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”
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”
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”
Yesterday’s oral argument in Beckles v. United States found the justices wrestling with retroactivity and vagueness in the context of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The petitioner, Travis Beckles, questioned the constitutionality of the residual clause of the career-offender provision in Section 4B1.2 of the guidelines after the Supreme Court, in Johnson v. United States, found an identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act to be unconstitutionally vague. Beckles asked the court to rule first on whether a favorable ruling on the constitutional question – on which he and the government agree — would be retroactive on collateral review. Even if the court were to find in favor of Beckles on both counts, he could still lose because of a unique interplay between the career-offender guideline and the guideline commentary, which specifically declared his offense – possession of a sawed-off shotgun – to be a crime of violence.
With her opening question, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg forced Janice Bergmann, representing Beckles, to focus on the third issue in the case: the relationship between the guidelines’ residual clause and the commentary, which specifically listed Beckles’ offense of conviction as a crime of violence. A number of justices took issue with Bergmann’s assertion that the commentary cannot define “shapeless” language, a term taken from Johnson. After all, they noted, the guideline commentary, at least in part, interpreted the residual clause, presumably providing meaning in that manner. They also questioned whether the commission was not in the best position to clarify its own language. Bergmann responded that the guideline language was not the commission’s, but rather was drawn from the ACCA residual clause. Any interpretation and examples offered by the commission, she argued, would therefore be arbitrary.
Justice Samuel Alito was the first to direct the argument to the question of what vagueness would mean in a guideline-free world. Along with Justice Stephen Breyer, Alito reminded Bergmann that pre-guideline sentencing appears substantially more vague and arbitrary than the residual clause, as do many of the current guideline provisions. In response, Bergmann asserted that the guideline residual clause is unique among those provisions because of its identity with the ACCA residual clause, and that it shares the same characteristics embodied in the categorical approach that ultimately caused the court to declare the ACCA provision void for vagueness.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy continued along similar lines by pointing to the decrease in vagueness any guideline, even a vague one, would provide as compared to the previous system of discretionary sentencing. Why, they asked, should greater precision lead to greater vagueness? Continue reading “Court Wrestles With Vagueness and Retroactivity in Sentencing Context”
My recent article, “Judicial Challenges to the Collateral Impact of Criminal Convictions: Is True Change in the Offing?,” examines judicial decisions that reflect an increasing dissatisfaction with harsh criminal penalties and severe collateral consequences for nonviolent offenders. Here is the abstract:
Judicial opposition to disproportionate sentences and the long-term impact of criminal records is growing, at least in the Eastern District of New York. With the proliferation and harshness of collateral consequences and the hurdles in overcoming a criminal record, judges have asked for greater proportionality and improved chances for past offenders to get a fresh start. The combined impact of punitiveness and a criminal record is not only debilitating to the individual but also to their families and communities. A criminal case against a noncitizen who will be subject to deportation and a decade-long ban on reentry and three different requests for expungement will demonstrate how three federal judges struggled with the long-term effects of the current sentencing and collateral consequences regime. These cases exemplify both judicial creativity and judicial impotence, as the courts have to call upon the support of other actors within the executive and legislative branches for change, in these individual cases and systemically.
These judicial critics of the current approach argue within an emerging normative framework that is coming to dominate the societal discourse on punishment. Increasingly some offenders are deemed “worthy” of receiving our assistance in reintegration. They are generally nonviolent first offenders, those with an unblemished record save for the offense of conviction, those who have been gainfully employed or desperately want to work, and those who have cared for their children. They present no danger to the community, and their continued punishment may negatively impact them, their surroundings, and ultimately the country. On the other hand, those labeled violent or sex offenders or terrorists are being considered dangerous, unredeemable, and deserving of the harshness the criminal justice system has brought to bear on them. The specific categorization of offenses, the definitions of terms, and the categorization of offenders remain fluid, contingent, and subject to constant revision. Still, these judicial efforts expand on the incipient efforts at full reintegration of some of those with a criminal record. Whether their challenges will resonate with their colleagues and in other branches of government remains to be seen.
A full copy of the article can be downloaded at the New York University Law Review Online.
Nora Demleitner is the 2016 Boden Visiting Professor at Marquette University Law School.
In 2015, in Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA) as unconstitutionally vague, ruling that the provision did not give ordinary people adequate notice of what conduct was prohibited by the statute. The residual clause had included among the category of “violent felonies” any felony that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” Next week, in Beckles v. United States, the court will confront the constitutionality of the sentencing guidelines’ version of the residual clause. This is one of two cases this term that address the effect of Johnson on the vagueness doctrine. (The other case, Lynch v. Dimaya, arises in a statutory context.) Two of the nine justices who joined in the six-justice majority opinion in Johnson, including its author – the late Justice Antonin Scalia – will not participate in this case. Because Justice Elena Kagan is recused, a seven-member court will render a decision.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for drafting and amending the sentencing guidelines, removed the guideline residual clause earlier this year and supplanted it in part by commentary, which is also at issue here. It did not, however, make the change retroactive. This case brings the question of retroactivity squarely in front of the court, continuing the interplay between the commission and the court. The ostensible issues of vagueness and retroactivity, however, camouflage a broader question about the meaning and function of advisory guidelines.
Notably, the government has changed its position on both retroactivity and vagueness. Although it supported the defendant’s claims in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit – and those of similarly situated defendants in other circuits – it opposes them now. Adding another dimension to the controversy, the court appointed an amicus, or “friend of the court,” to defend the 11th Circuit’s holding that the vagueness doctrine does not apply to the sentencing guidelines. The decision in this case, therefore, will have broad ramifications for vagueness jurisprudence, the meaning of advisory guidelines, and the respective roles of the commission and the court. Continue reading “Supreme Court to Tackle Constitutionality of Residual Clause in Sentencing Guidelines”
Somewhat lost amidst the 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. The August 30 grants, however, had special significance for me and a small group of recent Marquette Law School graduates.
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. Reinforcing the negative perceptions, President Bill Clinton’s pardon of financier Marc Rich and President George W. Bush’s commutation of the sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby seemed to confirm that clemency was mostly used to benefit wealthy, powerful defendants.
The Obama Administration, however, envisioned a very different way to use clemency. Continue reading “Obama Clemency Grants Pick Up Steam”
Part One: Supervised Release
It’s been an eventful summer at the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. In addition to deciding high-profile cases involving same-sex marriage and the validity of Wisconsin’s “Act 10” legislation, the Court has issued noteworthy opinions addressing criminal sentencing procedure and the law of evidence.
Seemingly out of the blue, the Court has signaled a new willingness to take a closer look at the imposition of supervised release conditions in federal criminal cases. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and probation officers will all be required to “up their game” in response to this new scrutiny. Continue reading “What the Seventh Circuit Did During Your Summer Vacation”
(This is another post in our series, Looking Back at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Term.)
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 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 “US Supreme Court Review: Statutory Interpretation in Criminal Cases”
(This is the first post in our series, Looking Back at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Term. Other posts, when they appear, can be found here.) The Court’s criminal docket this term included two interesting causation cases that came to somewhat different conclusions. The cases were Burrage v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 881, which dealt with criminal responsibility for a drug-related death, and Paroline v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 1710, which dealt with restitution for a child pornography victim. In both cases, the Court had to grapple with tensions between traditional, narrow understandings of causal responsibility in the law and a natural human desire to hold bad actors accountable for tragic harms with which they seem to have some connection, even if that connection is a tenuous or uncertain one.
Burrage nicely illustrates the tension. Continue reading “US Supreme Court Review: Crime and Causation”
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 less 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”
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”