Tag Archives: mandatory minimum

Last Week’s White House Meeting on Crim Justice Reform: Beginning of the End? – Update for January 19, 2018

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


wall180119Earlier this week, we reported that President Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, met with criminal justice reform advocates a week ago on prison reform and re-entry. We noted that “the meeting emboldened some advocates who saw it as a sign the White House is officially on board with criminal justice reform. Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, came away from the meeting with a sense of optimism, noting that President Trump was an active participant during the 45-minute session. “I saw some passion there,” Holden said, admitting that he hopes prison reform can be the start to broader federal criminal justice reform.

Now for the darker side. Vice reported this week that Kushner’s plan for a bipartisan initiative to reform the U.S. criminal justice system hit the wall (and we don’t mean that wall) prior to the meeting. Kushner’s comprehensive proposal – which included incentives to companies for hiring former felons, investing in inmates once they leave prison – most importantly focused on reforming sentencing laws, especially mandatory minimum sentencing.

sessions180119So nearly everyone was surprised that last week’s meeting omitted any talk about sentencing reform as such, especially about reforming mandatory minimums. It appears that in order to entice Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III – who adamantly opposes reforming mandatory minimum sentencing – to attend the roundtable, Kushner had to drop any mandatory minimum discussion from the agenda. Thus, the AG has effectively blocked sentencing reform from becoming part of the White House reform agenda, Vice reports, citing statements made by three people who have attended meetings with White House advisors on the issue over the past few months.

“Sessions was very powerful in the Senate, but I think he’s actually more powerful now to oppose the bill,” Vice quotes a source familiar with White House meetings on the issue as saying. “He has an ability to keep in line several members on the conservative side, the DOJ would take a position on the bill, that would scare the Republicans.”

At the meeting, the President suggested creating more programs for job training, education, mentoring and drug addiction aimed at rehabilitation.

Ohio State University law professor Doug Berman, who writes the authoritative Sentencing Law and Policy blog, wrote earlier this week that he “remain confident that any number of bills with sentencing reform components could get a majority of votes on the floor of the House and the Senate if leadership would bring these bills up for a vote.  But I surmise AG Sessions has enough sway with leadership (especially in the Senate) to get them to prevent a vote on any bills the AG opposes.”

To be sure, some corrections reform could be a significant boost to many of the 183,470 federal prisoners in the system, reaching substantially more of than reforms in mandatory minimums, which would affect about 25% of the population. But that 25% is serving a disproportionate amount of the time handed out to inmates. What’s more, much of the talk about corrections reform is focusing on “nonviolent” offenders, no doubt because limiting any incentives to nonviolent offenders is a much easier “sell” to the public.

violence151213But violent offenders by and large get out of prison, too, and logic suggests that effective rehabilitation of someone who has in the past bludgeoned a grandmother might yield substantially more public safety benefit than rehabilitating someone who sold marijuana on the street corner.

I received a thoughtful email from a “violent offender” earlier this week. He complained that

[e]very time I read these newsletters all they talk about is reform for non-violent offenders. They say that these reforms and programs are designed to help non-violent offenders reintegrate back into society and to give them a chance to become normal citizens again. Why just non-violent-offenders? Why wouldn’t you want all offenders to get out and become normal citizens again… Just because an inmate has what is considered a violent charge does not make that person in fact violent. In most cases it just makes him/her stupid. I have been locked almost 16 years. I have never had even one write up for disciplinary action. I have taken over 60 programs while in Federal custody. But because I committed a crime with a violent nature I have been designate as a Public Safety Factor. This has excluded me from getting to go to camp, Half-way house, home confinement and any reduction in my sentence. I did wrong, really wrong and I have tried every day of my sentence to make amends and to change the person I am into a person who can be a good citizen again. The question is why have I been good? The answer is that I want to change…

heraclitus180119Heraclitus wrote that ““No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Heraclitus understood it. Our inmate correspondent understands it. Just about everyone gets it… except for the AG.  But that hardly matters… it seems that as long as Mr. Sessions is the Attorney General (and has President Trump’s ear, a situation that changes from day to day), sentencing reform is foundering.

