Tag Archives: sentencing statistics

Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics: the AG Speaks – Update for June 21, 2017

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

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

A little more than a week ago, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III took to the pages of the Washington Post to defend his May 10th tough-on-crime memorandum.  The reviews are in, and they are not pretty.

In 2013, former Attorney General Eric Holder ordered federal prosecutors to decline to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders who didn’t use violence, were not leaders or organizers of the drug operation of which they were a part, had no ties to large-scale drug operations or gangs, and had no significant criminal history. If the drug defendant rang all of those bells, Holder directed that “prosecutors should decline to charge the quantity necessary to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence.”

As for sentencing, Mr. Holder directed that prosecutors be “candid with the court, probation, and the public as to the full extent of the defendant’s culpability, including the quantity of drugs involved in the offense and the quantity attributable to the defendant’s role in the offense, even if the charging document lacks such specificity. Prosecutors also should continue to accurately calculate the sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. In cases where the properly calculated guideline range meets or exceeds the mandatory minimum, prosecutors should consider whether a below-guidelines sentence is sufficient to satisfy the purposes of sentencing as set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).”

Now look at how Mr. Sessions interprets those passages:

“In 2013, subject to limited exceptions, the Justice Department ordered federal prosecutors not to include in charging documents the amount of drugs being dealt when the actual amount was large enough to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors were required to leave out objective facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than required by law. This was billed as an effort to curb mass incarceration of low-level offenders, but in reality it covered offenders apprehended with large quantities of dangerous drugs. The result was that federal drug prosecutions went down dramatically — from 2011 to 2016, federal prosecutions fell by 23 percent. Meanwhile, the average sentence length for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 18 percent from 2009 to 2016.”

Ah, where to start?

violence160110How about with Mr. Session’s implication that the 2013 Holder memorandum led to an increase in violent crime? Is that so? Well, just as Bill Clinton famously said that it depends of what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” the first question has to be that it depends on the meaning of “violent crime.”

Mr. Sessions says that drug trafficking is “violent crime.” But the FBI does not. The G-men (and -women) issued the violent crime statistics that Mr. Sessions says show an uptick in violent crime in 2015 (back to 2012 levels) The AG’s right about that much, but among the mayhem included in the FBI’s definition of “violent crime” – murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault – you won’t find drug trafficking. So the Holder memorandum – which primarily addressed drug trafficking – did not lighten up on the kind of “violent crime” that Mr. Sessions cited in the statistic.

Sure, you say, but did not he argue that drug trafficking led to such violent crime, citing the need to use a gun to collect drug debts because the courts were closed to people trading in illegal commodities? He did do so, but if you want to be completely fair, possession of a gun is just as important to a gang shootout over drug debts as is the debt itself. So consider this:

  • In 2014, the first full year the Holder memorandum was in effect, the average drug sentence was 57 months. This means that someone beginning that average sentence on January 1 would not be released until about January 1, 2018. In other words, shorter sentences beginning in 2014 could not account for an increase of violent crime in 2015.
  • While we’re at it, note that Mr. Sessions blames the 2013 Holder memorandum for the fact “that federal drug prosecutions went down dramatically — from 2011 to 2016, federal prosecutions fell by 23 percent. Meanwhile, the average sentence length for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 18 percent from 2009to 2016.”
§ 924 tacks a few years onto a sentence for carrying a gun during a violent or drug crime.
The statistics say the Feds are already doing more to get guns off the streets.

It’s pretty basic science to observe that when you’re measuring the effect of a certain event, you measure the change that occurred after the event, not the change that occurred before and after the event.

Several commentators have pointed to other logical legerdemain Mr. Sessions employed in his screed. Jacob Sullum at Reason.com noted that

The violence associated with the distribution of currently banned drugs does not demonstrate that the business is inherently violent, any more than the violence associated with liquor distribution during alcohol prohibition showed that selling whiskey is inherently violent. The violence is a product of the prohibition policy that Sessions avidly supports, as he himself implicitly concedes in the next two sentences.

“If you want to collect a drug debt,” Sessions writes, “you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun.” And why is it, exactly, that drug dealers cannot avail themselves of the same legal, peaceful methods of dispute resolution that today’s alcohol merchants routinely use? Only because their business remains illegal, malum prohibitum, just as the booze business was from 1920 to 1933.

Radley Balko at the Washington Post notes that “if pot retailers in Colorado, Washington and the other legalization states need to collect on a debt today, they do what any other retailer does. They use the legal system. If Sessions had his way, pot dealers in these states would to back to collecting debts ‘by the barrel of a gun’.” So the answer to this lessening of violence is to shut down legal marijuana sales, firing up the black market once again?

drugdealer160922Mr. Sessions’ answer to that is that even legal, the sales of marijuana is a “deadly business” because of the “approximately 52,000 Americans who died of a drug overdose in 2015.” But as Mr. Balko points out, “about 18,000 of those deaths  involved prescription opioids, which are legally available. About 8,000 involved benzodiazepines, which are also available legally. Both of those types of drugs are made by pharmaceutical companies, prescribed by doctors and sold by pharmacies. Does Sessions believe those are all inherently violent industries? The Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that 88,000 people die each year from alcohol-related deaths. Does Sessions believe that Anheuser-Busch, Diageo and E & J Gallo run “deadly businesses”? What about the 480,000 people who die each year from smoking? Is tobacco a “deadly business”?”

About 125 years ago, Benjamin Disraeli is said to have observed that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Mr. Sessions’ Washington Post defense of his get-tough-on-crime memo scores a hat trick.

