US Criminal Caseload Dropping: Report

The US Sentencing Commission’s quarterly report shows a decrease in the total number of criminal cases since 2016, despite a slight uptick in the last quarter which appears to be driven by immigration offenses. Immigration and drug crimes made up over 62% of criminal cases in the U.S. between October 2016 and March 2017, with firearms offenses a distant second at 11.8%.

The US Sentencing Commission (USCC) quarterly report shows a decrease in the total number of criminal cases since 2016, despite a slight uptick in the last quarter which appears to be driven by immigration offenses.

Immigration and drug crimes topped the list of offenses in the U.S. in the quarter ending in March, the commission reported. (USSC).

Tying for first place, these two offenses made up over 62% of criminal cases in the U.S. between October 2016 and March 2017, with firearms offenses a distant second at 11.8%, the USSC said in its latest quarterly report.

The USSC’s quarterly report also shows a decrease in the total number of criminal cases since 2016, despite a slight uptick in the last quarter which appears to be driven by immigration offenses.

The data show a steady increase in sentences that are above primary sentencing guidelines, from 1.9% in 2012, to an average 2.8% so far this fiscal year, while sentences below guidelines fell slightly in the second quarter.

Among sentences that fell above guidelines, the median percent increase in simple drug possession cases was 100%, while trafficking was 39.1%; immigration related sentences rose 53.3% prison offenses received a 130% increase; larceny 87.5%.

Demographics of top offenses:

  • Immigration (total 10, 164 cases): 8.7% U.S. citizens; 93.6% male; 1.8% white, 1.4% black, and 96.2% hispanic;
  • Drug trafficking (total 9,399): 72.9% U.S. citizens; 83.7% male; 22.3% white, 24% black, and 50.6% hispanic;
  • Simple possession (total 666): 65.8% non-U.S. citizens; 87.6% male; 12.8% white, 12.6% black, and 75.4% hispanic;
  • Firearms (total 3,856): 94.3% U.S. citizens; 96.8% male; 24.5% white,  51.4% black, and 21.1% hispanic;
  • Fraud (total 2,937): 82% U.S. citizens;70.4% male; 41,5% white, 29.7% black, and 22.5% hispanic;
  • 28.1% government-sponsored sentences below sentencing guidelines.


High Court Won’t Hear Case on Risk Assessment Tool

Eric Loomis challenged a six-year sentence in a drive-by shooting, arguing that the basis for a risk assessment algorithm called COMPAS was not made public.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case of a Wisconsin man who was sentenced to six years in prison by a judge who consulted the results of a controversial risk assessment algorithm, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. Eric Loomis of La Crosse was charged with five felony counts in a 2013 drive-by shooting. The judge told Loomis he was a high risk to his community, citing the man’s score on the COMPAS assessment, a software tool used to measure offenders’ chances of committing future crimes.

Loomis argued that the use of the score violated his rights to due process, pointing to the proprietary nature of the COMPAS assessment. It is a product of a for-profit company Northpointe that does not disclose publicly the basis for its assessments. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Loomis, saying that the COMPAS scores, if used “properly,” do not violate due process. An investigation by ProPublica contended that risk assessment scores like those generated by COMPAS are unreliable and racially biased.


LA Panel Chair Would Water Down Criminal Justice Reform

Louisiana Rep. Sherman Mack, chair of the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice, wants to amend pending criminal justice reform bills to make them not apply to current prisoners and to drop proposals to shorten sentences for first-time prisoners convicted of violent offenses.

Louisiana Rep. Sherman Mack will be proposing significant changes to legislation meant to shorten criminal sentences that are the linchpin of a criminal justice reform package aimed at reducing Louisiana’s nation’s-highest incarceration rate, reports the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Mack, a Republican, chairs the House Committee on the Administration of Criminal Justice. Three pending bills would shorten prison sentences as well as parole and probation periods mostly for nonviolent offenders that have been convicted of drug charges, property theft and other crimes like stealing cars. People who commit some violent crimes for the first time — though not murder or rape — would also be able to get an earlier release.

Some provisions apply retroactively to nonviolent offenders who are already in prison. That means inmates currently behind bars would be entitled to an earlier release and shorter parole and probation periods than they had originally been given. Mack wants to remove retroactivity. He also wants to drop changes that could shorten sentences for first-time inmates convicted of violent offenses. “The victim was told they would do a certain amount of time,” Mack said. Department of Public Safety and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc has said he would release an additional 1,100 nonviolent offenders between November and next July, if the current criminal justice package is approved.



Congressmen Try Again to Cut Mandatory Minimum Terms

Members of both parties reintroduce a “safety valve” law that would give federal judges the power to impose sentences below mandatory minimums, TCR’s Washington bureau chief reports.

