Posts Tagged ‘sentencing guidelines’

Time to Lose the Guidelines?

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Bill Otis, a former AUSA and now an adjunct at Georgetown Law, had a piece earlier this month in the Federalist Society’s magazine Engage titled “The Slow, Sad Swoon of the Sentencing Suggestions.”  His article opens with the sentence “The Guidelines are a lost cause.”  We were in total agreement so far.  But by the next sentence, he’d lost us.

It’s a good article, don’t get us wrong, and well worth reading.  But Prof. Otis’ main point is that the Guidelines stopped being useful after Booker made them optional.  He’d prefer to completely do away with them, but only to replace them with more stringent rules that remove most of the discretion judges now have in sentencing.  We cannot agree.

The Guidelines were enacted back in 1987 largely in response to a perception that sentencing was too unpredictable.  For any given crime, Judge A might give three years in prison while Judge B might give only one.  Or Defendant X might get prison while Defendant Y only got probation.  The Guidelines corrected that by removing much of the discretion judges had.  For a given offense, and a given criminal history, there was a range of permissible definite sentences that could be imposed.  Some discretion was allowed for slight downward or upward departures to different ranges.  Less discretion was allowed for variances, sentences that rejected the Guidelines as inappropriate.  Needless to say, judges hated this loss of discretion from day one.  The Guidelines were not mere guidelines, but strict rules.  It stayed that way until the 2005 Booker decision restored them to the general rule-of-thumb they were meant to be.

Now, the Guidelines are still important at sentencing.  Everyone uses them, everyone applies them.  Now, however, once the appropriate Guideline range has been calculated, there is more room for advocacy to seek a different sentence, and judges are able to consider different sentences on a case-by-case basis.

Some, like Otis, decry this as a return to the unpredictable bad old days, where one’s sentence varied based on the “luck of the draw” of which judge one happened to have.  Others praise it as a movement towards greater individual justice.

The division here is deep, a seemingly irreconcilable difference of core principles of what criminal justice is supposed to do.

On the one hand, you have those who want predictability, uniformity and consistency.  If stealing $50,000 is worth five years (or whatever), then it’s worth five years.  What’s important is the crime, not the criminal.  If society knows that a given crime gets you a given sentence, then the law has a more deterrent effect.  The penalty works to prevent more of the same crime, and society benefits.  Taking into account such variables as the thief’s personal circumstances or the judge’s gut feeling that this wasn’t such a big deal — or conversely variables such as the relative harm suffered by the particular victim or the judge’s gut feeling that this was worse than usual — makes for an unpredictable world where nobody knows what a given crime is worth.  Without predictability, the law loses its deterrent effect.  Society suffers.  The purposes of punishment that are most important to this group are retribution — a given crime is worth a given penalty — and general deterrence.

On the other hand, you have those who want individualized sentencing.  Make the punishment fit the criminal, not the crime.  Justice is not what happens on average, it is what happens to this individual standing right here right now.  And even general deterrence is achieved not by specific sentences, but by the general awareness that some punishment is going to happen.  The uncertainty of what that penalty might be doesn’t lessen the deterrent effect of this awareness.  And the retributive aspect of punishment must be proportional to be just.  A one-year sentence might be devastating to the life of a middle-class college grad whose career will be ended, whose reputation in his relevant community will be destroyed, and who will suffer the consequences deeply for the rest of his life.  That same one-year sentence might be a walk in the park (or as one of our clients once put it, “a nice vacation”) with little or none of the devastation suffered by the other.  Justice demands that individual differences be taken into account.  And that demands that judges be given the discretion to do so.

These two positions — general justice vs. individual justice — are usually irreconcilable because they use the same words to mean different things.  They can’t even begin a discussion because they’re arguing from core principles that don’t correspond.

But beyond that, those who value general consistency over individual appropriateness miss the entire point of our criminal justice system.  The whole point is to ensure (more…)

Stop the Presses — Holder Does Something Right

Wednesday, June 1st, 2011

 

We rag on Attorney General Eric Holder from time to time on this blog.  For good reason — he’s been something of an idiot on profiling, miranda, terrorism, etc..  But today he did something praiseworthy, and we’d be out of line if we didn’t say so.

