Saturday, February 27, 2021

What kind of "behind the scenes" clemency moves might Prez Biden's staff be working on?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a sentence in this Vox piece by German Lopez (strangely) headlined "Biden’s secret weapon for criminal justice reform."  The article is about the power of the President to grant clemency, and I think it a bit strange to call that power a "secret weapon" given all the attention that clemency has received in recent years and given that there has already been a number of prominent calls for Prez Biden to use this power in prominent ways (examples blogged here and here and here and here).  I guess the headline speak to the tendency of some to look past the clemency power as a means to address systemic issues like mass incarceration, and the piece is still a worthwhile read.  Here is an excerpt that includes the sentence that prompts the question in the title of this post:

[S]ome advocates have argued for a ground-up rethinking of clemency: The president could reform the whole process to systematically cut sentences for federal inmates caught in the frenzy of America’s drug war and mass incarceration....

[T]he president or his advisory board could set standards, targeting inmates with long sentences (especially for nonviolent crimes), those under mandatory minimums, or people who have been rehabilitated in prison.

Biden, at least, supports using clemency powers for some of these ends — saying in his criminal justice reform plan that he’d use his clemency powers “to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes.”

But since taking office, Biden hasn’t made any public moves in this area — although his staff is reportedly working on it behind the scenes.

Biden could be waiting for his attorney general nominee to get Senate approval. Or he could be concerned about the political risks: If an inmate he releases goes on to commit a crime, it could fuel a backlash. (The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Prez Biden should have his Attorney General nominee approved next week, so perhaps reported "behind the scenes" work will become public in short order. I remain hopeful that significant use of the clemency power will be part of a multi-prong criminal justice reform push by the Biden Administration, but I will only believe it when I see it.

A few of many prior related posts:

February 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

"Viral Injustice"

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

The COVID-19 pandemic blighted all aspects of American life, but people in jails, prisons, and other detention sites experienced singular harm and neglect.  Housing vulnerable detainee populations with elevated medical needs, these facilities were ticking time bombs.  They were overcrowded, underfunded, unsanitary, insufficiently ventilated, and failed to meet even minimum health-and-safety standards.  Every unit of national and sub-national government failed to prevent detainee communities from becoming pandemic epicenters, and judges were no exception.

This Article takes the comprehensive look at the decisional law growing out of the COVID-19 detainee litigation, and situates the judicial response as part of a comprehensive institutional failure.  We read hundreds of COVID-19 custody cases, and our analysis defines the decision-making by reference to three attributes: the substantive right asserted, the form of detention at issue, and the remedy sought.  Several patterns emerged.  Judges avoided constitutional holdings whenever they could, rejected requests for ongoing supervision, and resisted collective discharge — limiting such relief to vulnerable subpopulations.  The most successful litigants were detainees in custody pending immigration proceedings, and the least successful were those convicted of crimes.

We draw three conclusions that bear on subsequent pandemic responses — including vaccination efforts — and incarceration more generally.  First, courts avoided robust relief by re-calibrating rights and remedies, particularly those relating to the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.  Second, court intervention was especially limited by the behavior of bureaucracies responsible for the detention function.  Third, the judicial activity reflected entrenched assumptions about the danger and moral worth of prisoners that are widespread but difficult to defend.  Before judges can effectively respond to pandemic risk, nonjudicial institutions will have to treat it differently than other health-and-safety threats, and judges will have to overcome their empirically dubious resistance to decarceration.

February 24, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 22, 2021

SCOTUS grants cert on yet another intricate Armed Career Criminal Act issue

The Supreme Court is back in action today after its February hibernation, and it kicked off a new round of activity with this long order list. Though I suspect some extended dissents from the denial of cert on non-criminal issues will garner the most attention, sentencing fans will be intrigued (or perhaps annoyed) that the Justices have taken up yet another case dealing with the intricacies of the Armed Career Criminal Act. The case is Wooden v. United States, No. 20-5279, and cert was granted on this question from the initial pro se cert petition:

Did the Sixth Circuit err by expanding the scope of 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(1) in the absence of clear statutory defintiion with regard to the vague term "committed on occasions different from one another"?

The defendant's reply brief in support of the cert petition spotlights the facts and the extreme sentencing consequences at issue in Wooden:

Petitioner William Dale Wooden broke into a ministorage facility in Georgia one night in 1997.  He entered ten units during the course of the crime and later pleaded guilty to ten counts of burglary.  Were these burglaries committed “on occasions different from one another”?  Fifteen years in federal prison depends on the answer.  If not, Wooden’s sentence for possessing a firearm as a felon would have been only 21 to 26 months; he would have been “home by Christmas 2016.” D.Ct.  Dkt. 84, 1-2.

But the Sixth Circuit answered yes, affirming a harsh mandatory-minimum sentence.  So Wooden will remain incarcerated until 2028.  That wrongheaded decision exacerbated an acknowledged circuit split on an important and recurring question.

Most federal sentening fans know how intricate and consequential interpretations of ACCA can be for certain persons who illegally possess a firearm. But I still find the facts in a (largely unremarkable) case like Wooden remarkable.

As I read the government's filing, the defendant here at the time of sentencing had, besides the nearly 20-year-old ministorage burglaries, one other burglary conviction that was 10 years old and an assault conviction that was more than a quarter-century old.  Rather that having Wooden's illegal firearm possession sentence now turn on judicial consideration of the seriousness of his current offense conduct and his true criminal history, ACCA served to make 15 mandatory(!) years of federal prison time turn entirely on legal technicalities rather than thoughtful consideration of what justice and crime control demands. Sigh. 

February 22, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

"Revocation and Retribution"

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

Revocation of community supervision is a defining feature of American criminal law.  Nearly 4.5 million people in the United States are on parole, probation, or supervised release, and one-third will eventually have their supervision revoked, sending 350,000 to prison each year.  While scholars have long debated the reasons for punishing criminal conduct, however, no one has considered the justifications for revoking community supervision.

This Article is the first to apply punishment theory to revocation of community supervision, focusing on the federal system of supervised release.  Federal courts apply a primarily retributive theory of revocation, aiming to punish defendants for their “breach of trust.”  Yet the structure, statute, and purpose of supervised release all reflect purely utilitarian goals of deterrence and incapacitation.  Although scholars traditionally view courts as the institution most likely to defend criminal defendants against the state, the federal courts have played a key role in expanding the power to punish through the retributive theory of revocation.

February 16, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Reviewing the still uncertain state, and the still certain need, for effective federal crack retroactivity resentencing

6a00d83451574769e2025d9b40d8aa200c-320wiI have not been able to keep up with all of the jurisprudential ups and downs that have followed the FIRST STEP Act finally making retroactive key parts of the Fair Sentencing Act for federal crack offenders.  Thus, I am quite grateful that a recent email discussion with various lawyers led to Assistant Federal Defenders Johanes Maliza and Thomas Drysdale drafting this extended guest post to catch us all up on some critical cases and issues in this arena:

The sentencing excesses that Congress addressed with the Fair Sentencing Act, and then the First Step Act, should stay in the past.  The pending cert petition in Bates v. United States, No. 20-535, has the potential to keep them there for everyone.  Bates asks the Court to decide whether cocaine base defendants getting resentenced under the First Step Act should get resentenced under modern sentencing guidelines, or under repealed, invalidated, or otherwise discarded sentencing rules.

The Court recently granted cert in another First Step Act case, Terry v. United States, No. 20-5904.  But Terry gets at a different, more limited question.  In Terry, the Court is answering only whether certain low-level cocaine base offenders are eligible for a resentencing.  The Terry question is important, and needs to be resolved to bring uniformity across the circuits, but the government made one good point as it opposed the petition: Terry concerns a limited group of defendants.

A Terry defendant would have to be a person with a small (often very small) amount of cocaine base, who is still serving her sentence 10 years after the Fair Sentencing Act.  Most 841(b)(1)(C) defendants from 2010 are out of prison by now, though many are still on Supervised Release.  The vast majority of cocaine base offenders still serving prison terms for pre-August 2010 conduct are mid- and high-quantity defendants, who were charged under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A) or (B).  Terry only concerns people charged under § 841(b)(1)(C).

Even if Terry comes out for the petitioner, every single person who would benefit from Terry needs the answer to Bates: Which guidelines do courts use for resentencing? Indeed, the few Terry defendants still in prison are those who need a positive result in Bates the most because resentencing based on the guidelines from 2010 could still be sky high, even while the statutory scheme has shifted dramatically in the last 10 years.  Guidelines still anchor federal sentences; as the government says in Bates they remain the “lodestar.”

Consider a real, but anonymized, defendant in Central Illinois to show the need for modern guidelines in § 404 resentencings.  Mr. Jones [not client's real name, though he has given permission to speak about his case] was convicted of violating 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), for 50 grams or more of cocaine base in 2010.  The charge began with a 10-year mandatory minimum; but with four drug priors, his statutory minimum was Life.  His guidelines were Life.  His minimum term of Supervised Release was 10 years.

Because he cooperated, (the only way to get out from under life), Mr. jones got a 324- month sentence, plus 10 years of Supervised Release.  Even if he got out of prison before he died, he was going to die on Supervised Release.  Terry, which only concerns persons sentenced under § 841(b)(1)(C), has nothing to do with him because was charged under § 841(b)(1)(A).  With an 841(b)(1)(A) conviction, Mr. Jones is clearly eligible for resentencing under § 404 of the First Step Act, but the terms of that resentencing was not defined by the Act.  Since Mr. Jones was convicted of having 50 grams of cocaine base, his charges would come under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) in 2019. But how much does that really matter if his guidelines didn’t change?

One might assume the statutory changes transform everything now that a Mandatory Life is either 5-40 or 10-Life after First Step.  Which one, and why do we care?  Well, his prior convictions still set up his stat max, and his stat max still sets up his new guidelines.  Considering all four of his prior drug crimes still worked to raise his statutory max to Life and made his guidelines range 262-327 months and his 324-month sentence was still within that range.  But while one provision of the First Step Act gave Mr. Jones the right to seek resentencing, another provision made two of his priors ineligible to trigger § 851 enhancements because the statutory maximum sentences on those priors was below 10 years.  And while Mr. Jones’ resentencing worked its way through the docket, the Seventh Circuit issued a string of opinions that culminated in a ruling that Illinois cocaine convictions cannot serve as § 851 enhancements. Mr. Jones’ remaining two statutory enhancements, both for cocaine, were now out. Well, they were still there, since this Seventh Circuit ruling wasn’t necessarily retroactive, but this was a shockwave for Mr. Jones’ guidelines.  Under the law in 2010, Jones had statutory Life, and guidelines range of Life.  Now, under statutory changes and modern guideline interpretation, he had a statutory range of 5-40, and guidelines range of 188-235.

While his case was pending for First Step Act resentencing, the law had shifted for everybody else.  Mr. Jones’ 324-month sentence, after cooperation, had transformed from “Harsh-but-at-least-not-Life,” into, “That’s 11-plus years over the low end of the guidelines?!?”  Thankfully for Mr. Jones, he is in the Seventh Circuit, so the district court recalculated his guidelines as part of First Step resentencing, and gave him a 188-month (bottom-of-the-range) sentence.  Still harsh. But he’ll be out in a few years, not a decade.  But in the Tenth Circuit, which is where the Bates case comes from, this entire analysis would have amounted to passionate argument from his attorney, soaring rhetoric about finality from the government, and a “Whaddya gonna do?” from the district judge because the circuit does not permit a defendant's current guideline range to be considered at a First Step resentencing.

It is hard to imagine that that the First Step Act intended to leave people like Mr. Jones behind.  A broad bipartisan coalition passed the First Step Act, trying to reduce the draconian sentences imposed on nonviolent drug offenders.  Because the Supreme Court in Terry will only resolve the few people with § 841(b)(1)(C) convictions who are still in prison, the difference in treatment between what happened with Mr. Jones and what happened in a case like Bates will not be addressed.  The Supreme Court should take up and render a decision in a case like Bates as soon as possible in order to resolve a resentencing wait and uncertainty for hundreds, if not thousands, of defendants. No matter what happens in Terry, the issue in Bates is going to need a resolution. That resolution should come earlier, so that nobody has to overserve a minute of their sentences.

February 14, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Notable reviews of extreme sentences in Pennsylvania

The tail end of this week brought a number of notable stories about notably extreme sentences (and a few releases therefrom) in Pennsylvania.  I will use headlines and links to cover a lot of ground involving a number of intersecting and overlapping stories:

"Report raises questions with second-degree murder sentencing in Pennsylvania"

"Pa.’s second-degree murder charge is outdated, unfair, Fetterman says"

"‘They don’t deserve to die in prison’: Gov. Wolf grants clemency to 13 lifers"

"The nation’s oldest juvenile lifer, Joe Ligon, left a Pa. prison after 68 years"

The first pair of stories relate to this notable new report by the Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity titled "Life Without Parole for Second-Degree Murder in Pennsylvania: An Objective Assessment of Sentencing."

February 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 12, 2021

"Direct Collateral Review"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Columbia Law Review piece authored by Z. Payvand Ahdout (hat tip: How Appealing). Here is is abstract:

Federal courts are vitally important fora in which to remedy constitutional violations that occur during state criminal proceedings.  But critics have long lamented the difficulty of obtaining federal review of these violations. The Supreme Court rarely grants certiorari to review state criminal convictions, including allegations of constitutional defects, on direct appeal.  Likewise, the Court has historically declined to grant certiorari to review habeas claims that originate in state courts.  And Congress has circumscribed the ability of all federal courts to grant relief on habeas claims made by state prisoners. The dominant scholarly view, therefore, is that systemic constitutional violations are going unremedied and will continue to go unaddressed absent broadscale change.

This Essay argues that an unnoticed change in the Supreme Court’s certiorari practice over the last five years has reopened a previously closed path to remedying these violations. The Supreme Court has a long-stated presumption against taking cases that originate in state collateral proceedings, i.e., state proceedings in which prisoners challenge their convictions or sentences after the convictions have become final.  This Essay shows that, although the Court previously hewed to that presumption, things have changed. Beginning in October Term 2015 and continuing to the present, the Court has steadily granted certiorari in these cases, indicating a sub silentio abrogation of the presumption.  This Essay documents this changed certiorari practice and explains its significance, both for vindication of constitutional criminal procedure rights and for our understanding of the Supreme Court’s central role in shaping those rights.

February 12, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 11, 2021

How about some clemency grants from Prez Biden while his team works on grander clemency plans?

I am very pleased to see this lengthy new Politico piece shining a light on federal clemency under this full headline: "Trump left behind a clemency mess.  The clock’s ticking for Biden to solve it. Lawyers and criminal justice advocates are pushing Biden to act swiftly.  But Covid and the economy are pushing action back."  I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

Biden’s White House counsel’s office has started to reach out to attorneys and advocates for suggestions on reforms, what could be done about the backlog, and mistakes they believe were made in previous administrations, according to the people familiar with the conversations.  Roy Austin, an Obama administration veteran who served on the Biden transition team on Justice Department issues, has spoken to advocates as well.  Biden’s new adviser on criminal justice issues at the Domestic Policy Council, Chiraag Bains, is expected to play a role too, according to two people familiar with the situation.

But the White House has revealed little about its own plans. And attorneys and advocates still worry that Biden’s team lacks a comprehensive plan for dealing with the enormous backlog.  Perhaps for good reason: A former Obama aide said that while Biden’s team is familiar with the clemency problems it faces, it has been too busy with nominations, executive orders and proposed legislation, including those designed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and cratered economy.  “They couldn’t have had time to formulate a plan,” the person said.

More than 100 progressive groups working on criminal justice issues are urging Biden to overhaul the arduous clemency process and start resolving cases right away.  One of them, the ACLU, launched an ad campaign to push him to grant clemency to 25,000 people and make good on his pledge to tackle criminal justice issues amid a national reckoning on racial injustice.  Among those who have met with Biden’s team are Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of policy at the American Civil Liberties Union's Justice Division, and Nkechi Taifa, convener of the Justice Roundtable, an umbrella organization on criminal justice issues....

“The time to figure out how to do this should’ve been during the transition,” said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor who serves as a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis who is pushing for a change. “The danger is that they’ll replicate the mistake the past several administrations have done of never focusing on it until it’s too late and it’s a mess.”

