The Washington Post on my friend Judge Mark Bennett and meth

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You must read Eli Saslow, Against his better judgment, In the meth corridor of Iowa, a federal judge comes face to face with the reality of congressionally mandated sentencing, Washington Post (June 6, 2015). It is a very long and fascinating look at the reality that Mark confronts every day. It is worth your time to read this article slowly, and contemplate the important contents.

RGK

Answering “interrogatories” focusing on sentencing from a law student

As I have noted before, I frequently receive e-mail with questions. I try to answer all of them. Recently, I received some questions from a law student focusing on sentencing questions, and I answered them. That law student has now followed up with more questions which I will also answer. I publish the questions and answers ’cause they may have some interest to readers.

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Law Student’s First Set of Interrogatories and Kopf’s Answers Thereto (not under penalty of perjury):

Your questions are good ones and get to the heart of sentencing.  I will briefly answer them, but please understand that I am ultimately a legal realist. That is, I don’t believe much in stating theoretical positions in the abstract.

  1. As a practicing judge, do you view punishment as communicative? Or merely as getting a high risk offender/re-offender off the street? Or put more broadly, since you have been highly critical of 3553(a), what is the purpose of punishment for you and how do you pick between retributive/utilitarian theories? And how does that ultimately impact the sentencing range you pick (I am well aware of Booker and all the case law that has followed and your position on the blog that you are in favor of guidelines but I am interested in your view independent of Booker etc and for purposes of your answer just assume you have freedom to do whatever you want up to the statutory maximum)? 

In addition to being a legal realist, I am primarily a utilitarian when it comes to sentencing. I intend to communicate only in the sense that I hope my sentence serves to deter others. That said, there is often a place for retribution in those cases where there is real harm to real people.

Having said the foregoing, in a democratic society like ours, I would prefer that elected officials express more specifically the goal or goals of sentencing. If there are multiple goals, Congress could rank them in terms of priority.

Because I believe that the Sentencing Commission tries hard to implement what it sees as the will of Congress, I tend to sentence within the Guidelines even now because I have independently determined that the will of the people is most often implemented when I sentence within the Guidelines.  To be clear, I follow Booker and its progeny and don’t give the Guidelines special weight. On the contrary, when I follow the Guidelines, I do so because I have independently determined that the range established by them in a given case is the proper one after looking at all the section 3553(a) factors.

I want to be clear also about something else. I don’t think judges are any better equipped to sentence an offender than the reasonably well-informed lay person. In fact, it would be pretty easy to convince me that jury sentencing is the way to go.

Regarding your law school classmate, I try never to lecture or make off the cuff remarks.  Normally, I just recite the section 3553(a) factors I relied upon, and call it good. But, I always ask the lawyers “whether they would like any further elaboration of my statement of reasons.” They almost always decline. By declining, the Court of Appeals reviews the adequacy of my statement of reasons under the “plain error” doctrine.

  1. I don’t know how or what possessed you to be such a friend to Mr. Hopwood. But clearly its played a crucial part in his success and he owes you a debt of gratitude. But would you advise other defendants to write to their judge to tell them how they turned out? (See below for explanation) 

I like to know how people turn out. When I learn that a defendant has overcome the harsh reality of a federal conviction, I often learn things that later are helpful to me when I sentence others. Shon’s case taught me to be especially aware that my instincts can be wildly off base. 

  1. Also, I just have to ask the following two questions because I am really curious:

(a) I have read so many quotes by judges that by sentencing xyz to prison that they will be rehabilitated, find a moral compass, find their way, start the path to restitution, whatever. Every time I read such a quote, I wonder if judges are actually aware that most people are not rehabilitated through the process of imprisonment: when you sentence someone to prison, where/how do you expect rehabilitation to come about from the confines of a concrete cell?

Prisons almost never rehabilitate people. I never express rehabilitation as a reason for sentencing. For my money, that would be just plain dishonest.

