Sunday, June 27, 2021

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 Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), who led a letter of 28 House Democrats in April calling for the policy to be rescinded, “is disappointed he hasn’t officially extended the home confinement program,” a spokesperson said....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

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Notable (and huge) sentence reductions used to remedy stacked 924(c) sentences for crooked cops

As reported in this Baltimore Sun article, headlined "Corrupt former Baltimore Police officers get sentences reduced from 454 years to 20 years," a couple of crooked cops this week got their sentences reduced considerably to undo the now-repealed harshness of severe stacking mandatory minimum 924(c) counts thanks to the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is a summary from the press account:

Two former Baltimore Police officers sentenced to a combined 454 years in federal prison for shaking down citizens in the early 2000s had their prison terms reduced to 20 years each by a federal judge Monday.

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang agreed with arguments put forward by attorneys for William King and Antonio Murray earlier this year under the First Step Act, noting that since their convictions in 2006 Congress has passed sentencing reforms that would have led to significantly shorter sentences if the officers were sentenced today....

The U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed that the sentences should be reduced, but to 30 years for Murray, and 65 years for King. “Neither sentence is unreasonable given the offense conduct in this case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson wrote.

The officers’ attorneys noted that former Gun Trace Task Force Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, who pleaded guilty to years of robberies and drug dealing, received 25 years in prison in 2018....  Chuang agreed, saying 20 years for King and Murray “roughly corresponds with the type of sentences presently imposed in comparable police corruption cases in this District.”...

Prior to the Gun Trace Task Force case, the case of King and Murray was one of the highest-profile Baltimore police corruption cases.  The officers, who were assigned to the BPD’s public housing drug unit, were called out in the “Stop Snitching” underground video, with a man on the tape saying the officers looked out for certain drug dealers.  A man they shook down went to the FBI, and authorities launched an investigation that found the officers were detaining and robbing drug dealers.

At the time, the officers “maintained that their activities were all in furtherance of legitimate police activity in an effort to develop sources to lead to arrests of drug distributors,” said prosecutors, adding the officers claimed they used their ill-gotten money to pay informants who could help them catch those higher up in the drug gangs.  King later said the tactics were imported by the department’s New York police leadership, and blamed immense pressure to reduce crime as the reason he and some colleagues went bad.

The men were convicted of robbery, extortion, and drug and handgun offenses, which each had penalties that were “stacked” at sentencing.  The sentencing judge, J. Frederick Motz, lamented at the time that the sentences were “absolutely disproportionate to the crimes that were committed” but said he had no discretion to depart from the mandatory sentencing laws.

The opinions from the district court in these two cases can be downloaded below:

Download United States v. William King No 05-cr-00203 (May 24 2021 D. Md.)

Download United States v. Antonio Murray No 05-cr-00203 (May 24 2021 D. Md.)

May 26, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 24, 2021

Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof to have appeal of his death sentence heard by (unusual) Fourth Circuit panel

As detailed in this website, candidate Joe Biden pledged to "Eliminate the death penalty" if elected.  But many months into his presidency, it appears that Prez Biden's Department of Justice is continuing to actively defend the application of the death penalty in at least on high-profile case.  Specifically, as detailed in this local article, tomorrow a Fourth Circuit panel will hear arguments on Dylann Roof's appeal of his conviction and death sentence with DOJ apparently seeking to defend that punishment.  Here are the basics:

Defense lawyers will advance arguments Tuesday on up to 20 issues in the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond as to why Dylann Roof was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to the death penalty in 2017 after a weeks-long trial. They will ask the court to vacate both the conviction and the death penalty.

Those arguments will be countered by a team of prosecution appellate lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice. They seek to uphold the conviction and sentence.

Roof, 27, who grew up in Columbia, was sentenced to death in January 2017 by U.S. Judge Richard Gergel after a jury found him guilty of 18 death eligible federal hate-crimes and firearms charges. In a subsequent proceeding to determine sentence, the same jury ruled Roof deserved the death penalty. Judge Gergel then pronounced the sentence.

Evidence at Roof’s trial, which included his own writings and selfie photos and videos, portrayed him as a self-described white supremacist who wanted to start a race war by killing African-Americans. To implement his plan, Roof traveled to Charleston in June 2015, entered a prayer meeting at an African American church and executed nine Black churchgoers, including beloved Democratic state Sen. Clementa Pinckney.

“Multiple issues arising from convictions for hate crime, religious obstruction, and firearms offenses resulting in death and from imposition of death penalty” will be considered, according to a description about the case on the Fourth Circuit’s web site.

Roof’s purported mental illness and inability to be his own lawyer — casting aside an active defense role by David Bruck, one of the nation’s most experienced death penalty lawyers — is a major feature of Roof’s defense....

“Though Roof’s mental state was the subject of two competency hearings, and five experts found him delusional—findings swiftly dismissed by the court, in its rush to move the case along—jurors never heard any of that evidence. Instead, prosecutors told them Roof was a calculated killer with no signs of mental illness. Given no reason to do otherwise, jurors sentenced Roof to death. Roof’s crime was tragic, but this Court (the 4th Circuit) can have no confidence in the jury’s verdict,” the defense brief on the case says....

Prosecutors will argue that Judge Gergel’s rulings in both the guilt or innocence, as well as the penalty, phases of the trial were correct. “(Judge Gergel) did not clearly err in finding Roof competent to stand trial. The finding was supported by expert testimony and was not arbitrary or unwarranted,” the prosecutors’ brief said. “Roof’s right to self-representation was correctly defined and properly protected.”

“No error occurred at the penalty phase,” the prosecutors wrote. “The death penalty was not plainly erroneous based on Roof’s age or mental condition. Finally, Roof’s convictions rest on sound legal and constitutional grounds.”

Interestingly, though this appeal is technically being considered by the Fourth Circuit, no Fourth Circuit judge will actually be hearing the appeal. The press article explains:

The judges on the panel are Judge Duane Burton of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals; Kent Jordan of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals; and Senior Judge Ronald Gilman of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Usually, judges on a panel are chosen from the full 4th Circuit, which has 15 judges. However, 4th Circuit Judge Jay Richardson of Columbia was in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Carolina in 2017 and the lead prosecutor on the Roof case.

I welcome reader comment on the (interesting?) metaphysical question of whether an appeal in the Fourth Circuit heard by no Fourth Circuit judges is really a Fourth Circuit appeal.  (I also wonder if there will have to be an additional 12 judges appointed by designation in order to properly consider any en banc petition that might follow a ruling from this panel.)

A few of many prior related posts:

May 24, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (13)

Friday, May 21, 2021

Notable data on BOP resistance to compassionate release requests from federal prisoners

As regular readers likely surmise, I have been quite pleased that federal courts have seized their new authority under the FIRST STEP Act to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  This BOP "First Step Act" page reports that there have been a total of 3,414 "Compassionate Releases / Reduction in Sentences" approved by courts since passage of the FIRST STEP Act, but the BOP has not reported on how many of such motions have been support by the BOP.  But this week, a letter from the BOP to members of Congress (which was apparently written in mid April and can be downloaded below) provides more details on how many compassionate release requests have been made and how few have been endorsed by the BOP.

Specifically, the letter to members of Congress authored by Ken Hyle, BOP's General Counsel, reports that since March 1, 2020, a little over 30,000 compassionate release requests were made by federal prisoners,  Of that number, only 374 of these requests were recommended for approval by prison wardens and then only 36 were approved by the BOP's Director.  In other works, during global pandemic, only about 1 out of 83 requests for compassionate release got approved by a federal warden, and then less than one out of every 10 requests approved by a warden was approved by the BOP Director.

Thankfully, federal judges had a much more fulsome view of compassionate release during a pandemics.  Specifically, given that around 3250 motions for compassionate release were granted by judges during the pandemic, it seems that for every compassionate release motion found satisfactory by the BOP Director, there were an additional 90 motions that federal judges concluded were satisfactory to  justify a sentence reduction under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).

Download Response from BOP re. compassionate release during COVID 4.16.21

May 21, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Idaho delays scheduled execution for terminally ill condemned man to allow for commutation hearing

As reported in this new AP piece, a "scheduled June execution for an Idaho man who is dying of terminal cancer has been canceled so the state’s Commission of Pardons and Parole can consider whether to commute his sentence."  Here are a few details:

Gerald Ross Pizzuto Jr. was scheduled to die by lethal injection on June 2 in connection with the 1985 murders of two people at a remote Idaho County cabin.  On Tuesday, the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole granted Pizzuto’s request for a commutation hearing, and attorneys for the state and Pizzuto agreed that the execution should be stayed until the hearing is concluded.  The hearing will be held in November, the commission said....

Pizzuto, 65, has terminal bladder cancer, diabetes and heart disease and is confined to a wheelchair.  He’s been on hospice care since 2019, when doctors said he likely wouldn’t survive for another year....

