Monday, December 14, 2020

Anyone have any distinct views on who Joe Biden should pick as US Attorney General?

As perhaps my last substantive post for the semester, I will reinforce out common "who sentences" theme by asking whether anyone has any special thoughts concerning who Joe Biden should pick to serve as US Attorney General.  I probably would not assert that the US Attorney General is the most important "who" when it comes to sentencing, but I will say she is likely always among the top 10 most important "whos."  And especially at a time when there is much (justified) focus on the role that so-called "progressive prosecutors" can play in advancing criminal justice reform, I think the selection of an Attorney General is especially consequential circa 2020.

I have done two posts over at my main blog discussing the two people whom I still consider the likely front-runners:

For a variety of reasons, I would like to imagine a world in which reform advocates like Michelle Alexander or Bryan Stevenson might be realistic options for the role of AG.  But for a variety of reasons, I suspect folks like Doug Jones and Sally Yates may be about as progressive as any "realistic" US AG pick is going to be.  And I would love to hear any views on any possibilities (realistic or unrealistic) for who should be directing the Justice Department come 2021.

December 14, 2020 in Who decides | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

What data in the federal system would indicate the Biden Administration is drawing down the federal drug war?

Rates_drug_use_sale_1080_737_80With my usual apologies for only scratching the data/metrics surface in class yesterday, I wanted to link here to some of the materials I mentioned and then set up our final discussion giving particular emphasis to the (federal) war on drugs.  To start, on the crime front, I flagged graphics in class drawn from this short FactTank report, titled "What the data says (and doesn’t say) about crime in the United States," from the Pew Research Center.  I recommend the full piece, though I could easily cite to dozens more articles about so many other uncertain metrics regarding crime.

And when it comes to uncertainty about crime, I always think about drugs because illegal drug activity is the kind of behavior that is unlikely to be regularly reported to police and that is so wide-spread that it has to be, by necessity, only selectively enforced by police and prosecutors.  One reason the so-called "War on Drugs" is often called racist is because survey evidence suggests that blacks and whites use and sell drugs at roughly similar rates, but blacks are much, much more likely to be subject to drug-related arrests, sentences, and incarceration.  This data visualization (also reprinted) from The Hamilton Project is a little dated, but it captures the basic disconcerting data realities of seemingly extraordinarily disparate enforcement patterns.

But, as is often the case, there are reasonable debates based on existing data as to whether we ought to worry particularly about drug war disparities if our biggest concern is mass incarceration.  LawProf John Pfaff wrote an interesting book a few years ago (summarized here) stressing data showing the relatively low percentage of state prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses to argue that we ought not focus on drug offenses as a cause or driver of modern mass incarceration.  Sure enough, if you check out the amazing "Whole Pie" accounting of incarceration, one sees that "only" about 15% of the state prison population is made up of drug offenders.  (One quibble I have always brought up in discussions with Prof Pfaff is his failure to consider sufficiently how prior drug offenses impact and extend the sentences of state (and federal) offenders for other crimes.  Many folks in the states subject to particularly harsh three-strikes or habitual offender laws often have prior convictions based in drug enforcement.  As I see it, folks getting decades in prison for, say, a robbery in 2015 based in part on prior drug offenses in 2010 and 2005 are still "drug war" prisoners.)

However one considers drug war realities in state justice systems, the significant impact of drug enforcement at the federal level is indisputable.  I noted in class this US Sentencing Commission Quick Facts document about caseloads and sentencing in drug cases in the federal system, and that data document shows that more than a quarter of all federal cases sentenced last year were drug cases and the average sentence for all these cases was 77 months (whereas the average sentence for all fraud offenses last year was 23 months).  Another way to see the impact of drug cases in the federal system is this other USSC Quick Facts document on the federal prison population as of June 2020.  That document shows that roughly 45% of the federal prison population is incarcerated for drug offenses and that there are more than 10 times as many current federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses than for fraud offenses.  Indeed, it appears that there are roughly the same number of meth offenders in federal prison as there are federal firearm and robbery offenders combined (and firearm and robbery offenders are the two biggest categories of prisoners after drug offenders according to this USSC data).

ChartBut the story gets even more interesting if you look at some of the quite divergent racial patterns in federal drug enforcement and sentencing.  In this Vox article is a slightly dated chart (also reprinted here) that breaks down the racial composition of offenders for different drugs in the federal system, and it shows that almost all sentenced crack offenders are black whereas very few marijuana and meth offenders are black.  These data suggest that if one had the goal of significantly reducing the number of black federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses, reducing significantly the number of crack (and powder cocaine) prosecutions would be sufficient.  But it the concern was more broadly about all people of color, marijuana and meth prosecutions are key because they are disproportionately involving Latinx individuals.  And, if gender intersectionality is of concern, check out this USSC Quick Facts on female offenders which reports that "Among female drug trafficking offenders, 41.6% were Hispanic followed by White (40.1%), Black (13.4%), and Other races
(5.0%)" as compared to "female fraud offenders, [who were] 43.6% were White, followed by Black (31.3%), Hispanic (18.6%), and Other races (6.5%)."

I know that processing all this data is near impossible, and my main goal is just to highlight how many different metrics one might wish to consider.  But I also wanted to finish by focusing on how the new Biden Administration players might set goals for these data as part of an effort to "de-escalate" the drug war.  The number of drug cases prosecutors by federal authorities would seem to be a matter largely of prosecutorial discretion and a matter that the Biden Administration could significantly alter over time.  Given that recent history details about 20,000 federal sentences imposed for drug cases averaging around six years in prison, that means roughly 120,000 years of federal prison is being allocated to federal drug enforcement each year.  Would it be reasonable for a new Attorney General to announce that by, say, 2024 she thinks the federal system ought to allocate only around 50,000 years of federal prison to federal drug enforcement each year (e.g., there should be only 10,000 cases averaging 5 years)?  Or how about only 20,000 years of federal prison to federal drug enforcement each year (only 5,000 cases averaging 4 years)?  Or is this crazy talk?

December 2, 2020 in Current Affairs, Guideline sentencing systems, Scope of imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A final (too brief) foray into what metrics and data matter for assessing a sentencing system

After our first few weeks of class discussing theories of punishment, you likely recall that we never reached any kind of firm conclusive resolution as to what goals a sentencing system must or should pursue.  For that reason (and others), it should not be a surprise that there is no firm conclusive view of what metrics or data matter most for judging a sentencing system or the criminal justice system more generally.  But this is not for lack of possible options, and here I will list some broad categories and sub-categories for you to consider as possible data points of greatest interest or concern for a sentencing system:


  • Overall crime rates and/or total crimes (per year or over an extended period)
  • Violent crime rates and/or total violent crimes
  • Murder rates and/or total murders


  • Overall total arrests (per year or over an extended period)
  • Arrest rates relative to crime rates
  • Arrests for certain crimes


  • Total convictions, felonies and misdemeanors (per year or over an extended period)
  • Conviction rates relative to crime rates or arrest rates
  • Conviction rates for certain crimes


  • Total sentences for many types of punishments (death, prison, jail, probation, fine)
  • Prison/jail sentences for more any crimes
  • More severe sentence of death, life or more than, say, 20 years in prison


  • Total persons in prison, jail. supervision at one snapshot in time
  • Total persons in prison, jail. supervision over a year or longer
  • Total persons in prison, jail. supervision for certain crimes


  • Persons arrested within one year (or 5 or 10 years)  after arrest
  • Persons sentenced for a new crime within one year (or 5 or 10 years) after release from custody
  • Persons convicted of a new serious crime within one year (or 5 or 10 years) after prior CJ contact


  • All persons ever subject to arrest/conviction
  • All persons who see or secure record relief from a prior conviction
  • All persons receiving longer sentences due to criminal past


  • Total expenditures by governments on entire criminal justice system
  • Total expenditures by governments on prisons and jails
  • Social/human costs (and benefits) from interactions with criminal justice system

I could go on and on, but I am sure you get the idea and that you can now reflect a bit on how many different possible sentencing "outputs" could  be a focal point for data collection, review and analysis.  This is the broad topic I am eager for us to cover in our last few classes, and I especially want to highlight that this long list of possibilities does not begin to engages various social justice issues — e.g., should we focus on "output" numbers in any or all of these categories particularly for people of color?  for women?  for juveniles?  for persons with mental illness?  for veterans?

