Moral Equality"

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

Modern criminal justice presupposes that persons are not morally equal.  On the contrary, those who do wrong are viewed by the law as less worthy of respect, concern and decent treatment: Offenders, it is said, “deserve” to suffer for their misdeeds.  Yet, there is scant logical or empirical basis for the law’s supposition that offenders are morally inferior.  The usual reasoning is that persons who intentionally or knowingly do wrong are the authors and initiators of their acts and, as such, are morally responsible for them.  But this reasoning rests on the assumption that a person’s mental states, such as intentions, can cause physical effects (bodily movements)— a factual assumption that is at odds with the evidence of neuroscience and whose only empirical support rests on a fallacious logical inference (post hoc ergo propter hoc).  There is, in fact, no evidence that mental states like intentions have anything to do with causing the bodily movements that constitute behavior.  Nonetheless, the mental-cause basis for moral responsibility, though it rests on a false factual inference, has enormous implications for criminal justice policy.

While society must obviously protect itself from dangerous people, it does not have to torment them.  The imperative to punish, a dominant theme of criminal justice policy, is not supported by evidence or logic, and it violates basic moral equality.

April 28, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

"Modern Sentencing Mitigation"

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 23, 2022

"The End of Liberty"

The title of this post is the title of this recent piece authored by Adam Kolber and just posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Theorists treat liberty as a great equalizer.  We can’t easily distribute equal welfare, but we can purport to distribute equal liberty. In fact, however, nothing about “equal liberty” is meaningfully equal.  To demonstrate, I turn not to familiar cases of distributing positive goods but to the distribution of a negative good, namely carceral punishment.  Many theorists believe we should impose proportional punishment by depriving offenders of liberty in proportion to their blameworthiness.  In this manner, equally blameworthy offenders are said to receive equal punishment when incarcerated for the same period of time.  Equal periods of incarceration do not yield equal punishments, however, because liberty cannot serve as the great equalizer theorists hope for.  Pretending it can prevents us from justifying the full harms of punishment or leads to such counterintuitive results that it makes proportional punishment an unattractive goal.

April 23, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

"Punitive Restoration"

The title of this post is the title of this new book chapter authored by Thom Brooks.  Here is its abstract:

Restorative justice is highly promising as an effective approach to better support victims, reduce reoffending, and lower costs.  The challenge it faces is a dual hurdle of limited applicability and lack of public confidence.  The issue is how we might better embed restorative justice in the criminal justice system so its promising effectiveness could be shared more widely while increasing public confidence.  This chapter explores the new approach of punitive restoration, which gives more tools for restoration including a wider punitive element.  Its goal is to win support for greater use of restorative practices and a less punitive criminal justice system overall.

April 20, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 17, 2022

"Entitlement to Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN and authored by Kyron Huigens. Here is its abstract:

This Article advances the idea of entitlement to punishment as the core of a normative theory of legal punishment's moral justification.  It presents an alternative to normative theories of punishment premised on desert or public welfare; that is, to retributivism and consequentialism.  The argument relies on H.L.A. Hart's theory of criminal law as a "choosing system," his theory of legal rules, and his theory of rights.  It posits the advancement of positive freedom as a morally justifying function of legal punishment.

An entitlement to punishment is a unique, distinctive legal relation.  We impose punishment when an offender initiates an ordered sequence of rights- power, claim, duty, power, liability-by means of committing a crime.  This sequence ends with the offender's holding both a claim to be punished and a liability for punishment.  This pair of legal relations is not a right to punishment, because it is more than a claim with a corresponding duty.  To hold this claim and this liability to punishment in tandem, as cognate legal relations, is better described by the more comprehensive term "entitlement." Neither desert nor good consequences is part of this account of how and why we punish.  It is enough to say that an offender is entitled to punishment.

Entitlement to punishment is a more accurate and honest description of the reason we punish than either desert or good consequences is.  The belief that legal punishment is imposed because and only when it is deserved obscures the extent to which legal punishment is a consequence of moral luck.  The word "entitlement" better describes the situation of a person who has entangled himself in criminal law's stringent rules as a consequence of his limited power to overcome unpredictable outcomes, his circumstances, the influences on his character, or his personal history.