The White House did not respond to questions but released a statement. “President Biden has laid out an ambitious agenda to address problems in our criminal justice system that have resulted in overincarceration and miscarriages of justice, and he has a talented team of attorneys working to examine appeals for clemency to ensure sentences are consistent with the values he’s articulated,” White House spokesman Michael Gwin said.

In modern history, presidents have treated clemency as an afterthought, granting it in their waning days, often as a gift to friends and associates. Trump was no exception and took that a step further. In most cases, Trump bypassed the lengthy, multilevel process for clemency that has been conducted for more than a century. Instead, he made decisions through an ad hoc system where politically connected allies and well-paid lobbyists tried to persuade him in person and on TV to use pardons to help friends and hurt enemies.

In total, Trump granted 237 pardons or commutations and denied 180 cases. Many of those he acted on were headline-grabbing: former members of Congress, numerous people convicted in Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference, and security contractors convicted for massacring Iraqi civilians in 2008. He failed to act on thousands of other cases, leaving 13,750 behind for Biden. But the current backlog — the largest on record, according to the Justice Department and experts — can’t be blamed on Trump alone.

Barack Obama waited well into his second term to act. When he urged federal prisoners to apply for leniency under his clemency initiative, which allowed certain inmates to make their case for getting their sentences commuted, petitions soared. He received more than 36,000 requests, the largest total of any president on record. And he acted on an historic amount — more than 22,000 cases — granting clemency 1,927 times, including 212 pardons and 1,715 commutations.

But Obama didn’t take care of all the pending cases, leaving behind 13,000 of them when he left office. And when his final pardon attorney, Deborah Leff, resigned in January of Obama’s final year in office, she lamented that the clemency initiative didn’t have enough resources. “In his clemency initiative, President Obama focused significant resources on identifying inmates, most of them people of color, who had been sentenced to excessive and draconian sentences,” said Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel for Obama. “The president would have liked to clear the backlog in pending petitions, but resources spent in achieving that goal would have resulted in fewer inmates who were serving those excessive sentences for relatively minor drug crimes being released.”...

Obama’s aides say they began talking about the pardon process during the transition but they didn’t take Bush’s advice because they had other priorities, including health care. Advocates and lawyers hope Biden learns the lessons of history and makes clemency a first term priority.

“We hope he’ll break from what folks have done in the past and do things at the last minute or as a gift,” Roseberry said. “Our position is it should be used now and as much as necessary to correct all of the wrongs that we now acknowledge from our past criminal legal system. ... It takes courage to do it this year.  We are ready for this.  It’s time. It’s past time.”

Biden didn’t campaign aggressively on the issue of clemency. But supporters of his and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did address the topic in its 110-page list of recommendations designed to try to unite the two camps ahead of the November election. One of the main proposals that the task force put forward also is one of priorities of criminal justice reform advocates: the creation of an independent clemency board.

The Biden-Sanders task force proposed a 60-person agency composed of people with diverse backgrounds to review cases.  The Democratic Party’s 2020 platform, likewise, called for an independent clemency commission, taking the process out of the Justice Department, which, some activists argue, is ill-suited to submit clemency recommendations to the White House since it also prosecutes the cases.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who chairs the House Judiciary subcommittee with jurisdiction over pardons, lobbied Obama and Trump to issue more pardons. He said he plans to do the same for Biden. “There are ... more and more people in jail, and a lot of those people have been there forever and they have been there for long draconian sentences,” Cohen said. “They’re basically wasting their lives, wasting the federal government’s finances ... and destroying lives and families. It’s a total loser, but we do it.”

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear me endorse the sentiments of Cynthia Roseberry, namely that "It’s time. It’s past time."  I also share Mark Osler's view that this could have and should have been a transition priority for the Biden team.  Still, I am not inclined to aggressively criticize the Biden Administration if it currently has advisers and insiders talking to and working with advocates about how to put together a "comprehensive plan" for effective clemency reform.  But, as the title of this post is meant to highlight, taking a careful and deliberative process toward grander reform of the entire clemency process should not be an excuse for Prez Biden to hold back entirely on the use of his clemency pen.

I am certain that there must be many dozens, and probably many hundreds, of cases that ought to be federal clemency "no-brainers."  (For example, women and men on the CAN-DO site or the lifer marijuana offenders assembled at Life for Pot or person highlighted by NACDL’s Trial Penalty Clemency Project.)  I am pretty confident that only a relatively little amount of time would be needed for members of the Biden team to identify at least a handful of compelling cases that could and should allow clemency grants to be part of Prez Biden's 100-day agenda and legacy.  As Senator Cohen highlights, every day of delay is another day "wasting their lives, wasting the federal government’s finances, and destroying lives and families."

A few of many recent related posts:

February 11, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

"Evading the Eighth Amendment: Prison Conditions and the Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this book chapter authored by Sharon Dolovich now available va SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The greater the “slippage” between Eighth Amendment norms and their enforcement, the broader the judicial permission conferred on correctional officers to treat people in prison cruelly.  This chapter examines the governing standards for Eighth Amendment prison conditions claims, tracing their evolution towards enabling cruelty on the part of the state actors charged to keep people safe while they are in custody.  It argues that the Supreme Court’s early efforts to shape those standards looked set to enable judicial determinations consistent with fundamental Eighth Amendment moral imperatives, but that, in later cases, the Court betrayed that early promise by several doctrinal moves that have allowed courts to dismiss prisoners’ claims without ever squarely confronting either the character of the challenged conditions or their consistency with core Eighth Amendment values.  The effect was to leave the people in prison without judicial protection from needless pain and suffering.  And recent signs from the new Roberts Court suggest that people in prison may soon face an Eighth Amendment regime even less protective than the already diminished standards that currently govern.

February 10, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

New California Committee on the Revision of the Penal Code issues report urging sweeping sentencing reforms

As reported in this local article, headlined "California Commission Recommends Ending Mandatory Minimum Sentences," a notable new government body in the Golden State is recommending an array of notable new sentencing reforms.  Here are the basics:

A newly formed state commission is recommending that California end mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and allow judges to reconsider all criminal sentences after someone has spent 15 years in prison.

Those are two of the 10 recommendations laid out in an 89-page report by the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, which is charged with examining California’s criminal sentencing laws and recommending changes.

Among their findings: That the state’s legal system has racial inequality at its core and that many laws are outdated, unsupported by data and don’t make the public more safe. "We really tried to do a complete survey of punishments in California from driving infractions, all the way to life in prison," said commission Chair Mike Romano, who runs the Three Strikes Clinic at Stanford Law School.

"What we found is that California has an unbelievably bloated criminal legal system and that there are a tremendous number of people who are serving punishments that are unnecessary in terms of enhancing public safety, in fact quite the opposite," he said.

The group heard from a wide range of experts, including every major law enforcement group in the state, current and former prosecutors and judges and state officials. The commission learned that California is spending $83,000 a year to lock up each prisoner, for a total of $16 billion. Yet the report also details evidence that California is enjoying the lowest crime rates since statewide tracking began in 1969, even as the state has enacted laws that reduce the number of people incarcerated.

“Aspects of California’s criminal legal system are undeniably broken," the report states. “The current system has racial inequity at its core," the commission wrote, adding that inequality may be worse than imagined as "people of color are disproportionately punished under state laws.”

The group is made up of legal experts and two state lawmakers. There are 10 recommendations in its inaugural report — all focusing on changes that could be made by the Legislature, without going to voters.

The full report is available at this link, and here is its executive summary:

When the Legislature and Governor Gavin Newsom established the Committee on Revision of the Penal Code, California launched its first concerted effort in decades to thoroughly examine its criminal laws. The Legislature gave the Committee special data-gathering powers, directing it to study all aspects of criminal law and procedure and to make recommendations to “simplify and rationalize” the state’s Penal Code. This is the Committee’s first report, and it details 10 reforms recommended unanimously by Committee members. Our recommendations span California’s entire criminal legal system, ranging from traffic court to parole consideration for people serving life sentences. If enacted, these reforms would impact almost every person involved in California’s criminal system and, we believe, measurably improve safety and justice throughout the state.

Our recommendations follow a year of studying California’s criminal punishments. We were guided by testimony from 56 expert witnesses, extensive public comment, staff research, and over 50 hours of public hearings and Committee deliberation. We believe the recommendations represent broad consensus among a wide array of stakeholders, including law enforcement, crime victims, civil rights leaders, and people directly impacted by the legal system. The report contains extensive support for each recommendation, including empirical research, experiences from other jurisdictions, and available data on California’s current approach to these issues.

The recommendations are: 

  1.  Eliminate incarceration and reduce fines and fees for certain traffic offenses.
  2.  Require that short prison sentences be served in county jails. 
  3.  End mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses.
  4.  Establish that low-value thefts without serious injury or use of a weapon are misdemeanors.
  5.  Provide guidance for judges considering sentence enhancements.
  6.  Limit gang enhancements to the most dangerous offenses.
  7.  Retroactively apply sentence enhancements previously repealed by the Legislature.
  8.  Equalize custody credits for people who committed the same offenses, regardless of where or when they are incarcerated.
  9.  Clarify parole suitability standards to focus on risk of future violent or serious offenses.
  10.  Establish judicial process for “second look” resentencing.

February 9, 2021 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Coalition of civil rights groups calls on Prez Biden to commute all federal death sentences and halt capital activity

As reported in this AP piece, "civil rights and advocacy organizations are calling on the Biden administration to immediately halt federal executions after an unprecedented run of capital punishment under President Donald Trump and to commute the sentences of inmates on federal death row."  Here is more (with links from the original):

The organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 80 others, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning, urging that he act immediately “on your promise of ensuring equality, equity, and justice in our criminal legal system.”

Biden has been systematically undoing many Trump administration policies on climate, immigration and ethics rules. Although he is against the death penalty and has said he will work to end its use, Biden has not commented on what he will do with Trump’s unprecedented push for the federal death penalty.  The Bureau of Prisons carried out more executions under Trump, 13, than any previous president....  The groups say Biden should step in immediately and take action, as his administration works to establish priorities, address systemic racism and overhaul parts of the criminal justice system.

In the letter, the civil rights groups said the use of the death penalty “continues to perpetuate patterns of racial and economic oppression endemic to the American criminal legal system.”...  “Any criminal legal system truly dedicated to the pursuit of justice should recognize the humanity of all those who come into contact with it, not sanction the use of a discriminatory practice that denies individuals their rights, fails to respect their dignity, and stands in stark contrast to the fundamental values of our democratic system of governance,” the letter said....

The groups told Biden he has the power to dismantle the death chamber building at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana — the small building where the 13 executions were carried out in six months — in addition to rescinding the Justice Department’s execution protocols and a regulation that no longer required federal death sentences to be carried out by lethal injection and cleared the way to use other methods like firing squads and poison gas.

They also said Biden could prohibit prosecutors from seeking death sentences and commute the sentences of the several dozen inmates on federal death row.  Far-reaching steps by Biden, the letter said, would also preclude any future president from restarting federal executions.  Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, halted federal executions but never cleared death row or sought to strike the death penalty from U.S. statutes.  That left the door open for Trump to resume them.  “We … recognize that if there is one thing that the waning months of the Trump presidency also made clear, it is the horrendous implications of simply having an informal federal death penalty moratorium in place,” it said.

Cynthia Roseberry, the ACLU’s deputy director of policy for the justice division, said she knows that Biden has a lot on his plate and that he should be given some time to act on the death penalty.  But she said the groups wanted to assure Biden “that there is broad based support to be bold” on the issue and that some don’t require complicated policy initiatives or new legislation.  “These things,” Roseberry said, “can be accomplished with the stroke of the pen.”

The full ACLU press release about this letter is available at this link, and the full letter from the coaltion is available at this link.   

I noted here in response to last month's similar letter by 37 Democratic members of Congress that the call for commuting all of federal death row came with a request to "ensur[e] that each person is provided with an adequate and unique re-sentencing process."  This new call here to "immediately commuting the sentences of all individuals under federal sentence of death" does not alternative sentencing with any specificity, but it obviously avoids advocating that Prez Biden converting death sentences into life without parole sentences.  This is yet another reminder that modern adocacy against LWOP sentences, which often calls LWOP just a death sentence by another name, serves to complicate a bit advocacy against capital punishment.

February 9, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Lots of great coverage at CCRC of lots of great 2020 criminal record reform activity

I blogged here last month about this big report from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center authored by Margaret Love and David Schlussel which reviewed all the criminal record reforms enacted by states in 2020.   I know see that CCRC has been highlighting particular reforms on particular issues in this recent series of posts:

Regular readers likely realize that marijuana expungements are a topic of particular interest to me.  Back in 2018 I wrote an article focused just on this topic, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices," and this past year I co-wrote another piece focused on Arizona reforms that made much of this issue, "Ensuring Marijuana Reform Is Effective Criminal Justice Reform."

February 7, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Eighth Circuit panel affirms (within-guideline) sentence of 2.5 years for illegal possession of a single bullet

Decade of study can make one nearly numb to the variety of remarkable stories involving our criminal justice systems ordering people to live long periods in cages for what seems like relatively minor crimnal activity.  But I was still struck by an Eighth Circuit ruling this week in US v. Brown, No. 20-1377 (8th Cir. Feb 2, 2021) (available here), highlighting how minor convicted conduct can lead to major federal prison time.  Here are the basics fron a unanimous per curiam unpublished opinion (with cites removed):

The district court1 sentenced Deaviea David Brown to 30 months of imprisonment after Brown pled guilty to being a felon in possession of ammunition—a single bullet. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1), 924(a)(2). On appeal, Brown contends that sentence is substantively unreasonable and violates the Eighth Amendment. We affirm....

Because Brown’s sentence is at the bottom of the Guidelines range, we presume the sentence is reasonable. Brown did not rebut that presumption.  We also note that during the sentencing hearing, the district court specifically addressed the § 3553(a) factors.  We see no basis to conclude either that the district court improperly weighed the § 3553(a) factors or that the sentence it imposed was substantively unreasonable....

[T]he proportionality principle in Eighth Amendment law is quite limited. Under this standard, the proportionality argument presented simply lacks sufficient basis for this court to conclude that Brown’s sentence — which was at the bottom of the recommended Guidelines range — is one of those “exceedingly rare” cases that raises the gross-disproportionality inference.  While 30 months of imprisonment for possession of a single bullet may seem, on its surface, disproportionate, the penalty relates to the prohibition on convicted felons possessing ammunition of any amount. The sentence does not violate the Eighth Amendment.

I have not yet found any more information about the district court sentencing online, but I would guess there is a significant backstory as to why Mr. Brown was federal prosecuted and sentenced to 2.5 years in federal prison for possession of a single bullet. (There was a significant backstory when the Sixth Circuit affirmed a 15-year ACCA sentence for possession of seven shotgun shells some years ago.)  But I am always troubled when a serious sentence is based on some unclear backstory rather than on the seriousness of the actual offense conduct that produced the conviction.

Notably and annoyingly, the panel keeps stressing that the 30-month sentence here was at the bottom of the applicable guideline range.  For me, that fact serves to condemn the federal sentencing guidelines, not justify this extreme sentence.  It is also an important reminder that, even 15+ years after Booker made the guidelines advisory, they still have an adverse impact on justice and still need a thorough rewrite.

I am especially troubled by the facile rejection of the Eighth Amendment claim by the panel in these terms: "While 30 months of imprisonment for possession of a single bullet may seem, on its surface, disproportionate, the penalty relates to the prohibition on convicted felons possessing ammunition of any amount."  This strike me as tantamount to a statement that there could never be a constitutionally disproportionate sentence for shoplifting a candybar because a severe penalty is critical to keep people from stealing any amount of goods.  Put simply, 30 months of imprisonment for possession of a single bullet does seem disproportionate, and the Eighth Circuit panel should have at least conducted a full Eighth Amendment proportionality analysis (which would show, I think, that this this behavior is not even criminal in many states and not a felony in most).

