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.   (more…)

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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.

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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.  (more…)

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SCOTUS: Guidelines Amendments Trigger Ex Post Facto Protections

So just how advisory are the “advisory” federal sentencing guidelines?  That was the central question in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier today in Peugh v. United States, which held that guidelines amendments resulting in harsher recommended sentences are limited by the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution.

The Court converted the federal sentencing guidelines from mandatory to advisory in 2005, but left unanswered many important questions about what exactly it means for the guidelines to be “advisory.”  Several of these questions were answered in a trilogy of 2007 decisions, which effectively established a new and unique sentencing system for the federal courts.  Although sentencing judges are not required to follow the guidelines, the Supreme Court did put a thumb on the scales in favor of guidelines sentences.  Dissenting justices objected that this kinda-sorta advisory system violated the Sixth Amendment, but to no avail.

The new system also raised Ex Post Facto Clause issues, which divided the lower courts.  Peugh nicely illustrates the problem.

(more…)

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Seventh Circuit: Defendant’s Punches Created Substantial Risk of Serious Bodily Injury

In the course of being arrested on drug charges, Freddy Alexander took a couple of swings at a police officer.  As Alexander’s sentencing judge saw things, these punches boosted his guidelines offense level by six under §3A1.2(c)(1), which applies when a defendant creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to a law enforcement officer.  This despite the fact that Alexander only connected with one of his punches and caused only a minor injury that did not require medical attention.

The Seventh Circuit nonetheless affirmed Alexander’s sentence earlier today in United States v. Alexander (No. 12-1084) (per curiam).  The court observed that “§3A1.2(c)(1) applies to substantial risk of serious injury and does not require that the defendant actually have inflicted serious injury.”  Fair enough, but why think that Alexander’s punches posed such a risk?  I don’t know anything about Alexander’s size and strength, but I’m pretty sure that if I took a couple of swings at someone, I’d be much more likely to injure myself than my opponent.   (more…)

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New Essays on Restitution and Sentencing Commissions

I have two new essays on SSRN assessing the history and future prospects of restitution and sentencing commissions, respectively.  These essays will be published later this year in the Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

The restitution essay covers such topics as Randy Barnett’s proposal that restitution be used in lieu of imprisonment as our basic form of criminal punishment, debates regarding which types of victims should be able to recover for which types of injuries, and the question of whether victims seeking restitution should be given a right to legal representation.

The sentencing commissions essay focuses particularly on the Minnesota and federal sentencing commissions.  In considering these case studies, as well as the experience with sentencing commissions in a few other states, my

primary theme is the relationship between sentencing commissions and legislatures. Although sentencing commissions are predominantly legislative creations, commissions have often struggled to maintain their relevance in the face of ongoing legislative policymaking in the sentencing area, which frequently takes the form of harsh statutory responses to the “crime du jour.” A secondary theme is the relationship between commissions and judges—another relationship that has sometimes proven quite challenging for the commissions to manage effectively.

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Sentence Not Improperly Enhanced Based on Defendant’s Silence, Seventh Circuit Rules

At sentencing, defendants are expected to express remorse for their crimes.  Indeed, the defendant who fails to impress the judge with the sincerity of his contrition is apt to face a longer sentence on that basis.  But what if the defendant chooses to say nothing at all at sentencing?  On the one hand, a judge might infer a lack of remorse from the defendant’s silence.  But, on the other, there seems some tension between penalizing a defendant’s failure to speak and the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

The Seventh Circuit addressed this tension earlier today in United States v. Keskes (No. 12-1127) (Tinder, J.).  Convicted of mail fraud, Keskes apparently declined the opportunity to allocute at his sentencing.  The district judge then made note of this in finding a lack of remorse and increasing Keskes’ sentence on that basis.  On appeal, Keskes argued that the sentence violated his right to remain silent.  The Seventh Circuit, however, affirmed.

(more…)

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Which Cities Have the Largest Sentencing Disparities?

For a generation, federal sentencing policy-makers have been preoccupied by the ideal of national uniformity — the ideal that federal judges in Milwaukee should sentence the same as federal judges in Maine and Miami.  I’m a long-time skeptic of this ideal; since most of the impact of most crime is local, why shouldn’t local needs and values determine the punishment?  But even I am troubled by judge-to-judge disparities within a single federal courthouse.  The random assignment of a case to one judge instead of another should not govern the punishment.

Although there has been a great deal of anecdotal evidence of such local disparity, it has been very hard to quantify because of a longstanding agreement between the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the federal judiciary that blocks the release of judge-specific setencing data.  However, thanks to a great deal of painstaking effort by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, it is now possible to analyze the sentencing practices of individual judges.

Earlier this year, TRAC made waves with a public announcement of which districts had the greatest inter-judge disparity.  However, TRAC’s methodology was sharply criticized, and with good reason.  More recently, TRAC published a new and improved version of its report at 25 Fed. Sent. Rep. 6 (2012).

So, which cities have the greatest disparities?   (more…)

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