Washington Post, Here are all the ways Jeff Sessions is wrong about drug sentencing (June 20, 2017)

Reason.com, Read Jeff Sessions’ Utterly Illogical Defense of Tough Drug Sentences (June 20, 2017) 

Human Rights Watch, Q & A: US Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Policy Change on Sentencing (June 20, 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


Some Legal Kibbles – Update for March 20, 2017

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

kibbles170320Today, we offer a few kibbles of legal interest that have been cluttering our dog pound for the last few days…


There is some indication that the Trump Administration may be expanding violent crime enforcement activities, a category which Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions believes must include gun and drug offenses. In keeping with the President’s fixation on violent crime, Sessions last week ordered United States Attorneys to work with with local and state prosecutors “to investigate, prosecute and deter the most violent offenders.”

Sessions’ directive said, “federal prosecutors should coordinate with state and local counterparts to identify the venue (federal or state) that best ensures an immediate and appropriate penalty for these violent offenders.”

Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions
Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions

In keeping with the new emphasis on violent crime, Sessions has appointed Steve Cook, chief of the Criminal Division for the U. S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee, and one of last year’s most vocal opponents of sentencing reform, as associate deputy attorney general with a mandate to focus on violent crime. Cook told a newspaper last year, “When you put criminals in jail, crime goes down. That’s what incapacitation is designed to do, and it works.” He called the idea that most offenders in federal prisons are nonviolent drug pushers is a myth.

violent160620Some critics the emphasis on violent crime as federal encroachment. “An expanded federal criminal justice agenda comprised of federal-state-local task forces targeting violent offenses and coupled with tougher federal sentences would be a substantial change in practice and a step in the wrong direction,” says Ryan King, senior fellow at the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center.

Tougher sentences could quickly reverse declines in BOP inmate population, especially in higher-level joints. According to a new Prison Policy Initiative report, 50% of the 189,000 federal prison inmates were convicted of drug offenses. Violent-crime convictions account for just 7% of the federal total.

The Crime Report, At ‘critical moment’ under Trump, report gives hard facts on incarceration (Mar. 14, 2017)

The Trace, Meet the hardliner Jeff Sessions picked to carry out his violent crime crackdown (Mar. 15, 2017)


The U.S. Sentencing Commission last week released its 21st annual Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, covering fiscal year.

stats170320The current-year book is available online as an interactive book that defies downloading. It contains a wealth of sentencing stats broken down in over 100 tables (as well as sentencing date by federal district, another 97 tables).

Slogging through the Sourcebook takes awhile, but it yields a lot of fascinating data. Of special interest:

•   the number of cases ending with guilty pleas remained steady at 97%

•   offenses included 32% drug, 30% immigration, white-collar (including fraud) 13%, guns 11%, child porn 3%.

•   14% of people challenging their sentences on direct appeal won reversal, but only 5% ended up with a better sentence.

•  two out of three resentencings resulted from the 2-level reduction for drug offenses, Rule 35(b) reductions for helping the government were 11% of resentencings, and 10% were from wins on 2255 motions.

• continuing the pathetic performance on compassionate release, the courts granted a total of 51 inmates sentence reduction (a mere 0.4% of all resentencings).

•   in new sentencings last year, 49% were within the Guidelines range, a two-percent increase over last year. Only 2% of sentences were above the range, while 19% were below the range for reasons other than government motion. About 20% of sentences were reduced because the defendant helped the government, and another 9% were cut for early disposition of an immigration case.

U.S. Sentencing Commission, Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics 2016  (Mar. 12, 2017)


Like 97% of other federal defendants, Jim Kirkland made a deal with the government to plead guilty. In exchange, the government agreed to recommend the bottom of the guidelines range at sentencing.

But when Jim stood in front of the judge, the government went crazy on him, not just failing to recommend the bottom, but instead pushing for the very top, and bringing in live testimony of how terrible a few of his prior state crimes had been. The probation officer recommended the dead center of the sentencing range, and the judge gave it to him, saying that was what he had had in mind all along.

betray170320Jim’s sentencing lawyer must have been snoring too loudly to object, but on appeal, Jim raised the government’s plea breach. The AUSA admitted it was a plain breach, but argued the error did not affect Jim’s substantial rights or seriously affect “the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings,” two of the standard Jim had to meet before proving F.R.Crim.P. 52(b) “plain error.” The government’s rationale was that the district judge said he said the 300-month midpoint sentence “frankly, happens to coincide with my own independent decision,” and that was sufficient evidence that the court would have imposed the same exact sentence even if the AUSA had recommended the bottom of the guidelines.

Last week, the 5th Circuit agreed with Jim. Clearly unhappy at the government’s breach of its promise, the Court said “the government did not merely recommend a high-end sentence but also strongly argued and presented testimony in support of that recommendation, recounting in great detail the graphic and… explicit facts involved in Kirkland’s offense of conviction and a prior offense and emphasizing his criminal history and his violation of the conditions of his supervised release. The testimony and argument by the Government filled more than nine pages of the sentencing transcript. Therefore, the district court may have been influenced not only by the Government’s recommendation, but also by Government’s passionate emphasis of aggravating factors in support of that recommendation, which brought public safety concerns to the forefront.”

When the government breaches a plea agreement, a defendant may either ask the court to order specific performance of the plea agreement and resentencing before a different judge, or withdrawal of the guilty plea. Jim asked for and got resentencing before a new judge.

United States v. Kirkland, Case No. 16-40255 (Mar. 17, 2017)

– Thomas L. Root