February 4, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Disconcerting new data on pandemic parole practices from the Prison Policy Initiative

The Prison Policy Initiative has this new briefing authored by Tiana Herring that provides some notable data on parole realities in 2022. Authored by Tiana Herring, the full title of the piece highlights its themes: "Parole boards approved fewer releases in 2020 than in 2019, despite the raging pandemic: Instead of releasing more people to the safety of their homes, parole boards in many states held fewer hearings and granted fewer approvals during the ongoing, deadly pandemic."  Here is much of the exposition (click through to see data):

Prisons have had 10 months to take measures to reduce their populations and save lives amidst the ongoing pandemic.  Yet our comparison of 13 states’ parole grant rates from 2019 and 2020 reveals that many have failed to utilize parole as a mechanism for releasing more people to the safety of their homes.  In over half of the states we studied —Alabama, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina — between 2019 and 2020, there was either no change or a decrease in parole grant rates (that is, the percentage of parole hearings that resulted in approvals).

Granting parole to more people should be an obvious decarceration tool for correctional systems, during both the pandemic and more ordinary times.  Since parole is a preexisting system, it can be used to reduce prison populations without requiring any new laws, executive orders, or commutations.  And since anyone going before the parole board has already completed their court-ordered minimum sentences, it would make sense for boards to operate with a presumption of release.  But only 34 states even offer discretionary parole, and those that do are generally not set up to help people earn release.  Parole boards often choose to deny the majority of those who appear before them.

We also found that, with the exception of Oklahoma and Iowa, parole boards held fewer hearings in 2020 than in 2019, meaning fewer people had opportunities to be granted parole.  This may be in part due to boards being slow or unwilling to adapt to using technology during the pandemic, and instead postponing hearings for months.  Due to the combined factors of fewer hearings and failures to increase grant rates, only four of the 13 states — Hawaii, Iowa, New Jersey, and South Dakota — actually approved more people for parole in 2020 than in 2019.

February 3, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 02, 2021

Another round of coverage of Prez Trump's clemency grants (and some folks left behind)

It is now nearly two full week since former Prez Trump issued his large batch of clemencies in his final hours in office.  As I mentioned in this post last week, Trump's entire clemency record is full of fascinating and frustrating stories with respect to individual cases and the body of clemency work.  I did a round-up of recent pieces assessing Trump's clemency activities law week, but another week of press coverage reveals another set of interesting stories about both clemencies granted and not granted:

From CBS News, "Man serving life sentence for non-violent crime reunites with family after Trump pardon: 'A piece of me is back'"

From CNN, "This former prisoner had an unlikely supporter: the judge who sentenced him"

From Forbes, "The Inside Story Of A Trump Pardon Gone Wrong"

From Newsday, "How the plan to grant clemency to Sheldon Silver was scuttled"

From Politico, "The Real Scandal Is the Pardon Trump Didn’t Give: Rufus Rochell checked all the right boxes for clemency: an exemplary record in prison, advocacy out of it, and a friendship with a famous Trump booster. So why didn’t he get it?"

From SF Weekly, "Meet the Cannabis Offenders Pardoned by Trump"

I hope it will not be too long before we have some clemency action by Prez Biden to talk about, but I am not really all that optimistic on that front. 

February 2, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 30, 2021

"Assessing Graham v. Florida at the Ten-Year Mark: Progress and the Prospects for Ongoing Juvenile Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this great looking upcoming symposium being conducted by the Catholic University Law Review this coming Friday, February 5, 2021 starting at 1pm EST. Here is how the event is described and the planned coverage (click through to see all the great speakers):

Three Supreme Court decisions in the last decade have dramatically reshaped the treatment of juveniles in our criminal justice system.  In Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court held that juveniles may not be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP) for non-homicide crimes.  Two years later, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court held that even juveniles convicted of homicide may not be sentenced to mandatory LWOP.  Finally, in Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016), the Court held that Miller was retroactively applicable, thereby entitling several thousand individuals to a resentencing hearing at which their youth and all its mitigating attributes would be taken into account.  These cases not only significantly curbed the uniquely American practice of sentencing minors to LWOP, but also, together they stand for the proposition that children are different for purposes of sentencing.

Ten years after the landmark decision in Graham, this symposium will explore the impact that these cases have had on juvenile sentencing in the LWOP context and more broadly. The first of three panels will include practitioners who can provide a firsthand perspective on resentencing hearings and how they are playing out in courtrooms across the country.  The second panel will consider the legislative effects of Graham and will include policymakers working on the ground to pursue related juvenile sentencing reforms. Finally, the closing panel will afford attendees an opportunity to hear directly from individuals affected by Graham, that is, those who were sentenced to life imprisonment as juveniles and have now come home.

The Program

1:00 p.m.  Graham v. Florida at the Ten-Year Mark

1:30 p.m.  Resentencing Hearings Post-Graham

2:45 p.m.  Legislative Effects of Graham

4:00 p.m.  Life after Graham

January 30, 2021 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 28, 2021

ACLU urging Prez Biden to "use his clemency powers to bring home 25,000 people" from federal prisons

In this post yesterday reviewing commentary on former Prez Trump's use of the clemency power, I mentioned that on this front I am always more eager to look forward than look back.  Consequently, I am pleased to see that via this press release that the ACLU is looking forward and pressing the new President to use his clemency powers boldly.  Here are excerpts:

On Tuesday, the Biden administration announced a slate of executive orders on racial justice. Notably missing was any executive action to boldly use his power of clemency. Today, the American Civil Liberties Union launched a six-figure advertising buy asking President Biden to honor his commitment to significant decarceration by immediately using his clemency authority to help tens of thousands of people in federal prison who could be safely released immediately.

poll released by the ACLU last year found widespread support for executive officials to use their clemency authority to correct past injustices.... “The American public, voters, and most importantly, incarcerated people and their families were encouraged by President Biden’s commitment to reduce our country’s prison population significantly. Now that he is in office, the president has the opportunity to act on this commitment and correct the harms created by decades of racist policies that have led to the unjust and disproportionate incarceration of Black and Brown people by using his executive power to grant clemency to thousands of people,” said Cynthia Roseberry, deputy director of the ACLU’s Justice Division and former project manager for the Obama administration’s 2014 Clemency Initiative. “Clemency provides an opportunity for the Biden administration to show mercy to those who are incarcerated, repair injustices, and mend communities most impacted by mass incarceration. The new administration must commit itself to the routine and bold use of clemency.”

Specifically, the ACLU is asking President Biden use his clemency powers to bring home 25,000 people in some of our most vulnerable populations including individuals who are currently incarcerated under statutes that have since changed, older people and medically vulnerable people, particularly people at risk of COVID-19 infections, and people incarcerated for drug offenses. Collectively, these categories add up to tens of thousands of people currently incarcerated in the federal prison system.

I am quite pleased that the ACLU is making a big, big ask in this way, but I think it critical for everyone to also be pushing Prez Biden to just get his clemency pen flowing ASAP in even modest ways.  Though it would be amazing to see thousands of commutations in short order, Prez Biden could send a powerful signal by simply making a regular habit of commuting, say, a few dozen sentences every week while also encouraging all the nation's governors to do the same. 

If Prez Bden would just grant 10 clemencies each week (with perhaps five pardons and five commutations), he would set a record-setting pace for the use of the historic clemency power.  According to the latest BOP data, there are over 10,000 federal prisoners aged 60 or older and over 66,000 in for drug offenses; surely five can be found among this group each week who could safely be released from confinement.  There are hundreds of thousand of Americans still bearing the burdens of a long-ago federal conviction, surely five can be found among this group each week who deserve a pardon.

Interestingly, though not properly attributed to anything done by the Biden Administration, the federal prison in the last week has increased by over 400 persons.  Last week, BOP reported the federal prison population at 151,646; today, BOP reports that it stands at 152,071.  This reality provide an important reminder that, absent proactive and sustained effort to decarcerate, the federal punishment bureaucracy may often be lkely to drive up prison populations.

January 28, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Reviewing Prez Trump's clemency work from a number of perspectives

It is now a full week since former Prez Trump issued a large batch of clemencies in his final hours in office (basics here and here).  The final 140+ clemencies on the final day, and Trump's entire clemency efforts, are full of fascinating and frustrating stories with respect to individual cases and the entire body of clemency work.  Here is just a partial round-up of recent pieces assessing Trump's clemency record: 

From the Business Insider, "Trump's pardons may be poorly worded enough to leave some people on the hook"

From the Center for Responsive Politics, "Trump-tied lobbyists paid massive sums to push pardons"

From Law360, "Trump Pot Pardons A Bittersweet Win For Clemency Groups"

From Reason, "Presidential Mercy Is a Woefully Inadequate Remedy for Injustice: The controversy over Trump’s pardons and commutations highlights longstanding problems with clemency."

From the New York Post, "Comparing presidential pardons through the years"

From the New York Times, "The Road to Clemency From Trump Was Closed to Most Who Sought It: Of the nearly 240 pardons and commutations he granted during his term, only 25 came through the regular Justice Department process. The rest were a product of connections, influence and money."

From the New York Times, "For Prosecutors, Trump’s Clemency Decisions Were a ‘Kick in the Teeth’: Commutations in high-profile Medicare fraud cases have elicited anger among those who spent years pursuing complex prosecutions."

I may have more to say about Prez Trump's record in future posts, but on this front I am always more eager to look forward than look back.  Looking forward, I must note (and already complain) that Prez Biden has been setting records for execution action during his first week in office and yet has not yet used his clemency power or said a work about clemency reform.  

UPDATE: I am pleased to now be able to add that the Federal Sentencing Reporter is planning to cover Prez Trump's clemency record in a forthcoming issue, and FSR's publisher has this new posting on its blog providing a bit of context. That posting includes these paragraphs:

Donald Trump was certainly no exception to the tradition of presidents making waves through distinctive use of the clemency power, and the Federal Sentencing Reporter will be continuing a modern tradition of devoting a full issue to examining a president’s grants and considering clemency’s future.  Notably, Trump generally did not concern himself with the recommendation of the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney, which has long played a central role in advising the president on such matters.  In addition to exploring the substantive clemency choices made by Trump, FSR‘s forthcoming June 2021 issue will also discuss what clemency process ought to be embraced by presidents to ensure the most effective and responsible use of this historic power.

FSR’s first extensive coverage of federal clemency actions appeared in a special double issue prompted by Bill Clinton’s high-profile and controversial pardons issued on his last day in office back in 2001.  The decision by George W. Bush to commute the sentence of Administration official Scooter Libby in 2007 prompted another FSR issue on clemency as a form of sentencing power.  And in 2017, FSR devoted a full issue to assessing Barack Obama’s remarkable and record-setting commutations resulting from the “Clemency Project” he set up toward the tail end of his second term.

January 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Two more new 3582(c)(1)(A) reductions to remedy stacked 924(c) sentences reformed by FIRST STEP Act

As regular readers know, I have made much of the FIRST STEP Act provision now 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.  The BOP reports here that a total of 2,693 of these motions have now been granted in the 25 months since the FIRST STEP Act became law.  The vast majority of the sentencing reduction motions brought by federal prisoners and granted by federal district judges these days are focused on the health threat posed by COVID.  But judges are still rightly finding other "extraordinary and compelling reasons" warranting sentencing reductions.

A helpful reader recently flagged for me two great new district court rulings using § 3582(c)(1)(A) to undo the now-repealed harshness of severe stacking of mandatory minimum 924(c) counts.  Both rulings ought to be read in full as yet another set of examples of the ridiculousness and injustice of (post-trial) sentences that had to be imposed by judges under mandatory sentencing provisions, and to appreciate how the FIRST STEP Act helps to restore at least a little sanity and justice in this ugly part of the federal sentencing world.  I will here just note the openning paragraphs and provide a link to the full opinions:

US v. McDonel, No. 07-20189 (ED Mich. Jan. 13, 2021):

Defendant Robert McDonel, then 21 years old, was sentenced to over 100 years in prison in 2008 after engaging in a spree of auto parts store robberies using a handgun.  That extraordinarily harsh sentence was the product of a statutory sentencing scheme that required enhancing and stacking sentences for multiple firearm brandishing offenses even when the crimes were committed as part of the same episode and charged in a single indictment.  Congress since has corrected that Draconian measure, but the legislation does not help McDonel, as the amendment is not retroactive. He asks the Court for relief under 18 U.S.C. 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), as amended by section 603(b)(1) of the First Step Act of 2018, Pub L. 115-391, 132 Stat. 5194, 5239, which allows a sentence reduction for “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The gross disparity created by the legislative changes, which mitigated the harshness in the sentencing scheme to which McDonel was subjected, coupled with McDonel’s youth and rehabilitative efforts, qualify as extraordinary and compelling reasons under section 3582(c)(1)(A)(i). Other factors that the Court also must consider favor relief.  The motion will be granted.

Download McDonel opinion

US v. Nafkha, No. 2:95-CR-00220-001-TC (D Utah Jan. 11, 2021):

Prisoner Mounir Nafkha moves for a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i), asking the court to reduce his nearly 73-year sentence in the custody of the United States Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to time served.  To date, Mr. Nafkha has served approximately 25 years of his sentence. He asserts that the circumstances surrounding his sentence — which consists of four consecutively “stacked” counts under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) — constitute extraordinary and compelling reasons for his early release.  The court finds that Mr. Nafkha has satisfied his burden of showing extraordinary and compelling reasons to release him and that the balance of sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) warrant his release. Accordingly, his motion (ECF No. 214) is GRANTED.

Download Nafkha Grant

January 24, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Notable OLC opinion on "Home Confinement of Federal Prisoners After the COVID-19 Emergency"

In this post from this past October, I wondered "Will some (most? all?) federal prisoners transferred to home confinement be returned to prison after the pandemic ends?".  That post was prompted by this Walter Palvo piece at Forbes reporting on a US Attorney suggesting that persons who BOP placed on home confinement in response to COVID would be returned to prison after the pandemic ended for any remaining time.  Though the end of the pandemic still seems depressingly far away, the outgoing Trump Justice Department addressed this issue last week when the Office of Legal Counsel put out this opinion titled ""Home Confinement of Federal Prisoners After the COVID-19 Emergency."  Here is how it gets started:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (“BOP” or “the Bureau”) has statutory authority to place a prisoner serving a term in a federal prison in home confinement for the concluding portion of his sentence. See 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c)(2).  In connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress expanded the authority of the Director of BOP to place federal prisoners in home confinement earlier than that statutory period.  See Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Pub. L. No. 116-136, § 12003(b)(2), 134 Stat. 281, 516 (2020) (“CARES Act”).  The question is what happens to these prisoners once the pandemic emergency ends.  At that time, some inmates will have completed their sentences or be sufficiently close to the end to be eligible for home confinement.  Other inmates, however, may have a substantial time to go before becoming eligible.  Although the pandemic emergency remains ongoing, the issue arises because BOP must plan for an eventuality where it might need to return a significant number of prisoners to correctional facilities.

We conclude that the CARES Act authorizes the Director of BOP to place prisoners in home confinement only during the statute’s covered emergency period and when the Attorney General finds that the emergency conditions are materially affecting BOP’s functioning.  See id.  Should that period end, or should the Attorney General revoke the finding, the Bureau would be required to recall the prisoners to correctional facilities unless they are otherwise eligible for home confinement under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c)(2).  We also conclude that the general imprisonment authorities of 18 U.S.C. § 3621(a) and (b) do not supplement the CARES Act authority to authorize home confinement under the Act beyond the limits of section 3624(c)(2).

I had assumed that BOP might have some discretion to keep persons on home confinement whenever we emerged from the pandemic; but this OLC opinion asserts that BOP has no discretion in this matter and thus "would be required to recall the prisoners to correctional facilities unless they are otherwise eligible for home confinement."  This opinion is certain contestable, the new Biden Justice Department could reconsider it and a court might reject it, and we are surely a long ways from reaching a post-pandemic world.  Nevertheless, as FAMM's Kevin Ring explains in this Twitter thread, this OLC opinion could cause lots of heartache and worry for lots of persons on home confinement and their families.

Persons on home confinement are those that BOP generally determined posed little risk to public safety and that were at high risk of COVID and so likely older and less healthy relative to most other prisoners.  And, since the BOP has had discretion to return these persons to prison for misbehavior while in home confinement, it is hard to see a compelling public safety justification for sending all these individuals back to prison post-pandemic.  But if extant law is interpreted to require BOP to recall all these folks, policy arguments alone cannot fix this legal reality.