We can perhaps start the discussion here in the comments, but know I will be asking you in our final classes to share your views on these issues through this particular question: What two of three metrics or data points should the incoming Biden Administration give special and sustained attention to in the coming months and years?

November 25, 2020 in Class activities, Data on sentencing, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Reactions to our look behind the robes with federal sentencing judges?

I hope everyone enjoyed as much as I did the Zoom visit today by US District Judge Douglas R. Cole (SD Ohio) and US District Judge Robert W. Pratt (SD Iowa).  This post provides an opportunity to share comments and reactions to what we heard.

November 19, 2020 in Who decides | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Are there any "offender characteristics" that you think must be considered at sentencing? If so, how?

As we continue digging into the challenging and dynamic topics of offender characteristics at sentencing, I urge you to think about what offender characteristics should or must always be considered at federal sentencing with two particular "whos" in mind: the US Sentencing Commission and US District Judges.  

The challenge for the USSC 

You should closely review Problem 5-4 in the text and the notes that follow (pp. 322-26).  You will see that Congress in the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 instructed the USSC to consider the "relevance" of various offender factors at sentencing (and only declared a few factors like race and sex and socio-economic status off-limits).  In other words, Congress gave the Sentencing Commission considerable discretion to include various offender factors in guideline calculations, but the USSC has historically deemed nearly all offender factors — such as "disadvantaged upbringing" and "drug or alcohol dependence" and "education and vocational skills" and "employment record" and "family ties and responsibilities" — as either "not relevant" or "not ordinarily relevant" at sentencing.

Notably, in a 2014 law review article, a former Chair of the US Sentencing Commission, US District Judge William Sessions, criticized the federal sentencing guidelines for having too often and for too long declared offender characteristics to be "prohibited or discouraged factors" because of a fear these factors could too readily lead "courts to issue different sentences to defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct."  In his article, titled "The Relevance of Offender Characteristics in a Guideline System," Judge Sessions asserted that the "Commission needs to embrace the relevance of human factors and educate judges and practitioners as to their impact on the sentencing process;" drawing from his own sentencing experiences, Judge Sessions suggested that factors like "past drug dependence" and "positive response under pretrial supervision" ought to be the basis for new "guidelines that encourage consideration of those characteristics where appropriate."  

Do you agree that it is problematic that the federal sentencing guidelines largely seek to exclude consideration of offender characteristics and that the US Sentencing Commission consider a new approach to these matters?  Judge Sessions says "the Sentencing Commission should take more of an initiative to collect data on offender characteristics, draft guidelines that encourage consideration of those characteristics where appropriate, and educate judges about the reasons why those characteristics are relevant should what might these guidelines look like."  If you were serving on the USSC, what kinds of "data on offender characteristics" might you want to collect and what kind of "draft guidelines" might you start to compose?


The challenge for US District Judges

Even when the guidelines were mandatory before Booker, US District Judges had some limited authority to give some effect to offender characteristics at sentencing when selecting an exact sentence within the guideline range.  (For example, a judge impressed by a defendant's charity work could reference this personal history when giving a 51-month term to a defendant facing a guideline sentencing range of 51-63 months.)  But US District Judges before Booker largely understood that most "usual" offender characteristics were of little importance within the guideline structures, and that reality in turn often led defense attorneys to spend little or no time developing any offender-based mitigating factors to present to judges at sentencing.

But when Booker made the guidelines advisory, US District Judges became obligated to focus upon and follow the statutory instructions in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  And the very first subsection of this statutory provision states judges "shall consider the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant" (emphasis added).  In other words, Congress gave US District Judges a formal instruction to consider offender considerations, and this instruction became a focus point for advocacy and decision-making after Booker.  This provision was also stressed by US District Judge Robert Pratt when he initially sentenced Brian Gall to 36 months of probation rather than within the guidelines sentencing range of 30-37 months in prison.  The Eighth Circuit reversed Judge Pratt's sentence as unreasonable, but the Supreme Court reversed that reversal (excerpted in our text at pp. 341-48) to essentially confirm that offender characteristics could play a much larger role in federal sentencing after Booker.

If you were able to advise a group of federal judges about modern sentencing under the advisory guideline system, what advice might you give circa 2020 as to how best to approach the consideration of offender characteristics?  Are there any offender characteristics that you think federal district judges should or must always consider at sentencing?  If so, how should judges now approach these matters without creating the risk of unjust sentencing disparities or other potential problems?

November 15, 2020 in Class activities, Guideline sentencing systems, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Reviewing class plans for the rest of November

Amidst all the recent uncertainty and angst, I wanted to be certain to remind everyone about our class plans for the rest of November:

Tuesday, Nov 10: Guest lecture via Zoom by Jonathan Wroblewski, Director of the Office of Policy and Legislation in the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice.  (No in-person class, background reading/prep detailed here.)

Thursday, Nov 12: In-person regular class beginning our review of "the criminal" for sentencing (skim Johnson and read Tiernan closely in the text for this class)

Tuesday, Nov 17: In-person regular continuing our review of "the criminal" for sentencing (read Gall closely in the text for this class) 

Thursday, Nov 19: Guest visits via Zoom by US District Judge Douglas R. Cole (SD Ohio) and US District Judge Robert W. Pratt (SD Iowa)

Tuesday, Nov 24: Constructive Wednesday so ... NO CLASS


November 8, 2020 in Class activities, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 6, 2020

Spotlighting federal government's ability (and efforts) to control both "charges" and "real" conduct in some drug cases

As we wrapped up a too-quick discussion of the "offense" for sentencing purposes with a focus on drug cases, I briefly mentioned the somewhat (in)famous litigation in Chicago surrounding so-called "stash-house sting" case.  I have done a series of blog posts about these cases at my main blog, some of which are linked below.  Here is a 2019 Chicago Tribune article, headlined "Convicted in a controversial stash house sting operation, Leslie Mayfield is struggling to rebuild his life after prison," which focuses on one stash-house defendant while also telling the broader stories of these cases.  I recommend the new Tribune article in full (and posts linked below) for those interested in these stores, but here is an overview of the basics (with sentencing points bolded) drawn from this press piece (which also highlights the role of a bunch of different critical "whos"):

Leslie Mayfield wasn’t used to entering a courtroom except in shackles.  Over the years, through his trial for conspiring to rob a drug stash house, his sentencing to a decades-long prison term and his long-shot fight to overturn his conviction on entrapment grounds, Mayfield had always been escorted into court by deputy U.S. marshals from a lockup in back....

But recently, he took a seat in U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang’s courtroom gallery, whispering to his attorney that it all felt strange as he waited for his name to be called....  Reviewing reports on Mayfield’s progress, Chang noted that since his release from prison, he’d found a job, reconnected with his family and maintained a strong motive to stay straight.  Then the judge made the transformation official, agreeing that Mayfield, 51, no longer needed court supervision.

