Sunday, July 12, 2020

Tongues wagging about Prez Trump using his clemency pen to grant compassionate release to Roger Stone

Unsurprisingly, lots and lots of folks have lots and lots to say about Prez Trump's decision late Friday to commute the prison sentence of Roger Stone (basics covered here).  I will start this post with two quick points and then round up below some of the other copious commentary already making the rounds.

1. Now do more, Mr. Prez: I am pleased Prez Trump has finally delivered, at least for an old friend with dirt on him, on his promise back in March to look at freeing elderly "totally nonviolent" offenders from federal prisons amid the COVID pandemic.  I am being cheeky here, of course, but meaning to make a serious point: the Stone commutation bothers me far less than Prez Trump's failure to use his clemency powers far more — both before and especially since the coronavirus crisis — to release the many federal prisoners who, like Stone, are older, medically vulnerable and present no clear risk to public safety. 

Back in February 2020, Prez Trump coupled some high-profile clemency grants with commutations to three women of color with no political connections (details here).  I sure wish Prez Trump and key advisers — Kushner?  Kushner?  Kushner? — had tried to couple the Stone commutation with clemency relief for just a few other older federal prisoners whose incarceration may prove deadly and serves little public safety purpose.  But it is not too late to make up for lost time: now do more comparable commutations, Mr. Prez!

2. Now do even more, federal judges: As the title of this post is meant to suggest, the Stone clemency strikes me as another form of compassionate release.  The official statement announcing the commutation made much of an "improper investigation," of "overzealous prosecutors" and of "serious questions about the jury" while also stressing that "Mr. Stone would be put at serious medical risk in prison" and that "Roger Stone has already suffered greatly."  These comments suggest Prez Trump concluded, in the words of 18 USC § 3582(c)(1)(A), that there were "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant[ing] a reduction" in Stone's prison sentence and that such a reduction was consistent with 3553(a)'s purposes of punishment. 

Thanks to the FIRST STEP Act, judges now have authority to grant comparable sentence reductions, and district judges have granted hundreds of compassionate release motions in response to the COVID crisis.  But thousands of compassionate release requests have been denied, many coming from prisoners who are likely even more vulnerable and even more sympathetic than Stone.  In more than a few cases, I have seen judges indicate considerable sympathy for the plight of a vulnerable older inmate, only to refuse release because the movant had not yet served enough time in prison.  But Roger Stone did not serve any prison time, and yet Prez Trump was still moved by his "medical risk" and by the fact he had "already suffered greatly" even before serving a single day in federal prison.  So this commutation should also be a message to federal judges: do more comparable compassionate releases, even if vulnerable offenders have served little or even no prison time.

I could go on, but rather than continue my tongue wagging about the Stone commutation, I will conclude here with a round-up of just a few other notable takes:

From Robert Mueller, "Roger Stone remains a convicted felon, and rightly so."

From Politico, "'Historic corruption': 2 Republican senators denounce Trump's commutation of Stone"

From Brett Tollman and Arthur Rizer, "Romney wrong to attack Trump commutation of Roger Stone prison sentence"

From Jack Goldsmith and Matt Gluck, "Trump’s Aberrant Pardons and Commutations"

From Jonathan Turley, "Why this Roger Stone commutation is not as controversial as some think"

From Jeffrey Tobin, "The Roger Stone Case Shows Why Trump Is Worse Than Nixon"

July 12, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 10, 2020

As was widely expected, Prez Trump commutes Roger Stone's sentence just before he was due to report to federal prison

As detailed via this official statement from the White House, this evening "President Donald J. Trump signed an Executive Grant of Clemency commuting the unjust sentence of Roger Stone, Jr."  Here is more from the statement:

Roger Stone is a victim of the Russia Hoax that the Left and its allies in the media perpetuated for years in an attempt to undermine the Trump Presidency.... As it became clear that these witch hunts would never bear fruit, the Special Counsel’s Office resorted to process-based charges leveled at high-profile people in an attempt to manufacture the false impression of criminality lurking below the surface.  These charges were the product of recklessness borne of frustration and malice.  This is why the out-of-control Mueller prosecutors, desperate for splashy headlines to compensate for a failed investigation, set their sights on Mr. Stone.  Roger Stone is well known for his nearly 50 years of work as a consultant for high-profile Republican politicians, including President Ronald Reagan, Senator Bob Dole, and many others. He is also well known for his outspoken support for President Donald J. Trump and opposition to Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Stone was charged by the same prosecutors from the Mueller Investigation tasked with finding evidence of collusion with Russia.  Because no such evidence exists, however, they could not charge him for any collusion-related crime. Instead, they charged him for his conduct during their investigation. The simple fact is that if the Special Counsel had not been pursuing an absolutely baseless investigation, Mr. Stone would not be facing time in prison.

In addition to charging Mr. Stone with alleged crimes arising solely from their own improper investigation, the Mueller prosecutors also took pains to make a public and shameful spectacle of his arrest....

Not only was Mr. Stone charged by overzealous prosecutors pursing a case that never should have existed, and arrested in an operation that never should have been approved, but there were also serious questions about the jury in the case.  The forewoman of his jury, for example, concealed the fact that she is a member of the so-called liberal “resistance” to the Trump Presidency.  In now-deleted tweets, this activist-juror vividly and openly attacked President Trump and his supporters.

Mr. Stone would be put at serious medical risk in prison.  He has appealed his conviction and is seeking a new trial. He maintains his innocence and has stated that he expects to be fully exonerated by the justice system.  Mr. Stone, like every American, deserves a fair trial and every opportunity to vindicate himself before the courts.  The President does not wish to interfere with his efforts to do so.  At this time, however, and particularly in light of the egregious facts and circumstances surrounding his unfair prosecution, arrest, and trial, the President has determined to commute his sentence. Roger Stone has already suffered greatly.  He was treated very unfairly, as were many others in this case. Roger Stone is now a free man!

I am disinclined to comment at length on this use of the clemency power or this very Trumpian statement explaining it.  But I must note that, because Prez Trump only commuted the sentence and did not pardon the Stone's felony convictions, it is not really accurate to say "Roger Stone is now a free man!"  There are thousands of laws that restrict the rights and opportunities of persons with a felony conviction and so Stone is, for example, not free to possess a firearm.

Prior related posts:

July 10, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Is releasing people from prison really that hard? I suppose it is if you cannot shake a carceral mindset.

The question in the title of this post is my response to this recent lengthy Atlantic commentary by Barbara Bradley Hagerty headlined "Releasing People From Prison Is Easier Said Than Done: As the pandemic threatens the lives of those behind bars, the country must confront a system that has never had rehabilitation as its priority."  This piece is reform-minded, and I recommend it, but its headline, much of its prose, and its overall spirit embrace a kind of carceral mentality that serves to reify a mass incarceration message.  These excerpts, as I will explain below, spotlight my concerns:

Some governors, alarmed at the deaths in prisons and jails and worried about the risk to surrounding communities, are listening — sort of, with an ear attuned to the political liability. More than half of the states have agreed to release people convicted of low-level crimes, people who are nearing the end of their sentences, or people who merit compassionate release, such as pregnant people or older, vulnerable inmates.

“It’s been helpful. I know that people have gotten out, and I am moved by their release,” says Nicole Porter, the director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, a research organization that campaigns for sentencing reform. “But none of it has been substantial.  And what I hope this moment tells us is that our incarceration rate is a function of politics — because there are many questions about who needs to be incarcerated.”

To meaningfully reduce America’s prison population and slow the pandemic will require cutting away not just fat but muscle, releasing not just nonviolent drug offenders but those convicted of violent crimes.  The difficulty of doing so, in both practical and moral terms, is enormous.  Which people convicted of murder or armed robbery do we release? How do we decide?  And how do we guarantee that they won’t offend again, especially as they try to restart their life during the worst economic collapse in nearly a century?...

Advocates say prisons are brimming with candidates who deserve a second chance—men and women who made egregious mistakes when they were young, whose crimes say more about the impulsiveness of youth and the trickiness of navigating inner-city violence than they do about character.  Yet in large part, these are not people whom the system has been preparing for release.

Prison can serve many purposes — to deter people from committing crimes in the first place, to punish them if they do, or to rehabilitate them and usher them back to normal life. America has by and large chosen the punitive path, imposing decades-long sentences intended to reduce crime on the streets.  During that time, inmates usually don’t receive the kind of training or care that would enable them to return to the outside world and build a new, stable life. This presents a giant hurdle for those who would wish to release prisoners now....

Those are the practical challenges.  The moral question — who deserves to be released? — is even more daunting.  Is the inmate truly penitent, or merely saying the right words? Has he matured past his violent tendencies, or is he a tinderbox waiting to ignite once he’s out?  Does the family of the victim agree, or will his release only add to their pain?  Is the crime simply so heinous that even a perfect record cannot overcome it?

The last paragraph I have excerpted here is perhaps the clearest example of a carceral mindset: when asking "who deserves to be released?", the writer is necessarily assuming that everyone incarcerated not only already "deserves" to be incarcerated, but also "deserves" to continue to be incarcerated.  Further, the author then suggests that, to "deserve" release, an "inmate" must be "truly penitent" AND must have "matured past his violent tendencies" AND must have the "family of the victim agree." And, even then it seems, a "perfect record" still should not permit release amidst a global pandemic killing hundreds of prisoners if a person's crime is "simply so heinous."

For anyone eager to see a US criminal justice system operating with a deep commitment to liberty and justice, this thinking should be — must be — completely flipped.  The proper "daunting" moral question  is who deserves to still be incarcerated, especially amidst a global pandemic with inherently and worsening inhumane prison conditions.  If an incarcerated person is "truly penitent" OR likely has "matured past his violent tendencies" OR has the "family of the victim" in support, then that person ought no longer be incarcerated.  And, even without anything close to a "perfect record," an alternative to incarceration should still be the presumption for any and everyone whose crime or criminal record is not truly heinous.

Similar rhetoric earlier in the piece is comparably problematic, such as the query "how do we guarantee that they won’t offend again" when considering who to release from prison.  It is important — and I think this piece means to get us usefully thinking about — the importance of prison programming and outside support that seeks to minimize the risk of recidivism for persons leaving prison.  But we are never going to be able to "guarantee" that any cohort of individuals will never commit any kind of crime.  When we consider building a new highway, nobody expects public officials to "guarantee" there will never be an accident on that highway.  We want a new road to be as safe as possible, but we recognize that the array of benefits that can come from having a new road generally justify the inevitable public safety risks it creates.   Similarly, we must be ever mindful of the array of benefits that can come from having less people in prison and not demand or even suggest that people should be released from prison only if and only when public officials can "guarantee that they won’t offend again."

Finally, for now at least, I must again lament the tendency in so many of these kinds of discussions to start with the framing that meaningful action here "will require cutting away not just fat but muscle, releasing not just nonviolent drug offenders but those convicted of violent crimes."  I agree that cutting away the "fat" may not alone be enough, but let's focus on getting that hard work done before we fixate on the additional challenges of cutting "muscle."  As this great Prison Policy Initiative pie chart reminds us, roughly 50% of our national prison and jail populations are serving time for what are deemed "non-violent" offenses.  When we let out all or most or even some significant portion of this million+ people in cages, then I will be more than ready to wring my hands over which "violent" offenders to release.  But to now get deeply concerned about exactly which "people convicted of murder or armed robbery" should be released risks creating the impression that these types of offenders are the bulk of our prison populations, when they comprise less than 25% of all the people put in cages in the so-called home of the free and land of the brave.  (Also, for the very most serious of offenders, the debate is much less complicated since presumptive release when they are elderly or ill generally makes the most sense.)

I could go on and on, but I hope my point is clear.  Even as we discuss reform and recognize all the challenges surrounding decarceration efforts, we must be ever mindful of how decades of mass incarceration has not only badly hurt our nation and our values, but also badly hurt how we talk and think about doing better.

July 10, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 09, 2020

SCOTUS holds in McGirt, via 5-4 vote with Justice Gorsuch authoring majority opinion, that big part of Oklahoma is a reservation precluding state prosecutions

Proving yet again that he is fully prepared to rule in favor of criminal defendants when he believes he is required to do so by the rule of law, Justice Gorsuch this morning voted with the Supreme Court's more liberal justices to hold in McGirt v. Oklahoma, No. 18–9526 (S. Ct. July 9, 2020) (available here) that a huge part of the state of Oklahoma "remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law."  Here is how the opinion of the Court, authored by Justice Gorsuch, gets started:

On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise. Forced to leave their ancestral lands in Georgia and Alabama, the Creek Nation received assurances that their new lands in the West would be secure forever.  In exchange for ceding “all their land, East of the Mississippi river,” the U.S. government agreed by treaty that “[t]he Creek country west of the Mississippi shall be solemnly guarantied to the Creek Indians.” Treaty With the Creeks, Arts. I, XIV, Mar. 24, 1832, 7 Stat. 366, 368 (1832 Treaty).  Both parties settled on boundary lines for a new and “permanent home to the whole Creek nation,” located in what is now Oklahoma. Treaty With the Creeks, preamble, Feb. 14, 1833, 7 Stat. 418 (1833 Treaty). The government further promised that “[no] State or Territory [shall] ever have a right to pass laws for the government of such Indians, but they shall be allowed to govern themselves.” 1832 Treaty, Art. XIV, 7 Stat. 368.

Today we are asked whether the land these treaties promised remains an Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law.  Because Congress has not said otherwise, we hold the government to its word.

The import and impact of this ruling is most clear from the first paragraphs of Chief Justice Roberts' dissent:

In 1997, the State of Oklahoma convicted petitioner Jimcy McGirt of molesting, raping, and forcibly sodomizing a four-year-old girl, his wife’s granddaughter. McGirt was sentenced to 1,000 years plus life in prison.  Today, the Court holds that Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to prosecute McGirt — on the improbable ground that, unbeknownst to anyone for the past century, a huge swathe of Oklahoma is actually a Creek Indian reservation, on which the State may not prosecute serious crimes committed by Indians like McGirt.  Not only does the Court discover a Creek reservation that spans three million acres and includes most of the city of Tulsa, but the Court’s reasoning portends that there are four more such reservations in Oklahoma.  The rediscovered reservations encompass the entire eastern half of the State — 19 million acres that are home to 1.8 million people, only 10%–15% of whom are Indians.

Across this vast area, the State’s ability to prosecute serious crimes will be hobbled and decades of past convictions could well be thrown out.  On top of that, the Court has profoundly destabilized the governance of eastern Oklahoma.  The decision today creates significant uncertainty for the State’s continuing authority over any area that touches Indian affairs, ranging from zoning and taxation to family and environmental law.

None of this is warranted. What has gone unquestioned for a century remains true today: A huge portion of Oklahoma is not a Creek Indian reservation. Congress disestablished any reservation in a series of statutes leading up to Oklahoma statehood at the turn of the 19th century. The Court reaches the opposite conclusion only by disregarding the “well settled” approach required by our precedents. Nebraska v. Parker, 577 U. S. 481, ___ (2016) (slip op., at 5).

July 9, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

"Retroactivity & Recidivism: The Drugs Minus Two Amendment"

Cover_Drugs-Minus-TwoThe title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission report.  A summary of the report is provided on this USSC webpage and provides these basics:

Summary

This publication analyzes recidivism rates among drug offenders who were released immediately before and after retroactive implementation of the 2014 "Drugs Minus Two" Amendment.

