Saturday, July 31, 2021

Amicus brief stresses congressional text does not preclude legal change as basis for 3582(c)(1)(a) sentence reduction

In this post last month, I lamented the split Sixth Circuit panel opinion in US v. Jarvis, No. 20-3912 (6th Cir. June 3, 2021) (available here), which stated that "non-retroactive changes in the law [can] not serve as the 'extraordinary and compelling reasons' required for a sentence reduction."  In that post, I noted that nothing in the text of § 3582(c)(1)(a) supports the contention that non-retroactive changes in the law cannot ever constitute "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to allow a sentence reduction, either alone or in combination with other factors.  As I see it, the majority in Jarvis was eager to create an extra-textual categorical limitation on the authority Congress gave to district courts to reduce sentences because, presumably based on its own sense of sound policy, it wanted to cabin the new sentencing discretion created by the FIRST STEP Act. 

Against that backdrop, I was pleased to learn of a new amicus brief filed in support of rehearing en banc in Jarvis that makes a series of forceful arguments that wisely lean heavily on textualism.  The brief is filed on behalf of the American Conservative Union Foundation Nolan Center for Justice and Shon Hopwood, and I recommend the entire filing (which can be downloaded below).  Here are a few excerpts emphasizing the statutory text:

Until and unless the Sentencing Commission promulgates a new policy statement clarifying what factors district courts may consider in deciding motions for compassionate-release sentence reductions, this Court should refrain from holding that factors are legally impermissible unless consideration of those factors conflict with the statutory text.  To do otherwise is to substitute this Court’s judgment for Congress’s.  Because a district court’s consideration of nonretroactive sentencing-law reforms as extraordinary circumstances does not contravene any contrary statutory command, it is legally permissible (and is in fact consistent with the legislative history and plain text of the First Step Act)....

The Sentencing Commission is empowered to promulgate a new policy statement that expressly permits district courts to consider nonretroactive sentencing-law reforms, combined with other factors, in determining whether a defendant has presented extraordinary and compelling reasons.  That the Commission presently lacks a quorum is irrelevant to interpretation of the underlying statutes.  Since the Commission can promulgate a policy statement permitting consideration of nonretroactive sentencing reforms, district courts may certainly consider such criteria now in the absence of a new and applicable policy statement.

Download Jarvis Amicus Brief FINAL

July 31, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 25, 2021

US Sentencing Commission releases more detailed "Compassionate Release Data Report" for 2020

As detailed in this post, last month the US Sentencing Commission released a short data report titled "Compassionate Release Data." That report provided notable but very basic numbers on the grants and denials of federal compassionate release motions nationwide for calendar year 2020.  The report revealed, as further discussed in this follow-up post, that judges granted a good number of these motions once COVID hit, but that the Bureau of Prisons approved stunningly few compassionate release applications and that there were considerable disparities in grant rates in different judicial districts.

I was quite pleased to see the USSC promulgate any compassionate release data, but I was eager for additional data beyond circuit and district breakdowns of these motions.  In my prior post, I hoped we might at some point see "a lot more offender demographic information (e.g., race, gender, age of movant) and sentence modification information (e.g., primary sentenced offense and amount of sentence reduction)."  Excitingly, the USSC has now released this updated expanded data report that provides a lot more details about compassionate release grants for calendar year 2020.

Specifically, this latest report includes data on "Demographic Characteristics Of Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Selected Sentencing Factors For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Type Of Crime For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release" and on "Original Sentence Length For Offenders Receiving Compassionate Release." I am so very pleased to see this additional data, although the extent of sentence reductions is still a data point not covered which seems to me to be important to understand the full compassionate release story (e.g.,ten granted sentence reduction motions that reduce sentences by five months seem quite different than ten granted motions reducing sentences by five years.)   

Upon first glace, it is hard to see if there are any particularly distinctive or disturbing patterns in this enhanced USSC compassionate release data.  Interestingly, looking at the demographics, I noticed that the percentage of black prisoners securing a sentence reduction in 2020 (which was 45.2% according to the USSC data) appears to be greater than the percentage of black prisoners in federal prison (which was 34.9% as of this USSC report with March 2021 data).  Likewise, I was intrigued to see that the percentage of prisoners convicted of drug trafficking securing a sentence reduction in 2020 (which was 53% according to the USSC data) appears to be greater than the percentage of such prisoners in federal prison (which was 43% as of this same USSC report).   

I hope that the US Sentencing Commission not only continues to release more and more granular data about sentencing reduction grants.  I also hope the USSC will (a) track recidivism rates for this population over time, and (b) learn about which guidelines might be seen to produce excessively long sentencing in retrospect as documented through these grants.  The kind of second-look sentencing mechanism now operating the the federal system is not only valuable and important as a means to achieve better justice in individual cases, but also should serve as an important feedback loop providing a kind of on-going audit of the operation of the entire federal sentencing system. 

A few of many prior related posts:

July 25, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 23, 2021

As Eleventh Circuit works though ACCA "occasions different" mess, Judge Newson flags Apprendi "prior conviction" issues

A helpful reader alerted me to an interesting new split Eleventh Circuit panel decision in US v. Dudley, No. 19-10267 (7th Cir. July 22, 2021) (available here), concerning application of the severe mandatory minimum in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.  As regular readers know, ACCA converts the 10-year maximum prison term for illegal gun possession by a felon into a 15-year mandatory minimum if the defendant has the wrong kind of prior convictions.  The basic issue in Dudley is a topic also to be considered by the Supreme Court this fall in Wooden v. US, namely ACCA's requirement that key prior offenses needed to be "committed on occasions different from one another."  In Wooden, the facts of the prior convictions are not in dispute, and so the Supreme Court will likely just explore the legal meaning of "occasions different from one another."  In Dudley, part of the debate concerns uncertainty about the facts of the prior convictions, and so the Eleventh Circuit panel has to discuss how these facts can be proved.

Working through a variety of complicated ACCA precedents, the majority in Dudley ultimately decides that "the district court did not err in relying on the prosecutor’s factual proffer in Dudley’s plea colloquy to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the three qualifying prior convictions for Alabama assault occurred on three separate, distinct occasions."  For hard-core ACCA fans, the majority's discussion might be interesting.  But hard-core Sixth Amendment fans will especially want to check out Judge Newsom's lengthy partial dissent which flags the significant Apprendi issues raised by prior rulings and this case.  Here is are some passages from the partial dissent to show why the whole opinion is worth checking out:

For starters, why doesn’t judicial factfinding involving ACCA’s different-occasions requirement itself violate the Sixth Amendment?  After all, we’ve described the different-occasions inquiry as a factual one....

Of course, I recognize that we and other circuits have repeatedly rejected constitutional challenges to ACCA’s different-occasions inquiry.  See Maj. Op. 18–19 (collecting cases).  We’ve justified ourselves on the ground that the date of an offense is part of the “factual nature” of the conviction — and thus falls under Almendarez-Torres’s exception to Apprendi....

But that explanation, while plausible at first blush, is tough to square with the Court’s characterization of Almendarez-Torres as a “narrow exception” to Apprendi’s general rule.  See Alleyne, 570 U.S. at 111 n.1.  As interpreted by Apprendi, Almendarez-Torres exempts only “the fact of a prior conviction” from the bar on judicial factfinding.  Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 490 (emphasis added).  After all, Almendarez-Torres itself involved only the bare fact that the defendant had been convicted of a prior aggravated assault.  523 U.S. at 226.   Although I don’t question Almendarez-Torres’s continuing vitality — above my pay grade — it seems that we do more than just faithfully apply that decision when we extend its “narrow exception” for the mere “fact of a prior conviction” to include other related facts, such as the date or time of the underlying offense.  Indeed, if Almendarez-Torres authorizes factfinding about more than just the fact of a prior conviction, what’s the limiting principle?  What differentiates the timing of the offense from the fact that it was “violent” for ACCA’s predicate-felony inquiry?  Both, it seems to me, are equally part (or not part) of the “factual nature” of the prior conviction.

July 23, 2021 in Almendarez-Torres and the prior conviction exception, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Seventh Circuit panel states (in dicta?) that vaccine availability "makes it impossible" for COVID risks to create eligibility for compassionate release

The Seventh Circuit yesterday released a short panel opinion affirming the denial of a compassionate release motion in US v. Broadfield, No. 20-2906 (7th Cir. July 21, 2021) (available here) (Hat tip: How Appealing).  The opinion has a number of notable passages that make this ruling a useful read in full for those working in this arena, but the closing paragraph seemed especially worth highlighting here:

Section 3582(c)(1)(A) was enacted and amended before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and it will continue to serve a beneficent function long after the pandemic ends.  But for the many prisoners who seek release based on the special risks created by COVID-19 for people living in close quarters, vaccines offer relief far more effective than a judicial order.  A prisoner who can show that he is unable to receive or benefit from a vaccine still may turn to this statute, but, for the vast majority of prisoners, the availability of a vaccine makes it impossible to conclude that the risk of COVID-19 is an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for immediate release.

This final paragraph seems to me to be dicta (though what precedes it might lead some to conclude it is part of the holding).  I suspect the final clause will garner considerable attention no matter how characterized.  Critically, by using the phrase "the vast majority of prisoners," this final sentence still suggests that, at least for a few prisoners, the risk of COVID-19 can still provide an "extraordinary and compelling" reason for compassionate release.  Even more important may be whether lower courts might read this paragraph to mean that COVID risks cannot be combined with other factors to make out extraordinary and compelling reasons. Even if COVID risks are low for the vaccinated, they are not zero and so should be, as I see it, still a potential contributor to assessing what qualifies as an extraordinary and compelling reason when combined with other factors.

July 22, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 19, 2021

"The Evolving Standards, As Applied"

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

In Jones v. Mississippi, the Supreme Court adopted a narrow reading of its Eighth Amendment categorical bar on mandatory juvenile life-without-parole (JLWOP) sentences.  Specifically, the Court rejected the Jones’ claim that the Eighth Amendment categorical limit required a sentencing jury or judge make a finding of permanent incorrigibility — that the defendant is beyond hope of rehabilitation — as a prerequisite to imposing a JLWOP sentence.

In dicta, the Court suggested that Jones could have made an individual as-applied challenge to his sentence under the Eighth Amendment by claiming that his JLWOP sentence was disproportionate to the crime he committed.  While the Court has used a narrow disproportionality standard in non-capital, non-JLWOP cases, it is not clear what standard would apply to individual as-applied Eighth Amendment challenges in capital and JLWOP cases.  The Court customarily reviews such cases categorically under a heightened evolving standards of decency standard, which suggests that an individual as-applied challenge would also merit some heightened level of review.

Accordingly, this Article argues for the adoption of heightened standards of Eighth Amendment review for individual as-applied proportionality challenges in capital and JLWOP cases.  Specifically, the Article advocates for the adoption of an intermediate level of review for JLWOP cases and a strict scrutiny level of review for capital cases.  Further, the Article argues for a broadening of the kinds of sentences that receive heightened scrutiny under the Eighth Amendment, both for categorical challenges and for individual as-applied proportionality challenges.

Part One of the Article describes the Court’s evolving standards of decency doctrine and Eighth Amendment’s categorical limitations on capital and JLWOP sentences.  In Part Two, the Article explains the other side of the application of the Eighth Amendment, the narrow disproportionality test the Court uses to evaluate as-applied challenges in individual non-capital, non-JLWOP cases.  Part Three then argues for the adoption of heightened as-applied standards of review in individual capital and JLWOP cases as an application of the evolving standards of decency doctrine.  Finally, Part IV sketches some possible extensions of the Eighth Amendment’s evolving standards to other punishments and other classes of defendants.

July 19, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

New York Times reporting Biden Justice Department agrees with OLC memo stating prisoners transferred to home confinement must return to prison after pandemic ends

As reported in this new New York Times article, headlined "Biden Legal Team Decides Inmates Must Return to Prison After Covid Emergency," it appears that the US Department of Justice is not changing its view of the limits of congressional authority to move people to home confinement under the CARES Act. Here are the details:

The Biden administration legal team has decided that thousands of federal convicts who were released to home confinement to reduce the risk of spreading Covid-19 will be required by law to return to prison a month after the official state of emergency for the pandemic ends, officials said on Monday.

The administration has come under pressure from criminal justice reform activists and some lawmakers to revoke a Trump-era memo by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which said inmates whose sentences lasted beyond the “pandemic emergency period” would have to go back to prison.

But the Biden legal team has concluded that the memo correctly interpreted the law, which applies to about 4,000 nonviolent inmates, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity about sensitive internal deliberations.  Several officials characterized the decision as an assessment of the best interpretation of the law, not a matter of policy preference.

The official state of emergency is not expected to end this year because of a rise in new infections caused by the coronavirus’s Delta variant. But the determination means that whenever it does end, the department’s hands will be tied.

That leaves two options if those prisoners are not to be sent back into cells: Either Congress could enact a law to expand the Justice Department’s authority to keep them at home beyond the emergency, or President Biden could use his clemency powers to commute their sentences to home confinement.

The Biden team is said to be wary of a blanket, mass commutation, however, both because it would represent an extraordinary intervention in the normal functioning of the judicial system and it could create political risks if any recipient who would otherwise be locked up commits a serious crime.  Another option is case-by-case assessment for commutations, but the volume of work required to individually evaluate so many people is daunting.

When asked for comment, the White House responded with a general statement about the administration’s support for policies that can reduce incarceration. “President Biden is committed to reducing incarceration and helping people to re-enter society,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman. “As he has said, too many Americans are incarcerated, and too many are Black and brown. His administration is focused on reforming our justice system in order to strengthen families, boost our economy and give people a chance at a better future.”...

The disclosure of the Biden legal team’s internal decision came as an ideologically broad range of advocacy groups — nearly two dozen organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, FreedomWorks and the Faith and Freedom Coalition — stepped up pressure on the Biden administration not to recall inmates from home confinement when the emergency ends.

Notably, however, those organizations issued a letter framing their request in terms of Mr. Biden using his clemency powers to resolve the issue. “On the campaign trail and during your presidency, you have spoken about the importance of second chances,” according to the letter. “This is your opportunity to provide second chances to thousands of people who are already safely out of prison, reintegrating back into society, reconnecting with their loved ones, getting jobs and going back to school. We urge you to provide clemency now to people under CARES Act home confinement.”

I do not find this news especially surprising; if there was any considerable legal wiggle room here, I think the Justice Department would have spoken some time ago.  And, as this article highlights, I have sensed that a number of advocates have been talking up blanket clemency as the most fitting way to resolve this issue.  But I am always eager to highlight the point I made in this recent post, titled "Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?," that Congress readily could (and I think should) enact a statute that provides for the home confinement program to be extended beyond the end of the pandemic.

In addition, as I highlighted in this recent post, another option for case-by-case relief is through compassionate release motions.  This is how Gwen Levi got relief, and such motions have the potential to reduce sentences and not just allow these sentences to be served at home.  Of course "the volume of work required" for so many CR motions would be considerable, but the Justice Department could (and I think should) support and even bring sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

Some prior recent related posts:

July 19, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Joe Exotic (of "Tiger King" fame) prevails on technical guideline issue to secure resentencing on Tenth Circuit appeal

It seems like a very long time ago that everyone was talking about Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin.  The must-see Netflix documentary "Tiger King" about their ugly rivalry dropped just as we were all going into pandemic lock down, and it was only about 18 months ago that we were all talking about Joe and Carole and their cats.  That is a lot less time than the 264 months (22 years) that Joe Exotic was sentenced to after his federal jury convictions for multiple wildlife crimes and two counts of using interstate facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire plots to kill Carole Baskin.

But what is old is new again thanks to today's Tenth Circuit panel decision in US v. Joseph Maldonado-Passage, No. 20-6010 (10th Cir. July 14, 2021) (available here).  Here is how the panel opinion gets started:

It was a rivalry made in heaven.  Joseph Maldonado-Passage, the self-proclaimed “Tiger King,” owned what might have been the nation’s largest population of big cats in captivity. Carole Baskin was an animal-rights activist who fought for legislation prohibiting the private possession of big cats.  He bred lions and tigers to create big-cat hybrids — some the first of their kind.  She saw the crossbreeding of big cats as evil.  He built his business around using cubs for entertainment.  She protested his events as animal abuse and urged boycotts.