The ruling marked a quiet milestone in the widely criticized sting operations in which the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives used informants to lure unsuspecting targets into a scheme to rob drug stash houses — an undercover ruse concocted by the government.

For years, the stings were considered a smashing success, touted as a law enforcement tool to remove dangerous criminals from the streets.  But the practice came under fire in 2014 when attorneys for the University of Chicago Law School mounted a legal challenge on behalf of nearly four dozen Chicago-area defendants alleging the stings disproportionately targeted African Americans and Hispanics.

Both the ATF and the U.S. attorney’s office staunchly defended the operations in court, saying they followed rigorous guidelines to ensure the stings were lawful.  While the legal effort to prove racial discrimination fell short, the tactics drew sharp rebukes from many judges.  Prosecutors began quietly dismissing the more serious charges, and over the next year or so, most of the defendants — including Mayfield — were sentenced to time served.

As the first to be cleared of all court supervision, Mayfield could be viewed as a success story, but he’s struggled in many ways.  Like so many ex-cons, Mayfield is learning how hard it can be to rebuild his life after prison.  He also continues to fight guilt over the plight of his brother and cousin — both of whom he recruited into the scheme and are still serving decades-long prison sentences....

The outlines of each stash house sting followed the same basic pattern: ATF informants identified people they believed would commit a drug-related robbery.  If the target met certain criteria — including a violent criminal background — agents approved the sting.

The elaborate operations included a fake stash house location, fictitious amounts of money and drugs, and other made-up details of a robbery plot.  An undercover agent posing as a disgruntled drug dealer followed a script aimed at convincing the target to agree on secret recordings to take part in the robbery, pledge to bring guns — and use them if necessary. Since agents claimed that massive quantities of drugs were involved, the prosecutions often carried eye-popping sentences, sometimes even life behind bars.  Nearly all the targets, though, turned out to be African American or Hispanic — many of whom had minimal criminal histories....

Mayfield was convicted at trial in 2010 and handed a 27-year sentence.  His brother, with only a nonviolent drug conviction in his past, and his cousin both were given 25-year prison terms.

In 2014, the University of Chicago’s Federal Criminal Justice Clinic led an effort to have charges against 43 defendants dismissed on grounds that the cases were racially biased.  In a landmark hearing in December 2017, nine federal judges overseeing the cases heard testimony from dueling experts on policing who came to dramatically different conclusions.  The U.S. attorney’s office denied that the stings disproportionately affected minorities, arguing that targets were selected by their propensity for violence, not race.  For instance, while out on bond, two men facing stash house-related indictments were charged in separate shootings, including the wounding of a Chicago police officer.

But many judges overseeing the cases had clear concerns that the ends did not justify the means.  In a decision that wasn’t binding but served as a guide for other judges, then-U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo said the stings shared an ugly racial component and should “be relegated to the dark corridors of our past.”

While Castillo stopped short of dismissing the case before him, his 2018 ruling had a ripple effect.  At the urging of Castillo and other judges, the U.S. attorney’s office began offering plea deals and dropping counts that involved stiff mandatory minimum sentences.

The results were startling.  While many of the 43 defendants faced mandatory sentences of 15 to 35 years in prison if convicted, 32 instead were released with sentences of time served after pleading guilty to lesser charges.  Most of the others received prison terms that were significantly below federal sentencing guidelines.

I was fortunate to get Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, to author a series of posts for my main blog about her remarkable work in these remarkable cases.  Provided below are links to my main blog of an early press piece, and there her three posts about the amazing and consequential work of defense lawyering in this setting:

November 6, 2020 in Guideline sentencing systems, Offense Conduct, Quality of counsel, Race and gender issues, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Reviewing class plans and readings/prep for our Zoom visit from Jonathan Wroblewski on Nov 10

As we all deal with post-election day uncertainty, I wanted to be certain to remind everyone about out certain class plans for this week and next:

Thursday, Nov 5: In-person regular class to discuss the election and finish up discussion of "the crime" for sentencing (some additional optional materials here on drug offenses)

Tuesday, Nov 10: Guest lecture on Zoom by Jonathan Wroblewski, Director of the Office of Policy and Legislation in the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice.  

Thursday, Nov 12: In-person regular class beginning our review of "the criminal" for sentencing (skim Johnson and read Tiernan closely in the text for this class)

Director Wroblewski has told me his is eager to discuss during the Nov 10 class "what 2021 might mean for federal sentencing reform" and he also plans to do his "revised long-term sentencing trends PowerPoint."  He has also provided this additional preview and questions/readings for our collective consideration:

I will focus my presentation on mass incarceration and will present lots of numbers.  I’ve attached two readings [available below]: an excerpt from the book The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander and Professor James Forman’s response to this book.  Please also ask the students to come to class having thought about the following questions (I will call on some of them) —

1. How do we define mass incarceration?
2. What were the factors that led to our current incarceration numbers?
3. Should we have a target level of incarceration that policymakers should be aiming at?  How do we figure out what that level is?
4. What policy steps should be taken, if any, to reduce our current level of incarceration?
Download NewJimCrow_Intro+ch2
Download Forman_Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration

November 4, 2020 in Class activities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Listen to (and log time on) oral argument in Jones v. Mississippi

I found as a useful distraction the morning of 2020 Election Day listening to the oral argument in Jones v. Mississippi18-1259 All the Justices had lots of interesting and hard questions concerning the issue of whether the Eighth Amendment requires a sentencer to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole.

And you can now LISTEN to the Jones oral argument HERE.

November 3, 2020 in SCOTUS cases of note, Supreme Court rulings, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, October 31, 2020

How should overdose deaths factor into any sentencing of the "offense" of drug distribution?

CLASS LOGISTICS REMINDER On Nov 3, we will have an election day optional on-line Zoom class; I'll be on Zoom at the usual time for an unstructured discussion of how the 2020 election could impact sentencing matters (some noted here); on Nov 5, we will have an in-person regular class (perhaps about election results and) finishing up discussion of "the crime" at sentencing.  The materials below will help inform some of that discussion.


I briefly mentioned the modern rise in so-called "drug-induced-homicide" (DIH) prosecutions when quickly overviewing the challenges of figuring out the "offense" for purposes of sentencing.  I referenced the work of the Heath in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University School of Law, which has created this great resource about these prosecutions describing the issue and some of its data analysis:

Under pressure to respond to the nation’s fatal overdose crisis, prosecutors are increasingly treating accidental overdose deaths as homicides. 

We compiled news reports of “drug-induced homicide” (DIH) prosecutions nationwide, using big data analytics tools.  In contrast to the stated intent to target major drug traffickers, our preliminary analysis found that a majority of prosecutions are being brought against individuals who do not fit the characterization of a “dealer” at all, such as friends, family, and co-users of the overdose decedent.

In cases that do involve organized drug distribution, the defendants are typically low-level dealers, with a disproportionate number of charges being brought in cases where the victim is white and the dealer is a person of color.  Racial bias is also evident in the gaping disparity of the sentences being handed down to DIH defendants of color: a median of nearly nine years, contrasted to five years for whites.  

These disconcerting data do not even highlight how where a drug defendant is prosecuted can matter more than whether a defendant actually faces a formal homicide charge.  For example, under Ohio law, the maximum state prison sentence an Ohio defendant can face for involuntary manslaughter is 16.5 years, but that same defendant can be looking at a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of 20 years or even LWOP if "death or serious bodily injury results from" a distributed drug under 18 USC § 841(b)(1)(A)–(C)

Whether prosecuted in state court or federal court, a defendant facing homicide charges or a specific mandatory minimum sentence based on the fact of a resulting death can hope a prosecutor will not be able to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a sufficient causal link between a distribution offense and an overdose death.  But even if an overdose death is not raised or proven by prosecutors prior to sentencing, it is common for prosecutors to discuss alleged community harms caused by a drug defendant's distribution activities and judges can also hear from families of overdose victims at sentencing. 