The report tracked the recidivism rate of two study groups:

  • Retroactivity Group: 7,121 offenders who received sentence reductions through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment and who were released early from October 30, 2015, to May 31, 2016.
  • Comparison Group: 7,132 offenders who would have been eligible for sentence reductions through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment but were released between May 1, 2014, and October 29, 2015, having served their full sentences before the Drugs Minus Two Amendment could be retroactively applied

Findings 

The Commission's report aims to answer the research question, "Did the reduced sentences for the Retroactivity Group result in increased recidivism?"  The Commission found the following:

  • There was no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of offenders released early pursuant to retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment and a comparable group of offenders who served their full sentences.
  • This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the eligibility criteria required by the Commission, and the careful consideration of those criteria by judges — particularly public safety considerations — in exercising their discretion to grant or deny retroactivity motions.

Interestingly, though apparently not reaching a level of statistical significance, the Sentencing Commission's data actually show that the group who received reduced sentences had a lower rate of recidivism.  From the Key Findings at page 6 of the full report (with my emphasis added):

There was no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of the Retroactivity Group (offenders who were released on average 37 months early through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment) and the Comparison Group (offenders who would have been eligible for retroactivity but had served their sentences before retroactivity took effect). Over a three-year period following their release from prison, the Retroactivity Group had a recidivism rate of 27.9 percent compared to 30.5 percent for the Comparison Group. This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the eligibility criteria required by the Commission, and the careful consideration of those criteria by judges — particularly public safety considerations — in exercising their discretion to grant or deny retroactivity motions.

The similarity in the recidivism rates of the Retroactivity Group and the Comparison Group held true across all drug types. Among offenders convicted of offenses with the same primary drug type — Powder Cocaine, Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana, Methamphetamine, and Other Drugs — offenders in the Retroactivity Group had similar recidivism rates to offenders in the Comparison Group, although the recidivism levels varied by drug type. The highest rates were observed among Crack Cocaine offenders (35.1% in the Retroactivity Group and 37.5% in the Comparison Group) and the lowest rates among Powder Cocaine offenders (19.5% in the Retroactivity Group and 22.3% in the Comparison Group).

I am quite inclined to embrace the USSC's assertion that the exercise of wise judicial discretion in deciding who should get the benefit of retroactive implementation of the 2014 "Drugs Minus Two" Amendment explains why recidivism rates were relative low for those defendants who received reduced sentences. Among other benefits of this conclusion, it should make Congress and the USSC ever more confident that they can safely (and should as a matter of fairness and justice) make any any all reduced sentences fully retroactive (subject to discretionary judicial review upon implementation).

July 8, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Highlighting just one way that, even after the FIRST STEP Act, "Justice Still Eludes Crack Offenders"

Sarah E. Ryan has this notable new Crime Report commentary headlined simply "Why Justice Still Eludes Crack Offenders." I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

In early 2007, Carl Smith sold 1.69 grams of crack, less than half a teaspoon.  He also sold a teaspoon of powder cocaine.  A New Hampshire federal judge sentenced him to seventeen-and-a-half years imprisonment, the lowest end of the sentencing guidelines recommendation.

Last spring, Smith sought a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.  The district court denied the request because he was convicted under a statutory subsection unaffected by the new law. In essence, he had sold too little crack to go free.  According to an early 2020 analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the New Hampshire district courts granted just four sentence reductions under the First Step Act.  The district of Rhode Island granted four times more reductions; the district of Connecticut granted five times as many.

Nationally, the average sentence reduction was 71 months.  As a result, many defendants had served their time and could be released from incarceration.  But not Carl Smith. He remained locked up during a pandemic.  He appealed, arguing that the First Step Act covered his conviction.

After analyzing more than 500 First Step Act cases, including 90 relevant circuit court opinions, I know two things: this area of law remains in disarray and the circuit courts have largely dodged the tough issues.  They remain complicit in a decades-old mass incarceration scheme.

The now-familiar history of the crack laws omits one key fact: Congress knew early on that the drug laws were disproportionately affecting Black defendants.... In 1995, the Sentencing Commission told Congress that Black defendants accounted for nearly 90 percent of crack cocaine convictions and that most of their customers were white.  In 1996, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported the changing nature of the federal prison population using bold-faced sub-headers such as: “An increasing percentage of the Nation’s prisoners are black or Hispanic.”  In 1999, the BJS reported that the length of federal prison sentences had increased 40 percent. 

By the mid-1990s, lawmakers understood that dealers like Carl Smith were serving prison terms usually reserved for second-degree murder, or intentional murder demonstrating an extreme indifference to human life.  Yet Congress provided no relief, for decades.

In 2010, Congress raised the quantity necessary for future statutory minimum sentences in the Fair Sentencing Act; the law did not help defendants sentenced at the height of the drug war.  A few thousand people remained incarcerated under the old crack laws.  Their only hope was an historic reform amounting to an admission of Congressional guilt. The First Step Act was that law.  A bipartisan coalition heralded the First Step Act as the end of the draconian drug laws.  The Act gave sitting judges the authority to reopen the old crack cases and impose more appropriate sentences.... The intent of the law was clear, but some judges wavered.

There are two plausible ways to read the resentencing section — section 404 — of the First Step Act: as a small fix to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 or a broad mandate to rectify thousands of unjust sentences.  The broad reading is historically, legally and morally correct.  But hundreds of hearings in, the nation’s district courts remain divided on the law’s most basic tenets, like which defendants can be resentenced or what Section 404 empowers judges to do.

Some judges apply Section 404 narrowly.  A subset dismiss cases involving too little or too much crack without a review of the other facts.  Still others review all cases implicating a Fair Sentencing Act statute, but only to perform a new mathematical calculation.  They do not consider a defendant’s post-sentencing conduct or intervening changes in the law, even favorable state and federal supreme court rulings.  Their narrow interpretations of the law unnecessarily depress the length of sentence reductions.

Other judges construe Section 404 broadly.  They view the First Step Act as a gateway to relief.  Some find that they can revisit the sentences of small-time dealers or inmates serving hybrid sentences for interconnected drug and weapons crimes.  Some believe that they may consider a defendant’s good conduct, prison coursework and recent high court rulings.  Broad-view judges find that Congress empowered them to mitigate the damage of the old crack laws.  Their proof? The text of the law, including the word “impose” as a mandate to issue an independent sentence — and the testimony of a dozen or more senators, of both parties, characterizing the First Step Act as redress for the old drug laws.

Recently, the First Circuit adopted a broad view in Carl Smith’s case [opinion here]. That appellate opinion is reason for hope that the circuit courts will raze the remains of the old crack laws.  This summer, the appellate courts should adopt a broad reading of the First Step Act.  That reading should require sitting judges to issue meaningful sentence reductions, including ‘timed served’ in many cases.

And, it should hold sitting judges accountable for the continued incarceration of non-violent drug dealers who have served a decade or more.  Amidst global protests for freedom, liberation and justice for Black citizens, and a raging pandemic, the courts must fully enact the First Step Act as Congress intended.

I am pleased to see this new commentary calling out lower courts for not giving full effect to remedial aspects of the FIRST STEP Act.  But this analysis should not leave out the problematic role of the Justice Department.  I surmise that DOJ has consistently argued for narrow and limiting approaches to the application of Section 404.  Decades ago, DOJ could reasonably contended that its arguments for severe application of federal sentencing laws were consistent with congressional intent.  Now, DOJ arguments for severe application of federal sentencing laws often clearly fly in the face of congressional intent.

July 7, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 05, 2020

Celebrating freedom with another long list of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

After a holiday weekend all about celebrating freedom in this great country, I am excited to provide another listings of new grants of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  These lists represent a special kind of freedom for federal prisoners and those that care about them, and I am pleased to have nearly three dozen recent grants to report here:

United States v. Johnson, No. CR H-96-176, 2020 WL 3618682 (SD Tex. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Young, No. 14-CR-30024-2, 2020 WL 3605025 (CD Ill. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Browne, No. CR 14-10369-LTS, 2020 WL 3618689 (D Mass. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Tubbs-Smith, No. CR 18-20310, 2020 WL 3618511 (ED Mich. July 2, 2020)

United States v. McCalla, No. CR 11-452 (FLW), 2020 WL 3604120  (D N.J. July 2, 2020) 

 

United States v. Hanson, No. 6:13-CR-00378-AA-1, 2020 WL 3605845 (D Ore. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Fitch, No. 2:04-CR-262 JCM (PAL), 2020 WL 3620067 (D Nev. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Chargualaf, No. CR 95-00054, 2020 WL 3619007 (D Guam July 2, 2020)

United States v. Plank, No. 17-20026-JWL, 2020 WL 3618858 (D Kan. July 2, 2020)

United States v. Seals, No. CR 13-00653 SOM (11), 2020 WL 3578289 (D Haw. July 1, 2020)

 

United States v. Nealy, No. 3:12-CR-154(RNC)2, 2020 WL 3577299 (D Conn. July 1, 2020)

United States v. Heyward, No. 17-CR-527-PWG, 2020 WL 3547018 (D Md. June 30, 2020)

United States v. Burnett, No. 06-CR-00034-PB-2, 2020 WL 3545159 (D N.H. June 30, 2020)

United States v.Tillman, No. 12-CR-2024-CJW-MAR, 2020 WL 3578374 (ND Iowa June 30, 2020)

United States v. Garcia, No. CR 13-00884 HG-01, 2020 WL 3547933 (D Haw. June 30, 2020)

 

United States v. Gakhal, No. 15 CR 470-1, 2020 WL 3529904 (ND Ill. June 30, 2020)

United States v. Rachal, No. CR 16-10043-NMG, 2020 WL 3545473 (D Mass. June 30, 2020)

United States v. Pina, No. 18-CR-179 (JSR), 2020 WL 3545514 (SDNY June 29, 2020)

United States v. Harris, No. 06-CR-30058, 2020 WL 3483559 (CD Ill. June 26, 2020)

Woodard v. United States, No. 2:12-CR-105, 2020 WL 3528413 (ED Va. June 26, 2020)

 

United States v. Yellin, No. 3:15-CR-3181-BTM-1, 2020 WL 3488738 (SD Cal. June 26, 2020)

Cotton v. United States, No. CR 16-20222-8, 2020 WL 3488752 (ED Mich. June 26, 2020)

United States v. Shannon, No. 13 CR 535, 2020 WL 3489491 (ND Ill. June 26, 2020)

United States v. Arango, No. 15-CR-104 (JMF), 2020 WL 3488909 (SDNY June 26, 2020)

United States v. Champagne, No. 4:97-CR-089, 2020 WL 3472911 (D N.D. June 25, 2020)

 

United States v. Thompson, No. 92-30065-001, 2020 WL 3470300 (CD Ill. June 25, 2020)

United States v. Danson, No. CR 10-0051 (PLF), 2020 WL 3467887 (D D.C. June 25, 2020)

United States v. Gaitan, No. 18-CR-4662-BAS-1, 2020 WL 3469395 (SD Cal. June 25, 2020)

United States v. Fabris, No. 17-CR-00386-VC-2, 2020 WL 3481708 (ND Cal. June 25, 2020)

United States v. Ollie, No. CR 1:12-09, 2020 WL 3469754 (WD Pa. June 24, 2020)

 

United States v. Schaffer, No. 13-cr-00220-MMC-1, 2020 WL 3481562 (ND Cal. June 24, 2020)

United States v. Arroyo, No. EP-6-CR-479-PRM-1, 2020 WL 3512964 (WD Tex. June 24, 2020)

As I have mentioned repeatedly, some rulings do not appear on Westlaw right away and others do not show up at all.  Indeed, this BOP page on the FIRST STEP Act has updated its reporting of total grants of "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences," and it now reports 774 grants when last week the page reported 706 grants.  These data continue to confirm my sense that less than half of all the granted motions end up on Westlaw.

One final note: though there surely are lots of fascinating stories within all these grants, I was especially intrigued to see the name  David Kent Fitch as a grant recipient.  That name is familiar to me because I previously blogged about Mr. Fitch's case when he was sentenced to an extra 15+ years of federal imprisonment after a district judge decided at sentencing that he committed a murder for which was never charged. (The details are discussed in these prior posts: Punished (twice?!?) for an uncharged murder in federal court and Split Ninth Circuit affirms huge upward departure based on uncharged murder.)  

Some of many prior recent related posts on CR grants:

July 5, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dare criminal justice reformers imagine SCOTUS without both Justice Alito and Justice Thomas?

Because there are no more juicy criminal law or sentencing cases left on the SCOTUS docket as an unusual Term winds down, I cannot help but spend time speculating about the future of the Court.  In an election year, of course, that includes imagining who might be appointed (and might be doing the appointing) for the next four years.  But this recent Fox News piece, headlined "Supreme Court rumor: Hugh Hewitt claims Alito retirement being floated," has me eager to imagine some SCOTUS transitions in the coming weeks.  Here are the (silly?) details:

Supreme Court speculation season is kicking into high gear. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt told listeners Wednesday morning that according to his sources, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is considering retirement.

This came on the heels of a Washington Post report that said Justice Clarence Thomas "is privately seen by Trump’s aides as the most likely to retire this year," though he's given no indication of doing so.

Hewitt mentioned the Alito rumor on his show while talking to the author of that article, Robert Costa, who also had written about conservatives’ disappointment with decisions where Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberal justices.  Costa noted that President Trump and Vice President Pence have cited the recent cases as proof that more conservative justices are needed, as he discussed rumors of possible contenders should Thomas step down.

"The stronger rumor is that Justice Alito is going to quit. Justice Thomas will never quit," Hewitt countered. Alito is 70, so if he retires he could be replaced with a much younger justice who would theoretically have decades on the court ahead.

But it is not clear whether the rumor is just that. Others doubt that either Thomas or Alito will retire. "I would not bet a lot of money on either of those possibilities," a person familiar with the court told Fox News.

Any imminent retirement would be risky for conservatives in the election year. If the current GOP-controlled Senate could not push through a replacement for any vacancy in time, it runs the risk for Republicans that the next nominee would be selected by a Democrat, if Joe Biden were to win the presidency. Further, Senate Republicans are far from guaranteed to hold the majority in the chamber next year.

Costa’s report did note how the White House and Republicans in the Senate are supposedly gearing up for a possible Supreme Court vacancy, but that was in reference to speculation that Thomas may step down.

One outside political adviser to Trump reportedly told Costa that if an opening were to emerge, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., would be ready to act swiftly to get the nominee confirmed. A favorite of his supposedly is 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amul Thapar, who previously served as a federal district judge and U.S. attorney in McConnell’s home state.

Hewitt also named several possible replacements for Alito, including 6th Circuit Judge Raymond Kethledge, who had been considered a strong candidate in the past.

Though neither Judges Kethledge or Thapar would likely be consistent votes for criminal defendants if they were to become Justices, I suspect both would be more likely to follow the varied voting pattern of Justice Gorsuch in criminal cases (noted here and here) than to follow in the legacy of Justices Alito and Thomas.  On the current Court, Justices Alito and Thomas are always most likely to favor state criminal powers over defendants in just about every setting.  It think it hard to imagine that they could or would ever be replaced with anybody more likely to vote so consistently against criminal defendants.

