Articles Posted in Sentencing

Not that anyone would want to ride the subways right now, but the New York City Bar Association has come out in strong opposition to a proposal that would permit the MTA to ban people from trains and buses in New York based on little more than accusations relating to sex offenses. The ban is complicated and unwieldy — it would probably require some form of highly intrusive facial recognition technology to enforce; its provisions are discussed in detail in this new report from the City Bar. Principal attorney Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma chaired the Working Group that put together the report. The City Bar is an association of about 24,000 lawyers from around the world, including both criminal defense lawyers and prosecutors.

photography-of-people-at-train-station-1311544-300x200Bottom line is that the ban is currently included in Gov. Cuomo’s annual state budget, which means passage is practically automatic unless lawmakers step up to take it out, as the City Bar urges them to do. It will create a new enforcement scheme giving the MTA discretion to ban any person adjudicated as a Level Three sex offender as well as anyone who receives three tickets from the MTA relating to sexual conduct or assault, even if they ultimately beat the tickets. Just who in the MTA will exercise this discretion is mysterious. One reason the City Bar opposes the ban is it appears to violate due process by failing to give adequate notice and an opportunity to be heard. It is also excessively punitive to the point where it will actually undermine public safety by preventing people from working, going to school, and visiting friends and family — all activities that tend to prevent criminal recidivism. The ban undermines one of America’s dearest freedoms, the freedom to travel. It will be ripe for constitutional challenge from the outset. A similar ban proposed last year was voted down amid vocal opposition from criminal defense groups.

Charges of sexual offenses are incredibly serious and have consequences that affect people for the rest of their lives. The subway ban appears to be just one more attempt to pile punishment on a group with zero political clout. The City Bar’s efforts to speak for them, and for others affected by the misguided ban, should be a welcome part of the debate.

Have a look at David Leonhardt’s recent NY Times newsletter, which posits that executive clemency is a critical component of our current criminal justice system. The newsletter came in the wake of scathing criticism of Pres. Trump’s use of clemency to help his political friends.

Approximately two million Americans are  behind bars, giving the United States one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. High rates of imprisonment are due to extraordinarily long sentences, even for nonviolent crimes; arbitrary systems of parole; and wrongful convictions. Clemency can help.

Leonhardt cites as a prime example of the positive power of clemency one of our cases, that of Felipe Rodriguez. Felipe was freed in January 2017 after we teamed up with the Innocence Project to petition Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his release via a commutation of his sentence (clemency comes in two flavors: a pardon erases the conviction as though it never happened; a commutation reduces the person’s sentence). Felipe always maintained his innocence and the governor freed him in part because of serious questions about the integrity of his conviction, and in part because of his phenomenal prison record, which included construction projects, editing a newsletter, and counseling serial killers.

Defense attorneys were turned away from the high rise federal jail in lower Manhattan known as the Metropolitan Correction Center on Saturday morning. The Legal Department told us, it was “due to an earlier security issue.” Apparently, they were scouring the jail to find Jeffrey Epstein’s killer.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Screen-Shot-2019-08-12-at-6.18.46-PM-300x110.pngEpstein was found dead by hanging. He had been taken off suicide watch less than two weeks earlier. Suicide watch is a special unit where each prisoner is observed 24/7 by another prisoner who has special training. Epstein had been placed on suicide watch after he was found unconscious with neck injuries on July 23. Seems the prison hierarchy thought six days was enough even for a man whose rich, hedonistic, rapacious lifestyle had come to a crashing end. From there, they put him in the “SHU” — the notorious special housing unit, typically reserved for the most violent inmates. Then, they took away his roommate. Then, guards stopped checking in on his cell every thirty minutes like they are supposed to.

He was found dead at 6:30 a.m., according to the New York Times.

A 200-month sentence imposed on a first-time child pornography offender was thrown out by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday because the judge erroneously assumed that the defendant must have committed a prior sex offense.

The reversal was the second time that the circuit court vacated the sentence imposed on Joseph Vincent Jenkins, who was convicted after trial of transporting child porn on thumb drives and laptops as he traveled to his parents’ vacation home in Canada. The first sentence, 225 months, was too long because there was no basis for Chief Judge Glenn T. Suddaby’s conclusion that Jenkins was at a high risk to re-offend. Jenkins had never been convicted before, was not accused of attempting to harm a child, and “never spoke to, much less approached or touched, a child.”