The rivalry intensified after Baskin sued Maldonado-Passage for copyright and trademark infringement and won a million-dollar judgment.  Maldonado-Passage responded by firing a barrage of violent threats at Baskin, mostly online.  And he didn’t stop there.  Before long, he was plotting her murder.  Twice, within weeks, he set about hiring men to kill Baskin — one, an employee at his park; the other, an undercover FBI agent.

Maldonado-Passage soon faced a federal indictment charging him with twenty-one counts, most for wildlife crimes, but two for using interstate facilities in the commission of his murder-for-hire plots.  A jury convicted Maldonado-Passage on all counts, and the court sentenced him to 264 months’ imprisonment.

On appeal, he disputes his murder-for-hire convictions, arguing that the district court erred by allowing Baskin, a listed government witness, to attend the entire trial proceedings.  He also disputes his sentence, arguing that the trial court erred by not grouping his two murder-for-hire convictions in calculating his advisory Guidelines range.  On this second point, he contends that the Guidelines required the district court to group the two counts because they involved the same victim and two or more acts or transactions that were connected by a common criminal objective: murdering Baskin.

We hold that the district court acted within its discretion by allowing Baskin to attend the full trial proceedings despite her being listed as a government witness, but that it erred by not grouping the two murder-for-hire convictions at sentencing.  Accordingly, we affirm the conviction but vacate the sentence and remand for resentencing.

As noted by the 10th Circuit panel, correction of the guideline error will shift Joe Exotic's advisory sentencing range down to 210 to 262 months from the 262 to 327 months used at his initial sentencing.  So Joe will still be facing a hefty guideline range, but maybe he will be better able to advocate and secure a below-guideline range at an upcoming resentencing.

July 14, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

What legally distinguishes a "non-violent Federal cannabis offense" from a violent one (and would multiple SCOTUS rulings be needed to sort this out)?

Legal Marijuana Oregon Measure 91The question in the title of this post is prompted by key language in the resentencing and expungement provision of the "discussion draft" of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's new federal marijuana reform bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act.  The full text of this CAO "discussion draft" is available here; this highly-anticipated bill draft runs 163 pages and covers all sorts of reform and regulatory issues related of federal marijuana law and policy (see coverage here at MLP&R).  Of course, I am distinctly interested in the criminal justice provisions of this bill, and I was excited to see there is a dedicated section (sec. 311) devoted to "RESENTENCING AND EXPUNGEMENT."  But the CAOA bill draft includes a notable (and I think problematic) linguistic limit on the reach of resentencing and expungement.

Specifically, the main expungement provision of the CAOA calls for automatic expungement of only a "non-violent Federal cannabis offense."  CAO sec. 311(a)(1) (emphasis added).  Similarly, the provision allowing for "sentencing review" states:

For any individual who is under a criminal justice sentence for a non-violent Federal cannabis offense, the court that imposed the sentence shall, on motion of the individual, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the Government, or the court, conduct a sentencing review hearing.  If the individual is indigent, counsel shall be appointed to represent the individual in any sentencing review proceedings under this subsection.

CAO sec. 311(b)(1) (emphasis added).  I really like the provision requiring the appointment of counsel for these "sentencing review proceedings."  But I wonder and worry that, if this provision were to become law, counsel might be spending way too much time just figuring out whether prospective clients qualify as "non-violent" federal cannabis offenders. 

Though we all often use terms like violent and non-violent as offense descriptors, federal criminal justice practitioners know all too well that there is never-ending litigation in the context of many other federal statutes and provisions concerning whether certain prior offenses qualify as "violent" or not.  (Frustrated by just one small piece of this litigation, I joked in this post that one of the circles of hell set forth in Dante's Inferno surely involved trying to figure out what kinds of past offenses can or cannot be properly labeled "violent.")

Especially troublesome in this context is the realty that, technically, all basic federal drug offenses are "non-violent" because there are not any formal elements of these offenses that require any proof of force or injury.  And yet, more than a few "drug warriors" have been heard to say that all drug crimes are by their very nature violent and that the only types of  drug offenders who get the attention of federal prosecutors are those who have a violent history or violent tendencies.  Consequently, I would expect that federal defense attorneys would have a basis to argue that every  "Federal cannabis offense" qualifies as non-violent, while federal prosecutors would likely contend that at least some (many?) federal cannabis offenders are to be excluded by this "non-violent" limit in the bill text.

I suspect that this section of the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act was just drawn from similar language in the House version of proposed federal marijuana reform (section 10 of the MORE Act), and the CAOA's current status as a "discussion draft" should provide an opportunity to clean up this problematic adjective.  Though I understand the political reason for wanting to distinguish less and more serious drug offenders for expungement and resentencing provisions, the "non-violent" terminology seems to me quite legally problematic.  (There are other aspects of the "RESENTENCING AND EXPUNGEMENT" section of this new bill that are far from ideal, but this terminology struck me as the biggest red flag.)

Some related work in this space:

A few of many prior recent related posts:

July 14, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

"We Know How to Fix the Clemency Process. So Why Don’t We?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new New York Times essay authored by Rachel Barkow and Mark Osler.  As with everything authored by these two professors, this piece should be read in full.  Here are excerpts:

The fundamental problem with having the Justice Department run clemency is that prosecutors aren’t good at it.  Under the department’s regulations, the Office of the Pardon Attorney must give “considerable weight” to the opinions of local prosecutors — the very people who sought the sentence in the first place.

These prosecutors typically don’t keep up with the people they prosecuted to learn what they’ve been doing while incarcerated or what their post-prison re-entry plans look like.  Their data point is the conviction itself, so their analysis of the case is frozen in time. No matter the intent from on high, it is hard to get around this obstacle.

Vice President Harris, a former prosecutor herself, has warned of “inherent conflicts of interest” in the current process. Justice Department lawyers, she argued during her campaign, should not determine whether people convicted by colleagues in the legal system should have their sentences shortened or commuted....

The faulty architecture of clemency has been apparent for decades, with shamefully low grant rates from presidents of both parties.  If the administration put in place a competent advisory board to process petitions instead of relying on the Justice Department’s flawed and biased process, it could address the backlog, just as a board addressed the huge backlog of petitions for clemency from draft evaders in the wake of the Vietnam War.

The board should include experts in rehabilitation, re-entry and prison records, including a person who has been incarcerated.  It would be able to consult with the Justice Department, but the department would no longer be responsible for the decision itself.  This will allow the board to make objective recommendations; then it will be up to the president whether to accept them.

The Biden administration understands the value of expertise and process.  Justice is the last place where an exception should be made.

July 13, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 12, 2021

Spotlighting prosecutors advocating for and embracing second-look sentencing mechanisms

At a conference a dozen years ago, I spoke about the need for second-look sentencing mechanisms and argued that prosecutors 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). 

I am very pleased that these ideas are finally coming into vogue, as highlighted by this new Law360 piece headlined "New Wave Of Prosecutors Push For Resentencing Laws."   I recommend this piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Washington county prosecutor Dan Satterberg knew when his state passed its three-strikes law in 1993, mandating that repeat offenders of certain crimes be sentenced to life without parole, that those sentences would one day need to be undone....

When Satterberg was elected district attorney of Washington's King County in 2007, he created a team to review cases, identify people who received life sentences under the three-strikes law and try to find a legal avenue for those people to be resentenced....

But Satterberg realized that in order to move more quickly with resentencing in more cases, he needed to have the explicit legal authority to request judges to resentence people.  So Satterberg drafted and lobbied for the passage of S.B. 6164 that gives Washington state prosecutors the power to request resentencing in the interest of justice.  The law was passed last year.

So far, Satterberg has not been able to get anyone resentenced under the new law, because the court asked prosecutors not to file these resentencing petitions in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited court operations. Satterberg's office, however, has identified more than 100 cases that could be eligible for resentencing under the law. The office hopes to have its first resentencing under this law in August....  "I think it's consistent with the overall mission of the prosecutor, which is to seek justice," Satterberg said about S.B. 6164. "If there are procedural barriers to seeking justice, then you need to advocate to remove those."

More state and county prosecutors are reaching the same conclusion as Satterberg that they need the power to request resentencing from judges to correct past injustices, end mass incarceration, give people second chances and divert money spent on incarceration to more effective crime prevention methods.

In April, more than 60 current and former prosecutors signed a statement by the nonprofit network Fair and Just Prosecution urging their colleagues to review decadeslong sentences in their jurisdictions and to no longer seek such sentences, except in cases where the convicted individual poses a serious safety risk....

The bill that Satterberg spearheaded was inspired by the first prosecutor-initiated resentencing law passed by California in 2018.  The California law, A.B. 2942, was drafted by Hillary Blout, a former San Francisco prosecutor who worked under Vice President Kamala Harris when she served as the district attorney of San Francisco.

After Blout served as a prosecutor for six years, she founded the nonprofit For the People in 2019 that works with prosecutors to implement resentencing legislation in their states.  Blout said that resentencing laws are important to correct failed policies that sought to achieve public safety by imprisoning people for as long as possible....

Twenty-five states including New York, Virginia and Texas are currently considering resentencing legislation, according to a report released in May by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research organization that aims to improve the U.S. criminal justice system and reduce the prison population.  Oregon and Illinois both passed prosecutor-initiated resentencing laws during this legislative session that were signed by their respective state governors in late June.

While these resentencing laws have the power to end harsh sentences and end mass incarceration, some advocates have criticized resentencing laws that only allow prosecutors to request resentencing.  Advocates argue that incarcerated people should also be allowed to petition courts for resentencing in their cases.  Not all prosecutors are prioritizing resentencing even when they have the power to do so, leaving incarcerated people serving overly long sentences, they say.

A few of many prior related posts:

A sampling of my prior writing on this front through the years:

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

Wednesday, July 07, 2021

"When Will Joe Biden Start Using His Clemency Powers?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York magazine article by Zak Cheney-Rice.  The obvious answer, of course, is "not soon enough," given that Prez Biden has gone his first six month, amid a global pandemic after campaigning as a reformer, without a single act of clemency.  But the piece strikes a slightly more hopeful tone, and here excerpts: 

According to the New York Times, the Biden administration has signaled, as recently as this summer and in multiple conversations with advocates, that he would use clemency both broadly and soon, with an emphasis on advancing his racial justice agenda.  This is significant ... because over the last several decades, presidents have been using their clemency powers less often, waiting until later in their presidencies to do so, and leaving people in squalid and dangerous conditions for longer periods of time because of it....

In the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration issued a memo saying the thousands of people who’d been released from federal prison to home confinement during the “pandemic emergency period” would be locked up again as soon as the order was lifted, if their sentences weren’t up by then.  According to the Times, this is still in effect, and the Biden administration has been weirdly cagey about whether it would reverse Trump’s order and let them stay home.  These 4,000 prisoners are pre-selected and already free, so they’re easy candidates for commutations. The White House reviews the emergency declaration every three months.  None of these reviews has yielded answers so far, and the next one is scheduled for July.

This situation is shaping up to be a test of Biden’s ambitions regarding clemency.  There’s no concrete reason to think the president won’t make good on his promise to use clemency more than has become normal, but that’s mostly because the bar is so low.  Since Richard Nixon was president — a useful marker here, because that’s when the era of mass incarceration started — there’s been a fairly steady downward trend in presidents’ use of this unique power, which is granted to them by the Constitution, and which entails mostly commutations (which partly or completely cut short sentences) and pardons (which essentially wipe out convictions).

Nixon granted clemency to 926 people.  Trump granted it to 237, bookending a period of more than 50 years, starting with Ronald Reagan, that saw the numbers drop below 500 and stay there, with one exception, through the present day.  (With the caveat that this period has seen two one-term presidents, Democrats have usually been more willing to use this power than Republicans, but not by much. )  The one exception was Barack Obama, who granted clemency, mostly in the form of commutations, to 1,927 people, the most since Harry Truman.  As of July 1, 2021, there were still 153,683 federal prisoners.

Biden has hinted that he’ll start sooner rather than later, possibly even before the 2022 midterms, which is a big deal because of the politics surrounding the issue.  The American antipathy toward clemency is one of the main motivators behind the downward trend in pardons and commutations: The appearance of being “soft on crime,” and the possibility that someone you free re-offends in some politically inopportune way, makes it hard for presidents to rationalize pardoning people or commuting sentences with any regularity. To minimize the political fallout, they usually wait until late to start granting the bulk of them.  Oftentimes, like in Trump’s case, most get rushed through during a president’s last days in office.

The effect is that clemency has become really unusual.  And when something is unusual, each decision becomes freighted with dramatic significance and scrutinized to the nth degree.  There have, of course, been good reasons to monitor presidents’ clemency decisions. Trump used it to reward imprisoned cronies and mislead voters.  Bill Clinton famously pardoned the husband of a wealthy Democratic donor.  But the scrutiny is overwhelmingly due to its rarity, not its infrequent abuses.  It’s been fashioned into an almost cosmically precious blessing to those who receive it, rather than a workaday part of a president’s duties.

Plenty of ideas have been floated about how to change this on a systemic level.  Rachel Barkow, a law professor of New York University, has spent years researching and developing ideas for how to make clemency more common, in part by making it less politically perilous and less vulnerable to conflicts of interest.  Both of these goals probably mean removing such decisions from the purview of the Justice Department, where they’re mostly handled today.  Federal prosecutors are responsible for these people being in prison in the first place.  Their decisions — which often determine which petitions get to the president, for example — inevitably run up against the fact that they’re often undermining, and potentially reversing, their own work.

To reduce the political risk, Barkow suggests establishing a clemency board, composed of interests from across the political spectrum, and spanning a wide range of people who work, have worked in, or have been impacted by the criminal legal system, to process requests and seek out candidates.  This would spread out responsibility enough to take the weight off any one person, thereby encouraging more commutations and pardons, especially for someone like Biden, who says he wants to grant them.  (Several states already have boards like this in place. Barkow, citing her research and others’, describes them as a “necessary precondition” where clemency is routine.)

Whatever the route, two things are clear about Biden’s plan so far: he hasn’t done anything yet, despite his signaling, and people close to him have indicated to the Times that he’s “not inclined to circumvent” the Justice Department — meaning he’s probably committed to an approach that preserves conflicts of interest and retains more political calculation than it needs to.  This is bad for normalizing clemency.  The president couldn’t end mass incarceration or even make a major dent in it, even with a more proactive strategy — the federal incarcerated population is too small as a portion of the whole, for one. But he can wield clemency symbolically, telegraphing to federal prosecutors which cases are worth pursuing, for example.  And in more practical terms, he can spare as many people as he can from what is functionally a life of terror, torment, and uncertainty, and can do so now and regularly moving forward to prevent needless suffering.

Jails and prisons are scary and often life-annihilating places, even in non-pandemic times, and there are untold numbers of people who shouldn’t be there.  Immediate fixes, though small, are available.  The longer Biden waits and the rarer presidential clemency stays, the more unusual it will continue to be.

A few prior recent related posts:

July 7, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Gwen Levi, face of federal home confinement cohort at risk of prison return, granted compassionate release

In prior posts (some linked below), I have discussed the Office of Legal Counsel memo which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  In this recent post, I noted one person at risk of serving many more years in prison after success on home confinement, Gwen Levi, who was getting particular attention because she had already been re-incarcerated on the basis of a seemingly minor technical violation.

I expressed hope in that post that she might succeed with sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  I am now happy to be able report that she has prevailed on such a motion, as detailed in this USA Today article headlined "Woman who was arrested after missing officials' phone call while in computer class is headed home":

An elderly woman who was recently arrested after she missed phone calls from officials while attending a computer class — a possible violation of her home detention — is headed back home following a federal judge's decision to grant her request for compassionate release.