Should any associated harms to drug users and their family members be relevant when a judge exercises sentencing discretion in a drug distribution case regardless of whether formal charges are brought concerning overdose deaths?  Shouldn't sentencing judges reasonably view dealing drugs like fentanyl that are more likely to result in accidental overdoses as more serious than dealing, say, marijuana or cocaine or even prescription opioids?

As I also briefly mentioned in class, I was part of a group of law professors that late last year asked the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission (OCSC) to conduct "a public examination of the use of homicide charges in accidental overdose cases throughout the state
and their impact on public safety and the opioid crisis."  You might find the letter we sent to OCSC and the written response it generated from Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association of interest:

Open Letter to the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission

Letter from Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association

Response to letter from Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association


Some (of many) older posts on this topic from my main blog:

October 31, 2020 in Class activities, Offense Conduct, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Reviewing the (tentative) choppy class plans for weeks ahead

As I mentioned in class, over the next few weeks we will have a somewhat "choppy" schedule as we start diving deeply into "Sentencing Inputs" (starting "The Crime" and then "The Criminal" readings as listed on our syllabus).   For clarity and planning purposes, here is what I am (tentatively) expecting to cover our in time together:


Tuesday, Oct 27: In-person regular class about "the crime," discussing Watts (previewed here) and victim impact 

Thursday, Oct 29: pre-election class off, potentially, if folks keep reporting time spent on other class-related activities (more opportunities here) or if you pledge to use the time to vote or help others vote

UPDATEEnough folks reported enough extra hours, so class on Oct 29 is OFFICIALLY CANCELLED.  Use this extra time well to stay healthy and to gear up for an exciting November to come!


Tuesday, Nov 3: election day optional on-line Zoom class.  I will be on Zoom at usual time to have unstructured discussion of how the election could impact a range of federal and state and local sentencing stories (some noted here).  Also, that morning brings SCOTUS oral argument in Jones v. Mississippi, which I believe can be listened to live thanks to our COVID world.

Thursday, Nov 5: In-person regular class perhaps about election results and certainly finishing up discussion of "the crime"


Tuesday, Nov 10: Guest lecture by Jonathan Wroblewski, Director of the Office of Policy and Legislation in the Criminal Division of the US Department of Justice.  There will be some special reading for this class, which I will post next week.

Thursday, Nov 12: In-person regular class beginning our review of "the criminal" at sentencing


As I mentioned in class, because there are too many great hard "Sentencing Input" issues for us to cover them all, I would be particularly eager to hear from you about any issues you might be especially eager to discuss.  I expect everyone to do the readings from the text that are set forth in our syllabus, but I would urge everyone to scan quickly through all the contents of Chapters 4 and 5 to see if any particular issues or problems in those chapters really pique your interest.

October 24, 2020 in Class activities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Just what is "acquitted conduct" sentencing and is it a really big problem or really no big deal?

To start the final week of October, we will turn to discuss the (insufficiently discussed) Supreme Court ruling in US v. Watts upholding the constitutionality of the use of so-called "acquitted conduct" in the calculation of the sentencing guidelines.  I would like us in class (and here in the comments) to explore just what "acquitted conduct" is and whether it should be a big concern.  As I will note in class, the Michigan Supreme Court last year grappled with this issue (as noted here) and decided that "once acquitted of a given crime, it violates due process to sentence the defendant as if he committed that very same crime."  The state of Michigan appealed this ruling to SCOTUS, but (as noted here) the Supreme Court declined to reconsider this issue.

Watts was a federal sentencing case, and it bears remembering that US Sentencing Commission or Congress could seek to preclude the use of "acquitted conduct" as a matter or guideline or statutory rule for the federal system.  In fact, just last year, as detailed in this press release, "U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the lead sponsors of the landmark First Step Act, introduced the bipartisan Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act of 2019, which would end the unjust practice of judges increasing sentences based on conduct for which a defendant has been acquitted by a jury."  Here is more from the release:

Along with Durbin and Grassley, the legislation is also cosponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Thom Tillis (R-NC), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Mike Lee (R-UT).

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.

One prominent example of this unjust practice is the 2005 case of Antwuan Ball, who, along with his co-defendants, was convicted of distributing a few grams of crack cocaine, but acquitted of conspiring to distribute drugs.   Despite this, the sentencing judge held Mr. Ball responsible for the conspiracy, nearly quadrupling his sentence to 19 years.  Mr. Ball asked the Supreme Court to consider his case, but the Court denied the petition for the writ of certiorari.  Justice Scalia wrote a blistering dissent, joined by Justices Ginsburg and Thomas, noting that “not only did no jury convict these defendants of the offense the sentencing judge thought them guilty of, but a jury acquitted them of that offense.”  Scalia decried the practice, writing that, “this has gone on long enough.”

The Prohibiting Punishment of Acquitted Conduct Act would end this practice by:

  • Amending 18 U.S.C. § 3661 to preclude a court of the United States from considering, except for purposes of mitigating a sentence, acquitted conduct at sentencing, and
  • Defining “acquitted conduct” to include acts for which a person was criminally charged and adjudicated not guilty after trial in a Federal, State, Tribal, or Juvenile court, or acts underlying a criminal charge or juvenile information dismissed upon a motion for acquittal.

Do you think this statutory proposal works functionally to overturn the ruling in Watts at least for federal defendants?  Do you see any possible problems administering this statutory change if it were to become law?  And if acquitted conduct is worrisome, how about so-called dismissed or uncharged conduct (and need we worry that prosecutors will move to dismiss charges mid-case in order to avoid limits on sentence enhancements for acquitted conduct)?

Why do you think this bill was not introduced until 2019, more than two decades since Watts?  Why do you think this bill, despite having notable bipartisan support, has not yet made any progress in Congress?  Is it important to have this issue prioritized in future federal sentencing reform bills or do you consider this matter of only marginal concern?

October 24, 2020 in Guideline sentencing systems, Supreme Court rulings, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (1)

Additional video content for "earned time" opportunities

2020-Sentencing-Workshops_for-social-and-web-1I am hopeful that all the videos of all the speakers and panels from last week's NACDL conference, Prison Brake: Rethinking the Sentencing Status Quo​, will be available on-line before too long.  In the meantime, any and all students who would like to "earn" some more class time credits should consider checking out some slightly older video content that just became available online.