Court records show Pizzuto’s life was marred by violence from childhood.  Family members offered gruesome testimony that Pizzuto was repeatedly tortured, raped and severely beaten by his stepfather and sometimes by his stepfather’s friends, and he sustained multiple brain injuries.

Pizzuto was camping with two other men near McCall when he encountered 58-year-old Berta Herndon and her 37-year-old nephew Del Herndon, who were prospecting in the area. Prosecutors said Pizzuto, armed with a .22 caliber rifle, went to the Herndon’s cabin, tied their wrists behind their backs and bound their legs to steal their money.  He bludgeoned them both, and co-defendant James Rice then shot Del Herndon in the head. Another co-defendant, Bill Odom, helped bury the bodies and all three were accused of robbing the cabin.

Pizzuto is one of eight people on Idaho’s death row.  Idaho has executed three people since capital punishment was resumed nationwide in 1976.  Keith Eugene Wells was executed in 1994, Paul Ezra Rhodes was executed in 2011 and Richard Albert Leavitt was executed in 2012.

May 18, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Uninspired comments and plans emerging from Biden White House concerning clemency vision

The New York Times has this new story that reinforces some of the buzz I have been recently hearing that Prez Biden is disinclined to significantly transform either the process or the practice of federal clemency anytime soon.  Regular readers know I have been urging clemency action by Prez Biden since his first days in office, but the first line of the article suggests we ought not expect any grants until at least mid to late 2022: "Administration officials have quietly begun evaluating clemency requests and have signaled to activists that President Biden could begin issuing pardons or commutations by the midpoint of his term."

The article does goes on to suggest Prez Biden might at least be considering a clemency approach akin to what Prez Obama eventually adopted at the very end of his second term. But it sounds like any program would still be administered through the Pardon Attorney's office still problematically located in the Department of Justice.  Here are excerpts of a piece worth reading in full:

Mr. Biden’s team ... has signaled in discussions with outside groups that it is establishing a more deliberate, systemic process geared toward identifying entire classes of people who deserve mercy.  The approach could allow the president to make good on his campaign promise to weave issues of racial equity and justice throughout his government.

The White House has publicly offered few details about his plans for issuing pardons, which wipe out convictions, and commutations, which reduce prison sentences.  But White House officials have indicated in private conversations with criminal justice activists, clemency seekers and their allies that Mr. Biden’s team is working with the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney to process clemency requests with an eye toward having the president sign some before the 2022 midterm elections.

“We asked them not to wait to the end of a term to execute pardon and commutation power for photo ops, and they definitely assured us that is not this administration’s plan,” said DeAnna Hoskins, the president of the criminal justice group JustLeadershipUSA, who participated in a Zoom session for former prisoners with White House officials last month. “This administration is looking at early on,” said Ms. Hoskins, who worked on prisoner re-entry issues for county, state and federal government agencies after serving a 45-day sentence for theft in 1999.

Participants in the Zoom session and other meetings with the White House have come away with the impression that Mr. Biden intends to use clemency grants — which are among the most unchecked and profound powers at a president’s disposal — to address systemic issues in the criminal justice system.  The Biden campaign hinted at such an approach in its criminal justice platform, which indicated that he intended to use clemency “broadly” to “secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain nonviolent and drug crimes.”

Among those supporting the administration’s efforts is Susan E. Rice, who leads Mr. Biden’s Domestic Policy Council. She is focused on instilling racial equity in all of the administration’s initiatives and has recruited a team with deep roots in civil rights and justice....  But the White House has indicated that it will rely on the rigorous application vetting process overseen by the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.

Mr. Biden’s White House has already signaled that even its allies will have to go through the process, as was made clear to Desmond Meade, who in 2018 led a successful push to restore voting rights to more than 1.4 million Floridians with felony convictions.  Mr. Meade, who has expressed interest in a federal pardon for a decades-old military conviction for stealing liquor and electronics on Navy bases while he was serving in the Army, was steered this year to the Justice Department’s pardon attorney...  In an interview, Mr. Meade said that the department’s clemency process was “way too bureaucratic,” adding that “the pardon application in itself is daunting, and it screams that you need to hire an attorney to make that happen.”  He said he was among the activists who urged White House officials to consider moving the process out of the Justice Department, noting the paradox of entrusting an agency that led prosecutions with determining whether the targets of those prosecutions deserve mercy.

But the Biden administration is not inclined to circumvent the department, according to a person familiar with the White House’s thinking. Instead, Mr. Biden’s team has pointed to the approach adopted by President Barack Obama, who issued more than 1,900 clemency grants.  Most went to people recommended by the Justice Department, many of whom had been serving sentences under tough antidrug laws, including those convicted of low-level, nonviolent crimes like possession of cocaine.

In outreach sessions to criminal justice activists, White House officials have collected recommendations on categories of clemencies that should be prioritized.  The sessions have included groups with strong connections in the Black community and those that aggressively opposed Mr. Trump, including the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as the libertarian Cato Institute and the Prison Fellowship, which counts evangelical conservatives among its staff and supporters....

The A.C.L.U. highlighted those prisoners and others in an online and newspaper advertising campaign during Mr. Biden’s inauguration week.  It urged him to grant clemency to 25,000 people in federal prison, including “the elderly, the sick, those swept up in the war on drugs and people locked up because of racist policies of the past that have since been changed.”  Udi Ofer, the director of the A.C.L.U’s justice division, said that Mr. Biden “has a special obligation given his history to use the power of clemency to fix these issues, because he was the architect of so many of the mass incarceration policies that we are now trying to repeal.”

I suppose I should be pleased that clemency issues continue to get significant attention, but I remain displeased that all we have seen so far is a lot of clemency talk (or proclamations about second chances) and no actual clemency grants.  Notably, recent polling shows lots of support for commuting the sentences of a wide variety of persons serving problematic sentences, and  almost everyone readily recognizes that there are many, many persons in the federal criminal justice system still subject to problematic sentences.  I say "almost everyone" because I sense that federal prosecutors working in the Department of Justice do not see all that many federal sentences as so problematic, which is why so many others (myself included) think it so problematic that the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney continues to serve as the gatekeeper (and wet blanket) in the federal clemency process.  

A few prior recent related posts:

May 18, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 17, 2021

SCOTUS grants cert on a capital habeas procedure case, while Justice Sotomayor makes district statement about capital sentencing process

The Supreme Court is back in action this morning, and the big news from this new order list is its decision to grant cert on an abortion case from Mississippi.  But the Court granted cert in a couple of other cases, including a capital case from Arizona, Shin v. Ramirez, No. 20-1009, which raises this issue:

Whether application of the equitable rule the Supreme Court announced in Martinez v. Ryan renders the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which precludes a federal court from considering evidence outside the state-court record when reviewing the merits of a claim for habeas relief if a prisoner or his attorney has failed to diligently develop the claim’s factual basis in state court, inapplicable to a federal court’s merits review of a claim for habeas relief.

In addition, at the end of the order list, Justice Sotomayor has a statement respecting the denial of certiorari in a capital case out of Texas, Calvert v. Texas, No. 20–701.  The statement laments various procedural developments in this case and ends this way:

Although this case does not meet this Court’s traditional criteria for certiorari, it still stands as a grim reminder that courts should rigorously scrutinize how States prove that a person should face the ultimate penalty.  Juries must have a clear view of the “uniquely individual human beings” they are sentencing to death, Woodson, 428 U.S., at 304 (plurality opinion), not one tainted by irrelevant facts about other people’s crimes.  The Constitution and basic principles of justice require nothing less.

May 17, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, May 14, 2021

Split Mississippi appellate court upholds, against Eighth Amendment challenge, an LWOP habitual-offender sentence for marijuana possession

As report in this AP piece, the "Mississippi Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a life sentence for a man convicted of a marijuana possession charge because he had previous convictions and those made him a habitual offender." Here is bit more about the ruling from the AP:

Allen Russell, 38, was sentenced to life in Forrest County in 2019 after a jury found him guilty of possession of more than 30 grams (1.05 ounces) of marijuana.

In Mississippi, a person can be sentenced to life without parole after serving at least one year in prison on two separate felonies, one of which must be a violent offense. Russell was convicted on two home burglaries in 2004 and for unlawful possession of a firearm in 2015. By law, burglary is a violent offense in Mississippi, whether or not there is proof that violence occurred. That was not the case when Russell was sentenced for home burglary in 2004. Then, burglary was only considered a violent crime if there was proof of violence. The law changed in 2014.

In his appeal, Russell argued that a life sentence constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate” to his crime of marijuana possession. The Court of Appeals disagreed in its majority opinion, stating that Russell’s life sentence is in accordance with Mississippi law. Russell is not being sentenced solely for having marijuana, but for being a habitual offender, the judges said.

But several dissenting judges argued that the court can — and should — make exceptions. “The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society,” Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote. “The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal.”