But even if this particular interpretation of BOP authority under the CARES Act were to persist, there are multiple means to address these matters.  Most obviously, Congress could modify the applicable statutes to clearly give BOP discretion to keep persons on home confinement.  And even without congressional action to address this problem, the other two branches could step in: Prez Biden could grant a kind of conditional clemency and/or district courts could grant compassionate release to keep these folks on home confinement.  Walto Palvo discusses these matters further in this new Forbes piece, which concludes with this fitting sentence: "One thing is for sure, the pandemic is not over but discussions on how to handle inmates currently on home confinement is something that should begin now."

January 21, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Timely reminder that Congress has a critical role to play in reforming clemency conditions

Former US pardon attorney Margaret Colgate Love has this great new Washington Post piece highlighting that Congress can and should create statutory record relief mechanisms (as nearly all states have) in order to prevent clemency from serving as the only means for persons with federal criminal records to find relief.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The core problem that has led to pardon’s abuse is that the justice system has relied too heavily on an authority that is inherently arbitrary and unfair.

Thus, the law makes the president exclusively responsible — through his pardon power — for shortening most federal prison sentences and relieving the collateral consequences of conviction — functions that in most states are now routinely performed by judges and agencies under statutory schemes.  For example, a presidential pardon is the only way a person convicted of a federal felony can qualify for many business and professional licenses, or regain the right to possess firearms.  Indeed, I have been told — and my own practice would confirm — that a desire to regain firearms rights accounts for nearly half of the pardon applications filed.  It is beyond absurd to make the president a one-person gun-licensing bureau for people convicted of nonviolent federal crimes who want to go hunting again....

I do not advocate curtailing the president’s pardon power, and the Biden administration can decide how it wishes to administer that power.  I hope it will restore at least the appearance of fairness and regularity to the way applications from ordinary people are considered (even if the process will continue to function, as it always has, more or less like a lottery)....

The alternative to systematic reliance on pardoning is what Daniel J. Freed described 20 years ago as “the more demanding road toward democratic reform.”  The incoming administration should urge Congress to offload many of pardon’s exclusive functions onto the legal system by enacting robust statutory relief mechanisms, for those in prison and for those who have fully served their sentences, as a majority of states have done in recent years....

In other words, Congress should enact laws to provide alternative ways of handling much of the routine business that is currently overwhelming the pardon process, ideally using the federal courts. It has already begun this work in the 2018 First Step Act, which gives federal prisoners the ability to go back to court to seek reduction of their sentences.

If the pardon process were not bogged down by thousands of petitions from people who simply want to restore lost rights or improve their employment prospects, the president would be free to use the constitutional power in a far more expansive and policy-oriented manner to encourage reform of the justice system, to counter its overreaches and to tell good news about its operation through stories of successful rehabilitation.

In the end, Trump’s abuse of his pardon power could be seen as a blessing in disguise if it provides the opportunity to wean the federal criminal justice system from its dependence upon presidential action for routine relief. Only if freed from its more workaday responsibilities can pardon play the constructive role the Framers intended.

I sense that record relief reform has been a truly bipartisan endeavor in states from coast to coast in reent years. The Biden Administration and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle might be wise to start its criminal justice reform efforts here.

January 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Reviewing some notable data after a notably final clemency flourish by Prez Trump

A few months ago, I noted in this post a Pew Research Center piece, "So far, Trump has granted clemency less frequently than any president in modern history," which assailed then Prez Trump’s "sparse use" of his clemency powers as of Nov 2020.  At that time, I called the Pew piece a bit unfair because it compared Trump's record in his (then-not-complete) first term to mostly two-term Presidents.  I also noted that Prez Trump had already granted more clemencies in his first term than had Prez Obama or Prez George W. Bush at a comparable point in their first terms and that some more clemencies were surely to come.

Sure enough, after a bunch of pre-Christmas grants and a final big group of pardons and commutations, (former) President Trump's clemency record might now be reasonably described as fairly substantial.  Though I wish he had done a lot more, and while I still recall getting way too excited back in 2018 when Prez Trump said he was considering 3000 people for clemency, some basic data make the case for him being a significant user of his clemency powers.  Of course, there are ample grounds for criticizing the substantive decisions and the opaque process surrounding  Prez Trump's use of his historic clemency power.  But reviewing the raw numbers with an eye on the modern history of clemency highlights that it is no longer accurate to even suggest Trump's use of this power was sparse. 

Specifically, according to the data on this Justice Department "Clemency Statistics" page (which seems up-to-date but may be an undercount), Prez Trump is reported to have granted in his four years in the Oval Office a total of 206 clemencies in the form of 117 pardons and 89 commutations.  Even that number (which may be a bit low) amounts to nearly three times as many clemencies as our last one-term president: Prez George H.W. Bush granted only 77 total clemencies during his four years in office.  Indeed, in only one term, Prez Trump's used his clemency pen even more than Prez George W. Bush did over two full terms as he granted only 200 total clemencies during his entire eight years in office.

Given that Prez Trump was often eager to lay claim to a Reagan legacy, it is notable that Prez Trump can lay claim to using his clemency powers more in his first term in office than any president since Ronald Reagan.  As clemency fans may know, Prez Reagan was something of a marker of two different clemency eras: nearly every president before Reagan used his clemency powers more than nearly every president after Reagan (e.g., Prez Nixon alone used his clemency power more in roughly five years than both Prez Bushes and Prez Clinton combined over 20 years).  Prez Barack Obama is the one exception to the ugly modern story of relative clemency disuse because of his remarkable second-term commutation project, but that valuable program was still relatively modest if measured against the massive size of the modern federal prison population.

A focus on commutations makes the clemency record of Prez Trump perhaps especially notable.  Leaving Prez Obama out of the analysis, Prez Trump's 89 commutations amount to more federal prison commutations granted than any other president since Prez Lyndon Johnson and amount to more prison commutations granted than any Republican president since Herbert Hoover!  

Because so much of Prez Trump's early use of his clemency powers was overtly political and/or self-serving, I do not want to be misunderstood as unduly praising how Prez Trump used these critical powers of justice and mercy.  But I do want to strongly embrace the sentiments in this recent Slate commentary and headline: "The Presidential Pardon Power Is Good: Trump abused it, but clemency remains an indispensable tool that should be used more often, not less."  As Mark Joseph Stern put it even before the last round of grants: 

[A] jaundiced view of clemency is understandable.  It is also misguided.  The pardon power exists for a very good reason, and its exploitation at the hands of crooks and con men should not give cause for its eradication.  It is not some obsolete relic from a simpler era, but a vital safeguard against unjust convictions and disproportionate sentences.  The United States’ federal prisons are filled with good citizens who have no business being behind bars.  It is unfortunate that Trump has overlooked these individuals in favor of his vile cronies.  It would be catastrophic if Trump’s actions prevented future presidents from using the pardon power to free the people who actually deserve clemency.

Thankfully, in his final batch of 143 clemencies, the ratio of deserving individuals to cronies seemed a lot better than in early rounds.  Regular readers know I have been advocating for reform of the clemency process for more than a decade, and I hope that becomes the focal point for continued calls for reform.  But imperfect and even poor use of the clemency power still seems to me better than no use at all.  I still wish Prez Trump did a lot more and a lot better with his clemency power, but now it is time to focus on urging Prez Biden to do a lot more and a lot better with this power ASAP.

A few of many recent related posts:

UPDATEThere is now an updated version of the Pew Research Center piece available here under the headline "Trump used his clemency power sparingly despite a raft of late pardons and commutations."

January 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Prez Trump grants 73 pardons and 70 commutations in final hours in office

As detailed in this official statement, Prez Trump has "granted pardons to 73 individuals and commuted the sentences of an additional 70 individuals."  The list of recipients strikes me as notably diverse, with some well-known names sure to cause controversy (e.g., Steve Bannon) as well as plenty of lesser-known individuals.  Here are just a few on the names on the list catching my eye upon first review: 

John Knock – President Trump commuted the sentence of John Knock.  This commutation is supported by his family.  Mr. Knock is a 73 year-old man, a first-time, non-violent marijuana only offender, who has served 24 years of a life sentence....

Michael Pelletier – President Trump commuted the sentence of Michael Pelletier.  Mr. Pelletier is a 64 year-old who has served 12 years of a 30 year sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana....

Craig Cesal – President Trump commuted the sentence of Craig Cesal.  Mr. Cesal is a father of two, one of whom unfortunately passed away while he was serving his life sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana....

Chalana McFarland – President Trump commuted the sentence of Chalana McFarland.  Ms. McFarland has served 15 years of a 30-year sentence....

Chris Young – President Trump commuted the remaining sentence of Chris Young.  This commutation is supported by the Honorable Kevin H. Sharp, Mr. Young’s sentencing judge, former law enforcement officials and Federal prosecutors, and multitudes of criminal justice reform advocates....

Amy Povah – President Trump granted a full pardon to Amy Povah, the founder of the CAN-DO (Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders) Foundation.  In the 1990s, Ms. Povah served 9 years of a 24 year sentence for a drug offense before President Clinton commuted her remaining prison sentence in 2000.  Since her release, she has become a voice for the incarcerated, a champion for criminal justice reform, and was a strong advocate for the passage of the First Step Act....

Kwame Kilpatrick – President Trump commuted the sentence of the former Mayor of Detroit, Kwame Malik Kilpatrick. This commutation is strongly supported by prominent members of the Detroit community, Alveda King, Alice Johnson, Diamond and Silk, Pastor Paula White, Peter Karmanos, Representative Sherry Gay-Dagnogo of the Michigan House of Representatives, Representative Karen Whitsett of the Michigan House of Representatives, and more than 30 faith leaders....

Dwayne Michael Carter Jr. – President Trump granted a full pardon to Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., also known as “Lil Wayne.”  Mr. Carter pled guilty to possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon, owing to a conviction over 10 years ago....

Shalom Weiss – President Trump commuted the sentence of Shalom Weiss.  This commutation is supported by former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese, former Solicitors General Ken Starr and Seth Waxman, former United States Representative Bob Barr, numerous members of the New York legislature, notable legal figures such as Professor Alan Dershowitz and Jay Sekulow, former U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman, and various other former elected officials. 

There are many more notable names on this last big clemency list, and it certainly seems like there are many more deserving cases than undeserving ones this time around.  I expect we will be hearing a lot more about some of these recipients, both good and bad, in the days ahead.  But because thislist maeks the end of the Trump term, it is now time to turn to urging the Biden Administration to do more and more grants and to adopt a new and improved clemency process.

January 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Some news and notes and rulings on federal compassionate release

I know that lots of people are eagerly awaiting the reported forthcoming list of clemency grants from Prez Trump on his last full day in office (including, it seems, Joe Exotic).  As we wait, I have noticed a number of recent pieces about so-called compassionate relief motions in the federal system, a mechanism which serves as a means now for federal judges to modify the prison sentences of some federal prisoners.  Here is a round up of some of these new pieces, included a few discussing grants and denials of compassionate release to notable individuals:

From Law360, "Pandemic Is Changing Compassionate Release Calculus"

From Colorado Politics, "Federal judges in Colorado denied overwhelming majority of requests to release inmates for COVID-19"

From Uerweb, "Bill Underwood is FREE! Former Music Exec Granted Compassionate Release from Prison After 33 Years"

From the AP, "Jailed kids-for-cash judge loses bid for pandemic release"

From Reuters, "U.S. judge rejects 'Pharma Bro' Shkreli's bid for compassionate release from prison"

January 19, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 18, 2021

Hoping for a lot more "regular" folks on Prez Trump's coming final clemency list

CNN has this big new piece about Prez Trump's clemency plans under the headline "Trump to issue around 100 pardons and commutations Tuesday, sources say."  There is a lot of interesting reporting in this piece, and here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump is preparing to issue around 100 pardons and commutations on his final full day in office Tuesday, according to three people familiar with the matter, a major batch of clemency actions that includes white collar criminals, high-profile rappers and others but -- as of now -- is not expected to include Trump himself.

The White House held a meeting on Sunday to finalize the list of pardons, two sources said.

Trump, who had been rolling out pardons and commutations at a steady clip ahead of Christmas, had put a pause on them in the days leading up to and directly after the January 6 riots at the US Capitol, according to officials. Aides said Trump was singularly focused on the Electoral College count in the days ahead of time, precluding him for making final decisions on pardons. White House officials had expected them to resume after January 6, but Trump retreated after he was blamed for inciting the riots.

Initially, two major batches had been ready to roll out, one at the end of last week and one on Tuesday. Now, officials expect the last batch to be the only one -- unless Trump decides at the last minute to grant pardons to controversial allies, members of his family or himself.

The final batch of clemency actions is expected to include a mix of criminal justice reform-minded pardons and more controversial ones secured or doled out to political allies....

The January 6 riots that led to Trump's second impeachment have complicated his desire to pardon himself, his kids and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. At this point, aides do not think he will do so, but caution only Trump knows what he will do with his last bit of presidential power before he is officially out of office at noon on January 20....

Other attention-grabbing names, like Julian Assange, are also not currently believed to among the people receiving pardons, but the list is still fluid and that could change, too. It's also not certain whether Trump's former adviser Steve Bannon will receive a pardon....

The expectation among allies is that Trump will issue pardons that he could benefit from post presidency. "Everything is a transaction. He likes pardons because it is unilateral. And he likes doing favors for people he thinks will owe him," one source familiar with the matter said....

Inside the White House, there has been a scramble to petition for pardons on behalf of allies and advocacy groups and names could be added and taken off up until the last minute, sources say.  CNN previously reported there has been a crush of pardon requests during Trump's final days in office from allies, lobbyists and others hoping to cash in on their loyalty to Trump.  The New York Times reported Sunday some of those people were getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to lobby on behalf of felons hoping for pardons.

Regular readers know I have been hoping Prez Trump in his final days in office might make regular use of his clemency power to give relief to the many regular people who ought to benefit from executive relief in the form of a commutation and/or pardon.  But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems his ugly efforts to contest the election results and the additional ugliness he inspired on January 6 kept him from giving sustained attention to his last meaningful opportunity to use his presidential powers in a potent way.  Prez Trump often claimed to be concerned with "forgotten" Americans.  Federal prisoners without celebrity status or famous advocates are surely among those forgotten, and they are now enduring an extended lock-down thanks to Prez Trump's "stop the steal" shenanigans.  I sure hope more than a few of these forgotten folks make the final clemency cut.

Barring a pleasant surprise from the final round of grants, it seems likely that Prez Trump's clemency legacy will have been to demonstrate how this historic constitutional power can be used primarily to garner attention and score political points rather than to actually do justice or show mercy.  That said, despite some crass cases, Prez Trump has already issued at least a few grants that, as I see it, did effectively advance justice and/or show mercy.  (The Alice Marie Johnson case is most obvious, but I count a few dozen others.)  I hope we see a final Trumpian flourish in the spirit of justice and mercy, and I hope the momentum for clemency reform continues to advance some structural reforms in the next administration that could improve clemency decision-making and the advancement of justice and mercy for many years to come.

A few recent related posts:

January 18, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Might Prez Trump announce his next round of clemency grants this weekend?

The question in this post is prompted by this Politico article headlined "Trump weighing a pardon for Steve Bannon." The start of the article suggests that some actually were expected some action on the clemency front last night:

President Donald Trump is considering granting a pardon to Steve Bannon, his former White House chief strategist and top campaign aide, who was charged with swindling donors to a private crowdsourcing effort to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The potential pardon would follow a wave of reprieves the president has recently granted to political allies who have been convicted, charged or reportedly under federal investigation. Two additional batches of pardons are expected — one on Friday night and one Wednesday morning before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office, according to one of the people.

