New Cases on the Constitutionality of Long Sentences for Juveniles: The Graham Saga Continues

In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the U.S. Supreme Court barred the sentence of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP) for crimes committed by anyone under eighteen years of age. Grounded in the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause of the Eighth Amendment, the Court’s holding recognized only one exception: juvenile LWOP might be permissible in cases involving homicide.

Despite its seemingly straightforward character, the Graham holding has spawned considerable litigation in the lower courts over its scope and application. Two interesting appellate decisions from last month highlight some of the difficulties.

In the first, U.S. v. Mathurin, the Eleventh Circuit had to consider whether a 685-month prison term should be treated as the functional equivalent of an LWOP sentence for Eighth Amendment purposes.   Continue reading “New Cases on the Constitutionality of Long Sentences for Juveniles: The Graham Saga Continues”

A Win for Judicial Sentencing Discretion in Armed Robbery Cases; Additional Reform Still Needed

Earlier this month, in Dean v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that federal sentencing judges retain some discretion to soften the notoriously draconian sentencing scheme of 18 U.S.C. §924(c). The statute establishes a mandatory prison term when a defendant uses or possesses a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. Unlike most minimums, though, this one must be imposed to run consecutively with any other sentences imposed at the same time. Thus, for instance, a defendant convicted of both a robbery and possession of a firearm during the robbery must get at least five years on top of whatever sentence is ordered for the robbery.

But what if a judge—in light of all of the facts of the case and the circumstances of the defendant—decides that five years is a sufficient punishment for the crime? Could the judge impose a sentence of just one day on the robbery count, so that the total sentence does not exceed what is necessary? In other words, in sentencing for the robbery count, can the judge take into consideration what she will have to impose for the §924(c) count?

Yes, said the Supreme Court in Dean.   Continue reading “A Win for Judicial Sentencing Discretion in Armed Robbery Cases; Additional Reform Still Needed”

U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up

Ringing in the new year, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released its data on prisoners in the United States in 2015. After rising consistently for about four decades, the U.S. prison population (state and federal combined) peaked at a little over 1.6 million in 2009. Since then, the population has declined steadily, but very slowly. For 2015, the total was a little over 1.5 million, or about 35,000 less than 2014. The continued reductions are encouraging, but must be kept in perspective: the population remains many times above its historic norms. The current rate of 458 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents is over four times greater than the long-term rate of about 100 per 100,000 from before the imprisonment boom. We are still very much in the era of mass incarceration.

The Wisconsin numbers continue to be lower than the national norms, but are moving in the opposite direction. At yearend 2015, Wisconsin’s prison population numbered 22,975, up 1.7 percent from 2014. This amounts to 377 prisoners per 100,000. By comparison, Minnesota’s rate was just 196 per 100,000.

Here are a few additional observations:

Continue reading “U.S. Prison Population Continues Slow Decline; Wisconsin’s Inches Up”

Sentencing and Disgust

Sixty years in prison may seem like a long time for a crime not involving homicide, but such was the term Nathan Brown received in the Northern District of New York for producing and possessing child pornography. Brown’s sentence was premised, in part, on the psychological harm done to three children whom Brown photographed in sexually graphic ways. However, the record only provided clear support for harm to two of the children; the third was apparently photographed while sleeping and had no recollection of the incident afterwards. Last June, a panel of the Second Circuit initially ruled (2-1) that Brown should be resentenced so as to ensure that his punishment did not result from an erroneous understanding of the facts. However, the same panel of the Second Circuit reversed itself earlier this month, affirming Brown’s sentence as originally imposed.

The panel’s switch resulted from a change of heart by Judge Robert Sack, who ultimately concluded that the long sentence was reasonable and a resentencing not likely to lead to a different outcome. Although backing away from the panel’s initial holding, Sack apparently remained troubled by aspects of the district judge’s “rhetorical overkill” at Brown’s sentencing. Sack elaborated on his concerns in a thoughtful concurring opinion. Highlighting what seems an important challenge in the sentencing of certain types of cases involving highly disturbing offenses, Sack’s opinion merits quoting at length:   Continue reading “Sentencing and Disgust”

Obama Clemency Grants Pick Up Steam

Somewhat lost in the run-up to Labor Day weekend and wall-to-wall media coverage of the Clinton and Trump campaigns, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 111 federal prisoners on August 30. This builds on what has quietly become one of Obama’s most significant end-of-term domestic policy initiatives. He has now commuted 673 sentences, more than the previous ten presidents combined.

Commutation (that is, a reduction in the severity of a criminal sentence) is a form of executive clemency. The Constitution expressly grants clemency powers, and presidents since George Washington have used these powers in a variety of different ways. In recent decades, though, there has been a certain whiff of disrepute surrounding clemency. Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich and George W. Bush’s commutation of the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, among other scandals, contributed to a perception that clemency was unfairly used to benefit wealthy, powerful defendants.