The full opinions in Russell v. Mississippi, NO. 2019-KA-01670-COA (Miss. Ct. App. May 11, 2021), are available here.  Here is the start and another part of the majority opinion:

A Forrest County jury found Allen Russell guilty of possession of marijuana in an amount greater than 30 grams but less than 250 grams. The Forrest County Circuit Court sentenced Russell as a violent habitual offender under Mississippi Code Annotated section 99-19-83 (Rev. 2015) to life imprisonment in the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) without eligibility for probation or parole. On appeal from the circuit court’s judgment, Russell argues that his sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate to his felony conviction. Finding no error, we affirm....

Here, the State’s evidence established that Russell had two prior separate felony convictions for burglary of a dwelling, for which he was sentenced to and served over one year in MDOC’s custody on each conviction.  The State also presented evidence that Russell was later convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon and sentenced to ten years with eight years suspended and two years to serve, followed by five years of post-release supervision.  Based on such evidence, the circuit court justifiably found Russell to be a violent habitual offender under section 99-19-83 and sentenced him to life imprisonment in MDOC’s custody without eligibility for probation or parole.  Because Russell has failed to prove the threshold requirement of gross disproportionality, and because his habitual-offender sentence fell within the statutory guidelines, we conclude that his sentence constituted “a constitutionally permissible punishment for his most recent crime . . . .” Miller, 225 So. 3d at 16 (¶17). We therefore find this issue lacks merit.

One of the dissents begins this way:

In Solem v. Helm, 466 U.S. 277 (1983), the United States Supreme Court held that a life without parole sentence for a recidivist criminal convicted of a relatively low-level felony violated the Eighth Amendment. In terms of the gravity of his present offense and the extent and seriousness of his criminal history, I cannot draw any material distinction between Allen Russell and the defendant in Solem. Thus, I conclude that we are bound under Solem to vacate Russell’s life without parole sentence. Accordingly, I respectfully dissent

Because I was stunned to see an LWOP sentence for marijuana possession and due to the description in the opinion concerning how the defendant was found in possession of marijuana, I did a little bit of extra research about Allen Russell.  Though not mentioned in this appellate ruling, this local article from late 2017 reports that Russell was being arrested on murder charges at the time he was found to be in possession of marijuana.  Though I could find no report of Russell being convicted of (or even tried on) a homicide charge, I am inclined to suspect that this background may have played at least some role in how Russell was initially charged by prosecutors and ultimately sentenced for his marijuana possession.

I presume that this case will now be appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court and perhaps the US Supreme Court if the Mississippi courts continuing to uphold this extreme sentence. I would think that, if the Eighth Amendment is to place any limit at all the length of prison sentences imposed on adult offenders, an LWOP sentence for possessing a small amount of marijuana ought to be subject to very serious scrutiny.  And yet, SCOTUS has a history of upholding extreme recidivism-based sentences (Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003), being the most recent example), and so the past and present work of the Supreme Court in this arena should not provide much basis for Russell to be especially optimistic regarding further appeals.

May 14, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Fascinating compassionate release ruling based on clear sentencing error without other means of remedy

Regular readers are likely familiar with many of my (pre-COVID) prior posts making much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have long considered this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced on a variety of grounds.  A helpful reader alerted me to an especially interesting example of the granting of a sentencing reduction in US v. Trenkler, Cr. No. 92-10369 (D. Mass. May 6, 2021) (available for download below).

Trenkler is a fascinating case and opinion for many reasons, and the discussion of the case particulars and compassionate release jurisprudence more generally make Trenkler a must-read for anyone working in this space.  Here are some small snippets from the start and heart of the 50+ page opinion to encourage downloads:

Defendant Alfred Trenkler is a sixty-five-year-old federal inmate serving a life sentence for convictions stemming from his role in an October 28, 1991 bombing in Roslindale, Massachusetts that killed one Boston Police Department Bomb Squad officer and maimed a second officer.  On November 29, 1993, a jury convicted Trenkler of illegal receipt and use of explosive materials and attempted malicious destruction of property by means of explosives, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 844(d), 844(i) (Counts 2 and 3), and conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Count 1). See Jury Verdict, ECF No. 487. Trenkler is currently incarcerated at the U.S. Penitentiary in Tucson, Arizona (“USP Tucson”).  Defendant moves for compassionate release, asserting that extraordinary and compelling circumstances warrant his release based on (1) the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in light of his documented heart condition and the outbreak that has left at least 1009 inmates infected with COVID-19 over the past year at USP Tucson; and (2) what Trenkler characterizes as a series of miscarriages of justice that call into question his convictions and sentence....  The Court reduces Trenkler’s sentence to a term of 41 years, followed by a term of supervised release of 3 years... 

In addition to the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Trenkler urges the Court to reduce his sentence to time served in light of the “unique circumstances” surrounding his case.  Those unique circumstances, in Trenkler’s view, include questions surrounding his guilt and the fundamental unfairness of his conviction; the disproportionality of his sentence as compared to Shay, Jr.’s sentence; and his unlawfully imposed life sentence.

[Despite limits in AEDPA concerning habeas petitions,] now Congress has spoken again [via the FIRST STEP Act].  And this time it has given trial judges broad authority — indeed it has imposed a statutory duty, upon a defendant’s motion — to conduct an individualized review of the defendant’s case for extraordinary and compelling circumstances that call out for correction....  [A series of discussed] cases — and others like them — leave no question that this Court may conclude that a legal error at sentencing constitutes an extraordinary and compelling reason, and reduce the sentence after conducting an individualized review of the case....

Here, it is both extraordinary and compelling that (1) a judge sentenced a defendant to life imprisonment using a preponderance of the evidence standard where the controlling statute provided that a life sentence could be imposed only by the jury; and (2) there exists no available avenue for relief from this legal error.

Download Trenkler CR opinion

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

"Representing juvenile lifers: do attorneys in parole hearings matter?"

The title of this post is the title of this new article authored by Stuti Kokkalera and just published online in the Journal of Crime and Justice.  Here is its abstract:

Courts and scholars have advocated for the right to legal representation in the parole process. The state examined in this study qualified that juvenile lifer parole candidates have the right to an attorney at their initial parole board hearing.  Data drawn from written decisions issued by the state parole board were analyzed to determine the association between having an attorney and type of legal representation on two parole outcomes: (1) whether a candidate was granted or denied parole, and (2) length of interval terms, that is, number of years that a candidate waits for another hearing.  While having an attorney at the hearing was not related to both outcomes, type of representation was associated with interval terms.  Hearings with appointed (non-retained) attorneys were associated with reduced odds of a maximum interval term, while having retained attorneys was related to higher odds of a maximum interval term.  Hence, state efforts to provide counsel are necessary since their presence is significantly associated with the ultimate time served by juvenile lifer candidates.  Findings support the need for more comparative research across states as well as the inclusion of other parole-eligible populations.

May 13, 2021 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases new report urging "A Second Look at Injustice"

Long-time readers know that I have long been a supporter of laws and practices that facilitate taking a second look at long sentences (see links below).  I continue to be pleased to see more and more advocacy for second look sentencing efforts, and I am especially pleased to see this new 50-page report from The Sentencing Project titled " " Here is the start of its Executive Summary:

Lawmakers and prosecutors have begun pursuing criminal justice reforms that reflect a key fact: ending mass incarceration and tackling its racial disparities require taking a second look at long sentences.

Over 200,000 people in U.S. prisons were serving life sentences in 2020 — more people than were in prison with any sentence in 1970. Nearly half of the life-sentenced population is African American.  Nearly one-third is age 55 or older.

“There comes a point,” Senator Cory Booker has explained, “where you really have to ask yourself if we have achieved the societal end in keeping these people in prison for so long.”  He and Representative Karen Bass introduced the Second Look Act in 2019 to enable people who have spent at least 10 years in federal prison to petition a court for resentencing.

Legislators in 25 states, including Minnesota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Florida, have recently introduced second look bills.  A federal bill allowing resentencing for youth crimes has bipartisan support.  And, over 60 elected prosecutors and law enforcement leaders have called for second look legislation, with several prosecutors’ offices having launched sentence review units.

This report begins by examining the evidence supporting these reforms.  Specifically:

•  Legal experts recommend taking a second look at prison sentences after people have served 10 to 15 years, to ensure that sentences reflect society’s evolving norms and knowledge.  The Model Penal Code recommends a judicial review after 15 years of imprisonment for adult crimes, and after 10 years for youth crimes.  National parole experts Edward Rhine, the late Joan Petersilia, and Kevin Reitz have recommended a second look for all after 10 years of imprisonment — a timeframe that corresponds with what criminological research has found to be the duration of most “criminal careers.”

•  Criminological research has established that long prison sentences are counterproductive to public safety.  Many people serving long sentences, including for a violent crime, no longer pose a public safety risk when they have aged out of crime.  Long sentences are of limited deterrent value and are costly, because of the higher cost of imprisoning the elderly.  These sentences also put upward pressure on the entire sentencing structure, diverting resources from better investments to promote public safety.