Vice News, Jared Kushner’s prison reforms hit a brick wall called Jeff Sessions (Jan. 17, 2018)

Sentencing Law and Policy, Detailing how AG Sessions seeks to block sentencing reforms in White House criminal justice reform push (Jan. 17, 2018)

The Hill, Trump, Kushner meet with advocates on prison reform (Jan. 11, 2018)

–    Thomas L. Root

Minus One, Plus Two at Supreme Court – Update for December 12, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


You may recall McCarthan v. Collins, a case dealing with when and under what terms an inmate may use a 28 USC 2241 motion. Nine federal circuits let inmates file 2241s under the 2255 “saving clause,” which provides that a prisoner may use the 2241 form of federal habeas corpus if it “appears that the remedy by [2255] motion is inadequate or ineffective to test the legality of his detention.”

futility171212Earlier this year, however, the 11th Circuit held that an initial Section 2255 motion is an adequate and effective remedy to “test” a sentence, even when circuit precedent forecloses the movant’s claim at the time of the motion. After all, the Circuit said, a movant could have asked the court of appeals to overrule its precedent, sought Supreme Court review, or both. The saving clause in Section 2255(e), the 11th said, is concerned only with ensuring that a person in custody has a “theoretical opportunity” to pursue a claim, even if, at the time of the initial 2255 motion, the claim was virtually certain to fail in the face of adverse precedent. In other words, you have to raise arguments even when the court has already said the arguments are futile.

Both the 11th and 10th adhere to this draconian view. Dan McCarthan challenged the 11th Circuit interpretation. A few weeks ago, we reported that the Trump Justice Department asked the Supreme Court not to take the case, even though it acknowledged that the legal question is significant and that its new position could condemn inmates to serve out unlawful sentences. A week ago, the Supreme Court denied certiorari to Dan.

Meanwhile two new sentencing cases have been added to the Supreme Court docket. Hughes v. United States revisits the 2011 Freeman v. United States decision. Freeman said that a defendant with a F.R.Crim.P. 11(c)(1)(C) sentence – one where the sentence was fixed in the plea agreement – could get a sentence reduction under retroactive Guidelines changes only were the sentence was somehow tied to the Guidelines. Freeman was a 5-4 decision, and the fifth Justice only concurred, which made her concurring opinion the one that controlled.

undo160812Freeman has been a mess. Hughes gives the Court a chance for a do-over that may let more people with Rule 11(c)(1)(C) sentences reductions.

It frequently happens that defendants cooperate with the government, and are rewarded with a reduction in sentence under Sec. 5K1.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines. In Koons v. United States, the Supreme Court will determine whether a defendant who has a mandatory minimum sentence prescribed by statute, but who gets a 5K1.1 sentence reduction beneath that minimum, can later get a sentence reduction under retroactive Guidelines changes, even where the new sentence is below the mandatory minimum that was voided by the 5K1.1 motion.

Hughes v. United States, Case No. 17-155 (certiorari granted Dec. 8, 2017)

Koons v. United States, Case No. 17-5716 (certiorari granted Dec. 8, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


Sentencing Commission Releases Sobering Mandatory Minimum Report – Update for July 12, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


mandatory170612Everyone appreciates on a visceral level how badly Congressional meddling in sentencing – in the form of statutorily-imposed mandatory minimum sentences – has loaded the BOP with inmates serving harsh sentences and skewed any attempt by the United States Sentencing Commission to impose a rational system. Thanks to a USSC report issued yesterday, everyone’s understanding of mandatory minimum sentence havoc can be intellectual as well.

The USSC study, An Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System (2017 Overview), examines the application of mandatory minimum sentences and the impact of those penalties on the federal prison population.”