Despite these negative perceptions of clemency, the Obama Administration announced in 2014 that it would welcome commutation applications from certain nonviolent federal offenders. In particular, the initiative focuses on offenders who were convicted many years ago of crimes that would result in a shorter sentence today. Federal sentencing law has undergone several important changes in the past decade, especially in relation to the sentencing of crack cocaine offenses. Federal crack sentences were notoriously severe for many years, with greatly disproportionate effects on black defendants. As a result of the recent changes, thousands of federal prisoners are now serving terms that would be shorter if they were imposed for the same offenses today.

In comparison to the secretive, ad hoc decisionmaking of previous presidents, President Obama’s initiative represents an admirably transparent, principled approach to clemency.  Continue reading “Obama Clemency Grants Pick Up Steam”

SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Statutory Interpretation in Criminal Cases

In the first post in this series, I discussed two causation cases in some detail.  In this post, I will more briefly summarize the full set of the Supreme Court’s criminal statutory interpretation cases from the past term and then offer a few overarching observations.

Here are the cases (excluding habeas corpus decisions):

Continue reading “SCOTUS End-of-Term Roundup: Statutory Interpretation in Criminal Cases”

Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder delivered a widely noted address to the American Bar Association that seemed to promise significant changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  I wrote these reactions for the Federal Sentencing Reporter.

Following decades in which the U.S. Department of Justice has consistently advocated for a rigid and harsh legalism in criminal justice policy—in which DOJ, in the name of abstract principles of national uniformity, has willfully disregarded the devastating impact of its charging, plea-bargaining, and sentencing practices on real-life human beings—Attorney General Holder’s ABA address seems a breath of fresh air. He calls for a more flexible federal criminal justice system, in which prosecutorial charging priorities are more specifically tailored to meet local needs, in which sentencing is more individualized to the offender and prosecutors sometimes forego mandatory minimum sentences, and in which individual U.S. Attorney Offices experiment with new diversion programs as an alternative to conventional case-processing. Holder believes—correctly, I think—that a more flexible and pragmatic system can achieve better public-safety results at a lesser cost than a system in which preserving the integrity of the federal sentencing guidelines is the overriding value.

Through Holder’s address, DOJ offers its most prominent and unequivocal endorsement yet of an emerging new criminal justice paradigm.   Continue reading “Thoughts on the Holder Address: Two Cheers for the New Paradigm”

New US DOJ “Smart on Crime” Policy

AG Holder’s remarks to the ABA earlier this week, announcing new DOJ initiatives, are here.  The related “Smart on Crime” report is here.  Press coverage of the Holder speech focused on the announcement that federal prosecutors would no longer seek to have “draconian” mandatory minimums imposed on low-level drug offenders, but there are other interesting aspects to the new policy, including expanded compassionate release for federal prisoners and a new focus on reentry and collateral consequences.

It seems to me that just about everything here could have been said, and should have been said, two decades ago by AG Reno.  Still, better late than never . . . .

Ironic that this federal backing away from mandatory minimums occurs the very same week we see a push in Wisconsin for new mandatory minimums at the state level.

Supreme Court Reaffirms “Categorical Approach” in Applying Armed Career Criminal Act

Has Congress ever made the federal courts do more work to little so good effect than it did when it passed the Armed Career Criminal Act in 1984?  The ACCA imposes a fifteen-year mandatory minimum on certain federal defendants who have three prior convictions for a violent felony or serious drug crime, which are defined terms in the statute.  The basic application problem is that we have fifty different state criminal codes, and state legislatures never saw fit to amend their laws so as to fit their crime definitions to the ACCA terminology.  As a result, figuring out which state convictions count as ACCA predicates has consumed — and continutes to consume — an enormous amount of judicial time and effort.  A few lines of statutory text have generated a marvelously intricate, uncertain, and ever-changing body of jurisprudence.

The Supreme Court offered its latest foray into the ACCA quagmire yesterday in Descamps v. United States (No. 11-9540).  At issue was whether Descamps’s prior burglary conviction in California could be used as a predicate for the fifteen-year ACCA mandatory minimum.  The statutory definition of “violent felony” does include “burglary,” but the Court has previously held that not all burglary convictions count; rather, the crime of conviction must have the elements of “generic burglary” — if a state has chosen to define the crime of burglary in an unusually broad manner, then convictions of burlgary in that state may not be treated as burglary convictions for ACCA purposes.

And it turns out that California does have an idiosyncratic burglary definition.  Continue reading “Supreme Court Reaffirms “Categorical Approach” in Applying Armed Career Criminal Act”