•  Crime survivors are not of one mind and many have unmet needs that go beyond perpetual punishment.  Ultimately, a survivor’s desire for punishment must be balanced with societal goals of advancing safety, achieving justice, and protecting human dignity.

A few on many recent prior posts on second-look topics:

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

May 12, 2021 in Examples of "over-punishment", Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Fourth Circuit to review en banc recent panel ruling that lengthy (within-guideline) drug sentence was unreasonable

I noted in this post a few months ago the fascinating split Fourth Circuit panel ruling in US v. Freeman, No. 19-4104 (4th Cir. Mar. 30, 2021) (available here), which started this way:

Precias Freeman broke her tailbone as a teenager, was prescribed opioids, and has been addicted to the drugs ever since. In 2018, she was sentenced to serve more than 17 years in prison for possession with intent to distribute hydrocodone and oxycodone in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(C). After Freeman’s appointed counsel initially submitted an Anders brief asking for the Court’s assistance in identifying any appealable issues, we directed counsel to brief whether Freeman’s sentence is substantively reasonable and whether Freeman received ineffective assistance of counsel on the face of the record. On both grounds, we vacate Freeman’s sentence and remand this case for resentencing.

The dissenting opinion concluded this way:

I have great sympathy for Freeman’s circumstances. Her story reflects failures in our community. One could argue her sentence does not reflect sound policy. But that does not make it unreasonable under the law. And while the record is concerning regarding the effectiveness of counsel Freeman received, it does not conclusively demonstrate a failure to meet the constitutional bar at this juncture. I dissent.

This case is already quite the fascinating story, but this new Fourth Circuit order shows that it is due to have another chapter at the circuit level:

A majority of judges in regular active service and not disqualified having voted in a poll requested by a member of the court to grant rehearing en banc, IT IS ORDERED that rehearing en banc is granted.

I am grateful for the colleague who made sure I saw this order, but I am disappointed that the very, very, very rare federal sentence reversed as unreasonably long is now getting en banc review when so many crazy long sentences so often get so quickly upheld as reasonable. The language of this order suggests the Fourth Circuit decide to rehear this case en banc on its own without even being asked to do so by the Justice Department.  And I am also unsure about whether Fourth Circuit en banc procedure will lead to any further briefing or arguments, but  the fact that there are two key issues (ineffective assistance of counsel AND reasonableness of the sentences) means that there might be a wide array of opinions ultimately coming from the full Fourth Circuit.

Prior related post:

May 11, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

"Old law" federal prisoners provide new reminder that parole does not cure all ills

A few years ago I wrote an essay, titled "Reflecting on Parole's Abolition in the Federal Sentencing System," which lamented the federal sentencing system's decision to abolish parole back in 1984.  Among other points, in this piece I suggested that "parole could have been, and perhaps should now become, a bulwark against the kind of impersonalized severity that has come to define much of the modern federal sentencing experience."  I realized while working on that piece that there was a bit of "grass is always greener" thinking driving my modern "ivory tower" affinity for part of a sentencing scheme that has long been beset with problems in practice. 

Today, the imperfect realities of parole is highlighted in this new NPR piece a helpful reader made sure I saw headlined "Forgetting And Forgotten: Older Prisoners Seek Release But Fall Through The Cracks."  I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts and a few other passages:

Davon-Marie Grimmer has been struggling to get help for more than year for her cousin, Kent Clark. Sometimes, when he calls from prison, he asks to speak with relatives who are no longer alive. Sometimes, he forgets the name of his cell mate. "As far as I know, he hasn't received any medical attention for the dementia, and he's just so vulnerable in there," Grimmer said. "He's 66 years old. He can't take care of himself."

Clark is one of about 150 people in federal prison who time mostly forgot. This group of "old law" prisoners committed crimes before November 1987, when the law changed to remove the possibility of parole. But even with the grandfathered-in chance for parole — and despite a push to reduce prison populations — dozens of men in their 60s, 70s and 80s still have little hope of release.

When Congress tweaked the law three years ago to allow sick and elderly people behind bars to apply to a judge for compassionate release, that change didn't apply to the "old law" prisoners. They're easy to overlook.

"They are the oldest and most vulnerable cohort of people within the federal prison system today," said Chuck Weisselberg, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "I mean, their only path for release is through the parole commission, an agency that's been dying for decades."

A bipartisan group of senators has introduced legislation that would give "old law" prisoners the chance to petition judges for release based on their age and poor health, but it's awaiting action in Congress....

As for Kent Clark, the U.S. Parole Commission reviewed his case last year.  According to written records, Clark's case manager told the commission that Clark is showing signs of dementia.  He pointed out that as a young man, Clark was a boxer who may have a history of head injuries.

But the parole examiner denied Clark's bid for release.  The examiner wrote that if Clark can't remember what he did, "how can the Commission be certain he has learned something from his mistakes and/or that he has developed the skills to avoid engaging in the same behavior?"

May 11, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Split Eleventh Circuit panel creates circuit split over compassionate relief criteria after FIRST STEP Act

I have blogged in recent months about a significant number of significant circuit rulings addressing the reach and application of the sentence modification provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  The Second Circuit back in September was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, rightly in my view, that district courts now have broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).  Since then, there have been somewhat similar opinions from the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Ninth and Tenth Circuits generally recognizing that district courts now have broad authority after the FIRST STEP Act to determine "extraordinary and compelling" reasons that may justify a sentence reduction when an imprisoned person files a 3582(c)(1)(A) motion (see rulings linked below). 

But this past Friday, a split Eleventh Circuit panel issued the first major ruling in this area that breaks with the jurisprudence developed in these other circuits.  The majority opinion in US v. Bryant, No. 19-14267 (11th Cir. May 7, 2021) (available here), gets started this way:

Thomas Bryant is a corrupt former police officer who was sentenced to prison for running drugs and guns. He filed a motion seeking a reduction in his sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A), and the district court denied that motion based on the Sentencing Commission’s policy statement found at U.S.S.G. § 1B1.13.  In resolving Bryant’s appeal, we must answer two questions about the relationship between Section 3582(c)(1)(A) and 1B1.13.

First, we must decide whether district courts reviewing defendant-filed motions under Section 3582(c)(1)(A) are bound by the Sentencing Commission’s policy statement.  Under Section 3582(c)(1)(A), a court can reduce an otherwise final sentence for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” as long as the reduction is “consistent with applicable policy statements issued by the Sentencing Commission.”  The statute commands the Commission to publish a policy statement that defines “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” 28 U.S.C. § 994(t), and the Commission did: 1B1.13, which is entitled “Reduction in Term of Imprisonment under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A).”  At the time, the statute required all motions to be filed by the BOP.  The policy statement repeats that then-existing statutory language and, in its application notes, lists several circumstances that are “extraordinary and compelling reasons” that justify a sentence reduction.

So far, so good.  But after Congress changed the statute to allow defendants to file motions in addition to the BOP, several of our sister circuits have held that 1B1.13 is not an “applicable policy statement[]” for those defendant-filed motions.  This is so, they say, because the policy statement, quoting the pre-existing statute’s language, begins with the following phrase: “Upon motion of the Director of the Bureau of Prisons.”  Based mostly on that language, our sister circuits have held that this policy statement is not an “applicable policy statement” that binds judicial discretion as to defendant-filed motions.

We disagree with that reasoning.  The statute’s procedural change does not affect the statute’s or 1B1.13’s substantive standards, specifically the definition of “extraordinary and compelling reasons.”  The Commission’s standards are still capable of being applied and relevant to all Section 3582(c)(1)(A) motions, whether filed by the BOP or a defendant.  And the structure of the Guidelines, our caselaw’s interpretation of “applicable policy statement,” and general canons of statutory interpretation all confirm that 1B1.13 is still an applicable policy statement for a Section 3582(c)(1)(A) motion, no matter who files it.

Second, because we conclude that 1B1.13 is an applicable policy statement, we must determine how district courts should apply that statement to motions filed under Section 3582(c)(1)(A).  Bryant argues that Application Note 1(D) of 1B1.13 conflicts with the statute’s recent amendment.  As a catch-all provision, Application Note 1(D) says that a court may grant a motion if, “[a]s determined by the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, there exists in the defendant’s case an extraordinary and compelling reason other than, or in combination with, the reasons described in subdivisions (A) through (C).”  Bryant argues that, because the statute now allows for defendant-filed motions, we should replace “as determined by the [BOP]” with “as determined by the [court].”  This alteration to the policy statement would give courts effectively unlimited discretion to grant or deny motions under Application Note 1(D).

But we cannot do that. Application Note 1(D) is not inconsistent with the procedural change in the statute that allows defendants to file motions.  Because we can apply both the amended Section 3582(c)(1)(A) and Application Note 1(D), we must apply both.