Finally, entitlement to punishment reflects the moral salience of criminal law.  Entitlement to punishment conveys respect for the rationality of criminal offenders and their capacity for self-determination-particularly when criminal law is cast as a choosing system and as part of a conception of positive liberty centered in autonomy.

April 17, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 14, 2022

"New Originalism: Arizona's Founding Progressives on Extreme Punishment"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new article now available via SSRN authored by John Mills and Aliya Sternstein. Here is its abstract:

Originalism, together with textualism, has been of growing interest to legal scholars and jurists alike.  Discerning and putting forth the views of “the founders” has become part and parcel of effective advocacy, particularly with regards to constitutional questions.  Arizona is no exception, with its courts explicitly giving originalism primacy over all other interpretive doctrines for discerning the meaning of an ambiguous provision of its constitution.

Yet, the Arizona state courts have not engaged with the views of the state’s founders on key issues concerning the purposes of punishment, as demonstrated by the founders’ words and deeds.  Arizona was founded in 1912 as a progressive project and the founding generation — from the convenors of the 1910 constitutional convention and the courts to the people themselves — held and acted on progressive views of punishment.  They rejected the idea that any person was beyond reform and insisted that the state had an obligation to bring about reform of persons convicted of crime.  Progressive ideals were a core aspect of the founding of Arizona, and those ideals provide a compelling reason to give independent meaning to Arizona’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment in ways that call for judicial skepticism of any punishment that does not serve the progressive ideals of rehabilitation and reformation.

April 14, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

"Trauma and Blameworthiness in the Criminal Legal System"

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

Violence can result in trauma, but so too can trauma lead to violence.  Neuroscience offers an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the biology of behavior, including the nexus between trauma and criminal behavior.  Yet the criminal legal system consistently fails to account for the traumatic backgrounds of many people charged with crimes. Instead, people who experience trauma as a result of community violence, along with so many others, are ignored or ridiculed when they argue that their traumatic experiences should mitigate their blameworthiness.  Military veterans, on the other hand, provide a unique example of a class of people for whom judges, prosecutors, and other actors in the criminal legal system recognize that context and circumstances matter — that even when someone is criminally responsible for a wrongdoing, their traumatic experiences may mitigate their blameworthiness.

In this article, I explore why we treat trauma as a reason for leniency for some people but not for others, and whether it is morally justifiable for us to approach criminal behavior as situational (a result of environmental circumstances) for certain groups, while insisting that it is characterological (the result of individual character traits) for others. Offering a novel perspective on the issue, I contend that what distinguishes military veterans from defendants for whom trauma and other environmental factors are routinely disregarded is not a difference in the kind or degree of the impact of their circumstances, but rather cognitive assumptions about who is and is not a criminal.  These assumptions in turn lead to a false dichotomy between people whose criminal behavior we deem characterological, and therefore fully morally blameworthy, and people whose criminal behavior we accept as situational, and therefore less blameworthy. I situate the roots of these categorizations in structural racism and show how this dichotomous thinking perpetuates racial injustice.

April 12, 2022 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 02, 2022

"The Trouble with Time Served"

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 19, 2022

"Proportionality, Constraint, and Culpability"

The title of this post is the title of this new essay authored by Mitchell Berman now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Philosophers of criminal punishment widely agree that criminal punishment should be “proportional” to the “seriousness” of the offense.  But this apparent consensus is only superficial, masking significant dissensus below the surface.  Proposed proportionality principles differ on several distinct dimensions, including: (1) regarding which offense or offender properties determine offense “seriousness” and thus constitute a proportionality relatum; (2) regarding whether punishment is objectionably disproportionate only when excessively severe, or also when excessively lenient; and (3) regarding whether the principle can deliver absolute (“cardinal”) judgments, or only comparative (“ordinal”) ones.

This essay proposes that these differences cannot be successfully adjudicated, and one candidate proportionality principle preferred over its rivals, in the abstract; a proportionality principle only makes sense as an integrated part of a more complete justificatory theory of criminal punishment.  It then sketches a proportionality principle that best fits the responsibility-constrained pluralist theories of criminal punishment that currently predominate. The proportionality principle it favors provides that punishments should not be disproportionately severe, in noncomparative terms, relative to an agent’s culpability in relation to their wrongdoing.