But I am not really daring to imagine a SCOTUS without Justices Alito and Thomas.  I sense they both like their work, and they probably both have good reason to believe they could keep at it for many years, perhaps many decades, to come.  So I fear criminal justice reformers who want a path through the Supreme Court should plan for at least two oppositional Justtices for many more years.

July 5, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Some additional helpful resources on compassionate release

As regular readers know, I have been making a weekly habit of posting lists of federal court rulings granting sentencing reductions pursuant to what is known colloquially as the federal compassionate release statute (recent examples here and here and here).  I surmise from feedback that these lists serve as helpful resources, and I am happy here to be able note here some additional materials that can aid those seeking compassionate releases.

For starters, the folks at FAMM have long been leaders on this front, and they have collected an extraordinary array of materials at this link.  In addition, the Amend at UCSF has put together here a set of original resources "to aid health care professionals/advocates in requesting compassionate release for incarcerated patients."  Especially notable are updated versions of a "Compassionate Release Sample Narrative Letter and Checklist Letter."

Last but certainly not least, I am pleased to report that Michael Gniwisch, a Penn Law student and legal intern at the Aleph Institute, gathered together a number of compassionate release cases from this blog and plugged them into a spreadsheet.  This detailed spreadsheet sorts the cases by district, nature of conviction, time left, illness, outbreak at facility, and exhaustion.  Michael's helpful work should make it easier for attorneys to find useful precedents, and Michael plans to keep updating the spreadsheet.  I am grateful for his efforts.

UPDATE: I am disappointed I forgot in this initial post to also flag this latest and timely FSR issue and some of the articles therein.  This issue covers, in the words of Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, how "amendments to compassionate release policies and the passage of the First Step Act represented opportunities for the federal prison system to provide relief to elderly offenders suffering ill-reasoned, illogically lengthy terms of incarceration."

July 1, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 29, 2020

SCOTUS denies, by 7-2 vote, cert petition from federal death row defendants challenging federal execution protocol

As reported in this AP article, the "Supreme Court on Monday refused to block the execution of four federal prison inmates who are scheduled to be put to death in July and August."  Here is more:

The justices rejected an appeal from four inmates who were convicted of killing children.  Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor noted that they would have blocked the executions from going forward.

The court's action leaves no obstacles standing in the way of the executions, the first of which is scheduled for July 13. The inmates are separately asking a federal judge in Washington to impose a new delay on their executions over other legal issues that have yet to be resolved.

The activity at the high court came after Attorney General William Barr directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions. Three of the men had been scheduled to be put to death when Barr first announced the federal government would resume executions last year, ending an informal moratorium on federal capital punishment as the issue receded from the public domain....

The federal government’s initial effort was put on hold by a trial judge after the inmates challenged the new execution procedures, and the federal appeals court in Washington and the Supreme Court both declined to step in late last year. But in April, the appeals court threw out the judge’s order. The federal prison in Indiana where the executions would take place, USP Terre Haute, has struggled to combat the coronavirus pandemic behind bars. One inmate there has died from COVID-19.

The inmates scheduled for execution are: Danny Lee, who was convicted in Arkansas of killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old; Wesley Ira Purkey, of Kansas, who raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl and killed an 80-year-old woman; Dustin Lee Honken, who killed five people in Iowa, including two children; and Keith Dwayne Nelson, who kidnapped a 10-year-old girl who was rollerblading in front of her Kansas home and raped her in a forest behind a church before strangling the young girl with a wire.

Three of the executions — for Lee, Purkley and Honken — are scheduled days apart beginning July 13. Nelson’s execution is scheduled for Aug. 28. The Justice Department said additional executions will be set at a later date. Executions on the federal level have been rare and the government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988 — most recently in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

The Supreme Court's decision here does not guarantee that federal executions will go forward in two weeks, but it does guarantee there will be lots and lots of litigation in those two weeks as defense attorneys press other legal claims and federal prosecutors respond. The fact that the cert vote here was 7-2 could be viewed in various ways as a forecast of how the Justices might approach other issues surely to be brought before them by these defendants with pending execution dates. But I have come to assume that there are now five pretty solid SCOTUS votes to allow capital punishment administration to move forward, so there would seem to be a pretty solid chance the federal government will be getting back to executions shortly.

Prior related posts:

June 29, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sixth Circuit panel rejects Romell Broom's constitutional arguments that Ohio cannot try again to execute him after botched first attempt

I somehow missed that last week a Sixth Circuit panel handed down a notable unanimous ruling on a novel (and disconcerting) issues of capital punishment administration . Even long-time readers may have forgotten about the case of Romell Broon, but the start of the Sixth Circuit ruling in Broom v. Shoop, No. 19-3356 (6th Cir. June 23, 2020) (available here), provides the still-remarkable essentials:

In an infamous September 2009 incident, the state of Ohio tried to execute death-row inmate Rommel Broom, and failed.  More specifically, the state tried to execute Broom by way of lethal injection, but was forced to abandon the effort when the execution team concluded — two hours into the process — that it could not maintain a viable IV connection to Broom’s veins.  The state then returned Broom to his cell, to await a second execution attempt on another day.  That second execution attempt has not yet happened, however, because the parties have spent the last eleven years litigating whether the U.S. Constitution bars Ohio from ever trying to execute Broom again — Broom relies on both the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on “cruel and unusual” punishment and the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition on “double jeopardy.”  The state courts, including the Ohio Supreme Court, have rejected Broom’s contentions on the merits, as did the district court below on habeas review.  Broom’s case now comes before us.

We in no way condone Ohio’s treatment of Broom; that it took two hours of stabbing and prodding for the state to realize that it could not maintain a viable IV connection to Broom’s veins is disturbing, to say the least.  But because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”) permits us to reverse state court merits decisions in only a narrow set of circumstances, and because the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision rejecting Broom’s constitutional claims on the merits does not fall within that set of circumstances here, we AFFIRM the district court’s judgment denying Broom habeas relief.

Ohio has not executed anyone in two years due in part to litigation and uncertainty over execution protocols, and Broom recently had his 2020 execution date pushed back to March 2022.  I could discuss at great length not only why this case is so jurisprudentially interesting, but I continue to fear that SCOTUS will not be inclined to take up this case.  And for those interested in more coverage of all the facts and law, here are posts on the case going back more than a decade now:

June 29, 2020 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Is Prez Trump trying to convince himself to have the guts to pardon Roger Stone?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought upon seeing this news piece headlined "Trump tweet fuels speculation of Stone pardon: The tweet came after a judge ruled Stone would report to prison in July."  Here are the details:

President Donald Trump further fueled speculation Saturday morning that he plans to pardon longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone.

After a judge on Friday gave Stone a surrender date of July 14 -- he had sought to report to the Georgia prison on Sept. 3 -- Trump tweeted a story about a petition for the president to pardon Stone as he faces a sentence of 40 months for lying to Congress and misleading investigators on several key elements of their probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

On Saturday, Trump retweeted a message saying "IT’S TIME TO #PardonRogerStone"

This is not the first time a Trump tweet has raised the prospect of a Stone pardon.  Earlier this month, on June 4, the president tweeted that "Roger was a victim of a corrupt and illegal Witch Hunt, one which will go down as the greatest political crime in history.  He can sleep well at night!"

With Stone now seemingly having a hard prison report date in three weeks, Prez Trump is going to have to make a clemency decision sooner rather than later. If Prez Trump is really eager to keep Stone out of prison, I hope he might at least looks to include Stone with some additional meritorious clemency grants as he did back in February when commuted the sentences of sentences of three women along with Rod Blagojevich.

Prior related posts:

June 27, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Time for another long list of (mostly COVID-influenced) federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I must admit that I might be starting to get just a bit fatigued by my repeated listings of new grants of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  But these lists represent such a special kind of good news for federal prisoners and those that care about them, and I am not at all tired of seeing this heartening news each week as I assemble dozens of recent grants.  So:

United States v. Morrison, No. 19-cr-284-PWG, 2020 WL 3447757 (D Md. June 24, 2020)

United States v. Martin, No. DKC 04-0235-5, 2020 WL 3447760 (D Md. June 24, 2020)

United States v. Davis, 2:15-cr-00062-TLN, 2020 WL 3443400 (ED Cal. June 23, 2020)

United States v. Oaks, No. RDB-17-0288, 2020 WL 3433326 (D Md. June 23, 2020)

United States v. Smith, No. 4:18CR805 HEA, 2020 WL 3429150 (ED Mo. June 23, 2020)

 

United States v. Platte, No. 05-cr-208-JD-KJM-2, 2020 WL 3441979 (ED Cal. June 22, 2020)

United States v. Salvagno, No. 5:02-CR-51 (LEK), 2020 WL 3410601 (NDNY June 22, 2020)

United States v. Common, No. 17-cr-30067, 2020 WL 3412233 (CD Ill. June 22, 2020)

United States v. Faafiu, No. CR 17-0231 WHA, 2020 WL 3425120 (ND Cal. June 22, 2020)

United States v. Ladson, No. 04-697-1, 2020 WL 3412574 (ED Pa. June 22, 2020)

 

United States v. Austin, No. 06-cr-991 (JSR), 2020 WL 3447521 (SDNY June 22, 2020)

United States v. Lee, No. 1:95-cr-58 (LMB), 2020 WL 3422772 (ED Va. June 22, 2020)

United States v. Bayuo, No. 15-cr-576 (JGK), 2020 WL 3415226 (SDNY June 20, 2020)

United States v. Richardson, No. 2:17-cr-00048-JAM, 2020 WL 3402410 (D Conn. June 19, 2020)

United States v. Garcia-Zuniga, No. 19cr4139 JM, 2020 WL 3403070 (SD Cal. June 19, 2020)

 

United States v. Jackson, No. 2:18-cr-86-PPS, 2020 WL 3396901 (ND Ind. June 19, 2020)

United States v. Calabrese, No. 16-30033-TSH, 2020 WL 3316139 (D Mass. June 18, 2020)

United States v. Clark, No. 4:08-CR-00096, 2020 WL 3395540 (SD Iowa June 17, 2020)

United States v. Joseph, No. 18-CR-156, 2020 WL 3270885 (ED Wisc June 17, 2020)

United States v. Johnson, No. JKB-14-356, 2020 WL 3316221 (D Md. June 17, 2020)

 

United States v. Kess, No. ELH-14-480, 2020 WL 3268093 (D Md. June 17, 2020)

United States v. Quinn, No. 91-cr-00608-DLJ-1 (RS), 2020 WL 3275736 (ND Cal. June 17, 2020)

United States v. Cruz, No. 3:17-cr-00075-JO-4, 2020 WL 3265390 (D Ore. June 17, 2020)

As I have mentioned repeatedly, some rulings do not appear on Westlaw right away and others do not show up at all.  Indeed, this BOP page on the FIRST STEP Act has updated its reporting of total grants of "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences," and it now reports 706 grants when last week the page reported 650 grants.  These data confirm my sense from various sources that around 50 sentence reductions are now being granted each week of the COVID era.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

June 25, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Making the case against LWOP, the bigger and badder death penalty

This new NBC News commentary by Peter Irons makes the case for paying more attention to, and getting rid of, LWOP sentences.  The piece's full headline highlights its themes: "A prison sentence of life without parole isn't called the death penalty.  But it should be.  Before we cheer the huge drop in capital punishment cases, we need to revisit and replace the extended death penalty — life without parole."  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

[A]s more and more prosecutors seek the death penalty more infrequently, if at all­­, they routinely press for LWOP sentences in first-degree murder cases, and sometimes for second-degree murder and armed robbery.  There’s no uniform standard to decide which defendants deserve to eventually be eligible for parole and which don’t; these choices are inherently “arbitrary and capricious” and the antithesis of fairness.

As a result, even with death-sentenced inmates at a modern low of some 2,800, there are now more than 53,000 serving LWOP sentences, a four-fold increase in the past two decades.  Another 44,000 are serving “virtual life” sentences of 50 or more years, past the life expectancies of almost all inmates. In other words, some 97,000 inmates have still been condemned to die behind bars....

Those who receive life sentences with parole eligibility return to prison for another violent crime at a rate of only 1.2 percent.  Though LWOP inmates, by definition, cannot present any evidence of rehabilitation to a parole board, it’s reasonable to expect that ending life without parole sentences would not unleash a new murder wave.  Doing so would also save taxpayers up to $40,000 for each year of further incarceration, not to mention the costs for the growing number of elderly inmates with serious health problems. That’s the pocketbook argument against the practice.

A better argument, in my opinion, is that restoring parole eligibility to all convicted murderers (with no guarantee of release, of course) would encourage inmates to keep their disciplinary records clean and to participate in educational and vocational programs to improve their chances of successful re-entry into their communities and job markets....

My personal preference would be to revise state laws to give all convicted murderers a chance for parole after serving a minimum of 10 or 15 years (those who get life sentences with the possibility of parole serve an average of 13.4 years), and a presumption of parole after age 55 or 60, by which time most inmates have “aged out” of further crime.  But I understand both are unlikely of adoption in all but the bluest states, so I suggest instead urging governors to exercise their pardon and commutation powers in cases of demonstrated rehabilitation and remorse....

The nascent campaign against LWOP has already secured a beachhead from which it can press for eventual abolition. The Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in Miller v. Alabama that juvenile murderers cannot be given a mandatory LWOP sentence.  By the same token, even those LWOP inmates who murdered as adults deserve resentencing consideration.  The only factor in deciding whether to return an inmate to society is whether they are likely to endanger others.  To say that any prisoner, whatever their crime and sentence, cannot possibly show remorse and rehabilitation, as a life-without-parole punishment does, is to say that these “bad” people — unlike the rest of us — cannot change for the good and denies their common humanity.

June 24, 2020 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

FINAL REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting new project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  Because the deadline for submissions is next week (June 30), this is going to be my reminder.  But it is certainly not too late to get involved; the basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

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

Contest Objective and Deliverable

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

Contest Timeline and Awards

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Senators Durbin and Grassley introduce new bill to make modest, but still important, reforms to federal elderly home release and compassionate release

As reported in this new press release, "U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), authors of the bipartisan First Step Act, landmark criminal justice reform legislation, introduced new, bipartisan legislation to reform the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release from federal prisons. "  The release provides some notable contextual data and well some details of the bill's particulars:

Sadly, more than 80 federal prisoners with pre-existing medical conditions that made them more vulnerable to COVID-19 have died as a result of the virus, more than half of whom were over 60 years old.  Elderly offenders, the fastest-growing portion of the prison population, have much lower rates of recidivism and are much more expensive to incarcerate due to their health care needs. 

Since enactment of the First Step Act, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has opposed the vast majority of compassionate release petitions.  In 2019, 1,735 requests for release were initiated by or on behalf of prisoners, of which 1,501 were denied by wardens and 226 of which were forwarded to the BOP Director.  Of these 226, BOP approved only 55 and denied 171.  Since March of this year, only about 500 inmates have been granted compassionate release in the midst of the pandemic, nearly all of them by court order over the objections of the Department of Justice and BOP.  BOP has reportedly refused to approve any compassionate releases based on vulnerability to COVID-19.

“At the end of 2018, Congress came together to pass one of the most important criminal justice reform laws in a generation.  Now we have an obligation to ensure that this law is properly implemented,” Durbin said.  “My legislation with Senator Grassley would help ensure that the most vulnerable prisoners are quickly released or transferred to home confinement for the remainder of their sentence – just as the First Step Act intended.  This is especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic to protect against the spread of this deadly virus.  I’m hopeful that this commonsense, bipartisan legislation will pass swiftly through the House and Senate and will be signed into law.”