In short, 1B1.13 is an applicable policy statement for all Section 3582(c)(1)(A) motions, and Application Note 1(D) does not grant discretion to courts to develop “other reasons” that might justify a reduction in a defendant’s sentence. Accordingly, we affirm.

Judge Martin's dissent gets started this way:

Today’s majority opinion establishes the Eleventh Circuit as the only circuit to limit an inmate’s ability to get compassionate release from incarceration solely to those “extraordinary and compelling” reasons that are pre-approved by the Bureau of Prisons (“BOP”).  Our precedent now allows no independent or individualized consideration by a federal judge as plainly intended by the First Step Act.  And this limitation on compassionate release is based on an outdated policy statement from a Sentencing Commission that has lacked a quorum since the First Step Act became law.  The problems that arise from the majority’s reliance on the outdated policy statement are compounded by the majority’s express decision to strike (or ignore) language from the policy statement.  Sadly, this result reinstates the exact problem the First Step Act was intended to remedy: compassionate release decisions had been left under the control of a government agency that showed no interest in properly administering it.  With all respect due, I dissent.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

May 9, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

How about Prez Biden and lots of Governors starting a tradition of granting lots of clemencies around Mother's Day?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by my persistent eagerness to see a lot more clemency activity from chief executives and also by this new story out of Illinois headlined "Protesters deliver Mother’s Day card to Pritzker’s house, demand release of incarcerated loved ones."  Here are excerpts:

Against a backdrop of bright pink tulips, protesters stood outside Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Gold Coast home on Friday with flowers, signs and a painted piece of cardboard that read, “Dear J.B., on this Mother’s Day, set our loved ones free.” That oversized Mother’s Day card included demands that Pritzker sign clemency petitions to for prisoners they say have been wrongfully incarcerated and that he stop construction of a new youth prison at the Lincoln Developmental Center.

Denice Bronis, an Elgin resident and member of Mamas Activating Movements for Abolition and Solidarity, said her son Matthew Echevarria, in prison for 22 years after being convicted of murder, contracted COVID-19 at Menard Correctional Center and still exhibits long-term symptoms. “Mother’s Day is just as much a day of love as it is a day of pain, especially for those who have experienced forced separation from our children, our loved ones, by the state,” Bronis said....

Kiah Sandler, a Bronzeville resident with the End IL Prison Lockdown Coalition, said although the group’s demands have shifted since Pritzker signed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill, there is still work to be done by the governor. Sandler said the coalition is asking Pritzker to lift that ban on personal contact during in-person visits, and also to grant more clemency requests to “set loved ones free with the stroke of a pen.”...

A Pritzker spokesperson later sent an email stating Pritzker has granted clemency requests throughout the pandemic and the state prison population is at its lowest level in years — down 28% since 2019, including a 43% drop in female inmates.

Holly Krig, a member of Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, said it is “horrific and cruelly unnecessary,” that visitors and incarcerated people are not allowed to touch and also that visitors must be vaccinated; that means children under 16 — who can’t be vaccinated yet — can’t visit. She said for younger children and newborns to maintain a relationship with incarcerated mothers, contact is essential. “People can be released, people should be released and they should be released immediately,” Krig said. “We need to bring our people home.”

As highlighted by recent polling discussed here, granting clemency to various groups of persons has considerable public support across the political spectrum.  Focusing particularly on reuniting families though commutations and restoring rights through pardons on Mother's Day could be a big political winner.

A few prior recent related posts:

May 9, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, May 07, 2021

Notably advocacy for Prez Biden to use his clemency power to ensure those released into home confinement need not return to prison

Alice Marie Johnson and Ja’Ron Smith have this notable new USA Today opinion piece headlined "COVID-19 concerns sent thousands of inmates home. Give clemency to those who deserve it." The subtitle of the piece captures its themes: "Nearly 5,000 inmates may be sent back to prison. After rebuilding their lives, and being contributing members of society, how is being returned justice?". Here are excerpts (links from original):

This spring, as more Americans are able to get vaccinated, there’s hope the pandemic is nearing its end and life is slowly returning to normal.  But for 4,500 Americans, the end of the pandemic could instead mean returning to prison. 

The March 2020 CARES Act allowed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to expand the period of home confinement, which usually comes at the end of a sentence.  As a result, thousands of incarcerated individuals convicted of nonviolent crimes were released from prison – where COVID-19 swept through cramped facilities – to home confinement. Many were able to reunite with their families and find jobs.   

But earlier this year, the Justice Department ordered that individuals under home confinement due to COVID-19 must return to prison when the emergency is lifted, putting 4,500 lives in limbo, awaiting an uncertain date when their return to normalcy is taken away.  Inmates near the end of their sentence may be able to stay home if the Bureau of Prisons grants permission, according to a recent USA TODAY report.  And while the Biden administration extended the length of the COVID emergency declaration, that still might not help people with years left to serve.   

The administration could get into a legal back-and-forth over the interpretation of the CARES Act.  But a simpler path would be for President Joe Biden to grant clemency to those on home confinement who pose no threat to public safety.  Reviewing the cases will be another step toward reducing unnecessary incarceration in America, which imprisons more people than any other democratic country with no added benefit to public safety.  

The two of us experienced the justice system, and clemency in particular, up close.  One of us worked as a senior adviser to former President Donald Trump on criminal justice and other policy issues.  The other served nearly 22 years in prison for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense before returning home after Trump granted clemency, and later a pardon.  Through these experiences, we have come to know people from diverse backgrounds who have made mistakes, but still have much to offer their families and our society. That is what we are seeing with many of the individuals under home confinement due to COVID-19....

To prevent individuals like these from being sent back to prison, a congressional coalition wrote a letter to Biden, urging him to review their cases for clemency.  The letter notes that the CARES Act did not require individuals on home confinement be sent back to prison, and that the Justice Department can modify the guidance issued by the last administration.  But clemency would allow rehabilitated individuals to move on with their lives rather than serving home detention for the rest of their sentences.   

Clemency should be carefully and fairly considered.  But all the people under home confinement were released because they were determined to be safe, making them strong candidates.  The moral issue goes beyond these 4,500 Americans.  In recent years, a diverse coalition from across the political spectrum has united for criminal justice reforms. Trump signed the bipartisan First Step Act in 2018, reducing some excessive sentences and creating more opportunities for rehabilitation.  

Biden ran on a platform to build on these criminal justice reforms. As he said in a proclamation commemorating Second Chance Month, “We lift up all those who, having made mistakes, are committed to rejoining society and making meaningful contributions.”  Biden should now extend that commitment to people under home confinement.  Reviewing these cases for clemency will not only help transform the lives of thousands of Americans, but also continue the momentum toward a more sensible and fair criminal justice system. 

Some prior recent related posts:

May 7, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Split(?) Sixth Circuit panel clarifies disparity between actual sentence and sentence under current law can be proper compassionate relief factor

I have been pleased to be able to blog about a significant number of significant circuit rulings on the reach and application of the sentence modification provisions amended by the federal FIRST STEP Act.  As regular readers know, in lots of (pre-COVID) prior posts, I made much of the provision of the FIRST STEP Act allowing federal courts to directly reduce sentences under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  I have long considered this provision a big deal because, if applied appropriately and robustly, it could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced on a variety of grounds. 

The Second Circuit back in September was the first circuit to rule in Zullo/Brooker, quite rightly in my view, that district courts have now broad discretion to consider "any extraordinary and compelling reason for release that a defendant might raise" to justify a sentence reduction under 3582(c)(1)(A).  Since then, there have been somewhat similar opinions from the Fourth, Fifth Sixth, Seventh, Ninth and Tenth Circuits issued generally recognizing that district courts now have broad authority after the FIRST STEP Act to determine whether and when "extraordinary and compelling" reasons may justify a sentence reduction when an imprisoned person files a 3582(c)(1)(A) motion (see rulings linked below).  And, yesterday a split(?) Sixth Circuit issued another ruling in this line of important precedents with US v. Owens, No. 20-2139 (6th Cir. May 6, 2021) (available here), which gets started this way and thereafter makes key observations on the way to reaching its holding:

Ian Owens appeals the district court’s order denying his motion for compassionate release because it concluded that the disparity between his lengthy sentence and the sentence that he would receive following the passage of the First Step Act was not an extraordinary and compelling reason to support compassionate release.  For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we REVERSE the district court’s order and REMAND for reconsideration of Owens’s motion for compassionate release consistent with this opinion....

Many district courts across the country have taken the same approach as McGee and Maumau and have concluded that a defendant’s excessive sentence because of mandatory minimum sentences since mitigated by the First Step Act may, alongside other factors, justify compassionate release. [cites to more than a dozen notable district court rulings modifying sentences]... 