Last August, Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act.  Although it does have some significant drawbacks, such as actually increasing sentencing for some defendants, the main intent was to try to reduce the insane disparity in federal sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine.

The problem was, this reduction in the sentencing guidelines was not retroactive.  It only applied to future cases.  People already in prison for crack — even though everyone now agrees their sentences are too long — would have to suck it up and stick it out.

But today, AG Holder testified before the US Sentencing Commission, and told them the new lower sentences should be applied retroactively.  “As years of experience and study have shown, there is simply no just or logical reason why their punishments should be dramatically more severe than those of other cocaine offenders,” he said.

Yes.  He is, for once, right.

Of course, even when he’s right he can’t help being wrong.  Holder wouldn’t let the lower sentences be retroactive if the inmate happened to have a gun at the time of the crime.  Or if the inmate had a “significant” criminal history.  Apparently, crack really is something that should be sentenced more harshly if you’ve gotten caught possessing or selling it before.  There’s no internal logic here, no principle that supports this.  If crack crimes are not more serious than equivalent powder crimes, then what justifies enhancing crack but not powder sentences if these other factors exist?  Holder’s being disingenuous, trying to appease both the reformers and the “try to look tough on crime” legislators, instead of actually being true to his principles.  If he has any.

Still, although he’d be more correct to seek retroactive application across the board, he’s at least doing something right in seeking some retroactivity at all.  So here’s some polite golf applause for Eric Holder.

Rethinking Recidivism

Friday, April 29th, 2011

 

It’s rare that we agree with a NY Times editorial.  Yesterday, we came close.  In a blurb titled “Recidivism’s High Cost and a Way to Cut It,” the editors said one solution to the high cost of imprisoning repeat offenders would be to adopt what Oregon’s doing, in letting its parole officers use programs and other alternatives to jail for lesser violations.

Ooh, so close.

Two problems: One, most of those who return to prison aren’t coming back on a parole violation, they’re going in because they got convicted of a whole new crime.  Yes, far too many parolees get put back in for non-criminal stuff like failing to abide by arbitrary and asshole-ish conditions imposed by dickhead parole officers.  But this doesn’t account for much of the actual recidivism numbers.  So dealing with this isn’t going to make too big a dent in the repeat prison population.

Two, the people making the decision are still going to be the same parole boards, parole officers, and parole magistrates who are acting like assholes and dickheads in the first place.  (These are obscure legal terms of art, perhaps obscure to those who do not practice criminal law.  To any non-lawyers reading this, we believe the common expression would be something akin to “unthinking, tyrannical bullies.”)  The problem people are the ones who are so jaded by dealing with scumbag after scumbag that they are incapable of recognizing a deserving parolee when they see one; or they are so stupid that they are incapable of reasoned discretion and cling to rote practices like a drowning man clutching a lifeline; or they are such villains that they derive satisfaction from fucking people over; or they are so righteous that they believe they are doing the right thing in fucking people over.  Whichever variety you’re dealing with, they either abuse their discretion or fail to use their discretion in the first place.  So giving them more discretion isn’t going to solve anything.

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So okay, the NYT oversimplified, missed the real point, and offered a useless suggestion.  Who cares, that’s what they always do.  But this is The Criminal Lawyer, you’re saying to yourself.  What do we suggest?

The biggest problem is really out of the hands of the criminal justice system.  It’s people who (more…)

Is it a victory if you have to fight the battle all over again?

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

 

Let this be a lesson to any young appellate lawyers who might be reading this:  Focus on the result, not on the argument.

