Saturday, November 16, 2019

Another District Court finds statutory sentence reform among "extraordinary and compelling reasons" for reducing sentence by 40 years under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)

I am pleased to be able to report on a great new district court ruling granting a sentence reduction using 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A) in order to under the now-repealed harshness of severe stacking of mandatory minimum 924(c) counts.  (As regular readers know, in prior posts I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act which now allows 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 see this provision as such a big deal because I think, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds, and perhaps many thousands, of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.)

This new ruling comes in US v. Urkevich, No. 8:03CR37, 2019 WL 6037391 (D. Neb. Nov. 14, 2019). In this case, Judge Camp begins by noting that because of the severe stacking rules in place at the time of the crime, Urkevich's sentence "(848 months) is forty years longer than the sentence he likely would have received (368 months) if he were sentenced under the law (18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(C)) as it now exists." Then, after noting that the "Government does not dispute that Urkevich has demonstrated post-offense rehabilitation, and the Government does not argue that he poses a current danger to the safety of any other person or to the community," Judge Camp concludes:

If this Court reduces Urkevich’s sentences on Counts III and V to 60 months each, consecutive, he will not be eligible for immediate release.  His sentence would total 368 months, and he would have served somewhat more than half that sentence.  Nonetheless, the Court does not consider the Motion premature.  A reduction in his sentence is warranted by extraordinary and compelling reasons, specifically the injustice of facing a term of incarceration forty years longer than Congress now deems warranted for the crimes committed. A reduction in the sentence at this juncture will help Urkevich and the Bureau of Prisons plan for his ultimate release from custody and may assist him in his pending efforts to seek clemency from the Executive Branch.  This Court will not intervene in that process.

After consideration of all the factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), especially § 3553(a)(2)(A) (“the need for the sentence imposed ... to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense”) and § 3553(a)(6) (“the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct”), as well as applicable Sentencing Commission policy statements, the Court finds extraordinary and compelling reasons for a reduction of the Defendant’s sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(1)(A)(i).  The Court further concludes that the Defendant has demonstrated that he poses no current danger to the safety of any other person or to the community. Accordingly, the Defendant’s sentences on Counts III and V of the Indictment will be reduced to 60 months each, consecutive.

The statement above by Judge Camp that the sentence reduction motion here is not premature is a reference to (and disagreement with) the reasoning of Judge Pratt in US v. Brown, No. 4:05-CR-00227-1, 2019 WL 4942051 (S.D. Iowa Oct. 8, 2019), a similar case noted and lamented in this post.  In Brown, the court seemed to essentially conclude that the movant had demonstrated extraordinary and compelling reasons for a sentence reduction and seemed to conclude the 3553(a) factors justified such a reduction, but the court rejected the motion for a reduced sentence seemingly because conforming a reduced sentence based on the terms of current statutory law would not lead to the defendant's immediate release.  I am quite pleased that this Urkevich case recognizes why a congressionally-authorized sentence reduction that is statutorily justified is always timely.

Some prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

November 16, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Prez Trump grants clemency to three military men subject to various war crime prosecutions

As reported in this Military Times piece, "President Donald Trump on Friday granted clemency to three controversial military figures embroiled in charges of war crimes, arguing the moves will give troops 'the confidence to fight' without worrying about potential legal overreach."  Here is more about these grants:

Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, convicted of second degree murder in the death of three Afghans, was given a full pardon from president for the crimes.  Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced murder charges next year for a similar crime, was also given a full pardon for those alleged offenses.  Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, who earlier this fall was acquitted of a string of alleged war crimes, had his rank restored to Chief Petty Officer by the president.

All three cases had been championed by conservative lawmakers and media personalities as an overreaction to the chaos and confusion of wartime decisions.  But critics have warned the moves could send the message that troops need not worry about following rules of engagement when fighting enemies abroad.

“The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted,” the White House said in a statement. “For more than 200 years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country. These actions are in keeping with this long history.”

Pentagon leaders privately had expressed reservations about the moves, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper has declined comment on the rumored actions in recent days. Last week, he said that he had a “robust” conversation with Trump about the proposed pardons and clemency and that “I do have full confidence in the military justice system and we’ll let things play out as they play out.”

The Army announced it will implement Trump’s pardons.... In the wake of Trump’s decision, the official twitter account of Rear Adm. Charles Brown, the Chief of Naval Information, indicated that Navy leaders “acknowledge his order and are implementing it.”

While Gallagher was acquitted of murder and obstruction of justice charges in July, a panel of his peers recommended he be reduced in grade for posing with the body of a detainee, a crime he never denied.

Lorance’s case dates back to a 2012 deployment to Afghanistan, when he ordered his soldiers to fire on three unarmed men riding a motorcycle near their patrol. Members of his platoon testified against him at a court-martial trial, describing Lorance as over-zealous and the Afghans as posing no real threat. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In recent years, Lorance and his family had waged a long campaign against his sentence, and found a receptive ear in Trump.

Golsteyn’s case had not yet been decided. He was scheduled for a December trial on charges he murdered an alleged Taliban bomb maker, and burned his remains in a trash pit during a 2010 deployment with 3rd Special Forces Group. Trump’s action effectively puts an end to that legal case before any verdicts were rendered....

Trump overturned a decision by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday announced on Oct. 29 that preserved Gallagher’s demotion to petty officer first class. Gallagher’s legal team had urged the four-star to show mercy for a highly decorated SEAL whose case was plagued by allegations of corruption inside the Judge Advocate General’s Corps and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Gallagher’s court-martial trial for murder and other alleged war crimes collapsed and a panel of his peers convicted him on the sole charge of positing for a photo next to a dead Islamic State detainee, a charge he never denied.

Before the trial kicked off, a military judge booted Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak, the lead prosecutor, for his role in a warrantless surveillance program cooked up with NCIS to track emails sent by defense attorneys and Navy Times. Prosecutors and agents also were accused of manipulating witness statements; using immunity grants and a bogus “target letter” in a crude attempt to keep pro-Gallagher witnesses from testifying; illegally leaking documents to the media to taint the military jury pool; and then trying to cover it all up when they got caught.

In a prepared statement sent to Military Times by attorney Phil Stackhouse, Golsteyn’s family said they were “profoundly grateful” that the president ended the soldier’s prosecution. Stackhouse said Golsteyhn spoke with the president by telephone “for several minutes” on Friday.

“We have lived in constant fear of this runaway prosecution," Golsteyn said in the statement. "Thanks to President Trump, we now have a chance to rebuild our family and lives. With time, I hope to regain my immense pride in having served in our military. In the meantime, we are so thankful for the support of family members, friends and supporters from around the nation, and our legal team.”...

Trump has exercised his pardoning powers often during his administration, including in the case of another soldier earlier this year. Former 1st Lt. Michael Behenna had been paroled from Leavenworth in 2014, after receiving a 15-year sentence for murdering an alleged al-Qaida operative in Iraq in 2009.

And in 2018, he pardoned former Machinist’s Mate 1st Class Kristian Saucier, who spent a year in jail after pleading guilty in 2016 to taking cell phone photos of his work space on board the attack submarine Alexandria ― prohibited, as the entirety of a submarine is considered a classified area.

This official statement from the White House about these clemency grants discusses the cases further and concludes with this paragraph:

The President, as Commander-in-Chief, is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the law is enforced and when appropriate, that mercy is granted.  For more than two hundred years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country.  These actions are in keeping with this long history. As the President has stated, “when our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight.”

November 16, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 15, 2019

SCOTUS grants cert on yet another ACCA case and also on statute of limitation on military rape charges

Via this new order list, the Supreme Court has added four new cases to its merits docket.  The big one of the bunch is a case involving Google and copyright issues concerning computer code, but the others are criminal cases.  One has SCOTUS focused on the application of the Armed Career Criminal Act yet again, and two combined others deals with statutes of limitation.  Here are descriptions of the new criminal cases via this post at SCOTUSblog (with paragraphs rearranged): 

In Walker v. United States, the justices will consider whether a criminal offense that can be committed merely by being reckless can qualify as a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act, a 1984 law that extends the sentences of felons who commit crimes with guns if they have been convicted three or more times of certain crimes.

The question comes to the court in the case of James Walker, an elderly Tennessee man who was sentenced to 15 years in prison under the ACCA after police discovered 13 bullets — which Walker had found while cleaning the rooming house that he managed — when responding to reports of drug sales at the house.  Walker argues that the ACCA should not apply to his case. He contends that one of his prior convictions, for robbery in Texas, does not qualify as a “violent felony” because a defendant could be convicted if he recklessly caused injury during a theft.

The federal government agrees with Walker that the justices should weigh in on the issue, but it maintains that the lower court was correct in deeming Walker’s robbery conviction a “violent felony” for purposes of the ACCA.

The justices also granted two requests by the government to weigh in on the statute of limitations for old rape charges against members of the armed forces.  The question arises in the case of Michael Briggs, a captain in the U.S. Air Force who in 2014 was charged with the 2005 rape of a member of his squadron.  Under the version of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that was in effect when Briggs was charged, there is no statute of limitations for rape.  At his court-martial proceeding, Briggs was found guilty, but an appeals court later ordered that the charge be dismissed.  It reasoned that under a 2018 ruling by the same court, the five-year statute of limitations for the version of the UCMJ in effect in 2005 applied to Briggs’ offense.  The court also ruled that a 2006 law that specifically provides that there is no statute of limitations for rape does not apply to rapes committed before 2006.

The government filed a separate petition for review in the case of two other members of the Air Force.  Richard Collins was an instructor at an Air Force base in Texas.  In 2016 he was found guilty of the August 2000 rape of a student in his course.  As in Briggs’ case, an appeals court reversed Collins’ conviction, pointing to a 2018 decision by the same court.  Humphrey Daniels was convicted in 2017 of the 1998 rape of a civilian near the North Dakota Air Force base where he was stationed; his conviction was also reversed.

The government appealed to the Supreme Court, asking the justices to grant both petitions.  The government told the justices that sexual assault is “devastating to the morale, discipline, and effectiveness of our Armed Forces, but also difficult to uncover.”  The request was supported by a “friend of the court” brief by Harmony Allen and Tonja Schultz — the victims of Collins and Daniels. Today the justices agreed to take up the case.

November 15, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

You be the federal judge: what sentence for Roger Stone after his conviction on all seven counts including obstruction, witness tampering and making false statements to Congress?

The question in the title of this is prompted by this criminal justice news emerging from a federal courthouse in DC today: "Roger Stone, an ally of President Donald Trump, was found guilty Friday of lying to Congress and obstructing an investigation into Russia to protect Trump and his presidential campaign."  Here is some more about the case and convictions:

The jury's verdict came after about eight hours of deliberation.  Stone, a fixture in GOP politics, has worked on campaigns stretching back to Richard Nixon's.  Stone is the latest Trump ally to be found guilty in cases sprouting from a special counsel's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

The verdict, reached by a jury of nine women and three men, comes amid an impeachment inquiry into allegations that Trump sought to pressure Ukraine into investigating a political rival....  Trump took to Twitter shortly after the verdict was announced. He decried a "double standard" and said law enforcement officials lied, including Robert Mueller, the special counsel who headed the Russia investigation.

Stone's trial ends after a week marked with Nixon quotes, references to the Mafia movie "The Godfather" and a colorful witness who offered to do a Bernie Sanders impression before an unamused federal judge.  The proceedings attracted the attendance of controversial figures, including alt-right firebrands Milo Yiannopoulos and Jacob Wohl.

Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who attended the trial, said he was escorted out of the courtroom by a federal marshal for turning his back on the jurors as they walked out.  "Normal Americans don’t stand a chance with an Obama judge and a Washington jury," he tweeted.

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson allowed Stone to go home as he awaits his sentencing, scheduled for Feb. 6.  A gag order preventing him from talking about the case remains in effect. He and his attorneys did not comment as they left the courthouse....

The proceedings revealed information about the Trump campaign's efforts to seek advance knowledge of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee, which hurt Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton when Trump was trailing in the polls.  Testimony indicated these efforts involved the candidate himself.

Stone, 67, stood trial on accusations that he repeatedly lied to Congress about his back-channel efforts to push for the release of those emails. He was accused of urging a possible congressional witness to either lie or scuttle his testimony.

"Roger Stone lied … because the truth looked bad for the Trump campaign and the truth looked bad for Donald Trump," Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron Zelinsky told jurors.

Defense attorneys urged jurors to focus on Stone's state of mind, arguing he did not willfully mislead Congress.  The claim that Stone lied to protect the Trump campaign was "absolutely false," Bruce Rogow told jurors.  "It makes no sense," Rogow said, adding that the campaign was long over and Trump was already president when Stone testified before Congress in 2017. "Why would Stone lie, why would he make stuff up? ... There is no purpose, there is no reason, there is no motive."

Stone was found guilty of seven charges: one count of obstruction of an official proceeding, five counts of false statements and one count of witness tampering. The maximum penalty for all counts totals 50 years in prison, though first-time offenders generally receive significantly lower sentences.

Jurors heard from five government witnesses and saw dozens of emails and text messages that prosecutors said proved Stone lied.  His defense attorneys did not call any witnesses, and Stone, known for his flamboyance and combativeness, did not testify.  The charges stemmed from Stone's interactions with the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, around the time that WikiLeaks, an anti-secrecy group, began publishing troves of damaging emails about the Democratic National Committee and Clinton.

Prosecutors said Stone lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his efforts to push for the release of those emails.  They said he lied about the identity of the person who tipped him off about WikiLeaks' plans — his so-called intermediary.  They said he falsely denied talking to the Trump campaign about what he learned and falsely told Congress he did not have text messages and emails in which he talked about WikiLeaks.

Prosecutors said Stone sought to silence a witness who could expose these lies by using threatening references from "The Godfather" movie.  Stone urged the witness in multiple emails to follow the steps of Frank Pentangeli, a character in "The Godfather II" who lied to Congress to avoid incriminating Mafia boss Michael Corleone.

In some settings, I would be inclined to predict that an elderly nonviolent first(?) offender is quite unlikely to get a lengthy prison term or even any prison time at all.  But these days and in these kinds of high-profile case, I am never quite sure what to expect or predict.

So, dear readers, what sentence do you think you would be inclined to impose?

November 15, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

New Jersey commission releases big report recommending numerous big sentencing reforms

As reported in this local article from New Jersey, an "advisory panel that was reinvigorated by Gov. Phil Murphy to study racial and ethnic disparities in the state criminal justice system issued its report Thursday, calling for the elimination of mandatory sentences for those convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes." Here is more:

The 13-member New Jersey Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission — chaired by retired state Supreme Court Justice Deborah Poritz — also recommended that those still incarcerated under such sentences be allowed to apply for early release. In addition, the group is urging lawmakers to adopt a new mitigating sentencing factor for young offenders, as well as a “compassionate release” program for those sentenced to terms of 30 years or more as juveniles.

The commission, which includes designees of senior lawmakers on both political parties, reached its conclusions unanimously, according to the report. “The Commission’s recommendations … reflect a consensus-driven, policy making process that incorporates a wide range of perspectives, including those of judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, community stakeholders, corrections officials, faith organizations, and victims’ rights advocates,” the report reads.

Murphy on Thursday hailed the work of the commission, and urged the Legislature to put the reforms into bills during the current lame duck session, noting that he will sign them. “This is a comprehensive set of reforms. They will ensure the criminal justice system not only works, but works better and for all communities,” he said. “They meet the call of justice but also our broader goal of fairness.”  State Senate President Steve Sweeney called the recommendations in the report “a long-time overdue.”...

The commission was initially created by Gov. Jon Corzine a decade ago, but his successor, Chris Christie, never made any appointments and the group did not meet. Murphy jump-started the effort in February of last year, a month after he took office, noting that New Jersey “has the nation’s worst disparity in the rates of incarceration between black and white offenders” and that, “We can and must do better.”

The report also recommends a loosening of sentencing restrictions for two more serious crimes, second-degree robbery and second-degree burglary, which currently fall in a classification alongside offenses like murder, carjacking and aggravated arson. According to the report, both offenses are frequently charged even though they incorporate a broad range of conduct, including that which results in no physical injury to the victim.

Under the commission’s recommendation, the period of parole ineligibility for those convicted of such crimes would be reduced to half the sentence, down from the current 85%. The commission said it hoped its recommendations would “replicate the success” of the state’s recent bail reform initiative, in which monetary bail was largely replaced by an assessment of whether someone charged with a crime was likely to show up in court or be a danger to the community if released.

This press release from the Office of Gov Murphy includes supportive quotes from all sorts of state political and criminal justice leaders. I am eager to believe that the widespread support for the work of this state commission increases greatly the likelihood that some or all of its recommendations will become law.

The NJ commission's full report is available at this link, and it is a worthwhile read in full.  Here is the report's "Summary of Recommendations":

1. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug crimes.

2. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent property crimes.

3. Reduce the mandatory minimum sentence for two crimes – second degree robbery and second degree burglary – that previously have been subject to penalties associated with far more serious offenses.

4. Apply Recommendations #1, #2 and #3 retroactively so that current inmates may seek early release.

5. Create a new mitigating sentencing factor for youth.

6. Create an opportunity for resentencing or release for offenders who were juveniles at the time of their offense and were sentenced as adults to long prison terms.

7. Create a program, called “Compassionate Release,” that replaces the existing medical parole statute for end-of-life inmates.

8. Reinvest cost-savings from reductions in the prison population arising from these reforms into recidivism reduction and, to the extent available, other crime prevention programs.

9. Provide funding to upgrade the Department of Corrections’ existing data infrastructure to better track inmate trends and to develop partnerships with academic institutions to analyze this data.