(b) In a related vein, if you have an immigrant defendant who is going to be deported (lets say to a far off land and not to Mexico from where re-entry is quite easy) after his/her sentence, how does that impact your view of what sentence is appropriate/analysis of the 3553(a) factors? The reason I ask this is I have often seen cases where the judge robotically repeats the 3553(a) factors and imposes a guideline sentence even though most will not apply to immigrant defendants (i.e. “protecting the public,” but the defendant is going to be deported with no chance of return seems to be overlooked, the need for “rehabilitation,” immigrants are not assigned to camps or minimum security prisons and do not have many rehabilitative programs available to them and besides why would you want to spend time and money “rehabilitating” a defendant that is going to be deported), etc. etc. I mean I have rarely seen judges engage these issues in an immigrant case involving drugs, guns or fraud but I have read plenty of appellate court decisions that say deportation should not be considered a factor for downward departure. 

I don’t think the fact of a pending deportation should increase or decrease a prison sentence. Remember that if a defendant is deported he can avoid supervised release, and that is a significant “bonus,” providing he or she does not reenter again (see below). In short, I view deportation as a collateral consequence much like I would view the likelihood of a civil judgment flowing from the conviction. 

I do think, and the law is now pretty clear, that deportation should be considered when determining whether to impose a term of supervised release after release from prison.  With citizens from Mexico, once in a while I will impose a period of supervised release. By doing so, the defendant knows that he or she is subject to a prison term for illegal reentry if he or she comes back after deportation plus an additional prison term for violating my supervised release order. Supervised release thus serves as an additional deterrent in those cases.

Please note that the Nebraska federal court has long been a “fast track” court.  That is, the defendant receives a base offense level reduction if he or she agrees not to contest deportation.

Law Student’s Second Set of Interrogatories and Kopf’s Answers Thereto (not under penalty of perjury):

1. Insofar as you are a utilitarian though, how do you overcome (on a theoretical level), justify or respond to the many moral, theoretical and ethic objections to sentencing based on deterrence (Kant’s famous quote comes to mind)? In a related vein, would you not agree that in certain respects the Guidelines over-estimate the risk of re-offending I have read some of the discussions on your board regarding the overly long sentences for drug offenders and some white-collar offenders.

I am sorry to disappoint you but the Kant quote to which you refer is not self-evident to this dope. I suppose the following from Kant is probably close to what you are thinking about:

For one man ought never to be dealt with merely as a means subservient to the purpose of another, nor be mixed up with the subjects of real right. Against such treatment his inborn personality has a right to protect him, even although he may be condemned to lose his civil personality. He must first be found guilty and punishable, before there can be any thought of drawing from his punishment any benefit for himself or his fellow-citizens. The penal law is a categorical imperative; and woe to him who creeps through the serpent-windings of utilitarianism to discover some advantage that may discharge him from the justice of punishment, or even from the due measure of it, according to the Pharisaic maxim: “It is better that one man should die than that the whole people should perish.” For if justice and righteousness perish, human life would no longer have any value in the world.

My answer is a practical one. I not purely utilitarian, although I love Bentham largely ’cause he was practical, honest, and had himself stuffed at his death. In truth, I don’t think anyone is purely utilitarian or purely retributive.  As I indicated there is a place for retribution even though, for me, the utilitarian tends to predominate.

Yes, sentences are now too long no matter the theory you ascribe too. That is the “fault” of the Congress and Guidelines. But see below.