As explained above, Owens presented three factors that he asserted together warranted compassionate release.  The district court here did not consider two of the factors Owens asserted and should have determined whether the combination of all three factors warranted compassionate release.  In accordance with our holding 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, we remand to the district court for further proceedings.

I keep putting a question mark next to the notation "split" with respect to this panel decision because here is the (seemingly peculiar) start to the opinion in Owens:

MOORE, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which DAUGHTREY, J., joined. THAPAR, J., will deliver a separate dissenting opinion that will be appended to the majority opinion at a later time.

Until Judge Thapar appends his dissenting opinion, I am not sure if he disagrees with the main holding of the panel majority or if he has some other concern with this decision.  I presume he is dissenting on the merits, but the idea that sentencing disparities can be at least a factor in considering compassionate release motions does not seem to me to be a particularly controversial proposition since the text of the applicable statute does not expressly provide for any excluded factors concerning what can serve an "extraordinary and compelling reason" to support a sentence modification.

A few of many, many prior related posts:

May 7, 2021 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Marijuana legalization and expungement in early 2021"

Marijuana-Record-Relief_for-socialThe title of this post is the title of this great new report authored by David Schlussel that was assisted in various ways by folks at Collateral Consequences Resource Center and Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.  Here is the abstract to the report:

Early 2021 was an unprecedented period for policymaking at the intersection of marijuana legalization and criminal record reform. Between February and April, four states enacted legislation legalizing recreational marijuana.  In conjunction with legalization, these states (New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia) also enacted innovative criminal policy reforms — including the automatic expungement of an exceptionally broad array of past marijuana convictions — along with a variety of social equity provisions.

These new laws mitigate past harms of the legal system while also supporting economic and social opportunity for people with a record in several ways.  First, in all four states, expansive automatic expungement provisions will remove the burden of a criminal record from many individuals, while raising the bar on standards for marijuana record relief nationwide.  These states also incorporated more general criminal record reforms into legalization, benefiting people with different types of criminal records in their efforts to reintegrate into society.  Finally, these four states specifically addressed racial disparities in marijuana criminalization by directing tax revenue and business opportunities for legal marijuana to individuals and communities disproportionately affected by criminal law enforcement.  This report and an accompanying infographic summarize the groundbreaking criminal reforms enacted this year as part of marijuana legalization and situate them in the national context. 

The infographic referenced here as well as other links and materials related to this topic can also be found in the report pages for both DEPC here and CCRC here.  In addition, this recent PBS News Hour piece, headlined "As more states legalize marijuana, people with drug convictions want their records cleared," discusses these issues further.

A few recent related posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

May 7, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Might Prez Biden use his clemency power relatively soon?

The question in the title of this post is promoted by this notable new Hill article headlined "Biden set to flex clemency powers."  The headline is a bit more encouraging than the full article for those eager to see some action on this front, and here are some of the details:

White House officials are signaling that President Biden is prepared to flex his clemency powers as officials wade through a large backlog of requests behind the scenes, according to advocates with whom the White House has consulted on criminal justice reform.  The White House held a Zoom call last week to discuss criminal justice reform with advocates and formerly incarcerated people, some of whom are pressing Biden to use his powers to free people jailed on drug offenses and sick and elderly people who pose no threat to society.

While the White House did not signal any imminent moves, officials indicated that Biden will not hold off until later in his term to issue pardons or commutations.  “It was clear that they are working on something,” said Norris Henderson, founder and executive director of New Orleans-based Voice of the Experienced, who participated in the call.  “They are looking at that right now as an avenue to start doing things.”

The White House declined to comment for this report when asked about Biden’s plans for clemency grants or his timeline.  Asked at a briefing Wednesday whether the Biden administration has a timeline for pardons or commutations, White House press secretary Jen Psaki answered: “I don’t have any previewing of that to provide and probably won’t from here.”

Biden disappointed some advocates by not granting clemency to anyone in his first 100 days in office and has faced pressure to take action to reform the criminal justice system and address racial injustices.  Given Democrats’ slim majorities in Congress, the broad clemency powers afforded to the president could be an attractive way for Biden to show he is taking action on reforming the justice system.  The Justice Department faces a backlog of some 15,000 petitions for clemency.

DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, said officials communicated on the call last week that Biden is “not waiting until the end of his presidency” to issue pardons or commutations. “It was very promising because he already, from the White House perspective, has staff working on this,” Hoskins said....  Vivian Nixon, executive director of the College & Community Fellowship, described the White House as more noncommittal, saying there was not a “promise to do anything” but that officials acknowledged “that they are looking at this issue very closely.”

Biden’s record on criminal justice is mixed.  He has faced backlash for his role in passing the 1994 crime bill that critics say contributed to mass incarceration and had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.  As part of the criminal justice platform he unveiled on the campaign trail, Biden promised to use his clemency power to “secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes” if elected....

The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls spearheaded a campaign to pressure Biden to grant clemency to 100 women in his first 100 days in office, but that milestone came and went last week without action from the White House.  The American Civil Liberties Union has petitioned Biden to grant clemency to 25,000 people as soon as possible, calling mass incarceration a “moral failure” and “racial justice crisis.”

White House officials including domestic policy adviser Susan Rice, senior adviser Cedric Richmond and counsel Dana Remus convened the call last Friday to hear criminal justice reform recommendations from advocates, and clemency was among the topics discussed....

“One thing that was very clear from the conversation was there will be a process,” Desmond Meade, president and executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said of Friday’s White House call. “At the end of the day, they know that there are changes that should be made, but there should be a process there that makes it fair for everyone.”...

Friday’s call was the first in what is expected to be a series of White House engagements with criminal justice reform advocates and individuals who have been directly impacted by the prison system.... Participants expressed optimism that the White House is serious about addressing criminal justice reform and giving those who have been impacted by the justice system a seat at the table.

A few of many recent related posts on Prez Biden and clemency:

May 5, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

SCOTUS argument in Terry suggests low-level crack defendant unlikely to secure resentencing based on FSA retroactivity

On Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Terry v. United States, and the full oral argument is available here via C-SPAN.  The full argument runs nearly 90 minutes and the quality of the advocacy makes it worth the full listen.  But one can get a much quicker flavor of the tenor of the discussion from just a scan of the headlines of these press accounts of the argument:

From the AP, "Supreme Court skeptical of low-level crack offender’s case"

From Bloomberg Law, "Biden Switch Unlikely to Save Crack Offenders at Supreme Court"

From Law & Crime, "Biden Administration Flip-Flopped Its Position in Case Over Crack Cocaine Sentences. SCOTUS Did Not Seem Pleased."

From Reuters, "U.S. Supreme Court skeptical of expanding crack cocaine reforms"

From USA Today, "Supreme Court skeptical of applying Trump-era criminal justice law retroactively for small drug offenses"

From the Washington Post, "Supreme Court seems skeptical that law helps all convicted of crack cocaine offenses"

All the "skeptical" questions from the Justices certainly leaves me thinking that the Supreme Court will rule that Tarahrick Terry is not entitled to resentencing under the FIRST STEP Act provision making the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive.  That may not ultimately be such a big loss for Mr. Terry since, as the Acting SG explained to SCOTUS back in March, he is already finishing up his prison sentence through home confinement and that term is to be completed in September.  I am hopeful that the relatively small number of similarly situated defendants who would be adversely impacted by a Terry loss would have some similar silver lining.

Prior related posts:

May 4, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 03, 2021

Terry v. US, the final SCOTUS argument of Term, provides yet another reminder of the persistent trauma and drama created by the 100-1 crack ratio

It was 35 years ago, amid intense media coverage of a "crack epidemic" and the overdose death of basketball star Len Bias, when Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 with the 100-to-1 powder/crack cocaine quantity ratio defining severe mandatory minimum sentencing terms.  As the US Sentencing Commission explained in this 1995 report, Congress "dispensed with much of the typical deliberative legislative process, including committee hearings," when enacting this law, and "the abbreviated, somewhat murky legislative history simply does not provide a single, consistently cited rationale for the crack-powder cocaine penalty structure."  Though the 100-to-1 ratio lacked any sound rationale in 1986, thousands of disproportionately black persons started receiving disproportionately severe statutory and guideline sentences for crack offenses in the years that followed.

Not long thereafter, in 1991 the US Sentencing Commission detailed to Congress that "lack of uniform application [of mandatory minimums] creates unwarranted disparity in sentencing" and that data showed "differential application on the basis of race."  Giving particular attention to cocaine sentencing, in 1995 the US Sentencing Commission explained to Congress that there was considerable racial disparity resulting from the 100-1 quantity ratio and that sound research and public policy might "support somewhat higher penalties for crack versus powder cocaine, but a 100-to-1 quantity ratio cannot be recommended."  In other words, three decades ago, an expert agency told Congress that mandatory minimums were generally bad policy and created racial injustice; over a quarter century ago, that agency also told Congress that crack minimums were especially bad policy and created extreme racial injustice.