In a four-page ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Deborah C. Chasanow said "it would do little" to force Gwen Levi – a 76-year-old who's in remission from lung cancer and whom the Justice Department had deemed nonviolent – to serve the entirety of her sentence. "During her incarceration, she took many courses, worked, and completed drug education," Chasanow wrote, noting Levi's age, medical conditions and lack of major disciplinary problems.

Levi is among the more than 24,000 federal prisoners who, under the Trump administration, were allowed to serve their sentence through home detention to slow the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. But a Justice Department memo issued in the final days of the Trump administration said inmates whose sentences will extend beyond the pandemic must be brought back to prison. That included Levi, who has four years left to serve, and about 4,000 other prisoners, some of whom have secured jobs and gone back to school....

More recently, Levi attracted media attention after a trip to a computer class led to her arrest. Levi believed she had been approved to go to the class, her attorney said. She had turned her phone off, unaware that officials at her halfway house would be calling her several times. Levi was arrested four days later. A Bureau of Prisons report called the incident an "escape."

Levi was serving more than 30 years for drug conspiracy charges. Her sentence was reduced to 24 years as part of the First Step Act, a Trump-era criminal justice bill that shortened punishments for nonviolent drug crimes. Before her arrest last month, Levi had been on home confinement for 13 months.

In her ruling granting the request for compassionate release, Chasanow said Levi "has done well on home confinement," notwithstanding the incident that led to her arrest.

In a statement following Chasanow's decision, Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said: "Sending her back to prison for going to a computer class was shameful. She deserves to be home," Ring said. "But the fight is far from over. It's time for the Biden administration to ensure that the 4,000 people on home confinement get to stay home with their families, too."

Advocacy groups have been urging the Justice Department to rescind the Trump-era legal memo, but the administration does not believe the issue is urgent. The Justice Department said in May that inmates with years left to serve are not likely to be sent back to prison anytime soon because the public health crisis is expected to last for the rest of the year.

Some prior recent related posts:

July 6, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Revelatory Nature of COVID-19 Compassionate Release in an Age of Mass Incarceration, Crime Victim Rights, and Mental Health Reform"

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

The crime victim rights movement and mass incarceration grew side-by-side in the United States, and in many ways they deal with similar questions about the purposes, benefits, and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.  The COVID-19 worldwide pandemic in 2020 tested the value attributed to retribution, rehabilitation, and other criminal justice goals in sentencing and incarceration.  Specifically, the First Step Act of 2018 enhanced discretionary compassionate release from prison due to illness and disability, requiring a post-sentencing balance of interests between perceived risks to the prisoner while in prison and risks to the public if release were granted.  Early COVID-19 compassionate release decisions reveal that courts continue to base early release decisions primarily on an assessment of public safety risk from crime, not community impact, crime victim impact, or even prisoner health.  In so doing, judges and prosecutors usurp and marginalize the role of the community and those most affected by crime.

July 6, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 05, 2021

Any hot takes on another lukewarm criminal justice Term from SCOTUS?

Last year as the Supreme Court's October 2019 Term was winding to a close, I pondered in this post whether "others sense that SCOTUS has become particularly (and problematically?) quiet on sentencing matters."  My main point back in summer 2020 was that, following a steady stream of major SCOTUS rulings for the better part of two decades, since 2015 there has been precious few truly memorable Supreme Court rulings in this arena.

Fast forward a year, a the rest of life still feels a lot more eventful than the Supreme Court's sentencing docket and even its broader criminal justice docket.  There were, arguably, more than the usual number of notable sentencing cases, particularly Jones v. Mississippi (Eighth Amendment juve senencing), Borden v. US (ACCA predicates) and  Terry v. US (crack resentencing after FIRST STEP).  But these cases were either applications of prior precedents and/or resolutions of relatively small statutory issues.  Though consequential for particular classes of defendants and somewhat revealing about the commitments of various Justices, none of these cases breaks significant new jurisprudential ground.  The one SCOTUS case this Term that clearly did break new jurisprudential ground, Edwards v. Vannoy (finding non-retroactive unanimous jury Ramos ruling), did so by formally eliminating a part of Teague retroactivity doctrine that had never actually been applied by SCOTUS in three decades.

That all said, my sentencing focus — and my eagerness for juicy cases to blog about — surely distorts my perspectives on any and every SCOTUS Term.  The Term just concluded did have a number of notable Fourth Amendment and immigration rulings that may be a lot more impactful than I realize.  And with three new younger Justices who will likely play a leading role in all SCOTUS doctrines for perhaps decades to come, every one of their votes and discussions in criminal cases could already be viewed as very important.  (Notably, this SCOTUSblog chart reviews the make-up of the entire SCOTUS OT20 docket; criminal law, immigration law, and search and seizure are among the largest categories in that accounting.)    

With that wind up, I would be eager to hear from readers (or Tweeters) with any hot takes on what still feels to me like another lukewarm criminal justice Term from SCOTUS. 

July 5, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Reviewing a few Fourth of July postings (while awaiting Prez Biden clemency action to enhance liberty)

Liberty-us-flag-600-dreamstimeI have not always done special posts to celebrate Independence Day over the last 18 years of blogging.  But, looking back at my archives this morning, I realized I have done enough notable July 4 posts to justify a bit of a celebratory review:

From 2005: Celebrating liberty, Blakely-style

From 2008: Celebrating liberty in the country leading the world in incarceration rates

From 2009: What to the American imprisoned is the Fourth of July?

From 2010: Celebrating our declaration of rights to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"

From 2017: "Everyone should go to jail, say, once every ten years"

From 2018:  Hey Prez Trump, how about honoring Independence Day by using your clemency power to give some more Americans more liberty?

From 2019: Imagining an Independence Day in which Governors and the President compete to use their clemency powers to enhance liberty and freedom

These last two postings serve as a timely reminder that, so far, Prez Joe Biden is yet to live up to his campaign promise to "broadly use his clemency power" in order "to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes."  Commuting the sentences of persons serving undue time in federal prison or on home confinement could and would be, of course, one way to enhance liberty on this special day for celebrating freedoms; granting pardons in order to free persons from burdensome collateral consequences could and would also enhance "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" for deserving recipients.

I am quite fearful that Prez Biden is in no rush to use his clemency authority to enhance liberty.  But, as 2021 marches forward, I am likely to keep highlighting the reality that every 20th Century president, except for Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, granted some clemencies during his first year in office.  Of course, the 21st Century record is much uglier, with a lone pardon by Prez Trump in 2017 as the only first-year clemency grant by a president in the current century.  I will keep rooting for Prez Biden to return to the 20th Century norms rather than continue the ugly 21st Century record, but I am not holding my breath. 

July 4, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 02, 2021

New Federal Sentencing Reporter issue considers "After Trump: The Future of the President’s Pardon Power"

M_fsr.2021.33.5.coverIt strikes me as a great bit of great timing, as we head into a weekend celebrating our great nation's declaration of independence from a monarchy, that the new issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter focused on the pardon power in the US Constitution is just now available online.  It is often said that the presidential pardon authority in Article II section 2 of the Constitution is the most "kingly" power given to our chief executive, and former Prez Donald Trump certainly seemed at times to bring a "mad King George" quality to his activities in this arena.  Notably, as explained in the intro to this June 2021 issue of FSR, the editors had some history and some expert help putting together a new issue on this always timely topic:

This Issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter shines a light on the state of clemency today, with an emphasis on the federal system and events of the Trump administration.  This Issue thus continues an FSR tradition of exploring federal clemency practices under each president, starting in 2001 after President Bill Clinton created controversies with final-day pardons.  Over the last twenty years, an array of commentators have analyzed the actions (and inactions) of four presidents, each of whom embraced quite different goals, perspectives, and strategies.  In addition to bringing thoughtful new perspectives to recent events, the articles assembled today by guest editor Margaret Love, the indefatigable advocate, scholar, and former Pardon Attorney, offer a roadmap to, in her words, “restore legitimacy to the pardon power and its usefulness to the presidency.”  The editors of FSR are — once again — deeply grateful for Ms. Love’s efforts and expertise.

Here are the great new original articles in this great new FSR issue:

July 2, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

In final order list of of SCOTUS OT20, Justices grant cert on 924(c) matter and spar over summary reversal in capital case

Though we are now two days into July 2021, the US Supreme Court has delivered this morning a last jolt of October 2020 Term action with this lengthy order list that has a little something for all SCOTUS fans.  For starters, there are nine grants of certiorari.  The only criminal law grant is yet another debate over what qualifies as a "crime of violence" under federal statutory law.  This time the issue concerns application of 924(c)'s added mandatory punishments for gun use in the case of United States v. Taylor20-1459, which formally presents this question:

Whether 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(3)(A)’s definition of “crime of violence” excludes attempted Hobbs Act robbery, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1951(a).

In addition, there are lots of GVRs and statements concerning cert dispositions on free speech, religion, takings and qualified immunity issues.  But nearly half of the 54-page order list is consumed with a per curiam summary reversal and dissent in the capital case of Dunn v. Reeves20-1084 (S. Ct.  July 2, 2021).  Here is how the 12-page majority opinion starts (with cites mostly removed):

Willie Johnson towed Matthew Reeves’ broken-down car back to the city after finding Reeves stranded on an Alabama dirt road.  In payment for this act of kindness, Reeves murdered Johnson, stole his money, and mocked his dying spasms.  Years after being convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Reeves sought state postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel should have hired an expert to develop sentencing-phase mitigation evidence of intellectual disability.  But despite having the burden to rebut the strong presumption that his attorneys made a legitimate strategic choice, Reeves did not call any of them to testify.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals denied relief, stressing that lack of evidence about counsel’s decisions impeded Reeves’ efforts to prove that they acted unreasonably.  On federal habeas review, the Eleventh Circuit held that this analysis was not only wrong, but indefensible.  In an unpublished, per curiam opinion that drew heavily on a dissent from denial of certiorari, the Eleventh Circuit reinterpreted the Alabama court’s lengthy opinion as imposing a simple per se prohibition on relief in all cases where a prisoner fails to question his counsel.  It was the Eleventh Circuit, however, that went astray in its “readiness to attribute error.” Federal habeas courts must defer to reasonable state-court decisions, 28 U.S.C. §2254(d), and the Alabama court’s treatment of the spotty record in this case was consistent with this Court’s recognition that the absence of evidence cannot overcome the strong presumption that counsel’s conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.

Justice Sotomayor authored a 14-page dissent joined by Justice Kagan. (Justice Breyer also dissented, but without opinion.) Justice Sotomayor dissent ends this way:

Today’s decision continues a troubling trend in which this Court strains to reverse summarily any grants of relief to those facing execution. See, e.g., United States v. Higgs, 592 U.S. ___ (2021) (emergency vacatur of stay and reversal); Shinn v. Kayer, 592 U.S. ___ (2020) (per curiam) (summary vacatur); Dunn v. Ray, 586 U.S. ___ (2019) (emergency vacatur of stay).  This Court has shown no such interest in cases in which defendants seek relief based on compelling showings that their constitutional rights were violated.  See, e.g., Johnson v. Precythe, 593 U.S. ___ (2021) (denying certiorari); Whatley v. Warden, 593 U.S. ___ (2021) (same); Bernard v. United States, 592 U.S. ___ (2020) (same). In Reeves’ case, this Court stops the lower court from granting Reeves’ petition by adopting an utterly implausible reading of the state court’s decision.  In essence, the Court turns “deference,” ante, at 7, into a rule that federal habeas relief is never available to those facing execution.  I respectfully dissent.

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

Thursday, July 01, 2021

"Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Imposes a Moratorium on Federal Executions; Orders Review of Policies and Procedures"

The title of this post is the heading of this notable new US Justice Department press release.  Here is the main text of the press release:

Today, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland issued a memorandum imposing a moratorium on federal executions while a review of the Justice Department’s policies and procedures is pending.

“The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely,” said Attorney General Garland. “That obligation has special force in capital cases.”

In the last two years, the department made a series of changes to capital case policies and procedures and carried out the first federal executions in nearly two decades between July 2020 and January 2021.  That included adopting a new protocol for administering lethal injections at the federal Bureau of Prisons, using the drug pentobarbital.  Attorney General Garland’s memorandum directs the Deputy Attorney General to lead a multi-pronged review of these recent policy changes, including:

  • A review coordinated by the Office of Legal Policy of the Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol, adopted in 2019, which will assess, among other things, the risk of pain and suffering associated with the use of pentobarbital.
  • A review coordinated by the Office of Legal Policy to consider changes to Justice Department regulations made in November 2020 that expanded the permissible methods of execution beyond lethal injection, and authorized the use of state facilities and personnel in federal executions.
  • A review of the Justice Manual’s capital case provisions, including the December 2020 and January 2021 changes to expedite execution of capital sentences.

The Attorney General’s memorandum requires the reviews to include consultations with a wide range of stakeholders including the relevant department components, other federal and state agencies, medical experts and experienced capital counsel, among others.

No federal executions will be scheduled while the reviews are pending.

The Attorney General’s memorandum can be found at this link, and it provides a slightly expanded account for why this moratorium has been imposed and the inquiry to take place during this period.  Here is the notable "preamble" of this two-page memo:

The Department of Justice must ensure that everyone in the federal criminal justice system is not only afforded the rights guaranteed by the Constitution and laws of the United States, but is also treated fairly and humanely.  That obligation has special force in capital cases.  Serious concerns have been raised about the continued use of the death penalty across the country, including arbitrariness in its application, disparate impact on people of color, and the troubling number of exonerations in capital and other serious cases.  Those weighty concerns deserve careful study and evaluation by lawmakers.  In the meantime, the Department must take care to scrupulously maintain our commitment to fairness and humane treatment in the administration of existing federal laws governing capital sentences.

I am tempted to call these actions a "kick the can down the road" effort, but maybe some readers see more to this latest round of hand-wringing by yet another administration not really prepared to go "all in" on capital punishment abolition.

July 1, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Hoping grandmothers and others on home confinement get compassionate consideration

In prior posts (some linked below), I have discussed the Office of Legal Counsel memo which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  There has been particular advocacy directed toward Prez Biden urging him to use his clemency powers to keep these persons from being returned to federal prison, and I have recently argued Congress could and should address this matter with a statutory fix.  But, critically, judges also might be able to grant relief on a case-by-case basis via sentence reduction motions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

One person at risk of serving many more years in prison after success on home confinement, Gwen Levi, is getting particular attention because she seems like low-risk person who has already been re-incarcerated on the basis of a seemingly minor technical violation.  Here are just some of the stories discussing her plight:  

From The Root, " 76-Year-Old Black Woman Released From Prison Amid Pandemic, Sent Back for Missing Phone Calls While Taking a Class"

extraordinary and compelling reasonsFrom USA Today, "'Scared and confused': Elderly inmate sent home during COVID is back in prison after going to computer class"

From the Washington Post, "A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison."

Upon hearing about this story, I expressed on Twitter my hope that Gwen Levi was pursuing a compassionate release motion.  Kevin Ring of FAMM informed me not only that she was, but also that he had submitted a letter in support of her effort to secure a sentence reduction.  Kevin recently sent me a copy of this letter and has allowed me to post it here:

Download ECF 2079 Kevin Ring letter in support of comp. release

Though I do not know all the facts surrounding the crimes and current circumstances of Gwen Levi and the 4000 other persons on home confinement at risk of going back into federal prison, I do know that these situations certainly seem to present "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to consider whether further prison time is needed.  

Some prior recent related posts:

July 1, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases "A New Lease on Life" looking at release mechanisms and recidivism realities

Images (3)The Sentencing Project today released this timely new report titled "A New Lease on Life" which starts with these "Findings and Recommendations":

A dramatic consequence of America’s investment in mass incarceration is life imprisonment.  Today there are more people serving life sentences alone than the entire prison population in 1970, the dawn of the mass incarceration era.  Though life sentences have always been allowable in the U.S., it is only in recent decades that these sentences have become normalized to such an extent that entire prisons are now filled or nearly filled with people serving life terms.