November 15, 2019 in Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

"Is it me, or is the government releasing less data about the criminal justice system?"

Delayed_bjs_dataThe question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new posting by Wendy Sawyer over at Prison policy Initiative.  I recommend the full extended posting, and here is part of its start and conclusion:

We’ve heard this question from a few advocates and journalists who, like us, depend on the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and other government data sources for timely information about the justice system.  And while monitoring changes in federal data collections isn’t a core part of our work, we have observed a troubling trend: Since 2017, data releases are slowing down.

We aren’t the only ones who have noticed.  Last month, a coalition representing thousands of academic and nonprofit researchers and advocates wrote to the Office of Justice Programs with questions about missing and delayed data releases as well.

I probably don’t have to convince our regular readers that timely data is essential for identifying both social problems and effective policy solutions — and that it’s especially important in the context of criminal justice, where the human costs are so high.  And admittedly, it’s not news that government justice data has long been less well-funded, less timely, and less comprehensive than, say, labor statistics.

Even so, these publications have slowed even further — and even been curtailed — under the current administration.  To see the extent of this trend, I went through the BJS’ list of publications since 2000 and compared the time between the data collection reference dates and the corresponding report publication dates for six annual report series. I found that there has indeed been a dramatic change in the past several years....

The reasons behind these decisions and delays are unclear — is it funding problems?  Staff shortages?  Changes in leadership?  It could well be any, or all, of these problems.

BJS has been “flat funded” for years, despite the massive growth in the number and size of the correctional agencies they survey, and despite increasing demands for justice system data under laws mandating annual data collection, like the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Deaths in Custody Reporting Act.  A National Academies publication explains that this has been a problem under both Democratic and Republican administrations, going back decades.

The Crime and Justice Research Alliance and COSSA — the coalition that wrote the October letter to the DOJ I mentioned earlier — suggest that staffing problems may explain the delays.  They write, “[M]any in the criminal justice research community have heard of an alarming decline in the number of BJS staff as a consequence of hiring freezes, staff attrition, and failure to replace departing staff and experts.”  Again, this is an agency that has been chronically underfunded and understaffed relative to the herculean task of collecting and analyzing the nation’s decentralized justice system data.

And then there is the issue of leadership.  With its mandate to produce reliable, large-scale studies with national, state, and local policy implications, effective leadership at BJS requires “strong scientific skills, experience with federal statistical agencies, familiarity with BJS and its products, [and] visibility in the nation’s statistical community,” among other qualities.  That’s according to four former BJS Directors and the President of the American Statistical Association, who wrote to former Attorney General Sessions in 2017 to encourage the appointment of an experienced research director to head up BJS.

That didn’t happen.  Instead, since late 2017, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been under the leadership of Jeffrey Anderson, whose only prior statistical experience appears to be the co-creation of a college football computer ranking system in 1992.  On criminal justice, all I could find in his history were a handful of 2015-2016 articles in which he argues against criminal justice reform.  In a National Review article, he called Obama-era Washington “tone-deaf on crime,” despite the widespread bipartisan support of criminal justice reform.  Sadly, the problems we’re seeing with data delays and politicized language suggest that the current leadership may not agree about the importance of the agency they lead.

November 14, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tales of extreme state drug mandatory minimums (and non-retroactive reforms) from Florida

The Miami Herald has this lengthy article discussing an array of extreme sentences resulting from Florida's (now somewhat reformed) mandatory minimum drug laws.  The piece is headlined "Hundreds languish in Florida prisons under outdated mandatory minimum drug sentences, " and I recommend it in full.  Here is a taste:

It’s not enough that Jomari DeLeon calls every day, asking her 8-year-old daughter about school and reminding her that “mommy misses you.” The child still asks when she’s coming home, believing her mom’s been gone all these years because of a stint in the military. That would explain the barbed wire surrounding the compound that she visits every month.

In reality, DeLeon is four hours away in this privately run women’s prison in the Panhandle town of Quincy, serving the third year of a 15-year sentence. If she had committed her drug crime in 2016, rather than eight years ago, she would be free by now. Up to 1,000 Florida inmates find themselves in the same legal purgatory....

[DeLeon was involved in two small non-violent drug] deals — a grand total of 48 pills for $225.... Under Florida law in 2013, the possession or sale of about 22 hydrocodone pills — less than one prescription’s worth — would trigger a trafficking sentence of 15 years...

Similar drug cases were playing out across the state. In Orange County in 2009, a man named William Forrester was handed a 15-year sentence for oxycodone trafficking after he was caught falsifying prescriptions to support his habit....

In 2010, a woman named Nancy Ortiz asked an Osceola judge that rehabilitation be included in her sentence to ease her addiction to crack. She had sold two bottles of hydrocodone pills to an undercover cop. Instead, the judge sentenced her to 25 years. “I take no pleasure in imposing this sentence,” the judge told Ortiz. “But I don’t have any discretion in the matter.”

For years, people caught with prescription painkillers in Florida received tougher penalties than those with the same weight in street drugs. In some cases, they received five times the sentence because that’s what the law required....

[P]ublic defenders from around the state went to Tallahassee to lobby the Legislature to change the law .. [and] even the state prosecutors’ association — those pursuing convictions for drug crimes — joined the public defenders in pursuit of lighter sentences for those selling prescription pills. MO<Finally, lawmakers listened. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, a former prosecutor, sponsored a bill in 2014 that increased the number of hydrocodone or oxycodone pills needed to trigger the lengthy mandatory sentences. To get 15 years for hydrocodone, for example, would now take about 77 pills, rather than about 22....

The Legislature’s 2014 law could not apply to DeLeon’s sentence because, at the time, the Florida Constitution explicitly prohibited changes in sentencing laws to apply retroactively.... [That was changed in 2018 when] voters approved Amendment 11 last year.

At Gadsden Correctional Facility, it was cause for celebration. Another prisoner serving 15 years, also for hydrocodone, told DeLeon that the change in Florida’s Constitution could mean their freedom. “This is exactly what’s going to help us get out of here,” she told DeLeon. DeLeon’s family was so excited for her re-sentencing hearing, they started preparing for her to come home, buying canvasses for her to paint.

In July, however, the judge explained his hands were tied. Her motion for a new sentence was denied because state lawmakers first need to lay out a framework for judges to follow. It’s unclear when, or if, lawmakers will do so.

Earlier this year, lawmakers again increased the number of hydrocodone pills required to trigger mandatory sentences. Bradley, the state senator who sponsored the 2014 drug sentencing change, said he would be open to easing sentences for old drug cases. But he said he doesn’t consider it a priority....

Hundreds of people like DeLeon are in prison serving outdated sentences for hydrocodone or oxycodone trafficking that would not have been handed down if they committed the same crimes today.

One analysis by the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonpartisan group that’s done policy analysis for the Florida Senate, found that up to 640 current inmates fall into this category, while researchers with the Project on Accountable Justice housed at Florida State University found up to 935 inmates. Both estimates have not been previously published.

For one year, it costs Florida $20.7 million to incarcerate 935 people, according to “full operating cost” data from the Department of Corrections. Multiply that expense over their entire sentences, and the cost to taxpayers balloons to more than a hundred million dollars.

November 14, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Attorney General Barr announces "Project Guardian" as part of plan to reduce gun violence

As reported in this Hill piece, the "Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday unveiled a program that aims to reduce gun violence including through the creation of guidelines to prosecute those who make false statements while trying to get a gun." Here is more:

The five-point plan includes coordinated prosecution, enforcing the background check system, improved information sharing, a coordinated response for mental health denials, and crime gun intelligence coordination, according to a DOJ statement.

The department seeks to coordinate prosecution under the "Project Guardian" program by considering federal prosecution for those who were arrested for possessing a firearm, are believed to have used a firearm while committing violence or drug trafficking, or who is suspected of actively committing violent crimes in connection with a criminal organization.

To enforce background checks, attorneys general, in connection with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) will create or renew guidelines for prosecuting those who make false statements while trying to get a firearm. Those who have been convicted of violent felonies and domestic violence misdemeanors, among others, will be given special emphasis....

Attorney General William Barr said in a statement that the plan shows the DOJ's commitment to reducing gun violence. "Project Guardian will strengthen our efforts to reduce gun violence by allowing the federal government and our state and local partners to better target offenders who use guns in crimes and those who try to buy guns illegally,” he said.

He also said during a press conference in Memphis, Tenn., that the program would be applied with exceptional "vigor" in areas with high levels of gun violence. "We're going to apply it with special vigor where gun violence is the highest, in places like Memphis," he said....

The attorney general said Wednesday that the administration came up with a series of related legislative proposals, but added they could not move forward due to the probe into the president's dealings with Ukraine. “Unfortunately, our discussions on the legislative aspects of this have been sidetracked because of the impeachment process on the Hill and so we are going forward with all of the operational steps,” Barr said.

“We certainly are always willing to pursue legislative measures that will enhance the fight against violent crime but right now it does not appear to things in Washington are amenable to those kinds of negotiations and compromises,” he added.

Gun violence prevention group March for Our Lives, which was founded after a mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Fla., criticized the program as a "racialized" tough-on-crime plan. "We’ve seen racialized ‘tough on crime’ plans before. It doesn’t work," the group tweeted. "We ought to be tough on injustice, economic oppression and inequality. Our country has a gun violence problem. It’s sources vary, but the common factor is easy access to guns."

I cannot help but wonder if, among the shelved legislative proposals, was some follow up on the talk from a few months ago of draft legislation to expedite the death penalty as part of package response to mass shootings. Even without legislative proposals, the announced "Project Guardian" initiative (set forth in this press release with this linked DOJ guidance memo) provides plenty to wonder about in terms of coming prosecutions and sentencings in the federal system.

As noted in this post, just this past Friday Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen highlighted in a speech that the current Justice Department has "increased federal firearm prosecutions by over 40 percent compared to the last two years of the previous administration."  I presume that this uptick in firearm prosecutions will continue and perhaps even accelerate as a result of "Project Guardian."  I would welcome comments from anyone working "on the ground" in the federal criminal justice system about whether and how they think  "Project Guardian" could prove consequential.

UPDATE: The Justice Department has released the text of Attorney General William Barr's remarks in Memphis at the launch of Project Guardian. Here is a snippet:

What we are trying to do is take those Triggerlock principles that were successful in the past and revamp this program, resuscitate it, and double down on it nationwide.

This is a national program.  It will be in every district.  The idea is to use our existing gun laws to incapacitate the most dangerous and violent offenders.  As most of you know, with Project Safe Neighborhoods, which is one of the flagship programs of the Department of Justice, we do go after the armed felons.  But that program is regionally based; we go after particular areas.

Project Guardian is a national initiative to comprehensively attack gun violence through the aggressive enforcement of existing gun laws.

This will be implemented nationwide in every federal district.  We are going to apply pressure with vigor where gun violence is the highest in places like Memphis. Local agencies will be involved, but ATF will be leading this effort.  It will involve all federal law enforcement agencies working closely with our state and local colleagues.

November 13, 2019 in Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Defending Progressive Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this new book review by Jeffrey Bellin now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

“Progressive prosecutors” are taking over District Attorney’s Offices in cities across the nation, with a mandate to reform the criminal justice system from the inside.  Emily Bazelon’s new book, Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration, chronicles this potentially transformative moment in American criminal justice.

This Book Review Essay highlights the importance of Charged to modern criminal justice debates, and leverages its concrete framing of the issues to offer a generally applicable theory of prosecutor-driven criminal justice reform.  The theory seeks to reconcile reformers’ newfound embrace of prosecutorial discretion with long-standing worries, both inside and outside the academy, about the dangerous accumulation of prosecutorial power.  It also offers the potential to broaden the movement’s appeal beyond progressive jurisdictions.

November 13, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Recommended reading, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Usual Cruelty The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System"

Usual_cruelty_finalThe title of this post is the title of this notable new book authored by former public defender, Alec Karakatsanis.  The publisher, The New Press, provides this accounting of the book: 

From an award-winning civil rights lawyer, a profound challenge to our society’s normalization of the caging of human beings, and the role of the legal profession in perpetuating it.

Alec Karakatsanis is interested in what we choose to punish.  For example, it is a crime in most of America for poor people to wager in the streets over dice; dice-wagerers can be seized, searched, have their assets forfeited, and be locked in cages. It’s perfectly fine, by contrast, for people to wager over international currencies, mortgages, or the global supply of wheat; wheat-wagerers become names on the wings of hospitals and museums.

He is also troubled by how the legal system works when it is trying to punish people.  The bail system, for example, is meant to ensure that people return for court dates. But it has morphed into a way to lock up poor people who have not been convicted of anything.  He’s so concerned about this that he has personally sued court systems across the country, resulting in literally tens of thousands of people being released from jail when their money bail was found to be unconstitutional.

Karakatsanis doesn’t think people who have gone to law school, passed the bar, and sworn to uphold the Constitution should be complicit in the mass caging of human beings — an everyday brutality inflicted disproportionately on the bodies and minds of poor people and people of color and for which the legal system has never offered sufficient justification. Usual Cruelty is a profoundly radical reconsideration of the American “injustice system” by someone who is actively, wildly successfully, challenging it.

This Amazon page about the book provides a "look inside" that includes the introduction explaining that the book is primarily the collection of three notable essays by Alec Karakatsanis that have been previously published.  This recent Intercept piece has an interview with the author that gets set up this way:

Alec Karakatsanis's “Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System” should be assigned reading for every first-year law student.  Published last month by The New Press, the book is an unusually blunt takedown of a system the author never once refers to as a criminal “justice” system.  Litigated with the intellectual vigor of someone who has won a number of landmark fights in federal court, “Usual Cruelty” clearly lays out a case for why our criminal legal system is not broken, but doing exactly what it was designed to do.

At a time when talk of justice reform has become mainstream but risks becoming hollow, and phrases like “progressive prosecutor” contribute to the deception that we are, in fact, making progress, Karakatsanis is clear-eyed about the bigger picture. But while “Usual Cruelty” is ultimately an abolitionist book that calls on people to imagine a world with fewer laws and in which jails and prisons aren’t the default response to all social problems, Karakatsanis is also keenly aware of how lawyers can use the law’s tools to fight the law’s harm.  At Civil Rights Corps, the nonprofit he founded, Karakatsanis takes on cases challenging systemic injustices in the legal system — like cash bail and the systems of fines and fees that keep poor people in jail — which he says have become so “normalized and entrenched” they barely give us pause.

November 13, 2019 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Lots of victims/families and former officials urge Trump Administration not to move forward with federal executions

The Washington Post has this notable new article headlined "Hundreds of victims’ relatives, ex-officials ask Trump administration to halt federal executions."  Here are excerpts:

Hundreds of relatives of murder victims, current and former law enforcement officials and former judges have signed letters urging the Trump administration to call off its plans to resume federal executions next month.  The letters, which are signed by a wide range of current and former officials across the justice system as well as 175 people whose loved ones were slain, plead with President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr to stop the executions.

These messages offer several explanations and requests. The relatives of murder victims — the largest single group to sign the letters — call for an end to the death penalty, denouncing the process as wasteful and something that only extends their grieving.  “We want a justice system that holds people who commit violence accountable, reduces crime, provides healing, and is responsive to the needs of survivors,” they write.  “On all these measures, the death penalty fails.”

Barr announced over the summer that the Trump administration would carry out the first federal executions since 2003, scheduling them to resume on Dec. 9.  The move breaks with recent declines in both death penalty activity nationwide as well as public support for the practice.  “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law — and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Barr said in a July statement declaring that executions would resume.  The Justice Department said five executions were scheduled for December and January and promised that more would follow.

The letters asking Barr and Trump to stop the executions — intended to arrive at the White House and Justice Department on Tuesday — contain pleas from victims’ families as well as current and former prosecutors, police chiefs, attorneys general, judges and corrections officials, all citing their experiences and perspectives in arguing against resuming executions as scheduled.

Copies of the letters were shared with The Washington Post before they were submitted. A spokesman for the White House did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Tuesday.  A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the letters and referred a reporter to Barr’s earlier statement announcing the resumption of executions.

In one letter, current and former prosecutors and other law enforcement officials express fears about innocent people being convicted, the financial cost of death penalty cases and racial disparities. “We are deeply concerned that the federal government plans to proceed with executions despite serious questions about the fairness and reliability of the system that condemned them,” they write.

The current and former officials — a group including some of the “progressive prosecutors” who won district attorney jobs after campaigning for criminal justice reforms — note that they include a mix of people who support and oppose the death penalty. Rather than calling for an end to capital punishment, they ask for “a comprehensive review of the system” before any federal executions can occur.  “It’s too big a risk and there’s nothing to be gained,” Jim Petro, a Republican and a former Ohio attorney general who signed the letter, said in an interview....

In the letter signed by murder victims’ relatives, they argue that the death penalty “exacerbates the trauma of losing a loved one,” wastes money, does not deter crime and, due to the lengthy appeals process that keeps the cases going, delays the healing process.  Gail Rice — whose brother, Bruce VanderJagt, was a Denver police officer slain in 1997 by a man who killed himself — said she became an active death-penalty opponent after his death. Rice, who signed the letter to Trump and Barr, said her years working in prison and jail ministries showed her that justice is not fairly administered. “I’ll be praying for them,” she said of relatives of victims in the cases that led to the scheduled federal executions. “I would certainly tell them … please don’t listen to judges or prosecutors or legislators that are going to tell you this is wonderful, it brings closure, it brings healing. Because believe me, it doesn’t.”