“In the middle of a pandemic the federal government ought to be doing everything it can to protect the inmates in its care.  We already established important home confinement and early release programs in 2018, which are especially important right now as older inmates face very serious risks because of the virus.  Our bill will clarify and expand those programs we wrote into the First Step Act, so we can better protect these vulnerable populations,” Grassley said.

Specifically, the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act would reform the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and compassionate release by:

  • Clarifying that the percentage of time served required for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program should be calculated based on an inmate’s sentence, including reductions for good time credits (H.R. 4018, which passed the House by voice vote);
  • Expanding the eligibility criteria for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program to include nonviolent offenders who have served at least 50 percent of their term of imprisonment;
  • Clarifying that elderly nonviolent D.C. Code offenders in BOP custody are eligible for the Elderly Home Detention Pilot Program and that federal prisoners sentenced before November 1, 1987 are eligible for compassionate release;
  • Subjecting elderly home detention eligibility decisions to judicial review (based on the First Step Act’s compassionate release provision); and
  • Providing that, during the period of the pandemic, COVID-19 vulnerability is a basis for compassionate release and shortening the period prisoners must wait for judicial review for elderly home detention and compassionate release from 30 to 10 days.

The following organizations support the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act:  Aleph Institute, Americans for Tax Reform and Digital Liberty, Drug Policy Alliance, Due Process Institute, FAMM, Federal Public and Community Defenders, FreedomWorks, Justice Action Network, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), Right on Crime, Sentencing Project, Taking Action For Good, Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), and Tzedek Association.

A section-by-section of the legislation is available here.

Bill text is available here.

I have placed in bold the provisions of this new bill that strike me as particularly noteworthy and that could prove most consequential. In short form, this bill would seem to authorize (though not require) judges to move most persons over the age of 60 from federal prison into home confinement as soon as they approach serving about half of their initially imposed prison sentence.  Sound like a great idea to me, and it also sounds like another version of another kind of "parole light" proposal of the sort I discussed a few years ago in this article

June 23, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 22, 2020

"The Substance of Montgomery Retroactivity: The Definition of States’ Supremacy Clause Obligation to Enforce Newly-Recognized Federal Rights in Their Post-conviction Proceedings and Why It Matters"

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

In Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016), the Supreme Court made a decision of far-reaching importance to the criminal justice system: the Supremacy Clause requires states adjudicating post-conviction attacks to give full retroactive effect to “substantive” new rules of federal constitutional law.

The significance of this holding has so far been under-appreciated because of the assumption that “substantive” has the same narrow meaning in the context of the state’s obligations under the Supremacy Clause as it does under Teague v. Lane, 489 U.S. 288 (1989), which sets forth prudential limitations on the claims that the federal courts will entertain when adjudicating federal habeas corpus attacks on state criminal convictions.

But, this article argues, the two contexts are not the same and the assumption is unwarranted.  To be sure, rules that are “substantive” under Teague are also substantive under Montgomery.  But because Montgomery is based on the Supremacy Clause, the class of “substantive” federal rules for Montgomery purposes should be far broader than it is for Teague purposes.

“Substantive” rules under Montgomery, I propose, include all those whose policy underpinnings extend beyond enhancing the factual accuracy of particular decisions.  Examples of such rules are ones whose aims include discountenancing government misconduct (e.g., barring evidence derived from coerced confessions or unreasonable searches) and achieving full community participation in the judicial process (e.g., adding new groups to the ones that may not constitutionally be excluded from jury service, and expanding the categories of juror bias that a defendant must be permitted to litigate).

Adopting the proposed definition will have structural benefits to the system of criminal justice adjudication.  The Montgomery decision will necessarily have the effect of increasing the number of state post-conviction decisions.  The broader the definition of “substantive” the more pronounced the effect.  The more pronounced the effect the better off the criminal justice system will be, for two reasons.  First, state post-conviction decisions will be some extent be able to fill the gap in the normal creation of new rules by lower federal courts that has resulted from the restrictive ruling in Teague.  Second, the greater the salience of post-conviction decisions, the greater the pressure on the states to improve the quality of their post-conviction systems.

Thus, in the interests of making modest but real improvements in the quality of our criminal law, lawyers, legislators, academics, judges, and all individuals concerned about justice should seek adoption of the proposal of this article.

June 22, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

No new cert grants from SCOTUS as Justice Thomas laments failure to take up whether First Amendment limits criminalizing "reckless threats"

This morning's Supreme Court order list yet again lacks any new grants of certiorari (which, as explained in this recent post, I have come to expect from this court).  But, showcasing as he did last week that he will call out his colleagues for failing to take up issues he considers important, Justice Thomas has a dissent from the denial of cert in Kansas v. Boettger, No. 19–1051.  Here is how this six-page dissent gets started:

Kansas asks us to decide whether the First Amendment prohibits States from criminalizing threats to “[c]ommit violence . . . in reckless disregard of the risk of causing . . . fear.” Kan. Stat. Ann. §21–5415(a)(1) (2018).  Respondent Timothy Boettger was convicted for telling the son of a police detective that he “‘was going to end up finding [his] dad in a ditch.’” ___ Kan. ___, ___, 450 P. 3d 805, 807 (2019).  Respondent Ryan Johnson was separately convicted for telling his mother that he “‘wish[ed] [she] would die,’” that he would “‘help [her] get there,’” and that he was “‘going to f***ing kill [her] a***.’” ___ Kan. ___, ___, 450 P. 3d 790, 792 (2019).  The Kansas Supreme Court overturned both convictions and held that reckless threats are protected by the First Amendment, relying on Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003).

In my view, the Constitution likely permits States to criminalize threats even in the absence of any intent to intimidate. See Elonis v. United States, 575 U.S. 723, 760– 767 (2015) (dissenting opinion).  It appears to follow that threats of violence made in reckless disregard of causing fear may be prohibited.  The Kansas Supreme Court reached the opposite conclusion by overreading our decision in Black, which did not answer the question presented here.  Other courts looking to Black, however, have upheld similar statutes.  State v. Taupier, 330 Conn. 149, 193 A.3d 1 (2018); Major v. State, 301 Ga. 147, 800 S.E.2d 348 (2017).  I would grant the petition for certiorari to resolve the split on this important question.

June 22, 2020 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Seventh Circuit panel finds way above-guideline (stat-max) sentence to be "not sufficiently" justified

As long-time readers know, I have long been troubled be the fact that the Booker-created reasonableness standard of review has been pretty toothless as a check on extreme federal sentences. But because so few sentences have been found unreasonable, any such decision is noteworthy, and so here I highlight a new Seventh Circuit panel decision handed down last week in US v. Jones, No. 19-1644 (7th Cir. June 19, 2020) (available here). The 12-page ruling is worth reading in full, and here is how the opinion starts and one notable substantive paragraph:

In 1998, a federal jury convicted Jerry Jones of two carjackings, an armed bank robbery, and using firearms during those crimes of violence.  The district court sentenced him to 840 months in prison. Twenty years later, the district court vacated its original sentence and ordered resentencing because Jones no longer qualified as a career offender under the federal Sentencing Guidelines.

At resentencing, Jones’s effective Guidelines range was 348–390 months.  The district court deviated from the Guidelines and once again sentenced Jones to 840 months in prison. That was an increase of 450 months, approximately 215% above the high end of Jones’s Guidelines range.  Jones now appeals his sentence.  Because the district court did not sufficiently justify the extent of its deviation from the Guidelines, we vacate its judgment and remand for resentencing....

Here, the district court acknowledged the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities, noting that Jones’s co-defendants—“with similar records [and] similar conduct” — had received sentences of 675 months and 728 months.  Notwithstanding the three defendants’ similar records and similar conduct, Jones received a sentence 165 months longer than one co-defendant and 112 months longer than the other.  The court did not explain why it singled Jones out for different treatment.  Quite the contrary, it synthesized the offenders and their offenses, observing they had “similar records [and] similar conduct.”  It was therefore incumbent on the court to specify what warranted Jones’s sentence disparity.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6).  Without such a justification, and because the court did not sentence Jones within the Guidelines range, we cannot assure ourselves that the court sufficiently considered the interest in consistency between similarly situated defendants.

No matter how long I follow the federal sentencing system, I will continue to be awed (in a bad way) by the scale of sentences that get handed out in seemingly run-of-the-mill cases. Here, after co-defendants receive sentences of over 55 years and 60 years, the judge decided that he should round up to an even 70 years for Mr. Jones (meaning that, even with time off for good behavior in prison, he could be not released until age 95).  I am pleased that this Seventh Circuit panel is now demanding a more meaningful justification for such a sentence, but I am displeased that such extreme sentences can be deemed justifiable in part because they are just not all that unusual in the federal system.

June 21, 2020 in Booker in the Circuits, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 19, 2020

PENULTIMATE REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  Because the deadline for submissions is approaching (June 30), I figure this may be my second to last reminder.  But it is certainly not too late to get involved; the basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

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

Contest Objective and Deliverable

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

Contest Timeline and Awards

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

June 19, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Terrific coverage of clemency in new issue of University of St. Thomas Law Journal

The latest issue of the University of St. Thomas Law Journal has a great collection of articles under the heading "Clemency: A Constitutional Power Moves into the Future."  Here are the titles, authors and links for all the pieces:

Memo to the President: Two Steps to Fix the Clemency Crisis by Mark Osler

Who Is My Brother’s Keeper? by Rudy Martinez

Clemency Must Play a Pivotal Role in Reversing the Damage Caused by the "Tough on Crime Era" by Mark V. Holden

Clemency, Pardons, and Reform: When People Released Return to Prison by Jessica Jackson

The Future of Presidential Clemency Decision-Making by Paul J. Larkin, Jr.

June 19, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Though only mid-week, another long list of new COVID-influenced federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I hope readers are not yet getting bored of my listing of COVID-influenced grants of federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  I have recently made a habit of assembling these lists on the weekends (see recent examples here and here).  But last week I put together this post with more than two dozen grants on a Friday because there were so many new sentence reductions being reported on Westlaw.  And, as this trend continues, I now felt a need to do a mid-week review of recent grants recently appearing on Westlaw.  So:

United States v. Lynn, No. 89-0072-WS, 2020 WL 3229302 (SD Ala. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Liew, No. 11-cr-00573-JSW-1, 2020 WL 3246331 (ND Cal. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Miller, No. 3:15-cr-132-2 (VLB), 2020 WL 3187348 (D Conn. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Head, No. 2:08-cr-00093-KJM-2, 2020 WL 3180149 (ED Cal. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Rivera, No. 3:13-cr-71-1 (VLB), 2020 WL 3186539 (D Conn. June 15, 2020)

 

United States v. Acevedo, No. 18 CR. 365 (LGS), 2020 WL 3182770 (SDNY June 15, 2020)

United States v. Lavy, No. 17-20033-JAR, 2020 WL 3218110 (D Kan. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Patel, No. 3:17cr164 (JBA), 2020 WL 3187980 (D Conn. June 15, 2020)

Segars v. United States, No. 16-20222-3, 2020 WL 3172734 (ED Mich. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Madrigal, No. 5:18-cr-00356-EJD-3, 2020 WL 3188268 (ND Cal. June 15, 2020)

 

United States v. Knox, No. 2:16-cr-00116-MHH-JHE-3, 2020 WL 3207799 (ND Ala. June 15, 2020)

United States v. Reed, No. 12-CR-161 YGR, 2020 WL 3128904 (ND Cal. June 13, 2020)

United States v. Bikundi, No. 14-30-2 (BAH), 2020 WL 3129018 (D D.C. June 12, 2020)

United States v. White, No. 2:17-cr-00198-4, 2020 WL 3244122 (SD W. Va. June 12, 2020)

United States v. Heitman, No. 3:95-CR-0160(4)-G, 2020 WL 3163188 (ND Tex. June 12, 2020)

 

United States v. Fields, No. 2:05-CR-20014-02, 2020 WL 3129056 (WD La. June 11, 2020)

United States v. Halliburton, No. 17-cr-20028, 2020 WL 3100089 (CD Ill.  June 11, 2020)

United States v. DeBartolo, No. 14-016 WES, 2020 WL 3105032 (D R.I. June 11, 2020)

As I have mentioned repeatedly, some rulings do not appear on Westlaw right away and others do not show up at all.  As of this writing (mid-afternoon of June 17), this BOP page on the FIRST STEP Act is reporting 650 total grants of "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences."  The same BOP page reported less than 150 such grants before the COVID era began, so I think we can now confident state that there have been over 500 federal sentence reductions grants in the just the last three months.  Some of those grants are detailed in some of the posts below, and I am hopeful the US Sentencing Commission or someone else "official" might have a truly comprehensive report on these matters before too long.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

June 17, 2020 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

SCOTUS stays Texas execution based seemingly on clergy claim

As reported in this AP article, the "Supreme Court granted a reprieve Tuesday to a Texas inmate scheduled to die for fatally stabbing an 85-year-old woman more than two decades ago, continuing a more than four-month delay of executions in the nation’s busiest death penalty state during the coronavirus pandemic." Here are the details:

The justices blocked Ruben Gutierrez’s execution about an hour before he could have been executed. Gutierrez’s attorneys had argued his religious rights are being violated because the prison system won’t allow a chaplain to accompany him in the death chamber.

The Texas prison system last year banned clergy from the death chamber following a Supreme Court ruling that halted the execution of another inmate, Patrick Murphy, who had requested a Buddhist adviser be allowed in the chamber. In response to the ruling in Murphy’s case, the Texas prison system changed its policy, only allowing prison security staff into the execution chamber.

“As a devout Catholic, Mr. Gutierrez’s faith requires the assistance of clergy to help him pass from life into afterlife. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice changed its policy for its own convenience, but spiritual comfort at the time of death is not a convenience; it’s a protected legal right,” Shawn Nolan, one of Mr. Gutierrez’s attorneys, said after the stay was granted.

The Supreme Court said it granted the stay pending a ruling by the high court on Gutierrez’s petition on the issue of whether to allow a spiritual adviser to accompany him in the death chamber. A decision on the petition was expected at a later date....

If Gutierrez’s execution had been carried out, he would have been the first inmate in Texas to receive a lethal injection since Feb. 6 and the second U.S. inmate to be put to death since states began to reopen after the pandemic shut down much of the U.S. After the country began to reopen, Missouri resumed executions on May 19.

Six executions scheduled in Texas for earlier this year were postponed by an appeals court or judges because of the outbreak. A seventh was delayed over claims of intellectual disability. Gutierrez’s attorneys had also sought a coronavirus-related delay but were turned down Friday by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals....

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops filed a brief with the high court in support of Gutierrez. “To deny a prisoner facing imminent execution access to spiritual and religious guidance and accompaniment is cruel and inhuman,” said Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville....

Gutierrez would have been the third inmate put to death this year in Texas and the seventh in the U.S.

The Supreme Court's stay order is available at this link, and here is its text in full:

The application for stay of execution of sentence of death presented to Justice Alito and by him referred to the Court is granted pending the disposition of the petition for a writ of certiorari. Should the petition for a writ of certiorari be denied, this stay shall terminate automatically.  In the event the petition for a writ of certiorari is granted, the stay shall terminate upon the sending down of the judgment of this Court.  The District Court should promptly determine, based on whatever evidence the parties provide, whether serious security problems would result if a prisoner facing execution is permitted to choose the spiritual adviser the prisoner wishes to have in his immediate presence during the execution.