Despite a cultural tendency for Americans to view the U.S. crime and criminal legal system as “exceptional,” other countries have experienced ebbs and flows in crime rates but have not resorted to the levels of imprisonment, nor the lengths of prison sentences, that are commonplace in the U.S.  To the contrary, restoration of human dignity and the development of resilience are at the core of an evolved criminal legal system; systems elsewhere that emphasize the responsibility of government support to returning citizens serves as a model for the U.S.

In this report we set out to accomplish two tasks.  First, we examine reoffending rates among people released from prison after a violent crime conviction and review research on the topic, covering both domestic and international findings.  Second, we provide personal testimony from people who have left prison after a violent crime conviction.  Inviting impacted persons to share their transition experiences serves policymakers and practitioners in strengthening necessary support for successful and satisfying reentry from prison. This report focuses on the outcomes of a narrow segment of the prison population: people convicted of violent crimes, including those sentenced to life and virtual life sentences, who have been released to the community through parole or executive clemency.  People with violent crime convictions comprise half the overall state prison population in the U.S. They are depicted as the most dangerous if released, but ample evidence refutes this.

Findings

• We can safely release people from prison who have been convicted of violent crime much sooner than we typically do. Most people who commit homicide are unlikely to do so again and overall rates of violent offending of any type among people released from a life sentence are rare.

• Definitional limitations of the term “recidivism” obstruct a thorough understanding of the true incidence of violent offending among those released from prison, contributing to inaccurate estimates of reoffending.

• People exiting prison from long term confinement need stronger support around them. Many people exhibit a low crime risk but have high psychological, financial, and vocational demands that have been greatly exacerbated by their lengthy incarceration.

• People exiting prison after serving extreme sentences are eager to earn their release and demonstrate their capacity to contribute in positive ways to society. Prison staff and peers view lifers as a stabilizing force in the prison environment, often mentoring younger prisoners and serving as positive role models.

We make five recommendations that, if adopted, will advance our criminal legal system toward one that is fair, efficient, and humane.

1. Standardize definitions of recidivism. Authors of government reports and academic studies should take great care to standardize the definition of criminal recidivism so that practitioners, policymakers, the media, and other consumers of recidivism research do not carelessly interpret findings on reoffending statistics without digging into either the meaning or the accuracy of the statements.

2. Insist on responsible and accurate media coverage. Media consumers and producers alike must insist on accurate portrayals of crime despite the temptation to skew media coverage so that rare violent crime events appear as commonplace. Heavily skewed media coverage of rare violent crime events creates a misleading view of the frequency of violent crime. Add to this the overly simplistic assumption, allowed by inarticulate reporting, that people released from prison have caused upticks in violence.

3. Allow some level of risk. Reset the acceptable recidivism rate to allow for reasonable public safety risk. The public’s risk expectation is currently set at zero, meaning that no amount of recidivism is politically acceptable in a system that “works” even though such expectations are not attainable in any sphere of human endeavor or experience. But this expectation is largely based on highly tragic and sensationalized events that are falsely equated as the result of releasing people from prison. We have to balance our aspirations for a crime-free society with reasonable approaches to public safety and human rights considerations for both those who have caused harm and those who have been victimized by it.

4. Reform and accelerate prison release mechanisms. Decisionmakers considering whether to grant prison release rely too heavily on the crime of conviction as the predominant factor under consideration. This approach is neither fair nor accurate. It is unfair because it repunishes the individual for a crime for which they have already been sanctioned. Risk of criminal conduct, even violent criminal conduct, closely tracks aging such that as people age into adulthood there is a sharp decline in proclivity to engage in additional acts of violence.

5. Substantially improve housing support. Inability to secure housing after release from prison was mentioned frequently by people we interviewed for this report. Failure of the correctional system to ensure stable housing upon exit from decades-long prison sentences imposes unnecessary challenges. Though some released persons will be able to rely on nonprofit charity organizations, shelters, or family, the most vulnerable people will fall through the cracks. We have both a public safety and a humanitarian obligation to avoid this result.

June 30, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Interesting split Fourth Circuit panel debate while upholding resentencing to 52 years for violent offenses by 15-year-old

A helpful reader made sure I did not miss the interesting discussion of sentencing practices and outcomes by a Fourth Circuit panel yesterday in US v. Friend, No. 20-4129 (4th Cir. June 28, 2021) (available here). The first paragraph of the majority opinion sets the terms:

Appellant Philip Friend, who actively participated as a fifteen-year-old juvenile in a series of violent carjackings, challenges the fifty-two-year sentence imposed by the district court after a remand in this case.  Our remand instructed the district court to give a more thorough explanation for its sentence, with the prospect that a more tempered sentence might also result.  United States v. Friend, 755 F. App’x 234 (4th Cir. 2018).  These things have now both come to pass. The offenses in question occurred long ago, but their consequences have been long lasting. Because the district court acted within its discretion in imposing the present sentence, we affirm.

And here is a key passage from the majority's extended discussion and the concluding sentiments of the majority (cites removed):

But to sum it up, it is clearly permissible for a sentencing court to weigh the gravity of the offense or the impact a defendant’s crimes have had on a community and to vindicate that community’s interest in justice.  That after all, is the reason a defendant is before the court.  An exclusive focus on one factor impermissibly vitiates the requisite individualized consideration.  On the other hand, for appellate courts to micromanage sentencings and demand a district court assign equal weight to each § 3553(a) factor would also disregard a sentencing’s individualized inquiry and toss our deferential abuse-of-discretion review to the winds.  Ultimately, defendant’s disagreement with the district court’s weighing of the sentencing factors is not enough to find the sentence procedurally unreasonable....

To find this sentence unreasonable would displace the discretion that district judges possess in setting sentences. We are a court of appellate review, not a panel of appellate sentencers. District courts are granted exceptional discretion in sentencing for a reason.  They view the full criminal tableau first-hand, and they weigh the conflicting evidence and competing arguments. Their choices are not easy. When a court abuses its discretion, it is this court’s duty to correct the error. But when a district court is responsive to our mandates and reasonably exercises its sentencing power, we must respect its judgment.  So we do here.

Writing in dissent, Judge Floyd explains at length why he sees matters differently. His opinion starts this way:

At the age of fifteen, Philip Bernard Friend and various members of his family committed a series of extremely serious crimes.  Nobody disputes the severity of those offenses or the irreparable harm that Philip visited upon the lives of his victims and their families.  But this appeal tests the legality of the district court’s imposition of a fifty-two year sentence on a juvenile offender.  Today, the majority declares Philip’s half-century sentence procedurally and substantively reasonable.  Because I cannot agree with the majority’s conclusion on either score, I respectfully dissent.

June 29, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Booker in the Circuits, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 28, 2021

Colorado Supreme Court rules mandatory lifetime sex offender registration violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment

A helpful reader made sure I saw an interesting ruling, handed down today by a 6-1 vote, from the Colorado Supreme Court in People in the Interest of T.B., 2021 CO 59 (Colo. June 28, 2021) (available here).  Here is how the majority opinion starts:

T.B. committed two sexual offenses as a minor — the first when he was eleven years old and the second when he was fifteen.  Because he was twice adjudicated delinquent for unlawful sexual behavior, the Colorado Sex Offender Registration Act, §§ 16-22-101 to -115, C.R.S. (2020) (“CSORA”), requires T.B. to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his natural life.  Now an adult, T.B. seeks review of the juvenile court’s denial of his petition to deregister, arguing that CSORA’s mandatory lifetime sex offender registration requirement for offenders with multiple juvenile adjudications violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.  We agree.

Mandatory lifetime sex offender registration brands juveniles as irredeemably depraved based on acts committed before reaching adulthood.  But a wealth of social science and jurisprudence confirms what common sense suggests: Juveniles are different.  Minors have a tremendous capacity to change and reform.  As such, mandating lifetime sex offender registration for juveniles without providing a mechanism for individualized assessment or an opportunity to deregister upon a showing of rehabilitation is excessive and violates the Eighth Amendment.  Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part the judgment of the court of appeals and remand with instructions to order a new hearing on T.B.’s petition to deregister.

As the T.B. opinion notes, the Ohio Supreme Court has issued a similar ruling some years ago and top courts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey have found due process problems with mandatory juve sex offender registration.  As the T.B. opinion also notes, the Colorado General Assembly recently passed a bill to eliminate mandatory lifetime sex offender registration for offenders with multiple juvenile adjudications, so the state likely will not have an interest in pursuing any appeal of this ruling.

June 28, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Lots of criminal justice sound (and fury, signifying nothing?) in latest SCOTUS order list

The Supreme Court is apparently not going to issue the final opinions of the Term today, but it did issue this lengthy order list which has a number of interesting elements for criminal justice fans.

For starters, there is this per curiam summary decision in Lombardo v. St. Louis, with the majority reversing the decision to grant summary judgment on an excessive force claim against St. Louis and police officers who killed a disruptive suspect in a holding cell.  Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, complains that the majority "unfairly interprets the Court of Appeals’ decision and evades the real issue that this case presents: whether the record supports summary judgment in favor of the defendant police officers and the city of St. Louis."

Though Lombardo makes precedent, I am even more intrigued by Justice Thomas's decision to pen this five-page statement respecting the denial of cert in a tax case, Standing Akimbo v. US,  in order to question whether the Raich decision upholding federal power to prohibit all marijuana activity is still good law. Here are excerpts:

Whatever the merits of Raich when it was decided, federal policies of the past 16 years have greatly undermined its reasoning. Once comprehensive, the Federal Government’s current approach is a half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana. This contradictory and unstable state of affairs strains basic principles of federalism and conceals traps for the unwary....

This disjuncture between the Government’s recent laissez-faire policies on marijuana and the actual operation of specific laws is not limited to the tax context. Many marijuana-related businesses operate entirely in cash because federal law prohibits certain financial institutions from knowingly accepting deposits from or providing other bank services to businesses that violate federal law. Black & Galeazzi, Cannabis Banking: Proceed With Caution, American Bar Assn., Feb. 6, 2020.  Cash-based operations are understandably enticing to burglars and robbers. But, if marijuana-related businesses, in recognition of this, hire armed guards for protection, the owners and the guards might run afoul of a federal law that imposes harsh penalties for using a firearm in furtherance of a “drug trafficking crime.” 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(1)(A).  A marijuana user similarly can find himself a federal felon if he just possesses a firearm. §922(g)(3). Or petitioners and similar businesses may find themselves on the wrong side of a civil suit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. See, e.g., Safe Streets Alliance v. Hickenlooper, 859 F. 3d 865, 876– 877 (CA10 2017) (permitting such a suit to proceed).

I could go on. Suffice it to say, the Federal Government’s current approach to marijuana bears little resemblance to the watertight nationwide prohibition that a closely divided Court found necessary to justify the Government’s blanket prohibition in Raich. If the Government is now content to allow States to act “as laboratories” “‘and try novel social and economic experiments,’”  Raich, 545 U.S., at 42 (O’Connor, J., dissenting), then it might no longer have authority to intrude on “[t]he States’ core police powers . . . to define criminal law and to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.” Ibid. A prohibition on intrastate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the Federal Government’s piecemeal approach.

Last but not least, in this nine-page dissent from the denial of cert in Hernandez v. Peery, Justice Sotomayor explains at great length why the Ninth Circuit was wrong to refuse to issue a certificate of appealability in a habeas appeal involving a claimed denial of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

June 28, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Some clemency news and notes from (only) a few states

If there was lots of clemency action in lots of jurisdictions lots of the time, I might not consider a few grants by a few governors to be especially blogworthy.  But clemency action is still all too rare, so it notable to see clemency stories from a few states in one week:

From Florida, "Florida governor pushes through pardon for COVID-19 rule breakers"

From Kansas, "Kansas governor grants clemency to 8, embracing ‘political risk’ in rare use of power"

From Oregon, "Gov. Kate Brown commutes sentences of 41 inmates who helped battle historic wildfires"

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

SCOTUSblog flags three notable new sentencing cert petitions

Last year around this time, I expressed my sense that it has been quite some time since the Supreme Court has taken up a really big and interesting sentencing case.  This post from near the end of last year's SCOTUS Term, titled "Do others sense that SCOTUS has become particularly (and problematically?) quiet on sentencing matters?", captured this zeitgeist.  In the year since, we have gotten a few notable sentencing rulings (on juve LWOP in Jones and on ACCA predicates in Borden, but these decisions are more clarifications than game-changers.

I review these broad realities not just because we are approaching the close of another SCOTUS Term, but also because SCOTUSblog has this new post spotlighting three new cert petitions that could each lead to a significant sentencing ruling.  Here some details from a post worth reading in full:

This week we highlight cert petitions that ask the Supreme Court to consider, among other things, the use of acquitted conduct in sentencing decisions, when a sentencing court must consider a defendant’s juvenile status as a mitigating factor, and compassionate release under the First Step Act.

According to the federal Sentencing Guidelines, a judge may adjust the recommended range of an offense based on a defendant’s “relevant conduct.” While the jury considers whether conduct is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, relevant conduct for sentencing purposes need only be proven to the judge by a preponderance of the evidence and can include acquitted conduct. In Osby v. United States, Erick Osby was indicted on seven charges; the jury convicted him of two and acquitted him of the other five. But because the judge considered his acquitted charges as relevant conduct, his sentence was the same as it could have been had he been convicted by the jury of all seven charges. Osby argues that adjusting a sentence based on acquitted conduct violates his rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, which guarantee due process under the law and the right to a jury trial.  While the Supreme Court has declined to address similar questions on this topic in the past, some of the justices have expressed their discontent with the practice of using acquitted conduct in sentencing decisions.  Osby asks the justices for their review to decide whether the practice is unconstitutional.

Next, in Sanders v. Radtke the justices are asked to consider the impact of juvenile status on sentencing decisions.  The petitioner, Rico Sanders, was convicted of multiple rape and assault charges at the age of 15 and sentenced to 140 years in prison with the possibility of parole at age 51. Sanders maintains that the Eighth Amendment and prior precedent required the sentencing court to consider his youth as a mitigating factor. He argues that the principle requiring sentencing courts to consider youth as a mitigating factor applies to life sentences with the possibility of parole in the same way it applies to life sentences without any possibility of parole. The petition further alleges that Sanders’ youth was used as an “aggravating factor” by the sentencing court, and he seeks the court’s review to clarify the circumstances under which a defendant’s youth must be considered as a mitigating factor.

Finally, Bryant v. United States presents a question regarding the compassionate-release provision of the federal criminal code, as amended by the First Step Act of 2018....  In 2019, Thomas Bryant filed a motion for compassionate release in district court. The government opposed his motion and argued that the reasons given in Bryant’s motion did not satisfy the criteria in the 2007 policy statement [by the USSC]. Further, the government argued that the 2007 policy statement was an “applicable” policy statement under the compassionate-release provision and that the district court was thus bound by it. The district court denied Bryant’s motion based on the reasons given by the government, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed.  Bryant argues that the decision created a circuit split, in direct conflict with eight other circuits, over whether district courts are bound by the 2007 policy statement when deciding defendant-filed motions.  He seeks review to clarify what constitutes an “applicable” policy statement for defendant-filed motions under the First Step Act.

These three cases will not be fully briefed until later this summer, and so we likely will not know about possible grants until the Fall when SCOTUS returns to action for OT21.  If the Justices were to decide to take up even one of these issues, that would be a big sentencing deal.  I highly doubt the Court will take up all these issues, but I think the circuit split behind Bryant makes it a pretty likely grant and I hope some of the newer Justices might be eager to take up the issue in Osby.  After Jones, I think the Sanders case may be the longest shot (but, given recetn history, perhaps we should just assume the odds are long on all of these).

June 27, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Why aren't there much stronger calls for CONGRESS to fix post-pandemic home confinement problems?