The 89-page report is a bonanza of data on mandatory minimums. Perhaps most significant to us is the fact that over half (55.7%) of federal inmates at the end of last fiscal year were serving time for offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences. Recall that one of our criticisms of Prisology’s sentencing table reform was that so many inmates – perhaps 150,000 – would be eligible for a sentence reduction were the table made retroactive that the courts would be overwhelmed. This likely flood of sentence reduction motions would probably cause the Commission to refuse retroactivity.

The Report’s number suggests that even if the table were amended and made to apply retroactively, only about 83,000 inmates would be eligible for a sentence reduction under 18 USC 3582(c)(2). That number is still high, but much more manageable than our original estimate. While we still have substantial doubts that the Prisology proposal will go anywhere, we acknowledge that the sheer volume of eligible inmates is less than half of what we anticipated, tipping the probability scale more in Prisology’s favor.

keynes170712Other interesting facts gleaned from the Report:

•   The average sentence length for inmates serving mandatory minimum sentences convicted was 110 months, nearly four times the 28-month average sentence for inmates without a mandatory minimum.

•   Over one-third (38.7%) of inmates convicted of a mandatory minimum offense received relief from the mandatory minimum at sentencing, a decrease from 46.7% six years before.

mandatorywhere170712•   Fewer that 10% of defendants in Vermont, West Virginia, New Mexico and Arizona were convicted of mandatory minimum offenses. But in middle Illinois, southern Indiana, western Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and northern and middle Florida, between 40% and 50% of defendants were hit with mandatory minimums.

• While drug and gun mandatory minimum sentence convictions have stayed level or dropped since 2002, child porn and sexual offense mandatory minimums have skyrocketed from fewer than 5% of all defendants charged with those offenses to 60%.

mandatorywhenJudge William H. Pryor, Jr., Acting Chair of the Commission, said in a press release that “when Congress created the Commission, Congress empowered it to serve ‘as a clearinghouse and information center’ about federal sentencing and to assist Congress, the federal courts, and federal departments in the development of sound sentencing policies… The Commission has published this report to fulfill that Congressional mandate.”

In a 2011 report, the Commission urged Congress to moderate drug, firearm and sex/porn mandatory minimums. Since that time, Congress has proposed adding several new mandatory minimums, but thus far has ameliorated nothing.

U.S. Sentencing Commission, An Overview of Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System (July 11, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


Administration Sees Increase in Federal Inmate Numbers – Update for June 12, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


The BOP will “welcome” an additional 4,171 inmates next year, with federal prison population estimated to reach 191,493 as the Dept. of Justice steps up prosecutions of illegal immigrants and drug offenders. This reverses the trend toward fewer inmates started by Obama.

The 2% estimate for fiscal 2018 was noted in a corner of a DOJ budget proposal released two weeks ago.

prison160523The prison budget increase will probably go mostly to private prison companies, which are stepping up lobbying efforts to win contracts to house thousands of new inmates and immigrant detainees. About 19% of federal inmates are currently in private prisons or re-entry centers, a proportion analysts say will increase because private prisons have more beds available than federal facilities. The BOP is currently running 14% above official capacity.

Last week, the Sentencing Commission released current statistics on the BOP population. It reported that

•    46% of all drug trafficking offenders were convicted of a drug offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, but fewer than half got the mandatory minimum. About 10% help the government, 10% got the safety valve and 8.3% got both.

•      Only 6.5% of federal inmates have a pre-Booker mandatory guidelines sentence.

•    Half of all inmates in the federal prison population were sentenced to more than ten years in prison, 5% were sentenced to 30 years or longer, and 3% to life in prison.

•      About 11% of all federal inmates have already served more than 10 years.

•   About 56% of all federal inmates were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.

mandatory170612Speaking of mandatory minimums, last week Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) sent a letter to Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, seeking some answers about the analysis and thought that may have gone into the contents of the DOJ’s May 10, 2017 memorandum, which rescinded Eric Holder’s charging policies and directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious offense possible when prosecuting defendants. 