June 16, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Religion, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 15, 2020

By a vote of 6-3, SCOTUS finds deficient performance in Texas capital case and remands on prejudice issue

A dozen years ago, I wrote a full law review article to express my grumpiness about the felt reality that the Supreme Court often seems to care a whole lot more about cases involving persons sentenced to death than about just about any other criminal defendants.  That article is on my mind this morning upon seeing the 19-page per curiam decision that Supreme Court released in Andrus v. Texas, No. 18–9674 (S. Ct. June 15, 2020) (available here). 

The defendant in this case, Terence Andrus, killed two people in an attempted carjacking and was sentenced to death after his defense counsel plainly did a very lousy job developing mitigation on his behalf.  Here is the heart of the per curiam opinion's accounting of its ruling and rationale:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the trial court’s recommendation to grant habeas relief. In an unpublished per curiam order, the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded without elaboration that Andrus had “fail[ed] to meet his burden under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), to show by a preponderance of the evidence that his counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that there was a reasonable probability that the result of the proceedings would have been different but for counsel’s deficient performance.” App. to Pet. for Cert. 7–8.  A concurring opinion reasoned that, even if counsel had provided deficient performance under Strickland, Andrus could not show that counsel’s deficient performance prejudiced him. Andrus petitioned for a writ of certiorari.  We grant the  petition, vacate the judgment of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and remand for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. The evidence makes clear that Andrus’ counsel provided constitutionally deficient performance under Strickland. But we remand so that the Court of Criminal Appeals may address the prejudice prong of Strickland in the first instance....

Here, the habeas record reveals that Andrus’ counsel fell short of his obligation in multiple ways: First, counsel performed almost no mitigation investigation, overlooking vast
tranches of mitigating evidence. Second, due to counsel’s failure to investigate compelling mitigating evidence, what little evidence counsel did present backfired by bolstering
the State’s aggravation case. Third, counsel failed adequately to investigate the State’s aggravating evidence, thereby forgoing critical opportunities to rebut the case in
aggravation. Taken together, those deficiencies effected an unconstitutional abnegation of prevailing professional norms.

I am always pleased to see the Supreme Court call out, and find constitutionally inadequate, any sort of lousy defense work (though I sure would like to see this done a lot more in NON-capital cases).  And I suppose I should also be pleased that Andrus will be a "good" SCOTUS precedent for inadequate defense Strickland claims in the future.  But Justice Alito's seven-page dissent (which was jointed by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch) has me convinced that this was ultimately a "bad" case because the defendant seems sure to lose on the prejudice issue upon remand to the Texas state courts. Here is how Justice Alito's dissent concludes:

In sum, the CCA assessed the issue of prejudice in light of more than the potentially mitigating evidence that the Court marshals for Andrus.  The CCA had before it strong aggravating evidence that Andrus wantonly killed two innocent victims and shot a third; that he committed other violent crimes; that he has a violent, dangerous, and unstable character; and that he is a threat to those he encounters.

The CCA has already held once that Andrus failed to establish prejudice.  I see no good reason why it should be required to revisit the issue.

June 15, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Over dissents by Justice Thomas, SCOTUS denies cert on qualified immunity and Second Amendment cases

I flagged in this post last week that the Supreme Court had been sitting on a number of qualified immunity and Second Amendment cases, which had prompted considerable speculation that the Justices might soon take up one or both of these high-profiles issues in one way or another.  But this morning's SCOTUS order list would appear to have denials of cert on all the cases in these arenas, and we get two dissents from Justice Thomas that suggest that the cases were being held primarily to give him time to pen his complaints about the denial of certiorari.

Justice Thomas' dissent in the qualified immunity arena comes in Baxter v. Bracey, and his six-page opinion gets started this way:

Petitioner Alexander Baxter was caught in the act of burgling a house.  It is undisputed that police officers released a dog to apprehend him and that the dog bit him.  Petitioner alleged that he had already surrendered when the dog was released.  He sought damages from two officers under Rev. Stat. §1979, 42 U.S.C. §1983, alleging excessive force and failure to intervene, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Applying our qualified immunity precedents, the Sixth Circuit held that even if the officers’ conduct violated the Constitution, they were not liable because their conduct did not violate a clearly established right.  Petitioner asked this Court to reconsider the precedents that the Sixth Circuit applied.

I have previously expressed my doubts about our qualified immunity jurisprudence. See Ziglar v. Abbasi, 582 U.S. ___, ___–___ (2017) (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment) (slip op., at 2–6). Because our §1983 qualified immunity doctrine appears to stray from the statutory text, I would grant this petition.

Justice Thomas' dissent in the Second Amendment arena comes in Rogers v. Grewal, and here he gets Justice Kavanaugh joining on to part of this 19-page opinion. That opinion gets started this way:

The text of the Second Amendment protects “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms.”  We have stated that this “fundamental righ[t]” is “necessary to our system of ordered liberty.”  McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. 742, 778 (2010).  Yet, in several jurisdictions throughout the country, law-abiding citizens have been barred from exercising the fundamental right to bear arms because they cannot show that they have a “justifiable need” or “good reason” for doing so.  One would think that such an onerous burden on a fundamental right would warrant this Court’s review.  This Court would almost certainly review the constitutionality of a law requiring citizens to establish a justifiable need before exercising their free speech rights.  And it seems highly unlikely that the Court would allow a State to enforce a law requiring a woman to provide a justifiable need before seeking an abortion.  But today, faced with a petition challenging just such a restriction on citizens’ Second Amendment rights, the Court simply looks the other way.

Petitioner Rogers is a law-abiding citizen who runs a business that requires him to service automated teller machines in high-crime areas.  He applied for a permit to carry his handgun for self-defense.  But, to obtain a carry permit in New Jersey, an applicant must, among other things, demonstrate “that he has a justifiable need to carry a handgun.” N.J. Stat. Ann. §2C:58–4(c) (West 2019 Cum. Supp.).  For a “private citizen” to satisfy this “justifiable need” requirement, he must “specify in detail the urgent necessity for self-protection, as evidenced by specific threats or previous attacks which demonstrate a special danger to the applicant’s life that cannot be avoided by means other than by issuance of a permit to carry a handgun.” Ibid.; see also N. J. Admin. Code §13:54–2.4 (2020).  “Generalized fears for personal safety are inadequate.” In re Preis, 118 N.J. 564, 571, 573 A.2d 148, 152 (1990).  Petitioner could not satisfy this standard and, as a result, his permit application was denied.  With no ability to obtain a permit, petitioner is forced to operate his business in high-risk neighborhoods with no firearm for self-defense.

Petitioner asks this Court to grant certiorari to determine whether New Jersey’s near-total prohibition on carrying a firearm in public violates his Second Amendment right to bear arms, made applicable to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.  See McDonald, 561 U. S., at 750; see id., at 806 (THOMAS, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment).  This case gives us the opportunity to provide guidance on the proper approach for evaluating Second Amendment claims; acknowledge that the Second Amendment protects the right to carry in public; and resolve a square Circuit split on the constitutionality of justifiable-need restrictions on that right.  I would grant the petition for a writ of certiorari.

June 15, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Do others sense that SCOTUS has become particularly (and problematically?) quiet on sentencing matters?

As the Supreme Court finishes up a unique Term in the coming weeks, there is no shortage of "big" cases still to be resolved on topics ranging from abortion to DACA to LGBT discrimination to Prez Trump's tax returns.  But, disappointingly, we are not awaiting any big cases (or even little cases) dealing with any interesting sentencing issues or even significant criminal justice issues. This reality is partially because two cases that might have been consequential, Mathena v. Malvo on Miller's application and Walker v. US on ACCA application, both ended up getting dismissed (and replacement cases will not be heard until next Term).  But, as the title of this post suggests, I also think this reality is partially because the current Supreme Court has largely decided become particularly quiet on sentencing matters.

My fixation and frustration with this Term not having good "cases to watch" is compounded by my realization that, in recent decades, we have often gotten a number of really big and/or consequential sentencing rulings every five years or so.  Consider, for example: Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000)US v. Booker (2005); Roper v. Simmons (2005)Graham v. Florida (2010); Padilla v. Kentucky (2010)Glossip v. Gross (2015); Johnson v. US (2015).  Of course, there have been any number of big and/or consequential rulings in other years, too, with decisions like Ring v. Arizona (2002), Blakely v. Washington (2004), Gall v. US (2007), Baze v. Rees (2008), Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), and Miller v. Alabama (2012) among those I think about a lot.  But other than maybe Hurst v. Florida (2016), Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) and Timbs v. Indiana (2019), I have a hard time even recalling any big or consequential sentencing rulings from SCOTUS in the last few years.  US v. Haymond (2019) had the potential to be a big case, but the confusing 4-1-4 decision largely muted its impact and import.

My fixation and frustration with the absence of good sentencing "cases to watch" grows when I recall the significant number of significant sentencing issues that the Court has refused to take up in the last few years.  Cert petitions concerning haphazard application of the death penalty and extreme term-of-years sentences for juveniles and the functioning of Booker reasonableness review and the reach and application of sex offender restrictions and extreme mandatory sentences given to first offenders and the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing have all been rejected, typically without so much as a peep from any of the Justices to suggest any real interest in taking up these issues in the near future.

One might attribute recent sentencing quietness to recent SCOTUS transitions since Justice Scalia's death, combined possibly with certain Justices being eager to vote to deny cert on some issues in order to try to prevent certain issues from being decided "the wrong way" on full Court review.  But gosh knows the recent SCOTUS transitions have not prevented the Court from taking up all sorts of other important matters, and I think there is often great value in the Supreme Court bringing its spotlight to certain sentencing issues no matter how it might rule on the merits.  (The Malvo case, for example, seemed to help Virginia move forward with juvenile sentencing legislation before the Court even had a chance to rule.)

Of course, as a law professor and blogger, I have a strong professional interest in lots of SCOTUS rulings in my field, and so I may find SCOTUS quietness more problematic that others.  So I would be eager to hear if readers share my sense of SCOTUS quiesce and whether it bothers them as much as it bothers me.

June 14, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 13, 2020

"Pandemics, Risks and Remedies"

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

There are lessons in every catastrophe, and the impact of Coronavirus-19 (“COVID”) on America’s prisoner population has been especially catastrophic.  Jails and prisons are sites of unique peril because each facility bears the systemic risk of a single infection.  That COVID tore through these facilities was predictable — the health infrastructure is deplorable, social distancing is impossible, and the community has heightened medical vulnerabilities.  These places are pandemic tinder boxes, and COVID was more than enough to kindle the blaze.

There is a temptation to view America’s inability to protect her prisoners as a simple failure of political and bureaucratic will, but the shortage of such resolve was just one part of a more complex institutional disaster.  In this Paper, I argue that COVID exposed a remedial deficit between pandemic risks that were systemic and remedies that were not.  In so doing, I explore the surprisingly poor performance of the mechanisms that one might have expected to facilitate sufficient prisoner discharge: federal civil rights litigation, administrative release, and clemency power.

The systemic health risk at jails and prisons requires remedies that are fast and scalable, but existing discharge mechanisms are too slow, require too much multilateral consensus, and concentrate discharge powers in the wrong institutions.  To address future waves of pandemic infection, American jurisdictions should concentrate discharge powers in decision-makers who are closer to the most acutely affected localities.  A concentration-and-localization principle is also a model for a broader back-end decarceration strategy.

June 13, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 12, 2020

So many more federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A) to report before week concludes

Readers may recall this post from mid May listing more than two dozen grants of sentence reductions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) in one week showing up on Westlaw, and this latest posting reporting on grants from the first week on June showing comparable activity with sentence reduction grants.  As the long listing below highlights, the sentence reduction hits just keep on coming; I felt compelled to compile these grants before the week is out because there are already so many (and included below are few stragglers from last week that only recently appeared on Westlaw):

United States v. Padilla, No. 19-cr-03331-GPC, 2020 WL 3100046 (SD Cal. June 11, 2020)

United States v. Gamboa, No. 09-1741 JAP, 2020 WL 3091427 (D N.M.  June 11, 2020)

United States v. Williams, No. 06-cr-0143 (WMW/FLN), 2020 WL 3097615 (D Minn. June 11, 2020)

United States v. Nazzal, No. 10-20392, 2020 WL 3077948 (ED Mich. June 10, 2020)

United States v. Williams, No.19-cr-134-PWG, 2020 WL 3073320 (D Md. June 10, 2020)

 

United States v. Blye, No.  CR15-348RSL, 2020 WL 3064225 (WD Wash. June 9, 2020) 

United States v. Goins, No. 11-cr-20376, 2020 WL 3064452 (ED Mich. June 9, 2020)

United States v. Mason, No. 3:17-CR-104-CWR-LRA-3, 2020 WL 3065303 (SD Miss. June 9, 2020)

United States v. Malone, No. 12-146-03, 2020 WL 3065905 (WD La. June 9, 2020)

United States v. Dana, No. 3:17-cr-148-SI, 2020 WL 3056791(D Ore. June 9, 2020)

 

United States v. Lott, No. 95cr72, 2020 WL 3058093 (SD Cal. June 8, 2020) (stacked 924(c) case)

United States v. Parramore, No. CR18-156-RSM, 2020 WL 3051300 (WD Wash. June 8, 2020) 

United States v. Krashna, No. 17-cr-00022-JSW-1, 2020 WL 3053194 (ND Cal. June 8, 2020)

United States v. Rodriguez, No. 17-CR-157 (VEC), 2020 WL 3051443 (SDNY June 8, 2020) 

United States v. Conner, No. CR07-4095-LTS, 2020 WL 3053368 (SD Iowa June 8, 2020) 

 

United States v. Flores, No. 19-CR-6163L, 2020 WL 3041640 (WDNY June 8, 2020) 

United States v. Folwer, No. 17-cr-00412-VC-1, 2020 WL 3034714 (ND Cal. June 6, 2020)

United States v. Holmes, No. 14-00167 (DWF/LIB), 2020 WL 3036598 (D Minn. June 5, 2020)

United States v. Smith, No. 15-cr-30039, 2020 WL 3027197 (CD Ill. June 5, 2020)

United States v. Fettis, No. 17-cr-30003, 2020 WL 3027198 (CD Ill. June 5, 2020)

 

United States v. McCall, No. 2:18cr95-MHT, 2020 WL 2992197 (MD Ala. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Riley, No. ELH-16-0402, 2020 WL 3034843 (D Md. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Burke, No. 4:17-CR-3089, 2020 WL 3000330 (D Neb.. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Green, No. TDC-10-0761, 2020 WL 2992855 (D Md. June 4, 2020)

Abdallah v. United States, No. 4:15-cr-18(3), 2020 WL 3039122 (ED Va. June 4, 2020)

As I have mentioned before, late week rulings often do not appear on Westlaw right away, so there are likely to be additional grants from this week that will appear on Westlaw later.  And, of course, these Westlaw listings do not represent all sentence reductions being granted by federal courts these days; I have noted data in a Marshall Project article leading me to think Westlaw picks up at most half of all federal sentence reduction grants.  Indeed, I recently heard from a good authority that there were an average of more than 50 of these grants per week for the month of May.  So, even with this long list of 25 new sentence reduction grants from Westlaw, this list still likely represents only about 50% of the true total.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

June 12, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

ANOTHER MID-WEEK REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting new project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  The basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

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

Contest Objective and Deliverable

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

Contest Timeline and Awards

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

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

Split Sixth Circuit panel vacates district court order to transfer vulnerable prisoners "out of Elkton through any means"

A few months ago, as detailed here, US District Judge James Gwin granted a preliminary injunction ordering federal officials to identify, and then start moving out, medically vulnerable prisoners from the Elkton federal prison in Ohio.  Federal officials appealed this order to the Sixth Circuit, but a Sixth Circuit panel refused initially to stay it, and thereafter Judge Gwin issued this follow-up order which stated that "Respondents have made poor progress in transferring subclass members out of Elkton through the various means referenced in the Court’s preliminary injunction Order."  The feds ultimately was able to get these actions stayed by the Supreme Court, and late yesterday a split Sixth Circuit panel vacated the injunction upon concluding, by a 2-1 vote, "that the district court abused its discretion in granting the preliminary injunction."