We’re wading through the various slip opinions and decisions that came down during March and April while we were on trial, and the Supreme Court decision in Pepper v. United States just floored us.  In a nutshell, Pepper got a huge downward departure at sentencing, for providing substantial assistance, getting 24 months plus five years of supervised release.  After Pepper had served his time and was now out on supervised release, the Eighth Circuit said his sentence was improper, and remanded for new sentencing.  The original departure was about 75% off the guideline.  At resentencing, the judge took 40% off, but then dropped it down to 24 months again based on extensive evidence that Pepper had gotten his life back on track in major ways.  The government appealed again.

On the second appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed again, saying that post-sentencing facts could not be considered in resentencing.  Only facts known at the time of the original sentence could be applied.  After a Supreme Court sojourn on Gall issues, the Circuit remanded for re-resentencing before a new judge.  At this new resentencing, the new judge gave him only 20% off, or 65 months plus 12 months of supervised release.

Pepper appealed, of course, trying to get that original 40% departure.  So it went to the Supreme Court again.

The Supremes held, quite correctly, that of course post-sentencing facts may be considered at a resentencing.  It is absurd to argue otherwise.  The prosecution would be allowed to present evidence of subsequent failings by the defendant, so why shouldn’t the defendant be allowed to present evidence of his rehabilitation?

So far, so good.  But did that mean that Pepper was entitled to that original 40% reduction?  No.  Because “in his merits briefs to this Court, Pepper does not challenge the scope or validity of the Court of Appeals’ mandate ordering de novo resentencing, and thus has abandoned any argument that the mandate itself restricted the District Court from imposing a different substantial assistance departure.”  And the “law of the case” doctrine doesn’t apply in a de novo proceeding when the entire sentence had been set aside, which is what happened here.

This is such a forehead-smacking moment.

The Supremes are all but saying that Pepper should have said the Eighth Circuit didn’t have the authority to set aside the entire sentence and order a de novo resentencing.  Had the argument been made, the Court might have held that the Circuit could only have remanded for resentencing applying specific rules, but couldn’t order a complete do-over in front of a new judge.

But Pepper didn’t ask for that.

So Pepper didn’t get it.

Instead, all he gets now is a re-resentencing that is permitted to take into account his post-sentencing rehabilitation.  Which may or may not get him the lighter sentence he originally sought.  If appellate counsel had kept their eyes on the goal of canceling the Circuit’s de novo order, they would have argued for it.  And they might have gotten it.  Instead, they focused on making a “law of the case” argument that, while clever, made little sense if the de novo thing was still there.

Ergh.

(PS — The concurring opinions are worthwhile reading, as they lay out some of the ongoing problems in the post-Booker world.  Thomas’s dissent, however, goes too far.  He would abandon the individual justice of sentencing where judges have discretion, and would return to the one-size-fits-all injustice of the Guidelines as Mandates.  Thank goodness he’s a minority of one in this case.)

What Nobody’s Mentioning about the New Crack Sentencing Law

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

 

Yesterday, President Obama signed S.1789, the long-awaited sentencing fairness act that reduced the appalling 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine.  It still doesn’t go all the way to undo the hysteria of the crack epidemic, however.  For powder cocaine there’s a 10-year minimum for selling or possessing with intent to sell 5,000 grams — for crack cocaine the figure was just 50 grams, but that just went up to 280 grams.  There’s a 5-year minimum for selling/possessing with intent 500 grams of powder — for crack that just went up from 5 grams to 28 grams.  So there’s still a roughly 18-to-1 sentencing disparity.  And the 5-year mandatory minimum for mere possession of crack — personal use here — was eliminated entirely (it had applied to possession of 5 grams for first offenders, 3 grams for second offenders, and 1 gram for third offenders).

That’s all good news.  Getting rid of the mandatory minimum for mere possession is the best part, because throwing people in jail for mere possession is stupid, wrong, unjust, and doesn’t solve the problem.  Drug court and treatment diversion programs work very well.  (The new law also requires a federal report one year from now on just how well the federally-funded drug court programs are doing.)  Reducing the sentencing disparity from the appalling (and racist) 100-to-1, to the merely shocking (and still racist) 18-to-1… well, it’s better than nothing.  Powder and crack are equally bad, there is no disparity in their effects, their addictiveness, or anything meaningful.  There shouldn’t be any disparity at all.  But reducing it is a step in the right direction, and the new law is rightly praised for so doing.