The letter observed that “in many cases, current law requires nonviolent first-time offenders to receive longer sentences than violent criminals. Sentences of this kind not only ‘undermine respect for our legal system,’ but ruin families and have a corrosive effect on communities.”

The letter, seeking a response within 30 days, asks detailed questions about the study done by DOJ leading to adoption of the new policy. Additionally, it asks whether “any federal criminal offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences that you believe are unfair?” and whether “all applications of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) result in fair sentences?”

Press Release, Sens. Send Bipartisan Letter Questioning DOJ Sentencing Policy (June 7, 2017)

Wall Street Journal, Federal Prison Population Expected to Grow Under Trump (June 8, 2017)

U.S. Sentencing Commission, Quick Facts: Federal Offenders in Prison – February 2017 (released June 7, 2017)

 – Thomas L. Root


Easter Bunny, Unicorns, and Low-Level Drug Offenders Don’t Exist! – Update for May 31, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


Dogbite160314The debate over the May 10th release by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III of a new directive that effectively cancels the 2014 Holder memorandum continues to rage. Predictably, federal prosecutors love the Sessions Memo. Dog bites man!

Last week, to the shock and amazement of absolutely no one, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys – the private association of AUSAs that helped sink federal sentencing reform last year by arguing that there is no such thing as a nonviolent drug offender – now argues that there’s no such thing as a low-level drug offender in the federal system, and that all the Sessions Memo does is to force prosecutors to carry out the will of Congress.

“There’s nothing… other than Eric Holder’s own personal opinion of what he considered to be a low-level offender, that provides that we should ignore the law,” Steve Wasserman, NAAUSA treasurer, told reporters last Thursday. He argued that the law as written by Congress already includes several “safety valve” provisions, and the discretion given to senior prosecutors under the Sessions Memo already provides ample avenues for sparing the truly deserving from long terms in prison.

The mandatory minimum sentences that sentencing reform advocates and their supporters in the media oppose, he said, apply only to weights that are atypical of personal use or small-scale dealing. Besides, even when mandatory minimums do cut in, NAAUSA argued, that “doesn’t necessarily mean that the person initially charged with the mandatory minimum is going to end up with the mandatory minimum sentence. In fact, only about 13% of our federal prisoners are serving mandatory minimum sentences and the reason for that is that even though we may charge, the individual may meet the safety valve requirement… or they may be someone who is willing to cooperate with us … that allows us to go back to the court… and explain that this is someone who has provided us with what we call ‘substantial assistance’ which allows the court to reduce the mandatory minimum.”

bling170531What NAAUSA is really saying is that the Sessions Memo once again makes it open season on black defendants. In an amazingly candid admission, Larry Leiser – a current federal prosecutor and NAAUSA president – the president of the group and a current prosecutor, told reporters on a conference call last Thursday that the Sessions Memo will let AUSAs aggressively prosecute drug crimes committed by people “wearing heavy gold and chains and hot cars as a result of their participating in the distribution of these drugs, as opposed to going out and earning an honest living.”

When a reporter braced Leiser, asking whether the remark could be construed as racist, Leiser responded, “It’s intended to be just the reality that unfortunately there are many people in the minority communities that are caught up in this terrible blight of drugs.”

Sessions’ resumption of the “get tough” policies that reigned before the 2014 Holder Memo comes as The Economist again published a withering critique of the American system of incarceration. The magazine reported that Barack Obama’s reform “caused a modest reduction in the number of federal prisoners (who are about 10% of the total). Donald Trump’s attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, has just torn it up. This month he ordered prosecutors to aim for the harshest punishments the law allows, calling his new crusade against drug dealers ‘moral and just’. It is neither.”