The message in the letter from victims’ relatives echoes a plea from Earlene Peterson, who has separately asked the Trump administration not to kill Daniel Lewis Lee, the first federal inmate scheduled to be executed.  The Justice Department said Lee killed a family of three, among them an 8-year-old-girl and her mother — Sarah Powell and Nancy Mueller, Peterson’s granddaughter and daughter.  “I can’t see how executing Daniel Lee will honor my daughter in any way,” Peterson said in a video statement released last month. Peterson, noting that she voted for Trump and plans to do so again, said she wants the president to know: “I don’t want this to happen.”

November 12, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Why are bureaucrats undermining the president on criminal justice?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Hill commentary authored by Holly Harris.  The piece laments developments, previously reported here and here, relating to the implementation of one part of the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is are excerpts:

Justice Department bureaucrats have been quietly working to undermine President Trump and Congress by obstructing federal criminal justice reforms.  It is not surprising, and it is not the first time.  But it is a shame....

The Justice Department, according to various reports, is inexplicably spending taxpayer resources trying to find ways of bringing some of the prisoners released under the First Step Act back into federal custody.  An investigation by Reuters found dozens of instances in which the Justice Department argued against releasing these prisoners early, usually basing their new cases on some technicality like “the total amount of drugs that were found to be involved during the investigation, rather than the often smaller or more vague amount laid out in the law they violated years ago.”

It is no secret that the Justice Department zealously opposed the First Step Act, but I remained hopeful when its officials promised to fully and faithfully implement the law.  I applauded when they had issued progress reports on each of the provisions of the First Step Act.  But never once in these reports nor anywhere else did the Justice Department publicly disclose their plan to direct prosecutors to oppose release petitions.

Fortunately, most of those attempts to keep these individuals behind bars, or to reincarcerate them after the fact, have been struck down by federal judges.  But that is not stopping obstructionists within Justice Department ranks from continuing to thwart the will of President Trump, the will of Congress, and the will of the people to implement the First Step Act.

The Justice Department has long acted on an island, separate from the administration and accountable to no one.  The surreptitious obstruction of First Step is just the latest in a long line of unilateral actions aimed at undermining badly needed reforms to our broken criminal justice system.  Others questionable federal actions include reopening for profit prisons, directing prosecutors to charge all defendants with the highest provable offenses, and eliminating the investigations of police departments that repeatedly violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect.

Predictably, the latest obstruction of the popular First Step Act is not sitting well with leaders on both sides of the aisle. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois told Reuters, “The notion that the Department of Justice is just going to keep nagging at them and appealing these cases is not what we have ever had in mind.”  Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah likewise told the Washington Post, “It would be a shame if the people working under the president failed to implement the bill as written.”...

In the face of this obstruction, Congress may finally be willing to push back hard against Justice Department attempts to act as a fourth branch of government.  Too many are invested in the success of the First Step Act to overlook attempts to undermine it.  I urge the leaders in the House and Senate to vigorously exercise their oversight authority over an institution that has operated on an island for far too long, and ensure that their own groundbreaking efforts to restore some justice to a broken system is not thwarted by the very officials who pledged to faithfully implement it.

Prior related posts:

November 12, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Disaggregating Ineffective Assistance of Counsel Doctrine: Four Forms of Constitutional Ineffectiveness"

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

For years, experts have blamed Strickland v. Washington’s lax standard for assessing trial attorney effectiveness for many of the criminal justice system’s problems.  But the conventional understanding of Strickland as a problem for ineffectiveness claims gives Strickland too much prominence, because it treats Strickland as the test for all such claims. That is a mistake.  Properly understood, the Supreme Court has recognized four different constitutional forms of trial attorney ineffectiveness, and Strickland’s two-pronged test applies to only one of the four.  If litigants and courts would notice the complexity and relegate Strickland to its proper place, it would pave the way for meritorious ineffectiveness claims of the other three kinds.  This Article disaggregates strands of Sixth Amendment doctrine that others have jumbled together so as to enable courts and litigants to confine Strickland to its proper domain and use more appropriate analyses elsewhere.

The Article also explains why additional disaggregation is necessary within the category of cases where Strickland rightly applies.  Implicitly, the Supreme Court has created not one but three tests for assessing deficient performance within that domain, and it has indicated a willingness to soften the outcome-determinative prejudice prong as well.  Failure to recognize these different forms of Strickland ineffectiveness has made the test seem much harder for defendants to satisfy than needs to be true.  Recognizing these complexities, and applying the right test in the right case, is necessary if individual defendants are to be treated fairly and systemic constitutional problems in the provision of indigent defense services are to be addressed.

November 11, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ironies abound as Deputy AG complains about "whole categories of drug crimes ... being ignored and not enforced" by prosecutors

I just had some time today to review this notable speech delivered this past Friday by Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen at the Wake Forest School of Law.  As always, I recommend the speech in full because there is too much in the DAG's remarks for me to reprint and engage them all here.  But, as I read though the speech's laments about the failure to enforce drug laws, I could not help but wonder if the DAG gave any thought to DOJ's own persistent disinclination to prosecute the many thousands of (federally illegal) recreational marijuana businesses that operate openly in nearly a dozen US states.  This thought was among the many ironies I saw as DAG Rosen in this speech praises federal crime fighting efforts while criticizing the work of some local prosecutors. Here are some extended excerpts followed by a bit more commentary:

At the Department of Justice, reducing violent crime is one of our top priorities....  So let me start this discussion about violent crime with this simple observation: To understand what works in combating crime, one need look no further than the highly successful efforts of state and federal law enforcement over recent decades.  In the early 1990s, crime reached an all-time high.  Violent crime and murder rates in particular had steadily increased over the preceding decades. Many major American cities and communities were not safe places to live or work.

In response to this troubling trend, legislatures increased penalties for gun offenders, prosecutors pursued stiff penalties for violent criminals, and the Department of Justice did its part by launching a series of nationwide initiatives to stem the tide of rising crime.  For instance, in 1991, the Department created Project Triggerlock, a highly successful program that vigorously pursued firearms cases by targeting the most-violent offenders.  A decade later, the Department launched Project Safe Neighborhoods or “PSN.”  As a crime reduction strategy, PSN focuses federal and state resources on the most pressing violent crime problems in our communities, and each district develops comprehensive solutions to address them....

After reaching a peak around 1993, crime steadily declined for the next 20-plus years.  Violent crime was cut in half.  A study published in 2009 concluded that PSN successfully reduced violent crime with case studies showing reductions as high as 42 percent in certain locations.

Unfortunately, after decades of improvement, a reversal took place, with stunning increases in violent crime in 2015 and 2016.  Homicides alone increased by more than 20 percent.  Concerned that we were at risk of losing ground, the incoming Trump Administration and the Justice Department snapped into action and returned to tried-and-true strategies for reducing crime.

In his first month in office, President Trump issued a series of executive orders “designed to restore safety in America.”  In response, the Attorney General announced the reinvigoration of Project Safe Neighborhood as a centerpiece of the Administration’s strategy to reduce violent crime.  In October 2017, Attorney General Sessions directed all 93 U.S. Attorneys to implement enhanced violent-crime reduction programs and to reinvigorate partnerships with state, local, and tribal law enforcement.... Since redoubling our efforts in this way, we have increased federal firearm prosecutions by over 40 percent compared to the last two years of the previous administration. The joint state-and-federal efforts have worked, and the objective statistics prove it.

The FBI recently released its annual crime statistics for 2018, and, for the second consecutive year, the number of violent crimes decreased nationwide.  In 2018, the violent crime rate decreased 3.9 percent from 2017, and the rate for nearly every type of violent crime decreased as well....

Unfortunately, a dangerous trend is emerging that threatens to blunt the progress we’ve made in reducing crime.  Despite the obvious successes, a small but increasing number of state and local district attorneys have vowed not to enforce entire categories of core criminal offenses as part of a misguided experiment in social justice reform.  From Philadelphia in the East to Dallas in the middle and Seattle in the West, a curtain of non-enforcement policies has descended on some unfortunate cities and counties.

It’s a problem Attorney General Barr highlighted in a speech to the Fraternal Order of Police in August.  There, he spoke of “the emergence in some of our large cities of District Attorneys that style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police, letting criminals off the hook, and refusing to enforce the law.”

The radical decriminalization policies these social-reform DAs have publicly announced and implemented are truly shocking when they are made transparent.  Despite a decade of record-level drug overdose fatalities, whole categories of drug crimes, including several distribution offenses, are being ignored and not enforced.  Likewise, criminals who commit theft below certain thresholds, such as below $500, are given a free pass.  In several jurisdictions, reform DAs have effectively decriminalized prostitution, making it more difficult to fight human trafficking.  If those weren’t surprising enough, social-reform DAs have announced that the categories of malicious destruction of property, and shoplifting, will go unprosecuted.  The same with regard to criminal threats.  Even offenders who resist arrest and assault law enforcement officials are skating prosecution under these DAs’ non-enforcement policies.

At the Justice Department, we emphasize working closely with our state and local law enforcement colleagues.  But I am concerned that these social reform DAs are falling down on the job.  A prosecutor’s duty is straightforward — enforce the law fairly and impartially and keep the public safe.  By refusing to prosecute basic offenses, social reform DAs are failing to fulfill that vital obligation.  No society can have justice when stealing has been effectively licensed, open-air drug markets are allowed to flourish, and neither victim nor police officer trust that those who break the law will be held accountable....

Not only will these non-prosecution strategies inevitably make communities less safe, they also undermine our constitutional system of separation of powers.  It doesn’t take a law degree from a fine institution like Wake Forest to understand the principle that the legislative branch writes the law; the judicial branch interprets the law; and the executive branch enforces the law. District attorneys, of course, are part of the executive branch, responsible for enforcing the law. By refusing to prosecute broad swaths of core criminal offenses, social-reform DAs are ignoring duly-enacted laws in favor of their own personal notions of what they think the law should be....

Now, with regard to these DA’s personal policy preferences, let me turn briefly to the issue of prosecutorial discretion. There is no question that prosecutors have discretion to decide what cases to prosecute and how to spend their limited resources.  But these DAs are not making individualized decisions based on the facts and circumstances of particular cases. They are predetermining whole categories of offenses for non-enforcement.  They are effectively legislating through inaction.  And the offenses they are unilaterally striking from the books are not antiquated or rare; they are basic criminal laws directed at maintaining public safety.  These DAs’ decriminalization strategies go far beyond prosecutorial discretion and fly in the face of the fundamental concept that no one part of the government exercises total control of our legal system. If you believe in the rule of law, that is a problem....

Some have argued that recent criminal justice reform legislation like the First Step Act represents a repudiation of historical law enforcement practices.  Not so. There was wide bi-partisan support for the First Step Act.  Among other things, that legislation focuses on reducing recidivism, to help prevent future crimes. The Department of Justice and our Bureau of Prisons have made implementing that legislation a priority, as Attorney General Barr and I have both emphasized.

Let me give you a few illustrations: In addition to sentence reductions that have resulted in the release of more than 4,700 inmates, we have updated policies for inmates to obtain “compassionate release,” and since the Act was signed into law, 107 inmates have received compassionate release, compared to 34 in 2018.  We launched a pilot program that has allowed over 260 elderly or terminally-ill inmates to transition to home confinement.  We have further individualized drug-treatment plans, so about 16,000 inmates are now enrolled in recovery programs.  And to reduce recidivism, we are advancing re-entry programming to help past offenders find work and relaunch their lives.

But here is the key point about these improvements from the First Step Act: It is only because of the success of the law enforcement approaches of the last several decades that we had the opportunity to consider and implement these improvements to the criminal justice system. And a key part of fighting crime and protecting victims is helping to make sure that when these prisoners are released — as many of them will be, after serving their sentences — we give them the best possible chance at not re-offending. It’s about public safety, plain and simple....

Finally, let me address one other aspect of the non-enforcement policy problem.  Some defenders of reform DAs claim that the non-prosecution strategies merely reflect the will of the communities that elected them.  If that were so, one wonders why those communities’ legislators would not simply change the laws to reflect their constituents’ views. Indeed, one reason greater transparency about these non-enforcement policies is warranted is that it is far from clear that the public knows and wants prosecutors to tolerate crimes like burglary and theft without enforcement.

Do you think Americans really want prosecutors who won’t enforce whole categories of laws?  It can be hard to overlook that some of these social reform DAs were elected in low-turnout primaries backed by unusual funding from out-of-state ideological advocates.  But elections are up to voters, so I do not mean to address any individual jurisdiction or any particular DA; my question is what kind of system will we have if our laws are simply to be ignored?  And I am especially focused on the problem that non-enforcement policies present to the goal of continuing to reduce violent crime and make our communities safer.

I find jarring that this speech starts with an emphasis on making the reduction of violent crime a priority and then assails local DAs for giving less attention to non-violent crimes. It seems deeply misguided to say in blanket terms that "non-prosecution strategies inevitably make communities less safe" when the non-prosecution policy involves, say, low-level marijuana offices.  Of course, the biggest irony here is that the federal government for the last decade has been pursuing various "non-prosecution strategies" with respect to state-compliant federal marijuana offenses.  Notably, the range of non-enforcement policies adopted by the feds have obviously not undermined "the goal of continuing to reduce violent crime and make our communities safer."  But apparently, in the view of DAG Rosen, what is good for the (essentially unelected) federal prosecutors in terms marijuana non-enforcement is no good for the (locally elected) state prosecutors.

Adding to the ironies here is DAG Rosen's praise and commitment to the FIRST STEP Act.  I am so very pleased to see DAG Rosen praise the reduction of thousands of federal sentences, the early releases to home confinement, the individualized drug-treatment plans, and other efforts to advance re-entry programming to help past offenders.  But I surmise that this work is in much harmony with what progressive prosecutors are committed to doing: finding alternatives to excessive prison terms, addressing public health problems like addiction outside the criminal justice system, and helping offenders "find work and relaunch their lives."  I also think progressive prosecutors would generally acknowledge that low crime rates help provide "the opportunity to consider and implement these improvements to the criminal justice system."  In other words, I believe progressive prosecutors are concerned about "public safety, plain and simple," but they reasonable believe that they can achieve that end without turning to law enforcement and the prison system to address every societal issue.

November 11, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 08, 2019

Spotlighting again how the Justice Department is resisting broad applicability of certain FIRST STEP Act provisions

In this post from July, I noted this Reuters article on some of the court skirmishes over the crack sentencing retroactivity provisions of the FIRST STEP Act.  That piece carried this headline: "As new U.S. law frees inmates, prosecutors seek to lock some back up."  Now the Washington Post has this lengthy piece in a similar vein under this headline: "Trump boasts that his landmark law is freeing these inmates. His Justice Department wants them to stay in prison." I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

The gathering in April was a triumphant celebration of the First Step Act, the most sweeping overhaul of the federal criminal justice system in a generation. Since its passage nearly a year ago, the law has led to the release of more than 3,000 inmates — including [Gregory] Allen, who was convicted of cocaine trafficking in 2001.

The Justice Department, though, had never wanted to let Allen out of prison. In fact, even as he and Trump shared a joyous embrace on television, federal prosecutors were trying to persuade a judge to put Allen back behind bars.

The president has repeatedly pointed to the First Step Act as one of his administration’s chief bipartisan achievements and one for which he is personally responsible. But cases like Allen’s expose a striking rift between the White House allies who supported the law and the Justice Department officials now working to limit the number of inmates who might benefit from it.

“DOJ is pushing against the will of the people, the will of Congress, the will of the president,” said Holly Harris, a conservative activist and leader of the Justice Action Network who worked with Congress and the White House to pass the law. Harris noted that, before the law’s passage, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was a vocal critic of reducing prison sentences. His successor, William P. Barr, expressed similar reservations before his appointment.

The First Step Act aims to lessen long-standing disparities in punishment for nonviolent drug offenses involving crack cocaine. Having five grams of crack, a form of cocaine that is more common among black drug users, used to carry the same mandatory minimum sentence as having 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is more common among white drug users.

But federal prosecutors are arguing in hundreds of cases that inmates who have applied for this type of relief are ineligible, according to a review of court records and interviews with defense attorneys. In at least half a dozen cases, prosecutors are seeking to reincarcerate offenders who have been released under the First Step Act.

The department has told federal prosecutors that when determining whether to challenge an application for early release, they should consider not the amount of crack an inmate was convicted of having or trafficking — but rather the amount that court records suggest they may have actually had, which is often much larger.

A Justice spokesman, Wyn Hornbuckle, defended that interpretation, though he declined to discuss the department’s guidance to prosecutors or to say when it was disseminated. He did not respond to questions about the split between the department and the White House allies who pushed for the law. Hornbuckle said that in years past, prosecutors could secure lengthy prison sentences without having to prove an offender had large amounts of drugs. Under today’s laws, he said, those same offenders would probably be charged with crimes involving larger quantities. “The government’s position is that the text of the statute requires courts to look at the quantity of crack that was part of the actual crime,” Hornbuckle said. “This is a fairness issue.”

In the vast majority of cases reviewed by The Washington Post, judges have disagreed with the Justice Department’s interpretation. Some of the people involved in writing the legislation also disagree, including Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney in Utah. He and other supporters of the law note that the text of the legislation does not explicitly instruct courts to consider the actual amount of crack an offender allegedly had. “This is not a faithful implementation of this part of the First Step Act,” said Tolman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. “At some point, they figured out a way to come back and argue that it wouldn’t apply to as many people.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, accused the Justice Department at a congressional hearing last month of “trying to sabotage” the law by interpreting it in this way. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, a key Republican sponsor of the law, declined to comment on the department’s stance on inmate eligibility but told The Post he had concerns about how other aspects of the law are being implemented. “It would be a shame if the people working under the President failed to implement the bill as written,” Lee said in a recent statement to The Post....