Specifically, this summer, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) co-hosted a series of workshops in collaboration with the National Association of Sentencing Commissions (NASC) and the Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission (OCSC).  The series brought together leaders from sentencing commissions, the judiciary, and academia.  Workshops focused on the role of sentencing commissions in advancing criminal justice reform in times of change, the impact and importance of criminal justice data, and efforts in Ohio to create a unified sentencing entry.  All of the workshops are linked on this DEPC page, and here are brief accounts of each of the three workshops with direct links to the videos (via the titles):

The Work of Sentencing Commissions in Time of Change

Recorded June 25, 2020 | In collaboration with NASC


Judge Stephen L. McIntosh, Franklin County, Ohio and member, Ohio Criminal Sentencing Commission
Meredith Farrar-Owens, director, Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission
Mark H. Bergstrom, executive director, Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission
Kelly Lyn Mitchell, chair, Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission


The Power of Data: Impact on Criminal Justice Reform

Recorded July 28, 2020 | In collaboration with NASC


John Pfaff, professor of law, Fordham University
Anne Precythe, director, Missouri Department of Corrections
Michael Schmidt, executive director, Oregon Criminal Justice Commission; incoming District Attorney, Multnomah County


Creating a Felony Sentencing Database: Moving Ohio Forward

Recorded August 17, 2020 | In collaboration with OCSC


Judge Pierre Bergeron, First District Court of Appeals
Douglas A. Berman, executive director, Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
Associate Justice Michael Donnelly, Supreme Court of Ohio
Judge Ray Headen, Eighth District Court of Appeals
Ryan King, professor and chair, Department of Sociology, The Ohio State University College of Arts and Sciences
Judge Gene Zmuda, Sixth District Court of Appeals

For any of these videos, you are advised to fast-forward through my introductions and get to the array of interesting and diverse "whos" providing their distinct perspectives on these topics. And if you only have time to watch a little bit of these lengthy videos, I would especially recommend the first part of the "Power of Data" video in order to hear Professor John Pfaff rant for 10 minutes about how truly terrible our criminal justice data is across just about every metric.

And remember, if and when you spend any time watching these video or are involved other similar class-relevant activities, be sure to log your hours and loop me in.

October 24, 2020 in Class activities, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Reminder: class today (10/20) is online and involves watching panels at NACDL "Prison Brake" symposium

As I have mentioned a few times in class (and in prior postings), today there is no in-person usual class, but you all should be watching live all week as much of Prison Brake: Rethinking the Sentencing Status Quo​ as possible.  And today (October 20), there are two great symposium panels during the time of our class (one I moderate starting at 2pm), and I highlight recommend tuning in starting at 1:30pm to hear the great Paul Butler.

I have been told by the organizers of this NACDL conference that all the sessions are being recorded and will be made publicly available in the not-too-distant future.  So, even if you are not able to watch many of the panels live, expect to see in this space before too long a link to the recordings for later watching (and mini-paper material).

I will be back in our usual space for class on Thursday (10/22), and I will be eager to start our next regular class by hearing reactions from students to any parts of the NACDL "Prison Brake" symposium.  Reactions can also begin in the comments here.  (We will also spend much of Thursday discussing the FIRST STEP Act, which is the subject of one of today's panels AND overviewed in this class posting.)

UPDATE:  There is a collection of written materials from the NACDL conference (including a huge set focused on the FIRST STEP Act) available in a dropbox link here.  Feel NO obligation to look at these materials, but you might find some of interest.

October 20, 2020 in Class activities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Some FIRST STEP Act basics and thoughts about possible next steps

The FIRST STEP Act, which is fully titled the Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act, was signed by Prez Trump into law on Dec. 21, 2018.  Many have rightly called this law the biggest federal criminal justice reform legislation in a generation, and yet others have rightly called this law a relatively small modification to the federal criminal justice system.  Among the good questions we will explore in class is whether the FIRST STEP Act is a very big deal or much ado about very little.

Because lots of disparate provisions got rolled into the FIRST STEP Act with lots of different mandates or changes for lots of different parts of the system, it is hard to readily summarize all the Act's many elements or to effectively track its overall impact. The Congressional Research Service has produced this intricate 20-page overview of Act, which is initially summarized this way:

The act has three major components: (1) correctional reform via the establishment of a risk and needs assessment system at the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), (2) sentencing reform via changes to penalties for some federal offenses, and (3) the reauthorization of the Second Chance Act of 2007 (P.L. 110-199). The act also contains a series of other criminal justice-related provisions.

As is true for many legislative reforms, the impact of the FIRST STEP Act is being shaped by many "whos" other than Congress.  How the US Sentencing Commission, the US Department of Justice and courts implement and respond to new sentencing law can often matter as much or more than statutory particulars.  One persistent question for advocates of major federal sentencing reforms is whether to now seek to amplify the impact of FIRST STEP Act by focusing on other "whos" or to pursue additional statutory reforms from Congress.  What advice might you give on this "who" front to the director of a new criminal justice group?  Do you think your advice on this front could change after Election Day?  

Though the FIRST STEP Act is now nearly two years old, we are now only starting to get a sense of its impact.  Helpfully, US Sentencing Commission a few months ago produced this big intricate data report (and this infographic) detailing the impact of the FIRST STEP Act over the period it calls “First Step Year One” running from Dec 21, 2018 to Dec. 20, 2019.  Importantly, this document only examines key sentencing provisions and not all the bigger prison reforms and various other elements of the First Step Act.  Helpfully, the federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute of Justice have useful webpages about the FIRST STEP Act focused on the work these agencies are doing under the Act that are focused more on the prison-reform piece of the FIRST STEP equation.

The COVID pandemic, which has impacted federal criminal justice enforcement in many ways known and unknown, has made certain provisions of the FIRST STEP Act especially important (e.g., the new "compassionate release" rules) and other provisions harder to implement (e.g., the prison programming plans).  Especially because of the extra COVID complications, if you are interested in really digging into any aspect of the FIRST STEP Act (for mini-paper 5 or for any other reason), I would urge you to consider focusing on just one particular provision and maybe even just one "who" working to apply or implement that provision. 

As I mentioned in class, both Prez Trump and former VP Biden has spoken about there interest in supporting additional sentencing reforms in Congress.  We will be sure to talk in class about what kinds of reforms you would be eager to champion if (and when?) Congress turns back to sentencing reform in the (near?) future.

October 18, 2020 in Guideline sentencing systems, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Watch a lot of NACDL's Prison Brake, and I will respond with a class break

As I have mentioned a few times in class (and in prior postings), next week is full of exciting online events.  Specifically:

Monday-Thursday Oct. 19-22  Prison Brake: Rethinking the Sentencing Status Quo​ (attending the October 20 afternoon sessions will be in place of our class)

Wednesday Oct. 21  12noon  Bodiker Lecture on Criminal Justice

As I have also said a few times, I encourage everyone to "log" or "bill" any and all extra hours you spend watching class-relevant programming outside our class. And, in addition to having mini-paper #4 possibly based on reactions to the NACDL event, I want to provide an extra incentives to attend a lot of "Prison Brake": if enough students watch an extra hour or two of the NACDL conference, I will cancel class on Thursday, October 29.  Remember, I expect you to try to watch the panels that are taking place during our normal class hour on Tuesday, but extra time watching that day or others should be "logged" or "billed" and sent my way via email.

In addition to great NACDL panels, next week also has the 10th Annual Bodiker Lecture on Criminal Justice, featuring Aya Gruber, Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, who will discuss her book titled "The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women's Liberation in Mass Incarceration."  Attending the Bodiker lecture can also "count" in the class substitution offer!

October 15, 2020 in Class activities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Reviewing again how mandatory minimums impact (and distort) the federal sentencing system

76bccecd-3c06-4fae-867c-81fb321fb9c6-IMG_1828In this post from last month, back when we were focused on "whos," I highlighted some data on mandatory minimums in the federal sentencing system.  Back then, we were talking somewhat generally about how prosecutors garner sentencing power from mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.  Now that we are working through the sentencing of Rob Anon, we can focus with even greater particularity on how one of these statutes, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), can operate to put federal prosecutors into a powerful position in the application of all facets of the federal sentencing system.

Notably, way back in 1991, only a few years into the functioning federal sentencing guideline system, the US Sentencing Commission wrote this lengthy report explaining why mandatory minimums undermined many of the goals of guideline reforms.  And in 2011, the Sentencing Commission wrote another lengthy report detailing lots of problems with mandatory minimums in operation.  And yet, mandatory minimums persist in the federal system.  And this USSC Quick Facts details that the number of § 924(c) offenders has grown considerably in recent years.