In many prior posts (some linked below), I have discussed the Office of Legal Counsel memo released at the end of the Trump Administration which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  I see that there are two more notable new press articles on this topic:

From The Hill, "Biden faces criticism for not extending home confinement for prisoners"

From the Washington Post, "A grandmother didn’t answer her phone during a class. She was sent back to prison."

The somewhat scattered Post article focuses on persons sent from home confinement back into federal prison for minor technical violations while also noting that the Biden Administration could seek to rescind the OLC memo or use clemency powers to keep folks home after the pandemic is deemed over.  The lengthy Hill article is more focused on the political discussion around this issue, but my post title reflects my growing frustration with this discourse.  Here are excerpts:

President Biden is under fire for not announcing an extension of a home confinement program for prisoners that was started during the coronavirus pandemic.  Progressives and criminal justice advocates have pressured the administration for months to rescind a Trump-era policy that kills the program when the pandemic ends.  They are frustrated that Biden's remarks this week didn’t address it....

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who led a letter of 28 House Democrats in April calling for the policy to be rescinded, “is disappointed he hasn’t officially extended the home confinement program,” a spokesperson said....

The home confinement program during the coronavirus pandemic was launched in response to the CARES Act in March and directed the federal Bureau of Prisons to prioritize home confinement for certain inmates in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.  Roughly 24,000 inmates since have been sent to home confinement.

In the final days of the Trump administration, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo stating that under federal law, those inmates released under the CARES Act must report back to prison when the coronavirus emergency is over, unless they are nearing the end of their sentence.  Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland could rescind that policy....

Advocates also argue that those inmates transferred to home confinement have been monitored and largely have not violated the conditions of their situation. “If they’re so low risk and they haven’t violated the conditions, it’s hard to imagine any reason why they should be sent back,” said Maria Morris, senior staff attorney at the ACLU National Prison Project, adding that it would be a “ridiculous waste of resources.”

Many of the inmates placed in home confinement are elderly or in a vulnerable situation due to COVID-19, which posed a threat to them if they stayed inside a prison.  [Holly] Harris calls it “bad government” to send those inmates back to prisons. “At this point, the president just needs to grant them clemency and let them move on.  They are out because the Trump Administration felt it was safe enough to let them go home.  What more cover does he need?” she said.

I agree entirely with advocates saying it would be "bad government" and a "ridiculous waste of resources" to send back to prison thousands of vulnerable people who have been successful serving their sentences at home during the pandemic.  But I do not think it entirely right to describe the OLC memo as a "Trump-era policy" that is readily changed by the Biden Administration.  The OLC memo is not really a "policy" document; it is an elaborate interpretation of how the CARES Act alters BOP authority to place and keep persons in home confinement.  Though the OLC statutory interpretation requiring a return of persons to federal prison is debatable, the fact that this interpretation of the CARES Act amounts to bad policy does not itself give the Biden Administration a basis to just ignore statutory law.

Of course, statutory law notwithstanding, Prez Biden could (and I think should) use his clemency authority to extended home confinement for those at risk of being sent back to federal prison post-pandemic.  But if members of Congress are "disappointed" that the home confinement program is not being extended, they should amend the CARES Act to do exactly that with an express statutory provision!  This difficult issue stems from the text of the CARES Act; if the statutory text Congress passed when COVID first hit now is clearly operating to creates wasteful, bad government, Congress can and should fix that statutory text.  Put simply, this matter is a statutory problem that calls for a statutory fix. 

I surmise that advocates (not unreasonably) assume that getting a gridlocked Congress to "fix" this CARES Act home confinement problem through statutory reform is much less likely than achieving some other fix through executive action.  But, as I see it, exclusive focus on executive action to fix what is fundamentally a statutory problem itself contributes to legislative gridlock.  Indeed, I am more inclined to criticize the Biden Administration for not urging Congress to fix this CARES Act problem, especially because the notable success of home confinement policies during the pandemic could and should justify statutory reforms to even more broadly authorize ever greater use of home confinement in "normal" times.

Notably, three sentencing-related bill made their way through the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month (basics here).  Because I am not an expert on either legislative procedure or inside-the-Beltway politics, I do not know if it would be easy or impossible to include add "home confinement fix" to one of these bills.  But I do know that I will always want to believe that Congress at least has the potential to fix problems of its own creation.  But, as this post is meant to stress, I think it important not too lose sight of the fact that this is a fundamentally a congressional problem, not a presidential one.      

Some prior recent related posts:

UPDATE:  Achieving a media troika, the New York Times also published this lengthy article on this topic under the headline "Thousands of Prisoners Were Sent Home Because of Covid. They Don’t Want to Go Back."  Like the Post article, this piece is a bit scattered in its focus while also directing most of the attention on the Justice Department and Biden Administration rather than highlighting Congress's critical role in this story.  This passage is especially notable:

Changing the prison system is one of the few areas that has drawn bipartisanship agreement in Washington. Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, joined Democrats in criticizing the Justice Department memo, which was issued in January.

“Obviously if they can stay where they are, it’s going to save the taxpayers a lot of money,” Mr. Grassley said at the hearing [before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April]. “It will also help people who aren’t prone to reoffend and allows inmates to successfully re-enter society as productive citizens.”

The next sentence of this article, if it were telling the full story, should at the very least note that Congress could "fix" the OLC memo through a simple statutory change. I agree with Senator Grassley that it would be wrong to send all these folks back to prison after they have done well on home confinement, and so I think Senator Grassley should get together with his pals on the Capital Hill and pass a statute to that the law no longer could be interpreted to require sending them all back to prison at taxpayer expense.

June 27, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Biden Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Terrific CCRC review of new RAND report on presidential pardons

In this post last week, I flagged this massive report produced by RAND Corporation titled "Statistical Analysis of Presidential Pardons."  Helpfully, Margaret Love over at the Collateral Consequence Resource Center has completed this terrific overview of the reports, and here are excerpts from her posting:

In a 224-page statistical analysis of how pardon petitions were evaluated by the Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA) between 2001 and 2012, the RAND researchers “[did] not find statistically significant evidence that there are racial differences in the rates at which black and white petitioners receive [favorable] pardon recommendations.” (Note that sentence commutations were not a part of the RAND study.)  At the same time, there was also “no question that non-Hispanic white petitioners as a group were more likely to receive a pardon than did black petitioners.”  The apparent contradiction between these two statements can be explained by the fact that white applicants were statistically more likely to satisfy the formal standards that apply to OPA decisions about which cases to recommend for pardon, suggesting that either the formal standards need revision or the pool of applicants needs to be expanded, or both....

Finally, in what may be the most disturbing finding for the Biden Administration, the RAND report observes that OPA appears to be struggling to manage a growing case backlog despite having had its attorney staff augmented during the Obama years....

Since June 2018, in part because of President Trump’s deliberate neglect of the regular pardon process, the backlog of pending pardon petitions has grown to more than 3,000 cases, some of which have been pending for more than a decade, while the commutation caseload now exceeds 12,000 cases.  The RAND report expresses concern that this overwhelming caseload may increase the time it takes to process a pardon application, which it characterizes as already “long and drawn-out.”  Indeed, it suggests that an intractable backlog could continue to grow given the hundreds of thousands of individuals who are eligible to apply for pardon, particularly if they are “motivated to apply under the belief that a more receptive ear currently resides in the White House.”  The report does not suggest alternative ways of dealing with the caseload, such as shortcutting the investigative process or increasing administrative case closures, as much as conceding that such efficiency measures would have racially skewed results.

June 24, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

First person taken of Ohio death row based on new statute precluding capital punishment for those with "serious mentally illness"

In this post back in January, I reported on the new Ohio statute precluding the death penalty for those with "serious mentally illness."  Today I can report, with the help of this local article, that this law has now moved one person off Ohio's death row: "A Columbus man sentenced to death in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her father has become the first inmate in Ohio removed from death row under a new state law that bans the execution of the seriously mentally ill."  Here are more interesting details:

The death sentence of David L. Braden, 61, was vacated last week by a Franklin County judge, who resentenced him to life without parole.

The county prosecutor's office and the state public defender's office agreed that Braden, at the time of his crime, met the criteria for serious mental illness under the new Ohio law, which went into effect April 12.  Both sides prepared an order that was signed by Common Pleas Judge Colleen O'Donnell.

Ohio was the first state to create such a law, thus Braden is also the first death-row inmate in the nation "to be removed from death row because of a statutory prohibition against executing people with a serious mental illness," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

The Virginia legislature was close to approving a similar law late last year, Dunham said, but instead banned the death penalty in March, becoming the 23rd state to do so.

The Ohio law, House Bill 136, was overwhelmingly approved by the state House in June of last year and by the state Senate in December.  Gov. Mike DeWine signed the measure in January and it became law 90 days later.

The law designates certain mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as qualifying disorders if the condition "significantly impaired the person's capacity to exercise rational judgment in relation to his or her conduct" or "to appreciate the nature, consequences or wrongfulness" of the conduct.  The law applies not only to current and future capital cases, but provides the possibility of postconviction relief for those already on death row who can establish that they qualified as seriously mentally ill at the time of their offense.

While prosecutors have the option to oppose such petitions and request a hearing before a judge, Janet Grubb, Franklin County first assistant prosecuting attorney, said a careful review of information from Braden's appellate attorneys made such a challenge unnecessary.  "We saw enough during the exchange of information to conclude that a reasonable fact-finder in our court would determine that this individual qualified under the statute," said Grubb, who signed the order on behalf of Prosecutor Gary Tyack's office.

Tyack, who was elected in November, had no involvement in the decision, Grubb said.  Because Tyack served on the 10th District Court of Appeals for one of Braden's appeals, he had a conflict of interest that required Grubb to serve as prosecutor on the matter.  "Gary was completely walled off" from discussions about Braden's petition, Grubb said.

Braden was 39 when he was convicted by a Franklin County jury in May 1999 of fatally shooting Denise Roberts, 44, and Ralph "Bud" Heimlich, 83, at the home they shared on Barthel Avenue on the East Side on Aug. 3, 1998.  Testimony established that Braden and Roberts were seen arguing in a parking lot outside her workplace earlier in the day.  A man matching his description was seen fleeing the victims' home after neighbors heard gunshots.

All of Braden's appeals over the years, including one heard by the Ohio Supreme Court, have been rejected, although a case in federal court was still pending. Kathryn Sandford, an assistant state public defender who has handled Braden's appeals since his conviction, said the federal case will be dismissed as a result of the agreed order signed by O'Donnell.

Sandford and Steve Brown, a fellow assistant state public defender, filed the petition outlining Braden's qualifications for the serious-mental-illness designation. They included the findings of a psychologist who determined that Braden suffered from "paranoid schizophrenia with delusions" before committing the murders.

Since the early to mid-1990s, they wrote, a brother and sister-in-law testified that Braden had made statements about being a prophet of God, while friends attested to his paranoia and alarming personality changes. Since the beginning of his incarceration, Braden has been treated with anti-psychotic medication to control his psychotic symptoms, according to his attorneys.

A psychologist testified during the sentencing phase of Braden's trial that he was mentally ill, but the jury recommended a death sentence, which was imposed by then-Common Pleas Judge Michael H. Watson....

As part of the prosecutor's office review of Braden's petition, it was required by a separate state law to contact the family of the victims to inform them of the request, Grubb said. "The survivor we met with understood the position we were in," she said. "I think she reluctantly accepted that this was something that made sense on multiple levels."

June 24, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

"Dead Man Waiting: A brief profile of deaths in Texas prisons among people approved for parole release"

The title of this post is the title of this remarkable new report that provides a critical reminder the "being paroled" is a nuanced (and not-always-life -saving) reality in Texas.  Here is the report's abstract which also discusses its origin and authors:

A troubling number of people in Texas prisons and jails who have been approved for release on parole are dying in custody before they ever step foot outside prison gates, according to a new report from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. In a first-of-its-kind analysis, “Dead Man Waiting,” shows that while deaths among parole-approved people increased during the COVID period, this population was already dying in large numbers from other chronic health issues while awaiting release.  The findings in this report raise serious questions about the state’s parole system and why people who met the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole (BPP)’s stringent approval guidelines could end up dead before their release.  Researchers offer recommendations for safely releasing this population immediately after parole approval. This report was produced as part of the COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, with support from Arnold Ventures. The COVID, Corrections, and Oversight Project is led by Michele Deitch, Project Director, and Alycia Welch, Associate Director.

Here are just a few paragraphs from the first part of the short report:

There are more than 10,700 people in Texas prisons who have been approved for release on parole but remain in custody.  This number represents nearly one-tenth of the entire Texas prison population. Despite being approved for parole, some of these people will never walk out the prison gates because they die while waiting for release....

In any given month before COVID, people remained in Texas prisons for an average of 3 to 4 months after their parole approval before they were released.  During the COVID pandemic, the typical delay in release ranged from 5 to 11 months; the overall average was 6 months.

Between March 2020, when TDCJ locked down its facilities due to COVID, and March 2021, at least 42 people who were approved for release on parole died in Texas prisons. These are people who BPP determined are safe enough to be released by a certain date or pending the completion of a required program.  They met some of the nation’s most burdensome standards for parole approval and yet they still died behind bars while awaiting their release.

June 22, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 21, 2021

Lots of GVRs (especially to Fifth Circuit) on latest SCOTUS order list

In this prior post following the Supreme Court's important ruling in Borden v. US, No. 19–5410 (S. Ct. June 10, 2021) (available here), limiting applicable ACCA predicates, I asked "How many federal prisoners might now be serving illegal sentences after Borden?".  Though that question may never get a precise answer, today's Supreme Court order list has a bunch of Borden GVRs which showcases which circuits will be most busy with the Borden fallout.

Specifically, by my count, the Borden GVRs come from the Fifth Circuit (16 of them!), the Sixth Circuit (two), the Tenth Circuit (two), and the Eleventh Circuit (one).  There is also a very long list of cert denials in the order list, so I would guess that not everyone pressing an ACCA claim secured a GVR.  (And, of course, there are surely many folks serving Borden-iffy ACCA sentences who did not have pending cert petitions.)

As always, I welcome input on whether any of these GVRs or denials are surprising or noteworthy (or other Borden application news).  

Prior related posts:

June 21, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 20, 2021

"The President’s Conditional Pardon Power"

The title of this post is the title of this new Note in the latest issue of the Harvard Law Review.  Here is the end of the Note's introduction:

This Note concludes that the President’s pardons may not include conditions that deprive an individual of rights not already deprived by that individual’s conviction (or, in the case of preemptive pardons, rights that would have been deprived by a guilty plea).  This internal limitation is externally reinforced by the Due Process Clause.  This Note’s historical and constitutional arguments should inform judges faced with conditional pardon cases.  Whatever disagreements may arise over this Note’s descriptive account of the conditional pardon power’s limits, the examination of risks from unfettered conditional pardons commends to future administrations the wisdom of prudential limits.

Part I introduces the conditional pardon power jurisprudence.  It begins by examining three cases showing that (1) English common law informs the President’s pardon power and (2) American courts oscillate between two distinct theories of the President’s pardon power.  The first theory, which this Note dubs the “merciful-contract” theory of pardons, envisions pardons as a private act between President and pardon recipient.  By contrast, the “public-welfare” theory understands pardons as an instrument of the general welfare.  This Part next describes two conceptions of the conditional pardon power: a “Broad Position” that would impose no limits on the conditional pardon power and a “Narrow Position” that insists on limits but fails to precisely define them.

Part II argues that the Broad Position cannot be correct.  After establishing that the conditional pardon power poses unique danger to constitutional rights, it concludes that the English common law, the Framing, and structural inference from our constitutional system all suggest a conditional pardon power that is far from plenary.

Part III identifies this limit: pardon conditions may only divest rights already forfeited by dint of conviction.  It explains the limit using examples before fitting it into the theoretical framework of the pardon power.  Finally, this Part compares the identified limit with other proposals and situates it within constitutional theory generally. Part IV concludes.

