Thursday, June 24, 2021

Lovely lengthy account of "Restoring Justice"

The latest issue of Harvard Magazine has this lengthy feature article on restorative justice titled "Restoring Justice:Exploring an alternative to crime and punishment." The piece is worth making time to read in full, and here are some excerpts:

To date, 45 states have passed laws permitting the use of restorative justice in at least some criminal cases.  Programs typically function in one of three ways: as a form of diversion from the criminal process, allowing offenders — especially young or first-time offenders — to avoid charges and a conviction; as a form of alternative sentencing; or, in more serious cases, as a way to reduce a criminal sentence.  The program [Armand] Coleman and [Emmanual] Williams took part in was a fourth kind: initiated years after their convictions, it did not influence the men’s sentences or release dates, but its deeper purpose was the same — to help participants take responsibility for their wrongdoing and understand themselves better, and, to the extent possible, “make things right,” as Coleman put it....

In recent decades, numerous restorative-justice programs have sprung into existence.  A few operate entirely outside the legal system, without ever involving any authorities; others work with local police departments and district attorneys’ offices. Methodologies vary from place to place, too — making it more difficult to assess the effectiveness of the underlying concept: most analyses have focused on juvenile and first-time offenders.  But recent rigorous, randomized studies find that restorative justice typically does a modestly better job at reducing recidivism than the court system — resulting in anywhere from 7 percent to 45 percent fewer repeat arrests or convictions, depending on the study parameters. One 2015 analysis found that this effect was actually most pronounced for violent offenses and adult offenders.

Crime victims also consistently appear to be more satisfied after a restorative-justice process than after a traditional criminal one — sometimes dramatically so (in a 2017 study of its own work, Impact Justice found that 91 percent of victims said they’d recommend the process to a friend and 88 percent said the repair plan adopted by the group addressed their needs).  Surveys show that while people who have survived a crime want to feel safe, many of them also prefer rehabilitation for the perpetrators, rather than long periods of incarceration.  Researchers find that victims often perceive restorative dialogues to be fairer and more responsive to their needs and wishes.  One 2013 study of face-to-face meetings between victims and offenders found a marked decrease in victims’ post-traumatic stress symptoms and in their desire for revenge.  A multiyear randomized study in Australia found that victims of violent crime who went to court were five times more likely to believe they would be re-victimized by the offender, while those who went through a restorative process felt more secure and achieved a greater sense of closure.

Adriaan Lanni points to such findings in her argument in favor of restorative justice, but says even they fall short of the full picture. For several years, she has volunteered as a case coordinator for a Concord-based program, and has seen firsthand what happens in those conversations.  “I think you lose a lot if you just look at the quantitative analysis, like, ‘Give me the recidivism number,’” she says.  “It’s sort of a magical experience. I was skeptical about restorative justice until I started sitting in circles. But it’s really transformative, in a way that’s hard to measure.”

June 24, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Notable education efforts prior to sentencing of minor participant in Capitol riot (who seems likely to get probation)

This local article, headlined "Indiana woman to plead guilty in Capitol riot wrote reports on 'Schindler's List,' more," provides the interesting backstory leading up the scheduled sentencing of one person prosecuted for involvement in the Capitol riot on January 6. Here are some details:

A Bloomfield woman will plead guilty this week for her role in the U.S. Capitol riot after appealing to the court that she has learned from her participation from movies and books such as "Schindler's List" and "Just Mercy."  Anna Morgan-Lloyd has agreed to plead guilty to one of her pending federal charges in the Jan. 6 insurrection in exchange for three years probation, $500 in restitution and community service.

The 49-year-old attended what initially began as a rally with her friend Dona Sue Bissey — also federally charged in the riot.  Bissey, whose case is still pending, is scheduled to appear in court July 19.

In a letter to the judge, Morgan-Lloyd apologized for entering the U.S. Capitol and said she feels “ashamed” about how the march that day turned violent.  She attached movie and book reports to her letter, summarizing “Schindler’s List” and “Just Mercy.” Her attorney recommended them, she said, to learn “what life is like for others in our country.”...

Bissey and Morgan-Lloyd referred to Jan. 6 as the “most exciting day” of their lives in Facebook posts, tagging one photo inside the Capitol building.  The FBI arrested the two women in late February, making them among six Hoosiers criminally charged in the aftermath of the insurrection.

Court records show the Acting U.S. Attorney has agreed to the plea, calling Morgan-Lloyd’s participation a serious violation of the law, but noted she did not engage in physical violence or destroy government property.  “To be clear, what the Defendant initially described as “the most exciting day of (her) life” was, in fact, a tragic day for our nation — a day of riotous violence, collective destruction, and criminal conduct by a frenzied and lawless mob,” Acting U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips wrote in court records.

The U.S. listed Morgan-Lloyd’s apparent remorse, no prior criminal history and cooperation with law enforcement after her arrest as some of the reasons for the government’s acceptance of the plea agreement.

This extended HuffPost piece, headlined "A Lawyer For Jan. 6 Defendants Is Giving Her Clients Remedial Lessons In American History," provides additional details on this defendant and the valuable efforts of her defense attorney to turn her prosecution into a "teachable moment."  I recommend this piece in full, and here is an excerpt: 

This week, Morgan-Lloyd will become the first of nearly 500 defendants arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol to face sentencing. She wants a judge to know she’s changed, and her book report-style filings are meant to illustrate that growth. “I’ve lived a sheltered life and truly haven’t experienced life the way many have,” Morgan-Lloyd wrote to the judge. “I’ve learned that even though we live in a wonderful country things still need to improve. People of all colors should feel as safe as I do to walk down the street.”

The remedial social studies program that Morgan-Lloyd is following was created by her D.C.-based lawyer, H. Heather Shaner....  Shaner is one of many D.C. lawyers assigned to represent Capitol defendants who can’t afford their own attorneys, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and as laid out in the Criminal Justice Act.

In addition to representing her clients in court, Shaner has seized an opportunity to try and educate them on the history their teachers glossed over.  Shaner regularly sends her clients who are incarcerated pretrial books to read: “They’re a captured audience, and it’s life-changing for a lot of them.”  But she decided to take an even more intensive approach with her Capitol clients, who were part of another ugly, historical event in American history.

“Reading books and then watching these shows is like a revelation,” Shaner told HuffPost. “I think that education is a very powerful tool ... So I gave them book lists and shows that they should watch.” In addition to Morgan-Lloyd, Shaner represents Capitol defendants Annie Howell, Jack Jesse Griffith (aka Juan Bibiano), Israel Tutrow and Landon Kenneth Copeland, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder who had a major episode during a virtual hearing in his case and cursed out everyone on the call. (Copeland, who was filmed assaulting officers at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and is facing the most serious accusations of any of Shaner’s Capitol clients, was ordered to undergo a competency evaluation and remains in custody.)

Shaner said her clients had poor educations and knew very little about the country.  Her two female clients took to the task with zeal, Shaner said, and got library cards for the first time in their lives.  “Both my women are like, ‘I never learned this in school. Why don’t I know about this?’” Shaner said.  (A couple of the male clients weren’t quite as eager students, she said. “The men are very much like ‘Oh, I’ll get to it.’”  But she said some of her male clients have been doing some self-education.)

Here are some links to some of the court filings discussed above:

Government's Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing

Defense's Memorandum in Support of Probationary Sentence

Anna Lloyd Statement (and reports here and here)

Prior related posts:

June 23, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Will any new sentencing issues be central to the new "comprehensive crime reduction strategy" soon to come from Prez Biden?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new lengthy CNN piece headlined "Concerns rising inside White House over surge in violent crime."  Here are excerpts:

A nationwide surge in violent crime has emerged as a growing area of concern inside the White House, where President Joe Biden and his aides have listened with alarm as local authorities warn a brutal summer of killing lies ahead.

Biden plans to address the spike in shootings, armed robberies and vicious assaults on Wednesday afternoon following a meeting with state and local officials, law enforcement representatives and others involved in combating the trend.  He hopes to dampen what has already become a cudgel for Republicans eager to run a "law and order" campaign in next year's midterm elections.

The President is poised to announce a comprehensive crime reduction strategy on Wednesday, officials said, in hopes of reducing gun violence and addressing the root causes of the spike.  He plans to sign executive actions with a particular focus on tamping down gun crimes, according to officials, while again calling on Congress to take steps to enact new gun control laws. He is also set to press Congress to confirm David Chipman as his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Across the country, the easing of pandemic restrictions paired with the onset of warmer weather has led to a troubling increase in crime, much of it involving guns.  After years of decreasing crime statistics, the homicide rate surged in major cities in 2020 and that trend appears poised to continue this year....

Already, the uptick is becoming a potent political issue for a President who worked over the past two years to carefully calibrate his approach to criminal justice, resisting pressure from the left to support defunding the police while justifying his role in writing major anti-crime bills from the 1990s.  Biden entered office with a mandate to his team on reducing gun violence, according to officials, and has been acutely aware that crime rates have been spiking over the past year.  The politics of the moment are further complicated by the prospect of bipartisan police reform legislation, which is slowly moving its way through Congress. 

The decision by the White House to devote an afternoon of the President's time to focus on the nation's rising crime rate underscores how serious the matter is being taken inside the West Wing.  The wave of violent crime is not only seen as an impediment to the economic recovery from the pandemic, but also as a potential political threat that could give Republicans an opening in their midterm election fight against Democrats.

Biden's aides have sought to put the numbers in context, noting the current upswing in crime began before he entered office. "There's been, actually, a rise in crime over the last five years, but really the last 18 months," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday....

White House officials hope to take steps that will better link federal law enforcement resources with state and local governments, according to people familiar with the matter. Biden's Justice Department has laid out a strategy for combating violent crime that includes embedding federal agents with local homicide teams and nationwide sweeps for wanted fugitives involved in violence.

That plan sought to de-emphasize the number of arrests and prosecutions, instead focusing on overall reductions in violent crime as a metric of success.  It also sought to improve community engagement and violence intervention programs in the hopes of preventing violence from taking root.  Biden's sweeping $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal includes $5 billion to support community-based violence prevention programs, though the future of that proposal remains uncertain....

In the 1990s, the tough-on-crime stance was viewed as a prized accomplishment for Biden, who warned of "predators on our streets" who were "beyond the pale."  Yet a quarter-century later, his warm embrace of Clinton during a Rose Garden signing ceremony for the 1994 crime bill stirred controversy during his 2020 presidential primary.  Several candidates, including then-opponent Kamala Harris, criticized Biden for his role in the legislation, which she and other critics said led to an era of mass incarceration....

Today, the politics of crime legislation are less certain. A movement to "Defund the Police" has lost considerable steam inside the Democratic Party, amid rising crime rates across the country.  Biden has consistently been opposed to any such measures -- and avoided such language -- by refusing to accept the criticism from progressives during his presidential race.  Meanwhile, local law enforcement officials have begun placing greater emphasis on community intervention programs to prevent violence, a shift away from the style of policing embedded in the laws Biden helped pass.

This new press release from the Department of Justice, titled "Department of Justice Announces Formation of Firearms Trafficking Strike Forces to Crack Down on Sources of Crime Guns," starts this way:

Today, the Department of Justice announced it will launch five cross-jurisdictional firearms trafficking strike forces within the next 30 days to help reduce violent crime by addressing illegal gun trafficking in significant firearms trafficking corridors.  Tomorrow, the Attorney General will discuss with the President, law enforcement officials, and local and community leaders, this initiative, which, along with other measures, the Department of Justice is undertaking as part of the administration-wide comprehensive strategy to combat the rise in violent crime.