A bipartisan group in Congress is trying again to reduce mandatory minimum sentences after measures to enact that reform failed to come to a vote last year. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and Democrats Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jeff Merkley or Oregon have reintroduced what they call the “Justice Safety Valve Act.”

Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) are reintroducing companion legislation in the House. Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges and maximum sentences, returning to stricter enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences. The new proposal in Congress would give federal judges the ability to impose sentences below mandatory minimums cases based on mitigating factors.

“Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionally affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe and turning mistakes into tragedies,” Paul said.

Leahy said mandatory sentences come “with a human cost, particularly for communities of color, and results in a criminal justice system that is anything but ‘just.’ Our bipartisan approach offers a simple solution:  Let judges judge.” The lawmakers complained that mandatory minimums force federal judges to issue indiscriminate punishments, regardless of involvement, criminal history, mental health, addiction, and other mitigating factors.

They said their proposal would reduce spending on prisons, which accounts for almost a third of the Department of Justice’s budget. This would allow the DOJ to focus more on victim services, state and local law enforcement, staffing, investigation, and prosecution, they said. Given Sessions’ opposition to similar bills when he served in the Senate, the Trump administration may fight the “safety valve” proposal.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers are welcome to comment.


Will Sessions Views Continue to Block Sentencing Reform?

Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions succeeded in stalling the sentencing reform movement while serving in the U.S. Senate, “it could be very hard for advocates to regain their footing while he is the nation’s chief law enforcement official,” reports the New York Times.

Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions succeeded in stalling the sentencing reform movement while serving in the U.S. Senate, “it could be very hard for advocates to regain their footing while he is the nation’s chief law enforcement official,” reports the New York Times. Sessions’ views run contrary to a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington and many state capitals in recent years that the U.S. is guilty of excessive incarceration and that large prison populations are too costly in tax dollars and the toll on families and communities. Conservatives and liberals in the Senate had agreed on a plan to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and create new programs to help offenders adjust to life after prison. Stiff opposition from Sessions and a few other outspoken Republicans stalled the bill in the Senate and sapped momentum from a simultaneous House effort. As the 2016 elections approached, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), wouldn’t bring the politically charged issue to the floor.

Advocates of the sentencing changes say they hope Sessions’ move last week to seek tougher punishments for federal drug cases will stir Congress to intervene and establish new policy through legislation. Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law, has been assigned the job of working on a criminal justice overhaul, among other issues. Pushing the bipartisan approach would require confronting the sitting attorney general and perhaps the president, a challenge many Republicans may not be willing to accept. None of the chief Republican backers of the Senate legislation have issued any public reaction to the new Justice Department directive, not a good sign for proponents of an overhaul.


Obama-Era Drug-Sentencing Patterns Were Mixed

Mandatory minimum sentences fell sharply under ea policy of Attorney General Eric Holder that new AG Jeff Sessions has abandoned. Yet fewer defendants cooperated by providing information on other criminals.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions jettisoned an Obama-era policy aimed at sparing less-serious drug offenders from harsh sentences, he called his new, more aggressive approach “moral and just.” The verdict among law-enforcement professionals is mixed. Government data, along with interviews with former U.S. attorneys under President Obama, suggest the previous policy achieved several, though not all, of its goals, the Wall Street Journal reports. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder pledged that federal prosecutors would focus on more dangerous drug traffickers and avoid charging less-serious offenders with crimes that required mandatory minimum sentences. Federal drug cases dropped by more than 19 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences fell precipitously, from nearly 60 percent to 45 percent. Prosecutions of more-serious crimes involving weapons or cartel leaders increased by 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

The new guidelines require federal prosecutors to charge “the most serious readily provable offense,” which means they would seek to build a case carrying the harshest penalties. Government data show one concern raised by Holder’s critics was well-founded: a decline in the share of federal convictions involving drug defendants providing information on other defendants. Cases involving “substantial assistance” from informants dropped from 23 percent in 2012 to under 22 percent last year. The figure was 25 percent in 2008. The decline in “substantial assistance” from defendants troubles some federal prosecutors, who say the threat of harsh sentences helps turn drug offenders against kingpins and cartel leaders. “Mandatory-minimum sentences provide the incentive to acquire cooperation from the most significant drug traffickers,” said Lawrence Leiser, a Virginia federal prosecutor who leads the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “Any reduction in that cooperation is a lessening in of our ability to protect the public from the scourge of drug trafficking.”


Accused MA Sex Traffickers Getting Light Sentences

The state legislature enacted a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, but most defendants in sex-trafficking cases are getting the minimum sentence or less, with three being put on probation, the Boston Herald finds.