But in all the hoopla, the press (and the defense bar) seem to have overlooked the other provisions of the new law — provisions which can dramatically increase some drug sentences.

There are now 2+ level enhancements for drug crimes involving violence or the threat of violence (not unheard of).  There are now 2+ level enhancements if premises were used for the manufacture or distribution (very common).  There will be 2+ level enhancements if the defendant was using his girlfriend to mule the drugs, or an addict to sell the drugs on the street in exchange for a freebie, or any other typical buffering relationship.  There will be 2+ enhancements if they sold to, or involved, someone under 18, someone over 64, or someone who was pregnant (common).  There are 2+ enhancements if the defendant made his living by selling drugs (a majority of cases, no?).

That’s just a partial list of enhancements.  But you can see how a typical drug defendant can now wind up facing significantly more time now than before Obama signed “the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. ”

We can think of a number of ways to describe the new law.  “Fair Sentencing” is not one of them.

Dammit, Dillon!

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Just a quick update.  The Supreme Court decided Dillon v. U.S. today (read the opinion here), and the decision totally sucks.  Here’s what we said about it a couple of weeks ago:

There are a lot of federal inmates serving unfairly long sentences, due to the bizarre discrepancy in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine.  (See our latest piece on this here.)  In 2007, the Guidelines were amended a teeny bit, permitting a 2-level reduction for crack cases.  In 2008, that was made retroactive, so prisoners could get resentenced.  Dillon wanted to get resentenced.  But he wanted more than the 2-level reduction.  He wanted a departure from the Guidelines recommendation itself, as permitted by Booker.  But the feds say Booker only applies to full sentencing proceedings, not to resentencings like this — this is just an adjustment of the guideline range that should have been applied to a pre-Booker sentence.  As Scalia pointed out at oral argument, that would require the courts to essentially disregard Booker.  And given the universal loathing of the crack/powder disparity, we think a finding for Dillon would give the courts the ability to take the injustice into account and impose variance sentences more proportional to those for powder.

But noooo.

Writing for a 7-1 majority (Stevens dissented, and Alito recused himself), Justice Sotomayor said that Booker doesn’t apply here — the Guidelines are not advisory, and have to be applied as they were back in the bad old days.

This is just infuriating.  The 100-1 disparity in sentencing for crack vs. powder cocaine is fundamentally unjust.  One would think that the judiciary would just wipe it out as simply unconstitutional.  But instead, we get the Supremes saying §3582(c)(2) — the whole point of which is lenity for those sentenced under the disparate Guidelines — doesn’t allow for any lenity beyond what the Guidelines themselves permit.

Sotomayor’s legal reasoning isn’t bad.  It’s actually pretty good.  But her result is appalling.

Is Dolan a Clue to the Upcoming “Honest Services” Decisions?

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010
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We’re still waiting to hear how the Supreme Court decides the trio of cases on “honest services” fraud.  In the meantime, we’re wondering if yesterday’s Dolan decision might be a harbinger of what’s to come.

In Dolan, the Court was dealing with a vague statute.  It left out a crucial statement of what ought to happen if the court missed a deadline.  They could have sent it back to Congress to specify what ought to happen.  After oral arguments, during which both the progressive Stevens and the formalist Scalia seemed inclined to do just that, we figured it was probably going to happen.  But we figured wrong. 

Instead, the Court split 5-4, not on ideological lines, but on seniority.  The five most junior justices agreed to craft their own remedy language for the statute, based on what they felt the general purpose was supposed to be.  The four more senior justices wanted Congress to amend the statute itself, and pointed out that the juniors’ interpretation actually undermined the existing language already in the statute.