This Politico piece, headlined "Appeals court nixes order to shrink prison rolls because of virus," provides a usefully summary of the nearly 30 pages of opinions:

A divided federal appeals court has overturned a judge's order that required a federal prison in Ohio hard hit by the coronavirus to cut its inmate population by sending medically vulnerable prisoners home or to other prisons. A panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split 2-1 as it struck down the lower court's order to thin the ranks at the Elkton Federal Correctional Institution in Lisbon, Ohio, after a Covid-19 outbreak there that has cost 19 lives. More than a quarter of the roughly 2,000 inmates at Elkton have tested positive for the virus.

U.S. District Judge James Gwin ruled in April that prison officials were not doing enough to mitigate the danger to inmates. He ordered that officials transfer or release elderly prisoners and those with health conditions believed to lead to serious illness from the coronavirus.

However, the appeals court's majority said the steps the Bureau of Prisons took — such as screening for symptoms, limiting visitation, increasing cleaning and providing masks — meant officials were not deliberately endangering prisoners in a way that made their punishment "cruel and unusual" under the Constitution. "The BOP argues that these actions show it has responded reasonably to the risk posed by Covid-19 and that the conditions at Elkton cannot be found to violate the Eighth Amendment. We agree," Judge Julia Gibbons wrote, joined by Judge Deborah Cook.

BOP was slow to roll out widespread testing at Elkton, even as Ohio state officials moved much faster to get mass testing underway at one of their badly hit prisons. But Gibbons said the federal officials' effort met the legal standard. "The BOP initally struggled to scale up its testing capacity just before the district court issued the preliminary injunction, but even there the BOP represented that it was on the cusp of expanding testing. The BOP’s efforts to expand testing demonstrate the opposite of a disregard of a serious health risk," she wrote. Gibbons also chided Gwin for failing to address "how the released inmates would look after themselves."

Chief Judge R. Guy Cole Jr. dissented, saying federal officials were too slow to respond to the rising death toll at the prison. "I am left with the inescapable conclusion that the BOP’s failure to make use of its home confinement authority at Elkton, even as it stared down the escalating spread of the virus and a shortage of testing capacity, constitutes sufficient evidence for the district court to have found that petitioners were likely to succeed on their Eighth Amendment claim," Cole wrote.

Cole also faulted the Bureau of Prisons for offering action plans detailing a multiphase response, where the details left much to be desired. One phase consisted entirely of gathering and inventorying cleaning supplies, he wrote. "The BOP’s multiphase response does not include a single phase that allows for meaningful social distancing," the judge added.

The 6th Circuit panel split along ideological lines. Gibbons and Cook are appointees of President George W. Bush. Cole was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Advocates for inmates expressed disappointment in the decision. “Today’s ruling is a major loss for incarcerated people who are at risk from this deadly disease,” said David Carey of the ACLU of Ohio, which brought the lawsuit. “With hundreds of people currently sick, and nearly everyone else at Elkton exposed, the federal government has a duty to take quick and decisive action."

Prior related posts:

June 10, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, June 08, 2020

Justice Sotomayor flags due process concerns with how Eleventh Circuit considers inmate efforts to file second/successive habeas petition under AEDPA

The US Supreme Court has kicked off another work week with another anticlimactic order list this morning.  The Court granted cert only on a procedural immigration issue, while failing to take any action on an array of Second Amendment and qualified immunity cases that it has been sitting on for a number of weeks.  Still, there are some in crumbs for hard-core habeas fans thanks to a statement on the denial of cert from Justice Sotomayor concerning the process the Eleventh Circuit uses to consider and resolve requests from inmates seeking to file a second or successive habeas petitions under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.  Here are parts of the start of Justice Sotomayor's six-page statement to provide a flavor of her concerns:

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) imposes several restrictions on inmates seeking to file a second or successive habeas petition.... But an inmate seeking such authorization from the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit faces even greater hurdles.
Unlike its sister circuits, the Eleventh Circuit has interpreted the relevant statutes to mandate an authorization decision within 30 days, leaving the court little time to consider a complex inmate application.  In re Williams, 898 F.3d 1098, 1102 (2018) (Wilson, J., concurring).  Under Eleventh Circuit rules, the applicant must confine his or her entire legal argument to a form on which “[f]ew prisoners manage to squeeze more than 100 words.” 918 F.3d 1174, 1198 (2019) (Wilson, J., dissenting from denial of reh’g en banc).  That limited form is the only submission that the court typically accepts: The Government seemingly “never files a responsive pleading,” and the court never grants oral argument. Ibid. Surprisingly still, this perfunctory process affects future claimants too, and not only those who find themselves in the second or successive petition posture....

These factors make out a troubling tableau indeed.  Most importantly, they raise a question whether the Eleventh Circuit’s process is consistent with due process.  The Eleventh Circuit has not yet appeared to address a procedural due process claim head on, so I will leave it to that court to consider the issue in the first instance in an appropriate case.  In the meantime, nothing prevents the Eleventh Circuit from reconsidering its practices to make them fairer, more transparent, and more deliberative.

June 8, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Another week with lots of federal sentence reductions from judges using § 3582(c)(1)(A) ... dare I wonder about the racial breakdown?

I flagged in this Friday post five grants of sentence reductions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) on same day Bernie Madoff was denied a reduction, and this past week was filled with many, many more judicial grants of sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  Readers may recall, this post from mid May with more than two dozen grants in one week showing up on Westalw, and the first week on June shows comparable activity (though I have included below a few from late May that have only recently appeared on Westlaw):

United States v. Regas, No. 3:91-cr-00057-MMD-NA-1, 2020 WL 2926457 (D Nev. June 3, 2020)

United States v. Gray, No. RDB-16-0364, 2020 WL 2932838 (D Md. June 3, 2020)

United States v. Rich, No. 17-cr-094-LM, 2020 WL 2949365 (D N.H. June 3, 2020)

United States v. McClellan, No. 1:92 CR 268, 2020 WL 2933588 (ND Oh. June 3, 2020)

United States v. Hodges, No. 04 CR 993-3, 2020 WL 2935101 (ND Ill. June 3, 2020)

 

United States v. Millage, No. 3:13-cr-234-SI, 2020 WL 2857165 (D Ore. June 2, 2020)

United States v. Hilow, No. 15-cr-170-JD, 2020 WL 2851086 (D N.H. June 2, 2020)

United States v. O'Neil, No. 3:11-CR-00017, 2020 WL 2892236 (SD Iowa June 2, 2020)

United States v. Williams-Bethea, No. 18-cr-78 (AJN), 2020 WL 2848098 (SDNY June 2, 2020)

United States v. Chapman, No. 09-CR-0741, 2020 WL 2850984 (ND Ill. June 2, 2020)

 

United States v. Prasad, No. 19-71, 2020 WL 2850147 (ED La. June 2, 2020)

Snell v. United States, No. 16-20222-6, 2020 WL 2850038 (ED Mich. June 2, 2020)

United States v. Kelley, No. 16-cr-00038-SI-1, 2020 WL 2850280 (ND Cal. June 2, 2020)

United States v. Anderson, No. 16-CR-824-1 (JMF), 2020 WL 2849483 (SDNY June 2, 2020)

United States v. Ozols, No. 16-CR-692-7 (JMF), 2020 WL 2849893 (SDNY June 2, 2020)

 

United States v. Torres, No. 87-Cr-593 (SHS), 2020 WL 2815003 (SDNY June 2, 2020) (two defendants both with LWOP sentences reduced)

United States v. Dickerson, No. 1:10CR17 HEA, 2020 WL 2841523 (ED Mo. June 1, 2020)

United States v. Smith, No. CR07-3038-LTS, 2020 WL 2844222 (SD Iowa June 1, 2020)

United States v. Kamaka, No. 18-00085 SOM, 2020 WL 2820139 (D Hawaii June 1, 2020)

 

United States v. Van Cleave, No. CR03-247-RSL, 2020 WL 2800769 (WD Wash. May 29, 2020)

United States v. Castillo, No. H-08-146-01, 2020 WL 2820401 (SD Tex. May 29, 2020)

United States v. Baclaan, No. 16-00468 HG-01, 2020 WL 2820199 (D Hawaii May 29, 2020)

United States v. Pena, No. 16-10236-MLW, 2020 WL 2798259 (D Mass. May 29, 2020)

United States v. Bass, No. 1:10-CR-166 (LEK), 2020 WL 2831851 (NDNY May 27, 2020)

As I have mentioned before, late week rulings often do not appear on Westlaw right away, so there likely are additional early June grants that will appear on Westlaw later this week.  And, of course, these Westlaw listings do not represent all sentence reductions being granted by federal courts these days; data in the Marshall Project article flagged here leads me to think Westlaw picks up at most half of all federal sentence reduction grants.

As the title of post suggests, after a week of righteous protests and discussions focused on the importance of racial equity and justice, I could not help but wonder as I assembled this list whether people of color are equally benefiting from judicial authority to reduced sentences using § 3582(c)(1)(A) after the FIRST STEP Act.  According to the most recent US Sentencing Commission data, roughly 34% of federal prisoners are Black, 34% are Latinx, 28% are White, and 4% are "other" races.  For various reasons, I suspect that the population of older federal prisoners, who seem to be those most likely to benefit from COVID-influenced reduction grants, is more Whte than the general population.  Still, because it seems likely that a sizable number of non-White federal prisoners are making viable motions for sentence reductions, I cannot help but wonder if a sizable number of non-White federal prisoners are being granted  reduced sentences using § 3582(c)(1)(A).   

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

June 7, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 05, 2020

NC Supreme Court limits reach of repeal of state's Racial Justice Act in capital cases

Over a decade ago, North Carolina enacted a Racial Justice Act that allowed a capital defendant to seek relief on a claim that race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty in his case. After nearly every person on North Carolina's death row made a claim under this statute, it was repealed by the legislature. Today the North Carolina Supreme Court in North Carolina v. Ramseur, No. 388A10 (N.C. June 5, 2020) (available here), limits the impact of this repeal. The majority opinion in this 6-1 ruling starts this way:

Defendant, Andrew Darrin Ramseur, was convicted of two counts of firstdegree murder and sentenced to death in 2010.  After his trial, defendant filed a motion seeking relief pursuant to the newly enacted North Carolina Racial Justice Act on the basis that race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty in his case.  Before the trial court ruled on defendant’s motion, the General Assembly amended the Racial Justice Act in 2012 and then, in 2013, repealed the Racial Justice Act in its entirety. The trial court determined that this repeal rendered defendant’s pending motion void and therefore dismissed defendant’s Racial Justice Act claims.  Here we are asked to decide the constitutionality of the retroactive application of the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. For the reasons stated herein, we hold that applying the repeal retroactively violates the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws, and therefore we reverse the trial court.

The dissent by Justice Newby starts this way:

The narrow issue presented by this case is whether, as applied to defendant, legislation repealing the Racial Justice Act of 2009 (the RJA) constitutes an ex post facto law. The majority incorrectly answers this question in the affirmative.  The repeal plainly does not qualify as an ex post facto law because it left defendant in precisely the same legal situation as the one he occupied on 16 December 2007, when, according to a jury, he murdered Jennifer Lee Vincek and Jeffrey Robert Peck.  The repeal did not subject defendant to more serious or additional charges for past conduct, nor did it increase the punishment in effect on 16 December 2007.  When properly viewed, the General Assembly intended the RJA to provide a procedural mechanism by which a defendant could collaterally attack a capital sentence.  The General Assembly did not intend to make a substantive change to the death penalty sentencing law. As such, the General Assembly had the constitutional authority subsequently to amend it and repeal it.

June 5, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Bernie Madoff denied federal sentence reduction, but many others receive relief under § 3582(c)(1)(A) on same day

As reported in this Courthouse News Service report, a high-profile federal white-collar prisoners was denied compassionate release yesterday afternoon.  Here are the basics (and a link to the opinion):

Bernie Madoff’s terminal illness will not alter a federal judge’s ruling from just more than a decade ago: The man behind an “extraordinarily evil” Ponzi scheme will die in prison.

“When I sentenced Mr. Madoff in 2009, it was fully my intent that he live out the rest of his life in prison,” Judge Denny Chin, who dealt Madoff’s 150-year sentence before being appointed to the Second Circuit, wrote on Thursday. “His lawyers asked then for a sentence of 12 to 15 to 20 years, specifically with the hope that Mr. Madoff would live to see ‘the light of day.’ I was not persuaded; I did not believe that Mr. Madoff was deserving of that hope. Nothing has happened in the 11 years since to change my thinking."... 

Madoff’s attorney Brandon Sample said his client suffers from end-stage renal disease and other conditions that give him less than 18 months to live.  “Judge Chin recognized today that Madoff’s health is in serious decline and that he is, in fact, terminally ill,” Sample wrote. “Nonetheless, Judge Chin essentially found that because of the nature of Madoff’s crimes — Madoff is beyond redemption. We are disappointed with Judge Chin’s refusal to grant Madoff any compassion.”

The financial criminal will seek clemency from President Donald Trump. “We implore the president to personally consider Madoff’s rapidly declining health,” Sample added....

Letters opposing Madoff’s release showed that [negative victim] sentiment has not ebbed. Prosecutors said that more than 500 victims opposed his release, and only 20 wrote in support.  “I also agree that at age 81, with his declining physical condition, Mr. Madoff probably does not pose a danger to any person or the community,” Chin wrote. “But as the recent victim letters show, many people are still suffering from Mr. Madoff’s actions. I also believe that Mr. Madoff was never truly remorseful, and that he was only sorry that his life as he knew it was collapsing around him. Even at the end, he was trying to send more millions of his ill-gotten gains to family members, friends, and certain employees.”

Madoff is confined to the Federal Medical Center in Butner, North Carolina, which — like many prisons throughout the country — is grappling with the coronavirus.  Neither Madoff’s request nor the ruling mentions the pandemic.

