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

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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”

So Long, Harris — Breyer’s on Board

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Yesterday, in a long-anticipated move, the Supreme Court finally overturned its 2002 decision in Harris v. United States. The new decision in Alleyne v. United States extended jury-trial rights to mandatory minimum sentences. Justice Breyer’s “flip” from his position in Harris made the difference.

In Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), the Court held that a defendant has a right to a jury trial regarding the facts that may increase the maximum sentence to which he is exposed. Breyer dissented in Apprendi and has steadfastly maintained ever since that Apprendi was wrongly decided.

Two years later, in Harris, the Court decided not to extend Apprendi to the facts that raise a defendant’s minimum sentence. Breyer was part of the 5-4 majority in Harris, but stated in a concurring opinion that he could see no reason to distinguish increasing the maximum from increasing the minimum. Thus, Breyer’s vote in Harris was simply another vote against Apprendi. This immediately raised the expectation that some day, when Breyer was ready to give up the fight against Apprendi, he would be willing to overturn Harris.

Some day has come.  Continue reading “So Long, Harris — Breyer’s on Board”

SCOTUS: Guidelines Amendments Trigger Ex Post Facto Protections

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

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

The new system also raised Ex Post Facto Clause issues, which divided the lower courts. Peugh nicely illustrates the problem.  Continue reading “SCOTUS: Guidelines Amendments Trigger Ex Post Facto Protections”

New Essays on Restitution and Sentencing Commissions

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

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

The sentencing commissions essay focuses particularly on the Minnesota and federal sentencing commissions. In considering these case studies, as well as the experience with sentencing commissions in a few other states, my primary theme is the relationship between sentencing commissions and legislatures. (As I point out in the essay, although sentencing commissions are predominantly legislative creations, commissions have often struggled to maintain their relevance in the face of ongoing legislative policymaking in the sentencing area, which frequently takes the form of harsh statutory responses to the “crime du jour.”) A secondary theme is the relationship between commissions and judges—another relationship that has sometimes proven quite challenging for the commissions to manage effectively.

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

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

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

Continue reading “Sentence Not Improperly Enhanced Based on Defendant’s Silence, Seventh Circuit Rules”

Which Cities Have the Largest Sentencing Disparities?

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

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

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

So, which cities have the greatest disparities?   Continue reading “Which Cities Have the Largest Sentencing Disparities?”

Seventh Circuit Affirms Life Sentence Notwithstanding Supreme Court’s Recent Eighth Amendment Decisions

Posted on Categories Criminal Law & Process, Federal Criminal Law & Process, Federal Sentencing, Public, Seventh Circuit, U.S. Supreme CourtLeave a comment» on Seventh Circuit Affirms Life Sentence Notwithstanding Supreme Court’s Recent Eighth Amendment Decisions

From the time of its decision in Harmelin v. Michigan (1991), affirming a mandatory sentence of life without parole for a drug trafficking offense, through its decision in Ewing v. California (2003), affirming a de facto life sentence for shoplifting, the Supreme Court showed little interest in using the Eighth Amendment Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as a basis to limit the length of prison sentences.  More recently, however, the Court has begun to extend the principles it developed to regulate capital sentencing into the noncapital realm.  First, in Graham v. Florida (2010), the Court banned life without parole for juveniles not convicted of homicide.  Then, in Miller v. Alabama (2012), the Court banned the use of mandatory “LWOP” sentences for all juveniles — even those convicted of homicide.

The Court’s trajectory seems to threaten Harmelin.  Even if the logic of Graham permits LWOP for drug trafficking, the logic of Miller arguably requires a consideration of mitigating circumstances before the sentence can be imposed — prohibits, in other words, LWOP as a statutory minimum for a drug offense.

While the Supreme Court might eventually reach this destination, the Seventh Circuit has decided not to try to get there first.   Continue reading “Seventh Circuit Affirms Life Sentence Notwithstanding Supreme Court’s Recent Eighth Amendment Decisions”

Federal Criminal Cases, 1928-1930: Surprisingly Similar to Today, But Also Very Different

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In anticipation of the conference here next month on the Wickersham Commission, I’ve been reviewing the thirteen voluminous reports the Commission issued in 1931 on various aspects of the criminal-justice system.  One that holds some interesting surprises is the “Progress Report on the Study of the Federal Courts.”  The heart of this report is a fascinating, detailed statistical analysis of the criminal cases in the District of Connecticut for fiscal years 1928-1930.

One thing that strikes me as remarkable is the almost complete absence of trials — the system was dominated then, as now, by guilty pleas.  Old-timers today will sometimes tell you about a golden age of trials in the federal system in the 1970′s.  In that decade, guilty plea rates hovered between 77% and 82%.  After 1981, the rate climbed steadily, reaching more than 96% of adjudicated cases in 2009.  But this, apparently, is not a new phenomenon.  Among 740 criminal cases filed in the District of Connecticut between 1928 and 1931, only nine went to trial.  That’s right, only nine trials in three years, or 1.5 criminal trials per judge per year.  (Eight of these trials, by the way, took less than one full day to try.)  The guilty plea rate in adjudicated cases was over 98%.