This time, Judge Suddaby erroneously imposed nearly seventeen years on a first-time, non-violent, child pornography offender by cherry-picking studies that, he said, showed that sex crimes against children are much more common than what is reported. He found that studies show “inconsistent findings concerning the prevalence rate of sex offending by non-production offenders.” Judge Suddaby went on to note features of Jenkins’s personality identified in a competency report, which, he said were correlated with sexually dangerous behavior. Based on this analysis, Judge Suddaby concluded that “it was likely that Jenkins had committed a prior–undetected–sex offense, that he therefore had a high risk of recidivism, that a lengthy sentence was justified.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission kicked off the new year with a comprehensive report analyzing data from federal sex crime cases. The report, which runs 81 pages plus a 62-page appendix of charts and graphs, contains some eye-opening conclusions. The most significant for child pornography cases is this: even though there is “little meaningful distinction between the conduct involved in receipt and possession offenses,” average sentences for receipt are much longer than sentences for possession. The Sentencing Commission has been calling on Congress to “align” the penalties for receipt and possession of child pornography since 2011. The effect on sentencing of the different child pornography offenses is shown in the following chart:

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The takeaway is something we clearly already knew: what you plead to matters. Average sentences for possession are lower than sentences for receipt — 26 months lower on average — even though the conduct is the same. Distribution convictions, which carry the same mandatory minimums as receipt, are much higher. Defendants and their attorneys must press prosecutors to permit them to plead to possession and not receipt or distribution. Even though receipt or distribution can be charged in the vast majority of cases, some prosecutors are open to pleas to possession, especially if the defense team can present mitigating circumstances.

The effect of statutory mandatory minimums is especially significant because the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which used to be binding on sentencing judges, are now merely advisory. As a result, judges increasingly impose below-Guidelines sentences in child pornography cases, which is illustrated in the following chart from the Commission’s report:

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Screen-Shot-2018-12-29-at-9.03.52-PM-300x265.pngAs of December 27, there were 180,429 prisoners in federal custody. Think about that a minute — about a fifth the population of San Francisco behind bars for interstate crimes. No one seriously thinks this many people should be housed, clothed, fed, and secured with federal tax dollars. (More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. when you include state and local facilities, way more than any other country in the world, including China, which has four times as many people and notoriously strict laws).

There are two reasons for the staggering number of federal inmates: over-criminalization and excessive sentences. In other words, too many things you can do can land you in federal prison: crimes like fishing in the wrong waters, or charging a health insurer for dental work performed by an unlicensed dentist. And when people are locked up for federal crimes, it is for too long, like when a teenage street-level drug dealer is held liable for the whole drug conspiracy that he is part of.

So what a breath of fresh air when the lame-duck Congress briefly came together at the end of 2018 to agree on federal criminal justice reform. Pres. Donald J. Trump signed the so-called “First Step Act” into law on December 21. The press crowed that Trump would “go down in history” and that the changes represented a “sweeping reform.” Probably none of them read the 148-page law, which will have no effect on the vast majority of people caught up in the federal criminal justice system. At a human level, the most important provision of the new law is that it bans the barbaric practice of using restraints on female inmates as they are giving birth. You read that correctly. Until recently the Bureau of Prisons routinely shackled women in the hospital, in labor, as though they might take the opportunity to escape as their baby was being born. It took Donald Trump and a voted-out-of-office Republican congress to finally make that illegal.

Alcatraz09-225x300Our office had two happy results in cases in the last twenty-four hours, just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday. I won’t use names to protect client confidentiality, but here is the short version of how two men will pass a more peaceful Thanksgiving than they have in a long time.

Our first client was in prison in Virginia for years for trafficking in cocaine while he was on federal supervised release. After his Virginia prison term ended, he was brought to the Southern District of New York to face sanctions for violating his release terms. Although he had a long rap sheet, he did well in Virginia prisons, completing numerous courses and garnering praise from his work supervisors in jail. He was ready to be released, but, although he had family around the country, there was no plan for him. We nonetheless asked for time-served and the federal judge asked us to come back with a plan in a few weeks, that is, yesterday. We proposed also making a written submission to aid in sentencing and present what we learned about the client’s success in jail.

So associate attorney Victoria Medley got to work, calling around potential drug rehabilitation programs near the client’s family members in Maryland. Calls went unanswered, paperwork was required, and the whole effort seemed mired in bureaucracy. Eventually, though, a suitable program was found and told us, in principle, that he would be accepted. We submitted a detailed brief to the judge about the client’s progress in prison, and explaining the unique circumstances that caused him to go off the rails and back into drug dealing years ago. We showed up to court yesterday expecting that he would be detained through the holidays until an actual rehab bed could be secured, confirmed, paid for and, basically, guaranteed.

adults-business-connection-1181715-300x200People who seek out criminal lawyers are human beings, in all their vast complexity. An important part of our jobs as lawyers is to reveal the full person to the court: their prior conduct, the quality of their relationships, their health and addiction issues, and their prospects for the future. If a case cannot be won at trial, then these factors make all the difference in obtaining a fair sentence at the end of the day. We have always known from our day-to-day practice that presenting the person to the court, looking beyond the crime, beyond the past, and toward the future, makes a huge difference in avoiding prison or getting a short, just sentence. Now, there is a study showing just that.

This morning the Rand Corporation and the University of Pennsylvania Law School released a study to be published in the Harvard Law Review analyzing a mountain of data tailor-made to compare the holistic approach with an approach that has less resources to present the whole person to the court. Researchers looked at clients of the Bronx Defenders and the Legal Aid Society facing charges in the Bronx over a ten-year period. The two law offices pretty much split the clients between them based on rotating shifts in court. Each office represented about half of 587,000 cases that were looked at. The two organizations’ approaches were a bit different though, with Bronx Defenders offering more “holistic” services, with lawyers leading teams that could include social workers, housing advocates, investigators and other specialists to address the client’s “wider needs.” Legal Aid put more emphasis on the traditional role of criminal defense lawyers. The study — which should not be seen to pit the two approaches against one another — concluded that “the holistic approach reduced the likelihood of a prison sentence by 16 percent, and actual prison sentence length by 24 percent.” In drug and larceny cases, the effects on sentences were even greater, 63 and 72 percent respectively.