June 22, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Depressing (and abridged) FSR reminder of just how long we have known crack sentences are especially whack

While awaiting the start of this morning's US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing ,"Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine," at which it seems there will be considerable advocacy for lowering crack cocaine sentences to finally be in parity with powder cocaine sentence (basics here), I thought to look through some of the archives of the Federal Sentencing Reporter to see how many articles have have had folks discussing (and often sharply criticizing) crack sentences. 

Because crack sentencing rules have been subject to so much justified criticism and seen modest reform in recent years, the number of FSR articles on this topic feels more than a bit overwhelming.  Here is an abridged list of articles that caught my eye to show the varied list of authors and laments through the years:

From 1990 by Deborah Young, "Rethinking the Commission's Drug Guidelines: Courier Cases Where Quantity Overstates Culpability

From 1992 by Catharine M. Goodwin, "Sentencing Narcotics Cases Where Drug Amount Is a Poor Indicator of Relative Culpability"

From 1992 by Robert S. Mueller, "Mandatory Minimum Sentencing"

From 1993 by Ronald F. Wright, "Drug Sentences as a Reform Priority"

From 1993 by Richard Berk, "Preliminary Data on Race and Crack Charging Practices in Los Angeles"

From 1994 by Marc Miller and Daniel J. Freed, "The Disproportionate Imprisonment of Low-Level Drug Offenders"

From 1995 by David Yellen, "Reforming Cocaine Sentencing: The New Commission Speaks"

From 1998 by Carol A. Bergman, "The Politics of Federal Sentencing on Cocaine"

From 1999 by Kyle O'Dowd, "The Need to Re-Assess Quantity-Based Drug Sentences"

From 2001 by Paula Kautt, "Differential Usage of Guideline Standards by Defendant Race and Gender in Federal Drug Sentences: Fact or Fiction?"

From 2003 by Alfred Blumstein, "The Notorious 100:1 Crack: Powder Disparity--The Data Tell Us that It Is Time to Restore the Balance"

From 2005 by Ryan S. King and Marc Mauer, "Sentencing with Discretion: Crack Cocaine Sentencing After Booker"

From 2007 by Steven L. Chanenson and Douglas A. Berman, "Federal Cocaine Sentencing in Transition"

From 2007 by Mark Osler, "More than Numbers: A Proposal For Rational Drug Sentences"

I will stop with these links to these 15 FSR articles because I am already overwhelmed and there were dozens more articles I could have highlighted just from the period before recentfederal  crack sentencing reforms. Notably, in 2007, the US Sentencing Commission finally did a first round of (modest) crack guideline reductions, then in 2010 we got the Fair Sentencing Act and it echoed through another round of guideline reductions.  And yet, as witnesses are noting in today's Senate hearing, we still have a disparate and unjustified disparity in our cocaine sentencing laws.  Moreover, as many of the articles above highlight, our enduring commitment to a quantity-based federal drug sentencing structure is a deep problem at the root of our so many of our federal sentencing woes.

June 22, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Strong extended coverage of modern drug war dynamics from NPR

As noted in this prior post, a number of media outlets ran a number of solid articles about the purported 50th anniversary of the start of the modern "war on drugs."  Valuably, NPR has gone deeper into this multifaceted topic through an extended series of effective pieces.  I have already flagged a few of these segments in prior posts, but I thought it useful to round-up and recommend all that I have now seen here:

June 22, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 21, 2021

US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing set for "Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine"

On the morning of Tuesday, June 22, 2021, the US Senate Judiciary Committee has a hearing set for 10am titled "Examining Federal Sentencing for Crack and Powder Cocaine." The hearing should be available to watch at this link, where this list of witnesses are set out:

Ms. Regina LaBelle, Acting Director, Office of National Drug Control Policy

The Honorable Asa Hutchinson, Governor, State of Arkansas

Mr. Matthew Charles, Justice Reform Fellow, FAMM

The Honorable Russell Coleman, Member, Frost Brown Todd

Mr. Antonio Garcia, Executive Director, South Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area

Mr. Steven Wasserman, Vice President for Policy, National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys

Notably, the Washington Post here reports on what Ms. Regina LaBelle will be saying in her testimony as well as some of the political context around this hearing.  Here is part of the story:

The Biden administration plans to endorse legislation that would end the disparity in sentences between crack and powder cocaine offenses that President Biden helped create decades ago, according to people with knowledge of the situation — a step that highlights how Biden’s attitudes on drug laws have shifted over his long tenure in elected office.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Regina LaBelle, the acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, plans to express the administration's support for the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, or Equal Act. The legislation, which sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio), would eliminate the sentencing disparity and give people who were convicted or sentenced for a federal cocaine offense a resentencing.

“The current disparity is not based on evidence yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly to individuals, families, and communities of color,” LaBelle says in prepared written testimony obtained by The Washington Post in advance of the hearing. “The continuation of this sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system, and it is past time for it to end. Therefore, the administration urges the swift passage of the ‘Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act.’ ”...

Outside coalitions backing Durbin and Booker’s bill have focused particularly on shoring up conservative support as part of their larger criminal justice overhaul agenda. To that end, one of the witnesses testifying in favor of the bill Tuesday is Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican who led the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush.

“Although Congress has taken steps to reduce the disparity and provide some retroactive relief, any sentencing disparity between two substances that are chemically the same weakens the foundation of our system of justice,” Hutchinson says in his prepared remarks, also obtained by The Post.  “Congress now has the opportunity to build on the bipartisan successes of the Fair Sentencing Act and the First Step Act by eliminating the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine once and for all.  The strength of our justice system is dependent on the perception of fundamental fairness.”

Russell Coleman, a former counsel to now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former U. S. attorney for the Western District of Kentucky, will also promote the legislation at the hearing Tuesday morning.

A few prior related posts:

June 21, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Can Criminal Justice Reform Survive a Wave of Violent Crime?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by John Pfaff in The New Republic.  The subheadline of the piece highlights its data-crunching themes: "An uptick in homicides across the country is getting blamed on reforms. That argument gets the data all wrong."  I recommend everything Pfaff writes in full, and here are excerpts from this very lengthy piece:

Even as the pandemic lockdown helped push down many crimes, last year saw an unprecedented spike in homicides nationwide, likely more than twice the largest previous one-year rise.  And given the retaliatory nature of lethal violence and the ongoing disruption from the pandemic, we should expect homicides to remain high in 2021 as well.  One study in Chicago, for example, found evidence that cycles of retaliation and counterretaliation meant that a single shooting was often the root cause of three, or sometimes 60, or once almost 500 subsequent shootings over the next few years.

How to stop this wave of violence is thus one of the most important policy questions for 2021, but asking it has rarely felt more fraught.  The surge in homicide comes at a moment when conventional responses to crime face more intense criticism than any time since the civil rights movements of the 1960s.  Reformers and activists across the country have spent the past decade campaigning to reduce our reliance on prisons, jail, probation, and even the police.  The changes we’ve seen may be less dramatic than what many advocates have hoped for, and certainly less dramatic than how many of their detractors describe them, but they both reflect and have nurtured a growing shift in popular views on crime control....

Perhaps the most important feature of last year’s rise in homicides is just how uniform it appears to be.  In 2020, homicides rose in 60 of the 69 major police departments noted above, and in almost all cases at a rate more or less proportional to homicides in 2019.  Any one city’s share of homicides was roughly the same as its share in 2019, just appreciably higher.  Unlike many previous periods, the spike was not the product of a few cities experiencing an especially bad year (in 2016, around 20 percent of the national increase in homicides was just due to Chicago), but of almost every city suffering in something close to unison.

One important upshot of this uniformity is that there is no evidence that cities with more progressive prosecutors experienced relatively worse outcomes than those with more conventional district attorneys.  In fact, two of the eight departments that reported declines in homicides — Baltimore City, Maryland, and St. Louis County, Missouri — are home to two of the country’s most high-profile “progressive prosecutors,” Marilyn Mosby and Wesley Bell.  Opponents of progressive prosecution are already invoking the homicide spike to push back against the movement, but the data simply do not back them up....

It is also important to note the inaccuracy of trying to pin rising homicides on efforts to “defund” the police.  In a December 2020 press conference, for example, Gregg Sofer, at the time the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, tried to blame Austin’s rise in homicides on the city’s recent decision to cut police funding.  The problem?  Homicides had started to rise well before the cuts, in no small part because the budget in question did not go into effect until October 2020, so almost none of the proposed cuts would have occurred until 2021 at the earliest — and most of the 2021 cuts involve simply shifting which agencies are responsible for certain tasks....

If not progressive prosecution or defunding, what caused the surge in homicides?  It will be years before we have a clear answer, but the two leading explanations are the chaos wrought by the Covid pandemic and some product of the protests that have taken place against police violence.  (Other factors surely mattered, too, such as an unprecedented uptick in gun purchases.) Both theories are valid, but in complicated ways....

It is nearly impossible to understate the chaos of the past year and a half: not just an epochal pandemic that has caused mass death and brought once-in-a-generation economic devastation in its wake, but the fearmongering rhetoric of Donald Trump, the unsettling and still-unresolved insurrection of January 6, and widespread protests of the sort that risk scaring and unnerving white voters.  These are conditions that would push much of the public in a more punitive direction even absent any change in crime rates; add in the unprecedented spike in homicides, and demands for severity will grow even stronger, politically speaking.

The signs of that growing severity are widespread.  Even though prisons and jails have been leading hot spots for spreading the coronavirus — not just to the poor communities of color overrepresented in the prisons’ populations, but also to the more rural and white working-class communities where correctional officers tend to live — state prison populations barely budged, and early declines in county jail populations have been mostly undone.  Democrats and Republicans, governors and legislators and mayors: Almost no one was willing to reduce prison or jail populations.  The pandemic provided compelling political cover for releasing large numbers of people from prison; that so few took advantage is telling evidence of a deeper reticence toward real change....

Reform efforts will inarguably face tougher opposition in the years ahead.  The social and economic upheavals of Covid, like the emotional shock of 9/11, would likely have been enough on their own to shift many people’s attitudes on crime policy in a more punitive direction; the homicide spike of 2020, and its continuing fallout through 2021, all but guarantee such a move — especially for issues like police funding.  Conservative state legislatures show increasing interest in limiting the cuts that can be made by bluer cities, where support for reform may remain high.  But all these transformations do not mean that the defenders of the status quo are guaranteed a victory.  They are using the current atmosphere of fear to push hard against reforms, but they are also facing more effective and motivated opposition than at any other time recently, and support for reform still seems high in the communities that are most directly affected.  Meanwhile, there is little to no evidence linking the rise in homicides to the reforms that have actually been implemented, many of the reforms being fought for are designed to reduce violence immediately, and many may do so both more effectively and at a lower social and human cost than the status quo.  The politics may be turning toward the status quo, but the data are not.