March 19, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 14, 2022

"The Constitutional Guarantee of Criminal Justice Transparency"

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 05, 2022

New Federal Sentencing Reporter double issue explores "Financial Sanctions in Sentencing and Corrections"

I am very pleased to now be able to spotlight the newest Federal Sentencing Reporter issue, which is actually a special double issue devoted to the topic "Financial Sanctions in Sentencing and Corrections: Critical Issues, Innovations, and Opportunities." This amazing issue has nearly two dozen article authored by more than three dozen leading academics and researchers. 

Professors Jordan Hyatt and Nathan Link deserve worlds of credit for putting this amazing issue together, and their "Editors’ Observations"  which introduces the issue is titled "The Cost of Financial Sanctions in Sentencing and Corrections: Avenues for Research, Policy, and Practice." Here is its abstract:  

Financial and monetary obligations, a class of sanctions that includes fines, restitution, and a range of fees, are increasingly recognized as playing a significant role in the operation of the justice system, the lives of the people against whom they are levied, and their communities.  While some financial sanctions play a role in the tailoring of a punishment to the particular individual and the offenses they have been convicted of, others lack this grounding in ideology and serve a more pragmatic- and potentially revenue-driven-goal.  These observations reflect on the current state of research and policy regarding financial sanctions and seek to identify meaningful gaps in the current knowledge base as a foundation for future inquiry.

I highly recommend the full double issue.

March 5, 2022 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Recommended reading, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 24, 2022

"Social Trust in Criminal Justice: A Metric"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Joshua Kleinfeld and Hadar Dancig-Rosenberg. Here is its abstract:

What is the metric by which to measure a well-functioning criminal justice system?  If a modern state is going to measure performance by counting something — and a modern state will always count something — what, in the criminal justice context, should it count?  Remarkably, there is at present no widely accepted metric of success or failure in criminal justice.  Those there are — like arrest rates, conviction rates, and crime rates — are deeply flawed.  And the search for a better metric is complicated by the cacophony of different goals that theorists, policymakers, and the public bring to the criminal justice system, including crime control, racial justice, retributive justice, and social solidarity.

This Article proposes a metric based on the concept of social trust.  The measure of a well- or poorly functioning criminal system is its marginal effects on (1) the level of trust a polity’s members have toward the institutions, officials, laws, and actions that comprise the criminal justice system; (2) the level of trust a polity’s members have, in virtue of the criminal system’s operations, toward government generally (beyond the criminal justice system); and (3) the level of trust a polity’s members have toward one another following incidents of crime and responses to crime.  Social trust, we argue, both speaks to an issue at the philosophical core of crime and punishment and serves as a locus of agreement among the many goals people bring to the criminal justice system.  The concept can thus be a site of overlapping consensus, performing the vital function of enabling liberal societies to make policy despite disagreement about first principles.

February 24, 2022 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 17, 2022

Latest issue of Dædalus explores "Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess"

Wi22_Cover_ForWebThe Winter 2022 issue of the journal Dædalus has a series of essay on the topic of "Reimagining Justice: The Challenges of Violence & Punitive Excess."  Here is the issue's introduction from this issue page and a listing of the article titles and authors:

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Criminal justice policies of punitive excess and unequal protection under the law have sustained racial exclusion and added to the harsh conditions of poverty.  The Winter 2022 issue demands that we imagine a different kind of public safety that relies not on police and prisons, but on a rich community life that has eliminated racism and poverty.  Many of the solutions will lie beyond the boundaries of the criminal justice system and public policy, yet much of the work is already being done in communities around the country. And these efforts share, as the essays in this issue suggest, a common commitment to the values of healing, reconciliation, and human dignity.