If you are interested in some background on, and lot of information about litigation surrounding, 924(c) offenses, this 2015 Congressional Research Service report is effective.  And this 2020 Firearm Primer from the USSC also has some coverage of 924(c) caselaw.  Feel no obligation to review these long documents, but do take note of how much law surrounds just one small part of a federal sentencing system now filled with law.

UPDATE: Especially because we are going to focus on prosecutoral power in conjunction with one federal firearm law, I found this new Columbus Dispatch article especially interesting and timely.  The piece is headlined "Harsher federal charges to be sought to help combat deadly Columbus gun violence," and here are excerpts (with my bolding added):

U.S. Attorney David DeVillers said Wednesday he hoped to bring "shock and awe" to criminals committing gun violence on Columbus streets with a focused effort on getting harsher sentences for those who have firearms illegally.  "We want this to be a warning, we want this to be a shock and awe to the people committing these violent crimes and firearm offenses," he said.

The effort will focus on two Columbus neighborhoods that have been hot zones for gun violence — Linden and the Hilltop — and on charging defendants in federal court with crimes that have harsher sentences than what state law can provide.

The federal prosecutor announced the initiative Wednesday alongside partners Columbus police Chief Thomas Quinlan, Roland Herndon, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Columbus field office; Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien and City Attorney Zach Klein.  The announcement occurred as The Dispatch completed the final day Wednesday of a four-part series on the rising gun violence in the city.

Herndon said of the 126 homicides this year in Columbus as of mid-afternoon Wednesday, 100 have been the result of gunfire and 18% of those have been juveniles. He said there have been an additional 440 non-fatal shootings in 2020. "Our youth, our future," Herndon said. "We cannot stand for that anymore."...  Authorities will not seek federal charges against juveniles, but will aim to charge any adults that provide them with guns.

The initiative will involve dedicated attorneys from the city attorney, county prosecutor and U.S. Attorney's offices focusing on identifying convicted felons in possession of firearms, those providing guns to juveniles in order to commit crimes, possessing weapons with filed-off serial numbers, and other firearms offenses, such as misdemeanor domestic violence offenders possessing guns.

Klein said his office has seen a 250% increase in the number of domestic violence cases involving firearms. “Gun violence in our community is creating fear, ruining lives, and in far too many situations, taking lives," he said in a prepared statement later. “Think about the innocent bystanders, especially children, whose lives change in an instant due to gunfire and violence."

DeVillers said his office will be freezing work on other types of cases, such as immigration and white-collar crime, to focus on firearms crimes and violence. "We are going to take every single gun crime and federal violent crime we can take," he said. "It’s not bravado, it’s a warning."

O'Brien said he was "excited" and "thrilled" to be a part of the initiative, which can add additional prison time to sentences locally with the way crimes are charged in each court. "We will show the thugs on the street that we mean business," O'Brien said.

DeVillers said the program will be reevaluated every 90 days to see what is working and determine success, which will be measured in part by decreases in shootings and homicides. 

October 13, 2020 in Class activities, Guideline sentencing systems, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 9, 2020

Some resources for sentencing Rob Anon under the modern federal sentencing guidelines

As I have emphasized in our recent classes, much of the rest of our time together will have us discussing non-capital (and mostly federal) sentencing policies and practice after modern guideline reforms.   As we turn to sentencing Rob Anon under the modern federal sentencing guidelines, I would encourage class members to try to figure out how to identify and assess federal guideline sentencing laws relevant to Rob Anon with just the help of on-line search materials or traditional legal research resources (and feel free to use the comments to express frustration on how hard this can be for novices).  Consider that a federal defendant or a novice lawyer taking on his or her first federal criminal case will not likely have access to any perfect guide (or even "Guidelines for Dummies") to enable ready understanding of the federal sentencing guidelines.

If and when you would like some guideline sentencing help, you can turn to these links which take you directly to key guideline provisions for Rob Anon appearing in the "official" on-line version of the now-applicable US Sentencing Guidelines as provided on the US Sentencing Commission's website:

I highly encourage class members to start working through these "basic" federal guideline sentencing materials on their own (again feeling free to use the comments to express frustration) before looking for any more sentencing help.  That said, if (when?) you want or need even more help, here is a worksheet created by the US Sentencing Commission intended to aid in the guideline sentencing process:

In this assignment, give particular thought to the array of challenges that modern federal sentencing law may present for modern federal sentencing lawyers.  If you want to think particularly about the import and impact of sentencing law for the work of defense attorneys, perhaps check out this article I wrote some years ago seeking to highlight "the array of challenges that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines create for defense counsel."

October 9, 2020 in Class activities, Guideline sentencing systems | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 5, 2020

Watching the Eastern State Penitentiary video and thinking about other (in)famous US prisons past and present

As mentioned last week, Tuesday's class is to be devoted to the history of early prisons in the United States as told through a 53-minute documentary titled simply "Eastern State Penitentiary."  My savvy daughter astutely mentioned to me today that, in this Zoomy world, students might prefer watching this video on their own rather than being "forced" to watch it during the class hour.  If this is true, I wanted to provide this link to the full 53-minue documentary.  Assuming I can get the technology to work, I am still planning to show this video in class on Tuesday.  But you are welcome to watch at your pace (or again) as you see fit.

In this post (and a bit in class), we might talk further about Eastern State Penitentiary or more generally about the reality that time in jail or prisons is now something of a modern default sentencing "output."  If you are interested in learning more about Eastern State, check out this terrific website.  In addition, there are lots of other (in)famous prisons that tell stories about not only American crime and punishment, but also stories about America.  A number of notable Ohio-centric stories are to be found within in the history, as documented by this book entitled "Central Ohio's Historic Prisons."  That book is summarized this way:

With the opening of the Ohio State Reformatory in 1896, the state legislature had put in place "the most complete prison system, in theory, which exists in the United States."  The reformatory joined the Ohio Penitentiary and the Boys Industrial School, also central-Ohio institutions, to form the first instance of "graded prisons; with the reform farm on one side of the new prison, for juvenile offenders, and the penitentiary on the other, for all the more hardened and incorrigible class."  However, even as the concept was being replicated throughout the country, the staffs of the institutions were faced with the day-to-day struggle of actually making the system work.

The Ohio State Reformatory referenced in this passage is located in Mansfield, and is now this historic site.   And if you are ever looking for some web-surfing fun, check out these additional links to some good sites about some of the United States' most (in)famous prisons:

Though we will not discuss prison history or prison practices too much in the week ahead as we shift into a discussion of sentencing law and the (non-capital) sentencing process, I start this unit with these materials because I think it important that everyone keep thinking about both the theory and practices of imprisonment as a form of punishment as we get into the nitty-gritty of modern sentencing doctrines.

In addition, if you are really interested in any aspects of the realities of prison past or present, so many aspects of prisons would make for great final paper topics.  And if you just want to spend time watching videos about prison realities, check out these links:

As always, I welcome tips for other viewing (or reading) in the comments.

October 5, 2020 in Class activities, Scope of imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Preparing to sentence Rob Anon before (and later after) the enactment of the federal sentencing guidelines

As stressed in class, much of the rest of the semester is going to explore non-capital (and mostly federal) sentencing policies and practice before and after modern guideline reforms.  Our work will start and advance through a deep discussion of sentencing realities faced in sentencing Rob Anon — whose crime and history appear in short form at pp. 205-06 of our text.  We will be exploring the sentencing of Rob Anon in multiple eras: (1) in a pre-guideline world (the world Judge Marvin Frankel criticizes in the excerpt in our text), then (2) in a pre-Booker mandatory federal guideline sentencing world, and then (3) in a post-Booker advisory federal guideline sentencing world.  (For historical reference, era 1 in federal sentencing extended from about 1910 to 1989, era 2 extended from 1989 to 2005, and era 3 has run from 2005 to the present.) 