However, Legal Aid noted in press reports that the data came from the “broken windows” era of policing in New York City when arrest rates for low-level misdemeanors were historically high and caseloads, especially for Legal Aid citywide, were crushing. Since then, arrests are down and caseloads for defender organizations have been capped. Both organizations are asked to defend clients under the most difficult imaginable circumstances with exceedingly limited resources, and rely on the public-spirited devotion of smart, hard-working — and underpaid — attorneys to, in most cases, achieve just outcomes for their clients.

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Screen-Shot-2018-08-31-at-3.19.38-PM-300x214.pngWhen Michael Cohen signed his plea agreement last Tuesday at the Southern District of New York, he was affixing his signature to one of the most important documents in recent memory: a sworn admission that he conspired with the president of the United States to violate a federal law to get him elected. But the document Cohen signed was in many ways pure boilerplate, the same language used in hundreds of pleas in the Southern District every year. Our office represents a lot of defendants in the Southern District and many of those cases end in plea deals like the one Michael Cohen received. So here is a quick primer on what the plea agreement means.

First, even though there is an agreement, no one knows what Cohen’s sentence will be. He is out on bail and he is probably hoping never to see the inside of a prison cell. There are sentencing considerations set forth in the agreement (much more on those below), but they do not bind the judge. Unlike in state court, federal defendants almost always plead guilty without knowing what their punishment will be.

Second, the document Cohen signed is not a cooperation agreement. A cooperation agreement is an agreement where the defendant promises to plead guilty and cooperate fully with the government, providing information and making himself available whenever prosecutors want to speak to him (in federal practice, we use the term “government” to mean the prosecutors). In return, the prosecutors promise to file a “5K motion” — a letter that allows the sentencing judge to avoid any applicable mandatory minimum sentence and may urge the judge to sentence below the sentencing Guidelines. In Cohen’s case, there is no mandatory minimum, so the 5K motion will not be as significant as it would be in, say, a drug trafficking case. When a mandatory minimum is charged, and the defendant is convicted (either by guilty plea or after trial), the only way to avoid the minimum sentence is by getting the government to file a 5K letter. In other words, because the crimes that Cohen was charged with do not carry a mandatory minimum, Cohen can still cooperate and get the full benefit he would have received with a cooperation agreement, but with fewer obligations. He might very well be cooperating, just without an agreement. If he is, he is putting his trust in the office prosecuting him. Seven government attorneys were listed on the plea agreement. He is trusting them to urge the judge to lower his sentence if he is helpful to the government. That’s fine, as long as everyone gets along as they work together to build a case against the president of the United States.

Former Congressman Anthony Weiner was just sentenced to 21 months in prison for sexting with a 15-year-old. At sentencing, his lawyer asked that he be sent to FCI Schuylkill in Pennsylvania. That seems to have been a mistake: Schuylkill is a medium-security prison, filled with violent offenders and replete with restrictive rules. Schuylkill has a satellite camp, but as a sex offender, Weiner is not eligible (he gets the “Sex Offender Public Safety Factor” and therefore must go to a secure facility). There are low-security federal prisons that would be far more pleasant and conducive to the year-and-a-half or so of introspective atonement that Weiner will endure while he waits to go to a halfway house. The New York Times wrote about Weiner’s placement in federal prison, but, unfortunately, just about everything in their story was wrong.

The bottom line is that “designation” to a particular federal prison is a complicated process with far-reaching consequences. Experiences in federal prison vary widely. Camps like the ones at Schuylkill and Otisville are unsecured and generally not unpleasant places to be. Contrast that with the “ADX” at Florence, Colorado, which is reserved for the most dangerous criminals in the United States and drives many of its residents mad. The Bureau of Prisons decides where you will go in the weeks after sentencing at a central facility in Grand Prairie, Texas. They rely on the Presentence Investigation Report (known as the PSR) for facts about you and plug those into a formula that determines your security level. It is essential that the information in the PSR is accurate as any mistake could change which facility you end up in. There is a small industry of experts who keep up with the daily changes in conditions within the Bureau of Prisons and can advocate for a particular designation. The process is laid out in this 108-page BOP policy.

The New York Times missed most of this in talking about Weiner, whose situation is not too different from many first-time federal offenders, including people convicted of child pornography. Being a former congressman and pledging himself to “a rigorous curriculum of rehabilitation and therapy” probably make no difference at all. Whatever his lawyer may have believed (and it does not seem like they thought about it beforehand), there is zero chance he would have been assigned to a prison in New York City: the three federal jails in New York are reserved for inmates who are awaiting sentencing or witnesses for the government, plus a small cadre of trusted inmates near the end of their terms who work in the local jails.

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