“The people that did the deal, including President Trump, wanted to help guys like me,” said Allen, 49, whose case was mentioned in a Reuters story in July about efforts by some prosecutors to clamp down on First Step Act relief. “But on the flip side, you have federal prosecutors who wake up every day trying to keep guys like me locked up.”...

The First Step Act was championed by a bipartisan coalition that spanned the political spectrum, from the conservative megadonor Koch brothers toracial-justice activist Van Jones. The legislation forbids federal jailers from shackling pregnant inmates and grants judges new powers to free sick and elderly prisoners. One of the most consequential parts of the law was the provision allowing federal inmates such as Allen to apply for early release. The mandatory sentencing policies those offenders faced are among the factors that have led the United States to incarcerate more people than any other nation, experts say....

Trump has made criminal justice reform a chief talking point in recent months, and several of his advisers — including Kushner — believe it could play an important role in his reelection bid, said Doug Deason, a prominent donor to the Trump campaign. A senior campaign official added that the Trump campaign plans to tout the First Step Act in the hopes of attracting black voters in key states such as North Carolina and Florida.

The legislation has earned Trump goodwill from unlikely corners, something he craves amid an impeachment inquiry. Last week, he beamed onstage in Columbia, S.C., as he was presented with an award from a bipartisan advocacy group of black elected officials. “I told him, ‘You ought to go and get that award,’” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “There ain’t many people giving you an award these days.”

Backstage, Trump talked up the idea of another such law, asking Steve Benjamin, the city’s mayor, whether he should call it the Second Step Act, the mayor recalled. Yet even as Trump toasts himself for the legislative victory, defense attorneys and advocates are frustrated that the White House is not doing more to ensure that the law is implemented as intended.

“The irony of this administration working against itself is mind-boggling,” said Brittany Barnett, a defense attorney who has worked on several of the First Step Act cases championed by Kardashian. “Especially with lives on the line.”

In the weeks after the bill became law, many federal prosecutors allowed inmate petitions for early release to go unchallenged. Then, at the direction of officials in Washington, prosecutors began to reverse course, court records show. In March, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Bockhorst asked federal judges in West Virginia to place a hold on more than two dozen applications for relief — some of which she had not previously opposed. She wrote that she expected to oppose at least some of those applications based on new guidance from the Justice Department.

In a brief phone interview, Bockhorst said the government shutdown that began soon after the bill passed and lasted until late January delayed the guidance from Washington. “We didn’t have the benefit of any kind of coordinated position,” she said. Similar reversals took place in New York, where prosecutors agreed in April that certain inmates were eligible — only to change their position in May. In one case, a judge found the reversal striking enough to ask what prompted it.

Prior related post:

November 8, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Any "hot takes" on how a Trump judiciary might be changing sentencing law and practice?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by milestones reached and celebrated by the Trump Administration yesterday.  This Bloomberg article, headlined "Trump Boasts of GOP Success Confirming His Judicial Nominees," provides some background:

President Donald Trump celebrated Republicans’ record on confirming federal judges on Wednesday, saying his administration has done better than any other in terms of “quality and quantity” of judges appointed to the bench....

The president’s comments came as the U.S. Senate is set to confirm Trump’s 45th circuit judge this week.  With that vote, he will have appointed about a quarter of all appeals court judges.

Trump has won confirmation of a total of 158 federal judicial nominees, including Supreme Court justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.  The president, who on Wednesday named 10 additional judges he intends to nominate, is likely to see more win approval this year than during the first two years of his presidency combined.

The pace of confirmation far exceeds those of his immediate predecessors, a fact that Trump routinely notes in public comments.  The GOP’s Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has leveraged his party’s control of the chamber to flood the federal courts with Trump’s picks.

The appointments have led to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals -- which hears cases from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware -- flipping from a majority of judges appointed by Democratic presidents to a majority appointed by Republicans.  By the end of the year, similar changes are likely in the Second Circuit, which includes New York, Connecticut and Vermont, and the Eleventh Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

During President Barack Obama’s second term, McConnell held up nominees -- including a Supreme Court vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia death in 2016 -- leaving 86 district court vacancies and 17 circuit court vacancies for Trump to fill.  Trump has repeatedly mocked Obama for leaving the positions unfilled....

“Nobody has done more to change the court system in the history of our country than Donald Trump,” McConnell said Monday at a rally in his home state of Kentucky with the president. “And Mr. President, we’re going to keep on doing it.  My motto is: Leave no vacancy behind.”

Because "the court system" plays a fundamentally central role in federal sentencing decision-making, if Prez Trump's nominees are dramatically changing the court system in our country then one might expect to also see a dramatic change in sentencing law and practice.  But I do not sense there has been major change in this arena (though I do not follow lower court rulings in this space quite as closely as I did in the immediate post-Booker days).

Of course, the jury is still out on how Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh will impact SCOTUS sentencing jurisprudence as replacements from Justices Scalia and Kennedy.  But SCOTUS decides so few sentencing cases while the circuit courts decide so many, and district judges do all the actual sentencing.  And so I keep gravitating to the idea that a Trump judiciary might well be changing sentencing law and practice.  But does anyone think the Trump judges actually are making a big difference?

November 7, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Taking a second look at life imprisonment"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Boston Globe commentary authored by Nancy Gertner and Marc Mauer. Here are excerpts:

While there has been a great deal of attention in recent years to the impact of the drug war on growing prison populations, in fact, the main drivers of the prison system now are excessive sentences for violent offenses.

The statistics are troubling.  There are as many individuals [in Massachusetts] serving life sentences as the entire state prison population in 1970, and more than half are black or Latino. Of the 2,000 lifers in the state, about half are not eligible for parole.  Barring executive clemency, they will die in prison after spending decades behind bars.

Since 90 percent of lifers nationally have been convicted of serious violent crimes, supporters of lifelong incarceration argue that incapacitating such people is an effective crime-control mechanism.  In fact, it is the opposite: It is counterproductive for public safety.

Criminologists know that individuals “age out” of crime.  Any parent of a teenager understands that misbehavior, often serious, is all too common at this stage.  FBI arrest data show that the rate of arrest for teenage boys rises sharply from the mid-teen years through the early 20s but then declines significantly. Arrests for robbery, for example, peak at age 19 but decline by more than half by age 30 and by three-quarters by age 40. The same is true for other violent crimes.

The reason is clear.  As teenage boys enter their 20s, they lose their impulsivity, get jobs, find life partners, form families, and generally take on adult roles.  Violent behavior becomes less attractive.

For public safety purposes incarcerating people past age 40 produces diminishing returns for crime control; less and less crime is prevented by incapacitation each year.  This impact is magnified by resource tradeoffs.  National estimates for the cost of incarcerating an elderly person are at least $60,000 a year, in large part due to the need for health care.  With finite public safety resources, these costs are not available to invest in family and community support for the new cohort of teenagers, for whom proactive initiatives could lower the risk of antisocial behavior.

Legislation introduced by Representative Jay Livingstone of Boston and Senator Joe Boncore of Winthrop, along with 34 cosponsors, would help to ameliorate this problem in Massachusetts.  Under the bill’s “second look” provision, individuals serving life without parole would be eligible for a parole review after serving 25 years....

Recently, there has been a bipartisan critique of the effects of mass incarceration, particularly on low-income communities of color.  State policy makers across the country are exploring ways to reduce excessive prison populations without adverse effects on public safety.  The proposed “second look” provision offers one significant alternative.  It should be passed.

November 7, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Notable Wall Street Journal commentaries decry injustices highlighted by college admission scandal prosecutions

I have blogged a lot about the college admission scandal prosecutions because they provide a high-profile setting for shinning a bright light on some ugly features of criminal justice in America.  The Wall Street Journal editors this week have been eager to do such light-shinning as evidenced by these two notable new commentaries in its pages:

Authored by William McGurn, "Free Lori Loughlin: The feds are treating the actress as if she and her husband were Bonnie and Clyde." Some excerpts:

If convicted of all the charges federal prosecutors have piled up against them, Ms. Loughlin and her husband could be sentenced to as much as 45 years in prison.  This is nuts.

The same operation that caught Ms. Loughlin also snared dozens of other high-powered people, including CEOs, lawyers and venture capitalists.  They too are accused of paying fixer William “Rick” Singer either to cheat on their kids’ college entrance exams, to present them fraudulently for college admission as athletes, or both.  But Ms. Loughlin’s celebrity status has ensured that she and fellow actress Felicity Huffman remain the face of the scandal for most Americans.

With this difference: While Ms. Huffman pleaded guilty, apologized profusely and served out her sentence (14 days, but released after 12 because it was a weekend) at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., Ms. Loughlin and Mr. Giannulli are insisting, perhaps unwisely, on taking their case to a jury.  Meanwhile, in the same way the sans-culottes jeered Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine, today’s equivalent — Twitter mobs and gossip sheets — are thirsting to see this icon of Tinseltown wealth and privilege cut down to size by a stint in federal prison.

Now, it may well be standard procedure for prosecutors to add new charges when their targets refuse to plead. But does anyone else think it a stretch to argue that two California residents bribing their children’s way into a private California university are committing a crime against the federal government? Or that the statutes she’s accused of violating, such as bribery or money laundering in connection with a program that receives federal funding, were really intended to go after people such as Ms. Loughlin?

All of which has yours truly hoping Ms. Loughlin and her husband prevail. Not because they are innocent. But because the case reeks of overreach, as well as my unease with the idea that the FBI and Justice are the vehicles to deliver fairness in college admissions....

There are many ways to punish Ms. Loughlin. Some of them have already happened even without a conviction: The Hallmark Channel severed all ties; Netflix will film the last season of the reboot “Fuller House” without her; and her daughters were forced to leave USC under humiliating circumstances.  Ms. Loughlin, remember, is a nonviolent first-offender.  By all means, stick her with a fat fine and community service. But it’s just overkill for federal prosecutors to be devoting so much of their time and resources to make sure this woman goes to prison.

Authored by Alan Dershowitz, "Most Plea Bargains Are Unconstitutional: Harsh punishments for defendants who exercise their right to trial violate the Sixth Amendment." Some excerpts:

When is a constitutional right not a right? When you’re punished for exercising it.  If the government arrests or fines you for something you say, everyone recognizes a violation of the First Amendment, even though you had your say.  Yet when prosecutors and courts impose massive punishments on criminal defendants for exercising their Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, it’s considered business as usual — even by the Supreme Court.

In my own practice I’ve seen cases in which defendants declined a plea bargain, were convicted, and received sentences more than 10 times as severe as prosecutors had offered them.  A doctor was offered one year if he pleaded guilty to Medicaid fraud and received 11 years at trial.  He rejected the plea offer because he believed he was innocent and had expert testimony to back him up.  In another case, two businessmen accused of financial fraud were offered sentences of seven years and sentenced to 80 years after a trial....

Or consider two actresses charged in the college-admissions scandal. Felicity Huffman received 14 days after waiving a trial. Lori Loughlin could face as long as 45 years (although likely less) if she exercises her right to go to trial. The prosecutor has been clear: “If it’s after trial, we would ask for something substantially higher. If she resolves it before trial, something lower than that.”

In justifying the practice, prosecutors and courts play word games, denying that a far harsher sentence is a “punishment.”  Rather, they say, it’s what the defendant deserved for the crime, and the relative lenience of a plea bargain is a “reward” for saving the government the expense, inconvenience and risks of a trial.  As the Supreme Court put it: “We cannot hold that it is unconstitutional for the State to extend a benefit to a defendant who in turn extends a substantial benefit to the State” (emphasis added).

Yet imagine if the government, instead of directly punishing disfavored speech, accomplished the same objective in a roundabout way by offering a tax rebate for people who waive their First Amendment rights.  Any judge would see through the maneuver.  So why do the courts invoke the same meaningless distinction when it comes to the right to trial?

Because more than 90% of defendants waive the right to trial, usually for fear of the trial penalty.  If the penalty were held unconstitutional, it could overwhelm the system.  But is that a good enough reason to trample a constitutional right?  Under America’s Constitution, rights are the absolutes to which practical considerations must adapt.  We can build more courthouses and appoint more judges and prosecutors to accommodate the right to trial.  We can also decriminalize many actions that are today treated as crimes, beginning with drug use....  

The time has come to end the unconstitutional trial penalty.

November 6, 2019 in Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Acquitted Conduct Should Not Be Considered At Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this notable recent Law360 commentary authored by Robert Ehrlich, the former governor of Maryland. I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

John Adams famously declared, “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty." Indeed, given the role the jury trial plays in our modern criminal justice system.

The jury trial was designed as an indispensable structural check on government. A safeguard the framers of the Constitution considered so paramount to a free people that it was enshrined in the Sixth Amendment.

Trial by jury is essential to preserving liberty because it protects individuals from arbitrary use of government power by allowing the people to act independently of the state. Accordingly, upholding the people’s role in the administration of justice is foundational to upholding the purpose of this procedural guarantee.

Against this background, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, recently introduced the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2019. The bill seeks to address the insidious practice known as acquitted conduct sentencing, wherein a judge enhances a sentence based on conduct underlying charges for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury.

You read that correctly. Under current law, federal judges are permitted to sentence individuals based on charges for which a jury found them not guilty....

Lower standards of proof at sentencing — in conjunction with 18 U.S.C. Section 3661, legal precedent and application of the guidelines — means that federal judges may consider a wide array of relevant conduct in determining a defendant’s sentence, including conduct for which underlying charges have been acquitted by a jury. While the Supreme Court determined acquitted-conduct sentencing did not violate the double jeopardy clause in Watts, the court has never addressed whether the Sixth Amendment right to a trial jury prohibits the practice....

The bottom line: Acquitted-conduct sentencing effectively divests individuals of their Sixth Amendment right to trial-by-jury by divesting citizens of their historical and constitutional role in the administration of criminal justice.

While a defendant remains “not guilty” on paper, the sentencing judge’s veto of the jury’s verdict renders the acquittal meaningless for all practical purposes. Consideration of acquitted conduct at sentencing effectively eliminates the democratic role of the jury in the criminal justice system, inverting the power structure to allow government to limit the people rather than people to limit the government.

Acquitted-conduct sentencing is an affront to individual liberty, and judicial or legislative action would be welcome responses to the unconstitutional practice. The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act would amend 18 U.S.C. Section 3661 to explicitly preclude federal courts from considering acquitted conduct at sentencing, except as a mitigating factor. Congress should advance this simple reform to restore the Constitution’s basic guarantees of due process and the right to trial by jury.

A few of many recent and prior related posts on the acquitted conduct:

November 6, 2019 in Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Very different looks on criminal justice reform for governors in Oklahoma and New York

As spotlighted in prior posts here and here and here, Oklahoma this week saw a series of interesting and important criminal justice reform efforts culminate in the release of more than 400 prisoners as part of the largest mass commutation in U.S. history (details here).  Thanks to Twitter, I saw this video clip of persons being released from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center.  Notably, in addition to being greeted by friends and families, the released individuals also saw Governor Kevin Stitt and First Lady Sarah Stitt awaiting their release to congratulate them.

Not long after I saw this video and the heartening involvement of Oklahoma Governor Stitt in this historic criminal justice reform story, I saw this press article discussing the disheartening work of New York Governor Cuomo is a much more discouraging criminal justice story.  The piece is headlined "Gov. Cuomo's Program for More Clemency Applications Appears to Stall, As Prisoners Wait and Hope for a Second Chance," and here are excerpts:

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s program to help more prisoners apply for clemency in New York State appears to be stalled and the Governor’s office is declining to explain why.

In 2017, Cuomo asked lawyers to volunteer to help identify prisoners worthy of his mercy, and assist them in making their best case for a shortened sentence. More than two hundred lawyers stepped up. But two years and thousands of pro bono hours later, Governor Cuomo has neither approved nor denied any of the 107 clemency applications filed through the program.

“It’s discouraging. We’ve put a lot of resources into it.” said Norman Reimer, executive director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which partnered with Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the State at the Governor’s request. “We put people away for ridiculous amounts of time, often for mistakes they made when they were very young,” Reimer added.

Lawyers involved in the NACDL/FAMM project tell News 4 because there has been no action in these cases, they are reluctant to take on new prisoners. More than 1,600 prisoners are currently waiting to be assigned attorneys through the project. “The idea that you can’t find a single one of those to grant is inconceivable to me. There’s just no greater feeling than giving somebody freedom,” said NYU Law Professor Rachel Barkow and author of "Prisoners of Politics."

The power to commute a prisoner’s sentence rests solely with the Governor. NACDL says the Cuomo administration has been highly cooperative, producing records and helping to vet cases.

Cuomo administration insiders familiar with the clemency review process say the problem is not that these cases are being ignored. Sources with first hand knowledge say the cases submitted by NACDL/FAMM were carefully reviewed by a team of attorneys inside the office of the Counsel to the Governor. They say the team identified a group of worthy candidates for a possible mid-year clemency grant this past Spring, but the Governor did not act.

Timing, they speculated, may have played a role, citing pushback from some law enforcement groups for Cuomo’s role in the early release of Judith Clark in May 2019. Clark was the getaway driver in the deadly 1981 Brink’s robbery and the Governor commuted her sentence to make her eligible for early parole. One person who has discussed the project at length with the Governor’s senior staff described a sense that politically speaking, “the bang was not worth the buck.”

Several sources familiar with the internal review process say the Governor’s office may have been taken aback by the large number of applications lawyers submitted on behalf of prisoners who committed violent felonies. These cases are more politically sensitive for a governor, because it is not uncommon for district attorneys, law enforcement groups and family members of victims to oppose early release.