We will not get started on these topics in earnest until Thursday of this coming week (because we will be watching a documentary on prison history on Tuesday).  But it is not too early for you to get started on thinking about sentencing Rob Anon the pre-reform system, especially because doing so should deepen your appreciation for some of the comments and criticisms of Judge Marvin Frankel about this system (which are required reading and appear in our text at pp. 126-131).

So, imagine yourself as a federal district judge in 1972 presented with the Rob Anon case for sentencing.  The only key legal concerns for you as a federal judge sentencing circa 1972 are (1) that Rob Anon's statutory sentencing range is 0 to 25 years in federal prison (see  18 U.S.C. § 2113(d)) and 0 to $250,000 in a fine (see 18 U.S.C. § 3571(b)(3)), and (2) that federal parole officials will have complete discretionary authority (but absolutely no requirement) to release Rob Anon after he has served at least one-third of whatever sentence you impose.

In addition to imagining how you, as a judge, would sentence Rob Anon in this world, think also about how prosecutors and defense attorneys would approach sentencing in such a (pre-guideline) world.  You need not yet (and I suggest you do not yet) try to sentence Rob Anon under post-reform (pre- or post-Booker) modern federal sentencing laws.  After we have had a chance in class to talk about your experiences and judgments concerning Rob Anon's sentencing circa 1972, then I will give you guidance and help in sentencing him under modern federal sentencing laws and guidelines.

UPDATE:  I am now able to post below here a form/questionnaire for working through the pre- and post-guideline sentencing of Rob Anon.  I will talk more about this form and about the guideline part of the exercise in our coming class and in future blog posts.  But, if you want to get a running start, I will be grateful if you can use this form to work through the sentencing exercise(s) in the coming weeks. 

Download 2020 Guidelines exercise

October 3, 2020 in Class activities, Guideline sentencing systems, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 1, 2020

Some deep thoughts about how diverse experiences with prison might impact justifications for prison punishments

As I mentioned briefly at the very end of class, I fear that prison punishment (and especially diverse prison experiences) can often be "under-theorized" in our discussions of criminal justice systems and proposals for reform.  One article that has long influenced my thinking on these matters was Adam J. Kolber, The Subjective Experience of Punishment, 109 Colum. L. Rev. 182 (2009) (available here).  Here is this provocative article's abstract:

Suppose two people commit the same crime and are sentenced to equal terms in the same prison facility.  I argue that they have identical punishments in name only.  One may experience incarceration as challenging but tolerable while the other is thoroughly tormented by it.  Even though people vary substantially in their experiences of punishment, our sentencing laws pay little attention to such differences.

I make two central claims: First, a successful justification of punishment must take account of offenders’ subjective experiences when assessing punishment severity.  Second, we have certain obligations to consider actual or anticipated punishment experience at sentencing, at least when we can do so in a cost-effective, administrable manner.  Though it may seem impossible or prohibitively expensive to take punishment experience into account, we should not accept this excuse too quickly.  In civil litigation, we often make assessments of emotional distress.  Even if we cannot calibrate the punishments of individual offenders, we could enact broad policies that are better at taking punishment experience into account than those we have now.

I do not argue that more sensitive offenders should receive shorter prison sentences than less sensitive offenders who commit crimes of equal blameworthiness.  I do, however, argue that when they are given equal prison terms, more sensitive offenders receive harsher punishments than less sensitive offenders and that it is a mistake to believe that both kinds of offenders receive punishments proportional to their desert.

Lots of folks have had lots of reactions to Kolber's arguments, and one notable response is Kenneth W. Simons, Retributivists Need Not and Should Not Endorse the Subjectivist Account of Punishment, 109 Colum. L. Rev. SIDEBAR 1 (2009) (available here).

October 1, 2020 in Theories of punishment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Updated accounting of upcoming events of note and possible interest

I was pleased to see some students were able to attend some of the events previous flagged in September, and I now can provide an updated and expanded list of online events that might be of interest to sentencing fans throughout the month of October.  Here is a quick run down of these events with links for more information:

Tuesday, Oct. 6  1pm   Two Views: An Exploration of SCOTUS's Criminal Law Docket

Every(!) Wednesday in October  ASU State of Incarceration Virtual Summit

Wednesday, Oct. 7  3pm  Criminal Justice Reform Workshop Series: Prosecutor Caseloads and Sentencing Outcomes

Wednesday, Oct. 7   6pm    Forces of Freedom or Fraud? Do Conviction Integrity Units Matter in Wrongful Conviction Cases

Friday, Oct. 9  3pm   Apprendi at 20

Monday-Thursday Oct. 19-22  Prison Brake: Rethinking the Sentencing Status Quo​ (attending the October 20 afternoon sessions will be in place of our class)

Wednesday Oct. 21  12noon  Bodiker Lecture on Criminal Justice

I continue to welcome folks identifying other notable online events to include on this list.  And, as I have mentioned in class, I urge students to keep a "billing sheet" of time spent attending these or other sentencing-instructive events.

September 30, 2020 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Which of the amicus briefs in Jones v. Mississippi do you find especially effective or interesting?

As I mentioned in class today, I think the case of Jones v. Mississippi presents an important opportunity for the Supreme Court, and especially the newer Justices, to address the application of the Eighth Amendment to juvenile murders.  Here is the official question presented:

Whether the Eighth Amendment requires the sentencing authority to make a finding that a juvenile is permanently incorrigible before imposing a sentence of life without parole. 

As highlighted by the many links below, there is a lot of friendly interest in this case as expressed in a sizable number of friends of the court briefs.  Though I do not expect anyone to read carefully all (or even many or even any) of the briefs linked below, you might be interested in clicking through to check out some of the groups being friendly and the friendly advice they are giving to the Justices.

As suggested in the title of this post, if you have time and interest, I would be eager to hear whether you find any of the amicus briefs especially effective or interesting.


Briefs on behalf of Brett Jones

Brief of petitioner Brett Jones

Brief amici curiae of National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, et al.

Brief amici curiae of Juvenile Law Center, et al.

Brief amici curiae of Madge Jones, Tony Jones, Marty Jones and Nicolle Olson

Brief amici curiae of The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, The ACLU of Mississippi, The American Conservative Union Foundation, The Rutherford Institute, The R Street Institute, and Larry W. Yackle

Brief amici curiae of Erwin Chemerinsky, et al.

Brief amici curiae of Current and Former Prosecutors, Department of Justice Officials, and Judges

Brief amicus curiae of The American Bar Association


Briefs on behalf of neither party

Brief amicus curiae of Jonathan F. Mitchell & Adam K. Mortara in support of neither party


Briefs on behalf of Mississippi

Brief of respondent Mississippi

Brief amicus curiae of United States

Brief amici curiae of State of Indiana, et al.

Brief amicus curiae of Populi

Brief amicus curiae of Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

Brief amici curiae of National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers, et al.

September 29, 2020 in SCOTUS cases of note | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Doesn't EVERY punishment theory support a death sentence for Ehrlich Anthony Coker?