We wonder if we’re going to see a similar split (and similar strange bedfellows) in the “honest services” cases of Black, Weyrach, and (more…)

Federal Sentencing: A Long Way to Go

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

guidelines

Tonight, we attended a panel discussion on federal sentencing that was actually worth commenting on. Usually, these things are either so basic or insubstantial as to be a waste of time. But this one had a few choice moments we’d thought we’d share with our readers.

The panelists included John Conyers (Chairman of the House judiciary committee), William Sessions (Chair of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and Chief Judge of the District of Vermont), Jonathan Wroblewski (policy director for the DOJ, among other things), Alan Vinegrad (former US Atty for the EDNY and now a white-collar partner at Covington), Tony Ricco (mainstay of the federal defense bar), and Rachel Barkow (NYU professor, didn’t speak much). It was moderated by Judge John Gleeson of the EDNY, and we recognized in the standing-room-only audience a number of distinguished jurists and counsel.

Everyone seems to agree that the Guidelines are in need of a major overhaul. As Judge Gleeson put it, “when even the prosecutors are saying that sentences are too severe… the sentences are too severe.”

But not everyone agrees on what changes ought to be made, how drastic the changes ought to be, or even what’s causing the problems in federal sentencing.

Here’s the take-away: Everyone knows what the right thing to do is. Judges want to do the right thing, regardless of what the Guidelines say. The DOJ forces its prosecutors to do what the Guidelines say, regardless of what they think is just. Congress is incapable of doing the right thing, in its efforts to pander and blame rather than solve. And the Sentencing Commission is afraid to be independent of Congress, preferring instead to make baby steps toward eventually maybe doing the right thing.

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“Unnecessary cruelty”

For as long as we’ve been practicing law, everyone has been complaining bitterly about (more…)

What Not to Say at Sentencing

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010
Monica Conyers arriving at court for sentencing

Monica Conyers arriving at court for sentencing

Former Detroit councilwoman Monica Conyers, the wife of U.S. Representative John Conyers, was sentenced today in federal court on her guilty plea to charges of bribery. The 45-year-old was given 37 months in prison, the top end of the agreed-upon Guidelines range.

Having read the sentencing minutes, we can’t help but think she might have done better if she’d kept her mouth shut. There are some things one does not say during one’s sentencing. She seems not to have gotten the memo, and it may be that others out there don’t know either. So here are some tips:

First, do not imply that the judge is acting improperly, before the judge has even sentenced you. Don’t even hint that the judge is taking things into account that he should not be. For example, it is not a good idea to say “the newspapers have put pressure on you to try to make an example out of me.” Judges do not like to be told they’re committing an impropriety. You do not want to piss off the person who is about to decide your fate.

Seriously, people need to be told this?

Second, do not say it’s unfair that you’re going to jail, when the other people committing crimes with you got less time. If you’ve pled to taking bribes (Conyers admitted taking multiple payments in return for awarding a contract), it doesn’t matter what happened to anybody else. The only consideration is what you did, and what you deserve. So saying “all of the people who were bribing and giving the money, they got zero months, eleven months, and now they want me to go to jail for five years?” — that’s not really going to help you out. All you’re doing is calling the judge unfair to his face. And it’s irrelevant at best.

That leads right to point 3: If you’ve just got done saying you should get the same time as your fellow conspirators, it’s not a good idea to then insist that you’re innocent and your plea was involuntary. Arguing in the alternative, at least in criminal cases, only means both alternatives are wrong. Pick a story and stick with it.

Point 3-A is that you don’t react to sentencing by demanding your (more…)

D.C. Circuit: No Extra Prison Time for Rehabilitation

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

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The D.C. Circuit weighed in today on an important issue that has split the circuits evenly: whether a sentencing court can give extra time in prison, to increase the opportunity for rehabilitation of the prisoner. Some circuits say it’s fine, some say it’s prohibited by law.