Violence, Criminalization & Punitive Excess by Bruce Western and Sukyi McMahon

The Story of Violence in America by Kellie Carter Jackson

The Problem of State Violence by Paul Butler

Public Health Approaches to Reducing Community Gun Violence by Daniel W. Webster

Seeing Guns to See Urban Violence: Racial Inequality & Neighborhood Context by David M. Hureau

Developmental & Ecological Perspective on the Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma & Violence by Micere Keels

The Effects of Violence on Communities: The Violence Matrix as a Tool for Advancing More Just Policies by Beth E. Richie

Faces of the Aftermath of Visible & Invisible Violence & Loss: Radical Resiliency of Justice & Healing by Barbara L. Jones

The Foundational Lawlessness of the Law Itself: Racial Criminalization & the Punitive Roots of Punishment in America by Khalil Gibran Muhammad

Criminal Law & Migration Control: Recent History & Future Possibilities by Jennifer M. Chacón

Due Process & the Theater of Racial Degradation: The Evolving Notion of Pretrial Punishment in the Criminal Courts by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

Recognition, Repair & the Reconstruction of “Square One” by Geoff K. Ward

Knowing What We Want: A Decent Society, A Civilized System of Justice & A Condition of Dignity by Jonathan Simon

All of these articles (along with abstracts) can be accessed at this webpage.

January 17, 2022 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 13, 2022

California Gov Newsom reverse parole grant to Sirhan Sirhan, RFK's assassin

Under California law, the Governor reviews any recommendation of parole by a convicted murderer.  As explained in this new Los Angeles Tomes op-ed, California Governor Gavin Newsom has decided to reverse a parole decision in the high-profile case of Sirhan Sirhan.  Here is how the op-ed starts:

In 1968, Sirhan Sirhan assassinated Sen. Robert F. Kennedy just moments after Kennedy won the California presidential primary.  Sirhan also shot and injured five bystanders. Decades later, Sirhan refuses to accept responsibility for the crimes.

California’s Board of Parole Hearings recently found that Sirhan is suitable for parole. I disagree. After carefully reviewing the case, including records in the California State Archives, I have determined that Sirhan has not developed the accountability and insight required to support his safe release into the community. I must reverse Sirhan’s parole grant.

A copy of the Governor’s parole reversal decision can be found here.  Interestingly, and surely not coincidentally, Gov Newsom also decided today to announce a large number of clemency grants, as this press release details: "Governor Gavin Newsom today announced that he has granted 24 pardons, 18 commutations and 5 reprieves."

Prior related posts:

January 13, 2022 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, January 06, 2022

"Error Aversions and Due Process"

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 03, 2022

"Racial Attitudes and Criminal Justice Policy"

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

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

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

Thursday, December 30, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 27, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Friday, December 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 13, 2021

Notable new report from For The People about early implementation of California’s Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing law

I just learned about this notable new report from For The People under the title "Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing: California’s Opportunity to Expand Justice and Repair Harm."  Here is part of the report's executive summary and key findings:

Until relatively recently, California was home to the largest prison system in the U.S. From 1975 to 2006, California’s prison population saw an 800% increase, from less than 20,000 people to 163,000, as the state built 22 of its 34 prison facilities.  Though California has enacted a series of reforms in the last decade, over 99,000 people remain incarcerated in the state’s prisons. Many of these people, disproportionately people of color, are serving excessively long sentences and could be released without posing a threat to public safety.

California’s Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR) law (AB 2942), championed by For The People’s founder and passed in 2018, gives District Attorneys (DAs) a groundbreaking tool to directly and immediately redress the harm caused by mass incarceration and excessive sentences.  The law allows DAs to take a “second look” at past sentences that may no longer be in the interest of justice and ask the court to recall sentences and resentence people, resulting in their earlier release and reunification with family and community. 

This report looks at how specific policies led to mass incarceration in California, reviews the evidence in support of releasing people who no longer need to be incarcerated, examines the opportunity for PIR, and shares the real impacts of resentencing on people who have already been released. Finally, the report offers recommendations on implementation and opportunities for further reform.

This press release provides a partial accounting of "key report finding":

And this Washington Post opinion piece by Hillary Blout, a former prosecutor who founded For The People, makes the case for Prosecutor-Initiated Resentencing (PIR) under the headline "Thousands of incarcerated people deserve to come home. Here’s how prosecutors can help." Here are excerpts with links from the original:

Beyond California, For The People has supported the passage of three laws just like the original. Today, IllinoisOregon and Washington state have all passed laws giving prosecutors the ability to revisit old cases — and more states, including New YorkMinnesota and Massachusetts, are considering PIR bills.