June 20, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Local report on federal compassionate release in Rhode Island raises questions about US Sentencing Commission data

A helpful reader made sure I saw this new reporting about federal compassionate release practices from a local source in the Ocean State under the headline "Federal inmates seeking early release in RI approved 40% of the time in 2020."  Here are excerpts (with a little emphasis added):

More than one of every three federal inmates sentenced in Rhode Island who sought compassionate release last year was let go early from prison, according to data from the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island.

A new report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission found Rhode Island federal judges were second only to jurists in Oregon for districts granting compassionate release requests during 2020.  While data directly from federal court in Providence shows the Sentencing Commission undercounted denials during that time period, U.S. District Judge William Smith said he wasn’t surprised to learn Rhode Island was more likely than other districts to grant early release.  “I think we’ve been really, really aggressive and careful about compassionate release petitions that have come before us,” Smith said. “We’ve paid a lot of attention to them and I am really proud of the way we’ve handled them.”

A Target 12 review of data provided by the federal court found 78 inmates who were sentenced in Rhode Island requested an early release in 2020.  Of those requests, 45 were denied, 30 were granted, and three were withdrawn.

Smith said weighing whether they should grant an early release is a balancing test between the risk to an inmate, and a risk to the community.  “There were various points in the pandemic when some federal prisons were literally on fire with the virus,” Smith said.

He added that the judges were keenly aware that a denial of an early release could be tantamount to a death sentence at the height of the pandemic. “There were times when you would go to bed at night hoping you wouldn’t wake up in the morning to find someone you had under consideration for compassionate release was now on a ventilator in a hospital,” he said. “That was going on all across the country.”

Despite those concerns, the answer was still “no” more often than “yes.” “If [an inmate] is in for a very long period of time for a crime of violence – let’s say – that is much more difficult and probably don’t grant that one,” Smith said.

That was the case with inmates Gregory Floyd and Harry Burdick, who were convicted in the horrific June 2000 execution-style slaying of Jason Burgeson and Amy Scute at a golf course in Johnston. The couple was carjacked after leaving a club in Providence before being gunned down. Both Floyd and Burdick had their compassionate release requests denied.

A Target 12 review of the cases that were granted an early release found none of the inmates were serving time for crimes of violence.  The vast majority of the convictions – 19 of 30 – were primarily drugs cases, five were financial crime convictions, two were firearm possession cases, and one each of art theft, escape from prison, bank robbery, and a conviction of “transportation with intent to prostitute.”...

Thousands of inmates across the country [filed CR motions] as COVID-19 was ripping through congregate care facilities, including prisons. According to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, more than 44,000 inmates contracted the virus and 238 of them died. Four BOP staff members also succumbed to the disease. “I am really proud to say as far as I know, not a single inmate from Rhode Island died of coronavirus in prison,” Smith said, adding just one inmate who was released committed a violation that sent them back to prison.

With the pandemic seemingly receding, 2021 has been a different story. Of the 23 inmates who have asked for compassionate release since January, just one has been granted. “The medical issues are not as chronic, not as severe, the prisons are in a much better shape in terms of controlling the virus,” Smith said. “Then the third piece is the vaccination rate has been rising.”...

But for those who refused to get the vaccine, especially out of personal preference, Smith said that wouldn’t likely help any of their future arguments for compassionate release on the basis of being at heightened risk of contracting the virus. “I think it is on them,” he said.

I lamented last week in this post that the US Sentencing Commission's data run on CR motions in 2020 provided no information about the persons in prison or the crimes that were resulting in grants and denials of sentence reductions.  It is thus quite valuable to see this local report detail that nearly two-thirds of persons getting sentence reductions were in drug cases and apparently none involved crime of violence.  It will be interesting to see if this pattern holds true if and when we get more details from more districts.

But while pleased for this additional data from Rhode Island, I am troubled to see that the US Sentencing Commission may be (drastically?) under-reporting denials of relief.  I do not want to assume anything hinky is going on, because there may be valid data collection question and challenges here explaining the discrepancy between the USSC data report and the data reported by the local news source.  For example, if a defendant is initially denied a motion for a sentence reduction, perhaps on procedural grounds, and then a month later prevails on such a motion, is this is coded as just one grant or is it one denial and one grant?

For all sort of reasons, I think it will prove very important to try to be very careful assembling accurate data here on all sorts of sentence reduction particulars.  The US Sentencing Commission, if and when it ever has Commissioners, will at some point need to modify various policy statements about these matters, and good data will be critical for the USSC and others advising the USSC to do their work in sound ways.

A few of many prior related posts:

June 17, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Massive new RAND report provides "Statistical Analysis of Presidential Pardons"

I received an email yesterday from the Bureau of Justice Statistics with a link to this 220+ page report produced by RAND Corporation titled "Statistical Analysis of Presidential Pardons."  The report is so big and intricate that the introduction runs 40 pages with lots of complicated data.  And, disappointingly, it seems the detailed statistical analysis includes data only running through April 2012 (through most of Prez Obama's first term) and so does not include the flush of pardons and commutations granted over the last decade. Still, the report provides a lot of coverage that should be of great interest to those who follow the use of federal clemency powers and possibilities.  Here is a snippet from Chapter 1 of the report that details its coverage:

Chapter 2 presents a model of the deliberative process employed by OPA in evaluating incoming pardon petitions.  Chapter 3 provides descriptive statistics on measures collected during our abstraction of sample petition files.  Chapter 4 reports on the findings from our statistical analysis intended to identify petitioner and petition characteristics most strongly associated with grants of pardon — with a special emphasis on the effects of race and ethnicity on final actions — and also describes the assumptions and techniques utilized for this work.  In Chapter 5 we discuss what these descriptions and findings may reveal about OPA’s pardon petition processing.

June 16, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 14, 2021

More good coverage of the not-so-good (but still not-so-bad) realities of federal compassionate release realities

As noted here, last Thursday the US Sentencing Commission released some fascinating (and bare bones) data on compassionate release motions in 2020 in this short data report.  In this post, I flagged coverage by the Marshall Project lamenting that the Bureau of Prisons approved so very few compassionate release applications.  I have since seen three more press piece noting ugly stories in the data:

I am quite pleased to see a a series of articles based on the new USSC data that rightly assail the BOP for being so adverse to supporting sentence reduction 3582(c)(1)(a) motions and that highlights broad variations in how compassionate release is functioning in different federal judicial districts.  But, those persistent problems notwithstanding, I hope nobody loses sight of what the FIRST STEP Act accomplished by allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences without awaiting a motion by the BOP.  As of this writing, BOP reports on this data page that nearly 3500 federal defendants have now received "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences" since the FIRST STEP Act became law. (For point of reference, that is more than the total number of prisoners in New Hampshire and Vermont combined.)  

I am eager for more details from the US Sentencing Commission about who is and is not receiving sentence reductions because there are surely some uneven (and likely ugly) patterns to be found in all the data.  But the one pattern that is clear and should be appreciated is that judges are regularly using their new powers to reduce sentences that are excessive.  As I suggested in this recent post, new legal rulings and all sorts of other developments can and should continue to provide sound reasons for federal judges to keep reconsidering extreme past federal sentences.  I hope they continue to do so, and I hope we do not lose sight of a beautiful compassionate release forest even when we notice a some ugly trees.

A few of many prior related posts:

June 14, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS rules in Terry that lowest-level crack offenders cannot secure resentencing based on FIRST STEP Act retroactivity of Fair Sentencing Act

Continuing to make quick work of its criminal docket, the Supreme Court's second criminal ruling today comes in Terry v. US, No. 20– 5904 (S. Ct. June 14, 2021) (available here), and it serves to limit the offenders who can secure resentencing based on crack penalties being lowered by the Fair Sentencing Act and then made retroactive by the FIRST STEP Act. Here is how Justice Thomas's opinion for the Court in Terry gets started:

In 1986, Congress established mandatory-minimum penalties for cocaine offenses.  If the quantity of cocaine involved in an offense exceeded a minimum threshold, then courts were required to impose a heightened sentence.  Congress set the quantity thresholds far lower for crack offenses than for powder offenses.  But it has since narrowed the gap by increasing the thresholds for crack offenses more than fivefold.  The First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115–391, 132 Stat. 5194, makes those changes retroactive and gives certain crack offenders an opportunity to receive a reduced sentence.  The question here is whether crack offenders who did not trigger a mandatory minimum qualify.  They do not.

Justice Sotomayor has an extended concurring opinion in Terry (it is a bit longer than the majority opinion).  She explains at the start of this opinion that she writes separately "to clarify the consequences of today’s decision.  While the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and First Step Act of 2018 brought us a long way toward eradicating the vestiges of the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder disparity, some people have been left behind."

I will likely have a lot more to say about this Terry ruling and its potential echoes once I get a chance to read it more closely.

June 14, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

SCOTUS rules defendants must show plain error (and likely won't) when pressing Rehaif claims on appeal in felon-in-possession cases

The Supreme Court is busy clearing the criminal cases off its docket as the Term winds to a close; today first opinion is unanimously ruling in Greer v. US, No. 19–8709 (S. Ct. June 14, 2021) (available here), holding that "in felon-in-possession cases, a Rehaif error is not a basis for plain-error relief unless the defendant first makes a sufficient argument or representation on appeal that he would have presented evidence at trial that he did not in fact know he was a felon."  Here is a bit more explanatory context from Justice Kavanaugh's opinion for the Court:

Federal law prohibits the possession of firearms by certain categories of individuals, including by those who have been convicted of a crime punishable by more than one year in prison.  See 18 U.S.C. §§922(g), 924(a)(2).  In Rehaif v. United States, 588 U.S. ___ (2019), this Court clarified the mens rea requirement for firearms-possession offenses, including the felon-in-possession offense.  In felon-in-possession cases after Rehaif, the Government must prove not only that the defendant knew he possessed a firearm, but also that he knew he was a felon when he possessed the firearm.  See id., at ___ (slip op., at 11)....

In the two cases before us, all agree that Rehaif errors occurred during both defendants’ district court proceedings and that the errors were plain, thus satisfying the first two prongs of the plain-error test.  We address the third prong: whether the Rehaif errors affected the defendants’ “substantial rights.”  Greer has the burden of showing that, if the District Court had correctly instructed the jury on the mens rea element of a felon-in-possession offense, there is a “reasonable probability” that he would have been acquitted. Dominguez Benitez, 542 U.S., at 83.  And Gary has the burden of showing that, if the District Court had correctly advised him of the mens rea element of the offense, there is a “reasonable probability” that he would not have pled guilty.

In a felon-in-possession case where the defendant was in fact a felon when he possessed firearms, the defendant faces an uphill climb in trying to satisfy the substantial-rights prong of the plain-error test based on an argument that he did not know he was a felon.  The reason is simple: If a person is a felon, he ordinarily knows he is a felon.  “Felony status is simply not the kind of thing that one forgets.”  963 F. 3d 420, 423 (CA4 2020) (Wilkinson, J., concurring in denial of reh’g en banc).  That simple truth is not lost upon juries.  Thus, absent a reason to conclude otherwise, a jury will usually find that a defendant knew he was a felon based on the fact that he was a felon.  A defendant considering whether to plead guilty would recognize as much and would likely factor that reality into the decision to plead guilty.  In short, if a defendant was in fact a felon, it will be difficult for him to carry the burden on plain-error review of showing a “reasonable probability” that, but for the Rehaif error, the outcome of the district court proceedings would have been different.

Of course, there may be cases in which a defendant who is a felon can make an adequate showing on appeal that he would have presented evidence in the district court that he did not in fact know he was a felon when he possessed firearms.  See Fed. Rule App. Proc. 10(e).  Indeed, at oral argument, the Government conceded that there are circumstances in which a defendant might make such a showing.  But if a defendant does not make such an argument or representation on appeal, the appellate court will have no reason to believe that the defendant would have presented such evidence to a jury, and thus no basis to conclude that there is a “reasonable probability” that the outcome would have been different absent the Rehaif error.

Justice Sotomayor authors the only separate opinion which largely concurs with the majority though calls for one of the cases to be sent back to the lower court.  She also explains that she wants to "highlight two limits on today’s decision":

First, the Court’s analysis in Greer’s case does not extend to the distinct context of harmless-error review, which applies when defendants contemporaneously object at trial. Second, the knowledge-of-status element is an element just like any other.  The Government must prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, and defendants seeking relief based on Rehaif errors bear only the usual burden on plain-error review. 

June 14, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Borden claims and the potential for 3582(c)(1)(a) motions to enable retroactivity

I asked a few days ago, in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in Borden v. US, No. 19–5410 (S. Ct. June 10, 2021) (available here), limiting applicable ACCA predicates, "How many federal prisoners might now be serving illegal sentences after Borden?".   After a little reflection and added research, I have come to suspect that maybe only a few hundred federal prisoners are now serving ACCA sentences based on a problematic reckless predicate, though surely a larger number may seek relief in federal courts.  So, after flagging the issue of how many federal prisoners might now be serving illegal sentences after Borden, in this post I want to discuss a bit  how current federal prisoners serving ACCA sentences might seek relief.

Notably, some of this ground has been plowed in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2015 ruling in Johnson finding ACCA's residual clause unconstitutionally vague.  An intricate federal habeas jurisprudence has followed as ACCA prisoners looked to bring their Johnson claims into federal court through 2255 and 2241 motions. See generally Prof Leah Litman's writings here and here and here and here and here.

Justice Kavanaugh is clearly concerned about another round of this litigation the aftermath of Borden, as the last footnote in his dissent frets about "the collateral review petitions that will likely inundate courts in the circuits that [had held] ACCA covers reckless offenses."  In that footnote, Justice Kavanaugh seems eager to note that prisoners may not get relief based on Borden because "many petitions may fall outside §2255’s 1-year statute of limitations."  But Justice Kavanaugh perhaps does not realize that, thanks to the FIRST STEP Act, prisoners with viable Borden claims could now bring 3582(c)(1)(a) motions for sentence reductions based on "extraordinary and compelling" circumstances.

Prof Litman had so much to write about after Johnson because the procedural rules and jurisprudence surrounding 2255 and 2241 motions are extraordinarily intricate and often limiting.  And those procedural rules needed to be sorted through for ACCA-sentenced folks making Johnson claims because there was no other means to directly pursue resentencing in court.  But, thank to the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentence without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons, prisoners now have another distinct means to seek relief through a 3582(c)(1)(a) motion for a sentence reduction.

Critically, because 3582(c)(1)(a) motions have only a minor "exhaustion" procedural requirement, prisoners bringing such motions will have an easier time to getting to court to have their claim considered on the substantive merits.  But the substantive merits of a 3582(c)(1)(a) motion will be different than if a Borden claim is pursued via 2255 and 2241 motions.  A judge will have to find that "extraordinary and compelling reasons warrant" a sentence reduction and then consider 3553(a) factors.  Because those with winning Borden claims have been sentenced to an illegal five years or more, I would think they certainly present an "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for a sentence reduction.  How much the sentence should be reduced should be ten determined by consideration of the 3553(a) factors.

In other words, the FIRST STEP Act's procedural change to so-called "compassionate release" motions via 3582(c)(1)(a) now allows for rulings like Borden to be more efficiently given retroactive effect in federal courts.  Yet another lovely reasons to celebrate that Act. 

Prior related posts:

June 13, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3)

Unanimous South Carolina Supreme Court decides sex offender registry is "unconstitutional absent any opportunity for judicial review to assess the risk of re-offending"

Last week, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued an interesting opinion about the state's sex offender registry in Powell v. Keel, No. 28033 (S.C. June 9, 2021) (available here), which concludes this way:

Although we find the State has a legitimate interest in requiring sex offender registration and such registration is constitutional, SORA's requirement that sex offenders must register for life without any opportunity for judicial review violates due process because it is arbitrary and cannot be deemed rationally related to the General Assembly's stated purpose of protecting the public from those with a high risk of re-offending.  Therefore, we hold SORA's lifetime registration requirement is unconstitutional absent any opportunity for judicial review to assess the risk of reoffending. We further hold subsection 23-3-490(E) permits dissemination of the State's sex offender registry information on the internet. We hereby reserve the effective date of this opinion for twelve (12) months from the date of filing to allow the General Assembly to correct the deficiency in the statute regarding judicial review.  Nonetheless, because the circuit court has already held a hearing in this case and determined Respondent no longer poses a risk sufficient to justify his continued registration as a sex offender, Appellants shall immediately remove Respondent from the sex offender registry.