But Norman Reimer says if the severity of the crimes is the reason for Cuomo’s inaction, that’s not how the governor’s office promised to approach this process. “What I like about Governor Cuomo’s initiative is he didn’t limit it based on the nature of the crime," said Reimer. "We pressed that issue and it was an affirmative decision by them to let the person’s record of rehabilitation speak the loudest, even in violent crimes.”

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an explanation for his inaction on the NACDL/FAMM cases, nor for a breakdown of the clemency grants he has issued. According to public reports, Cuomo has commuted at least 18 sentences in almost nine years, including three in 2018.

Barkow says compared with some other Democratic governors, Cuomo has used his executive clemency powers sparingly. Gavin Newsom of California commuted the sentences of 23 prisoners since September of this year, including prisoners involved in violent felonies....

In last year's primary, the progressive wing of the Democratic party hammered Cuomo for what they considered insufficient criminal justice reforms. “The people who care about these issues want to see real results,” said Professor Barkow. “They want to see that people are walking the walk and not just kind of throwing talk out there.” As for Cuomo’s record on justice issues like clemency and marijuana legalization, Barkow added “It seems like the pattern is to wait and just make sure where the political winds are blowing.”

November 5, 2019 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Opportunities for law students interested in prison law and prisoners’ rights

Sharon Dolovich, Professor of Law and Director of the Prison Law & Policy Program at the UCLA School of Law, asked if I could post this year's edition of the UCLA Prison Law Summer Job Search Guide.  As Sharon explained to me: "The guide is intended for current law students around the country interested in summer positions working on behalf of incarcerated people. The guide gives the students a one-stop shop of what organizations are hiring."

Download UCLA Prison Law Summer 2020 Job Search Guide

Sharon wisely also suggested I also use this opportunity to note anew Prison Law JD for a new crop of young prisoners’ rights advocates.  Again, from Sharon: "Prison Law JD is the national listserv for current law students or recent law grads who are interested in this field. The purpose is to disseminate information about job and fellowship opportunities, conferences, etc. and also to help build a community of the next generation of prisoners’ rights lawyers.  Students who want to join can email me directly at dolovich @ law.ucla.edu ."

I am so grateful for Sharon's terrific work on these important issues.  I am hopeful this message gets widely shared in all networks so that all law students know of these great resources and opportunities.

November 5, 2019 in Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Giving Oklahoma its criminal justice reform due

Regular readers will not be surprised to hear more about red-state Oklahoma's interesting and important criminal justice reform efforts, as I have tried to highlight here repeatedly the more-than-okay news from the OK state.  But with record-setting clemency developments (first noted here), the mainstream media is catching up as evidence by these recent pieces:

From the Boston Globe, "What a conservative state can teach us about progressive criminal justice reform"

From US News, "Oklahoma Focuses on Criminal Justice Reform"

From the Washington Post, "Oklahoma approves largest single-day commutation in U.S. history"

UPDATE: Here are a few more new pieces from the national media:

From CNN, "462 Oklahoma inmates will be released today in the largest commutation in US history"

From USA Today, "Hundreds of Oklahoma inmates to be freed, the largest mass release in US history"

November 3, 2019 in Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

"Criminal Justice Reform Is About People, Not Posturing"

The title of this post is the title of this recent Real Clear Politics commentary authored by John Koufos.  I recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

It’s a shame that Sen. Kamala Harris sought to politicize a celebration of the historic First Step Act at Benedict College in South Carolina last week.  Criminal justice reform has benefited millions of Americans — most especially the minorities the Democratic presidential candidate says she advocates for.  This reform restores victims, redeems former prisoners and rebuilds communities....

According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the First Step Act has overwhelming helped remedy historic injustice to minorities; African Americans make up more than 91% of those released.  It is no secret that minority communities were hurt most by the 1994 Clinton crime bill, which was originally drafted by Sen. Joe Biden.  At Benedict College, the president demonstrated his support for a “second step” of criminal justice reform....

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the First Step Act is its effect on state policy.  States are following the national criminal justice reform trend led by the White House. The president identified recent reforms in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Tennessee, which can be expected to lead to safer streets, increased employment and opportunity, and restored dignity and self-worth.

Goals — and results — like these should not be politicized.  I have seen the commitment of the president and White House first-hand, as part of a bipartisan coalition working on criminal justice reform.  I had the privilege of being in the Oval Office when the First Step Act was signed, and was humbled when the president asked me to speak about criminal justice reform at the White House.  I witnessed Jared Kushner’s leadership, and the commitment of Republican and Democrat legislators.  As I work with governors and state leaders across the country, I see the excitement for criminal justice reform regardless of party.

Criminal justice reform is a nonpartisan idea whose time has come.  President Trump summed it up best at Benedict College when he said: “I knew criminal justice reform was not about politics.  I’m … not sure that what I did was a popular thing or an unpopular thing, but I know it was the right thing to do.”

November 3, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 01, 2019

"The Decline of the Judicial Override"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now on SSRN authored by Michael Radelet and G. Ben Cohen.  Here is its abstract:

Since 1972, the Supreme Court has experimented with regulation of the death penalty, seeking the illusive goals of consistency, reliability, and fairness.  In this century, the court held that the Sixth Amendment prohibited judges from making findings necessary to impose a death sentence.  Separately, the court held that the Eighth Amendment safeguarded evolving standards of decency as measured by national consensus.

In this article, we discuss the role of judges in death determinations, identifying jurisdictions that initially (post 1972) allowed judge sentencing and naming the individuals who today remain under judge-imposed death sentences.  The decisions guaranteeing a jury determination have so far been applied only to cases that have not undergone initial review in state courts.  Key questions remain unresolved, including whether the evolving standards of decency permit the execution of more than 100 individuals who were condemned to death by judges without a jury's death verdict before implementation of the rules that now require unanimous jury votes.

November 1, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Rounding up some death penalty news and notes

In order to cover a number of notable death penalty stories of late, I will resort here to a round up of headlines and links.  As always, I welcome reader feedback on whether some of these pieces (or others in this arena) merit additional attention:

From the AP, "Georgia Supreme Court temporarily halts man’s execution"

From the AP, "2 more Ohio executions delayed amid lack of lethal drugs"

From The Appeal, "Using Nitrogen Gas For Executions Is Untested And Poorly Understood. Three States Plan To Do It Anyway."

From The Conversation, "The death penalty is getting more and more expensive. Is it worth it?"

From the Death Penalty Information Center, "More Than 250 Conservative Leaders Join Call to End Death Penalty"

From the New York Times, "Before First Federal Execution in Years, Family of Victims Dissents"

UPDATE: A few more:

From The Crime Report, "Feds ‘Out of Touch’ on Death Penalty, says Conservative Leader"

From Mother Jones, "Trump Loves the Death Penalty. These Conservatives Don’t."

From NET, "No Scheduled Executions, But Courts Busy With Nebraska Death Penalty Issues"

October 31, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Federal court finds First Amendment violated by sheriff's plan to place signs of sex offender homes on Halloween

A helpful reader spotlighted a new notable federal court ruling dealing with one example of how some local law enforcement officials sometimes use the Halloween holiday to single out registered sex offenders.  This local newspaper story, headlined "Judge sides with sex offenders in ‘no trick-or-treating’ fight," reports on the basics:

A federal judge on Tuesday said a Georgia sheriff’s plan to post “no trick-or-treating” signs at sex offenders’ homes was unconstitutional.

The ruling comes after three registered sex offenders sued Butts County Sheriff Gary Long to stop his office from the practice, which began last year with deputies planting signs that urged Halloween revelers against stopping. Deputies put up some of the signs while others among the county’s 200 registered sex offenders were told to display one themselves or face unspecified trouble, according to the complaint.

U.S. District Court Judge Marc T. Treadwell’s order applies only to the three plaintiffs, meaning it wouldn’t stop the sheriff’s office from placing signs at other registered sex offenders’ homes. But the judge said Long’s legal authority to place the signs was “dubious at best.”

The sheriff disagreed with the ruling but said he’d abide by it. He said he had deputies put the signs up last year because a popular trick-or-treating event on the square in downtown Jackson was cancelled, leading to an increase in door-to-door visits.

“While the vast majority of us may disagree with the Judge’s ruling, I strongly encourage you to NOT take matters into your own hands this Halloween,” Long wrote on Facebook. “Unfortunately, there is no time to appeal before this Halloween.”

Treadwell said the three men who sued are “by all accounts” rehabilitated and living law-abiding lives.“Yet their Sheriff finds it necessary to post signs in front of their homes announcing to the public that their homes are dangerous for children,” the judge wrote. “The Sheriff’s decision is not based on any determination that the Plaintiffs are dangerous. Nor is the Sheriff’s sign-posting founded on Georgia law.”

The sheriff’s plan to place the signs “run afoul” of the First Amendment because it compels the men to display the message even though they disagree with it. The sheriff said he’d sought legal advice in 2018 before placing the signs and believed it was appropriate.

The full 25-page ruling is available at this link, and here is its introduction:

The Plaintiffs are sex offenders. That is because many years ago they committed offenses that fall within the State of Georgia’s definition of sex offenses.  Since then, they have served their terms of imprisonment and have, as far as the law is concerned, paid their debts to society.  But because they have been classified as sex offenders, they remain subject to Georgia’s lifelong requirement that they register with their local sheriff. But by all accounts, they are rehabilitated.  They live productive, lawabiding lives.  Two of the named Plaintiffs live with their parents; one has a six-year-old daughter living with him.  The State of Georgia, under its system for classifying sex offenders, has not determined that they pose an increased risk of again committing a sexual offense.

Yet their Sheriff finds it necessary to post signs in front of their homes announcing to the public that their homes are dangerous for children.  The Sheriff’s decision is not based on any determination that the Plaintiffs are dangerous. Nor is the Sheriff’s sign-posting founded on Georgia law.  Rather, the Sheriff’s decision is based solely on the fact that the Plaintiffs’ names remain on Georgia’s registry of sex offenders.  Further, Sheriff Long plans, as he has in the past, to ban the Plaintiffs from expressing their disagreement with the signs and the message the signs convey.

The Plaintiffs object and seek relief from this Court.  The question the Court must answer is not whether Sheriff Long’s plan is wise or moral, or whether it makes penological sense.  Rather, the question is whether Sheriff Long’s plan runs afoul of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.  It does.

October 31, 2019 in Collateral consequences, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"On One Issue, Americans Are United. Too Many Are Behind Bars."

The title of this post is the title of this New York Times commentary authored by Tina Rosenberg.  Here are excerpts:

Across America, Democrats and Republicans demonize each other — and then sit down to hammer out legislation to reduce mass incarceration.  Last December, Congress passed the First Step Act, which applies to federal prisons.  It increases opportunities for education and rehabilitation in prison, gives inmates more time off for good behavior, requires prisoners be placed closer to their families, and reduces mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses.

But the real progress is in the states — a broad range of them.  Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New York, among others, have all passed major criminal justice reforms.  This momentum shows what can be done.  At the same time, it highlights the rarity of bipartisan progress.

So what is it about criminal justice? It’s certainly not the case that crime lends itself to dispassionate, rational analysis. In the past, no issue seemed more politicized.  Many local politicians won because of 30-second ads showing how tough on crime they were.  Lee Atwater’s infamous Willie Horton ad for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign was perhaps the nadir of American political communication until recently. Democrats also competed to be the toughest on crime and terrified voters — wrongly — with the specter of superpredators.

Creating mass incarceration 30 years ago was a bipartisan project.  So it’s fitting that undoing it is as well.

One reason for bipartisanship is that the criminal justice system has affected so many people — 30 percent of American adults have a criminal record, which the F.B.I. defines as an arrest on a felony charge.  “Every single American family is impacted by the broken justice system,” said Holly Harris, the executive director of Justice Action Network, which works with Republicans and Democrats at the federal and state level to reform criminal justice....

On criminal justice reforms, the language from left and right seems to be converging.  “Originally, conservatives talked about these issues in terms of public safety, recidivism reduction, curbing government spending and big government,” Ms. Harris said.  (The prison system is a perfect conservative target: a hugely expensive failure of a government program that deprives people of their freedom.)  “And progressives talked in terms of reducing racial disparities and increasing fairness.  But I’ve watched that evolve.”

October 30, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Notable review and reflection on Prez candidate criminal justice reform forum at Eastern State Penitentiary

Earlier this week, there was an historical (but ultimately disappointing) forum for Democratic Prez candidates at the historic Eastern State Penitentiary.  Here are two links providing an overview of the event: 

The headline of the Inquirer piece highlights the main reason I am inclined to call the event disappointing, though this effective Intercept piece by Alice Speri capture my mood even more fully.  The lengthy piece is headlined "The Presidential Town Hall On Mass Incarceration Was A Historic Moment And A Missed Opportunity," and here are excerpts:

The candidates who showed up on Monday — Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and billionaire Tom Steyer — sat close to a few dozen audience members representing a wide range of justice reform organizations led by those who know the system best. There were hugs, selfies, and some hard questions. But most notable was the absence of most of the presidential candidates, including all the frontrunners, and the sometimes evasive answers of the candidates who did show up.

“In that room, you had some of the foremost leaders in the country, folks who have been working for decades to lift the systemic oppression of incarcerated people,” said J. Jondhi Harrell, a Philadelphia activist who spent 25 years in federal prison. “To those who say that they want to be president and have specific ideas about how to reform the system, you have the opportunity to speak to the experts in the field. To just wave this off and say it’s not important really speaks to what you feel not only about justice reform, but also about black and brown people.”

Erica Smith, a California-based organizer with a group that provides transitional housing for formerly incarcerated people, made a similar point. “I was disappointed that some of the other candidates didn’t value what we have to say enough to come have a discussion with us,” she said. “We are 70 million deep in the United States, people who are system-impacted. It’s just the feeling of being discarded once again.”...

In the end, those leaving the event said they were elated that something so unprecedented could have even happened, but they were hardly impressed with candidates’ turnout or commitments....

But while attendees gave the three candidates who showed up in Philadelphia credit for being there to hear them out, several said they left more convinced than ever that any real changes to the system would need to happen without politicians.

“Historically, I’ve seen the United States just ignore our communities and so I won’t feel hopeful until I see results,” said Josh Glenn, who runs a Philadelphia-based group for incarcerated youth and felt that Booker had skirted around a question he had asked about the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. “I hope whatever president comes into office, that they do the right thing by our communities. But if they don’t, we’re going to stand up for ourselves, and we’re going to make sure that we get what we need on our own.”

October 30, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Case for Race-Based Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Vice piece discussing an interesting sentencing issues being engaged by Canadian courts. The subheadline of the piece summarizes the essentials: "In a case that could change how judges punish Black people, Ontario's top court will soon decide how much systemic racism should be taken into account when sentencing." Here are excerpts (links from original):

[W]hen [Kevin] Morris was convicted of possessing a loaded gun, his first offence, Ontario Superior Court Justice Shaun Nakatsuru decided to reduce his sentence from four years to 15 months, noting the systemic disadvantages Morris faced in his life as a Black man growing up in Toronto.  Morris’s sentence was further reduced to one year because police interrogated him after he had requested a lawyer.

To help make his decision, Nakatsuru used a cultural assessment of Morris, written by a clinical social worker and consisting of interviews and data that gave insight on him.  In his judgment, Nakatsuru wrote, “You began to notice how many were dying in your neighbourhood. Dying of violence. You did not have a lot of options. You decided you would live with it. That you would survive. Yet at the same time, you felt hopelessness.”

But in the spring the Crown will challenge that decision in the Court of Appeal, arguing that the judge was too lenient in his decision. If Morris wins, it could set a precedent for the use of cultural assessments in sentencing....

Nana Yanful, a lawyer for the Black Legal Action Centre, one of the 14 interveners on Morris’s appeal case, says that Morris’s case gives courts a chance to address the circumstances of Black offenders. She says the courts should stop asking if race can be a reason for leniency, and start to ask, if the offender wasn’t Black, how likely is it that they would be involved with the criminal justice system?

Judges in Canada already consider personal circumstances such as mental health, age, and past criminal record when sentencing an offender. Since 1999 judges have been legally obliged to consider the systemic disadvantages Indigenous offenders experienced before sentencing.

This is called the Gladue principle, and came into effect after a Cree woman pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was handed a three-year prison sentence. The Crown requested a conditional sentence, due to the offender’s history of substance abuse and lack of education. The judge did not grant the request, since she was off reserve at the time of the murder.

But after the case went to the Supreme Court, and the sentencing decision was upheld, the court clarified a section of the Criminal Code that would allow judges to recommend restorative justice measures for Indigenous offenders, such as reduced sentencing.

There is no similar principle for Black offenders, who make up 9 percent of the federal prison population, even though Black people only represent 3.5 percent of the population. The Office of Correctional Investigators reported a 69 percent increase of Black inmates between 2005 and 2015. While lawyers and judges can request cultural assessments, it’s up to the presiding judge to decide if it’s appropriate based on the circumstances of the case.

In Nova Scotia there has been a growing trend of judges considering cultural assessments in sentencing Black offenders. In one notable Nova Scotia Supreme Court case, Honourable Justice Jamie Campbell reviewed the cultural assessment of an African Indigenous man convicted of second-degree murder, before sentencing him to life in prison in 2017. Although the cultural assessment did not lead to a lighter sentence, it prompted “a judge to struggle with difficult questions for which there may not really be entirely clear answers,” the decision stated.

“That is why the cultural assessment is both a fascinating and a challenging document,” Campbell wrote in his judgment. “It provides information that makes it harder, not easier, to reach a conclusion. That is a good thing. The challenge comes from acknowledging the role that race plays in the prevalence of violent crime among young African Nova Scotian men while not falling into racist traps.”