(a) But would you not agree that the Guidelines and the sentencing commission are far from what Judge Frankel originally envisioned? It seems to me that far from being the democratic and representative commission that Frankel envisioned, the Commission enacts enhancements more or less based on a knee-jerk reaction by Congress (often without empirical support for the enhancement). A good article by a prominent federal public defender on this point (covering a variety of offenses) is this:

Amy Baron-Evans, The Continuing Struggle for Just, Effective and Constitutional
Sentencing After United States v. Booker (Aug. 2006) (unpublished manuscript),
available at <http://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and _policy/files/struggle_for_constitutional_sentencing_after_booker.rev.8.16.06.doc&gt;

What is your response? The reason for this question is, as I read the history of the Guidelines, as originally envisioned, the Guidelines were far from what they are today and if they had been implemented as originally envisioned, they would not act as a “one way ratchet up” but would also limit punitiveness (or act as a floor for punishment and a ceiling for punitiveness). There have been far more number of sentencing guideline amendments over the years increasing sentences than there have been decreasing/allowing for departures.

Sure, the Guidelines do not function precisely as Frankel envisioned. It is also clear that the Commission reacts in a way that follows the will of Congress. So what? Congress has the Constitutional right to set up such a scheme, and in that sense there is nothing undemocratic about it. Ms. Evans would be very happy with the Commission if it called for puny sentences. She is not happy with it because the Commission calls for stiff sentences. To my way of thinking, the Commission is doing what Congress wants and I find nothing objectionable to that behavior as a Constitutional matter.  In fact, that is quintessentially the job of the People’s elected representatives rather than judges who are not elected. Now, I too would prefer shorter sentences. I say, again, so what? Judge are no better in selecting the rationale for sentencing and the length of sentences generally speaking than the Congress and the Commission. More to the point, those are purely policy choices that in my estimation should be made in a democratic environment that reflects the political will of the electorate. That is hardly “knee jerk” unless you think the chaotic business of democracy is “knee jerk.” Indeed, the present movement in Congress and the Commission–from both sides of the Congressional aisle and all sides of the Commission–for moderating long prison sentences is proof that the system is reflective of the will of the people. The pendulum is swinging back, and that push came from the People’s representatives in Congress and in the Commission established by Congress.

 (e) You have stated that believe in empirical based sentencing but how would you reconcile that with “democratic” sentencing. I have seen quite a bit of research that indicates that most people don’t think criminals are punished enough. And if it were up to some, they would not only imprison a criminal but would like to tar and feather them. If you “give the people what they want,” are you not stepping away from empirical based research? 

The short answer is that politicians and lay people can be educated by the empirical. Again, the movement to reduce long prison sentences flows from such empiricism. Moreover, empirically based data can help the Commission and others give Guidance for variances and departures.  Please note that empiricism may also drive up sentences. More generally, good policy often is countered by bad politics and that takes place with any issue Congress confronts–such is the price of democracy.  Congress is certainly not populated by Platonic Guardians, and the federal courts should never aspire to become Platonic Guardians either. As Holmes said, if the people want to go to hell, it is my job to help them get there.

3. Deportation: You state that you are a legal realist but you also state that you view deportation only as a collateral consequence. I take issue on two points and would appreciate a response.

(a) Realistically speaking, deportation is one of the most severe sanctions available and it is virtually assured after a federal criminal conviction (many federal convictions qualify as CMTs or Aggravated felonies). Additionally, once deported, a defendant is very unlikely to ever be re-admitted to the Untied States. How is that not a sanction?

It is a sanction. However, it is a collateral sanction. More practically, if the alien doesn’t have to serve supervised release, his criminal punishment is less severe than the sentence of an American citizen.  That is, an American will serve prison time and then supervised release time. The alien will serve prison time, but arguably no supervised release time ’cause he or she will be south of the border.

(b) If a criminal is deported (again assume its to a far off land and not Mexico), realistically speaking many of the 3553(a) factors just dont apply. An example: you dont need to protect the public from a person that will likely be deported (if they have an aggravated felony). Of course we can get into hypotheticals about how they might come back to the US and go on another criminal spree, but that just appears to me to be a parade of horribles.

I am not sure about the meaning your question, so I reformulate it. I think you ask: If a person is deported to some place (say China) where it is unlikely that they will ever be able to come back to the US, should not that person’s sentence be lighter ’cause specific deterrence does not apply? Maybe, but probably not. Somehow, they got here once. So, general deterrence applies. I also think all the rest of the section 3353(a) factors probably apply too. In short, I reject much of the premise of your argument. I don’t go easier on folks who are deported except perhaps when determining whether to impose supervised release, and that decision is based almost entirely on utilitarian concerns.