After doing some digging for national data, I discovered that the guilty plea rate rose steadily between 1916 and 1933, reaching a peak of 91%.  (See Ron Wright’s helpful data compilation here.)  So, Connecticut seems not to have been terribly atypical.

The Connecticut data are, in fact, quite reminiscent of a modern“fast-track” plea-bargaining system.   Continue reading “Federal Criminal Cases, 1928-1930: Surprisingly Similar to Today, But Also Very Different”

Seventh Circuit Rejects Effort to Extend Padilla Beyond Deportation Context

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In Padilla v. Kentucky (2010), the United States Supreme Court held that an attorney renders constitutionally inadequate representation by failing to advise his or her client of the deportation consequences of a guilty plea. Prior to Padilla, many lower courts had adopted a distinction between “direct” and “collateral” consequences of a guilty plea. While defense counsel was required to advise the client of direct consequences (e.g., a potential prison sentence), counsel was not required to warn the client of collateral consequences (which included, in the view of some lower courts, the risk of deportation). Padilla, however, cast doubt on the existence and meaning of a direct/collateral distinction, which immediately raised questions about whether attorneys might be required to advise clients regarding other sorts of consequences that had previously been regarded as collateral.

Earlier today, in United States v. Reeves (No. 11-2328), the Seventh Circuit turned aside an effort to extend Padilla to the risk that a conviction in one case will be used to enhance the defendant’s sentence in a future case.

Here’s what happened.  Continue reading “Seventh Circuit Rejects Effort to Extend Padilla Beyond Deportation Context”

Ice Gets Iced

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Earlier this summer, in Southern Union Co. v. United States (No. 11-94), the Supreme Court seemed to reverse course yet again in its on-and-off revolution in the area of jury-trial rights at sentencing.  The revolution began with Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), which held that a jury, and not a judge, must find the facts that increase a statutory maximum prison term.  The revolution seemed over two years later, when the Court decided in Harris v. United States that no jury was required for mandatory minimum sentences.  But, another two years after that, in Blakely v. Washington, the revolution was back on, with the Court extending Apprendi rights to sentencing guidelines.  Blakelywas especially notable for its hard-nosed formalism: Apprendi was said to have created a bright-line rule firmly grounded in the framers’ reverence for the jury; we are not in the business, declared Justice Scalia for the Blakely majority, of carving out exceptions to such clear rules in the interest of efficiency or other contemporary policy concerns.

Then came Oregon v. Ice in 2009, which seemed to signal that the Court had again grown weary of the revolution.   Continue reading “Ice Gets Iced”

Sentencing and the Limits of Actuarial Risk Assessment

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As child molesters go, Cory Reibel seems a relatively low-risk proposition.  He is a first-time offender, was not sexually abused himself as a child, and victimized a girl instead of a boy — studies indicate that all of these factors point to a reduced risk of recidivism.  Yet, he was sentenced to the statutory maximum of 30 years in prison by a judge who wanted to prevent him from offending again.

The judge’s sentence seems to fly in the face of the science of risk assessment.  Actuarial risk assessment (that is, the determination of an offender’s risk based on a statistically sound analysis of recidivism data involving other offenders with similar characteristics) seems to be playing an increasingly prominent role in both pretrial release and post-conviction sentencing decisions.  Scientifically speaking, this is pretty clearly an advance on pure intuition as a basis for predicting risk.  However, actuarial risk assessment does present some important ethical difficulties when it is used as a basis for determining how severe a punishment should be.

These difficulties were on display earlier today when the Seventh Circuit turned aside Reibel’s challenge to the reasonableness of his sentence.   Continue reading “Sentencing and the Limits of Actuarial Risk Assessment”

Dorsey v. United States: So Long, Saving Statute?

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Last month, in Dorsey v. United States (No. 11-5683), the Supreme Court resolved an important circuit split on the interpretation of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.  The FSA softened the controversial mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine offenses that have been in place since 1986.  There’s no question that crack offenders who committed their crimes after the statute’s effective date, August 3, 2010, benefit from the new regime.  However, the lower courts have divided over the handling of crimes committed before the effective date, but sentenced after it.  Although this may sound like a minor dispute, given the volume of crack offenses prosecuted in federal court and the eleven-month median time between indictment and sentencing in these cases, there may be hundreds or thousands of defendants who are affected by its resolution.

Such timing questions are often resolved by reference to the federal “saving statute” of 1871 (1 U.S.C. §109), which indicates that the law in place at the time of an offense should normally govern the penalty.  However, this is only a default principle; earlier Supreme Court decisions indicate that Congress can make reduced penalties applicable to all defendants if Congress demonstrates such an intent either expressly or by necessary implication.  Since the FSA did not expressly address the question one way or another, Dorsey turned on the finding of implied congressional intent.  By a narrow 5-4 margin, the Court decided that Congress had indeed intended to make the FSA applicable to all defendants sentenced after the statute took effect.

Continue reading “Dorsey v. United States: So Long, Saving Statute?”