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18 U.S.C. § 3553 says there are four purposes of criminal punishment:
(1) “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense;” [retribution]
(2) “to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;” [deterrence]
(3) “to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant;” [removal]
(4) “to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner.” [rehabilitation]

18 U.S.C. § 3582 says that a sentencing court has to consider those four purposes of punishment in deciding whether to impose a prison sentence, and in deciding how long a prison sentence should be. However, it adds that the court must recognize “that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”

In other words, the law implicitly recognizes that prison, in and of itself, doesn’t rehabilitate people. Departments of “Corrections” have nothing to do with correcting people’s behavior. (It’s Orwellian, isn’t it? And so is the concept of incarcerating people for the purpose of re-education.)

This comes as no surprise to anyone with any experience with the criminal justice system. Imprisonment does not make people stop committing crimes. Studies have shown that roughly 83% of people who get arrested will never get in trouble again after that one single encounter with the system. Either they’re scared straight, or their behavior was a one-off exception to an otherwise blameless life. This is why we have consent decrees, adjournments in contemplation of dismissal, and the like. Most people, if given a second chance, will never get in trouble again. Incarceration is completely unnecessary to “rehabilitate” these people.

The other 17% or so? They keep coming back. Incarceration does not stop them from getting in trouble again once they get out. It is stupidly obvious that prison does not rehabilitate repeat offenders.

Rehabilitation is not so much an aspect of punishment, so much as it is an opportunity incidental to it. There certainly are life-altering programs, typically long-term programs, that can get people out of drug dependencies or ways of life conducive to criminal behavior. But these are exceptions, not the rule. They change circumstances, not behavior. And they can sometimes be best administered in an incarcerated setting — but often they are just as effective in a non-jail setting.

Meanwhile, the circuits are split on just what § 3582 means when it says “the court, in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall . . . [recognize] that imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting correction and rehabilitation.”

Some circuits — like the Fifth, Sixth, Eighth and Ninth Circuits — say that the court should not decide whether to impose prison based on considerations of rehabilitation, but it is okay to increase a prison sentence for the purposes of rehabilitation. Other circuits — like the Second, Third, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits — say that courts shouldn’t increase prison sentences, either.

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Today, the D.C. Circuit joined the Second and Third Circuits in saying that § 3582 prohibits courts from increasing a prison sentence for the purpose of rehabilitation.

In re: Sealed Case*http://pacer.cadc.uscourts.gov/common/opinions/200907/08-3029-1198396.pdf*, No. 08-3029 (July 28, 2009) dealt with an older defendant with a long rap sheet and a drug addiction. His name is sealed because at one time he had tried to cooperate with the feds, albeit unsuccessfully. The defendant pled guilty to selling less than five grams of heroin. Ordinarily, with his criminal history category and acceptance of responsibility, this would have given him a sentencing range of 24 to 30 months. However, what with his felony record and all, his Guidelines range wound up being 151 to 188 months (12.5 – 15.5 years).

This is only advisory, of course, and the court then weighed the various § 3553 factors to figure out what sentence to actually impose. The judge said his recidivism was due to his drug addiction, and the case only involved a small amount of drugs. The judge added that the defendant could benefit from some of the programs available in prison, and that these “would actually be more available and more useful for the defendant over a somewhat longer period of time than it would over a very short period of time.”

In the end, the judge went down to a sentence of 132 months (11 years), along with a recommendation that the defendant be admitted to the prison’s “500-hour” drug treatment program.

The defendant appealed, saying that the judge would have given him a shorter sentence, but increased the sentence for the purposes of rehabilitation, and that was improper. It urged the Circuit to adopt the rule of the Second and Third Circuits.

The government, on the other hand, said they should adopt the Ninth Circuit’s rule instead, permitting increases in sentencing for the purpose of rehabilitation.

In its 2-1 ruling today, the D.C. Circuit said that the plain language of the statute bars courts from seeking to achieve rehabilitation through imprisonment. A defendant can be imprisoned for other purposes, and then take advantage of rehabilitative programs while in jail, but those programs cannot be the reason for incarceration.

The government argued that this only prohibits choosing jail over a non-jail sentence based on such considerations. Once the sentencing court has decided to incarcerate, § 3553 requires courts to consider rehabilitation, so it must be a reason for determining the length of the sentence.