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In addition to answering the law student’s questions, I hope this post stimulates some discussion. We shall see.

RGK

When a quasi-sick sap sentences a really sick controlled substance seller

Yesterday, I did something out of character–I don’t think I have ever done anything quit like it before. I sentenced a guy in his early fifties to time served plus a life of supervised release even though his criminal history was IV, he sold drugs and probably kept a gun under his sofa. He cooperated with the government, but the cooperation, while helpful, was not of the “hero” variety.  The government moved for a departure under the Guidelines and the statute. The really good and very fair AUSA recommended a thirty percent reduction from the low-end of 150 or so months under the Guidelines. By doing so, the government essentially freed me from the ten-year statutory minimum sentence.

As a part of, and in conjunction with, granting the departure motion, I varied downward even more than I might otherwise have done ’cause the guy was really sick. In fact, over the last 23 years as a district judge, he is the sickest person I have seen at the time of sentencing. And I have seen a bunch of sick folk.

Sentencing had long been delayed for significant surgeries and other important medical procedures. The defendant suffered from serious heart problems and serious problems with cancer. The fellow had a list of medications as long as your arm. He could barely walk with his cane. Yet the Bureau of Prisons said “no problem,” they could care for him in a humane fashion. Incidentally, I don’t doubt the BOP.

In the end, I just couldn’t see that it made sense to put the guy in prison. I uttered a bunch of mumbo-jumbo at sentencing that I truly meant and I hope makes sense, but it was, nonetheless, a rationalization for my instinct. My gut told me that no one–the public, the defendant, the BOP, or other drug dealers–would be served well or deterred by a prison sentence for this fellow.

Now, here’s the kicker. I have had cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma), and I may still have it. In January, I will undergo chest surgery (via VAT) to take out a nodule in my lung. The surgeon will also strip out some lymph nodes adjacent to the lung. The humor, I mean tumor, board thinks we should definitively determine what is going on in order to deal effectively with cancer if there is some still lurking in or around my lung.  Because of the anatomy of the human body, thoracic surgery is the only option.

So why do I write about this? I do not write to discuss the merits of my sentencing decision. Rather, I write about this case in pursuit of my “jihad” for transparency. Did my health status impact my sentence? I don’t think so, but the truth is that one can never know for certain about such things.

In the real world, judges have personal issues that they balance all the time against an abstract standard of impartiality. These types of issues are not susceptible to black letter ethics rules or law. Such decisions are made by the judge himself or herself after serious reflection. We do our best and consider these matters with utmost seriousness, but in the end the public and the bar must of necessity rely upon our sense of honor and our knowledge of ourselves. That sounds wishy-washy. It is. But, that’s life and that’s the truth.

RGK 

 

Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered

If you are a drug dealer with a Criminal History Category of I, and you cooperate, sign an appeal waiver, and then breach the appeal waiver because you are unhappy with the sentence of 188 months (151 to 188 months was the range after the cooperation departure motion) rather than somewhere at or below the statutory maximum of 240 months (without the statutory max., the range was 262 to 327 months) , what’s the worst that can happen?  According to the Third Circuit, a defendant who breaches the plea agreement in such a situation will find his 188 month sentence vacated, and the case remanded for resentencing without the motion for departure!  See United States v. Erwin, No. No. 13–3407 (3rd Cir., August 26, 2014). That is, your breach of the appeal waiver just cost you up to 52 months of extra prison time.

The Third Circuit applied contract principles to reach this result. A civil practitioner makes this point: Contract principles are intended to put the government in the same place that it would have been absent the breach. That would require the defendant to pay the cost of the government’s appeal. Contract principles are not intended to be punitive, and more than four years extra in prison appears to be punitive rather than restorative in nature. The correspondent asks: Is the remedy chosen by the Third Circuit consistent with contract principles the court claims to apply?