I have been wondering in recent days about how the Capitol riot and Prez Trump's second impeachment might be impacting his clemency plans (and they advice he may be getting from his remaining advisors). Ultimately, I have given up making Trumpian predictions, but these recent articles reveal we can readily predict that Prez Trump will keep recieving clemency requests:

From The Daily Beast, "‘QAnon Shaman’ Seeks Trump Pardon for Riot, Says President Invited Him"

From Newsweek, "Jenna Ryan, Who Took Jet to Capitol Riot, Asks Donald Trump for a Pardon"

A few recent related posts:

UPDATE: These new stories highlight the Trumpian realities already shaping the clemency:

From The Guardian, "Giuliani associate told ex-CIA officer a Trump pardon would 'cost $2m’ – report"

From the New York Times, "Prospect of Pardons in Final Days Fuels Market to Buy Access to Trump"

Here are portions of the NYTimes piece:

As President Trump prepares to leave office in days, a lucrative market for pardons is coming to a head, with some of his allies collecting fees from wealthy felons or their associates to push the White House for clemency, according to documents and interviews with more than three dozen lobbyists and lawyers....

Legal scholars and some pardon lawyers shudder at the prospect of such moves, as well as the specter of Mr. Trump’s friends and allies offering to pursue pardons for others in exchange for cash.

“This kind of off-books influence peddling, special-privilege system denies consideration to the hundreds of ordinary people who have obediently lined up as required by Justice Department rules, and is a basic violation of the longstanding effort to make this process at least look fair,” said Margaret Love, who ran the Justice Department’s clemency process from 1990 until 1997 as the United States pardon attorney....

Few regulations or disclosure requirements govern presidential clemency grants or lobbying for them, particularly by lawyers, and there is nothing illegal about Trump associates being paid to lobby for clemency.  Any explicit offers of payment to the president in return could be investigated as possible violations of bribery laws; no evidence has emerged that Mr. Trump was offered money in exchange for a pardon.

Some who used resources or connections to try to get to Mr. Trump say clemency should be granted to more people, independent of their clout.

January 16, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Montana Supreme Court talks through juve LWOP resentencing after Miller

This past Friday, the Montana Supreme Court handed down a notable ruling (with lots of opinions) on the application of the US Supreme Court's juvenile LWOP sentencing jurisprudence and related issues.  The main opinion and various concurring and dissenting opinions in Montana v. Keefe, No. 2021 MT 8 (Mont. Jan. 8, 2021) (available here), all make for interesting reads.  Here are some of the essentials from the majority opinion: 

We agree with the Briones court that post-offense evidence of rehabilitation is clearly required to be considered by a court resentencing a juvenile who is serving a sentence of life without parole.  Because Miller commands a resentencing court to consider “the possibility of rehabilitation” before a juvenile can lawfully be sentenced to life without parole, evidence of rehabilitation in the years since the original crime must be considered by the resentencing court.  This is consistent with the sentencing policy of Montana which does not merely provide for punishment, protection of the public, and restitution, but also for rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders back into the community....

Although we have determined the District Court erred in determining Keefe was “irreparably corrupt” and “permanently incorrigible” and are reversing his sentence on that basis, we must address whether the issue of the irreparable corruption of a minor is a fact which must be found by a jury.  Keefe has argued, pursuant to Apprendi, that he is constitutionally entitled to have a jury determine whether he is, in fact, “irreparably corrupt” before a possible life without parole sentence.  We disagree....

Here, neither “irreparable corruption” nor “permanent incorrigibility” are facts which could increase a possible sentence.  Rather, youth is a mitigating factor which can reduce the possible sentence for deliberate homicide in Montana.  In accordance with Miller and Steilman, a jury is not required to determine irreparable corruption and permanent incorrigibility — that determination is properly left to the resentencing judge.

January 10, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Blakely in the Supreme Court, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 09, 2021

SCOTUS grants cert on four new criminal cases, including one on FIRST STEP Act retroactivity of reduced crack sentences

The Supreme Court last night issued this order list which grants review in 14 new cases that will be heard later this SCOTUS Term.  Four of the cases involve criminal issues, and one is a sentencing case concerning the reach and application of the FIRST STEP Act's provisions making the reduced crack sentences of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  This SCOTUSblog post has a lot more about the sentencing case and a brief review of the others:

In Terry v. United States, the justices agreed to weigh in on a technical sentencing issue that has significant implications for thousands of inmates: whether a group of defendants who were sentenced for low-level crack-cocaine offenses before Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are eligible for resentencing under the First Step Act of 2018. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced (but did not eliminate) the disparity in sentences for convictions involving crack and powder cocaine, and the First Step Act made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  The specific question that the court agreed to decide is whether the changes made by the First Step Act extend to inmates convicted of the most minor crack-cocaine offenses.

In a “friend of the court” brief urging the justices to grant review in another case presenting the same question, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers explained that the lower courts are divided on this question; as a result, NACDL wrote, Supreme Court review is necessary “to prevent thousands of predominately Black defendants from being forced to spend years longer in prison than identically situated defendants” elsewhere in the country “and to ensure that Congress’s goal of alleviating the racial disparities in sentencing caused by the 1986 law’s harsh sentencing regime is realized.”

Other grants on Friday are:

  • Greer v. United States: Whether, when applying plain-error review based on an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, a court of appeals can look at matters outside the trial record to determine whether the error affected a defendant’s substantial rights or affected the trial’s fairness, integrity or public reputation....
  • United States v. Palomar-Santiago: Whether charges that a non-citizen illegally reentered the United States should be dismissed when the non-citizen’s removal was based on the misclassification of a prior conviction....
  • United States v. Gary: Whether a defendant who pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm is automatically entitled to plain-error relief if the district court did not advise him that one element of that offense is knowing that he is a felon.

January 9, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Gearing up for Prez Trump's coming final round of clemency grants

Prez Trump's ignominious behavior raises uncertainty as to whether he will serve out the last two weeks of his term.  But we can all be certain that Prez Trump is planning to issue more clemency grants before he loses the power to do so.  As everyone surely recalls, just before Christmas, Prez Trump granted clemency to all sorts of friends and family and politically-charged defendants (basics here and here).  And recent press reports detail other grants that could be forthcoming. 

First, this new New York Times piece, headlined "Trump Is Said to Have Discussed Pardoning Himself," cover the one particular possible pardon sure to generate the most buzz and controversy.  But I am even more intrigued by this new Bloomberg piece, headlined "Trump Prepares Pardon List for Aides and Family, and Maybe Himself," which discusses more fully other grants that may be in the works.  Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump has prepared a sweeping list of individuals he’s hoping to pardon in the final days of his administration that includes senior White House officials, family members, prominent rappers -- and possibly himself, according to people familiar with the matter.

Trump is hoping to announce the pardons on Jan. 19 -- his final full day in office -- and his ideas are currently being vetted by senior advisers and the White House counsel’s office, the people said....

He’s also considering a traditional pardon for Albert Pirro, who previously worked with the president on real estate deals and was convicted of tax fraud. Pirro is the ex-husband of Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, a former district attorney of Westchester County in New York.

Trump is similarly considering pardoning celebrities including rapper Lil Wayne -- with whom he posed for a photo during the presidential campaign --as well as rapper Kodak Black, who is serving time for falsifying paperwork to obtain a firearm.

Other prominent celebrities including rapper Lil Yachty and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson have publicly lobbied Trump to pardon Kodak Black, who said in a now-deleted tweet that he would donate $1 million to charity if the president freed him.

Trump’s list is currently being vetted by lawyers who are concerned that pardons could create new allegations of obstruction of justice for members of the administration. The process is being managed in part by White House Counsel Pat Cipollone. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While some of the proposed pardons have moved through the legal steps needed inside the White House, the idea of a self-pardon is far less developed, the people say, and so far only at the discussion stage.

I am hopeful, but not really optimistic, that there will be some good number of final Trumpian clemency grants for persons who are not well-connected or famous.  Whether there are or not, I hope Prez-elect Biden comes into office understanding that the best way to restore faith in the pardon power could be by using it right away to advance justice and mercy rather than parochial personal privilege.

A few recent related posts:

January 7, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sixth Circuit panel reiterates "district courts have discretion to define 'extraordinary and compelling' on their own initiative" for 3582(c)(1)(A) motions

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss another recent notable Sixth Circuit ruling discussing the reach and application of the compassionate release provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  A couple of months ago, as noted in this post, a Sixth Circuit's panel handed down US v. Jones, No. 20-3701 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here), to become then only the second circuit to rule expressly that district courts now have broad discretion to determine what now qualifies as "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction now that federal courts can 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.  Yesterday, a distinct Sixth Circuit panel reiterated this important doctrinal reality in  US v. Elias, No. 20-3654 (6th Cir. Jan. 6, 2021) (available here).

Notably, the Elias decision ultimately affirmed a district court's decision not to grant a defendant any reduction in sentence.  But the ruling usefully restated the broad authority of district courts in this arena.  Here is some of that discussion:

This Court recently spoke on that question [of whether the existing sentencing guideline confines district court authority], stating that § 1B1.13 is not an applicable policy statement for compassionate-release motions brought directly by inmates.  Jones, 980 F.3d at 1108–11.  The text of the guideline, along with the clear congressional purpose in the First Step Act of removing the BOP from its gatekeeping role, led this Court to its conclusion.  See id. (discussing the purpose of the First Step Act and noting that “[t]he first sentence of § 1B1.13 predicates the entire policy statement on the Director of the BOP’s filing a motion for compassionate release”).  The statement in Jones that § 1B1.13 was inapplicable to inmate-filed compassionate-release motions aligned with the Second Circuit, the first Circuit to rule on the matter, as well as the majority of district courts.  See Brooker, 976 F.3d at 234.  Since Jones, the Seventh Circuit and Fourth Circuit have reached the same conclusion.  See United States v. Gunn, 980 F.3d 1178, 1180 (7th Cir. 2020); McCoy, 981 F.3d at 281–82.

Thus, there has emerged a newfound consensus among the courts, and the government provides no compelling reason for us to disturb the consensus of our sister Circuits. Therefore, we hold that § 1B1.13 is not an applicable policy statement for compassionate-release motions brought directly by inmates, and so district courts need not consider it when ruling on those motions.  Further, we clarify that, as in Jones and Ruffin, district courts may deny compassionate-release motions when any of the three prerequisites listed in § 3582(c)(1)(A) is lacking and do not need to address the others....  And, in the absence of an applicable policy statement for inmate-filed compassionate-release motions, district courts have discretion to define “extraordinary and compelling” on their own initiative.  See Jones, 980 F.3d at 1111; Ruffin, 978 F.3d at 1007 (suggesting that without an “‘applicable’ policy statement for motions by defendants . . . district court[s] may freely identify extraordinary and compelling reasons”).

A few of many, many prior related posts:

January 7, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 02, 2021

DC Circuit panel upholds January 12 execution date for only woman on federal death row

Just before Christmas, as noted in this post, a federal district judge vacated an order from the director of the Bureau of Prisons that had set Lisa Montgomery’s execution date for January 12.  But, on New Year's Day, a DC Circuit panel issued this order putting the execution back on track.  This CNN article about the ruling provides some context:

Montgomery's execution had been scheduled for December 8, but a judge postponed it after her attorneys said they were diagnosed with Covid-19 after flying from Texas to visit with Montgomery at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana.

On November 23, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Michael Carvajal, rescheduled Montgomery's execution for January 12.  Friday's order said he was acting under the "governing regulation," which allowed him to reschedule the execution because the original execution date had not passed.  The order said he was acting under the law, clearing the way for Montgomery's execution later this month.

Montgomery's attorney, Meaghan VerGow, said in a statement that she disagrees with the judges and is going to file a petition for them to reconsider their decision.  The judges gave VerGow until Saturday to file. "The federal government must be required to follow the law in setting any execution date, as the district court correctly held ... Given everything we know about Lisa Montgomery's mental illness, her lifetime of horrific torture and trauma, and the many people in positions of authority who could have intervened to save her but never did, there can be no principled reason to carry out her execution," VerGow said.  "The government should stop its relentless efforts to end her life."...

The Trump administration has overseen 10 federal executions in the final months of his presidency, the most in a single year in the United States in decades, and a revival after years of having none.  Montgomery would be the first woman executed by the US government since 1953.

In 2004, Montgomery was convicted of strangling a Missouri woman who was eight months pregnant, then cutting out and kidnapping the baby.  The baby survived.

The last woman executed by the US government was Bonnie Brown Heady in 1953, according to US Bureau of Prisons records, for kidnapping and murder.  The US also famously executed Ethel Rosenberg that same year for espionage.

I suspect Montgomery's lawyers will pursue further appeals. But, in lots of prior federal capital cases in recent months, appeals courts (including the Supreme COurt) have consistently refected efforts to slow down the federal machinery of death.

January 2, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 01, 2021

Reviewing CJUTF Recommendations: when and how might Biden Administration create an independent clemency board?

Right after the election, I blogged a bit (here and here) about some criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force (available here pp. 56-62); I stressed in one of those posts that Prez-elect Biden could get started right away in implementing recommendations calling for creating a new "Task Force on Prosecutorial Discretion" and a "Clemency Board."  Especially with so much clemency chatter as Prez Trump's term comes to a close, I am eager to again amplify attention on the clemency recommendation.  Helpfully, this lengthy new Bloomberg piece, headlined "Biden Gets Unlikely Advice on Pardons: Copy Trump, Sideline DOJ," provides some useful background and context.  Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump’s pardons of some of his closest allies have sparked a political firestorm, but criminal justice reform advocates believe he has done one thing right: sideline the Department of Justice from clemency decisions.  But rather than use that control the way Trump has, those advocates want to see President-elect Joe Biden use it to help non-violent drug offenders with questionable convictions or harsh sentences.  Relying on the DOJ’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to review and make recommendations on clemency requests, they say, is bureaucratic and puts those decisions in the hands of the department that put the offenders behind bars....

Biden’s criminal justice plan proposes a number of reforms and says he will “broadly use his clemency power for certain non-violent and drug crimes.” The campaign would not comment past the plan’s language.  In addition to removing the sole oversight of the Office of the Pardon Attorney, Biden could improve the process by creating a permanent independent advisory panel that includes criminal justice reform activists, defense attorneys and pardoned convicted offenders, alongside federal prosecutors, supporters say.

“It should certainly include people who are formerly incarcerated because they know that walk better than anybody,” said Cynthia W. Roseberry, deputy director of policy in the Justice Division of the American Civil Liberties Union.  “Also include criminal justice reform experts and members of the community who can opine about the fact that we want people to come home.  I’m not suggesting leaving DOJ out,” Roseberry added.  “They can definitely have a prosecutor at the table.  But it should look like the community.”

Though the Biden campaign language does not commit to creating a new clemency infrastructure, the criminal justice reform recommendations from the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force expressly proposes doing so:

Clemency Board: To avoid possible institutional bias and ensure people have a fair and independent evaluation, establish an independent clemency board, composed and staffed by people with diverse backgrounds.  Expand Obama-era criteria for proactive clemency initiative to address individuals serving excess sentences.

Long-time readers should not be surprised to hear me vocally advocate for a clemency board given that way back in 2010, I urged then-Prez Obama to structurally change the federal clemency system in this law review article titled "Turning Hope-and-Change Talk Into Clemency Action for Nonviolent Drug Offenders."  Here is a snippet from that piece:

President Obama ought to seriously consider creating some form of a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar."...  Though a "Clemency Commission" headed by a "clemency czar" could be created and developed in any number of ways, ... [the] basic idea is ... to create a special expert body, headed by a special designated official, who is primarily tasked with helping federal officials (and perhaps also state officials) improve the functioning, transparency, and public respect for executive clemency.  Though the structure, staffing, and mandates of a Clemency Commission could take many forms, ideally it would include personnel with expertise about the nature of and reasons for occasional miscarriages of justice in the operation of modem criminal justice systems — persons who possess a deep understanding that, in the words of James Iredell, "an inflexible adherence to [severe criminal laws], in every instance, might frequently be the cause of very great injustice."

Many others have been talking for many years in many better ways about the idea of an DOJ-independent clemency board or commission, and I especially think of the tireless work of Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler in promoting an improved clemency infrastructure (see, e.g., here and here and here and here).  And I want to here promote all ideas about clemency reform because I now believe when the Biden Administration gives attention to this matter is much more important than exactly how. 