These excerpts only capture a small slice of Pfaff's interesting discussion in this new piece.  But I find problematic and discouraging that he fails to note the latest encouraging data from the Vera Institute concerning declines in US prison populations.  Pfaff states here that "state prison populations barely budged" during the COVID pandemic, but this Vera report finds that the US prison population dropped by over 240,000 persons (17%) from 2019 to spring 2021.  This is much more than "barely budging," though I know many advocates were hoping to see even broader decarceration efforts during the pandemic.  Still, Figure 5 of the Vera report shows that nearly every state experienced at least 10% decline in its prison population during the pandemic and many states saw declines of 25% or more. 

As I noted when the Vera data was released earlier this month, the national prison populations according to this data is now the lowest it has been in over 25 years and the lowest per capital  rate in more than three decades.  Pfaff is right to wonder and worry about how increases in violent crime might impact recent reductions in mass incarceration, but I fear he tends to too often see the criminal justice reform story through the lens of violent crimes when it has so many other notable dimensions.  I believe many states (and the federal system) did a reasonable job reducing the number of less serious offenders subject to incarceration.  If we can continue to do that and only use incarceration for the most serious, violent offenders (and also allow persons subject to long terms to get sentencing second looks) we might have reason to be optimistic that the US will soon no longer be the world's leader in locking its people in cages.

June 21, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Truth, Lies and The Paradox of Plea Bargaining"

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

This Article describes the regular use of lying during plea bargaining by criminal justice stakeholders, and the paradox it presents for those who care about creating a fairer criminal legal system . The paradox is this: lying at plea bargaining allows defendants the opportunity to negotiate fair resolutions to their cases in the face of a deeply unfair system, even as that lying makes way for — and sustains — the problematic system it seeks to avoid.

The Article lays out a taxonomy of lying at plea bargaining, organizing the types of lies into three categories: lies about facts, lies about law and lies about process.  The criminal justice system produces a litany of injustices. Implicitly authorized, systemic lying offers a means of dealing with these perceived injustices. But lying also obscures the system from public view, hiding and relieving pressure points via plea bargaining.

Unfortunately, what seems like the natural solution — to make the system more transparent and accountable — would likely harm individual defendants.  If lying at plea bargaining disappeared tomorrow, many defendants would suffer dire consequences, such as deportation for minor charges or being subjected to outrageous mandatory minimum sentences.  These defendants would lose their ability to avoid the injustices of the system.  And yet, lying at plea bargaining is the result of a series of interlocking, mandatory laws and rules that many stakeholders believe are deeply unfair and should be reformed.  Thus, lying at plea bargaining is both a means of avoiding injustice and a force prohibiting meaningful reformation of the laws and rules that produce such injustice.  To put it another way, the lies in the taxonomy are workarounds for a system so barbaric that lawyers are willing to lie to help defendants avoid the worst of it, but they also make that same system nearly impossible to reform.

Examining this paradox leads to the conclusion that conversations about reform must focus on total overhaul of the system, not piecemeal correction.  Something closer to abolition than alteration is the appropriate response to a system so entangled that lying is the only way to reach a just resolution.

June 21, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

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

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Scouting the state judge who will sentence Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd

This new NBC News article, headlined "Derek Chauvin sentencing thrusts Minnesota Judge Peter Cahill back into spotlight," provides something of a scouting report on the judge who is scheduled to  sentence Derek Chauvin later this week.  Here are excerpts:

A Minnesota judge who, former colleagues and friends say, has no penchant for publicity will again find himself in the media spotlight this week when he sentences the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder in the death of George Floyd.

Judge Peter Cahill, who has served on the bench in Hennepin County for 14 years, could sentence Derek Chauvin to as little as probation, an outcome requested by his attorney, or more than the 30-year punishment favored by prosecutors.

In interviews, people who know Cahill and cases he has overseen say he is likely to land somewhere in the middle.  They said he is a fair judge, though there is no guarantee he will mete out a punishment that will make either side entirely happy.  "He's been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney," said Craig Cascarano, 72, a Minneapolis lawyer in private practice who met Cahill at the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office when Cahill was a law clerk.  "So he understands what it's like to do both jobs. And he tries very hard to do the right thing."...

Cahill will sentence Chauvin on Friday, about two months after he oversaw the trial that ended in his conviction on charges of second- and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter.  Cahill has paved the way for Chauvin's punishment to be up to double the 15 years at the top of the range recommended under state guidelines, having ruled in May that there were four aggravating factors in Floyd's death....

From 2008, the year he was elected to the bench, through January, Cahill has sentenced six people convicted of second-degree murder to prison.  They received terms ranging from 12.5 years to 40 years.

In Cahill's most recent case of sentencing on unintentional second-degree murder — the most serious charge on which Chauvin was convicted — he handed down a punishment of 15 years.  In that case, Matthew Witt pleaded guilty in January 2020 to unintentional second-degree murder for beating his mother to death and to first-degree assault for violently attacking his father July 24, 2019, authorities said.  He received an additional seven years for the latter charge.

Prior related posts:

June 20, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The President’s Conditional Pardon Power"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 18, 2021

You be the judge: what sentence for Michael Avenatti (and do the guidelines merit any respect)?

IA3T7J6NQRFSHDKM6SW26QQ5JAIt has been a while since I have done a "you be the sentencing judge" post, but a high-profile fallen lawyer provides juicy grist for this mill.  Specifically, as two recent postings at Law & Crime highlight, Michael Aventti's upcoming sentencing presents a notable set of facts and arguments for SDNY US District Judge Paul Gardephe:

Michael Avenatti Seeks Light Prison Sentence Because His ‘Epic Fall and Public Shaming’ Are Punishment Enough

Feds Seek ‘Very Substantial’ Prison Term for Disgraced Lawyer Michael Avenatti

Valuably, these two postings include the extended sentencing memoranda filed by the parties in this case, and the second posting summarizes the terms of the sentencing debate (with some of my emphasis added):

Scoffing at the one-time celebrity lawyer’s claim that his “epic fall and public shaming” should be taken into account at sentencing, federal prosecutors urged a judge to deal Michael Avenatti a “very substantial” prison sentence for attempting to extort Nike out of millions of dollars by threatening to expose their corruption scandal.

Quoting the probation office, prosecutors noted that Avenatti “often put himself forth as a champion for the Davids of the world, facing off with those Goliaths who would bully the small, the weak, the victimized.”

“And it was precisely this reputation, and the enormous influence that the defendant wielded on the national stage and across media platforms, that he weaponized,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Podolsky wrote in a 19-page sentencing brief on Wednesday night. “He used his skills as a lawyer and his power as a media figure not to benefit his client, but instead to threaten harm in an effort to extract millions of dollars from a victim, which, while sophisticated, [Avenatti] believed would be forced into acquiescing secretly to his demands.”

Once a fixture of the cable TV commentary rounds, Avenatti previously depicted his prosecution as another David-versus-Goliath fight, pitting him against the combined might of the Nike corporation and the Trump administration. Southern District of New York prosecutors rejected that, and a federal jury convicted him on all counts in February 2020.

Earlier this month, Avenatti’s defense attorneys Scott A. Srebnick and E. Danya Perry argued that a six-month maximum sentence would be enough for their client. They also said the court could take “judicial notice” that Avenatti’s well-documented “epic fall […] played out in front of the entire world.” Federal prosecutors found that sort of sentence would be far too light, and though they did not propose another number, their sentencing memorandum leaves a few clues into their thinking.

The probation office proposed an eight-year sentence, which dips below the 11.25-to-14-year guideline range.  “While the government, like the probation office, believes that a below-guidelines sentence would be sufficient but not greater than necessary to serve the legitimate purposes of sentencing, the government asks this court to impose a very substantial sentence,” prosecutors wrote....

During the trial, prosecutors played a tape for jurors that they called a picture of extortion. “I’ll go take $10 billion off your client’s market cap,” Avenatti was seen warning attorneys for Nike in the videotape, referring to capitalization. As the jury found, Avenatti had been talking about confidential information he learned about Nike from his former client Gary Franklin, an amateur basketball coach.  Avenatti threatened to expose the embarrassing information relating to the corruption scandal unless the Nike paid $15 million—”not to Franklin, but directly to the [Avenatti] himself,” prosecutors noted. According to the memo, the deal represented 10 times more than Avenatti asked Nike to pay Franklin, and it would have resolved his client’s claims against Nike....

Franklin wrote separately to the U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe harshly criticizing Avenatti. “Mr. Avenatti quickly abused that trust when he announced on Twitter, without my knowledge and without my consent, that he would be holding a press conference to discuss a scandal at Nike that ‘involved some of the biggest names in college basketball,'” Franklin wrote in a two-page victim impact statement. “I never imagined that Mr. Avenatti would proceed to post on Twitter details of the information I had relayed to him as part of our attorney-client privileged discussions, including the names of the players I coached.

Franklin is not alone among Avenatti’s spurned former clients. Avenatti continues to face another federal prosecution in New York accusing him of defrauding Stormy Daniels in a book deal, plus a case in California alleging tax offenses and other misconduct.

There are so many elements to both the Avenatti crime and his background that may (or many not) be considered important in his upcoming sentencing.  But, as my post title and emphasis seek to highlight, there is seemingly a consensus that the federal sentencing guidelines come nowhere close to recommending a proper sentence.  It is, of course, not especially surprising when a criminal defendant requests a sentence way below the applicable guideline range.  But here, notably, both the probation office and seemingly federal prosecutors also believe a proper sentence should be many years below the bottom of the applicable guideline range.

So I sincerely wonder, dear readers, what sentence you think would be, in the words of the prosecutors, "sufficient but not greater than necessary to serve the legitimate purposes of sentencing"?  Do the guideline merit any respect in this analysis?

June 18, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

"The Mark of Policing: Race and Criminal Records"

The title of this post is the title of this recent piece authored by Eisha Jain published in the Stanford Law Review Online. Here is its abstract:

This Essay argues that racial reckoning in policing should include a racial reckoning in the use of criminal records.  Arrests alone — regardless of whether they result in convictions — create criminal records.  Yet because the literature on criminal records most often focuses on prisoner reentry and on the consequences of criminal conviction, it is easy to overlook the connections between policing decisions and collateral consequences.  This Essay employs the sociological framework of marking to show how criminal records entrench racial inequality stemming from policing.  The marking framework recognizes that the government creates a negative credential every time it creates a record of arrest as well as conviction.  Such records, in turn, trigger cascading consequences for employment, housing, immigration, and a host of other areas.  The credentialing process matters because it enables and conceals race-based discrimination, and because a focus on the formal sentence often renders this discrimination invisible.  This Essay considers how adopting a credentialing framework offers a way to surface, and ultimately to address, how race-based policing leaves lasting marks on over-policed communities.

June 18, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Spotlighting many challenges "winning the peace" after drug decriminalization reform in Oregon

As we mark 50 years waging the drug war in the United States, legal reforms and polls make clear that Americans are eager to embrace public health rather than punitive responses to drug activity.  But a growing political will to end the "war on drugs" does not instantly create a practical way forward.  Growing interest in ending the drug war makes it critical for policy markers and advocates to focus on "winning the peace" as we move beyond criminalization models.  But new NPR article, headlined "Oregon's Pioneering Drug Decriminalization Experiment Is Now Facing The Hard Test," highlights the many challenges lie ahead.  I recommend the piece in the full, and here are excerpts:

Oregonians overwhelmingly passed Measure 110 that makes possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin, LSD and methamphetamine, among other drugs, punishable by a civil citation — akin to a parking ticket — and a $100 fine. That fee can get waived if you get a health screening from a recovery hotline.