What do you think?

RGK

You be the judge: Has the Eighth Circuit gone nuts?

If a district judge in the Eighth Circuit varied downward to probation, when the Guideline range in a conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to commit tax fraud case was 135 to 168 months in prison, would you think the Eighth Circuit had gone nuts if the Court affirmed that huge deviation? See Douglas Berman, Based on additional 3553(a) justifications, Eighth Circuit affirms “profound downward variance to a sentence of probation” in multi-million dollar fraud (August 29, 2014).

Professor Berman provides this gloss:

Especially in the years right after Booker, the Eighth Circuit garnered a (seemingly well-deserved) reputation as one of the circuits most likely to reverse below-guideline sentences as too lenient.  But after a number of those reversals were thereafter reversed by the Supreme Court in cases like Gall and Pepper, it seemed the Eighth Circuit became somewhat more willing to uphold below-guideline sentences, and today in US v. Cole, No. 11-1232 (8th Cir. Aug. 29, 2014) (available here), a unanimous panel has upheld a probation sentence in a high-loss, white-collar case that in the past I would expect to see reversed based on the government’s appeal.

. . . .

This ruling strikes me a one-in-a-million outcome: I cannot recall another case (out of the nearly million cases that have been sentenced in the federal system since Booker) in which the defendant faced a guideline range of 11 to 14 years and received a sentence of probation. This outcome seems all that much more remarkable given that this huge (and now declared reasonable) variance was in a a case in which the defendant did not plead guilty or provide substantial assistance to the government in any way and involved “one of the largest corporate frauds in Minnesota history and was also a significant tax fraud.”

Because this Cole case seems remarkable in many ways, and because it likely will be (and should be) cited by nearly every white-collar offender facing federal sentencing in the months and years ahead, it would not shock me if the Justice Department seriously considers pursuing an appeal up to the Supreme Court.

Here’s my tentative thoughts: (1) after the Circuit initially remanded for further elaboration, Chief Judge Davis, the sentencing judge, must have really covered his bases when discussing the section 3553(a) factors, although Court of Appeals provides little in the way of specifics regarding what the Court thought was persuasive; (2) the fact that Judge Murphy, former Chair of the Sentencing Commission, sat on the panel affirming the variance is extremely important–her stamp approval carries much weight; and (3) the opinion written by Judge Sheperd affirming the variance is short on detail and the reasoning consists of little more than a few conclusory tidbits.  The brevity and weakness of the opinion could, and probably should, consign this case to the “one off” dustbin.

For criminal practitioners, particularly in the Eight Circuit, I am interested in your take.  Has the Circuit gone nuts?

RGK

Insightful comments from J.C. Oleson about using empirical research on risk to reoffend at sentencing

One of the most enriching aspects of this blogging gig for me has been the opportunity to correspond with some brilliant people who are also motivated to do good. I count J.C. Oleson among those folks.  Last evening I received an e-mail from Dr. Oleson. I was struck by how thoughtful it was, and asked if I could post it. He gave me permission to do so. Here it is:

Dear Judge Kopf,

Thank you for your email, and for the link. Your postings have been interesting, thoughtful, and provocative, and the comments have been terrific. I liked Peter H’s comment about the 1866 Civil Rights Act, and have thought a bit about how far the prohibition extends. Obviously, you cannot have one set of penalties for one racial group and another set for another racial group, but I wonder if it would really be an obstacle if race was part of a multi-factor risk assessment. The whole point of my article “Risk in Sentencing” was to suggest that actuarial approaches are so attractive that EVEN RACE might be permissible. And if race can be permitted in, then everything else follows. I don’t honestly think that the Supreme Court would – or should – condone sentencing disparities based on race data – but the point is that it COULD (holding community safety to be a compelling state interest). Of course, even if “race” is NOT permitted in, and even if gender/sex is not permitted in, many of our standard considerations (e.g., education, work history, socioeconomic class, community ties) that correlate with race and gender might very well be permitted. Once you really begin to scrutinize the idea of a sentencing “fact” and to consider the linkages between the fact and the sentencing decision, it becomes epistemologically very complicated. I think that’s what I like about your postings and the comments – there seems to be a recognition that this is a problem that is already with us, and affords no simple solutions.