While this 16-page opinion from Judge Chin does not mention COVID, a whole lot of other compassionate release rulings handed down yesterday did.  I figured here it might be useful to highlight a number of the positive rulings from just the same day as this Madoff denial that already appear on Westlaw (and this weekend I will try to compile the more extended list of  positive § 3582(c)(1)(A) rulings from other days):

United States v. McKinney, No. 18-CR-6035L, 2020 WL 2958228 (WDNY June 4, 2020)

United States v. McCall, No. 2:18cr95-MHT, 2020 WL 2992197 (MD Ala. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Burke, No. 4:17-CR-3089, 2020 WL 3000330 (D Neb. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Green, No. TDC-10-0761, 2020 WL 2992855 (D Md. June 4, 2020)

United States v. Rivera-Amaro, No. 1:18-CR-00183 EAW, 2020 WL 3000392 (WDNY June 4, 2020)

I am pretty confident that this list of grants are not all of those that will show up on Westlaw eventually, and I am even more certain that there were a number of federal sentence reductions granted under § 3582(c)(1)(A) yesterday that will not ever show up on Westlaw.  In other words, while high-profile cases like Bernie Madoff will garner headlines, an ever-growing number of federal defendants are garnering sentence reductions thanks to the FIRST STEP Act.

June 5, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Justice Sotomayor stays federal judicial orders to transfer vulnerable Elkton prisoners pending Sixth Circuit appeal

As noted in this post, last week the full Supreme Court denied, by a 6-3 vote, a request by the federal government to stay a federal district court order to release or transfer vulnerable inmates from the Elkton federal prison.  But this ruling was, in essence, based on a technicality, and today Justice Sotomayor via this order granted the stay the feds were seeking:

IT IS ORDERED that the District Court’s April 22 and May 19 orders are hereby stayed pending disposition of the Government’s appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and further order of the undersigned or of the Court.

I believe the Sixth Circuit panel is due to hear argument tomorrow on this matter, but this stay enables federal officials to keep moving slowly on moving vulnerable prisoners out of a prison that has had hundreds of COVID cases and a handful of deaths.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Amy Howe has this lengthy and effective posting at SCOTUSblog about the Elkton litigation and the stay granted by Justice Sotomayor.

June 4, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Donald Trump hinting that he will use his clemency powers on behalf of Roger Stone

Last week, as reported here, "Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Sue Allison told The Associated Press that [Roger] Stone is supposed to surrender to the Bureau of Prisons by June 30" to begin serving his 40-month federal prison sentence.  But, as this new article highlights, a tweet by President Trump this morning suggest that the Prez plans to make sure Stone never has to sleep at a prison facility:

President Donald Trump on Thursday promised his longtime informal political adviser Roger Stone would not serve time in prison, revealing the convicted Republican provocateur “can sleep well at night” and reprising his fiery criticisms of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.

The pledge from the president came on Twitter, after Charlie Kirk, the founder of the conservative group Turning Point USA, wrote Tuesday that Stone “will serve more time in prison than 99% of these rioters destroying America” — referring to the ongoing nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, by a Minneapolis police officer.  “This isn’t justice,” Kirk added. “RT for a full pardon of Roger Stone!”

Trump went on to share that tweet Thursday morning, writing in his own accompanying message: “No.  Roger was a victim of a corrupt and illegal Witch Hunt, one which will go down as the greatest political crime in history.  He can sleep well at night!”

The president’s social media post represents his latest intervention in Stone’s case and comes after Trump and Attorney General William Barr were widely rebuked by congressional Democrats and career Justice Department officials for involving themselves in the federal law enforcement matter just a few months ago.

Federal prosecutors had urged in February that Stone be sent to prison for roughly seven to nine years for impeding congressional and FBI investigations into connections between the Russian government and Trump’s 2016 campaign.

But after Trump blasted the prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation in a tweet as a “horrible and very unfair situation,” the Justice Department submitted a revised filing that offered no specific term for Stone’s sentence and stated that the prosecutors’ initial proposal “could be considered excessive and unwarranted.” The four attorneys who shepherded Stone’s prosecution proceeded either to resign or notify the court that they were stepping off the case.

I have long been assuming (as some prior posts below reveal) that Prez Trump will use his clemency pen to keep Stone from serving prison time.  But I have also long been wondering what form of clemency Prez Trump might use.  He could provide Stone with a full pardon, of course, which would wipe away the conviction and all its consequences.  But he also could just commute his prison sentence (which, folks may recall, is what George W. Bush did for Scooter Libby).  Or, perhaps least controversially, Prez Trump could simply use his clemency power to order Sone's prison sentence to be served through home confinement (which, folks should realize, is comparable to what's happening for a number of federal prisoners in response to COVID-19 concerns).

Prior related posts:

June 4, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

STILL ANOTHER REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting new project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  The basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

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

Contest Objective and Deliverable

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

Contest Timeline and Awards

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

June 3, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Sixth Circuit panel rules so-called "exhaustion" procedural requirement for sentence-reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A) to be "mandatory claim-processing rule"

A few months ago, I discussed in this post some sloppy Third Circuit panel dicta in Raia on the so-called "exhaustion" procedural requirement for sentence-reduction motions under § 3582(c)(1)(A).  Among my complaints about the ruling in Raia was that the issue had not be directly brought or fully briefed before the Third Circuit in that case.  But today the Sixth Circuit addressed this issue squarely in US v. Alam, No. 20-1298 (6th Cir. June 2, 2020) (available here).  Here is how the opinion begins:

Like many Americans in poor health, 64-year-old Waseem Alam has legitimate fears about the health risks created by the COVID-19 pandemic.  And like many inmates, he has ample reason to fear that a prison exacerbates those risks.  But when Alam moved for compassionate release under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), he failed to invoke all of the options for obtaining relief from the prison.  Alam asks us to overlook that reality by finding the requirement non-mandatory or by fashioning an exception of our own.  But because this exhaustion requirement serves valuable purposes (there is no other way to ensure an orderly processing of applications for early release) and because it is mandatory (there is no exception for some compassionate-release requests over others), we must enforce it.  We affirm the district court’s dismissal of Alam’s request without prejudice to filing a new one.

The panel decides (rightly in my view) that the so-called "exhaustion" procedural requirement for sentence-reduction motions is a "claim-processing rule" (and thus not jurisdictional).  But the panel also decides (wrongly in my view) that no "exceptions to mandatory claim-processing rules — waiver or forfeiture — apply here."  The panel in reaching this conclusion makes some reasonable policy arguments:

Even if federal courts possessed a general power to create equitable carveouts to statutory exhaustion requirements, Alam does not show why an exception would make sense in the context of this statute.  Remember that Congress made compassionate release available only to elderly prisoners and those with “extraordinary and compelling” reasons for release. 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  For such prisoners, time usually will be of the essence.  That would make nearly every prisoner eligible to invoke “irreparable harm” and eligible to jump the line of applications — making the process less fair, not more fair.

Appending a futility requirement does not improve things.  How could we divine whether the Bureau of Prisons may wish to act on any given petition?  And, in any event, why must we assume that the Bureau of Prisons’ failure to act would render the act of waiting “futile”?  Speed matters, yes.  But accuracy matters too.  Preventing prisoners from charging straight to federal court serves important purposes.  It ensures that the prison administrators can prioritize the most urgent claims.  And it ensures that they can investigate the gravity of the conditions supporting compassionate release and the likelihood that the conditions will persist.  These are not interests we should lightly dismiss or re-prioritize.

These policy arguments, though sound in the abstract, fail to give effect and suggest a lack of understanding for why and how Congress changed the process for compassionate release motions in the FIRST STEP Act.  As I stressed in this prior post what this panel decision ignores, namely all the reasons Congress sought to now enabled district judges to consider the merits of a sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting even full consideration of a request by prison administrators.  For years, BOP failed to use its authority to seek reductions even in the most compelling of cases, and so Congress decided to district courts could and should assess sentence-reduction requests without BOP serving as any kind of gatekeeper precisely because Congress concluded BOP could and should no longer be trusted to "prioritize the most urgent claims" or to adequately "investigate the gravity of the conditions" supporting a claim

Critically, with the FIRST STEP Act revision, Congress did not even actually require defendants to exhaust the BOP motion-request process before turning to the courts — which is what would have made sense if Congress still trusted the BOP process to some extent.  Rather Congress provided that a sentence-reduction motion could be considered by courts after "the lapse of 30 days from the receipt of such a request."   Put another way, this statute actually does have an express "carveout to statutory exhaustion requirements" in the form of the "lapse of 30 day" provision.  But, so the argument might go, even though Congress did create an exception to BOP exhaustion in the form of a "30 day" lapse requirement, why should courts even consider short-circuiting that express timeline?  Well, in the midst of a pandemic, a timeline intended by Congress to give a prisoner quick access to the court sensibly can and should be sped up consistent with the overall goals of § 3582(c)(1)(A).  But, disappointingly, rather than give full effect to the fundamental interest of Congress in giving ailing prisoners a chance to have speedy access to the courts based on the equities of the case, this panel decision determines that it is good policy to be respectful of BOP interests that Congress itself was eager to de-prioritize.

Prior related posts:

June 2, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, June 01, 2020

"Prosecutor-Driven 'Second Look' Policies Are Encouraging, But Not A Panacea"

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

This article explains how the dearth of executive clemency and parole has led to some prosecutors reducing terms of incarceration for particular defendants post-sentencing. California has passed the first law to encourage prosecutors to order “second look” hearings for prisoners they deem worthy.  Elsewhere, prosecutors have in rare circumstances renegotiated plea deals to reduce terms of incarceration.  Prosecutor-driven “second look” policies should be considered one of many tools that could help reduce the U.S. incarceration rate.  Such policies will thrive only in localities where reducing incarceration is politically palpable.  The “second look” paradigm is also unlikely to be viable in the federal context, due to skepticism from the Department of Justice.

June 1, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS, voting 7-2, limits reach of AEDPA's limit on second habeas petitions in Bannister v. Davis

The Supreme Court handed down a number of opinions this morning, and habeas/criminal procedure fans — or civil procedure fans since habeas actions are technically civil actions — will be excited to see one of the group is Bannister v. Davis, No. 18–6943 (S. Ct. June 1, 2020) (available here).  The opinion in Bannister is a notable procedural win for habeas petitioners, and I am intrigued and a bit surprised the ruling came down 7-2 given how long the opinions took to be issued (the case had been argued in December 2019).  The opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Kagan, and it starts and ends this way:

A state prisoner is entitled to one fair opportunity to seek federal habeas relief from his conviction.  But he may not usually make a “second or successive habeas corpus application.” 28 U.S.C. §2244(b).  The question here is whether a motion brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59(e) to alter or amend a habeas court’s judgment qualifies as such a successive petition.  We hold it does not.  A Rule 59(e) motion is instead part and parcel of the first habeas proceeding....

Our holding means that the Court of Appeals should not have dismissed Banister’s appeal as untimely.  Banister properly brought a Rule 59(e) motion in the District Court.  As noted earlier, the 30-day appeals clock runs from the disposition of such a motion, rather than from the initial entry of judgment.  See supra, at 3.  And Banister filed his notice of appeal within that time. The Fifth Circuit reached a contrary conclusion because it thought that Banister’s motion was really a second or successive habeas application, and so did not reset the appeals clock. For all the reasons we have given, that understanding of a Rule 59(e) motion is wrong. We therefore reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Alito pens a dissent that is joined by Justice Thomas.  This dissent, intriguingly, runs the same length as the opinion for the Court, and here are excerpts from how it starts and ends:

If Banister had labeled this motion what it was in substance — another habeas petition — it would have been summarily dismissed under 28 U. S. C. §2244(b)(1).  If he had labeled it a motion for relief from judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b), it would also have been subject to dismissal under our decision in Gonzalez v. Crosby, 545 U.S. 524 (2005). Instead, he gave it a different label, styling it as a motion to alter the judgment under Rule 59(e), and the Court now holds this label makes all the difference.

The question in this case is whether a state prisoner can evade the federal habeas statute’s restrictions on second or successive habeas petitions by affixing a Rule 59(e) label. The answer follows from our decision in Gonzalez, and the answer is no.  If a Rule 59(e) motion asserts a habeas claim, the motion functions as a second or successive habeas petition and should be treated as such....

I would hold that a Rule 59(e) motion that constitutes a second or successive habeas petition is subject to §2244(b) and that such a motion does not toll the time to appeal.  I therefore conclude that the Fifth Circuit was correct to dismiss Banister’s untimely appeal.  Because the Court holds to the contrary, I respectfully dissent.

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

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Despite a short work week, still another long list of new COVID-influenced federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

Another (too) busy work week for me meant that I needed this weekend to catch up on last week's  COVID-influenced grants of sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A).  As readers may recall, my last post with a list of recent grants (covering grants mostly from May 16 to 21) was quite lengthy.  Perhaps due in part of a shorter work-week, this listing is not quite as long, but it still represents lots of uplifting news for certain defendants and their loved ones during a time when I think we can all benefit from some positivity.  So:

United States v. Somerville, No. 2:12-CR-225-NR, 2020 WL 2781585 (WD Pa. May 29, 2020)

United States v. Chester, No. 6:17-CR-06151 EAW, 2020 WL 2771077 (WDNY May 29, 2020)

United States v. Acoff, No. 3:15cr157 (MPS), 2020 WL 2781798 (D Conn. May 29, 2020)

Harrell v. United States, No. 13-20198, 2020 WL 2768883 (ED Mich. May 28, 2020)

United States v. Gonzalez, No. 12-CR-326 (JMF), 2020 WL 2766048 (SDNY May 28, 2020)

United States v. Feucht, No. 11-CR-60025-MIDDLEBROOKS, 2020 WL 2781600 (SD Fla. May 28, 2020)

United States v. Silkeutsabay, No. 2:13-CR-0140-TOR-3, 2020 WL 2747401 (ED Wash. May 27, 2020)

United States v. Whyte, No.  4:12cr00021-002, 2020 WL 2754761 (WD Va. May 27, 2020) 

United States v. Body, No. 18 CR 503-1, 2020 WL 2745972 (ND Ill. May 27, 2020)

United States v. Jackson, No. 5:02-cr-30020, 2020 WL 2735724 (WD Va. May 26, 2020)

United States v. Morris, No. 12-154 (BAH), 2020 WL 2735651 (DDC May 24, 2020)

Nearly a dozen grants in a short week is still remarkable, and this group can be rounded up to an even dozen with McCoy v. United States, No. 2:03-cr-197, 2020 WL 2738225 (ED Va. May 26, 2020).  McCoy grants a sentence reduction, without any mention of COVID, to redress an old excessive sentence imposed on a young offender and inflated by stacking mandatory 924(c) counts.  Here is the closing section from McCoy court: "Petitioner was sentenced at just 20 years old to a mandatory 421 month term for crimes that he would face an advisory guidelines range of 205–214 months if sentenced today.... Petitioner's relative youth at the time of the sentence, the overall length of the sentence, the disparity between his sentence and those sentenced for similar crimes after the FIRST STEP Act, and his rehabilitative efforts form an extraordinary and compelling basis for relief.  Accordingly, .... Petitioner's total sentence is reduced to a cumulative term of 205 months."