The measure, a major victory for advocates pushing for systemic change in U.S. drug policy, expands funding and access to addiction treatment services using tax revenue from the state's pot industry as well as from expected savings from a reduction in arrests and incarceration....

But five months since decriminalization went into effect, the voter-mandated experiment is running into the hard realities of implementation. Realizing the measure's promise has sharply divided the recovery community, alienated some in law enforcement and left big questions about whether the Legislature will fully fund the measure's promised expansion of care.

Even many recovery leaders here who support ending the criminalization of addiction are deeply concerned the state basically jumped off the decriminalization cliff toward a fractured, dysfunctional and underfunded treatment system that's not at all ready to handle an influx of more people seeking treatment. Advocates for decriminalization "don't understand the health care side, and they don't understand recovery," says Mike Marshall, co-founder and director of the group Oregon Recovers. "Our big problem is our health care system doesn't want it, is not prepared for it, doesn't have the resources for it and honestly doesn't have the leadership to begin to incorporate that [expanded treatment]," says Marshall, who is in long-term recovery himself....

Oregon supporters of decriminalization point to Portugal as a reform model. In 2001, Portugal dramatically changed its approach and decriminalized all drugs. The nation began treating addiction as a public health crisis. There, anyone caught with less than a 10-day supply of any drug gets mandatory medical treatment. But Marshall and others point out that Portugal took more than two years to transition carefully to a new system and replace judges, jails and lawyers with doctors, social workers and addiction specialists. "So we put the cart before the horse," he says. In fact, Marshall and others worry the treatment and harm reduction horse isn't even on its feet in Oregon, which is leaving too many stuck in a dangerous pre-treatment limbo and at potential risk of overdosing. "There were no resources and no mechanisms in [Measure] 110 to actually prepare the health care system to receive those folks," Marshall says.

"Most places that have successfully done decriminalization have already worked on a robust and comprehensive treatment system," says Dr. Reginald Richardson, director of the state Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission. "Unfortunately, here in Oregon, we don't have that. What we have is decriminalization, which is a step in the right direction."

There's also shockingly little state data to determine what programs work best or to track treatment outcomes and share best practices. There's also no agreed upon set of metrics or benchmarks to judge treatment efficacy, both in Oregon and nationally.

Prior recent related post:

June 18, 2021 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 17, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

"Undoing the Damage of the War on Drugs: A Renewed Call for Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the title of the scheduled congressional hearing called by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security of the U.S. House Committee of the Judiciary. The hearing is to take place on Thursday, June 17, 2021 at 10am and can be streamed here. The witness list, available here, should make this a must-see event:

Rachel E. Barkow, Vice Dean and Charles Seligson Professor of Law, Faculty Director, Center on the Administration of Criminal Law, NYU School of Law

William R. Underwood, Senior Fellow, The Sentencing Project

Kyana Givens, Assistant Federal Public Defender, Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of North Carolina

Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director, Drug Policy Alliance

Marta Nelson, Director, Government Strategy, Advocacy and Partnerships Department, Vera Institute of Justice

Jillian E. Snider, Director, Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties, R Street Institute

John Malcolm, Vice President, Institute for Constitutional Government, Director, Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, and Ed Gilbertson and Sherry Lindberg Gilbertson Senior Legal Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

June 16, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The False Hope of the Progressive-Prosecutor Movement"

The title of this post is the title of this recent notable Atlantic piece by Darcy Covert that is summarized via its subheadline: "Well-intentioned reformers can’t fix the criminal legal system. They have to start relinquishing power."  I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts (links from the original):

[P]rogressive prosecutors’ approach won’t bring about meaningful change.  The progressive-prosecutor movement acknowledges (as research has shown) that prosecutors’ “breathtaking” power is a major source of America’s criminal-justice problems.  It asks its adherents to use that power for good, and trusts them to do so. But true reform won’t come from using that power for good; instead, prosecutors will need to have less of it in the first place.  It is unrealistic to expect that even reform-minded prosecutors (or anyone, for that matter) can and will dispense justice when they have virtually boundless power and almost unlimited discretion to use it against criminal defendants.  To transform the criminal legal system, prosecutors must stop resisting — and indeed start supporting — efforts by courts and legislatures to reduce their power....

Declining to prosecute minor offenses won’t end mass incarceration, when most individuals in prison are there for violent crimes.  Diversion programs, which offer treatment only to those willing to comply with onerous supervision requirements and face jail time if they slip up, won’t keep large portions of people affected by mental illness, addiction, and poverty out of the criminal legal system.  Studies show that — because of their position in this adversarial system — prosecutors are often unable to evaluate cases with the neutrality needed to systematically identify the innocent and decide how much punishment is necessary for the guilty.  Nor will gathering and publishing data address the disproportionate representation of people of color in the criminal legal system, because transparency is not a cure for the disparities that data show.

Here is a better prescription: If you are a prosecutor committed to transforming the criminal legal system, support the reallocation of power away from your office — by your office, and by the legislature and courts.

Expand the consideration of who should not face criminal punishment beyond those who commit only very low-level offenses.  For example, recognize that even more serious crime is driven by people’s circumstances, including mental illness and trauma, and support treatment rather than jail time for those cases.

Advocate for the reallocation of funds from your office’s budget to social services that keep people out of the criminal legal system entirely, and to the indigent defense system that advocates on behalf of those who are prosecuted.  A first step would be to push for budget increases for the public defenders who represent more than 80 percent of those charged with crimes in criminal courts.  They labor under crushing caseloads that often prevent them from being able to ensure that their clients are not wrongfully convicted or punished overly severely.

Lobby for more external limits on prosecutorial power, such as the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and other laws that enable coercive plea bargaining.  Advocate for stronger equal-protection rights for defendants of color, including for state courts to recognize greater protections against racist jury selection and pretextual traffic stops, in which police use a minor traffic violation as a pretext to stop and search someone.

June 16, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

In memoriam: mourning the passing of Judge Jack Weinstein

24lawyers-superJumboUS District Judge Jack Weinstein was nominated to be a federal judge a year before I was born, but twenty-six years later, the very first case I worked on during my first judicial clerkship involved an appeal of Judge Weinstein's remarkable (and yet-still-run-of-the-mill) sentencing opinion in US v. Ekwunoh, 813 F. Supp. 168 (EDNY 1993).  I am certain that the fortuity of my first real case during my first real job involving the intricacies and injustices of federal sentencing played no small role in how my career thereafter went forward.

This personal story is my preamble to a post meant to honor Judge Weinstein for his contributions to all areas of the law upon news today of his passing at age 99.  I am pleased to see that this New York Times article about his life includes an extended discussion of his sentencing practices:

Judge Weinstein often said that the individual before the courts was their highest responsibility, a concern he made obvious in criminal cases. As a senior judge concerned about wrongful detentions and other abuses of defendants’ rights, he took on nearly 500 backlogged habeas corpus cases, and read them all. When sentencing criminal defendants, he sat at a table with them instead of looking down from a bench.  In court, he almost always wore a business suit instead of robes.

Judge Weinstein viewed federal sentencing guidelines as a betrayal of the moral imperative that the punishment should fit the crime.  When he took senior status and could refuse cases, he stopped hearing minor drug cases. “I have become increasingly despondent over the cruelties and self-defeating character of our war on drugs,” he wrote in a Times opinion essay in 1993, noting that 60 percent of federal prison inmates were drug offenders.

In a 2004 law review article, speaking of “grotesque over-sentencing” required by drug laws, Judge Weinstein wrote that if judges left the bench to avoid enforcing unjust laws, they risked being replaced by “government puppets.”  The legal system, he said, could and should accommodate judicial protest.  He later resisted the federal five-year mandatory minimum sentence for downloading child pornography, throwing out several convictions to avert what he called “an unnecessarily harsh and cruel sentence.”

There is, of course, so much more to be said about Judge Weinstein's contribution to the law and practice of sentencing.  Fortunately, as noted in this prior post, the Federal Sentencing Reporter was able to produce earlier this year an issue entirely devoted to "Weinstein on Sentencing" to celebrate his many contributions to federal sentencing law, policy and practice.

FSR was fortunate to get two of Judge Weinstein's former clerks, Carolin Guentert and Ryan Gerber, to organize this great issue.  They did an extraordinary job gathering an array of perspectives in an issue that includes a considerable number of original articles under the heading "Celebrating Judge Weinstein" as well as excerpts from Judge Weinstein's past opinions and articles under the heading "Weinstein In His Own Words."

On a day in which tradition dictates saying "May his memory be a blessing," I highly encourage everyone to check out this full FSR issue in order to help burnish great memories of the great sentencing work of this great man.

June 15, 2021 in Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Justice Department files SCOTUS brief seeking to restore death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

As repoted in this Hill piece, the "Biden administration on Monday urged the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty against the Boston Marathon bomber in an apparent break with the president's stated opposition to capital punishment."  Here are the details (with a link to the filing):

In a 48-page brief, the Department of Justice (DOJ) asked the justices to reverse a Boston-based federal appeals court that vacated the death sentence for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the lone surviving perpetrator of the 2013 attack.

“The jury carefully considered each of respondent’s crimes and determined that capital punishment was warranted for the horrors that he personally inflicted — setting down a shrapnel bomb in a crowd and detonating it, killing a child and a promising young student, and consigning several others to a lifetime of unimaginable suffering,” the DOJ’s brief reads.

Tsarnaev and his since-deceased brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed three people and injured 260 others in the 2013 bombing attack near the finish line of the annual event in downtown Boston....

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit last year vacated Tsarnaev’s death sentence. The court ruled that the trial court had failed to adequately gauge potential jury bias and the extent to which Tsarnaev may have been influenced by his brother.

Former President Trump in October appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. The justices agreed in March to take up the dispute and are expected to hear arguments in the case next term.  The case was seen as an early challenge for Biden, the first U.S. president to publicly oppose the death penalty, and his administration’s response had been highly anticipated.

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden called for an end to capital punishmentBut on Monday, the DOJ made clear that Biden would maintain his predecessor’s support for reinstating capital punishment against Tsarnaev. “The court of appeals improperly vacated the capital sentences recommended by the jury in one of the most important terrorism prosecutions in our Nation’s history,” the DOJ’s brief reads. “This Court should reverse the decision below and put this case back on track toward a just conclusion.”

The White House and DOJ did not immediately respond when asked by The Hill if Biden had changed his stance on the death penalty.

Tsarnaev, 27, will serve out multiple life sentences in federal prison if his death sentence is not reinstated.  

A few prior recent related posts:

June 15, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

New plea deals sets possible new precedent for resolving low-level Capitol riot prosecutions with single misdemeanor with 6 month jail maximum

As reported in this Politico piece, headlined "Virginia couple pleads guilty in Capitol riot," the first set of pleas for low-level participating in the January 6 riots were entered in federal court yesterday.  Here are the details:

A Virginia couple on Monday became the third and fourth defendants to plead guilty in the sprawling investigation stemming from the Capitol riot in January.  However, Jessica and Joshua Bustle of Bristow, Va., became the first to plead guilty in federal court who faced only misdemeanor charges as a result of their actions at the Capitol as lawmakers were attempting to certify President Joe Biden’s electoral college victory.

Under a deal with prosecutors, the Bustles each pleaded guilty to one of the four misdemeanor charges they faced: parading, demonstrating or picketing in a Capitol building. They could get up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000, but will be spared the potential of back-to-back sentences on multiple counts.