Nova Scotia has been collecting data for cultural assessments since 2016, with 20 total requests. And requests have been increasing: In 2018 there were five requests for cultural assessments, while 11 have been requested so far this year.

A defence win in Morris’s case would set the same standard in Ontario, and also affect the disproportionate rate of incarcerated Black people in Canada. “What we’ve been doing so far isn’t working. The disproportionate impact is leading to a disproportionate outcome,” Yanful said. “So let’s take a step back and see what the sentencing court, and what the criminal justice system can do to be able to address this issue meaningfully.”

October 30, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Prez candidate Beto O'Rourke releases a "comprehensive plan to end mass incarceration"

Via this extended Medium posting, Beto O'Rourke has released what he titles "Beto’s Comprehensive Plan to End Mass Incarceration and Reform Our Criminal Justice System to Prioritize Rehabilitation." The plan is too lengthy and detailed for ready summary, but here are a few of the sentencing parts:

October 29, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, October 28, 2019

Upon SCOTUS remand, Indiana Supreme Court remand Timbs after setting out excessiveness standards

In Timbs v. Indiana, the US Supreme Court unanimously held that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to the states, but then remanded the case back to the Indiana courts to figure out just how that Clause should apply in Tyson Timbs' case.  Today, the Indiana Supreme Court issued this opinion in which it further remands the case to the state trial court with the help of a lengthy opinion explaining its approach to the Clause.  Here is how the opinion starts and concludes:

Civil forfeiture of property is a powerful law-enforcement tool.  It can be punitive and profitable: punitive for those whose property is confiscated; and profitable for the government, which takes ownership of the property.

When a civil forfeiture is even partly punitive, it implicates the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines. And since that safeguard applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, we now face two questions left open by the Supreme Court of the United States.  First, how should courts determine whether a punitive, in rem forfeiture is an excessive fine? And second, would forfeiture of Tyson Timbs’s vehicle be an excessive fine?

We answer the first question with an analytical framework similar to those of almost all courts to have addressed the issue.  For the second question, we remand for the trial court to determine, based on that framework, whether Timbs has cleared the hurdle of establishing gross disproportionality, entitling him to relief....

Conclusion

Over twenty-five years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that in rem forfeitures can be punitive and, thus, fines subject to the Eighth Amendment’s excessiveness limitation.  It left to lower courts the task of establishing the appropriate measure of excessiveness — a task that we take up today.

We accordingly hold that a use-based in rem fine is excessive if (1) the property was not an instrumentality of the underlying crimes, or (2) the property was an instrumentality, but the harshness of the punishment would be grossly disproportional to the gravity of the underlying offenses and the owner’s culpability for the property’s misuse.

Here, Timbs’s Land Rover was an instrumentality of the underlying offense of drug dealing.  But we remand for the trial court to answer the question of gross disproportionality based on the framework we set out.

October 28, 2019 in Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Mayor Pete Buttigeig releases extensive criminal justice reform plan expanding on prior Douglass Plan

Back in July, as detailed in this post, Mayor Pete Buttigieg introduced this notable platform titled "The Douglass Plan: A Comprehensive Investment in the Empowerment of Black America."  The plan, which aspires to "dismantle old systems and structures that inhibit prosperity and builds new ones that will unlock the collective potential of Black America," gives considerable attention to "Criminal Justice Reform," with nearly a quarter of this 18-page document focused on such matter. 

Not content, this weekend Mayor Buttigieg released an even more detailed an ambitious criminal justice reform plan at his campaign website under the heading "Securing Justice: Reforming Our Criminal Legal System." The full plan, which is available here and runs 16 dense pages with more than 70 footnotes, defies simple summarization. So here are a few sentencing part that caught my eye (with some formatting lost):

Pete is committed to reducing the number of people incarcerated in the United States at both the federal and state levels by 50%.... To remedy this, Pete will:

Double funding for federal grants for states that commit to meaningful reform and prioritize funding for programs aimed at pretrial reforms, decarceration, and expansion of alternative to incarceration (ATI) programs....

On the federal level, eliminate incarceration for drug possession, reduce sentences for other drug offenses, and apply these reductions retroactively....

Legalize marijuana and automatically expunge past convictions. Pete will push Congress to pass legislation requiring that a significant percentage of tax revenue flowing from legalization is directed back to the communities and people most devastated by the war on drugs....

Eliminate mandatory minimums. The average sentence for someone subject to a mandatory minimum penalty in 2017 was 138 months, compared to 28 months as the average sentence of people convicted of an offense that did not have a mandatory minimum sentence. Eliminating mandatory minimums and decreasing overall sentence length for a significant number of crimes is critical to ensuring that people are not incarcerated when there is no effect on public safety, and it will reduce incarceration. It also will eliminate the role mandatory minimums plays in incentivizing people to plead guilty for crimes they did not commit.

Direct the U.S. Sentencing Commission to explore sentencing caps for all crimes. America’s mass incarceration crisis has been driven in large part by excessive sentencing. Powerful evidence confirms that long sentences have not made Americans safer. Further, we know that people often “age out” of crime as they move through the course of their lives. For this reason, Pete is committed to exploring innovative policy solutions to address the nation’s over-incarceration crisis, such as caps on sentencing.

Commute the sentences of people who are incarcerated in the federal system beyond what justice warrants by establishing an independent clemency commission that sits outside the Department of Justice. An independent clemency commission, with diverse professional backgrounds and lived experiences, will make the process more streamlined and comprehensive....

Support a constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty.

Reduce the over-reliance on solitary confinement and abolish its prolonged use, bringing the United States in line with international human rights standards, which define the use of solitary confinement in excess of 15 days as per se torture.

October 27, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Philadelphia Inquirer provides detailed coverage of "The Probation Trap"

The local paper in the City of Brotherly Love has this important new series highlighting that the Keystone State is not very loving when it comes to how it treats people caught up in community supervision. The series is titled "The Probation Trap" and here is the subheading for the coverage: "Pennsylvania has one of the nation's highest rates of supervision, driven by unusual laws that leave judges unchecked.  But many people fail, ending up in jail or in a cycle of ever more probation." 

Here is some of the introduction explaining "The Problem with Probation":

In Pennsylvania, as across the country, crime rates have fallen to their lowest point in decades. But over that same time, the rate of incarceration in Pennsylvania state prisons and county jails nearly quadrupled, while the number on probation or parole also grew almost four times larger, to 290,000 people.

Counting jail, prison, probation, and parole, Pennsylvania now has the nation’s second-highest rate of people under correctional control. Probation and parole account for three-quarters of that — a phenomenon critics of mass incarceration call “mass supervision.”

Nationwide, one in 55 adults is on probation or parole. In Pennsylvania, that’s one in 35 adults. In Philadelphia: one in 23 adults.

African American adults in Philadelphia are disproportionately impacted. One in 14 is under supervision. Philadelphia’s county supervision rate is the highest of any big city — and 12 times the rate of New York City. ‍

What’s driving this? To find answers, we watched hundreds of hearings, interviewed scores of people, and analyzed 700,000 case dockets from 2012 to 2018.

What we found is a system virtually ungoverned by law or policy, resulting in wildly disparate versions of justice from one courtroom to the next.

We found a system that routinely punishes poverty, mental illness, and addiction. We met a woman who was jailed two months for failing to report to probation because she wasn’t permitted to bring her newborn child and couldn’t afford a babysitter. We met a man who was locked up because he didn’t have $227 to pay for a court-ordered drug evaluation.

As a result, some people remain under court control for years after being convicted of low-level crimes, resentenced two, three, four, or five times over for infractions including missing appointments, falling behind on payments, or testing positive for marijuana. Probation and parole violations are flooding the court system, filling city jails and driving up state prison populations.

Many other states, recognizing similar problems, have reformed their systems. Can Pennsylvania?

Here are the main articles in the series:

"Living in Fear:  Probation is meant to keep people out of jail. But intense monitoring leaves tens of thousands across the state at risk of incarceration."

"Judges Rule: When it comes to probation, Pennsylvania has left judges unchecked to impose wildly different versions of justice."

"Punishing Addiction: Courts recognize substance-use disorder is a disease. Yet some judges continue punishing relapse with ever-longer probation and even prison."

October 26, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Retroactive application of Oklahoma sentencing reforms sets up record-setting day for commutations

This recent article from Oklahoma, headlined "‘Largest single-day commutation in nation’s history’ expected to take place in Oklahoma next month," reports on a notable example of an interesting process being used to make a criminal justice reform initiative retroactive in the Sooner state.  Here are the basic details:

More than 400 Oklahoma prison inmates are expected to pass through an “expedited” commutation process on Nov. 1, a number believed to be the largest one-day total in United States history, Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director Steve Bickley said.

The accelerated process is thanks to House Bill 1269, a bi-partisan bill which was passed this summer and made retroactive a number of criminal justice reforms that reclassified some drug and property crimes.

The new law goes into effect Nov. 1 and the Pardon and Parole Board is holding a special meeting that day where it will review nearly 900 inmates the law makes eligible for the expedited docket. “All the research I’ve done, this will be the largest single-day commutation in the nation’s history,” Bickley said....

The Nov. 1 hearing differs from the normal commutation process in a number of ways, Bickley said. Rather than the typical two-step process that often takes several months, the hearing is expected to take less than an hour. “It’s definitely going to be a much faster up-and-down process,” he said. Inmates who pass through the expedited process are expected to be released from prison in November.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, in a statement, offered praise for the entities preparing for the large number of commutations. “I applaud the hard work of the Pardon and Parole board and the staff as they prepare for this historic day. The board is wisely implementing a thorough process to ensure their actions on Nov. 1 reflect the intentions of Oklahomans who voted for State Question 780, while also prioritizing the safety of our communities. The Department of Corrections has also been a committed partner in putting people first in this process by hosting transition fairs inside state prisons to connect non-violent offenders with the resources they need to succeed when they re-enter society.”

When State Question 780 was made into law in 2016, it made possession of “personal use” amounts of most drugs a misdemeanor and upped the felony threshold for property crimes from $500 to $1,000.  But it wasn’t until the passage of HB 1269 earlier this year that those changes were made potentially retroactive for those still in prison for those crimes.

The new law mandates that, rather than strict retroactivity, the Pardon and Parole Board must decide which inmates affected by HB 1269 get an accelerated commutation and which inmates must go through the standard commutation process, Bickley said.

There are two dockets on Nov. 1, one for 793 inmates on the “drug possession” docket and one for 99 inmates on the “property crime” docket. Everyone on those two dockets is technically eligible for accelerated commutation, though the list will be whittled down extensively, Bickley said.

First, there are a number of inmates on the two lists who will not be recommended for accelerated commutation due to misconduct while in prison. Bickley said some inmates on the lists were involved in the events that led to the recent lockdowns at a number of state prisons, and those inmates would not receive recommendations. Additionally, district attorneys across the state can file challenges to specific commutations that may affect whether an inmate gets a recommendation, Bickley said, and as of Wednesday the Pardon and Parole Board had heard from only three of the more than 20 district attorneys across Oklahoma.

“And of course you could have some who receive recommendations and are signed off on by the governor, but they have additional sentences to serve or a detainer by another agency who will not be able to leave prison due to those factors,” Bickley said. Still, he expects “more than 400 and less than 500” inmates to be granted commutations by the end of the hearing, he said.

October 26, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 25, 2019

Prez Trump kicks off series of speeches on criminal justice reform by touting FIRST STEP Act

As noted in this prior post, Prez Donald Trump and all the leading Democratic Prez candidates are on the docket at 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum taking place in South Carolina.  Pres Trump gave his speech today, and this AP article provides the highlights under the headline "President Trump takes victory lap on criminal justice reform."  Here are excerpts:

When President Donald Trump talks about how his policies are helping African Americans, he almost always mentions a new law that has allowed thousands of non-violent offenders to gain early release from federal prison.

He made the pitch again Friday at a criminal justice conference in South Carolina. And then he sought common ground with African Americans by saying he has had his own brush with a justice system that many say treats blacks and other people of color unfairly.  “I have my own experience. You know that,” Trump said at the gathering, held at historically black Benedict College....

“In America, you’re innocent until proven guilty and we don’t have investigations in search of that crime,” he said at Friday’s event sponsored by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center. “Justice, fairness and due process are core tenets of our democracy.  These are timeless principles I will faithfully uphold as president.”

During the hour-long address, Trump called several people who had been released from prison under the First Step Act to the stage to offer testimonials.  Tanesha Bannister, a South Carolina native who was freed in May, told the president she would be serving five more years in prison if not for his work.  “I want to thank the president for giving me another lease on life,” she said.

Trump called the law, which he signed in December, the “most significant criminal justice reform in many generations.”  The measure was supported by an unlikely mix of conservative and liberal groups that argued that harsh sentences for drug crimes had filled the nation’s prisons with non-violent offenders who could benefit from support and training on the outside if released.

Many of Trump’s Democratic presidential rivals are scheduled to speak at the forum, which is continuing through the weekend, giving the candidates another opportunity to connect with black voters in a state that is among the first to hold its presidential primaries.

But Kamala Harris’ campaign said Friday the California senator would skip the forum.  She objected to the group’s decision to give Trump its Bipartisan Justice Award, and decried that only a handful of Benedict students were admitted.

The audience included mostly Trump supporters, which drew criticism from other Democrats, too.  “Let’s not sugarcoat it. The fact is, he is coming to this college today to create an appearance that people of color support his campaign,” said South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson.

Trump told the audience that Democratic policies have let down African Americans and taken them for granted.  He said part of his agenda is to lift up forgotten Americans. “My goal has been to give a voice to the voiceless,” Trump said.

A video of the full hour-long talk by Prez Trump is available at this link.

October 25, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Tipping the Scales: Challengers Take On the Old Boys' Club of Elected Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting short report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Here is how it gets started:

After someone gets arrested, a prosecutor holds the power over what happens next.  Charge the defendant, or release them?  Charge them with a felony, or a misdemeanor? Since the vast majority of cases don’t go to trial, it’s mostly prosecutors — not judges — who determine whether defendants go to prison and for how long.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, a prosecutor “has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”

In 2014, as a prosecutor in Ferguson failed to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown, we were conducting our historic study of the race and gender of prosecutors. What we found made headlines:  95% of prosecutors were white, and 79% were white men.  Perhaps most alarming, most prosecutors ran for office unopposed, leading to an entrenched status quo which is highly resistant to bipartisan calls for criminal justice reform.

With race and gender inequality baked into the criminal justice system, repairing the broken demographics of prosecutorial power is an urgent goal, and the data are clear:When voters have a choice, they reject the white male status quo.  Competitive elections for prosecutor can fix the demographic crisis and level the playing field for system reform.

Five years after our initial analysis of elected prosecutors, we returned to see how their demographics have — and haven’t— changed.  Here’s what we found:

White control of elected prosecutor positions has not changed: In 2015, prosecutors were 95% white. In 2019, they are still 95% white.

The gender (im)balance of elected prosecutors is changing: While nearly 75% of prosecutors are white men, women have increased at a rate of 34% since 2015, from 18% to 24% of prosecutors.

Change is possible — when there is competition: Prosecutors run unopposed 80% of the time, but in competitive races, the old boys' club starts to give away. White male over-representation is rampant, but not unsolvable.

When women of all races and men ofcolor run for prosecutor in competitive elections, they're more likely to win than white men: In competitive 2018 elections, white men were 69% of candidates, but only 59% of winners. Women and people of color were 31% of candidates and 41% of winners.

Despite overall low numbers, women of color are making notable gains: There are nearly 50% more women of color prosecutors today as in 2015.

October 25, 2019 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Despite Sixth Circuit approval of existing execution protocol, Ohio Gov Mike DeWine signals his plans to delay another scheduled execution

Despite having many execution dates scheduled, Ohio has not completed an execution in more than a year because of concerning about lethal injection problem that prompted outgoing Gov John Kasich and new Gov Mike DeWine to keep pushing back executions dates. But after a Sixth Circuit ruling blessed the state's reliance on the drug midazolam in its execution protocol (details here), I had thought the Buckeye state might seek to restart its machinery of death. But this new local article, headlined "Gov. Mike DeWine says Ohio’s next scheduled execution will ‘probably’ be delayed," suggests the state will not likely go forward with an execution planned for December. Here are the details:

Gov. Mike DeWine indicated Friday that he will delay yet another upcoming Ohio execution, citing — as he has with past postponements — problems with finding lethal-injection drugs.  DeWine told reporters Friday that it’s “highly unlikely” that the execution of murderer James Galen Hanna will proceed as planned on Dec. 11. “That’s probably not going to happen,” the Greene County Republican said.

DeWine noted the state’s ongoing issues with finding a pharmaceutical company willing to sell drugs for use in executions. The governor repeated his concern that if companies find that Ohio used its drugs to put people to death, they will refuse to sell any of its drugs (not just the ones used in executions) to the state.  That would endanger the ability of thousands of Ohioans — such as Medicaid recipients, state troopers, and prison inmates — to get drugs through state programs. “We are in a very difficult situation,” DeWine said Friday.

The governor didn’t say how long he might delay the execution date for Hanna, a Warren County resident who fatally stabbed a cellmate with a paintbrush handle in 1997.  If Hanna’s execution date is pushed back, the next death-row inmate set to die is Kareem M. Jackson on Jan. 16, 2020.  Jackson was initially scheduled to be put to death in July, but earlier this year DeWine moved back the execution dates for Jackson and two other condemned inmates.