As I noted in this recent post, among the many problems with the modern exercise of the federal clemency power is the modern tendency for Presidents to entirely ignore this power until late in their terms.  As detailed in this DOJ data, Prez Trump at least thought to use his clemency power, and did so nearly a dozen times, during his first couple years in office; Barack Obama and George W. Bush and Bill Clinton could not be bothered to pick up the clemency pen for a single individual during their first two calendar years in office.  If clemency work and reform is not made a priority in the weeks and months ahead, I fear that real reforms are unlikely to get done at all. 

At this moment, I am drawn to the notion of starting with a "clemency czar," particularly because appointing one initial advisor should be easier and quicker than creating a full clemency board.  And the aforementioned Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler and Cynthia Roseberry are all great names surely ready to serve in this role on day one.  And while ruminating on this topic, other great names of great people long doing great work in the criminal justice space come to mind, like Michelle Alexander and David Singleton and Bryan Stevenson.  (Heck, add in folks like Weldon Angelos, Brittany Barnett, Beth Curtis, Mark Holden, Shon Hopwood, Jessica Jackson and Amy Povah, and I guess it is not too hard to quickly envision a "Dream Team" for a badly-needed clemency board.) 

Some (of many) prior recent related posts on clemency reform:

Some prior related posts on CJUTF recommendations:

January 1, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Two notable end-of-year state supreme court rulings for criminal defendants on sentencing matters

This week has brought two notable new state Supreme Court rulings from the coasts on sentencing issues.  Here are press reports and parts of the starts of the opinions:

From the Boston Globe, "SJC: Judges can grant probation in some 'three strikes' cases"

From the start of the ruling in Massachusetts v. Montarvo, No. SJC-12905 (Mass. Dec 29, 2020):

Colloquially referred to as the "three strikes" law, the habitual offender statute, G. L. c. 279, § 25, enhances the penalty for a defendant who, after two prior convictions resulting in State or Federal prison sentences of three or more years, receives a third felony conviction.  This case requires us to determine whether § 25 (a) of the law allows sentencing judges to impose probation on defendants who fall within its ambit.  We conclude that it does.

From the Los Angeles Times, "Sex offenders can qualify for early parole, California Supreme Court rules"

From the start of the ruling in In re Gadlin, No. S254599 (Cal. Dec. 28, 2020):

In November 2016, the California electorate approved Proposition 57, the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016.  The initiative amended the California Constitution to provide, in relevant part, that “[a]ny person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense.” (Cal. Const., art. I, § 32, subd. (a)(1) (article I, section 32(a)(1)).)  The initiative also directed the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (the Department) to “adopt regulations in furtherance of these provisions” and instructed the Secretary of the Department to “certify that these regulations protect and enhance public safety.” (Art. I, § 32, subd. (b) (article I, section 32(b)).)

The Department adopted regulations implementing a nonviolent offender parole consideration process.  Those regulations exclude from nonviolent offender parole consideration any inmate who “is convicted of a sexual offense that currently requires or will require registration as a sex offender under the Sex Offender Registration Act, codified in Sections 290 through 290.024 of the Penal Code.” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 3491, subd. (b)(3) [governing determinately sentenced offenders]; see also id., § 3496, subd. (b) [governing indeterminately sentenced offenders].)

We granted review to address the validity of these provisions.  The Department asserts it is authorized by article I, section 32(b) to exclude from nonviolent offender parole consideration all inmates convicted of a registerable sex offense, regardless of whether that offense is defined by the regulations as a nonviolent felony and regardless of whether the inmate is currently incarcerated for that conviction.  Indeed, the Department’s regulations categorize inmates convicted of a registerable sex offense as “nonviolent offenders” unless, among other criteria, they are currently incarcerated for a violent felony listed in Penal Code section 667.5, subdivision (c). (Cal. Code Regs., §§ 3490, subd. (a), 3491, subds. (a), (b), 3495, subd. (a), 3496, subds. (a), (b).)  Nonetheless, the regulations entirely exclude from nonviolent offender parole consideration inmates previously convicted or currently convicted of any registerable sex offense.  We conclude that this categorical exclusion conflicts with the constitutional directive that inmates “convicted of a nonviolent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration.” (Art. I, § 32(a)(1).)

December 30, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 28, 2020

Noticing the many regular forgotten folk so far left behind in Prez Trump's clemency capers

This new New York Times piece, headlined "Outside Trump’s Inner Circle, Odds Are Long for Getting Clemency," provides a useful reminder of who is largely being forgotten amidst Prez Trump's clemency largesse.  Here are excerpts:

A vast majority of the people to whom he granted pardons or commutations had either a personal or political connection to the White House, and it appears that only seven were recommended by the government’s pardon attorney, according to a Harvard University professor who is tracking the process....

Many who have applied have little chance of clemency under any circumstances.  But those with sentences they contend are excessive and people who have shown remorse and turned their lives around in prison are hoping for mercy.

“We just are hopeful that the president will extend the pardons to people who aren’t rich, wealthy and well-connected — and there’s certainly thousands of them,” said Holly Harris, a Republican who has worked with Mr. Trump on reforms as head of Justice Action Network, a bipartisan criminal justice reform organization.  “There’s certainly still time for the president to use this extraordinary power to help people who are really struggling.”...

Ferrell D. Scott, 57, hopes the president reviews his petition, which shows he is serving life for marijuana trafficking, a sentence that even the federal prosecutor who tried his case said he did not deserve.

John R. Knock, 73, also serving life on a nonviolent marijuana charge, was already rejected by President Barack Obama but tried again with Mr. Trump. He has been in prison since 1996.  “It’s kind of like a competition instead of a legal procedure,” said Mr. Knock’s sister, Beth Curtis, who has advocated on behalf of her brother and other people serving life sentences for marijuana charges.  “It’s a crony system.”

December 28, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Rounding up some (but not enough) state clemency stories this holiday week

With Prez Trump setting quite the clemency pace (basics here and here), it would be nice if I could report here about similar holiday-week grants of pardons and commutations coming from Governors in every single state across the nation.  Sadly, my Google news searches have so far revealed reports of clemency grants from only a handful of states.  But I am still keen to highlight these stories, especially because grants from the Centennial State include a long-ago, high-profile "15 minutes of fame" case:

From Colorado, "Gov. Jared Polis pardons Balloon Boy’s parents, grants clemency to 20 othersGovernor also commutes sentence of white collar criminal who received one of longest prison terms in state history."

From Michigan, "Whitmer grants clemency to 4, including state's 'longest serving non-violent offender'"

From Missouri, "Missouri governor pardons 24, commutes the sentences of four offenders"

From New York, "Governor Cuomo Grants Clemency to 21 Individuals"

From North Carolina, "NC governor pardons 5, including man wrongly imprisoned for 44 years"

From Texas, "Gov. Greg Abbott pardons seven Texans ahead of Christmas"

For those who do not remember the "Balloon Boy" case, here are prior posts about the case from way back in 2009:

December 24, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

A challenge for those troubled by Trump's final month clemencies: identify dozens, hundreds of comparable cases for Biden's first month

It is hardly surprising that Prez Trump has kicked off his final weeks in office with sets of clemency grants that include all sorts of friends and family and politically-charged defendants (basics here and here).  It is perhaps even less surprising that Trump's latest flourish of clemency grants is garnering lots and lots of criticisms from lots and lots of quarters (just a few examples are here and here and here and here and here). 

But particularly notable in the first wave of reaction was US Senator Chris Murphy tweeting here that "It’s time to remove the pardon power from the Constitution."  Many tweeters have pushed back, and Rachel Barkow's tweet thread here is especially effective and I wanted to highlight some of what she says.  I recommend the whole thread, but these portions (with my bolding) partially motivated the title of this post:

[T]he Congress of which he is a part has established no functioning second-look mechanisms for shortening sentences or expunging convictions, commutations and pardons are the only mechanisms for correcting injustices in the federal system.  And it's not as if those injustices are rare.

Go to any federal correctional facility, and take time to learn who is there and about their cases, and you find literally thousands of people whose sentences were grossly excessive given their offenses.  Those people need commutations as a corrective because there is no parole or other second look in place to address that....

Pardons are essential as well because the collateral consequences of convictions can be devastating for people trying to get housing, employment, and education after being convicted. There is no other way to clear a federal conviction than a pardon....

The solution to what's happening now is to get a better leader, which we've done.  And my hope is that leader will see that the pardon power's utility is critical, and he'll show everyone what a real leader does when wielding it.

While I fully understand frustrations with how Prez Trump has been using his pardon power, I think much energy now should go to urging Prez-elect to do better and to do better right away! Among the many problems with the modern exercise of the federal clemency power is the modern tendency for Presidents to entirely ignore this power until late in their terms.  Notably, as detailed in this DOJ data, Prez Trump at least thought to use his clemency power, and did so nearly a dozen times, during his first couple years in office.  Neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush nor Bill Clinton bothered to pick up their clemency pen for a single individual during their first two calendar years in office. 

As regular readers likely know, I think disuse of clemency powers is always a much bigger problem than the misuse of this power.  And disuse, not misuse, has defined the start of modern presidencies.  So this post presents my suggestion for what those troubled by Trump's final month clemencies ought to do — namely help identify for the incoming Biden Administration persons currently in federal prison and/or burdened by a federal conviction who should get a clemency grant during Biden's first month in office because they are at least as worthy as some of Trump's final-month clemency recipients.  Helpfully, Jack Goldsmith and Matthew Gluck have this current list of all Trump clemency recipients, and I would urge advocates to demand that Prez Biden grant many "good" clemencies as he gets situated in the Oval Office to balance Trump's "bad" use of this power on his way out the door.

I will start this process by flagging a group of federal prisoners that should be easy first cases for a Biden Administration, namely the "Life for Pot" crowd.  I do not think it is entirely misguided to describe persons still serving extreme federal terms for marijuana offenses as political prisoners, especially now that so many states have fully legalized marijuana and the US House has likewise voted to do so.  The Life for Pot website spotlights those Serving Sentences of Life without Parole in Federal Prison for Marijuana and those Serving De Facto Life.  I hope Senator Murphy will become an advocate for some of these kinds of prisoners and the thousands more who need the historic clemency power used more and better rather than needing it removed from the Constitution.

December 24, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Prez Trump issues 29 more clemencies on Festivus that include full pardons to Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Charles Kushner

As reported in this CNN piece, "President Donald Trump on Wednesday evening announced 26 new pardons, including ones for longtime ally Roger Stone, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner's father, Charles." Here is a bit more:

Also included in Trump's pardon list Wednesday evening is former California GOP Rep. Duncan Hunter's wife, Margaret, just one day after Trump granted Duncan Hunter a full pardon. Margaret Hunter had pleaded guilty last year to conspiring "knowingly and willingly" to convert campaign funds for personal use.

Beyond the high-profile pardons, Trump also pardoned more than 20 other individuals, including those who had pleaded guilty to various cyber crimes, firearm possession and mail fraud. He also commuted the sentences of three others.

The full statement listing all the recipients of clemency today can be found at this link, and here are just a few (among many) names from the list that caught my eye:

Today, President Donald J. Trump granted Full Pardons to 26 individuals and commuted part or all of the sentences of an additional 3 individuals....

Rickey Kanter — President Trump granted a full pardon to Rickey Kanter. Mr. Kanter was the owner and CEO of Dr. Comfort, a company which manufactures special shoes and inserts for diabetics [who was the focal point of a notable Second Amendment case that then-Judge Amy Barrett dissented in]....

Topeka Sam — President Trump granted a full pardon to Topeka Sam....

Daniela Gozes-Wagner — President Trump commuted the sentence and restitution order imposed upon Ms. Gozes-Wagner [who raised strong claims that she was subject to a trial penalty at sentencing].

December 23, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Prez Trump issues 15 full pardons and 5 commutations on Festivus eve

As detailed in this White House press release, titled "Statement from the Press Secretary Regarding Executive Grants of Clemency," Prez Trump issued a set of notable clemency grants this evening.  Here are the basics from the statement:

Today, President Donald J. Trump granted Full Pardons to 15 individuals and commuted part or all of the sentences of an additional 5 individuals.

Alfonso Costa — President Trump granted a full pardon to Alfonso Costa, a dentist from Pittsburgh...

Alfred Lee Crum — President Trump granted Alfred Lee Crum a full pardon....

Crystal Munoz — Today, President Trump commuted Crystal Munoz’s remaining term of supervised release, having previously commuted her sentence of incarceration after she had served 12 years in prison....

Tynice Nichole Hall — President Trump has commuted the remainder of Tynice Nichole Hall’s term of supervised release.... 

Judith Negron — President Trump has today commuted the remainder of Judith Negron’s term of supervised release....

Steve Stockman — Today, President Trump commuted the remaining prison sentence of Steve Stockman....

Duncan Hunter – At the request of many Members of Congress, President Trump granted a full pardon to Duncan Hunter....

Chris Collins – Today, President Trump granted a full pardon to Chris Collins, at the request of many Members of Congress....

Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean – Today, President Trump granted full pardons to Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean....

George Papadopoulos – Today, President Trump granted a full pardon to George Papadopoulos....

Alex van der Zwaan – Today, President Trump granted a full pardon to Alex van der Zwaan....

Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard – Today, President Trump granted full pardons to Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard....

Weldon Angelos – Today, President Trump granted a full pardon to Weldon Angelos.... 

Philip Lyman – Today, President Trump granted a full pardon to Philip Lyman....

Otis Gordon – Today, President Trump granted a full pardon to Otis Gordon.... 

Philip Esformes – Today, President Trump commuted the term of imprisonment of Philip Esformes, while leaving the remaining aspects of his sentence, including supervised release and restitution, intact. 

Many of these names are high-profile, and I suspect some of these grants will generate a bit of controversy.  I am particularly excited to see Weldon Angelos' name on this list. It was not that long ago that I was helping Weldon with his 2255 petition while he was incarcerated serving a ridiculous 55-year federal prison term for low-level marijuana dealing.  A few years ago, Weldon was able to secure release from prison, and he has been using his freedom to advocate on behalf of other persons subject to draconian sentences. I am so pleased now he gets to do so without any of the still-onerous collateral consequences that flow from even a low-level drug conviction.

Here are headlines from a few early press reports about these grants:

From The Hill, "Trump pardons individuals charged in Russia probe, ex-GOP lawmakers"

From the New York Times, "Trump Pardons Two Russia Inquiry Figures and Blackwater Guards"

From the Washington Post, "Trump grants clemency to 20 people, including three GOP former members of Congress and two men convicted in the Russia probe"

December 22, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Split Michigan appeals court upholds sentencing of mass molester Larry Nassar over claims of misconduct by sentencing judge

As detailed in posts here and here from nearly three years ago, there was a lot of chatter and commentary about the high-profile conduct of the Michigan state sentencing judge during the high-profile state sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor who sexually abused many girls under his care.  Today, as reported in this local press piece, Michigan appeals court judges opined on the sentencing judge's conduct in a split ruling upholding Nassar's sentencing.  Here are the details from the press report:

The Michigan Court of Appeals on Tuesday denied an appeal from serial sex offender Larry Nassar but one judge chastised the conduct of Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during his sentencing. In a 22-page opinion, a three-judge panel split 2-1 against Nassar's effort to be resentenced by a new judge.  The former Michigan State University doctor was accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of women under the guise of medical treatment over more than two decades.  He also collected 37,000 images and videos of child pornography on his computer.

Nassar was sentenced in three courts to what amounted to a life sentence but appealed a 2017 sentence of 40-175 years issued by by Aquilina.  Though Nassar admitted guilt, he argued that his Ingham County sentence was invalid due to Aquilina's bias based on comments she made during his sentencing.

"Although Nassar argues that the judge 'made numerous statements throughout the proceedings indicating that she had already decided to impose the maximum allowed by the sentence agreement even before the sentencing hearing began,' the fact of the matter remains that the judge imposed a minimum sentence that fell within the range of Nassar’s agreed-upon plea," wrote appeals court Judges Thomas C. Cameron and Michael F. Gadola, who ruled against Nassar's appeal.