The arrangement could serve as a template for hundreds of other misdemeanor-only cases filed related to the Jan. 6 events.  Defense attorneys say it also suggests that prosecutors will not readily agree to more lenient resolutions in Capitol riot cases, such as deferring the case and dismissing it following a period of good behavior.

“There’s no guarantee what the sentence will be in this case,” Judge Thomas Hogan told the Bustles during the afternoon hearing, conducted by videoconference. “I can give a sentence that’s legal up to the maximum in the statute: six months.”

According to a complaint filed by an FBI agent in March, Jessica Bustle posted on her Facebook page on Jan. 6: “Pence is a traitor. We stormed the capital.  An unarmed peaceful woman down the hall from us was shot in the neck by cops.  It’s insane here….Pray for America!!!!”  In another post, Jessica Bustle — who said she’s opposed to taking the coronavirus vaccine — indicated she and her husband were attending a “health freedom” rally separate from then-President Donald Trump’s rally. They later decided to check out what was happening at the Capitol, she wrote.  “My husband and I just WALKED right in with tons of other people.” Bustle also wrote: “We need a Revolution.”...

The Bustles have also agreed to pay $500 apiece in restitution, Hogan said.  Both the Bustles' attorneys and a prosecutor said they were prepared to proceed with sentencing Monday, but the judge declined, saying he would set a sentencing date in 4 to 6 weeks.  “I’m not prepared to do sentencing today. I think we have to look at the case a little bit,” said Hogan, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan. The judge said he wanted to ensure “consistency and comparability” of sentences among the Capitol riot defendants, none of whom have been sentenced thus far.

Many Capitol riot defendants face the four typical misdemeanor charges the Bustles faced plus a felony charge of obstruction of an official proceeding.  The latter charge carries a potential 20-year prison term. It is not clear how prosecutors have distinguished between nonviolent defendants who face only the misdemeanors and those who had the felony charge added on.

The first guilty pleas in the Capitol riot came in April from Jon Schaffer, a heavy-metal guitarist and self-described lifetime member of the Oath Keepers. He admitted to two felonies: obstruction and entering a Secret Service-restricted area while carrying a dangerous weapon.  Schaffer agreed to cooperate in the government’s ongoing conspiracy case against fellow Oath Keepers.  A total of 16 people are now charged in that case.

The second guilty plea was from a Florida man who went onto the Senate floor during the Jan. 6 unrest, Paul Hodgkins.  At a hearing earlier this month, he pleaded guilty to a felony obstruction charge.  Prosecutors agreed to drop the misdemeanor charges against him, but there was no cooperation element to the deal.  He is tentatively set for sentencing on July 19.

This Reuters piece about these latest pleas details a bit more some of the sentencing specifics around the two earlier pleas:

The first guilty plea came in April, when a founding member of the right-wing Oath Keepers, Jon Schaffer, pleaded guilty to two felony charges of obstructing the certification of the 2020 election and breaching a restricted building. Prosecutors are recommending a sentence of between 3-1/2 and 4-1/2 years of prison time for Schaffer, but his sentence will ultimately be decided by a District of Columbia judge.

A Florida man on June 2 became the second person to plead guilty to storming the Capitol. Paul Allard Hodgkins pleaded guilty to one felony count of obstructing an official proceeding. A judge said federal sentencing guidelines call for Hodgkins to receive sentence in the range of 15 to 21 months.

Prior related posts:

June 15, 2021 in Celebrity sentencings, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

A few of many prior related posts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 13, 2021

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 12, 2021

"Progressive Algorithms"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Itay Ravid and Amit Haim available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Our criminal justice system is broken.  Problems of mass incarceration, racial disparities, and susceptibility to error are prevalent in all phases of the criminal process.  Recently, two dominant trends that aspire to tackle these fundamental problems have emerged in the criminal justice system: progressive prosecution — often defined as elected reform-minded prosecutors that advance systemic change in criminal justice — and algorithmic decision-making — characterized by the adoption of statistical modeling and computational methodology to predict outcomes in criminal contexts.

While there are growing bodies of literature on each of these two trends, thus far they have not been discussed in tandem.  This Article argues that scholarship on criminal justice reform must consider both developments and strive to reconcile them.  We argue that while both trends promise to address similar key flaws in the criminal justice system, they send diametrically opposed messages with respect to the role of humans in advancing criminal justice reform.  Progressive prosecution posits that humans are the solution, while algorithmic tools suggest humans are the problem.  This clash reflects both normative frictions and deep differences in the modus operandi of each of these paradigms.  Such tensions are not only theoretical but have immediate practical implications such that each approach tends to inhibit the advantages of the other with respect to bettering the criminal justice system.

We argue against disjointly embedding progressive agendas and algorithmic tools in criminal justice systems.  Instead, we offer a decision-making model which prioritizes principles of accountability, transparency, and democratization without neglecting the benefits of computational methods and technology.  Overall, this article offers a framework to start thinking through the inherent frictions between progressive prosecution and algorithmic decision-making and the potential ways to overcome them.  More broadly, the Article contributes to the discussions about the role of humans in advancing legal reforms in an era of pervading technology.

June 12, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Senate Judiciary Committee advances three criminal justice and sentencing reform bills

I noted in this post last month that the US Senate Judiciary Committee had  plans to take three criminal justice bill: the First Step Implementation Act, the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act, and the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act.  This Law360 piece from a few weeks ago reported that, "on a 14-8 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the COVID-19 Safer Detention Act of 2021."  And the other bill moved forward this past week, as reported in this press release from Senator Grassley:

[T]he Senate Judiciary Committee voted to advance two bipartisan criminal justice reform bills authored by U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee — the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 and the First Step Implementation Act of 2021. These bills will build on the landmark First Step Act and continue Congress’s bipartisan efforts to make our criminal justice system fairer....

The bipartisan, bicameral Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 would end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury.  Our criminal justice system rests on the Fifth and Sixth Amendment guarantees of due process and the right to a jury trial for the criminally accused.  These principles require the government to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury.  Under the Constitution, defendants may be convicted only for conduct proven beyond a reasonable doubt.   However, at sentencing, courts may enhance sentences if they find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a defendant committed other crimes.  The difference in those standards of proof means that a sentencing court can effectively nullify a jury’s verdict by considering acquitted conduct.  The legislation was passed out of Committee by a bipartisan vote of 16-6.  More information on the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2021 can be found here.
 
The bipartisan, bicameral First Step Implementation Act would advance the goals of the landmark First Step Act (FSA), by, among other provisions, making eligible for retroactive review some of the FSA’s sentencing reforms. The FSA — authored by Durbin and Grassley and signed into law in 2018 — is bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation designed to make our justice system fairer and our communities safer by reforming sentencing laws and providing opportunities for those who are incarcerated to prepare to reenter society successfully.  The First Step Implementation Act was passed out of Committee by a bipartisan vote of 13-9.  More information on how the First Step Implementation Act of 2021 would further the goals of the FSA can be found here.

I have little sense of whether or when these bills might move through Congress and get to the desk of the President, but I am hope that congressional leadership sees that these bill are worth prioritizing because they have more bipartisan support that almost any other proposals these days.

Some prior related posts:

June 12, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 11, 2021

Another dive into the ugly BOP realities of federal compassionate release during the pandemic

The Marshall Project has this new piece on federal compassionate release with a full title that captures its essential themes: "31,000 Prisoners Sought Compassionate Release During COVID-19. The Bureau of Prisons Approved 36.  As the pandemic worsened inside federal prisons, officials granted fewer releases." Here are excerpts (with links from the original):

Tens of thousands of federal prisoners applied for compassionate release after the virus began sweeping through lockups. But new Bureau of Prisons data shows officials approved fewer of those applications during the pandemic than they did the year before.  While the BOP director greenlit 55 such requests in 2019, a new director who took over in early 2020 approved only 36 requests in the 13 months since the pandemic took hold in March 2020.  The downturn in approvals came even as the number of people seeking compassionate release skyrocketed from 1,735 in 2019 to nearly 31,000 after the virus hit, according to the new figures.

Because the numbers were compiled for members of Congress, BOP spokesman Scott Taylor said the agency would not answer any questions about the data, “out of respect and deference” to lawmakers.  But Shon Hopwood, a Georgetown law professor, called the bureau’s decrease in compassionate releases during the pandemic “mind-boggling.”...

Federal judges have stepped in to release thousands of people in the face of BOP inaction. And the bureau continues to face intense scrutiny and several lawsuits over its handling of COVID-19.  Since the first reported case last spring, more than 49,000 federal prisoners have fallen ill and 256 have died, according to corrections data tracked by The Marshall Project.  Thirty-five of those who died were waiting for a decision on their release requests....

People in federal prisons seeking release during the pandemic have two main ways to get out early.  One is home confinement, which allows low-risk prisoners to finish their sentences at home or in a halfway house.  They’re still considered in custody, and the decision to let them out is entirely up to the Bureau of Prisons.  As COVID shutdowns began last March, Congress expanded the eligibility criteria and then-Attorney General Bill Barr ordered prison officials to let more people go.  Since then, more than 23,700 people have been sent to home confinement — though several thousand of them may have to return to prison once the pandemic ends.

The other way to get out early is through compassionate release.  If a warden endorses a prisoner’s request, the case goes to BOP’s central office, which usually rejects it.  But if a warden denies a request or 30 days pass with no response, then the incarcerated person can ask a judge to reduce the sentence to time served.  The new data showed 3,221 people have been let out on compassionate release since the start of the pandemic — but 99% of those releases were granted by judges over the bureau’s objections.

Last fall, The Marshall Project published data showing that the Bureau of Prisons rejected or ignored more than 98% of compassionate release requests during the first three months of the pandemic.  Citing that reporting, federal lawmakers in December wrote to the agency to demand more data on both compassionate release and home confinement.

The updated figures outlined in the agency’s response to Congress in April showed that BOP wardens actually endorsed slightly fewer compassionate release requests as the pandemic progressed.  In the first three months, wardens approved 1.4% of release applications.  The central office rejected most of those, with Director Michael Carvajal ultimately approving just 0.1%.  By the end of April — more than a year into the pandemic, and after more than 200 prisoner deaths — wardens had approved 1.2% of applications, and Carvajal again accepted just 0.1%.

By comparison, federal judges approved 21% of compassionate release requests they considered in 2020, according to a recent report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

For the most part, the bureau has offered little insight into its reasons for denying compassionate release. According to the information BOP sent to Congress, wardens denied nearly 23,000 requests because the person “does not meet criteria.”  Roughly 3,200 people were denied because their cases were “not extraordinary and compelling,” while a little over 1,200 were rejected for not providing enough information or documentation.  Four people met the criteria but were denied due to “correctional concerns,” the agency said.

Of the 374 prisoners that wardens recommended for compassionate release during the pandemic, the agency’s central office rejected or did not respond to just over 90%, apparently without making any note as to why.  “The BOP does not track the specific reasons for approval or denial of a compassionate release request at the Central Office level, as there can be several reasons for a particular decision,” wrote General Counsel Ken Hyle.  Some of those reasons, he added, could be opposition from federal prosecutors, a lack of release plan or fear that letting someone out would “minimize the severity of the inmate’s offense.”