· These variables highlight an incommensurable tension between utilitarian and deontological bases of punishment – being poor may exculpate Jean Valjean under just deserts but it also predicts greater risk of offending and recidivism – federal judges, simultanenously trying to punish both past and future crimes under 3553(a) are left without a compass

· People dislike the “sentence-o-matic 1000” but rejecting algorithms and automation does not prevent assessments of risk – it just means that the human estimates are likely to be more idiosyncratic and less accurate

· People are more receptive to using these variables in mitigation, but this may be a case of wanting one’s cake and eating it too – if the variables can exculpate, how is it that they do not also demonstrate blame?

· People are more receptive to using risk instruments at the back end of sentencing (parole, probation conditions) but why should we be more comfortable with that than with sentencing? Many offenders would prefer prison to highly restrictive intensive supervision probation – it’s not a case that sentencing is “serious” while community corrections decisions are inconsequential

The problem of whether to use this data (how much, and in what form) is already here. The AG’s remarks and the work on the MPC provisions underscore the importance of the question. It’s wonderful to see this discussion on your blog (which I have now bookmarked) and it may be a question for the Judicial Conference and the Sentencing Commission to study.

With very best wishes,

Jim

J.C. Oleson, Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Director Research, School of Social Sciences
Book Review Editor, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology
Sociology, University of Auckland

 So, dear readers, what do you think?

RGK

More ostrich

I had a transfusion yesterday. It took six hours. By the time I was done, I had no energy to reply to the extremely thoughtful comments I received in relationship to More about AG Holder as an ostrich. I feel better this morning, so I will use this post to reply to the comments and, more importantly, concentrate on the 16 other social science variables specified by Dr. Oleson to get at the issue of a defendant’s likelihood to reoffend.

Let’s face it friends, “race” is low-hanging fruit. It is too easy to attack, although the social science data on race when used as a predictive metric for sentencing is not really about genetics (“race”) as a causative factor in crime. It is about being correlated with crime, and there is a huge difference between the two (causation and correlation). But the word “race” is too freighted with the notion of “discrimination,” so let’s just agree for the sake of argument that empirical data on “race” will never be used at sentencing.

OK. But what about the other social science predictors? Things like gender. Or socio-economic background. The things that our delicate AG Holder seemed so frightened about.

Dr. Oleson’s complete list, with the exception of race, is set out below together with the page of his second article (attached to yesterday’s post) where the discussion about the variable is found initially:

1. Criminal Companions ……………………….. 1353
2. Criminogenic Needs …………………………. 1354
3. Antisocial Personality ……………………….. 1354
4. Adult Criminal History ………………………. 1355
5. Race .……………………………………… 1356
6. Pre-Adult Antisocial Behavior ………………… 1359
7. Family Rearing Practices …………………….. 1359
8. Social Achievement ………………………….. 1360
9. Interpersonal Conflict ……………………….. 1361
10. Current Age ………………………………… 1361
11. Substance Abuse ……………………………. 1362
12. Family Structure …………………………….. 1363
13. Intellectual Functioning ………………………. 1364
14. Family Criminality ………………………….. 1365
15. Gender …………………………………….. 1365
16. Socio-Economic Status of Origin ……………… 1366
17. Personal Distresss …………………………… 1366

Why shouldn’t a federal judge take these 16 other variables into account when deciding what sentence to impose, particularly when the judge is trying to reduce the federal prison population be selecting out the “non-violent?” Go ahead, make my day!

RGK

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