"Once a defendant has been adjudged guilty in a fair proceeding, 'the presumption of innocence disappears,'" Cameron and Gadola wrote. "A trial judge 'may, upon completion of the evidence, be exceedingly ill disposed towards the defendant, who has been shown to be a thoroughly reprehensible person.' We conclude that the judge’s imperfect articulation of these principles does not establish bias or an appearance of impropriety."

But appeals court Judge Douglas Shapiro dissented, saying the case is "bad facts making bad law." He wrote that Nassar is guilty for abusing his position of trust and the sentence is not disproportionate outside the range of his plea agreement. "I therefore sympathize with the majority’s wish to overlook the trial court’s errors," Shapiro wrote. "However, doing so makes bad law. The process by which this sentence was imposed challenges basic notions of judicial neutrality, due process, the right to counsel, and the use of social media by judges. The errors at sentencing were neither minor nor isolated and by approving of them, even if reticently, the majority invites further distortions of sentencing procedures."

Shapiro also said, "contrary to the prosecution’s argument on appeal, the responsibility of a judge to render decisions impartially does not end with a guilty verdict or plea."  "The facts that come to light during a trial or sentencing may be grounds for a fair and impartial judge to impose a harsh sentence, but even when doing so, it is the judge’s responsibility to maintain judicial neutrality, and determine a proper sentence on the basis of the defendant’s crimes and character rather than the judge’s personal anger, or the extent of revenge sought by the defendant’s victims," Shapiro wrote....

As the decision spread on Twitter, some expressed relief at the court's ruling. Kaylee Lorincz, one of the women abused by Nassar, tweeted that the decision was, "the best christmas gift I could ever ask for."

Jacob Denhollander, the husband of Rachael Denhollander — the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar — said he was glad he lived in America where someone like Nassar can seek appeals and find due process.  "The reminders, trauma, & triggers for victims means that the justice system is not primarily the place where victims find closure & peace," Denhollander tweeted. "Closure and peace comes from the communal response of belief and validation of the victims and their own ability to construct an identity apart from what was done to them. The justice system can be part of that, but can also be traumatizing."

Nassar was charged in Ingham County in 2017 with multiple counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct for abuse that occurred from 1998 to 2015. He was also charged in Eaton County with multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct, and also in federal court for possessing child pornography. In addition to his physician role at MSU, Nassar treated scores of athletes including the nation's top gymnasts while working for USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee....

Nassar argued that Aquilina showed bias in numerous ways such as saying that she had signed his "death warrant" during sentencing and also saying that the law did not allow her to impose cruel and unusual punishment on him. "If it did, I have to say I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls, these young women in their childhood, I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others," said Aquilina.

In addressing Aquilina's comments, and other comments, during sentencing, the Cameron and Gadola wrote that Nassar had admitted guilt so the presumption of innocence had ended. "The sentencing judge’s statement was wholly inappropriate," they wrote. "In essence, the judge stated that she would allow physical retribution against Nassar if it were not constitutionally prohibited."

"Nassar has failed to establish plain error given that the sentencing judge’s comments did not indicate actual bias or prejudice," the majority judges continued. "We further conclude that Nassar has failed to establish that the alleged actual bias and/or prejudice affected his substantial rights. Specifically, as part of the plea agreement, Nassar agreed to a guidelines minimum sentence range between 25 and 40 years’ imprisonment for each count, with the sentencing judge having the discretion to determine the minimum sentence within that range as well as the discretion to determine the maximum sentence for all seven counts.

But Shapiro said Aquilina erred. "A guilty verdict terminates the presumption of innocence but it does not terminate a judge’s responsibility to exercise her judicial responsibilities consistent with the law and the Code of Judicial Conduct," he wrote.

I have quoted at length from this article because I cannot yet find the opinion online.  But that opinion is surely not to be the last work on these matters: I presume Nassar will appeal this decision up to the Michigan Supreme Court and perhaps thereafter in federal habeas (even though his various state and federal sentences for his many crimes surely ensure he will never see the outside of a prison even if he were to prevail on some of these matters).

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: A helpful reader via the comments flagged that the 16-page "unpublished" majority opinion is available here, and the six-page dissent is available here.

December 22, 2020 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Ohio Supreme Court strikes down "anti-procreation community-control condition" for man convicted for failing to pay child support to mothers of his 11 children

The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday rendered an interesting decision, by a 6-1 vote, striking down an interesting community control condition in Ohio v. Chapman, No. 2020-Ohio-6730 (Ohio Dec. 18, 2020) (available here). Here is the start and key concluding paragraphs from the majority opinion:

A man was convicted for failing to pay child support to the mothers of his 11 children and sentenced to community control.  One of the conditions of community control imposed by the court was that the man “make all reasonable efforts to avoid impregnating a woman” during his sentence.  The question before us is whether that condition was appropriate.  We conclude that it was not....

Chapman’s failure to properly prioritize his obligations toward his children and pay support as he is able could prompt several conditions of community-control sanctions that would reasonably relate to his offense.  The trial court properly ordered Chapman to obtain and maintain full-time employment.  It could have gone further in this direction: it might have ordered him to participate in job training, placed him in a program that would ensure that he was working and that child support was being deducted from his paycheck, required that he undergo education in financial planning and management, or placed restrictions on his spending.  All of these would be reasonably related to Chapman’s crime of nonpayment of child support.  But as long as the crime of nonsupport depends on an offender’s ability to pay, a prohibition requiring Chapman to “make reasonable measures” to avoid fathering another child during his term of community control is not.

The lack of a fit between the offense of which Chapman was convicted and the availability of other more effective conditions leads to the conclusion that the condition “unnecessarily impinge[d] upon the probationer’s liberty.”  Jones at 52.  On remand, the trial court must remove the anti-procreation condition, but may impose other conditions that are appropriately tailored to the goals of community control.

Justice French was the lone dissenter, and her opinion concluded with these points:

In Talty, 103 Ohio St.3d 177, 2004-Ohio-4888, 814 N.E.2d 1201, at ¶ 20-21, this court concluded that an anti-procreation community-control condition was overly broad because it did not contain a mechanism for lifting the condition.  But here, the trial court required only that Chapman make reasonable efforts to avoid impregnating another woman during his five-year community-control period.  The trial court then outlined a minimum of 12 ways by which Chapman could have the condition lifted.  This is not a case in which the trial court decided to impose an anti-procreation community-control condition for minor instances of failure to pay child support.  Chapman currently has at least 11 children that he is not supporting, and his child-support arrearage at the time of his 2018 resentencing was already over $200,000.  The trial court found that Chapman’s violations of his prior child-support obligations were “egregious and systemic.”  Under these facts, its anti-procreation condition is not overly broad.

December 19, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 18, 2020

Any predictions on who and how many pardons will be granted by Trump today?

This new Axios piece, headlined "Scoop: Trump pardons expected today," suggests we will see some (significant?) clemency action today from the White House (around 5pm I would guess).  Here is what Axios has to say on the matter:

President Trump plans to issue a wave of pardons today, moving to expedite acts of clemency before Christmas, according to a source with direct knowledge and advocates who have been briefed on the plans.

What to watch: Trump has been considering pardons for friends and allies, as Axios reported, interrupting conversations with associates to spontaneously suggest he add them to his pardon list.  He already pardoned his former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

  • It was unclear who will be included in this batch.
  • Sen. Rand Paul called on Trump to pardon Edward Snowden in an article for The Federalist on Thursday.  A source with direct knowledge of the planning said they did not expect Trump to follow through with a Snowden pardon.

The big picture: Trump has considered several controversial pardons, including for his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

I would expect Prez Trump would be inclined to "save" whatever might prove to be his most controversial pardons for right before he leaves the White House.  But this pre-X-mas reported "wave of pardons" could still prove very interesting, especially because it may reveal whether Prez Trump has any considerable interest in using his clemency powers to dole out a lot of (needed) mercy to folks who are not high-profile offenders with high-profile advocates.

So, just to set a marker and to put a prediction on the record, I will forecast that we will see a few dozen clemency grants (and I am rooting for commutations as well as pardons), with only a few of these grants going to high-profile folks.  This may be a bit of wishful thinking, as his longest previous list of grants came in February and had 11 recipients, with more than a few famous names.  It would be great to see Prez Trump at least double or triple that number today, but I am trying not to get my hopes up.

A few recent related posts:

UPDATE:  As of mid-morning on Saturday, December 19, there has been no announcement of any pardons from the White House. So, the right answers to the questions inthe title of this post are technically "nobody" and "zero."

I suspect the White House is taking a bit more time to check the pardon list, so I remain hopeful we will see a set of clemency grants before Christmas.  But with this issue and this Prez, I am never quite sure what is happening or will happen.

December 18, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Lots of notable pardon headlines as we approach the last month of Prez Trump's clemency powers

In part because Prez Trump has not used his clemency power since last month's Thanksgiving week pardon for Michael Flynn, I have managed to avoid discussing the out-going President's potential pardon spree for many days now.  But there is, unsurprisingly, a cacophony of clemency chatter in various media, and highlighted by these recent piece:

From CNN, "'It's turned crazy': Inside the scramble for Trump pardons"

From the Daily Beast, "Trump Is Considering Clemency for Silk Road Founder"

From Forbes, "Trump And Pardons ... Here’s A Case That Might Interest Him"

From Inquisitr, "Justin Amash Calls On Donald Trump To Offer Clemency To Reality Winner: ‘Her Punishment Is Unjust’"

From Newsweek, "Will Donald Trump Pardon Edward Snowden? 'Anything Is Possible'"

From the New Yorker, "What are the Odds That Trump Pardons Himself?"

From WION, "Australian MP urges Donald Trump to pardon Julian Assange before leaving White House"

Here is a snippet from the CNN piece:

Because Trump has shown little interest in using the Justice Department's Pardon Attorney system for assessing requests for executive clemency, petitioners are approaching the White House directly, calling or emailing senior adviser Jared Kushner, chief of staff Mark Meadows or White House counsel Pat Cipollone -- when they can't get ahold of Trump himself....

If there is a governing principle in who appears most likely to secure clemency, it is someone the President either knows personally or who has powerful connections lobbying on their behalf.  At least one person working on behalf of clients seeking pardons said they hoped their loyalty to Trump over the past four years would pay off now.

As it happens, Trump is mulling the pardons at a juncture when loyalty appears his principal concern, complaining repeatedly over the past weeks that Republicans are deserting him when he needed them to help overturn the election results.  He has largely frozen out those advisers and associates who do not seem on the same page.  One person who used to speak to Trump regularly, but who delicately encouraged him to soften his post-election stance, no longer has his calls returned and hasn't heard from Trump in weeks.

In all, the President is considering pardons for more than two dozen people in his orbit whom he believes were targeted -- or could be targeted in the future -- for political ends. That's in addition to hundreds of requests from others who have approached the White House directly, and tens of thousands more whose petitions are pending at the Justice Department.

A few recent related posts:

December 16, 2020 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 14, 2020

Highlighting the election of local prosecutors who have pledged never to seek death sentences

Pasted image 0Daniel Nichanian has this great entry at The Appeal: Political Report titled "Newly Elected Prosecutors Are Challenging The Death Penalty," which effectively reviews the political success of a significant number of prosecutors who have pledged not to pursue capital sentences. Here is parts of the poast:

Death penalty opponents have made great strides over the last decade, getting states to outlaw the sentence or at least reduce its use. Now they’re gaining allies from local officials with direct power to shut down capital punishment: prosecutors.

Last week, Deborah Gonzalez and Jason Williams became the latest candidates to win elections for district attorney after pledging to never seek the death penalty once in office.  Their runoff wins in Athens, Georgia, and New Orleans add to a string of similar results this year in Los Angeles County, Arizona’s Pima County (Tucson), Georgia’s Fulton County (Atlanta), Oregon’s Multnomah County (Portland), and Texas’s Travis County (Austin).  Incoming prosecutors largely echoed advocates’ longtime claims, emphasizing that the death penalty is applied very unequally and that its use is inhumane and costly.

Their wins are poised to upend the culture of capital punishment in places that have been prolific in handing out death sentences, and advocates are preparing to press them to overturn these past sentences.

There are more than 200 people on death row from Los Angeles, where the DA election in November saw George Gascón defeat an incumbent who over the course of her tenure secured the death penalty nearly exclusively against people of color.  Gascón took office this week and promptly repeated his campaign pledge to not just drop the death penalty in future cases but also review past death sentences, a step few prosecutors have taken.  “The death penalty does not make us safer,” Gascón tweeted on Monday. “It’s racist, morally untenable, irreversible, and expensive.  And today, it’s off the table.”

Pima County has also been a death penalty hotspot.  It leads Arizona counties in number of executions since the penalty was reinstated in 1976. But this fall voters elected as their chief prosecutor a former public defender, Laura Conover, who highlighted her past advocacy with the Coalition of Arizonans to Abolish the Death Penalty. Conover is not the first candidate with such experience to be elected.  Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who was the legal director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, won a prosecutor’s race in northern Virginia last year on a similar platform.

“It’s absolutely tremendous and exciting that this is taking place in Louisiana, and in Georgia, and in Virginia, states that have a long history with the death penalty, and of course Los Angeles County, one of the biggest contributors to the enormous Californian death row,” said Laura Porter, executive director of the 8th Amendment Project.  “It’s supportive of the trend of the country overall moving away from the death penalty.”

These seven newly elected prosecutors who said they would never seek a death sentence are Democrats, even though Republicans haven’t been absent from the anti-death penalty movement. Support from some Republican lawmakers proved decisive in 2019 and 2020 when Colorado and New Hampshire’s legislatures repealed the death penalty.  (The Political Report only analyzed candidate positions in the 28 states where the death penalty is still legal.)

Elsewhere, longtime prosecutors who have repeatedly used the death penalty lost re-election bids. Most notably, Ron O’Brien is on his way out in Franklin County, Ohio, after decades of zealously championing capital punishment.  The incoming prosecutor, Democrat Gary Tyack, told the Political Report via a spokesperson during his campaign that he would support legislation to ban the death penalty but also that he would consider seeking it as long as it is permitted by the state.  Patsy Austin-Gatson, the incoming Democratic DA in Gwinnett County, Georgia, told the Political Report the same thing this week.

Advocates hope that more DAs will draw strong lines in the sand and rule out adding people to death row. But they also stress that, even with those who make such forward-looking commitments, more is needed.  Prosecutors who oppose the death penalty should also use all legal and political means at their disposal to resentence people who are already on death row and to fight their executions.  “It’s really important … to push prosecutors not just to say, ‘I’ll refrain from using this harsh practice in the future,’ but to refuse to preside over it in the present,” said Ben Cohen, an attorney who works against the death penalty in Louisiana.  “It’s barbaric to allow death sentences from the 1980’s and 1990’s to be executed on your watch.”...

In Los Angeles, though, Gascón released a plan early in his campaign outlining how he would aim to get people off of death row “utilizing every legal avenue available to me.” “It’s completely transformative,” said Natasha Minsker, an attorney who is part of Gascón’s transition team on the death penalty.  “The fact that Los Angeles County is now, as of today, going to stop pursuing death sentences and going to shift in a different direction … is a complete game changer.”  No county in the nation has more people on death row than Los Angeles; Angelenos approved abolishing capital punishment in a 2016 referendum but the initiative failed statewide.

Minsker outlined the range of tools that Gascón can use. Where there is active litigation over a specific legal or factual issue, he could concede arguments made by defense attorneys “and no longer fight for [death sentences] to be in place,” she said.  Many appeals are handled by the attorney general rather than the DA, but Gascón could still file amicus briefs to assist people contesting their sentences.  Gascón could also request a resentencing hearing for someone on death row, Minsker said.  DAs don’t necessarily have this power nationally; here it stems from California’s relatively new Section 1170(d), a statute that adopted in 2018 that expanded DAs’ powers to revisit old cases. Minsker warned that courts retain ultimate say in whether to remove people from death row.  “The real unknown here is the judges,” she said.  “I’m concerned that we may end up in a situation where we have disparities based on who the judge is.”

It is usually prosecutors who are the greatest hurdle to ending or curtailing the death penalty.  They routinely work to derail legislative proposals, including in Ohio, Oregon, and Wyoming over the last few years.  Even DAs who campaigned on their discomfort with capital punishment have gone on to fight efforts to stop executions, such as Kim Ogg in Harris County (Houston).  But Ogg had not outright ruled out seeking the death penalty during her 2016 campaign, a far cry from the stronger positions staked by the latest wave of winners.