COKER-0000379279After a final review of what we should take away from the McClesky ruling and our discussion of a possible legislative response, we will turn for our last week of death penalty discussion to the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment jurisprudence placing categorical limits on what crimes cannot result in a capital sentence and what criminals cannot be executed for their crimes (this discussion will also serve as a bridge to starting discussions of non-capital sentencing).  Here are the major rulings in this jurisprudence:


Rape: Coker v. Georgia, 433 U.S. 584 (1977)

Lesser Murders: Tison v. Arizona, 481 U.S. 137 (1987)

Rape of Children: Kennedy v. Louisiana 554 U.S. 407 (2008)



Insane: Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 399 (1986)

Juveniles: Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U. S. 815 (1988)Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005)

Intellectually Disabled: Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002)

Can you identify any clear themes or philosophical underpinnings to these rulings, and are there any additional categorical limits that you think should be part of Eighth Amendment jurisprudence?  Arguments have been made that felony murder (on the crime side) and mental illness (on the criminal side) should be the basis for new constitutional categorical restrictions on the death penalty. But it seems pretty unlikely that the current Supreme Court will take up these issues anytime soon.

Given that the Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment procedural jurisprudence precludes legislatures from mandating the death penalty in any kind of case, and thereby requires and ensures that each crime and offender will have his or her individual circumstances considered by a sentencing jury, what justifies these kinds of categorical rulings that preclude legislatures from ever being permitted to allow a jury to even consider the death penalty for certain crimes or offenders?

Contextualizing these matters, consider the query in the title of this post as it relates to theories of punishment and Georgia's interest in having the death penalty as a possible punishment for Ehrlich Anthony Coker (pictured here decades later).  For a reminder, here is how the lead dissent in Coker v. Georgia described the petitioner whose death sentence was reversed by the Supreme Court in that case and the consequences of the ruling for Georgia:

On December 5, 1971, the petitioner, Ehrlich Anthony Coker, raped and then stabbed to death a young woman. Less than eight months later, Coker kidnapped and raped a second young woman.  After twice raping this 16-year-old victim, he stripped her, severely beat her with a club, and dragged her into a wooded area where he left her for dead.  He was apprehended and pleaded guilty to offenses stemming from these incidents.  He was sentenced by three separate courts to three life terms, two 20-year terms, and one 8-year term of imprisonment.  Each judgment specified that the sentences it imposed were to run consecutively, rather than concurrently.   Approximately 1.5 years later, on September 2, 1974, petitioner escaped from the state prison where he was serving these sentences.  He promptly raped another 16-year-old woman in the presence of her husband, abducted her from her home, and threatened her with death and serious bodily harm.  It is this crime for which the sentence now under review was imposed.

The Court today holds that the State of Georgia may not impose the death penalty on Coker.  In so doing, it prevents the State from imposing any effective punishment upon Coker for his latest rape.  The Court's holding, moreover, bars Georgia from guaranteeing its citizens that they will suffer no further attacks by this habitual rapist.  In fact, given the lengthy sentences Coker must serve for the crimes he has already committed, the Court's holding assures that petitioner — as well as others in his position — will henceforth feel no compunction whatsoever about committing further rapes as frequently as he may be able to escape from confinement and indeed even within the walls of the prison itself.

In the wake of the nomination of another woman to the Supreme Court, it bears recalling that the Court which handed down its 1977 ruling in Coker was comprised of nine men.  (Four years later, in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman nominated to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan.)  In light of that reality, and especially given what more we now know about the impact of sexual violence, I often find this paragraph from the Coker ruling a bit disconcerting:

Rape is without doubt deserving of serious punishment; but in terms of moral depravity and of the injury to the person and to the public, it does not compare with murder, which does involve the unjustified taking of human life.  Although it may be accompanied by another crime, rape by definition does not include the death of or even the serious injury to another person.  The murderer kills; the rapist, if no more than that, does not.  Life is over for the victim of the murderer; for the rape victim, life may not be nearly so happy as it was, but it is not over and normally is not beyond repair.  We have the abiding conviction that the death penalty, which "is unique in its severity and irrevocability," Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. at 187, is an excessive penalty for the rapist who, as such, does not take human life.

Would it be appropriate to reconsider Coker now that we have a more diverse set of Justices and especially since we now better understand that rape in fact does by definition involve "the serious injury to another person"?

September 27, 2020 in Death eligible offenses, Death penalty history, Supreme Court rulings, Theories of punishment, Who decides | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Some timely data and discussion about race as we consider McClesky (and also about execution methods)

InterracialThough I provided in this post a working draft of a proposed "Ohio Racial and Gender Justice Act" (which I hope to discuss in class on Thursday), I now realize it makes sense to also provide here some recent data and discussion on how race seems to impact our capital justice systems.  

From the Death Penalty Information Center: "Executions by Race and Race of Victim" and a huge new report titled "Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty."  An excerpt:

Throughout the modern era of capital punishment, people of color have been overrepresented on death row.  In 1980, 45.6% of death row prisoners were people of color, and this percentage has increased every decade. By 2019, this percentage had risen to 57.8%.  Currently, white and African-American prisoners each comprise 42% of those on death row and Latinx prisoners make up 13%, with 3% of death row comprised of other races/ethnicities.   These figures can be contrasted with the racial and ethnic makeup of the population as a whole. Approximately 60.4% of the population is white.

The opposite trend is apparent in the racial composition of the victims of those who have been executed in the modern era. Seventy-five percent of murder victims in cases resulting in an execution have been white, even though only half of murder victims are white.  In cases with victims of a single race, 295 African-American defendants have been executed for the murder of white victims, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for the murder of African-American victims.

From the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty: "Racial Bias" and "Jury Selection" and "Race of the Victim" (last link summarizes a lot of academic studies).

From NPR here is a brand new piece, titled "How A Perpetrator's Race And Age Factor Into Who Is Executed," speaks to these issues in the federal system with the scheduled upcoming execution of Christopher Vialva, a black man who killed white victims.  An excerpt:

REPORTER: Vialva is not claiming he's innocent. Instead, his case resembles most of those that end in the death house in Indiana. Like Vialva, who was 19 when he killed the Bagleys, 1 in 4 of the men on federal death row committed their crimes before they reached the age of 21. And of the 57 people on the row, more than half are people of color. Sam Spital is director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

SAM SPITAL: There have been over 500 cases between 1988 and now where the attorney general of the United States authorized federal prosecutors to seek death. And in over two-thirds of those cases, the defendant was either Black or Latinx. And in only about a quarter of the cases was the defendant white.

REPORTER: Spital says the race of the victim also matters a lot.  Defendants who kill white people are 17 times more likely to be executed.  He says those disparities exist in both the state system and the federal system.

And what about Ohio? Helpfully, we have this fairly recent study from Frank Baumgartner, "The Impact of Race, Gender, and Geography on Ohio Executions."  An excerpt:

Between 1976 and 2014, the state of Ohio executed 53 men.  Here are a few key findings of this research:

  • Sixty-five percent of all executions carried out in Ohio between 1976 and 2014 were for crimes involving White victims despite the fact that 43% of all homicide victims are White.
  • Only 27% of all homicide victims are female, but 52% of all executions carried out in Ohio were for homicides involving female victims.
  • Homicides involving White female victims are six times more likely to result in an execution than homicides in involving Black male victims.

And speaking of NPR and Ohio, NPR has also recently had two big pieces about lethal injection execution methods that have important coverage of Ohio (and discusses the work of a notable former member of this class). I highly recommend these pieces if you are interested in the debate over execution methods or Ohio's history with executions:

"Gasping For Air: Autopsies Reveal Troubling Effects Of Lethal Injection"

"Autopsies Spark Legal Fight Over Meaning Of Cruel And Unusual Punishment"

September 23, 2020 in Class activities, Data on sentencing, Death penalty history, Execution methods, Ohio news and commentary, Race and gender issues | Permalink | Comments (2)