The Economist observes that “a ten-year sentence costs ten times as much as a one-year sentence, but is nowhere near ten times as effective a deterrent. Criminals do not think ten years into the future. If they did, they would take up some other line of work. One study found that each extra year in prison raises the risk of reoffending by six percentage points. Also, because mass incarceration breaks up families and renders many ex-convicts unemployable, it has raised the American poverty rate by an estimated 20%.”

pros170531Unfortunately, the problem – whether under Obama or Trump or any of their predecessors – is simply this: DOJ is run by prosecutors. “Despite an obvious conflict of interest,” former AUSA and law professor Mark Osler writes, “the Department of Justice evaluates clemency petitions, runs federal prisons, decides what forensic evidence to introduce in federal cases, and advises the president on criminal justice reform. And make no mistake — prosecutors dominate the agency, with the 93 United States Attorneys playing the leading role in setting policies across a range of issues and career prosecutors running most of the divisions.”

A building full of prosecutors, Osler argues, will instinctively push back against criminal justice reforms, regardless of whether a president is hostile to reform or is as progressive as was Obama. Osler notes that while “it seemed President Obama was sincerely committed to reforming federal criminal law, his results were disappointing. And though some of this failure can be blamed on a recalcitrant Congress, that excuse only goes so far. A close examination of Obama’s record shows that many of the administration’s reforms were subverted by the DOJ, not Congress.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the position of NAAUSA, whose members are current criminal division line AUSAs. “We at the federal level don’t prosecute ‘low-level drug offenders’,” Wasserman declared, but rather only people in the trafficking business.

In other words, Reason’s Jacob Sullum notes, “you can’t be a low-level drug offender if you participate in distribution. Hence the phrase ‘low-level drug dealer’ is, according to Wasserman, oxymoronic.”

unicornbunny170531NAAUSA’s position on the issue is sophomoric, yet unsurprising from a prosecutorial mindset. There is no distinction between someone who becomes addicted to opioids because of an injury, supplying his or her habit by selling extra pills, and the leader of a gang selling heroin on the streets of an inner city and protecting its business with guns and violence. If you sell, you’re a trafficker, and all traffickers are high-level and violent. As Sullum argues, “it is possible to draw distinctions among people convicted of trafficking, based not only on the amount of drugs involved but also on the role the offender played. A courier or street dealer might participate in an operation that handles a large quantity of drugs, but he is still on a low level compared to the people running the operation.”

While NAAUSA denies that any federal drug offenders are “low-level” or “non-violent,” at the same time it argues the law “already provides ample avenues for sparing the truly deserving from long terms in prison.” The avenue is principally sentence reductions for defendants who provide “substantial assistance” to the authorities or who qualify for the statutory “safety valve” (which lets qualifying nonviolent, low-level drug offenders avoid mandatory minimum sentences) It must be hard for NAAUSA to posit such a claim while at the same time denying that such things as “low-level” or “non-violent” drug trafficking defendants exist.

Breitbart.com, Federal Prosecutors Hit Back at Media Criticism of Sessions Sentencing Memo (May 29, 2017)

The Daily Caller, Federal Prosecutor Says DOJ’s New Focus On Drug Crimes Will Target People Wearing ‘Heavy Gold And Chains’ (May 25, 2017)

Economist, America’s prisons are failing. Here’s how to make them work (May 27, 2017)

Mark Osler, The Problem with the Justice Department, The Marshall Project, (May 31, 2017)

Jacob Sullum, Federal Prosecutors Say They Never See Low-Level Drug Offenders, Reason.com (May 30, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


Did Holder’s Charging Policy Really Matter? – Update for May 22, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


The media continued its feeding frenzy last week about Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions’ memo rolling back the Obama kinder-and-gentler drug charging and sentencing policies.

sessionsmemo170522Numbers that DOJ cited last year suggest former AG Eric Holder’s Smart on Crime Initiative had a substantial effect on the percentage of federal drug offenders facing mandatory minimums. According to Sentencing Commission data, the share of federal drug offenders subject to mandatory minimums has fallen steadily from 62% of all defendants in 2013 to less than 45% in 2016.