The Circuit said this made no sense. “If, as the government concedes, imprisonment is not an appropriate means of promoting rehabilitation, how can more imprisonment serve as an appropriate means of promoting rehabilitation?”

The court went on to find that the sentencing judge’s comments indicate that the defendant probably got extra time so as to give him more opportunities for rehabilitation. It was reasonably likely that his sentence would have been shorter, otherwise.

Maybe not a dramatically shorter sentence — after all, the judge did say that selling heroin is serious, and that the defendant had a lifelong pattern of recidivism. But that’s not the point. The point is that the defendant might have gotten a shorter sentence.

Any unwarranted extra time in prison is unfair. It’s not what our system is supposed to permit. So the Circuit vacated the sentence, and remanded for new sentencing.

The defendant might wind up getting the same sentence at the end of the day. But the sentencing court is going to have to explain that the reasons for the length of the sentence do not include the extra opportunity for rehabilitation from extra months in jail.

-=-=-=-

This exacerbates the split among the circuits. And the issue is an important one, involving the deprivation of liberty and freedoms for the purposes of social engineering.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see the Supreme Court take up this issue in the near future. Perhaps even with this case.

20 Years Sounds About Right for Dreier

Monday, July 13th, 2009

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So Marc Dreier was sentenced today to 20 years in prison, plus forfeiture of $746 million and restitution of nearly $388 million (that’s more than a billion dollars, with a “b”). That’s his punishment for his guilty plea to conspiracy, securities fraud, money laundering and wire fraud. The feds had asked for 145 years in prison, and Dreier’s counsel Gerald Shargel had asked for a sentence in the 10-12.5 year range.

We have to say, we’re not offended by this sentence. It’s high enough to be meaningful, but not so high that it will scare away future plea bargains in white collar cases.

It’s important to have a meaningful sentence, if the justice system is to function properly. If justice is not perceived to be done, then law and order lose their authority. For many years, white collar crimes were seen to be treated unjustly, with sentences too low for the harm done. A massive financial fraud could have many more victims than a violent street crime, and can do far more damage to each victim by taking not just their wallet, but the savings representing a lifetime of labor. But until recently, such frauds were punished far more lightly.

In recent years, however, the pendulum began to swing the other way. From Tyco to Enron to MCI to Madoff, we saw white-collar sentences lurch upward and upward. Madoff’s 150-year sentence earlier this summer was just amazing, and not at all proportionate to the harm done. The pendulum had swung too far.

If that was to be the new par for the course, white collar sentencing would be just as unjust as it was in the days of the old slap-on-the-wrist. In addition to the very real problems of perception, in a world where perception equals reality, there is the separate problem of efficiency.

If people think they’re going to get slammed at sentencing whether they plead guilty or not, as Madoff did, then there is no point to pleading guilty. One might as well take one’s chances with a jury and shoot for the off chance of an acquittal. It happens.

(As an aside, there’s an old story of a band of soldiers in medieval China, who had become lost in a swamp en route to a muster. The penalty for being late was death. The penalty for rebellion was death. So they rebelled. And eventually toppled the government. Extreme punishments have had extreme public reactions throughout history. *Cough*drug laws*cough*)

Here, the government wanted 145 years for Dreier, to punish him for putting one over… not on mom and pop investors, but on sophisticated hedge funds who really ought to have done their homework. That would be just five years less than what Madoff got, for essentially doing the same thing. But it would have been a horrible outcome for our criminal justice system if they actually got their way.

Fortunately, Dreier drew Judge Jed Rakoff, who has been vocal in opposing the recent trend towards ever-higher sentences in white collar cases (in addition to his criticism of the severity of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines). Rakoff is making him give back the money he filched, and forfeit his ill-gotten gains, and serve a prison sentence equal in severity to his crimes.

Nobody can reasonably say Dreier got off light, and nobody should complain that his sentence was unjustly harsh. We think Judge Rakoff nailed this one.