Late last month, the governor moved back the execution date of murderer Cleveland Jackson from Nov. 13 to Jan. 13, 2021 after the Ohio Supreme Court’s disciplinary arm filed a complaint alleging that his lawyers abandoned him.

Since taking office in January, DeWine has moved back a number of scheduled executions amid a years-long struggle by Ohio officials to find new lethal-injection drugs as European pharmaceutical companies have cut off further sales of previously used drugs on moral and legal grounds.

After the controversial execution of killer Dennis McGuire in January 2014, Ohio imposed a three-year moratorium on executions as it worked to find a new lethal-injection protocol — and suppliers willing to sell the state the drugs.

Since the moratorium was lifted in 2017, Ohio has executed three people using the current three-drug cocktail — all without complications or unexpected problems with the drugs. (The execution of a fourth condemned inmate, Alva Campbell, was postponed after several unsuccessful attempts to insert an IV. Campbell died in his cell a few months later).

However, last January, federal magistrate Judge Michael Merz ruled that the three drugs Ohio has used since last year for executions — midazolam (as a sedative), a paralytic drug, and potassium chloride (to stop the heart) — likely violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment guarantee against “cruel and unusual punishment.”  While an appeals court later overruled Merz’s conclusion, the ruling led DeWine to order state prisons officials to look at other lethal-injection drugs.  The governor has even suggested that state lawmakers consider abandoning the lethal-injection process altogether and pick another method of execution.

This story has me thinking of the old phrase "Where there's a will, there's a way." In this context, though, the parallel force seems to be in play. I sense many Ohio official really do not have much of a will to move forward with executions, and thus it seems they keep struggling to find a way to do so.

A few (of many) prior recent related posts:

October 25, 2019 in Baze and Glossip lethal injection cases, Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Julian Castro sets forth criminal justice agenda as "The First Chance Plan"

With this extended discussion on his campaign website, Julian Castro on Wednesday joined the sizeable group of prominent candidates for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination with a detailed agenda for criminal justice reform.  (Prior posts have links and highlights from Joe BidenCory BookerPete Buttigeig, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.)  Castro's plan is called "The First Chance Plan" and has three major sections: "1. Prevention Not Prison  2. Restorative Justice  3. Healing Wounds Of Incarceration."  Here is a paragraph from the plan's intor and a few of many parts of the plan that caught my eye:

At the core of the First Chance Plan is the principle that everyone deserves an effective first chance to succeed. For decades, communities of color have been disproportionately punished by the justice system while at the same time having the odds stacked against them from the beginning.  Many people never had a first chance and this plan will right that wrong. As a nation, we need to focus on preventing crime in the first place, not creating pipelines into prison.  We can build a system that advances real justice, not incarceration, to protect public safety and build stronger communities....

End the War on Drugs. Drug use and addiction is primarily a public health challenge.  In dealing with it primarily as a criminal issue, we have shattered communities, strengthened criminal groups, and locked up those who did not deserve it.  As president, I will bring our misguided War on Drugs to an end....

Plea Reform and Accountability. More than 95 percent of all federal and state cases that end in conviction involve a plea deal.  These decisions happen without a judge or a jury of one’s peers, and often involve prosecutors and police exerting immense pressure, such as pre-trial detention and the threat of excessive sentences on defendants to drive people to take a plea bargain. Under these circumstances, even innocent people have accepted plea deals that involve years in jail,prison, years of monitoring, and permanent records. This is a travesty of justice that must end.  As president, I will require open-file, pre-plea discovery for federal cases, requiring the prosecution to turn over evidence to the defense prior to a plea or trial, with appropriate safeguards to protect the safety of witnesses and individuals who may be at risk.  Additionally, I will require juries to be informed of plea offers as well as potential sentences so they can understand how much a case is truly worth to the state.

Eliminate Mandatory Minimums. Three strikes laws and mandatory minimums are a major driver of mass incarceration. In addition, these laws create steep disparities between the terms of a plea bargain and the likely sentence at trial that defendants face, causing many to abandon their trial rights regardless of the strength of the government’s case or even their own innocence.  As president, I would repeal the 1994 Crime Bill’s mandatory minimums and three strikes laws, and encourage State efforts to do the same.

Invest in Public Defenders. Every defendant deserves to have effective representation and a fair trial.  As president, I will give our nation’s under-resourced and overstretched public defenders the resources they need. We will reopen and expand the Obama-era Office for Access to Justice that President Trump shut down.  Second, we will ensure fair caseload limits and pay equality with prosecutors for public defenders at the federal level, and create a new $500 million federal grant program to achieve these standards at the state and local level. I will also pass legislation creating a new loan forgiveness program for public defenders, and will support ushering in a new wave of proggressive prosecutors.

Legalize Marijuana and Expunge the Records. In 2017, there were almost 700,000 marijuana-related arrests in the United States, with over 80 percent of them related to possession alone. As president, I will legalize marijuana and expunge the records of those convicted for non-violent marijuana offenses.  We will regulate the market and place a tax on all recreational sales, investing billions in revenue generated in the communities disproportionately harmed by the War on Drugs.  Lastly, I will support equity in the legal marijuana industry, including by creating new grant programs that support minority-owned businesses and prioritize people directly affected by the war on drugs in receiving marijuana business licenses.

End Racial Sentencing Disparities. I will eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and order a federal review of all other sentencing guidelines to identify and eliminate other racial disparities....

Abolish the Death Penalty.  There is no moral justification for state-sanctioned killings. Even the worst criminals in our society do not deserve to be put to death. With the pernicious existence of racial bias, the high financial cost of executions, and the disturbing reality that the innocent may be among the condemned, there is simply no justification for continuing the death penalty.  As president, I would order an immediate halt to all federal executions and commute the sentences of those on federal death row’s to life in prison.  I support federal grants for States to end the death penalty and to re-investigate the cases of those sentenced to death by State courts with new technology and renewed attention, in an effort to end the death penalty once and for all in the United States.

End Solitary Confinement as Punishment. Long term isolation in solitary confinement is one of the most harmful policies that remains sadly common in our prisons, jails, and even juvenile justice institutions. It particularly harms those with disabilities and who require mental health treatment.  As president, I will support efforts to end our nation’s use of solitary confinement by banning its use for purposes of punishment.

A few of many prior recent related posts:

October 24, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Does It Matter Who Objects? Rethinking the Burden to Prevent Errors in Criminal Process"

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

Objection rules enforced by forfeiture penalties make the right to appeal contingent on whether the party injured by an opponent’s or judge’s error made a timely objection or motion in the trial court.  “No procedural principle is more familiar” than that a party who does not challenge an error at trial forfeits, partially or wholly, its entitlement to appellate review.  This policy of procedural default puts the duty to care to prevent errors on injured parties.  The rationale is instrumental: the threat of losing the right to correct errors will make parties take greater care to prevent errors at trial, which is immensely more efficient than correcting errors later, should minimize adjudication errors overall.

Yet in most applications, that ubiquitous logic fails on its own terms.  Placing the burden of care on injured parties generally is not the optimal approach to minimizing errors.  In most circumstances, the better policy is to place the duty of care to prevent errors on the party who commits the error or who benefits from the judge’s error.  The key is to recognize that, analytically, error prevention in adjudication is much like accident prevention in other contexts.  As in tort law, the goal is to minimize the cost of harms in bilateral activities — those in which two parties interact and either alone could prevent the harm.  Litigants’ error-prevention efforts are substitutes rather than complements; it is not necessary for both parties to exercise care.  For that reason, procedural law should place the duty of care — and the cost of harms — on the party who can most cheaply prevent the harm.

Courts and rule makers perpetuate suboptimal rules for preventing errors by ignoring this insight, and a related one: in bilateral settings, liability rules create incentives for both sides.  Putting the duty to prevent errors to one party encourages the other to commit errors.  This article develops this critique and offers an alternative: putting the duty on parties to prevent their own errors rather than their opponent’s.  It also explains why standard procedural default rules have prevailed for so long in light of their deficiencies. One key reason is that, despite an ostensible commitment to instrumental analysis focused on adjudicative efficiency, judicial reasoning is permeated with moralistic judgments about the unfairness of permitting appeals for unpreserved errors.  This normative view distorts courts’ instrumental analysis.

October 24, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Many Colorado sentences now uncertain after court ruling precluding imposition of imprisonment for certain offenses and probation for others

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting story from the Denver Post headlined "Hundreds of prisoners can seek new trials, freedom after Colorado Supreme Court rules sentences illegal." Here are the details of a shock being sent through the state's criminal justice system:

The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled the sentences of hundreds — perhaps thousands — of criminal defendants serving time in Colorado prisons, some for violent sexual crimes, are illegal, giving many of them a renewed shot at freedom.

The court last month stunned the state’s judicial system when it ruled that defendants cannot be sentenced to both prison and probation for charges in the same case, deeming the sentences illegal and unenforceable.  The ruling applies to any defendant sentenced to prison followed by a probation term, and gives each the right to force prosecutors to start over.  Those already out of prison theoretically could request their plea deal be overturned, legal experts said.

“This is going to result in a ton of litigation,” defense attorney Scott Robinson said. “This appears clearly to go against what many defense lawyers and prosecutors have assumed to be true for years, that different types of sentences can be imposed on different charges in the same case.”

Prosecutors in at least four judicial jurisdictions, including Denver, have relied on the dual sentence as part of the plea agreement process, mostly for sex crimes where a defendant could be sentenced to an indeterminant number of years in prison and authorities wanted to ensure lifetime supervision should the defendant be released.

“My biggest concerns are that we can no longer do this and what do we do with those we’ve already done it to? What if they’re already in prison? Are they all released?” asked Mesa County District Attorney Daniel Rubinstein.  “If the sentence is invalidated, we could be back at square one, or worse.”

The high court’s decision is based on a 2014 Boulder County case in which a jury found Frederick Allman, 67, guilty of various theft and forgery crimes.  He was sentenced to 15 years in prison and a 10-year probation term that was to be concurrent with the parole he’d serve upon his release.  The Supreme Court, in a 7-0 decision, said the 2015 sentence by District Judge Andrew Macdonald was illegal.  [The decision is available at this link.]

“…The determination that probation is an appropriate sentence for a defendant necessarily requires a concordant determination that imprisonment is not appropriate,” Justice Brian Boatright wrote in the court’s opinion issued Sept. 23. “The probation statute gives courts guidance and discretion in choosing to grant probation.  However, it requires a choice between prison and probation. … The legislature intended to allow courts to choose only one or the other.  Probation is an alternative to prison.”

Attorney General Phil Weiser’s office has until Oct. 28 to file a petition for the court to re-hear the case.

The court’s decision primarily affects defendants who signed plea agreements, a number that could reach into the thousands as 95% of all criminal cases are settled with plea deals. Defendants convicted by a jury, as was Allman, would simply be resentenced since the jury verdict remains unchanged.

Prosecutors explain that a plea agreement would be handled differently than a guilty verdict because a defendant agreed to a specific outcome in exchange for the plea. Because the sentence is deemed illegal, defendants can rescind their original agreement. “If the sentence is invalidated, we would go back to reaffirm the plea agreement, or even start over,” Rubinstein said.

The Colorado District Attorney’s Council said a majority of the state’s 22 judicial districts won’t be affected, but at least four of them — 2nd (Denver), 18th (Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, Lincoln), 20th (Boulder) and 21st (Mesa) — have used sentences that fit those under scrutiny.

Attorney Tom Carberry, who won an earlier appeal for a client with a similar illegal sentence, said he’s uncovered at least 56 other cases with illegal sentences, the majority of them sexual assaults.  Three others are drug cases and two involve economic crimes.  All are in Denver. “Each of these defendants has the right to a lawyer appointed at state expense,” Carberry said of the breath of the Supreme Court decision.  “That will run into the millions” of dollars.

Denver DA Beth McCann did not elaborate on the scope of the problem in her jurisdiction, but said she’d rather not have to find out.  “We are very supportive of the Colorado attorney general’s plan to ask the court to reconsider its decision,” McCann said in an emailed statement. “We are concerned that if the decision stands, it will significantly impact many cases that have already been resolved.”

Other prosecutors are also trying to determine what the decision will mean for them.  “This decision will have a significant impact, for offenders and victims,” Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty said in an emailed statement to The Post.  “A defendant could come back to court seeking a hearing to correct an illegal sentence, or file motions alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. For survivors of sexual assault, this decision will be particularly harmful because they thought the case was over and the outcome certain.”...

In the 18th Judicial District, hundreds of cases could be impacted, many of them involving children, some going back years, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Gallo, who heads the special victims unit that handles about 500 cases a year.  “For several years now, we’ve been pursuing resolutions where there were prison and probation components, trying to balance a punishment aspect and a longer supervisory aspect to the sentence,” Gallo said.  “I can’t even fathom the ultimate outcome of this decision, how many could be released, or its impact.  But more than half of our cases would be affected.”

Mesa County’s Rubinstein said although only about a half-dozen cases in his jurisdiction are affected, they are significant.  “The pleas would be invalidated, and it could be that a new offer is rejected,” Rubinstein said, noting prosecutors cannot change the terms of the agreement without beginning the case anew. “How does that work for a guy with five years in prison already.”  

Judges could theoretically say they’re not bound by the plea agreement and a defendant could take his chances with a new sentence, Rubinstein said. “(A judge) might think there’s been substantial time (in prison) and a judge won’t want to load up with additional punishment,” he said, “and the defendants might say they’ll take their chances with the judge.”  A good defense attorney, however, could find exploitable cracks, he said.  “They’ll look to see if the case is, perhaps, worse,” Rubinstein said.  “Witnesses move, they die, they don’t wish to participate. The chances of a trial could be better from their viewpoint.”

October 24, 2019 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Reviewing the sentencing dynamics as more parents get (minimal) prison time in "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal

This lengthy USA Today article provides a kind of mid-season review now that 19 parents out of 35 charged have pleaded guilty in "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions scandal. The piece, which I recommend in full, is headlined "Parents cry desperate times in college admissions scandal.  A judge opts for prison anyway."  Here are excerpts:

One couple, Gregory and Marcia Abbott, told the judge they paid $125,000 to have someone fix their daughter's college entrance exams because she was suffering from chronic Lyme disease and needed a boost.

Attorneys for a father, Robert Flaxman, said he was desperate to help a troubled daughter remain in recovery — so he paid to cheat in hopes of getting her into a college where she would be safe.

Lawyers for another parent, Marjorie Klapper, said she was trying to help her epileptic son who'd suffered a brutal physical assault feel like a "regular" student.

The wealthy parents are among 10 sentenced in the last two months in the nation's college admissions scandal. Each insisted they didn't cheat for the status symbol of their child getting into an elite college or university. Instead they were driven by a feeling people endure regardless of economic class — desperation. They were families in crisis, the parents said, and the scheme's mastermind, the manipulative college consultant Rick Singer, found them at their most vulnerable and seized upon their weakness.

But their stories, each deeply personal with some details sealed from public court documents, have done little to sway the sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani. Attorneys for the Abbotts, Flaxman and Klapper each asked for no incarceration but got prison anyway. Only one of the 10 sentenced parents has avoided prison altogether.

“Just because you’re a good person in tough circumstances doesn’t mean you can disregard what you know is right," Talwani said last week to Flaxman, a real estate developer from Laguna Beach, California, who specializes in luxury resorts. “Even good people who are doing things for people they love can’t be breaking the law."

Flaxman, who sobbed in court as he apologized to students who "work hard and don’t cheat no matter what,” received one month in prison for paying $75,000 to Singer to have someone change answers on his daughter's ACT exam to improve her score.

The ongoing round of parent sentencing continues today with Jane Buckingham, of Los Angeles, the founder of a marketing firm and author of a self-help book series called, "The Modern Girl's Guide to Life." She's admitted to paying Singer $50,000 to have someone take the ACT exam for her son.

Two more parents will be sentenced in the coming weeks by other Boston federal judges. Four additional parents pleaded guilty in court Monday, bringing the total to 19 parents out of 35 charged who have pleaded guilty in the case. The latest four won't be sentenced until 2020.

Parents sentenced to date pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud charges. Those citing personal crises tend to have paid into the test-cheating plot and are not part of the group who paid Singer significantly more to have their children tagged as college recruits to facilitate their admissions. Talwani, during a hearing last week, said a level of "elitism" was at play with the latter.

Daniel Medwed, professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University School of Law, said a fallback defense strategy in any case is to develop "mitigation evidence" — often hardships — to demonstrate extenuating circumstances.  "With clients from impoverished or challenging backgrounds, the argument is to often cite those backgrounds — that this person never had a chance, they grew up without a roof," Medwed said.  "But when your defendants are white privileged folks you can't make a classic hardship argument.  So you have to come up with a different hardship."  Some of their arguments might not resonate with judge, he said, because it's difficult to "connect the dots between the hardships and the behavior."

The theme of this article seems to be that the defendants' various tales of woe are having little impact, that these deeply personal stories "have done little to sway the sentences handed down by U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani."  But, critically, federal prosecutors have generally advocated for longer prison terms for nearly all defendants than have been imposed by Judge Talwani, and it is generally unusual for any federal prison terms to be measured in weeks rather than in months and years.  So I am inclined to believe these arguments are resonating with the sentencing judge, but that she is still eager to impose (minimal) terms of imprisonment to send a message about misbehavior and equal justice.