But as Benjamin Disraeli put it, there are three kinds of lies: “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” It turns out the Sentencing Commission number includes drug defendants who did not actually receive mandatory minimums. Many of them were subject to mandatory minimums, but escaped because they gave the feds “substantial assistance” or got “safety valve” treatment.

liesdamnlies170522A Federal Public and Community Defenders analysis, however, did toke those other forms of relief into account. That study found “6,780 defendants convicted under drug statutes carrying a mandatory minimum penalty… received some form of relief from the mandatory minimum penalties. All but 868 of those defendants were already eligible for relief, and judges gave 467 of them sentences longer than the mandatory minimums, which suggests the new rule would not have helped them.”

Out of the 6,780 defendants, only 8% “would likely have received a lower sentence if the Holder memo had been in effect in 2012.” The analysis suggests that the vast majority of drug offenders who seem to have benefited from the Holder 2013 memo — thousands each year — did not actually receive shorter sentences as a result of the policy change.

Deal170216The biggest change in sentencing resulting from the Holder memo is the one few are talking about. By cutting the number of drug defendants eligible for mandatory minimums, the new approach puts less pressure on defendants to cooperate with the feds. Ratcheting up the penalty will again increase the number of defendants willing to make a deal.

Reason.com, How Many Drug Offenders Benefited From the Holder Memo That Sessions Rescinded? (May 17, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


A Shot Across DOJ’s Bow – Update for May 19, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


shot170522In an obvious shot across the Trump Administration’s bow, Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) on Tuesday reintroduced the Justice Safety Valve Act, S. 1127. Representatives Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) and Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky) did the same in the House of Representatives with H.R. 2435.

Earlier this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered federal prosecutors to bring the most serious charges and maximum sentences in their cases, meaning stricter enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences that was the rule under the Bush and most of the Obama administrations. The Justice Safety Valve Act would act as a check on that, giving federal judges discretion to impose sentences below mandatory minimums where they believed it necessary to honor the sentencing factors of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III
      Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III

“Mandatory minimum sentences disproportionally affect minorities and low-income communities, while doing little to keep us safe and turning mistakes into tragedies,” Paul said in a press release. “As this legislation demonstrates, Congress can come together in a bipartisan fashion to change these laws.”

Scott said, “Attorney General Sessions’ directive to all federal prosecutors to charge the most serious offenses, including mandatory minimums, ignores the fact that mandatory minimum sentences have been studied extensively and have been found to distort rational sentencing systems, discriminate against minorities, waste money, and often require a judge to impose sentences that violate common sense. To add insult to injury, studies have shown that mandatory minimum sentences fail to reduce crime. Our bill will give discretion back to federal judges, so that they can consider all the facts, issues, and circumstances before sentencing.”

The legislative equivalent of this...
     The legislative equivalent of this…

Although called “The Justice Safety Valve Act,” the bills do not really extend the “safety valve” provision in § 3553(f), which is a good thing. Section 3553(f) limits its application to people meeting a restrictive criteria. Instead, as presently drafted, the bill simply expands a judge’s discretion without any limitations imposed beyond those guiding courts under § 3553(a). In fact, the measures as written would strip away the last compulsory restrictions hold judges back from using discretion.

Paul acknowledged to reporters that lawmakers will have an “uphill battle” getting support from the White House for the sentencing reform bill. As a Republican senator, Sessions was a leading opponent of last year’s sentencing reform legislation. But with the bright star of the new Administration fading rapidly, Sessions’ views may be less and less relevant, and indeed, the harder he pushes law and order, the more Congress might be convinced to pass sentencing reform.

