I have frequently thought that much of what we do is in the federal trial courts is like making sausage. What we do may not be pretty, but in the end the task is worth the effort.
Professor Doug Berman, the author of Sentencing Law and Policy, wrote the following last Friday about Amendment 782 to the Guidelines:
Hard core federal sentencing nerds know that November 1 is a special day because it is the official date on which any proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines proposed by the US Sentencing Commission become official in the absence of congressional rejection thereof. Tomorrow, November 1, 2014, is especially notable because it will make official the most significant and consequential reduction in guideline sentencing ranges in history. This USSC press release, which includes a statement from the chair of the USSC, provides background context for why this is such a big deal:
[Background:] The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch charged with setting federal sentencing guidelines, voted unanimously in April to reduce sentencing guidelines levels for most drug trafficking offenses and voted unanimously again in July to make that change retroactive. Because Congress has not acted to disapprove the Commission’s actions, the amendment becomes effective tomorrow. Offenders sentenced after tomorrow will be sentenced under the new, reduced guidelines, and current prisoners may begin petitioning courts for sentence reductions based on retroactive application of the reduced guidelines. Prisoners can have their sentences reduced if courts determine that they are eligible and a reduction is appropriate, and they may not be released pursuant to such reductions before November 1, 2015.[Comment by USSC Chair Patti Saris:] “The reduction in drug guidelines that becomes effective tomorrow represents a significant step toward the goal the Commission has prioritized of reducing federal prison costs and overcrowding without endangering public safety. Commissioners worked together to develop an approach that advances the causes of fairness, justice, fiscal responsibility, and public safety, and I am very pleased that we were able to agree unanimously on this reasonable solution. I am also gratified that Congress permitted this important reform to go forward.
This amendment is an important start toward addressing the problem of over-incarceration at the federal level. Commission researchers estimate that applying the amendment going forward may reduce the prison population by 6,500 in five years and far more over time, while more than 46,000 current prisoners could be eligible to have their sentences reduced by retroactive application of the amendment. Still, only Congress can act to fully solve the crisis in federal prison budgets and populations and address the many systemic problems the Commission has found resulting from mandatory minimum penalties. I hope that Congress will act promptly to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation.”
Today, I will take a moment to describe the implementation of Amendment 782 in the District of Nebraska. We are a small district with a large criminal case load, especially including drug cases. As of June 30, 2014, on a per-judge basis, we ranked seventh in the nation and first in the Eighth Circuit for criminal cases. Indeed, Amendment 782 may impact over 700 offenders previously sentenced in our court. Behind the scenes, the implementation of Amendment 782 has had a huge impact on us as we try to fully and fairly implement this important retroactive change to the Guidelines.*
With 700 offenders potentially eligible for a sentencing reduction, our district decided that every potentially eligible offender would have his or her case individually scrutinized whether or not a motion had been filed and that every such offender would have a lawyer. After conferring with the United States Attorney, the Federal Public Defender and our probation office, we issued general (standing) orders. For example, here is the general order that was issued for all judges (save for me**):
Four people are responsible for superintending the implementation of Amendment 782: two very senior United States Probation officers who are experts in the Guidelines; the head of the drug prosecution unit of the US Attorney’s office; and the Federal Public Defender. They have cooperated nicely, and have established internal operating protocols between them. After the Clerk’s office tracked down the whereabouts of each of the 700 or so offenders through the Bureau of Prisons (a huge task), the group of four sensibly decided upon a “triage” plan. Offenders who are eligible for release on the earliest possible date (November 1, 2015), get attention first. Offenders who are eligible later receive attention later.
Ultimately, the Federal Public Defender, or one of his assistants or a Criminal Justice Act panel lawyer, will file a motion for relief when the group of four decide that the time is right. A probation officer will submit and file as a restricted document a worksheet that includes a calculation under Amendment 782 and the Guidelines. That worksheet will also include a report on the offender’s institutional adjustment and the probation officer’s recommendation about whether relief should be granted.
Here is an example of such a worksheet that has been scrubbed to mask the identity of the offender:
After the motion is filed, and the worksheet is submitted, the prosecutor and defense lawyer will confer and in most cases a stipulation will be reached. Assuming a stipulation is reached, it will be filed. After that, and without a hearing, relief will normally be granted. If no stipulation can be reached, then in my cases a hearing will be held.
It is possible that a judge might tentatively conclude not to follow a stipulation. While I cannot speak for the other judges, in my cases, I will hold a hearing to give the parties an opportunity to be heard. Whether or not the defendant will be present at such a hearing has yet to be determined by me. In the past, if a dispute of fact arose and the offender could be expected to have unique knowledge of the facts, I have not hesitated to give the offender an opportunity to appear and testify. It is probable that I will follow the same approach for Amendment 782 factual disputes where the testimony of the offender is critical to the fair resolution of the matter. However, in the huge majority of cases, this will not be necessary.
In summary, the equitable and effective implementation of Amendment 782 requires a lot of “behind the scenes” work. We are fortunate to have the cooperative, but always zealous, assistance of prosecutors and defense lawyers, aided by a probation office that is second to none. This is a very nice place to be an Article III judge, and the sausage is really quite good.
*For a great summary of the law prepared by the Federal Public Defenders, see here, entitled “FAQs: 2014 Amendments to USSG §1B1.10: Retroactivity of “Drugs Minus 2” (Amendment 782) and Sentence Reductions in Cases Involving Mandatory Minimums and Substantial Assistance.”
**My general order is nearly identical. It is slightly different in that I volunteered to take cases assigned to other judges who were visiting in Nebraska at the time of the original sentence or who are no longer able to take the cases due to death or retirement. I volunteered to do this to try to even the workload just a bit inasmuch as my colleagues had graciously stepped in big time to help me during my illness. While it hardly makes up for the work I dumped on others, it is a start.