Prior related Varsity Blues posts:

October 23, 2019 in Booker in district courts, Celebrity sentencings, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

"Beyond Compare? A Codefendant's Prison Sentence As a Mitigating Factor in Death Penalty Cases"

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

This Article addresses whether the U.S. Constitution requires courts to permit capital defendants to submit, during sentencing, the mitigating factor that a codefendant for the same murder was sentenced to prison instead of to death.  The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly stressed the importance of mitigating factors in capital cases.  For the most part, litigation since the reintroduction of capital punishment in the 1970s has clarified what circumstances are to be weighed as mitigating.  But the Court has not addressed the current divide among lower courts regarding whether the Eighth Amendment requires courts to allow juries to consider a codefendant’s sentence as mitigating evidence.

This Article begins with the Supreme Court decisions regarding mitigating factors and proportionality, noting how the Court has stressed the importance of fairness in death penalty cases.  This Article additionally examines how courts are currently split on the issue of whether a codefendant’s prison sentence should be weighed as a mitigating factor.  Several state courts have treated this factor as mitigating while others have not.  Although some U.S. courts of appeals have upheld lower court decisions rejecting this mitigating factor, most of those appellate court decisions were applying a deferential habeas corpus standard of review to uphold the lower court decision.  Thus, the issue itself remains unresolved. This Article concludes by explaining why logic and Supreme Court precedent dictate that courts should allow capital defendants to present this mitigating factor to juries.  Jurors should be able to weigh the evidence and use it to make a decision when they are choosing between a sentence of death and a sentence of life in prison.

October 22, 2019 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

The trial penalty on fine display as parents in college admissions scandal get hit with new federal bribery charges

As reported in this new Los Angeles Times article, headlined "New bribery charge leveled against Lori Loughlin and other parents in college admissions scandal," federal prosecutors are ramping up the potential consequences of refusing to plead guilty for some parents in the college admission scandal. Here are the details:

Already charged with fraud and money laundering, 11 of the 15 parents who have maintained their innocence in a federal investigation of college admissions fraud were indicted Tuesday on new bribery charges, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said.

The newly indicted parents — a group that includes actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, a fashion designer — were charged in an indictment returned by a grand jury in Boston, alleging they conspired to commit federal program bribery to secure their children’s fraudulent admissions to USC.

Prosecutors had warned parents last week they could face a bribery charge if they didn’t plead guilty by Monday to the fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges they already faced. Four parents — Douglas Hodge, the former chief executive of bond giant Pimco; Michelle Janavs, a Newport Coast philanthropist whose family invented the Hot Pocket; and Manuel Henriquez, a San Francisco Bay Area venture capitalist, and his wife, Elizabeth Henriquez — pleaded guilty Monday to conspiracy to commit fraud and money laundering, avoiding indictment on the bribery count.

The federal program bribery charge can be lodged against anyone accused of bribing an employee or agent of an organization that receives $10,000 or more in funding from the federal government, and who obtains something valued at $5,000 or more in exchange.

For parents charged with using an athletic recruitment scam offered by Newport Beach college consultant William “Rick” Singer, prosecutors have argued they conspired with Singer to bribe coaches into giving up admissions slots, which are property of the universities that employed them. Singer has admitted misrepresenting the children of his clients to elite universities as promising athletic recruits for sports they didn’t play competitively or at all.

Virtually every university, public or private, receives more than the $10,000 in federal funding needed to trigger the bribery statute in research grants or financial aid. Prosecutors will likely say that admission to the elite schools to which Singer peddled access — Stanford, Georgetown, USC and UCLA, among others — exceeded $5,000 in value.

The coaches or athletic officials charged in the scheme were also indicted Tuesday on new fraud conspiracy charges, the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston said. Three of them — Jorge Salcedo, the former UCLA men’s soccer coach, Donna Heinel, a former athletics administrator at USC and Gordon Ernst, the former tennis coach at Georgetown — were also charged with committing federal program bribery.

Also worth mentioning is the possibility of a higher (advisory) sentencing range under the federal sentencing guidelines if and when these parents are found guilty and subject to the bribery guideline.

October 22, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Prez Trump and all the leading Democratic Prez candidates now slated to speak at 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum

As reported in this CNN article, "President Donald Trump will attend a criminal justice forum in South Carolina ... along with several of his 2020 Democratic challengers, the White House confirmed to CNN." Here are the interesting details:

The 2019 Second Step Presidential Justice Forum is also expected to be attended by former Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts -- all of whom have confirmed their attendance.

Trump will speak on Oct. 25, while the Democrats are slated to speak at various times throughout the day on Oct. 26 and 27, according to the event schedule [basics here].

The event which is billed as a "bipartisan forum of presidential candidates exclusively focused on criminal justice reform as it affects the Black community," will feature the first-ever "HBCU Straw Poll," according to the news release, in which "all students and alumni of the eight HBCUs in South Carolina will vote online for the presidential candidate that best addresses their concerns on all issues facing African-Americans, not solely limited to criminal justice reform."  The forum will be held at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina.

Last month, Trump announced that his administration would lift a ban on federal funding for faith-based historically black colleges and universities, hailing his administration's work advancing HBCUs. At that time, the President said the "nation owes a profound and enduring debt of gratitude to its HBCUs," later adding, "You've seen this administration's commitment -- bigger and better and stronger than any previous administration by far."  Trump has also previously cast himself as the best leader for African Americans, despite securing only 8% of the black vote in 2016 and frequently stoking racial tensions.

The forum will give him the opportunity to discuss the First Step Act, bipartisan criminal justice legislation that was enacted into law last year and includes measures that have allowed thousands of federal inmates to leave prison earlier than they otherwise would have, eases some mandatory minimum sentences and gives judges more leeway in sentencing, among other things.

October 20, 2019 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Bold goal for the REFORM Alliance: "get 1 million people out of the criminal justice system in five years"

In this post earlier this year, I blogged about the celebrities and business leaders coming together to form the REFORM Alliance, which is committed to "dramatically reduce the number of people who are unjustly under the control of the criminal justice system – starting with probation and parole."  I have long had great respect for the commitment and vision of this group, but I was especially exciting to see this press article discussion a bold goal for the Alliance.  The piece is headlined "Inspired by Meek Mill, Michael Rubin sets a goal: Get 1 million people out of the criminal justice system," and here are excerpts:

Michael Rubin first encountered the criminal justice system when he saw rapper Meek Mill sentenced to prison for a violation of his probation. “That was a life-changing moment for me," Rubin said.

Speaking at the B.PHL Innovation Festival in the Entercom media headquarters Tuesday, Rubin explained how that moment sparked a movement.  The billionaire entrepreneur made it his mission to get Mill out of prison and, following a massive public outcry and social media campaign (#FreeMeek), he was released after five months.

Now, Rubin and Mill, who have been close friends for years, are working to transform the criminal justice system. In January, Rubin and Mill founded The REFORM Alliance, a partnership of titans in the entertainment, sports and business worlds.  They’re focusing on disrupting the probation system, which oversees 180,000 people in Pennsylvania alone, according to federal figures.

The REFORM Alliance is pushing to change Pennsylvania law to reduce the number of years people can stay on probation and to ensure people can’t be sent back to prison for technical violations.  About one in four prison admissions nationwide are due to probation violations, according to a study by the Council for State Governments Justice Center.

Pennsylvania is just the first step for the REFORM Alliance.  Rubin said the organization’s nationwide mission is to get 1 million people out of the criminal justice system in five years.  Nationwide, there are more than 4.5 million on probation and parole. “One million is a gigantic number,” Rubin said.  But he added, “I’m going to be unrelenting until we accomplish that.”...

Rubin’s got the money and the message to make a difference.  He’s the founder and CEO of Kynetic, the firm which owns online retailers Fanatics, Rue La La and ShopRunner.  He’s also a partner of the Philadelphia 76ers and a minority owner of the New Jersey Devils.

He lined up heavy hitters to build REFORM.  Other founding partners include hip-hop superstar and entrepreneur Jay-Z, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Robert Smith, founder and CEO of Vista Equity Partners and the richest black man in America.  Rubin tapped political activist Van Jones to serve as the CEO of REFORM.  The group now has more raised than $50 million and is working to convince lawmakers and voters of the need for change.

October 17, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Large group of US Senators re-introduce bill to create National Criminal Justice Commission

As detailed in this press release from the office of U.S. Senator Gary Peters, a sizable group of Senators have reintroduced a criminal justice reform bill that I have long viewed as worthwhile. Here are excerpts from the release:

U.S. Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) [Wenesday] announced the reintroduction of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, bipartisan legislation that would task a National Criminal Justice Commission to assess the entire system and propose reforms to address the most pressing issues facing the nation’s criminal justice system....

The full list of bipartisan cosponsors for this bill includes Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Susan Collins (R-ME), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tim Kaine (D-VA), John Kennedy (R-LA), Bob Casey (D-PA), Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).

The legislation would create a 14-member, bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission charged with completing an 18-month, comprehensive review of the national criminal justice system, including federal, state, local and tribal criminal justice systems, and issuing recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices and laws to reduce crime, increase public safety and promote confidence in the criminal justice system.

The Commission would be made up of Presidential and Congressional appointees, including experts on law enforcement, criminal justice, victims’ rights, civil liberties and social services.  Peters, Graham and Cornyn previously introduced similar legislation to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission.  Their legislation passed the Senate in December 2018.

The transparent and bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission would also provide a better understanding of community relationships with law enforcement and the administration of justice through our court system, and identify effective policies to address a broad range of issues in the criminal justice system including crime reduction, incarceration and prisoner reentry.

The last comprehensive review of the criminal justice system was conducted in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson created the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice.  The 1965 Commission’s report offered over 200 recommendations that have shaped the current criminal justice system, including the creation of the 9-1-1 system establishment of research organizations like the Bureau of Justice Statistics and improved training and professionalization for law enforcement.

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act is supported by a broad coalition of criminal justice organizations, including law enforcement and criminal justice reform advocates.

October 17, 2019 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report coming from folks at UCLA.  This webpage provides this overview of the report's coverage:

Work, Pay, or Go to Jail: Court-Ordered Community Service in Los Angeles is the first study to analyze a large-scale system of court-ordered community service in the contemporary United States.  It finds that court-ordered community service functions as a system of unregulated and coercive labor, which worsens the effects of criminal justice debt and displaces paid jobs.

Among other discoveries, the report finds:

  • Over 100,000 people in LA County register to perform mandated community service each year.  Because they are classified as volunteers, workers do not receive wages or labor protections from safety hazards, discrimination, or harassment.
  • Workers face widespread barriers to completing their community service.  Over two thirds of people from criminal court and about two in five from traffic court did not complete their hours in time.  Their inability to finish often led to penalties that court-ordered community service was established to avoid.
  • Community service annually supplants approximately 4,900 jobs in LA County, replacing 1,800 positions in the government sector alone.

Report authors recommend rolling back the threats of jail and court debt that force people into community service; expanding alternative sanctions that do not rely on forced, extractive labor; and transforming punitive mandatory community service into economic opportunity through paying jobs.

October 17, 2019 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Usual suspects playing usual roles in Malvo argument over juve LWOP sentencing

In recent SCOTUS history, Eighth Amendment cases in the Supreme Court tended to be pretty predictable with certain Justices as regular votes for defendants, others as regular votes for the state, and Justice Kennedy (and sometimes the Chief Justice) being the key swing voter.  But Justice Kennedy is now gone, and it appear from this SCOTUS review of the oral argument in Mathena v. Malvo that Justice Kennedy's replacement, Justice Kavanaugh, may be slipping into the swinger shoes:

Kavanaugh asked both Heytens and Spinelli about the broader question of how courts should approach sentencing of juveniles.  If Miller and Montgomery require the sentence to consider a defendant’s youth to determine whether he is incorrigible (and therefore should be sentenced to life in prison without parole) or instead simply immature (and therefore should have at least the possibility of parole), Kavanaugh asked, would that requirement be satisfied by a discretionary regime that includes the defendant’s youth among the factors that the sentence must consider or that allows the defense counsel to raise the issue?  That proposal seemed to draw support from an array of justices, including Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and perhaps even Chief Justice John Roberts.

Over at Crime & Consequences, Kent Scheidegger has this accounting of possible head-counting:

I'm sure Justice Kagan would like the Court to just accept Montgomery's recasting of Miller on its face and endorse an intrusive rule for federal micromanagement of juvenile LWOP sentencing, just like the monstrosity we have for capital sentencing.  I would be surprised if she has a majority for that.  I think Justice Alito (and probably Justice Thomas) would like to overrule Montgomery.  I doubt they have a majority for that.  Justice Gorsuch seems inclined to a narrow reading of Montgomery, though, because a broad one would implicate the Apprendi rule.

Justices Ginsburg and Breyer question the Virginia Supreme Court's holding that the Virginia system actually was discretionary at the time of Malvo's sentencing.  The Fourth Circuit assumed that was correct.  They could send the case back to reconsider that point.

With this many splits among the Justices, there is no predicting the outcome.

The full transcript of the argument is available at this link.

October 16, 2019 in Assessing Miller and its aftermath, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

House Judiciary subcommittee to hold oversight hearing on "Federal Bureau of Prisons and Implementation of the First Step Act"

As detailed at this link, the US House of Representative's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security (of the Committee on the Judiciary) has scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday October 17 an "Oversight Hearing on the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Implementation of the First Step Act."  The witness list is available at this link.

I am cautiously hopeful that this hearing will result in some significant new data and other information about FIRST STEP Act implementation effort, although this Bureau of Prisons webpage has been pretty good with some basic numbers.

October 16, 2019 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Another LWOP federal drug sentence reduced under § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act

Regular readers may already be tired of many prior posts in which I have made much of a key provision of the FIRST STEP Act that now allows 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.  But I continue to see value in highlighting developing jurisprudence under this provision largely because I think, if applied appropriately and robustly, this provision could and should enable many hundreds (and perhaps many thousands) of federal prisoners to have excessive prison sentences reduced.

Last week, I flagged in this post a notable recent ruling in US v. Brown, No. 4:05-CR-00227-1, 2019 WL 4942051 (S.D. Iowa Oct. 8, 2019), which rejected a § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion to reduce an extreme sentence for a federal drug offender.  Today, thanks to seeing this press report headlined "Judge in Oregon grants compassionate release for 76-year-old man serving life sentence for drug conspiracy," I can report on a successful § 3582(c)(1)(A) motion to reduce an extreme (LWOP) sentence for a federal drug offender.  The ruling US v. Soears, No. 3:98-cr-0208-SI-22, 2019 WL 5190877 (D. Ore. Oct. 15, 2019), is well described in the above-linked press piece:

A judge has ordered the release of a 76-year-old man who was sentenced to life and served nearly 21 years behind bars for running a large cocaine distribution ring, finding he meets the “extraordinary and compelling’’ reasons for compassionate release.

Despite objections from prosecutors, U.S. Judge Michael H. Simon found Adolph Spears Sr. suffers from potentially terminal health problems and is no longer a danger to the community. "In light of the age of Spears’ previous convictions, Spears’ age, and Spears’ physical and medical condition, the Court does not find that at this time Spears poses a significant risk to the community," Simon wrote in a 13-page opinion Tuesday.

The judge’s ruling is a direct result of changes to federal law from a criminal justice bill called the First Step Act, which passed late last year and allows federal courts to directly reduce sentences if an inmate meets the criteria for compassionate release....

Because of his medical problems, Spears was moved in May from the federal prison in Sheridan to the Butner Medical Facility in North Carolina. "While he has been at Butner, family members have made regular cross-country visits to see him, believing that each one may be the last," his defense lawyer Lisa Ludwig wrote to the court. "Allowing him to spend the time he has left being cared for by the family who loves him will be an act of compassion to Mr. Spears, but also to the family who cares so deeply for him."

Spears has multiple chronic serious medical ailments, a limited life expectancy and depends on a wheelchair to get around, according to one of his medical experts. He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer in June 2018. He also suffers from poorly controlled diabetes, cataracts, pain from spinal surgery, chronic kidney disease, limited mobility and difficulty swallowing. Three of his daughters, a daughter-in-law and granddaughters have offered to house Spears if he’s released and provide medical and financial support.

Spears submitted his release request to the prisons bureau on Sept. 13, the same day he filed a motion with the court. On Sept. 30, the prisons bureau denied Spears’ request, and said he could appeal or wait until 30 days after his initial request was made to file a motion with the court. The judge said he waited until Tuesday, more than 30 days after Spears made his request to the prisons bureau, to consider the motion.

The judge said Spears’ deteriorating physical health met the requirements for compassionate release, and said it appeared that the federal prisons bureau failed to consider anything beyond whether Spears had a terminal illness. The U.S. probation office, at the judge’s request, approved the home of one of Spears’ daughters for his release, finding her suitable as his caregiver.

Prosecutors had argued that Spears remains a danger, largely because he was convicted of a significant drug conspiracy and he possessed guns during his drug trafficking activities. He also previously was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and was sentenced to 25 years after he offered a man $500 to burn down an IRS agent’s house while he was being investigated in 1978 for tax evasion, according to court records.

Federal prosecutors argued that Spears’ age and medical condition don’t render him "so incapacitated" that he couldn’t resume his criminal conduct, pointing out he was leading a drug ring in his late 50s. Simon said he took into account Spears’ criminal history but noted that Spears’ most recent drug conviction is more than 19 years old and his last conviction for a crime of violence is more than 40 years old.

It’s unlikely Spears would have faced as serious a sentence today if convicted of the same conduct, Simon noted. He was convicted of distributing crack cocaine when sentences for such drug crimes were much higher and judges had less discretion, Simon wrote. Since then, Congress has made changes to avoid sentencing disparities in such drug cases. The judge said he’ll order new conditions for Spears’ release and a lifetime of federal supervision.

Some prior related posts on § 3582(c)(1)(A) after FIRST STEP Act:

October 16, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)