Accused pimps and sex traffickers who could face decades behind bars under Massachusetts law often are being allowed to plead down to less time and reduced charges, with more than half of convictions netting minimum sentences or less, the Boston Herald reports. The softer sentencing patterns come five years after lawmakers passed a much-ballyhooed sex-trafficking law billed as a get-tough measure on criminals driving the sex trade. Prosecutors and victim advocates say the sentences highlight the long-standing challenge in bringing complex cases reliant on vulnerable and sometimes reluctant victims.

The law called for sentences of five to 20 years for those convicted of trafficking, and up to life for those who prostitute minors. A Herald review of 32 trafficking cases statewide found 21 defendants in a position to serve the minimum five-year sentence or less, with three getting outright probation. At least 18 times defendants took pleas to reduced charges — avoiding a human-trafficking conviction entirely. The average sentence of all reviewed cases fell between four and five-and-a-half years. State Sen. Mark Montigny, the bill’s chief sponsor, called the results “abysmal,” and exactly what he was trying to avoid when he drafted the law. “Never once in my career have I put a mandatory minimum in a bill, but in trafficking of children, I put one in because I didn’t want to see plea-bargaining down,” said Montigny, who decried what he called a “societal ignorance” around the seriousness of the sex trade. “It’s unbelievable. … Not much has changed. And I’m so disappointed in that.” Before the bill passed in 2011, Massachusetts was one of just three states without a human trafficking law, and law enforcement officials at the time bemoaned the lack of the teeth in the laws to punish and deter pimps.



Book Explores Black Culpability in Creating Mass Incarceration

James Forman Jr., a Yale law professor and former public defender in Washington, D.C., explores the culpability of black politicians, criminal justice officials, clergy members, activists and others in creating mass incarceration. His book is “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”

James Forman Jr., a Yale law professor and former public defender in Washington, D.C., explores the culpability of African Americans in creating mass incarceration in his new book, “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” The New York Times says the”superb and shattering” book pivots on the question of how people, acting with the finest of intentions and the largest of hearts, could create a problem even more grievous than the one they were trying to solve. Referring to Washington, he writes, “How did a majority-black jurisdiction end up incarcerating so many of its own?”

Forman’s is compassionate. Seldom does he reprimand the actors in this story for the choices they made. When he discusses policy decisions first made in the 1970s, the audience knows what’s eventually coming — that a grossly disproportionate number of African-American men will become ensnared in the criminal justice system — but none of the players do. Not the clergy or the activists; not the police chiefs or the elected officials; not the newspaper columnists or the grieving parents. The legions of African Americans who lobbied for more punitive measures to fight gun violence and drug dealing in their own neighborhoods didn’t know that their real-time responses to crises would result in the inhuman outcome of mass incarceration.


Grassley Meets With Kushner on Sentencing Reform Bill

The measure never reached the Senate floor last year. Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposed it, and President Trump’s stand is not clear.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) met with White House adviser Jared Kushner about criminal justice reform yesterday, the Associated Press reports. The session gave supporters a small sign of encouragement that the issue could be revived under President Trump. The bipartisan effort would revise 1980s and ’90s-era federal “tough on crime” laws by reducing some mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders and given judges greater discretion in sentencing.

A bill died in the Senate last year over conservative opposition, and its future is unclear Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a senator from Alabama, was a fierce opponent. Former President Barack Obama was an enthusiastic backer. Supporters were skeptical that Trump would be as well, after he dubbed himself  a “law-and-order candidate” and talked about with terrorism in big cities and attacks on police. On whether the bill could be revived, Grassley said, “We’re trying to reach some accommodation, if there needs to be any adjustment to the bill we had last year.”



As Death Penalty Loses Favor, Life Without Parole Terms Grow

Life-without-parole sentences have soared to more than 1,000 inmates in Oklahoma, costing a minimum of $17 million a year the Tulsa World finds,

As the death penalty loses favor with juries, life-without-parole sentences have silently soared to more than 1,000 inmates in Oklahoma, costing a minimum of $17 million a year, the Tulsa World reportsOn average since 2000, about 35 inmates each year enter prison for life without parole, while four with the same sentence exit custody, usually by dying. Life without parole was allowed in 1987 as an alternative to the death penalty. While a provision allows for clemency, it does not guarantee the same level of state appeals or any federal appellate oversight as capital punishment. It has also been meted out for nonviolent crimes such as selling drugs.

Lynn Powell, of the nonprofit OK-Cure, a prison watchdog group, says these sentences are now getting a second look nationally. “It’s the death penalty but without an execution date,” she said. “There are groups in other states who are working to have appeals in place to review those cases the same as the death penalty cases. The problem right now is that they don’t all get reviewed, and those aren’t getting applied equally across the state.” The 885 inmates serving life-without-parole sentences represent just 3 percent of the total Oklahoma inmate population, but that figure is certain to grow. Since the number of inmates entering prison with that sentence spiked in the mid-’90s with a crackdown on drug crimes, the annual number receiving life-without-parole terms continues to increase generally.