A few of many prior related posts:

June 11, 2021 in FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 10, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Data Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justice Thomas writes a concurring opinion that starts this way:

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 09, 2021

A different assessment of "America’s Dangerous Obsession" with innocence on death row

Thirteen years ago, in an article titled Reorienting Progressive Perspectives for Twenty-First Century Punishment Realities, 3 Harv. L.& Pol'y Rev. Online (2008), I explained the basis for my concern that "progressive criminal justice reform efforts concerning innocence issues, abolition of the death penalty, and sentencing disparities may contribute to, and even exacerbate, the forces that have helped propel modern mass incarceration."  That old article feels fresh again upon seeing this new lengthy Atlantic piece by Elizabeth Bruenig titled "America’s Dangerous Obsession With Innocence."  Here are a few excerpts from the piece:

It goes without saying that the state should not kill innocent people, and that it is a good thing to save the innocent from a fate no one thinks they deserve.  I believe it is a good thing, too, to save the guilty from a fate some would argue they have earned.  That the one stance may occlude the other reflects the death penalty’s bizarre moral universe....

According to the national Registry of Exonerations, more than 1,000 people have been exonerated for murder in the United States since 1989.  Many of these cases were initially decided when forensic techniques and technologies were less advanced and less accurate than they are now.  People with plausible innocence claims have, in some instances, been able to bring new technology to bear on preserved evidence to great effect.  That phenomenon spurred the innocence movement in capital-punishment advocacy as we know it.

“Around the year 2000, there’s this ferment all over the place to create innocence programs,” David R. Dow, the founder and director of one such program, the Texas Innocence Network, told me. “They’re kind of sexy. Funders want to fund them. People are beginning to pay attention to the fact that there are innocent people in prison.”

Marissa Bluestine, the assistant director of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, told me that more than 50 innocence organizations now operate in the United States.  They differ in size, scope, region, and budget, but they “all have the same goals: They work to identify people who did not commit the underlying crime they were convicted of and they try to exonerate them.”

That’s well and good, except that the number of innocence claims that can be confidently settled in labs is not infinite, and may in fact be dwindling. Dow, who teaches law at the University of Houston, has represented more than 100 clients on death row in his 30 years of practice; out of that number, he counts only eight as credibly innocent. He doesn’t suspect that his future will hold many more....

More generally, a 2014 published by the National Academy of Sciences found that if all of American death-row inmates were to remain condemned indefinitely, approximately 4.1 percent would eventually be exonerated — a proxy for the share of innocent inmates. That’s an admittedly conservative estimate. But even if the number of innocent inmates were doubled, the number of guilty ones would still make up more than 90 percent of death row....

To put it succinctly: Innocence cases indicate that some capital sentences are unfair, but decades of studies on death-qualified juries; race, gender, and immigration-status bias among jurors; law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct; weak forensic science and poor representation at trial all suggest that a fair capital sentence is virtually impossible.  Ultimately the fight should be waged not against particular injustices, but against the unjust system itself.

Especially for those inclined toward capital abolition, I fully understand the logic of speculating that there many not be that many innocent persons left on death row and so even more fight needs to be directed toward the guilty on death row.  However, the fight against against all of death row has been pretty robust and pretty effective over the last 20 years (surely aided by the innocence movement).  Nationwide, since 2000, death row has shrunk about 30%, the number of executions has shrunk about 75%, and the number of death sentences imposed has shrunk 85%.

But, shifting our focus from formal death sentences to what are sometimes called "death in prison" sentences, the modern story changes dramatically.  As detailed in a recent Sentencing Project report (discussed here), the "number of people serving life without parole — the most extreme type of life sentence — is higher than ever before, a 66% increase since ... 2003."   Moreover, while there are currently around 2500 people on death row who have all been convicted of capital murder, there are now roughly 4000 people "serving life sentences [who] have been convicted for a drug-related offense."  And well over 200,000 persons are now "serving a life sentence, either life without parole (LWOP), life with parole (LWP) or virtual life (50 years or more)."  

If we keep the focus on innocence, and use the 4% number discussed in this Atlantic article and extrapolate, these data mean we could have 100 innocent persons on death row, but also 160 innocent persons serving life for a drug-related offense and over 8000 innocent persons serving LWOP or LWP or virtual life.  If there are lots of innocent groups and not a lot of "good" capital client, there would seem to be no shortage of innocent lifers needing help.  (And, on the data, I am always inclined to speculate that there are now an even larger number of innocent persons serving life than death because capital cases historically get more scrutiny.)

That all said, I obviously share this article's sentiment that guilty persons ought not endure unfair sentences and its advocacy for assailing "the unjust system itself."  However, the capital punishment system, for all its persistent flaws, still strikes me as somewhat less unjust than so many other parts of our sentencing system.  There are no mandatory death sentences, jurors play a central role in every death sentence, and state and federal appellate judges often actively review every death sentence.  There are nearly 100 people serving some type of life sentence for every person serving a death sentence in large part because life sentences are imposed so much more easily as subject to so much less scrutiny. 

Put simply, and I have said before, I worry it is a continued obsession with the death penalty, and not with innocence, that may be problematic in various ways.  But since that very obsession is largely what accounts for capital punishment's modern decline, I am disinclined to be too critical of capital obsessives.

June 9, 2021 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Acquitted. Then Sentenced."

The title of this post is the terrifically economical title of this new commentary authored by Shana O’Toole is the founder and president of the Due Process Institute.  As regular readers surely realize, the commentary focuses on a remarkable sentencing reality that has long troubled me and it discusses the possibility that a legislative fix may be in the works.  Here are excerpts from a piece I recommend (including a footnote that I consider especially important):

Imagine being accused of robbery and murder, but ultimately being found not guilty by a jury of your peers.  Now imagine that just two years later, you are indicted again for a wholly unrelated and less serious criminal offense. You voluntarily plead guilty, expecting to receive a fair sentence. The prosecutors, the probation office, and your defense lawyer all agree that current law sets an appropriate prison sentence ranging between 2.5 years to 3.5 years.

Your case is then assigned to the same judge who presided over your first case.  She sentences you to eight years in prison — more than double the highest end of the range that anyone else involved in the criminal legal system would have told you to expect.  And when she does so, she explains that when she went back over her old notes from your first trial, she determined there is a 51% chance that you should have been found guilty of those crimes, so she’s ignoring the jury’s earlier verdicts and now basing your sentence for this crime on those past unproven crimes.

If you think this describes what happens in a bad movie or under some authoritarian regime, you're wrong.  This describes a real case, and the practice is known as acquitted conduct sentencing.

Earlier this year, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that will provide much-needed reform.  Tomorrow, this bill, the Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act, will face its first major hurdle: a Senate Judiciary Committee markup.

The bill is a first step to addressing the many injustices caused by acquitted conduct sentencing.  It will prohibit federal judges from increasing a person’s prison sentence for one offense on the basis of another offense for which a jury had found the person not guilty.

Perhaps the most apparent problem with acquitted conduct sentencing is that it erodes our system’s presumption of innocence and the fundamental principles of fairness and justice.  Many lawyers and activists argue that it undermines the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial — a pillar of the American criminal legal system, which requires that juries, not judges, determine the facts essential to a prison sentence.

Yet acquitted conduct sentencing remains permissible in every federal court and a majority of state courts. While the actual number of impacted persons has yet to be quantified,[FN1] based on the number of federal appeals we know that the practice is widespread.  At my organization, the Due Process Institute, our office mailbag is full of letters from those trapped behind prison walls who are serving sentences well past what their actual convictions should have brought them.

[FN1] It is almost impossible to say how many people have been directly impacted by the practice since no entity in our federal legal system currently tracks that data. No judge in any of our 94 distinct federal judicial districts is required to document when he or she relies on acquitted conduct in their sentencing decision. And there is often inadequate documentation of acquitted conduct sentencing placed on the public trial record....

Some members of the Supreme Court have raised concerns.... The view that acquitted conduct sentencing is unconstitutional has also won support from lower court judges across the political spectrum.  But the majority of the Supreme Court appears to remain unconvinced.

Without Supreme Court action, we must look to Congress for a remedy.  Thankfully, the legislative fix for this problem is relatively easy. Congress need only amend the law to explicitly exempt the use of acquitted conduct as a basis for increasing a person’s sentence.  The congressional history of 18 U.S. Code § 3661 — the part of the law dealing with the use of information for sentencing — indicates that the law was enacted to provide broad discretion to federal judges when considering information during sentencing.  But it does not appear that the statute was explicitly enacted to permit the specific practice of acquitted conduct sentencing.

The political case for abolishing the use of acquitted conduct at sentencing should appeal to sensibilities on both sides of the political aisle.  That’s why the Senate bill and a similar one in the House of Representatives have each received support from Democrats and Republicans.  In an era in which such bipartisan agreement is increasingly rare, this is an opportunity for Congress to pass meaningful legislation that will make our justice system more fair and effective.

It’s time to put an end to acquitted conduct sentencing, and the Senate’s legislation is a good start.  Tomorrow, the Judiciary Committee should vote to move this legislation forward unamended and allow it to come to the Senate floor for a vote.

June 9, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

GOP Gov and former DEA chief calls for Congress to "finally and fully end the disparity between crack and cocaine offenses"

In this new Fox News commentary, Arkansas Gov Asa Hutchinson makes a notable pitch for the EQUAL Act (discussed here).  The piece is headlined "It's time to fix an old wrong and end the disparity between crack and cocaine offenses," and I recommend it in full.  Here are excerpts:

In America, the principles of fairness and equal treatment are fundamental to the rule of law.  When we fall short of these principles, we lose confidence in our justice system and weaken the foundation of our country.  Since 1986, there has been a substantial difference in prison sentences for crack and powdered cocaine offenses, a disparity that has not only encouraged a misapplication of limited law enforcement resources, but has also been the source of unequal punishment for basically identical crimes....

During my time in Congress in the 1990s, and as the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from 2001-2003, I saw first-hand the impact of this disparity, and found it was failing on three fronts.  First, it rarely led to the prosecution of major drug traffickers and sellers.  Instead, it led to increased prosecutions of small-time dealers and peripheral supporters, almost all of whom were replaced immediately.

Second, it became clear that the disparity was built on a misunderstanding of crack cocaine’s chemical properties and effects of the body.  Crack and powdered cocaine were chemically the same, and the violence that was linked to crack cocaine was not related to the properties of the drug.  Instead, it was the general product of the drug trade and the historically violent trends in areas where crack is predominantly used and sold.

Third, it undermined community confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system. I talked with drug task force officers and front-line agents at the DEA who said this sense of injustice had a real impact in the fight against illegal drugs; it made it more difficult for agents to build trust and work with informants in the areas most impacted by the crack epidemic.  The disparity in sentencing led to more harm than help in our federal anti-crime efforts.

The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., dramatically reduced the disparity, from 100:1 to 18:1.  In 2018, the First Step Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump, made that reduced disparity retroactive.

Those were important steps, but the new sentencing laws continue to cause disproportionate harm and decreased trust in communities of color.  For example, in 2019, Black people accounted for 81% of all federal crack cocaine convictions. Those convictions led to prison terms 18 times longer than they would have been for equivalent amounts of chemically identical powdered cocaine.

It is time for Congress to finish what it started, and finally and fully end the disparity between crack and cocaine offenses.  The bipartisan Equal Act would bring federal sentencing law in line with most states that have eliminated, reduced or never instituted, these unjust disparities. That includes my home state of Arkansas, where possession of crack and powdered cocaine are treated the same under state law....