December 14, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Via 6-3 per curiam ruling, SCOTUS reinstates Arizona death sentence after finding Ninth Circuit "clearly violated [its] AEDPA jurisprudence"

The US Supreme Court issued this lengthy order list this morning, though much of its length comes from the Court's 13-page per curiam decision in Shinn v. Kayer, No. 19-1302 (S. Ct. Dec. 14, 2020) (available here). The Kayer case results from a murder committed more than a quarter century ago which resulted in an Arizona death sentence. The SCOTUS decision, from which Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented but without any opinion, vacates a Ninth Circuit reversal of the death sentence. Here is how the opinion begins and ends:

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) restricts the power of federal courts to grant writs of habeas corpus based on claims that were “adjudicated on the merits” by a state court.  28 U.S.C. §2254(d).  When a state court has applied clearly established federal law to reasonably determined facts in the process of adjudicating a claim on the merits, a federal habeas court may not disturb the state court’s decision unless its error lies “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.”  Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011).  In this case, the Court of Appeals erred in ordering issuance of a writ of habeas corpus despite ample room for reasonable disagreement about the prisoner’s ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim.  In so doing, the Court of Appeals clearly violated this Court’s AEDPA jurisprudence.  We therefore grant the petition for certiorari and vacate the judgment below....

Under AEDPA, state courts play the leading role in assessing challenges to state sentences based on federal law.  A state court heard Kayer’s evidence and concluded that he failed to show prejudice.  The court below exceeded its authority in rejecting that determination, which was not so obviously wrong as to be “beyond any possibility for fairminded disagreement.” Id., at 103.  Under §2254(d), that is “‘the only question that matters.’” Id., at 102.

We grant the petition for a writ of certiorari, vacate the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and remand the case to that court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

December 14, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

An awesome reading list on "Second Look Sentencing"

Greg Newburn has created this terrific new posting under the title "Second Look Sentencing: A (Running) Reading List for Legislators, Staff, Advocates, and Everyone Else." I highly recommend all the items linked in this great reading list, and here is the post's preface to the list:

The idea of “Second Look” sentencing — that the law should allow some mechanism by which institutional actors can legally revisit sentences to ensure they remain appropriate (or to adjust those that never were) — has been around for some time.  Now, it is gaining traction. For example, the Model Penal Code now contains a second look provision; last year, a second look bill was filed in the Florida Legislature, and passed several committees (the bill was recently re-filed for the 2021 session); a second look bill looks poised to pass in Washington, D.C. any day now; the new District Attorney for Los Angeles County, George Gascón, announced his office will create a “resentencing unit” tasked with conducting second look-style reviews in thousands of cases; earlier this year, Broward County, Florida State Attorney Michael Satz announced what he called an “equitable review” process that led to the early release of drug offenders serving sentences no longer found in law; and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers just released model second look legislation, a fantastic aid for legislators interested in adopting second look laws in their states.

Given the momentum second-look sentencing seems to have at the moment — and the fact that adopting such laws is a moral necessity given the way current sentencing structures deny thousands of our fellow human beings their liberty unnecessarily — I thought it might be useful to put together a list of materials — law review articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, panels, etc. — that legislators, staff, advocates, and laypeople could use for a better understanding of some of the theoretical and moral issues surrounding second look sentencing, how it would work in practice, why it would protect and even improve public safety outcomes, and so on.

December 13, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 11, 2020

US completes is second execution in as many days with lethal injection of Alfred Bourgeois

As reported in this AP piece, the "Trump administration continued its unprecedented series of post-election federal executions Friday by putting to death a Louisiana truck driver who severely abused his 2-year-old daughter for weeks in 2002, then killed her by slamming her head against a truck’s windows and dashboard."  Here is more:

Alfred Bourgeois, 56, was pronounced dead at 8:21 p.m. Eastern time after receiving a lethal injection at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

His lawyers argued Bourgeois had an IQ that put him in the intellectually disabled category, saying that should have made him ineligible for the death penalty under federal law.  Victor J. Abreu said it was “shameful” to execute his client “without fair consideration of his intellectual disability.”

In his last words, Bourgeois offered no apology and instead struck a deeply defiant tone, insisting that he neither killed nor sexually abused his baby girl.  “I ask God to forgive all those who plotted and schemed against me, and planted false evidence.”  And he added: “I did not commit this crime.”

Bourgeois was the 10th federal death-row inmate put to death since federal executions resumed under President Donald Trump in July after a 17-year hiatus.  He was the second federal prisoner executed this week, with three more executions planned in January....  The last time the number of civilians executed federally was in the double digits in a year was under President Grover Cleveland, with 14 in 1896.

The series of executions under Trump since Election Day, the first in late November, is also the first time in more than 130 years that federal executions have occurred during a lame-duck period.  Cleveland also was the last president to do that.  Bourgeois’ lawyers contended that the apparent hurry by Trump, a Republican, to get executions in before the Jan. 20 inauguration of death-penalty foe Joe Biden, a Democrat, deprived their client his rights to exhaust his legal options....

Several appeals courts have concluded that neither evidence nor criminal law on intellectual disability supported the claims by Bourgeois’ legal team....

In Bourgeois' case, the crimes stand out as particularly brutal because they involved his young daughter....  Bourgeois whipped the girl with an electrical cord, burned her feet with a cigarette lighter and hit her in the head with a plastic baseball bat so hard that her head swelled — then refused to seek medical treatment for her, court documents say. Prosecutors also said he sexually abused her....

It was during a trucking run to Corpus Christi, Texas, that he ended up killing the toddler.  Again angered by her toilet training, he grabbed her inside the truck by her shoulders and slammed her head on the windows and dashboard four times, court filings say.  When the girl lost consciousness, Bourgeois’ wife pleaded for him to get help and he told her to tell first responders that she was hurt falling from the truck. She died the next day in a hospital of brain injuries.

In a statement after the execution, other members of the young girl’s family said she “lost her life brutally to a monster who lived for 18 years after the crime.” “Now we can start the process of healing,” the statement, distributed by the Bureau of Prisons, said.  “It should not have taken 18 years for us to receive justice for our angel.  She will forever be loved and missed.”

After his 2004 conviction, a judge rejected claims stemming from his alleged intellectual disability, noting he did not receive a diagnosis until after he was sentenced to death. “Up to that point, Bourgeois had lived a life which, in broad outlines, did not manifest gross intellectual deficiencies,” the court said.  Attorneys argued that finding was based on misunderstandings about such disabilities.  They said Bourgeois had tests that demonstrated his IQ was around 70, well below average, and that his childhood history buttressed their claims.

The Supreme Court denied of Bourgeois's application for a stay of execution and cert petition by a 7-2 vote and it is available at this link.  Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Kagan, that starts this way:

The Federal Death Penalty Act (FDPA) provides that “a sentence of death shall not be carried out upon a person who is mentally retarded.” 18 U.S.C. §3596(c).  The Court today allows the execution of Alfred Bourgeois to proceed even though Bourgeois, who has an IQ between 70 and 75, argues that he is intellectually disabled under current clinical standards.  I would grant his petition to address whether the FDPA prohibits his execution.

December 11, 2020 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

"The Administrative Law of the Eighth (and Sixth) Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this book chapter authored by Richard Bierschbach and recently posted to SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

On the surface, few similarities exist between modern administrative law and the modern constitutional law of sentencing.  Administrative law is preoccupied with structural constitutional law, statutory interpretation, and regulatory policy.  Constitutional sentencing law is overwhelmingly concerned with individual constitutional rights, blame, and punishment.  Scholars thus rarely draw connections between the two.

This Chapter — written for a forthcoming volume on “The Eighth Amendment and Its Future in a New Age of Punishment” — does just that.  Administrative law and the constitutional law of sentencing can be seen as sharing a fundamental concern about the structure of decision-making: how to ensure that difficult, value-laden judgments best reflect and filter the viewpoints and concerns of those they affect.  Just as the institutional and procedural structure of administrative law evolved in large part to address issues of voice and perspective in the regulatory context, we might understand the arc of constitutional sentencing law over the last half-decade as slowly moving in a parallel direction.

December 11, 2020 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 10, 2020

US completes execution of Brendan Bernard despite high-profile appeals for relief

As reported in this AP piece, the "Trump administration on Thursday carried out its ninth federal execution of the year and the first during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years, putting to death a Texas street-gang member for his role in the slayings of a religious couple from Iowa more than two decades ago."  Here is more:

Four more federal executions, including one Friday, are planned in the weeks before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

The case of Brendan Bernard, who received a lethal injection of phenobarbital inside a death chamber at a U.S. prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, was a rare execution of a person who was in his teens when his crime was committed.

Several high-profile figures, including reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, had appealed to President Donald Trump to commute Bernard’s sentence to life in prison.

With witnesses looking on from behind a glass barrier, the 40-year-old Bernard was pronounced dead at 9:27 p.m. Eastern time.

Bernard was 18 when he and four other teenagers abducted and robbed Todd and Stacie Bagley on their way from a Sunday service in Killeen, Texas. Federal executions were resumed by Trump in July after a 17-year hiatus despite coronavirus outbreak in U.S. prisons....

[J]ust before the execution was scheduled, Bernard’s lawyers filed papers with the Supreme Court seeking to halt the execution. The legal team expanded to include two very high-profile attorneys: Alan Dershowitz, the retired Harvard law professor who was part of Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team and whose clients have included O.J. Simpson, Claus von Bulow and Mike Tyson; and Ken Starr, who also defended Trump during the impeachment and is most famous as an independent counsel who led the investigation into Bill Clinton.

But about two and a half hours after the execution was scheduled, the Supreme Court denied the request, clearing the way for the execution to proceed.

The Supreme Court's denial of Benard's application for a stay of execution and cert petition is available at this link. The vote was 6-3, with Justice Sotomayor writing the only full dissent. That dissent starts this way:

Today, the Court allows the Federal Government to execute Brandon Bernard, despite Bernard’s troubling allegations that the Government secured his death sentence by withholding exculpatory evidence and knowingly eliciting false testimony against him.  Bernard has never had the opportunity to test the merits of those claims in court.  Now he never will. I would grant Bernard’s petition for a writ of certiorari and application for a stay to ensure his claims are given proper consideration before he is put to death.

December 10, 2020 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

NACDL releases model "Second Look" sentencing legislation providing for resentencing after a decade in prison

As noted in this press release, today "NACDL released its model 'Second Look' sentencing legislation and accompanying report – Second Look = Second Chance: The NACDL Model “Second Look” Legislation.  The NACDL model legislation provides a vehicle that legislatures can use to safely reduce the number of individuals serving excessive, counter-productive sentences: guaranteeing all incarcerated individuals a 'Second Look' once they have spent at least a decade in prison."  Here are links to the model legislation and report:

Here is the key operative provision of the model legislation:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, including any applicable mandatory minimum sentence, an incarcerated individual who has served at least ten years of their sentence may petition their sentencing judge for a reduction of their sentence.

And here are a few paragraphs from the 14-page report:

This report advocates a simple yet powerful step states can take to safely reduce the number of individuals locked into counter-productive, decades-long sentences: guaranteeing that every inmate will get a “Second Look” once they have spent at least a decade in prison.  This proposal would allow long-term incarcerated individuals, assisted by counsel, to petition courts for a sentence reduction after ten years in prison, and periodically thereafter if warranted.  As this report explains, the procedure created by NACDL’s proposed legislation is flexible, allowing judges to consider a wide range of up-to-date information in assessing whether a lengthy sentence can appropriately be reduced.  It gives victims a voice to whatever extent they want one, without burdening them.  It includes appellate review to ensure fairness and consistency. And it includes mechanisms for channeling the resulting savings back into programs that will help make the program sustainable — and help the individuals who receive a second chance to succeed and become productive members of society, to the benefit of all.

“Second Look” is an idea whose moment has arrived.  By enacting comprehensive legislation like that proposed here, state governments can position themselves as leaders in correcting the worst and most counterproductive excesses of the mass incarceration era, delivering savings to state budgets, and a second chance to individuals and communities who have been left behind for too long.

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

Noting the notable number of prosecutors now supportive of sentencing second looks

The Washington Post had this important and lengthy new article from earlier this week under the headline "A growing group of prosecutors, who say the job is more than locking people up, wants to help free criminals, too."  Here are excerpts from the start of the piece:

When Calvin McNeill was 16, he and a group of friends in Baltimore decided to rob a neighborhood dice game.  Things got chaotic, and McNeill shot and killed a man. It was 1981. The teen was sentenced to life in prison.  Over the next 39 years, McNeill became a model inmate and was approved for parole three times, but each time the Maryland governor vetoed his release. 

So Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby joined a defense motion to reconsider his sentence last summer.  A judge granted it, and McNeill was freed in July this year.  Since his release, “everybody that I have come across has opened up their arms to me,” McNeill said, “and said, ‘We’re glad to see you home.  And we understand that you were a baby when you got locked up.’”

On Monday, Mosby announced the launch of a sentencing review unit in Baltimore to address both mass incarceration and racial inequities in the justice system.  Of the 2,500 people serving life sentences in Maryland, 79 percent are Black, Mosby said, though African Americans make up only 30 percent of the state population.  In Baltimore, of the 815 prisoners sentenced to life, 94 percent are Black.

Also Monday, the newly elected district attorney of Los Angeles, George Gascón, announced at his swearing-in that he, too, is launching a sentencing review unit.  Gascón said he conservatively estimates that 20,000 prisoners will immediately qualify for resentencing.  He said he believes some were given drastically long sentences, others are older and unlikely to reoffend, and others should be released because of covid-19 concerns.

“The role of a prosecutor is not only one of seeking justice,” Gascón said in an interview, “but also of correcting injustice . . . This is going to be the first time in the nation where there will be this massive effort coming from the largest prosecution offices in the country.”  He said half of Los Angeles’s prisoners are rated low-risk to reoffend and if thousands are released, “there will be billions of dollars in savings” on incarceration costs. “This is gigantic,” Gascón said.

The push to begin revisiting lengthy prison sentences, as part of the justice reform effort being promoted by big city prosecutors around the country, is gaining momentum even in states like Maryland, where there is no formal mechanism for prosecutors to revisit settled cases.  Prosecutors in San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and Brooklyn are also launching sentencing review initiatives.

While a growing number of prosecutors also are seeking to uncover and reverse wrongful convictions, which occur in a small percentage of cases, the move to release those who were correctly convicted but have now served decades in prison could have a far wider impact.  More than 2 million Americans are in jail or prison, which is believed to be the highest incarceration rate in the world.

In Washington state, a bill allowing prosecutors to seek resentencing passed this year, and the district attorney in Seattle announced a sentencing review unit in June. But the office had already been quietly achieving prisoner releases since 2007, “with a bit of a wink to the judge,” King County District Attorney Dan Satterberg said.  “We knew no one was going to appeal it.”  In the District, the city has released 53 inmates since passing a law in 2016 allowing for resentencing if the offender was younger than 18 and served at least 15 years in prison.  Now the city council is considering expanding the group of eligible inmates to those who committed crimes at age 24 or younger and have spent 15 years incarcerated....

Last year in Prince George’s County, newly elected State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy created the state’s first conviction and sentencing integrity unit to review both convictions and sentencings that might deserve new consideration.  Seven people sentenced to life as juveniles have been released, an office spokeswoman said.

Extreme sentences, particularly those that wouldn’t be imposed today, divert resources away from the root sources of crime, turn prisons into elder care centers and alienate communities torn by mass incarceration, said Miriam Krinsky, executive director of Fair and Just Prosecution, which helps organize and coordinate newly elected prosecutors. “When the system is out of alignment with communities,” Krinsky said, “people will stop trusting the system and stop cooperating, and then we’re all at risk.”

Prosecutors launching such efforts have devised a number of factors to consider for each case, such as the prisoner’s original crime, their rehabilitation in prison, their plan for reentry into society, their likelihood to reoffend and the opinions of the victims in their case.  A number of experts said that victims often don’t oppose the release of the offender and that the occurrence of new crimes by those released is low.

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

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