Press Release, Paul, Leahy, Merkley, Scott, & Massie Lead Bipartisan, Bicameral Introduction of the Justice Safety Valve Act (May 16, 2017)

Washington Post, Bipartisan group of senators push back on Sessions’s order to pursue most severe penalties (May 17, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root


A Nation of Second Chances – Update for January 19, 2017

We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.


second170119Everyone’s been gushing about second chances, as President Obama goes out in a blaze of commutation glory, granting sentence clemency to over 600 people in his final days in office. And we have no problem with that, except that so many others who were punished with draconian sentences they could never get today were left behind. 

This week also brought a “second chance” for a rational sentence of a different kind. 

Tiofila Santillana was trafficking in methadone. One of her buyers, as buyers of illegally-sold controlled substances are wont to do, overdosed on a cocktail of alcohol and multiple drugs – including methadone – and “shuffel’d off this mortall coile” (which is Shakespearean for “died).” Under 21 USC 841(b)(1)(C), if death results from drugs distributed by a defendant, a court must sentence a defendant to a mandatory minimum 20 years.

The experts testifying in Tiofila’s case agreed that her methadone contributed to the doper’s death, even though it was not the cause of death. The trial court felt obliged to hammer her with a 20-year sentence.

cocktail170119Five years after Tiofila’s conviction, the Supreme Court held in Burrage v. United States that where “use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of the victim’s death or serious bodily injury, a defendant cannot be liable under the penalty enhancement provision of 21 USC 841(b)(1)(C) unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury.” Tiofila promptly filed for relief.

But here’s the rub. Tiofila was out of time to file a motion under 28 USC 2255, because that statute requires that the motion be filed within a year of the case becoming final. There is an exception where the “right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if that right has been newly recognized by the Supreme Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review.”

Tiofila filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus under 28 USC 2241, claiming she was entitled to relief under Burrage v. United States. The district court dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction, finding that Tiofila had not satisfied the “savings clause” of 28 USC 2255(e) because Burrage was not retroactively applicable on collateral review.

Earlier this week, the 5th Circuit reversed, agreeing with Tiofila that she is entitled to relief. The case provides a clear roadmap as to what must be shown by a petitioner seeking to use a 2241 motion because he or she says a 2255 will not do.

inadequacy17-119Ordinarily, to attack a conviction collaterally, a federal prisoner can seek relief only by a 2255 motion. But under 2255(e)’s “savings clause,” she may file a habeas petition if Sec. 2255 is “inadequate or ineffective to test the legality” of the detention. Courts have held 2255 to be “inadequate or ineffective” if the 2241 petition raises a claim “that is based on a retroactively applicable Supreme Court decision”; (2) the claim was previously “foreclosed by circuit law at the time when [it] should have been raised in petitioner’s trial, appeal or first 2255 motion”; and (3) that retroactively applicable decision establishes that “the petitioner may have been convicted of a nonexistent offense.”

The Court held that Burrage was retroactive whether the Supreme Court had said so or not, because such new Supreme Court decisions “interpreting federal statutes that substantively define criminal offenses automatically apply retroactively,” applying retroactively because they “necessarily carry a significant risk that a defendant stands convicted of an act that the law does not make criminal…”

retro160110The district court had dismissed Tiofila’s petition, relying on Tyler v. Cain, which held that for a prisoner to file a second or successive habeas petition based on a new rule of constitutional law, the Supreme Court must have held the rule to be retroactive to cases on collateral review. But Tyler does not apply to the “savings clause” of 2255(e), the Circuit said, which requires only that a qualifying 2241 petition be based on a “retroactively applicable Supreme Court decision,” without specifying that the Supreme Court must have made the determination of retroactivity.

On its face, the Court said, “Burrage is a substantive decision that interprets the scope of a federal criminal statute… At issue in Burrage was the meaning of “death or serious bodily injury results.” The Burrage holding “narrows the scope of a criminal statute, because but-for causation is a stricter requirement than are some alternative interpretations of “results.”

Santillana v. Warden, Case No, 15-10606 (5th Cir. Jan. 16, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root