The strength of our justice system is totally dependent on the perception of fairness and the concept that punishments should fit the crimes.  The clear and pernicious injustice of crack and powdered cocaine sentencing disparities harms our communities, limits law enforcement in their fight against illegal drugs, and weakens the foundation of our entire system of justice.

Congress has the opportunity to fully and finally eliminate this injustice by passing the Equal Act.  To get it done, lawmakers of all different backgrounds will need to put partisanship aside and work in the best interests of the American people.  I can’t think of a worthier cause than preserving our founding principle — that all Americans are treated equally under the law.

I am fully supportive of efforts to equalize federal crack and powder sentencing rules which are now based largely around the quantity of drugs involved in the offense.  But, for truly effective reform, I believe we need to not only move entirely away from any quantity-based approaches to drug offense sentencing, but also start moving away from punitive criminal justice responses to drug activities.

A few prior related posts:

June 9, 2021 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 07, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior recent related posts:

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

Sunday, June 06, 2021

"Election Contestation and Progressive Prosecutors"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now on SSRN authored by Ronald Wright, Jeff Yates and Carissa Byrne Hessick. Here its abstract:

A group of change-oriented chief prosecutors use the label “progressive prosecutor” to describe their distinctive approach to the prosecutor’s work.  But it is not yet clear how deep those proposed changes go.  Did media accounts focus on vivid but exceptional election campaigns, or did the last decade deliver a widespread change in U.S. prosecution leadership? We explore this question by collecting the results in prosecutor elections in 200 high-population districts in the United States, between 2012 and 2020.  Prosecutor elections have traditionally been sleepy affairs, where incumbents most often ran unopposed and won re-election more often than incumbents in other public offices.  Setting aside the difficult issues of measuring how “progressive” each candidate might be, we simply ask whether prosecutor election campaigns are becoming more contested, now that progressive prosecutors offer an alternative vision of the job.

Based on our data, elections in these high-population districts did in fact become more contested over the last decade.  The likelihood that an incumbent would run unopposed fell by roughly eight percent for each passing year.  This steady disappearance of uncontested elections applied most strongly to non-white incumbents.  The incumbent win rate also fell by significant amounts during this period.  Today, prosecutor elections involve more candidates presenting more varied and viable choices.  Prosecutor elections reveal a growing popular interest in and control over local criminal justice policy.

June 6, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 05, 2021

Might the California Supreme Court find a procedural flaw in the state's many death sentences?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the notable oral argument that took place last week in the California Supreme Court.  This Los Angeles Times piece, headlined "California’s top court weighs overturning hundreds of death penalty sentences," provides this account and context. Here are excerpts:

For decades, California’s highest court has left it up to individual jurors to decide whether certain circumstances increase the severity of a crime and thereby warrant the death penalty in murder cases that qualify for the ultimate punishment.  On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court heard arguments on a change to that long-standing practice, which could potentially overturn hundreds of death penalty sentences in California.

At issue is how juries review “aggravating” factors — such as whether a crime was gang-related or involved multiple victims. Defense lawyers in the case argued that to ensure equal application of the death penalty, state law and the state Constitution require juries to be unanimous in their reasoning on each factor.

That the court is even considering new requirements is unusual.  It has refused to impose them in the past and has even summarily dismissed the kind of arguments presented Wednesday.  But the court’s composition has changed over the years.  Last June, the court issued a brief order asking for written arguments on the jury issue in what was otherwise a routine death penalty case.  That raised hopes among some that the court might be ready to wield an ax to capital punishment in California, a state that has produced the nation’s largest death row but hardly any executions.

Wednesday’s hearing probably tempered those hopes.  During a 90-minute hearing, only three justices — the more liberal members of the seven-judge court — spoke.  Though the silence of the majority can be interpreted in different ways, the hearing did not clearly signal that monumental changes were afoot.

The June order asked litigants to submit written arguments on this issue: Must a jury decide beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant should get the death penalty or life without parole, and must that jury also be unanimous in deciding the reasons for a capital verdict?  If the court agreed, a ruling would probably throw out hundreds, if not all, previous death sentences in California.

The court’s sudden interest in the issue alarmed death penalty supporters.  They considered the questions long answered. Kent Scheidegger, a lawyer for a prominent pro-death penalty group, said he was both “surprised” and “very disturbed,” even with the changed composition of the court....

Justice Goodwin Liu, a Brown appointee, spoke the most during the hearing. He repeatedly pressed defense lawyers to cite precedent for their positions.  “I think there’s a lot of appeal to your argument from a fairness perspective,” Liu told a defense lawyer.  Liu’s “difficulty,” he said, was in finding cases that supported the argument legally. Is it possible, he asked, “that this issue has simply been missed this entire time? For 150 years, we have missed this issue?”...

Scheidegger said even that partial victory for the defense would have a “cataclysmic” impact on the death penalty and potentially overturn scores of sentences.  Such decisions in California are usually applied retroactively.  But Scheidegger said he felt “cautiously optimistic” after the hearing.  Liu, he said, did not seem “to be buying” the defendant’s main arguments.

UC Berkeley law professor Elisabeth A. Semel, who co-wrote Newsom’s written argument, declined to predict how the court would vote. “Justices Liu, Cuellar, and Groban had some tough questions” for the deputy attorney general defending the death penalty, she said.  “I do not believe she answered to their satisfaction.”

California has more than 700 inmates on death row, but legal challenges have stymied executions.  Only 13 inmates have been executed since 1992, and Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions during his term in office.

June 5, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 04, 2021

Encouraging examples of democracy expanding for those previously disenfranchised

I just saw this recent Stateline piece headlined "More States Expand the Ballot to Previously Incarcerated," which provides some positivity to close out this week.  Here are excerpts:

Building off two decades of advocacy work and the recent national push to overhaul the criminal justice system, 20 states now restore voting rights for people with felony convictions when they leave prison.  Energy around the restoration of voting rights continues to swell. But there remains sustained opposition, as critics insist people with felony convictions pay all fines and serve the entirety of their parole before regaining the right to vote.

New York and Washington enacted laws in the past two months that automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they are released from prison. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed an executive order in March that restored voting rights for more than 69,000 eligible Virginians.  A proposed amendment to the Virginia state constitution could make that change permanent.  The legislature passed the amendment this session.  Lawmakers will have to pass it again in 2022 before it heads to voters for final approval.

A holdover from the 19th century, 5.2 million Americans are disenfranchised because of their felony convictions — some 2.3% of the nation’s voting age population, according to a 2020 count by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies for the restoration of voting rights.  In 11 states, people with felony convictions lose their voting rights indefinitely, sometimes having to wait for a gubernatorial pardon, or navigate a gauntlet of waiting periods, fees and petitions.

Some critics of these new laws say people with felony convictions should serve the entirety of their sentences, including parole, probation and fines, before being able to cast a ballot again.  However, proponents of voting rights restoration after prison think accessing the ballot connects people with society, giving them ownership over their lives and the community, and possibly dissuading them from committing crimes in the future....

Certain states are going beyond reinstating voting rights for those with felony convictions once they leave prison. Some are scrapping laws that disenfranchise those voters in the first place.  In Oregon, lawmakers are debating measures that would amend a law that strips voting rights from people with felony convictions.  The District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont do not disenfranchise those with felony convictions even while in prison. Illinois also is debating legislation that would repeal the state’s ban on voting by incarcerated people.

The restoration of voting rights has drawn some bipartisan support. Last year, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed an executive order giving the right to vote to thousands of residents with felony convictions after completing parole or probation.  The legislature is working to amend the state’s constitution to make this change permanent.

In Kentucky, Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes is one of the co-sponsors of bipartisan legislation that would amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights for people with certain felony convictions after they complete their imprisonment, probation or parole.  Denying them the right to vote, he said, can make people attempting to rejoin society feel ostracized.  “When someone has committed an offense against the community and they served their time, we want that person back in the community,” he told Stateline.  “Now it’s time for you to take a sense of ownership and responsibility for your neighbors.” If the measure gets legislative approval, the proposed amendment will go before voters on the November 2022 ballot.

This proposal comes more than a year after Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order in 2019 that restored voting rights to an estimated 140,000 Kentuckians with nonviolent felony convictions who have completed their sentences.  A Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll released in February shows more than two-thirds of Kentuckians support the automatic restoration of voting rights for people who finished their sentences.

But there is still opposition by many lawmakers around the country, most of them Republican, who say that some crimes are so heinous they merit lasting punishment such as disenfranchisement.  Others say that people with felony convictions should complete probation and parole periods, along with paying all fines, before they get their rights restored.  “Beyond voting rights, first comes responsibility,” said Washington state Rep. Jenny Graham, a Republican, during floor debate in February.  “When somebody makes a decision to harm or kill another individual, there is accountability that is due.”

After Florida voters passed a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they leave prison, Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, rolled the measure partially back, insisting that people pay all fines before getting their rights returned.  This caused widespread confusion for many people who were formerly incarcerated, leaving them unsure whether they could vote in November’s presidential election. 

The Florida confusion illustrated the ongoing hurdles for voting rights activists: Once these laws are enacted, hurdles remain.  For example, informing recently released residents about their voting rights often falls on resource-limited community organizations, said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project....

Lawmakers in Maryland this year introduced legislation that would require prison staff to provide voter registration information upon residents’ release from prison. It passed both houses of the Maryland legislature, though the chambers must now reconcile differences between their bills.  Such requirements are part of New York’s recent law. Local jails in Cook County, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Philadelphia have implemented programs in recent years to inform incarcerated people of their voting rights and encourage voter registration, Porter said.

June 4, 2021 in Collateral consequences, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

"Jails, Sheriffs, and Carceral Policymaking"

The title of this post is the title of this recent paper authored by Aaron Littman just published in the Vanderbilt Law Review. Here is its abstract:

The machinery of mass incarceration in America is huge, intricate, and destructive.  To understand it and to tame it, scholars and activists look for its levers of power — where are they, who holds them, and what motivates them?  This much we know: legislators criminalize, police arrest, prosecutors charge, judges sentence, prison officials confine, and probation and parole officials manage release.

As this Article reveals, jailers, too, have their hands on the controls.  The sheriffs who run jails — along with the county commissioners who fund them — have tremendous but unrecognized power over the size and shape of our criminal legal system, particularly in rural areas and for people accused or convicted of low-level crimes.

Because they have the authority to build jails (or not) as well as the authority to release people (or not), they exercise significant control not merely over conditions but also over both the supply of and demand for jail bedspace: how large they should be, how many people they should confine, and who those people should be.  By advocating, financing, and contracting for jail bedspace, sheriffs and commissioners determine who has a say and who has a stake in carceral expansion and contraction.  Through their exercise of arrest and release powers, sheriffs affect how many and which people fill their cells. Constraints they create or relieve on carceral infrastructure exert or alleviate pressure on officials at the local, state, and federal levels.

Drawing on surveys of state statutes and of municipal securities filings, data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, case law, and media coverage, this Article tells overlooked stories — of sheriffs who send their deputies out door knocking to convince voters to support a new tax to fund a new jail, and of commissioners who raise criminal court fees and sign contracts to detain “rental inmates” to ensure that incarceration “pays for itself.”  It also tells of sheriffs who override the arrest decisions of city police officers, release defendants who have not made bail, and cut sentences short — and of those who would rather build more beds than push back on carceral inertia.