June 13, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 11, 2021

Split Indiana Supreme Court finally rules that forfeiture of Tyson Timbs' Land Rover driven to small drug deal was constitutionally excessive

Well over two years ago, as blogged here, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Timbs v. Indiana, 139 S. Ct. 682 (2019), that the that Excessive Fines Clause of Eighth Amendment applies to the states and then said little else about how that limit on punishment was to be applied. Upon remand, as blogged here, the Indiana Supreme Court some months later issued a lengthy opinion explaining its approach to the Clause while remanding case to the state trial court to apply this approach. And yesterday, the case returned to the Indiana Supreme Court as Indiana v. Timbs, No. 20S-MI-289 (Ind. June 10, 2021) (available here), and resulted in a split opinion in favor of Tyson Timbs. Here is how the majority opinion starts:

We chronicle and confront, for the third time, the State’s quest to forfeit Tyson Timbs’s now-famous white Land Rover.  And, again, the same overarching question looms: would the forfeiture be constitutional?

Reminiscent of Captain Ahab’s chase of the white whale Moby Dick, this case has wound its way from the trial court all the way to the United States Supreme Court and back again.  During the voyage, several points have come to light. First, the vehicle’s forfeiture, due to its punitive nature, is subject to the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines.  Next, to stay within the limits of the Excessive Fines Clause, the forfeiture of Timbs’s vehicle must meet two requirements: instrumentality and proportionality. And, finally, the forfeiture falls within the instrumentality limit because the vehicle was the actual means by which Timbs committed the underlying drug offense.

But, until now, the proportionality inquiry remained unresolved — that is, was the harshness of the Land Rover’s forfeiture grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s dealing crime and his culpability for the vehicle’s misuse?  The State not only urges us to answer that question in the negative, but it also requests that we wholly abandon the proportionality framework from State v. Timbs, 134 N.E.3d 12, 35–39 (Ind. 2019).  Today, we reject the State’s request to overturn precedent, as there is no compelling reason to deviate from stare decisis and the law of the case; and we conclude that Timbs met his burden to show gross disproportionality, rendering the Land Rover’s forfeiture unconstitutional.

Justice Slaughter concurs in the judgment with lengthy separate opinion that includes a notable baseball analogy while fretting that the "law we interpret for the public we serve demands more than our subjective 'totality' test can sustain."  And Justice Massa dissents with separate opinion that starts this way:

The Court offers a compelling case for letting the beleaguered Tyson Timbs keep his Land Rover after all these years.  And the opinion, much to its credit, goes the extra mile in its concluding paragraphs to note and predict that Timbs will be the rare heroin dealer able to show gross disproportionality when his car is forfeited.  Still, I respectfully dissent.

The forfeiture here was indeed harsh, perhaps even mildly disproportionate, given all the facts in mitigation.  But I part ways with the Court’s holding that it was grossly so.  Such a conclusion can only be sustained by finding the severity of the underlying felony to be “minimal,” as the Court holds today. I am skeptical that dealing in heroin can ever be a crime of minimal severity.  No narcotic has left a larger scar on our state and region in recent years, whether overly prescribed or purchased illicitly on the street.

June 11, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 10, 2021

How many federal prisoners might now be serving illegal sentences after Borden?

I will be blogging in a future post about just how current federal prisoners serving Armed Career Criminal Act sentences might seek relief from now-illegal long sentences based on the Supreme Court's important ruling in Borden v. US, No. 19–5410 (S. Ct. June 10, 2021) (available here), limiting applicable ACCA precedents.  (Spoiler: they should not forget "compassionate release" as a means of seeking relief.)  But my inquiry for this post is the preliminary question in the title of this post: can we figure out how many federal prisoners might now be serving illegal sentences after Borden because they were sentenced on the basis of a reckless predicate ACCA offense?

Figuring out a precise answer to this question is very intricate, though it is aided greatly by this recent US Sentencing Commission report detailing in Figure 1 how many ACCA sentences have been handed down over the last decade.  Based on that data and with a bit of extrapolation, I think it possible that there could be as many as 10,000 persons (though likely somewhat fewer) in federal prison now serving ACCA sentences.  [UPDATE with better numbers: an astute commentor notes that the USSC report actually has a Figure 7 reporting that a "total of 3,572 offenders in
Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody as of June 27, 2020 were sentenced pursuant to the ACCA."  A year later, I would guess that number is about the same.] However, I suspect the vast majority of those prisoners would not have clear or even viable Borden claims.  In fact, I would be tempted to guest that less than 1 out of every 10 ACCA prisoners has a strong Borden-based claim for undoing his sentence. 

But I am truly making a wild guess here, and I am eager to hear from folks in the field about whether they agree that only hundred of sentences may be potentially disrupted by Borden or if in fact it could end up being thousands.  Whatever the exact number, as I will explain in a future post, every ACCA defendant with a viable Borden claim should be thankful for the FIRST STEP Act making "compassionate release" motions available o bring directly to court.  But more on that will come in a future post.

June 10, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Some early coverage of big new SCOTUS ruling limiting ACCA in Borden

A busy day on other matters means I have only had a chance to skim Borden v. US, No. 19–5410 (S. Ct. June 10, 2021) (available here), the big win for the defendant today in an ruling limiting the reach of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  I hope in the coming days to have a lot to say about Borden ruling itself and its possible aftermath, but for now I can and will round up some early press and blog coverage:

From Bloomberg Law, "Divided High Court Sides With Defense on Repeat-Offender Law"

From Crime & Consequences, "Fractured Supreme Court Cripples Armed Career Criminal Act"

From The Hill, "Gorsuch, Thomas join liberal justices in siding with criminal defendant"

From Law & Crime, "Kagan Goes After Kavanaugh for Lengthy Footnote: There’s Nothing ‘Unfair’ About This Outcome"

From the New York Times, "Supreme Court Limits Sweep of Law on Mandatory Minimum Sentences"

From SCOTUSblog, "Court limits definition of 'violent felony' in federal gun-possession penalty"

From The Volokh Conspiracy, "Justice Thomas Takes One For The Team in Borden v. U.S."

June 10, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

US Sentencing Commission releases fascinating (and bare bones) "Compassionate Release Data Report"

I just received an email from the US Sentencing Commission with an alert about new data reports from the USSC.  Any new data from the USSC gets me excited, and I got even more jazzed upon seeing the heading "Compassionate Release Data" followed by this text in the email:

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts received thousands of compassionate release motions. This report provides an analysis of those compassionate release motions decided through December 31, 2020 for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the U.S. Sentencing Commission by May 27, 2021.

Data Overview

Through December 31, 2020, the Commission received the following information from the courts:

  • 2,549 offenders were granted compassionate release. This represents 21% of compassionate release motions.
  • 9,589 offenders were denied compassionate release. This represents 79% of compassionate release motions.
  • 96% of granted motions were made by the defendant.

Somewhat disappointingly, the full report linked here provides precious little additional data beyond circuit and district breakdowns of these motions and their dispositions. I would be especially interested in seeing a lot more offender demographic information (e.g., race, gender, age of movant) and sentence modification information (e.g., primary sentenced offense and amount of sentence reduction).  But I am excited to learn that the USSC data staff is keeping track of these matters and seemingly planning to regularly report of what it is tracking.   

June 10, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

In 5-4 decision, SCOTUS limits reach of ACCA mandatory minimum "violent felony" predicates by holding a "reckless offense cannot so qualify"

The last big SCOTUS sentencing ruling of this Term that I have been eagerly awaiting was (yet another) one concerning application of the Armed Career Criminal Act.  Today the wait was over, as this morning the Court handed down it opinion in Borden v. US, No. 19–5410 (S. Ct. June 10, 2021) (available here).  And it is a big win for the defendant with Justice Kagan authoring the key opinion for four Justices (with Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Gorsuch joining), which starts this way:

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e), mandates a 15-year minimum sentence for persons found guilty of illegally possessing a gun who have three or more prior convictions for a “violent felony.”  The question here is whether a criminal offense can count as a “violent felony” if it requires only a mens rea of recklessness — a less culpable mental state than purpose or knowledge.  We hold that a reckless offense cannot so qualify.

Justice Thomas writes a concurring opinion that starts this way:

This case forces us to choose between aggravating a past error and committing a new one. I must choose the former.  Although I am “reluctant to magnify the burdens that our [erroneous] jurisprudence imposes,” Ring v. Arizona, 536 U.S. 584, 610 (2002) (Scalia, J., concurring), I conclude that the particular provision at issue here does not encompass petitioner’s conviction for reckless aggravated assault, even though the consequences of today’s judgment are at odds with the larger statutory scheme.  The need to make this choice is yet another consequence of the Court’s vagueness doctrine cases like Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. 591 (2015).

Justice Kavanaugh writes a lengthy dissenting opinion (which is longer than the other two opinions combined) which concludes its opening discussion this way:

In my view, the Court’s decision disregards bedrock principles and longstanding terminology of criminal law, misconstrues ACCA’s text, and waves away the Court’s own recent precedent. The Court’s decision overrides Congress’s judgment about the danger posed by recidivist violent felons who unlawfully possess firearms and threaten further violence. I respectfully dissent.

There is a lot here to take in, but I hope to figure all this out before too long. The key takeaway is that, thank to Justices Gorsuch and Thomas, Borden is the slimmest of victories for the defendant here and likely the start of yet another chapter of uncertainty about what comes next in ACCA jurisprudence.

June 10, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Functional life sentence finally becomes actual life (with eligibility for parole) sentence for person serving longest on death row

Because I love sports statistics and trivia (especially baseball, of course), I cannot avoid being intrigued by records and data even in the much-less-fun world of sentencing.  Consequently, this AP story caught my eye this morning under the headline, "Longest serving death row inmate in US resentenced to life."  Unsurprisingly, the story behind the statistic is fascinating: 

The longest serving death row inmate in the U.S. was resentenced to life in prison on Wednesday after prosecutors in Texas concluded the 71-year-old man is ineligible for execution and incompetent for retrial due to his long history of mental illness.

Raymond Riles has spent more than 45 years on death row for fatally shooting John Thomas Henry in 1974 at a Houston car lot following a disagreement over a vehicle. He is the country's longest serving death row prisoner, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Riles was resentenced after the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in April that his “death sentence can no longer stand” because jurors did not properly consider his history of mental illness. Riles attended his resentencing by Zoom from the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, which houses the state’s death row inmates.  He said very little during the court hearing....

In a statement, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Riles is incompetent and “therefore can’t be executed.” “We will never forget John Henry, who was murdered so many years ago by Riles, and we believe justice would best be served by Riles spending the remainder of his life in custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,” Ogg said.

During his time on death row, Riles has been treated with heavy antipsychotic medications but was never deemed mentally competent to be executed, according to prosecutors and his attorneys.  He had been scheduled for execution in 1986 but got a stay due to competency issues.  While Riles spent more than 45 years on death row in Texas, prisoners in the U.S. typically spend more than a decade awaiting execution, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

[District Judge Ana] Martinez was not able to resentence Riles to life in prison without parole because it was not an option under state law at the time of his conviction. Riles’ new sentence means he is immediately eligible for parole.  The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles will automatically conduct a parole review in his case, [Riles’ attorney Jim] Marcus said.

The district attorney’s office as well as Henry’s family have indicated they will fight any efforts to have Riles released on parole. “Mr. Riles is in very poor health but, if the Board of Pardons and Paroles sees fit to grant parole, he has family with the capacity to care for him,” Marcus said.

A co-defendant in the case, Herbert Washington, was also sentenced to death, but his sentence was overturned, and he later pleaded guilty to two related charges. He was paroled in 1983.

When Riles was tried, state law did not expect jurors to consider mitigating evidence such as mental illness when deciding whether to choose the death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that Texas jury instructions were unconstitutional because they didn’t allow appropriate consideration of intellectual disability, mental illness or other issues as mitigating evidence in the punishment phase of a capital murder trial.

But Riles’ case remained in limbo because lower courts failed to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision until at least 2007, according to his attorneys. That then gave Riles a realistic chance to prevail on this legal issue, but it wasn’t until recently that he had contact with attorneys who were willing to assist him, his lawyers said.

While prosecutors argued at Riles’ trial that he was not mentally ill, several psychiatrists and psychologists testified for the defense that he was psychotic and suffered from schizophrenia. Riles’ brother testified that his “mind is not normal like other people. He is not thinking like other people.”

While the Supreme Court has prohibited the death penalty for individuals who are intellectually disabled, it has not barred such punishment for those with serious mental illness, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2019, the Texas Legislature considered a bill that would have prohibited the death penalty for someone with severe mental illness. The legislation did not pass.

June 10, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 07, 2021

FAMM urges AG Garland to prevent those on home confinement during pandemic from being returning to federal prison

In various prior posts (some linked below), I have covered the Office of Legal Counsel memo released at the very end of the Trump Administration which interprets federal law to require that certain persons transferred from federal prison to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act be returned to federal prison when the pandemic ends.  The folks at FAMM have done a great job spotlighting the problems this OLC memo creates, and Kevin Ring at FAMM today sent this new extended letter to Attorney General Garland urging him to address these matters "as quickly as possible."  Here are excerpts from the letter:

Dozens of members of Congress who voted for the CARES Act have written to you, clarifying that they did not intend people on home confinement to return to prison.  The BOP did not tell people who were transferred to home confinement that they might have to return. Corrections officers were unaware of the possibility....

There is no public safety reason to require anyone abiding by the terms of their transfer to be reincarcerated.  The BOP screened each one of the approximately 4,000 people currently on home confinement using strict criteria established by Attorney General William Barr.  Those deemed to pose no danger to the community now wear ankle monitors and are subject to rigorous surveillance.  Some have been home for a full year. Only a vanishingly small percentage have violated the terms of their confinement, according to the BOP....

Attorney General Garland, we urge you to end now the needless suffering and extreme stress these families are experiencing.  You can do so in a number of ways.

First, you have the authority to rescind or overrule the OLC memo.  We, along with a bipartisan group of members of Congress and advocacy organizations, have urged and continue to urge you to do so.

If you feel constrained to follow the OLC’s opinion, you can and should recommend to the president that he act now to grant clemency to anyone who is serving CARES Act home confinement and has complied with the rules of their supervision.  The Department then should do everything it can to support clemency petitions, including ensuring the speedy review and transfer of cases to the president.  The president has expressed a desire to use his clemency authority more robustly.  Commuting the sentences of these extraordinarily low-risk people would be a smart and easy start.

The Department could use its existing authority to keep people home by transferring those eligible for the Elderly Offender Home Detention Program.  It also could use its authority to seek compassionate release for those on CARES Act home confinement, especially those who have years left on their sentences.  At a minimum, the Department should direct that U.S. Attorneys not oppose compassionate release motions brought by people in those circumstances.

In all cases, the Department should direct the BOP to use its furlough authority to prevent anyone whose status is not resolved before the end of the emergency period from having to return to prison.  This approach also would be useful for those people nearing the end of their sentences and for whom the measures discussed above are not necessary because they will shortly be eligible for transfer under 18 U.S.C. § 3624(c).