As I have mentioned before, a lot of late week rulings do not appear on Westlaw right away, so there might still be some additional late May grants that could show up on the service later this week.  Moreover, as I have mentioned in a number of prior posts, I am quite certain that these Westlaw listings do not represent all sentence reductions being granted by federal courts these days.  The data in the Marshall Project article flagged here have led me to believe that Westlaw is picking up only about half or even less of all federal sentence reduction grants.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

May 31, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Unconstitutional Incarceration: Applying Strict Scrutiny to Criminal Sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this new Yale Law Journal note authored by Salil Dudani.  Here is its abstract:

The deprivation of a fundamental right triggers strict scrutiny, and freedom from physical restraint is a fundamental right.  Indeed, the right to be free from physical restraint lies at the very core of the liberty protected by the Due Process Clause.  In the contexts of pretrial detention and civil commitment, courts hold that due process prohibits unnecessary incarceration and requires the government to prove the necessity of incarceration in each individual case.  Without explanation, courts do not apply these same principles to criminal sentences, which just as surely infringe on physical liberty.  This Note argues that they should: there is no good reason to exempt sentences of confinement from the fundamental due-process right to freedom from physical restraint.  If the government cannot prove that a criminal sentence is necessary to achieve a compelling state interest, the sentence is unconstitutional, even when it is purportedly required by a statute establishing a “mandatory minimum sentence” for the crime of conviction.  The Note discusses how courts should implement this scrutiny and suggests that state courts should lead the way in doing so.

May 31, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 29, 2020

Terrific Prison Policy Initiative coverage of the limits of compassionate release and related pandemic problems

Pyle_compassionate_releasePrison Policy Initiative is a regular must-read for so many reasons in normal circumstance, and PPI has been especially effective with various "briefings" related to prison populations and other matters amidst this pandemic.  I have been remiss by failing to flag all of these on-point postings from the last few weeks

The last of these briefings, which is on the topic of compassionate release and was posted just today, includes a terrific visual from artist Kevin Pyle to help highlight why so very of those who apply for compassionate release get any relief.  Here is part of the text of the posting:

Applying for compassionate release is a lengthy and cumbersome process. Given that those who apply are almost always terminally ill or profoundly incapacitated, the arbitrary nature of this process means many die before their cases are resolved.

The compassionate release process varies tremendously between states (some states even give it a different name, like “medical parole,” “geriatric parole”, etc.), but the basic framework is the same: An incarcerated person is recommended for release on compassionate grounds to prison administrators, who then solicit a medical recommendation, and then administrators or members of the parole board approve or deny compassionate release. Some states allow only family and attorneys to recommend that someone be released on these grounds; others allow incarcerated individuals to apply on their own behalf, or allow prison personnel to do so.

Compassionate release programs are plagued by many shortcomings, including:

  • Requirements that a person be extremely close to death, or so incapacitated that they do not understand why they are being punished.
  • Requiring medical professionals to attest that someone is within six months, or nine months, of death. Health professionals are reluctant to give such exact prognoses, which means prison officials will default to saying “it’s safer just to not let this person go.”
  • Allowing the ultimate decision-makers to overrule recommendations from medical professionals and prison staff (e.g. by refuting or ignoring a medical prognosis).

The compassionate release process is frustratingly obscure not only for applicants, but for reporters, advocates, and others trying to understand the system. In their national survey, FAMM found that only three states are required to publish data on compassionate release grants, and eight other states publish some publicly available data, leaving most Americans in the dark about how often compassionate release is actually used. And despite that fact that FAMM has helpful memos for all fifty states and the District of Columbia detailing eligibility requirements for compassionate release, the application and referral process, the necessary documentation and assessments, and the decision-making criteria, the application process remains an arduous one....

But even when a compassionate release system operates efficiently and fairly, the majority of people in prison are still not eligible for it. As currently constituted, these programs exclude too many people and these systems were never designed for quick responses during a global pandemic. States need to look beyond compassionate release — including expedited parole, and mass commutations — to slow the spread of the pandemic and prevent a needless tragedy behind bars.

May 29, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Split Sixth Circuit panel finds above-guideline illegal reentry sentence to be substantively unreasonable

Since Booker made the federal sentencing guidelines advisory and invented a reasonableness standard of review more than 15 years ago, there have been now well over one million federal sentences imposed.  And yet only a few dozen of these million+ sentences have been declared substantively unreasonable by a federal appellate court (even though, by my lights, a good many are truly unreasonable in one sense or another).  Because so few sentences have been found substantively unreasonable, every such decision is blogworthy, and so here I highlight a split Sixth Circuit panel decision handed down yesterday in US v. Perez-Rodriguez, No. 18-4203 (6th Cir. May 27, 2020) (available here). The 15-page ruling is worth reading in full, and here is how the majority opinion starts and its concluding substantive paragraph:

Eduardo Perez-Rodriguez, a citizen of Mexico, was sentenced to 24 months in prison for one count of illegal reentry in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326. The district court applied an upward variance that more than doubles the middle of his 8- to 14-month Guidelines range. Perez-Rodriguez challenges the substantive reasonableness of the upward variance and argues that the district court considered facts outside the record in selecting his sentence. Because Perez-Rodriguez’s sentence was substantively unreasonable, we REVERSE the district court’s judgment and REMAND for resentencing....

Because Perez-Rodriguez’s case falls within the mine-run of cases of illegal reentry under the Guidelines, it is subject to closer review to assure that the justification given “is sufficiently compelling to support the degree of variance.” Gall, 552 U.S. at 50.  Based on its upward variance, the district court entered a sentence of 24 months, a 118% increase from the middle of the Guidelines range.  The court’s justification for the upward variance is rooted in Perez-Rodriguez’s “return to the United States after having been previously removed and after having been convicted of reentry after deportation.”  These facts, however, have been accounted for twice in the Guidelines range, both in the criminal history calculation and in the sentencing enhancement under § 2L1.2(b)(1)(A).  Our review of the extent of the upward variance imposed in light of the sentencing goals of § 3553(a) and our caselaw indicates that the court placed too much weight on the § 3553(a) factors concerning criminal history, deterrence, and protection of the public from further crimes of the defendant, and that the court selected the sentence without properly considering sentencing disparities.  Beginning with the correct standard — the Guidelines range, comparing the circumstances in this case to Commission data and our precedent, and applying the § 3553(a) factors show that Perez-Rodriguez’s upward variance was improper and created unwarranted sentencing disparities.  The upward variance imposed was substantively unreasonable.

Here is how the dissent by Judge Murphy gets started:

If I were the sentencing judge in this case, I likely would not have chosen the 24-month sentence imposed on Eduardo Perez-Rodriguez.  He pleaded guilty to illegally reentering this country in violation of 8 U.S.C. § 1326, and his guidelines range was only 8 to 14 months.  My general weighing of the sentencing factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) would likely place great emphasis on uniformity concerns.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(6).  Heavy reliance on the guidelines guards against a system in which each defendant’s sentence turns “on the spin of the wheel that determined the judge to whom the case was assigned.”  Pepper v. United States, 562 U.S. 476, 517 (2011) (Alito, J., concurring in part, concurring in the judgment in part, and dissenting in part).  Yet United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), gave district judges substantial freedom to adopt competing sentencing views. It allows district courts to depart from a defendant’s guidelines range based on other sentencing factors, including the defendant’s specific circumstances, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(1), or more general penological goals like the need for adequate deterrence, id. § 3553(a)(2)(B).  And, as an appellate judge tasked with implementing Booker’s regime, I do not see a sufficient basis to overturn the district court’s upward variance in this case.  I thus respectfully disagree with my colleagues’ considered contrary opinion.

May 28, 2020 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

SCOTUS, by 6-3 vote, refuses to stay original federal judicial order to transfer vulnerable prisoners "out of Elkton through any means"

As reported here by Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog, this afternoon "the Supreme Court denied a request by the federal government to put a temporary hold on an order by a federal government that could lead to the release or transfer of over 800 inmates from a federal prison where nine inmates have died from COVID-19."  But, as she further explains:

The inmates’ victory, however, appeared to be mostly procedural and likely fleeting: The court explained that the government had not asked them to block the district court’s most recent order, and it indicated that the government could return to the Supreme Court to 'seek a new stay if circumstances warrant'.” Moreover, three justices – Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – indicated that they would have granted the government’s request.

Today’s order came in a case filed last month by inmates at a low-security federal prison in Elkton, Ohio. The inmates argued that they face a disproportionately high risk of contracting COVID-19 because they are in such close proximity to other inmates and correctional staff that social distancing is virtually impossible. In an order issued on April 22, the district court instructed officials at the Bureau of Prisons to evaluate elderly and high-risk prisoners for transfer out of the Elkton facility, either through some form of early release (such as home confinement, compassionate release, parole or community supervision) or by moving them to another facility.

The inmates returned to the district court this month to enforce the April 22 order. They stressed that although the BOP had identified 837 inmates as elderly or high-risk, none of them had been released or moved yet: five were waiting for home confinement, while six others had been designated as potentially qualifying for home confinement. On May 19, finding that the BOP had been “thumbing their nose at their authority to authorize home confinement,” the district court ordered the government to “make full use of the home confinement authority,” and to reconsider inmates’ eligibility without using certain criteria – such as the amount of time remaining on an inmate’s sentence – as a categorical bar. The district court also ordered the government to act quickly on applications for compassionate release, and to explain by May 26 why any prisoners who are not eligible for release could not be transferred to another facility “where social distancing is possible.”

The government came to the Supreme Court last Wednesday, asking the justices to put the district court’s April 22 order on hold while it appeals to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit and, if needed, the Supreme Court. In a filing by U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, the government argued that allowing an order that would require the release or transfer of over 800 prisoners could both jeopardize public safety and interfere in the management of federal prisons.

In their brief opposing the stay of the district court’s order, the inmates emphasized that as of May 19, there were 135 active COVID-19 cases among the inmates at the Elkton prison, plus eight active cases among staff members. The only way to lower the risk of infection for inmates and staff is to transfer inmates out of the facility, as the attorney general himself has recognized, they argued....

In the one-page order today, the court explained that the government was “seeking a stay only of the District Court’s April 22 preliminary injunction,” even though the district court had “issued a new order enforcing the preliminary injunction and imposing additional measures” on May 19. “Particularly” because the government had neither appealed the May 19 order nor asked the 6th Circuit to put it on hold, the court continued, the Supreme Court would not now block the April 22 injunction, but the government could return to seek a new stay “if circumstances warrant.”

The full SCOTUS order is available at this link.

Prior related posts:

May 26, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A big list for a whole week's worth of COVID-influenced federal sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I did not get a chance to do a mid-week review of COVID-influenced grants of sentence reductions using § 3582(c)(1)(A) because this past work week seemed extra busy — though these days that just means staring at different types of websites from different computers in my house.  In any event, I have been told that my prior lists of district court rulings grants of sentence reductions that I find on Westlaw continue to be useful, so I will continue the listing tradition previously found in recent posts (which are all linked below)

My last post seemed to cover most grants through May 15 though one from that date makes this latest list.  And because I have gone a whole week without a list, this one is extra long (with 27 cases!).  I have broken up the list in groups of five just for ease of review (and I have added a few silly pop-culture comments just to try to lighten things up a bit): 

 

United States v. Moore, No. 3:16-CR-00171-JO, 2020 WL 2572529 (D Ore. May 21, 2020)

United States v. Stephenson, No. 3:05-CR-00511, 2020 WL 2566760 (SD Iowa May 21, 2020)

United States v. Galloway, No. RDB-10-0775, 2020 WL 2571172 (ED Mich. May 21, 2020)

United States v. Parker, No. 2:98-cr-00749, 2020 WL 2572525 (CD Cal. May 21, 2020) (full name "Richard Wayne Parker" of interest to Spiderman and Batman?)

Loyd v. United States, No. 15-20394-1, 2020 WL 2572275 (ED Mich. May 21, 2020)

 

United States v. Rahim, No. 16-20433, 2020 WL 2604857 (ED Mich. May 21, 2020)

United States v. Readus, No. 16-20827-1, 2020 WL 2572280 (ED Mich. May 21, 2020)

United States v. Vence-Small, No. 3:18-cr-00031 (JAM), 2020 WL 2572742 (D Conn. May 21, 2020)

United States v. Pippin, No. CR16-0266, 2020 WL 2602140 (WD Wash. May 20, 2020) (no mention of what this Mr. Pippin thought of MJ Last Dance documentary)

United States v. Schneider, No. 14-cr-30036, 2020 WL 2556354 (CD Ill. May 20, 2020)

 

United States v. Doshi, No. 13-cr-20349, 2020 WL 2556794 (ED Mich. May 20, 2020)

United States v. White, No. 13-cr-20653-1, 2020 WL 2557077 (ED Mich. May 20, 2020)

United States v. Hill, No. 3:19-cr-00038 (JAM), 2020 WL 2542725 (D Conn. May 19, 2020) (not 2012 crack case that went to SCOTUS on FSA pipeline issue)

United States v. Dorsey, No.  CR16-0138-BLW-JCC, 2020 WL 2562878 (WD Wash. May 19, 2020) (also not 2012 crack case that went to SCOTUS on FSA pipeline issue)

United States v. Sarkisyan, No. 15-cr-00234-CRB-15, 2020 WL 2542032 (ND Cal. May 19, 2020)

 

United States v. Bright, No. 2:15CR00015-005, 2020 WL 2537508 (WD Va. May 19, 2020)

United States v. El-Hanafi, No. 10-CR-162 (KMW), 2020 WL 2538384 (SDNY May 19, 2020)

United States v. Copeland, No. 02-cr-01120 (FB), 2020 WL 2537250 (EDNY May 19, 2020) (cue COVID-era version of Police classic "Don't Stand So Close to Me")

United States v. Bischoff, No. 17-cr-196-JD, 2020 WL 2561423 (D N.H. May 18, 2020)

United States v. Anderson, No. 15-cr-30015, 2020 WL 2521513 (CD Ill. May 18, 2020)

 

United States v. Rountree, No. 1:12-CR-0308 (LEK), 2020 WL 2610923 (NDNY May 18, 2020)

United States v. Cotinola , No. 13-CR-03890-MV, 2020 WL 2526717 (D N.M. May 18, 2020) (meth case from Albuquerque for any Breaking Bad fans out there)

United States v. Bennett, No. 05 Cr. 1192-1 (NRB), 2020 WL 2539077 (SDNY May 18, 2020)

United States v. Agomuoh, No. 16-20196, 2020 WL 2526113 (ED Mich. May 18, 2020)

United States v. Schafer, No. 6:18-CR-06152 EAW, 2020 WL 2519726 (WDNY May 18, 2020)

 

United States v. Johnson, No. 15-cr-125 (KBJ), 2020 WL 2515856 (DDC May 16, 2020)

United States v. Arreola-Bretado, No. 3:19-cr-03410-BTM, 2020 WL 2535049 (SD Cal. May 15, 2020)

More than two dozen grants in a week is remarkable, and this is with still very few Friday rulings appearing on Westlaw as of midday Saturday.  Moreover, as I have mentioned in a number of prior posts, I am quite certain that my Westlaw listings do not represent all sentence reductions being granted by federal courts these days.  In fact, the Marshall Project article flagged here reported that the latest BOP "figures show that since early April, 268 prisoners nationwide received compassionate release."  That figure suggests an around 40 grants per weeks, whereas I have only been seeing and reporting in these listings only about half that many based on just Westlaw searches.

Prior recent related posts since lockdowns:

May 23, 2020 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

YET ANOTHER REMINDER of exciting DEPC and OJPC sentencing project: "Drafting Contest: An Ohio 'Second Look' Statute"

I warned in this initial posting that I would be repeatedly promoting an exciting new project from a partnership of the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC).  The basic details are explained on this webpage, more background appears in this document, and here are the essentials:

About

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

Contest Objective and Deliverable

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

Contest Timeline and Awards

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

May 23, 2020 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Monday, May 18, 2020

An overview of federal compassionate release issues during this pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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