A spotlight on jails and the officials who run them illuminates important attributes of our carceral crisis.  The power and incentives to build jail bedspace are as consequential as the power and incentives to fill it.  Expanding a county’s jailing capacity has profound ramifications across local, state, and federal criminal legal systems.  Sheriffs have a unique combination of controls over how big and how full their jails are, but this role consolidation does not produce the restraint that some have predicted.  Their disclaimers of responsibility are a smokescreen, obscuring sheriffs’ bureaucratic commitment to perpetuating mass incarceration.  State courts and federal agencies have increasingly recognized and regulated public profiteering through jail contracting, and advocates have begun to hold jailers accountable, challenging expansion in polling booths and budget meetings.

June 4, 2021 in Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 03, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prosecutors and Politics Project releases amazing "Prosecutor Lobbying in the States, 2015-2018"

The Prosecutors and Politics Project, a research initiative at the University of North Carolina School of Law, has just published this remarkable new report titled "Prosecutor Lobbying in the States, 2015-2018." Here are brief excerpts from the report's extended executive summary (which everyone should read in full):

American prosecutors are active lobbyists who routinely support making the criminal law harsher.  During the years 2015 to 2018, state and local prosecutors were involved in more than 25% of all criminal-justice-related bills introduced in the 50 state legislatures.  Prosecutors were nearly twice as likely to lobby in favor of a law that created a new crime or otherwise increased the scope of criminal law than a law that would create a defense, decriminalize conduct, or otherwise narrow the scope of criminal law.  And when state prosecutors lobbied in favor of a bill, it was more than twice as likely to pass than an average bill.

Prosecutors appeared to have more success when they lobbied in favor of a bill than when they opposed a bill.  Although bills with prosecutor support were twice as likely to pass, prosecutor opposition to a bill did not reduce its likelihood of passing.

Notably, prosecutors were more successful when they supported criminal justice reform bills than when they supported traditional law-and-order bills.  Approximately 60% of bills that narrowed the scope of criminal law and 55% of bills that decreased punishment passed when supported by prosecutors.  In contrast, when prosecutors supported bills that increased the scope of criminal law, only 40% of those bills passed; and bills that increased punishments did not fare much better, passing only 42% of the time.

More than 22,000 criminal law and criminal justice bills were introduced in the 50 state legislatures during the four-year period from January 1, 2015 to December 31, 2018. The number of bills introduced varied wildly by state.  The most bills (1536) were introduced in New York; the fewest bills (80) were introduced in Alaska.  The median state introduced 296 bills....

Overall, state lawmakers were more likely to introduce bills that made the criminal justice system harsher than bills that made the law more lenient.  More 40% of the bills introduced either increased the scope of criminal law or increased the sentencing range.  In contrast, only 11% of bills narrowed the scope of criminal law or decreased punishment.  Many criminal justice bills dealt with procedural issues. 35% of bills proposed changes in procedural limits or altered the rights, responsibilities, or liabilities of criminal justice actors.  And less than 5% of bills dealt with funding issues.....

Some prosecutor lobbying comes from specific prosecutor offices. An individual elected prosecutor or an employee in her office may choose to testify in favor or against a bill. The same is true for state attorneys general — some state AGs were active lobbyists.

But in many states the prosecutor lobbying was more coordinated. Most states have one or more organizations — often called associations or councils — that exist in part to lobby the state legislature.  Some of these organizations are private non-profit corporations; others were created by statute.  The organizations also serve other, non-lobbying purposes, such as providing training materials to local prosecutor offices or appointing members to serve on statewide commissions.

The existence of these state organizations did not necessarily supplant the lobbying of individual prosecutors or the state AG.  And, from time to time, the various prosecutors or their organizations took inconsistent positions on bills.  When that occurred, we treated the bill as having both been supported and opposed by prosecutors.

June 3, 2021 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notable new polling data on death penalty from Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center has just reported its latest polling on the death penalty in this extended online report titled, "Most Americans Favor the Death Penalty Despite Concerns About Its Administration." Here are some excerpts:

[T]he death penalty for people convicted of murder continues to draw support from a majority of Americans despite widespread doubts about its administration, fairness and whether it deters serious crimes.

More Americans favor than oppose the death penalty: 60% of U.S. adults favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, including 27% who strongly favor it.  About four-in-ten (39%) oppose the death penalty, with 15% strongly opposed, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The survey, conducted April 5-11 among 5,109 U.S. adults on the Center’s American Trends Panel, finds that support for the death penalty is 5 percentage points lower than it was in August 2020, when 65% said they favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder.

While public support for the death penalty has changed only modestly in recent years, support for the death penalty declined substantially between the late 1990s and the 2010s. (See “Death penalty draws more Americans’ support online than in telephone surveys” for more on long-term measures and the challenge of comparing views across different survey modes.)

Large shares of Americans express concerns over how the death penalty is administered and are skeptical about whether it deters people from committing serious crimes. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) say there is some risk that an innocent person will be put to death, while only 21% think there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent that from happening. Only 30% of death penalty supporters — and just 6% of opponents — say adequate safeguards exist to prevent innocent people from being executed.

A majority of Americans (56%) say Black people are more likely than White people to be sentenced to the death penalty for being convicted of serious crimes.  This view is particularly widespread among Black adults: 85% of Black adults say Black people are more likely than Whites to receive the death penalty for being convicted of similar crimes (61% of Hispanic adults and 49% of White adults say this).  Moreover, more than six-in-ten Americans (63%), including about half of death penalty supporters (48%), say the death penalty does not deter people from committing serious crimes.

Yet support for the death penalty is strongly associated with a belief that when someone commits murder, the death penalty is morally justified.  Among the public overall, 64% say the death penalty is morally justified in cases of murder, while 33% say it is not justified.  An overwhelming share of death penalty supporters (90%) say it is morally justified under such circumstances, compared with 25% of death penalty opponents.

Partisanship continues to be a major factor in support for the death penalty and opinions about its administration.  Just over three-quarters of Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party (77%) say they favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder, including 40% who strongly favor it.  Democrats and Democratic leaners are more divided on this issue: 46% favor the death penalty, while 53% are opposed. About a quarter of Democrats (23%) strongly oppose the death penalty, compared with 17% who strongly favor it.

As in the past, support for the death penalty differs across racial and ethnic groups.  Majorities of White (63%), Asian (63%) and Hispanic adults (56%) favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.  Black adults are evenly divided: 49% favor the death penalty, while an identical share oppose it.

Support for the death penalty also varies across age groups.  About half of those ages 18 to 29 (51%) favor the death penalty, compared with about six-in-ten adults ages 30 to 49 (58%) and those 65 and older (60%).  Adults ages 50 to 64 are most supportive of the death penalty, with 69% in favor.

There are differences in attitudes by education, as well.  Nearly seven-in-ten adults (68%) who have not attended college favor the death penalty, as do 63% of those who have some college experience but no degree.  About half of those with four-year undergraduate degrees but no postgraduate experience (49%) support the death penalty.  Among those with postgraduate degrees, a larger share say they oppose (55%) than favor (44%) the death penalty.

June 3, 2021 in Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 01, 2021

"Victims’ Rights in the Diversion Landscape"

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

In this piece I explore the practical and theoretical conflicts that might surface when the diversion movement and the victims’ rights movement intersect.  I focus on two possible sites of tension: victim input into the diversion offer and the victim’s right to receive restitution as a term of diversion.  Protocols to give victims greater voice in the justice process have been a mainstay of the burgeoning victims’ rights movement for the past several decades, but I argue that those protocols must be understood within (and thus limited by) the context of fiscal responsibility, compassion for the offender, and proportionality in the justice system that lie at the heart of diversion schemes.  Any other arrangement risks elevating retribution over rehabilitation and inserts a level of arbitrariness into the diversion process that would subvert our commitment to fairness and transparency.

June 1, 2021 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 31, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related posts and links:

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

Amidst more guns and many more gun crimes (especially murders), can sentencing reforms move forward as media predicts "bloody summer"?

Because violent crime is on the rise (and perhaps also because the COVID beat has grown stale), I am now seeing a whole lot of recent media coverage and political punditry focused on rising crime rates and their political implications.  At times, I am a bit frustrated that this discussion often elides important data suggesting that it is primarily gun-related crimes that are on the rise while other crimes may still be on the decline.  To its credit, the New York Times has this new gun/crime piece headlined "An Arms Race in America: Gun Buying Spiked During the Pandemic. It’s Still Up."

But given that most murders in the US are gun murders (about 75%) and that most serious assaults involve guns and that violent crime has much greater salience than other crime, it is understandable that so much media coverage is focused on rising crime and associated punditry is focused on how political leaders should respond. That all said, I was still struck by this series of headlines the last few days from the Washington Post:

To the extent the inside-the-Beltway crowd still gives extra attention to the Post, key members of the political class cannot miss the "bloody summer" theme that the Post now seems eager to reinforce over and over.  Relatedly, a number of other media and political pundits are contributing to a narrative that certain political responses are needed.  Here is a sampling:

Notably, as highlighted in this post, the US Department of Justice last week announced a new "effort to help protect our communities from the recent increase in major violent crimes."  But, in part because there is no simple "solution" to rising gun crimes, this DOJ announcement did not have any headline-making elements likely to lead the press or pundits to starting praising DOJ's new efforts.  Simply put, the politics of crime and punishment is so challenging because horrible crimes will always garner more headlines than careful punishment practices.

So, with all the on-going rising crime chatter, can any sentencing reforms move forward?   I know better than to make bold predictions, and it is often wise in politics to bet on inertia.  Moreover, the long and winding five-year legislative road to the FIRST STEP Act of 2018 is a reminder that even modest reform efforts can take a very long time to become reality even when the political winds are all blowing in the right direction.  So, the simple, obvious answer to the question in the title of this post is perhaps just "no."

But law professors do not make a living on simple, obvious answers, and so I have more to say.  To be precise, I am eager to encourage elected officials and other policymakers to convert justified concerns over rising gun crimes into sound structural and strategic reform efforts.  The Biden Administration is now overdue to make appointments to the US Sentencing Commission (see here and here), and we are more generally long overdue for a long-discussed national crime commission (see talk of a National Criminal Justice Commission in 2009 and in 2010 and in 2015).  Though certain substantive reforms always represent an uphill legislative battle (particularly in a politically divided Congress), improving our infrastructure and knowledge base for future reform should still be possible, and might even be viewed as a priority, when crime and punishment is ever in the headlines.  States similarly might use this moment to create sentencing commissions (or better support and fund those already in existence) at a time when there is so much uncertainty and debate over just the "facts on the ground."

In addition, if bigger reforms falter, energy and efforts could and should be invested in bolstering and improving past reforms: e.g., at the federal level, making sure the FIRST STEP Act is fully implemented; at the state level, making sure various recent reform efforts are being soundly implemented and effectively studied.  And, even with concerns about rising crime, a lot of back-end and low-level reforms could even get an extra pragmatic push because we will not have room to incarcerate more serious, more risky repeat offenders if we keep our prisons filled with less serious, less risky first-timers.  

For so many reasons, I hope we can have productive sentencing reform summer rather than a "bloody" one.  But, I have to admit, I am growing particularly pessimistic on these fronts.

A few prior related posts:

May 31, 2021 in National and State Crime Data, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few recent related posts:

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