Some prior recent related posts:

June 7, 2021 in Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Split Sixth Circuit panel further muddles what grounds can contribute to basis for sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(a)

As blogged here last month, in US v. Owens, No. 20-2139 (6th Cir. May 6, 2021) (available here), a split Sixth Circuit panel held that "in making an individualized determination about whether extraordinary and compelling reasons merit compassionate release, a district court may include, along with other factors, the disparity between a defendant’s actual sentence and the sentence that he would receive if the First Step Act applied."  This seemed consistent with the Sixth Circuit's prior holding in US v. Jones, 20-3701 (6th Cir. Nov. 20, 2020) (available here),  that district courts have full discretion [currently] to determine whether an 'extraordinary and compelling' reason justifies compassionate release when an imprisoned person files a § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion."  It was also consistent with rulings from other circuits like US v. McCoy, 981 F.3d 271, 285–87 (4th Cir. 2020) and US v. McGee, 992 F.3d 1035, 1048 (10th Cir. 2021).  

But today a distinct split Sixth Circuit panel in US v. Jarvis, No. 20-3912 (6th Cir. June 3, 2021) (available here),  states that "non-retroactive changes in the law [can] not serve as the 'extraordinary and compelling reasons' required for a sentence reduction."  Here is a passage from the majority opinion in Jarvis:

The text of these sentencing statutes does not permit us to treat the First Step Act’s non-retroactive amendments, whether by themselves or together with other factors, as “extraordinary and compelling” explanations for a sentencing reduction.  See Tomes, 990 F.3d at 505.  But for those defendants who can show some other “extraordinary and compelling” reason for a sentencing reduction (and we have plenty of deferential decisions on this score), they may ask the district court to consider sentencing law changes like this one in balancing the § 3553(a) factors — above all with respect to the community safety factor.

Judge Clay authors a lengthy dissent in Jarvis that starts this way:

In passing the First Step Act, Congress amended 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(a) to allow federal district courts to grant compassionate release under appropriate circumstances to those incarcerated in federal prison, even in instances where the Bureau of Prisons opts not to do so.  In accordance with this understanding of the amendment, we have found that district courts are not required to consider the policy statement in U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13 in determining what constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason for release, thereby permitting district courts discretion in determining whether an individual defendant has demonstrated an extraordinary and compelling reason for release.  See United States v. Jones, 980 F.3d 1098, 1110–11 (6th Cir. 2020).  In line with that precedent, in United States v. Owens, 996 F.3d 755, 760 (6th Cir. 2021), we determined that a district court can consider a nonretroactive First Step Act amendment that creates a sentencing disparity in combination with other factors as the basis for an extraordinary and compelling reason for compassionate release.  The majority today ignores this binding precedent from our circuit and erroneously concludes that our previous decision in United States v. Tomes, 990 F.3d 500, 505 (6th Cir. 2021), requires that we affirm the district court’s denial of compassionate release in this case.

But in fact, Tomes’ conclusion that a non-retroactive sentence amendment cannot support a motion for compassionate release amounts to dicta that we are not bound to follow. Additionally, as Owens made clear, Tomes did not foreclose the conclusion that a sentencing disparity from a non-retroactive statutory change along with other grounds for release can serve as extraordinary and compelling reasons.  See Owens, 996 F.3d at 763.  By ignoring Owens, the majority contravenes the purpose of compassionate release to grant release, based on the consideration of the defendant’s unique circumstances, to individual defendants in extraordinary situations not covered by another statute.

Apart from concerns about how it approaches circuit jurisprudence, I find the majority ruling problematic from a straight-forward application of textualism. There is absolutely nothing in the text of § 3582(c)(1)(a) that supports the contention that non-retroactive changes in the law cannot ever constitute "extraordinary and compelling reasons" to allow a sentence reduction, either alone or in combination with other factors.  The majority here, presumably based on its own sense of sound policy, seems to be just inventing an extra-textual categorical limitation on the authority Congress gave to district courts to reduce sentences.

Notably, in its instructions to the US Sentencing Commission, Congress did provide expressly in statutory text that there was to be one factor that could not alone serve as the basis for sentence reduction under § 3582(c)(1)(a):  "Rehabilitation of the defendant alone shall not be considered an extraordinary and compelling reason." 28 USC § 994(t).  That textual exclusion reveals that Congress plainly knows how, in express statutory text, to exclude a particular reason from being alone the basis for a sentence reduction.  The expresio unius canon of construction — "the expression of one is the exclusion of others" — in turn suggest that courts should not be inventing additional extra-textual categorical exclusions that Congress did not expressly state.  Moreover, the use of the word "alone" in § 994(t) further suggests that Congress wants even "debatable" factors that cannot alone be the basis for a reduction to be useable in combination with other factors.

Congress continuing approval of advisory guidelines after Booker, along with its pro-judicial-discretion reforms in the Fair Sentencing Act and the FIRST STEP Act, all suggest that our nation's legislature is now quite comfortable and confident granting federal district judges broad authority to consider how best to achieve sound, individualized sentencing justice in a careful case-by-case manner.  But, this Jarvis ruling reveals that some circuit judges seem to still be eager to concoct categorical limits on judicial sentencing discretion even though they do not appear expressly in the text. 

June 3, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

In 6-3 opinion for (police officer) defendant, SCOTUS limits reach of federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Supreme Court issued one opinion this morning, and it is an interesting criminal law decision with an interesting divide of Justices limiting the reach of a notable federal criminal statute.  The majority opinion in Van Buren v. US, No. 19–783 (S. Ct. June 3, 2021) (available here), is authored by Justice Barrett and it starts and ends this way:  

Nathan Van Buren, a former police sergeant, ran a license-plate search in a law enforcement computer database in exchange for money.  Van Buren’s conduct plainly flouted his department’s policy, which authorized him to obtain database information only for law enforcement purposes.  We must decide whether Van Buren also violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 (CFAA), which makes it illegal “to access a computer with authorization and to use such access to obtain or alter information in the computer that the accesser is not entitled so to obtain or alter.”

He did not.  This provision covers those who obtain information from particular areas in the computer — such as files, folders, or databases — to which their computer access does not extend.  It does not cover those who, like Van Buren, have improper motives for obtaining information that is otherwise available to them....

In sum, an individual “exceeds authorized access” when he accesses a computer with authorization but then obtains information located in particular areas of the computer —  such as files, folders, or databases — that are off limits to him.  The parties agree that Van Buren accessed the law enforcement database system with authorization. The only question is whether Van Buren could use the system to retrieve license-plate information. Both sides agree that he could.  Van Buren accordingly did not “excee[d] authorized access” to the database, as the CFAA defines that phrase, even though he obtained information from the database for an improper purpose.  We therefore reverse the contrary judgment of the Eleventh Circuit and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Thomas authored a dissent joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito. It starts this way:

Both the common law and statutory law have long punished those who exceed the scope of consent when using property that belongs to others.  A valet, for example, may take possession of a person’s car to park it, but he cannot take it for a joyride.  The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act extends that principle to computers and information.  The Act prohibits exceeding the scope of consent when using a computer that belongs to another person.  Specifically, it punishes anyone who “intentionally accesses a computer without authorization or exceeds authorized access, and thereby obtains” information from that computer. 18 U.S.C. §1030(a)(2).

As a police officer, Nathan Van Buren had permission to retrieve license-plate information from a government database, but only for law enforcement purposes.  Van Buren disregarded this limitation when, in exchange for several thousand dollars, he used the database in an attempt to unmask a potential undercover officer.

The question here is straightforward: Would an ordinary reader of the English language understand Van Buren to have “exceed[ed] authorized access” to the database when he used it under circumstances that were expressly forbidden? In my view, the answer is yes.  The necessary precondition that permitted him to obtain that data was absent.

The Court does not dispute that the phrase “exceeds authorized access” readily encompasses Van Buren’s conduct. It notes, instead, that the statute includes a definition for that phrase and that “we must follow that definition, even if it varies from a term’s ordinary meaning.”  Tanzin v. Tanvir, 592 U.S. ___, ___ (2020) (slip op., at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted). The problem for the majority view, however, is that the text, ordinary principles of property law, and statutory history establish that the definitional provision is quite consistent with the term it defines.

I am pretty sure that this is the first (non-unanimous) opinion in which all the Trump-appointed Justices joined with all the Justices appointed by Democratic presidents, and I am very sure that I am hopeful that this will not be the only case in which these Justices combine to limit the application of questionable criminal laws and doctrines. Interesting times.

UPDATE:  I see Kent Scheidegger at Crime & Consequences has this age-related take on the alliances of the Justices in this Van Buren:

For those who like to categorize Justices and tally statistics, it may (or may not) be noteworthy that the six Justices appointed by Republican Presidents split by age, with the three younger ones supporting the narrower interpretation of this criminal law. There is perhaps a more libertarian streak in the more junior Justices and more wariness of overcriminalization.

June 3, 2021 in Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (8)

Monday, May 31, 2021

Heartening coverage of one beneficiary of Ohio Gov DeWine's "Expedited Pardon Project"

Because I am directly involved in Ohio Governor Mike DeWine's "Expedited Pardon Project," I have been generally disinclined to blog about the work of the program.  But this recent local piece, headlined "Ohio governor pushes to grant more pardons," includes a terrific video of a recent pardon recipient that I was eager to share.  Here is a snippet from the story that provides some context:

15 years ago, Mutajah “Taj” Hussein says she could hardly draw a sober breath.  “During that time in my life, I experienced a level of hopelessness that most people can’t imagine,” Hussein said.

But that was 15 years ago. Now, she’s called, “Dr. Taj,” a badge she wears proudly.  She’s a licensed independent social worker. She’s served diverse populations and has worked abroad.  She plans to launch a mental wellness agency soon in Parma, Ohio and sit for the BAR exam next year. She wants to be a foster parent.

The transformation didn’t happen overnight. B efore she said she, “built a spiritual connection with the universe” in 2007, she had her run-ins with Ohio’s criminal justice system.  She said back then, it was like living on autopilot. Her only focus was finding the next drug fox or drink.

She eventually repaired her relationships and got on a path to right her wrongs. “I’m very close with my family now,” Hussein said. “Before, they hated to see me coming. Now they love it when I visit.”

Even while she was on the path to living her best life, Hussein still had a significant roadblock in her way: Her criminal history.  “My past was like an albatross around my neck,” she said. “I’ve been denied apartments that I’ve fallen in love with because of my background check. I’ve been denied positions.”

She was denied her dream job.  The offer was rescinded after her background check was complete.  “I felt dejected,” she said. “I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare where no matter how much distance I put between myself and my past, it would never be enough.  Although I’ve fought to redeem myself through restorative justice efforts, on paper, I was still just an addict.”...

The pardon process in Ohio can take years.  But she got in touch with the people involved with the Ohio Governor’s Expedited Pardon Project.  It’s a partnership between Gov. Mike Dewine, Ohio State University and the University of Akron.  Students and faculty from the universities review applications and figure out who is more likely to receive a pardon.  The team works with applicants to help them through the process, which takes around six months to a year, instead of multiple years.

Gov. DeWine called Dr. Taj to give her the news on Good Friday.  He pardoned her.  “I’ve always had hope,” she said. “But now I’m fully redeemed in the eyes of the law.  That’s a truly freeing feeling.  I really feel like the sky is the limit for me, especially with this pardon.  I can’t wait to see what the universe has in store for the rest of my life.”

Gov. DeWine has said he wants more low-level offenders to apply for pardons through the project that launched in Dec. 2019.  Dr. Taj spoke as part of a panel Thursday night that answered questions about the expedited pardon process.  Part of the panel’s goal was to raise awareness about the project in order to get more people to apply for a governor’s pardon....

DeWine hopes more people like Dr. Taj utilize the program to allow “model citizens” to maneuver what is usually a complicated and lengthy process. “My expedited pardon project can benefit Ohioans who are living in the shadow of a dark past and regretted mistake, giving them the opportunity to truly have a second chance to reach their full potential,” DeWine said.

Related posts and links:

May 31, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 28, 2021

High-profile reminder that parole is rarely a given, especially for a prisoner claiming innocence

Though decided earlier this month, a high-profile denial of parole is garnering headlines this week.  This USA Today story, headlined "Bill Cosby denied parole after he refuses sex offender treatment program," provides these details:

Bill Cosby will not be released from prison anytime soon.  The 83-year-old actor, who is currently serving three to 10 years in Pennsylvania state prison after being convicted of sexual assault in 2018, has been denied parole nearly three years into his sentence.

The Pennsylvania State Parole Board declined Cosby's parole request on May 11 partly over his need to participate in "a treatment program for sex offenders and violence prevention," and "failure to develop a parole release plan," according to a state board action letter provided to USA TODAY.  The board also cited a "negative recommendation" from the Department of Corrections.

Cosby's representative, Andrew Wyatt, told USA TODAY Thursday that the decision "is not a surprise" to the disgraced TV star because the board explicitly stated he would be denied parole "if he did not participate in SVP (Sexually Violent Predator) courses."  But Wyatt said Cosby, who has maintained his innocence, has no plans to attend the therapy programs. "The Cosby Show" star has previously said he expects to serve his full 10-year sentence and vowed to show no remorse for crimes he said he didn't commit.

"Mr. Cosby has vehemently proclaimed his innocence and continues to deny all allegations made against him, as being false, without the sheer evidence of any proof," Wyatt said in a statement to USA TODAY on Thursday.  "Mr. Cosby continues to remain hopeful that the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court will issue an opinion to vacate his conviction or warrant him a new trial."

Cosby was the first celebrity to go on trial in the #MeToo era and was convicted of drugging and raping Andrea Constand, a former professional basketball player who worked for his alma mater, Temple University, in Philadelphia in 2004.  Cosby appealed his conviction, citing multiple alleged "errors" by the trial judge in his case, but the state appeals court upheld his verdict in December 2019.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court accepted Cosby's appeal in June 2020, thus raising the possibility it might be overturned in the future....

He's currently serving out his sentence at State Correctional Institution at Phoenix, a state prison in Skippack Township, Pennsylvania.  He will be eligible for parole in September after serving the three-year minimum of his sentence.  To be considered for parole, the Pennsylvania State Parole Board said Cosby not only needs to complete a treatment program, but he must maintain a "clear conduct record."

May 28, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Most of California DAs file court action challenging new rules expanding good behavior credits to state prisoners

As reported in this recent AP piece, "three-quarters of California’s district attorneys sued the state Wednesday in an attempt to block emergency rules that expand good conduct credits and could eventually bring earlier releases for tens of thousands of inmates."  Here is more about the suit:

The lawsuit objects on procedural grounds, arguing that Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison used the emergency declaration to bypass the usual regulatory and public comment process.  The rules affecting 76,000 inmates, most serving time for violent offenses, took effect May 1, although it will be months or years until inmates accumulate enough credits to significantly shorten their sentences.

Forty-four of the state’s 58 district attorneys brought the lawsuit, which says the only stated emergency was the corrections department’s desire to follow the “direction outlined in the Governor’s Budget Summary” nearly a year earlier.  Notably absent were district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco who have backed criminal sentencing changes.

The lawsuit asks a Sacramento County Superior Court judge to throw out the regulations and bar the department from granting any of the good conduct credits until it goes through the regular process.  “There is no actual emergency, and they cannot meet those emergency requirements,” the lawsuit contends.  “Nowhere in the supporting documents is there an explanation of how last year’s budget has become an operational need for the adoption of the regulations on an emergency basis.”

The department said it acted under the authority given it by voters when they passed Proposition 57 in 2016, allowing earlier parole for most inmates.  It “filed regulations to promote changes in good behavior credits, and followed all policies and procedures by the Office of Administrative Law,” the department said in a statement promising to “continue to work with our partners to promote rehabilitation and accountability in a manner consistent with public safety.”

The emergency rules boost good behavior credits for a projected 63,000 inmates convicted of violent crimes, allowing them to prospectively serve two-thirds of their sentences rather than the previous 80%.  Another 10,000 prisoners convicted of a second serious but nonviolent offense and nearly 2,900 nonviolent third strikers would be eligible for release after serving half their sentences, down from two-thirds.  Inmate firefighters and minimum-security inmates in work camps, regardless of the severity of their crimes, are eligible under the new rules for a month of earlier release for every month they spend in the camp.

A press release about the suit from the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office is available here, and the actual filing is available here.

A few recent related posts:

May 28, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)