In a sound and just sentencing universe, these reports and recommendations would have prompted immediate action.  But it took Congress another full 15 years to even partially address these matters.  After tens of thousands of persons were sentenced under the 100-to-1 ratio, Congress finally in 2010 passed the Fair Sentencing Act to increase the amount of crack need to trigger extreme mandatory minimum sentences.  The FSA did not do away with any mandatory minimums, and it still provided for much smaller quantities of crack to trigger sentences as severe as larger quantities of powder, but it still bent the arc of the federal sentencing universe a bit more toward justice.  However, it did so only prospectively as Congress did not provide for retroactive application of its slightly more just crack sentencing rules in the FSA.

Eight years later, Congress finally made the Fair Sentencing Act's reforms of crack sentences retroactive through the FIRST STEP Act. But, of course, no part of this story lacks for drama and racialized trauma, as the reach of retroactivity remains contested in some cases.  So, the Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument on Tuesday, May 4 in Terry v. US to determine if Tarahrick Terry, who was sentenced in 2008 to over 15 years in prison after being convicted of possessing with intent to distribute about 4 grams of crack cocaine, can benefit from the FIRST STEP Act's provision to make the Fair Sentencing Act reforms retroactive.

All the briefing in Terry is available here at SCOTUSblog, and Ekow Yankah has a great preview here titled "In final case the court will hear this term, profound issues of race, incarceration and the war on drugs." Here is how it starts:

Academics naturally believe that even obscure cases in their field are underappreciated; each minor tax or bankruptcy case quietly frames profound issues of justice.  But, doubtful readers, rest assured that Terry v. United States — which the Supreme Court will hear on Tuesday in the final argument of its 2020-21 term — packs so many swirling issues of great importance into an absurdly little case, it can hardly be believed.  The national debate on historical racism in our criminal punishment system?  Yes.  Related questions of how we address drug use with our criminal law rather than as a public health issue?  Undoubtedly.  Redemption after committing a crime? Of course.  The ramifications of a contested presidential election?  Sure.  The consequences of hyper-technical statutory distinctions on the fate of thousands?  Goes without saying.  A guest appearance by a Kardashian?  Why not.

Henry Gass at the Christian Science Monitor has another great preview piece here under the headline "On the Supreme Court docket: Fairness, textualism, and crack cocaine."  Here is an excerpt:

Mr. Terry’s punishment followed war-on-drugs-era federal guidelines that treated a gram of crack cocaine 100 times worse than a gram of powder cocaine.  The sentencing disparity has come to be viewed, by critics spanning the political spectrum, as one of the great injustices of the war on drugs.  It’s been one of the key drivers of mass incarceration, those critics say, in particular subjecting thousands of low-level offenders — the vast majority young people of color – to long prison terms.

In the past decade Congress has reduced almost all of those sentences — all except for Mr. Terry, and thousands of low-level crack offenders like him.  It’s a deferral of justice that has brought him into an unlikely alliance with congressional leaders from both parties, as well as former federal judges, prosecutors, and, latterly, the Biden administration.

On Tuesday it will bring him to the U.S. Supreme Court, when the justices will hear arguments on whether this vestige of the tough-on-crime era should be eliminated.  His case is relatively narrow and technical, but in a country — and a Congress — that has come to roundly condemn drug policies like the crack powder sentencing disparity, it’s significant.

May 3, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 30, 2021

Great example of clemency leading to more compassion ... in the form of compassionate release thanks to FIRST STEP Act reforms

I am not sure if anyone is trying to make a comprehensive list of the wide array of factors that federal courts have referenced in granting sentence reductions under the (so-called compassionate release) statutory provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) ever since the FIRST STEP Act allowed federal courts to directly reduce sentence without awaiting a motion by the Bureau of Prisons.  Thankfully, district and circuit court have consistently recognized that, in the word of the Second Circuit in US v. Brooker, 976 F.3d 228 (2d Cir. 2020), the "First Step Act freed district courts to consider the full slate of extraordinary and compelling reasons that an imprisoned person might bring before them in motions for compassionate release."  And, via this new Law360 article, headlined "Ex-Detroit Mayor Ally Released From Prison Years Early," I saw a new opinion with a particularly notable reason given for such a reduction.  Here  are the basics and context from the article:

A former contractor and co-defendant to ex-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick on Thursday was granted compassionate release from prison after serving eight years of a 21-year sentence over a municipal bribery and kickback scheme, with the judge citing health problems and the fact Kilpatrick had his sentence commuted. U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds reduced the sentence for Bobby Ferguson, 52, to time served, noting his underlying medical conditions that place him at grave risk were he to contract COVID-19, and the fact that Kilpatrick — the much more culpable defendant in the case — in January was granted a reprieve by former President Donald Trump.

Judge Edmunds said at the time of the original sentencing there were "serious differences" between Ferguson's conduct and that of Kilpatrick — the mastermind of the pay-to-play scheme to exchange city business for bribes and kickbacks.  That Ferguson is left facing a prison term more than twice as long as Kilpatrick served constitutes an "extraordinary and compelling" reason to grant Ferguson compassionate release, she said.  "He was not the driver of the bus; that was Mr. Kilpatrick, where the power resided," Judge Edmunds said.

Michigan federal prosecutors had strongly opposed granting Ferguson compassionate release, calling Kilpatrick's commutation "wrongful" and highlighting Ferguson's earlier convictions for assault and other alleged misdeeds.  The government also disputed that Ferguson's hypertension, diminished lung capacity due to an injury and high cholesterol merited an early release.   The government further argued that Ferguson had not exhausted his administrative remedies with the Bureau of Prisons, since he had only petitioned the prison warden for compassionate release based on his health issues and not the disparity in sentence that resulted from Kilpatrick's release.

However, Judge Edmunds said she was persuaded by other court decisions in finding that so-called "issue exhaustion" is not required for compassionate release. She also noted his prior violent crimes occurred decades ago, and that Ferguson hasn't displayed any such "hotheadedness" while incarcerated.

The full 11-page ruling this case is available at this link, and here is a key passage:

Defendant now faces the prospect of a period of incarceration much longer than a more culpable co-defendant.  At the time of sentencing, the Court noted there were “serious differences” between Defendant’s conduct and that of Mr. Kilpatrick. (ECF No. 493, PgID 16285.)  More specifically, Defendant was not an elected official and had been charged with and convicted of a substantially smaller number of charges. (Id.) The Court therefore concluded that Defendant deserved a shorter sentence than Mr. Kilpatrick and ultimately sentenced Defendant to a term of imprisonment 75% as long as Mr. Kilpatrick’s sentence. That Defendant now faces a period of incarceration more than twice as long as the time Mr. Kilpatrick served is both extraordinary and compelling.  See United States v. Sapp, No. 14-cr-20520, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16491, at *5 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 31, 2020) (defining “extraordinary as beyond what is usual, customary, regular, or common” and “a compelling reason as one so great that irreparable harm or injustice would result if the relief is not granted”) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

The government argues that avoiding unwarranted sentence disparities, one of the § 3553(a) factors, should not be part of this step of the analysis and that taking this into account would contravene the interest in finality of sentences.  The Sixth Circuit has held, however, consistent with all other circuit courts that have addressed this issue, that district courts have “full discretion” to define extraordinary and compelling reasons. See Jones, 980 F.3d at 1109; see also Brooker, 976 F.3d at 237 (noting that “a district court’s discretion in this area — as in all sentencing matters — is broad”). The only statutory limit on what a court may consider to be extraordinary and compelling is that rehabilitation alone is not sufficient.  See 28 U.S.C. § 994(t).  That particular circumstances may also factor into the Court’s analysis under § 3553(a) has no bearing on whether they can be considered extraordinary and compelling.  And, here, the disparity only arose recently due to the unique circumstance of a co-defendant being granted a Presidential commutation.

While the finality of sentences is an important principle, the compassionate release provision of § 3582(c) “represents Congress’s judgment that the generic interest in finality must give way in certain individual cases and authorizes judges to implement that judgment.”  See United States v. McCoy, 981 F.3d 271, 288 (4th Cir. 2020) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).  The Court finds this to be an appropriate case in which to do so. Not only has Defendant served a slightly longer term of imprisonment than a more culpable co-defendant, but his motion comes during an unprecedented global pandemic and Defendant has an increased vulnerability to the virus.

April 30, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Sentences Reconsidered, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 29, 2021

New detailed polling reveals broad support for broad use of clemency power to commute sentences

Poll_03-individuals-who-served-more-600x413This interesting new report at The Lab - The Appeal details the results of interesting new polling showing broad support for clemency on behalf of a wide array of different types of persons in prison. The report is authored by Molly Greene and Sean McElwee under the headline "Poll: Use Clemency Power to Fight Mass Incarceration." I recommend clicking through to see all the details, but here is part of the narrative:

New national polling from Data for Progress and The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, shows that voters support using executive clemency as a tool to reverse decades of over-incarceration, and commuting prison sentences for broad categories of people who can be safely returned to their communities.