As this movement spreads, many may wonder, “Is this safe?”  The myth goes that long sentences are crucial to increasing public safety.  But research has shown that the length of a sentence doesn’t actually have the effect of deterring more crime.  Research also shows that people age out of crime, and that recidivism rates decline with age and are the lowest among people who have served the longest sentences for serious crimes.

The PIR process includes a meticulous review of an incarcerated person’s history, rehabilitation and in-prison behavior, as well as robust reentry planning. It also considers mitigating factors from the person’s childhood and develops safeguards for the future.  This helps ensure that our communities will be protected and even benefit from the person’s return home.

Regular readers know I am a big fan of second-look sentencing mechanisms, and some may recall that many years ago I gave a talk arguing that prosecutors should be much more involved in reviewing past sentences, which got published as Encouraging (and Even Requiring) Prosecutors to Be Second-Look Sentencers, 19 Temple Political & Civil Rights L. Rev. 429 (2010).  So I am extremely pleased to see this idea in actual practice in a growing number of jurisdictions. 

December 13, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Accounting for the first 50 sentences imposed on January 6 rioters

This new CNN piece, headlined "After 50 rioters sentenced for January 6 insurrection, a debate rages over what justice looks like," reports on a new analysis of sentences for the high-profile crimes that kicked off 2021.  I recommend the lengthy piece in full, and here are parts of how it gets started:

Of the 50-plus defendants who have been sentenced for their role in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, fewer than half were sent to jail for their crimes. Most received an assortment of lesser penalties, including brief terms of house arrest, a couple years of probation, four-figure fines or court-ordered community service, according to a CNN analysis.

The milestone of 50 sentencings was hit on Friday, a busy day in court, with six hearings on the schedule. Four defendants got probation Friday, including a pair of veterans from Wisconsin, while one man who stole a beer from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office got 20 days in jail.

As federal prosecutors have brought cases against nearly 700 rioters, a heated debate has emerged over what justice should look like for such an unprecedented assault on democracy. This debate has raged on social media and in the halls of Congress. It has also played out among the two dozen judges handling the cases at the federal courthouse in Washington, DC.

After 50 sentencings, a split has developed on the bench: One group of judges has handed down stiffer punishments to rioters, including time behind bars. While a more skeptical group of judges have rebuffed the Justice Department and instead imposed fines and probation, which means the rioters will avoid jail but stay under government supervision for years to come.

This dynamic won't last forever -- this initial wave of guilty pleas and sentencings will eventually be followed up by dozens of more serious felony cases with longer prison terms. But for now, the dizzying array of outcomes has caused some headaches. Judges are questioning the department's approach to January 6, and politicians from both sides have fanned the flames....

These wings of the court don't fall along political lines. There are GOP-appointed skeptics, and some Democratic appointees handing down tough punishments. But the dynamic is nuanced. This has also forced partisan players on both sides to contort their ideological views to fit the moment.

Democratic lawmakers and activists are calling for more incarceration and want judges to throw the book at rioters, while many Republican officials and right-wing influencers have become newfound supporters of improving jail conditions for what they call "political prisoners."

Some of many prior related posts:

UPDATE: I just notice this recent AP article discussing some of the sentencings for some of the January 6 crimes under the headline "Capitol rioters’ social media posts influencing sentencings." Here is how the extended piece gets started:

For many rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, self-incriminating messages, photos and videos that they broadcast on social media before, during and after the insurrection are influencing even their criminal sentences.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson read aloud some of Russell Peterson’s posts about the riot before she sentenced the Pennsylvania man to 30 days imprisonment. “Overall I had fun lol,” Peterson posted on Facebook.  The judge told Peterson that his posts made it “extraordinarily difficult” for her to show him leniency.

“The ’lol’ particularly stuck in my craw because, as I hope you’ve come to understand, nothing about January 6th was funny,” Jackson added.  “No one locked in a room, cowering under a table for hours, was laughing.”

Among the biggest takeaways so far from the Justice Department’s prosecution of the insurrection is how large a role social media has played, with much of the most damning evidence coming from rioters’ own words and videos.

December 12, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (12)