Even after decades of excessively long and discriminatory prison sentences in the United States, and amid growing consensus that we need to dramatically reduce prison populations, executive clemency remains a largely overlooked and underused path toward reversing the punitive excesses of mass incarceration. Grants of clemency need not be rare exceptions....

While momentum for sentencing reform has grown at both the state and federal level, American prisons remain filled with people serving lengthy, decades-long sentences, including those imposed in the 1990s and the early 2000s, when the punitive zeal of prosecutors, judges, and lawmakers was at its peak.  As a result, the American prison population is aging, with growing proportions of incarcerated people in their 50s, 60s, and older who increasingly require expensive medical care and who are unlikely, if released, to commit future crimes.  People also remain imprisoned for convictions that result in far shorter terms today, meaning people are caged, separated from their families and communities, for reasons we now accept cannot be justified.

The power to commute sentences and pardon convictions — held, at the federal level, by the president, and by virtually all governors or governor-appointed boards in the states — can efficiently reduce this over-incarceration, while also redressing racial injustice that pervades the criminal legal system, including in sentencing.  Our polling shows national support for using executive clemency in precisely this way.  In particular, voters support commuting sentences of categorical groups based on age, health, time served, the nature of the offense, and as a means to reduce racial disparities and maintain consistency with current sentencing practices.

The polling results are relatively consistent no matter the specific inquiry in this poll, with roughly 50% to 70% of all respondents supporting sentence commutations for various populations and with Democrats generally supporting clemency by about 10% to 20% more than Republicans (and Independents in between). Again, I highly recommend clicking through to see all the details.  Interestingly, a question that focuses on giving retroactive relief based on new laws generated the strongest of all the responses in support of commutations:

Commutations based on time served:

  • 73 percent of likely voters, including 78 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents, and 65 percent of Republicans, support commuting the sentences for individuals who have already served more than what current law requires for that offense.

April 29, 2021 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Is Justice Kavanaugh eager to bring proportionality review to government sanctions ... to protect speech under the First Amendment?

It comes as no suprise that a lot of attention is being given to the Supreme Court case argued today inolving a First Amendment claim brought by a young public high schooler suspended from the cheerleading squad for dropping f-bombs on his Snapchat.  This Politcio piece reviews the basics of the arguments, and I was both surprised and struck by a comment during argument by Justice Kavanaugh.  Here, via this oral argument transcript from Mahanoy Area School Dist. v. B. L., is the comment and context (with my emphasis added):

[A]s a judge and maybe as a coach and a parent too, it seems like maybe a bit of over -- overreaction by the coach.

So my reaction when I read this, she's competitive, she cares, she blew off steam like millions of other kids have when they're disappointed about being cut from the high school team or not being in the starting lineup or not making all league....

So maybe what bothers me when I read all this is that it didn't seem like the punishment was tailored to the offense given what I just said about how important it is and you know how much it means to the kids.  I mean, a year's suspension from the team just seems excessive to me.

But how does that fit into the First Amendment doctrine or does it fit in at all in a case like this?

I lack the First Amendment expertise to know if the notion of reviewing state sanctions for excessiveness or proportionality is particularly notable or novel.  But I have enough Eighth Amendment expertise to know it could be so vauabe if Justice Kavanaugh and other Justices were far more willing to question state sanctions in the form of extreme prison terms when they do not "seem like the punishment was tailored to the offense" and "just seems excessive."

Though finding notable these comments by Justice Kavanaugh about what seemed to him an excessive punishment, I doubt we should be expecting him to carry these sentiments over the the Eighth Amendment.  After all, Justice Kavanaugh's first big Eighth Amendment ruling functionally limited its protection for juvenile murderers via the Jones opinion.

April 28, 2021 in Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Evan Miller, of Miller v. Alabama, sentenced again to LWOP for murder committed when he was only 14

As reported in this AP piece, headlined "Juvenile lifer who set precedent sentenced to life again," a high-profile juvenile murderer was sentenced yet again to life in prison without parole despite having helped win a Supreme Court ruling reversing his original LWOP sentence. Here are the details:

Evan Miller was just 14 when he committed the slaying that sent him to prison. In reviewing his case, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles — saying judges and juries should consider the special factors of youth — a decision that eventually led to inmates across the country getting a chance at release.

But Miller will not get that chance. A judge on Tuesday handed down a second life sentence without possibility of parole.

Lawrence Circuit Judge Mark Craig ruled that Evan Miller, despite being a young teen when he committed his crime, met the legal criteria to be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of parole. Craig said the severity of Miller’s crime outweighed the mitigating factors of Miller’s age and his abuse-filled childhood that the defense argued made him deserving of an opportunity of a chance to get out of prison some day. Craig said a sentence of life without the possibility of parole was the “only just sentence” over the lesser punishment of life with a chance of parole after 30 years.

Miller was 14 in 2003 when he and another teen beat Cole Cannon with a baseball bat before setting fire to his trailer, a crime for which he was originally sentenced to a mandatory life sentence. Before handing down the sentence, Craig repeated the line that Miller was attributed with saying before he delivered a final blow to Cannon: “I am God. I’ve come to take your life.” Craig said those were some of “the most chilling words I have heard.”

Craig said he was not convinced Miller could be rehabilitated and noted that Miller was the primary aggressor in the slaying. “Had you not made the decisions that night, Mr. Cannon, in my view, would still be alive,” Craig said. “You showed cunning, not clumsy, rash thinking.”

Miller, now 32, appeared during the hearing, which was conducted virtually, by video link from an office at the Alabama prison where he is incarcerated. He did not visibly react as the sentence was read.

The Supreme Court in 2012 ruled in Miller’s case that mandatory life without parole for those under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. In the 2012 opinion in Miller’s case, justices ordered that judges and juries should consider “children’s diminished culpability, and heightened capacity for change” should make such sentences “uncommon.”...

While other juvenile lifers across the country have seen their sentences reduced because of Miller’s case and a later ruling that made the decision retroactive, his own case had lingered without a decision until Tuesday. At an earlier resentencing hearing, Miller’s lawyers cited his childhood of physical abuse and neglect and argued that at 14, his brain was not fully developed....

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said the judge, “restored the punishment that is fitting for Evan Miller’s wicked actions.” “When Evan Miller robbed and savagely beat his neighbor, setting fire to the man’s trailer and leaving his incapacitated victim to die a horrible death, he earned a well-deserved sentence of life in prison without parole,” Marshall said in a statement.

April 27, 2021 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Monday, April 26, 2021

After more than a decade, SCOTUS finally grants cert on big Second Amendment carry case

The Supreme Court ruled in Heller in 2008 that the Second Amendment secured the right to keep arms in the home, and then in McDonald applied this right to the states in 2010.  Most Court watchers thereafter said it was only a matter of time before the Court would need to address whether and how the Second Amendment applies to laws restricting or regulating the carrying of arms outside the home.  But for quite some time, the Supreme Court declined to take up this next big Second Amendment issue. 

But vIa this order list this morning, the Justices agreed to review New York’s concealed-carry laws through a cert grant in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Corlett.  Here is how the Supreme Court framed the question presented via its cert grant:

The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question: Whether the State's denial of petitioners' applications for concealed-carry licenses for self-defense violated the Second Amendment.

There will be lots of ink spilled about this grant and lots of amici briefs sure to be filed.  But I wonder if others will think it notable how the Court rewrote the petitioner's question presented in this cert petition, which asked (emphasis added): "Whether the Second Amendment allows the government to prohibit ordinary law-abiding citizens from carrying handguns outside the home for self-defense." 

Long-time readers may know I have been wondering for a long time about the textual or jurisprudential justification for saying that the Second Amendment does not apply to all "people," but only to so-called "law-abiding" ones (see, e.g., posts here and here and here).  I have long assumed that the "law-abiding" language appeared in Heller and McDonald at the behest of Justice Anthony Kennedy.  With Justice Kennedy no longer on the Court, I cannot help but wonder if the current Justices were eager to remove that Court-invented language from the question presented.   

I bring this issue to the fore, of course, because a broadly applicable Second Amendment that protects all people, and not just the so-called "law-abiding" ones, could have all sorts of implications for all sorts of criminal law and sentencing provisions related to gun possession.  The Supreme Court already has on its docket a case, Wooden, concerning a defendant who received over 15 years in prison under federal law for mere gun possession in his home due to his prior convictions (and at issue in Wooden is just the statutory issue of whether these past convictions triggered the extreme 15-year mandatory minimum term under federal law).  If the Second Amendment is to be anything other than a second-class right, it ought to protect all people (as the language of the Amendment indicates) and not just whatever people the Supreme Court might decide are special as it creates this jurisprudence. 

April 26, 2021 in Gun policy and sentencing, Second Amendment issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)