Articles Posted in Sentencing

We are pleased to announce that the governor of New York has granted a sentence commutation to our client, Teara Fatico, reducing her sentence in connection with a 2011 burglary by two years. She will be eligible for release on parole in January 2021.

Ms. Fatico had cooperated with the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office to prosecute her then-boyfriend, who was the mastermind of the crime. Even though she testified in the case, her sentence was still originally set at 13 years following a guilty plea for attempted burglary in the first degree.

The victim of the robbery died during its commission, although Ms. Fatico was not present at the time. Gov. Cuomo announced the move along with two other clemencies in a press release issued earlier today. The announcement was immediately criticized by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Families Against Mandatory Minimums as insufficient. FAMM and NACDL sponsor a clemency project that has partnered with more than 200 lawyers from 60 firms to present clemency petitions to the New York governor. NACDL/FAMM has submitted 120 petitions to Gov. Cuomo, but only two have been granted thus far, one of them today.

New York City is home to it’s own archipelago of three federal jails, three borough jails, eight functioning jails on Rikers Island, two locked prison wards, and lockup facilities in each of seven state and federal criminal courthouses in the five boroughs. The best estimate is that there are upwards of 10,000 men and women incarcerated in the City of New York on any given day. Other than the court facilities, these jails are on lockdown: no visits, limited movement within the facilities. Inmates are cut off from their families, their lawyers, social workers, work and educational programs, and everything else that provides hope in a dark time.

And they are starting to get sick.

As the New York City Bar Association and many other groups have said, it is time to let people out. Our nation’s four-decade experiment with mass incarceration has failed. The only way to make the jails safe is to dramatically reduce the density. Public health and public safety require it. Many more people will die if the jails remain full.

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:

https://www.zmolaw.com/news/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Screen-Shot-2019-01-03-at-9.42.35-AM.png
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.

Super Lawyers
Top 100 Trial Lawyers
NACDL
Super Lawyers
The National Trial Lawyers
Contact Information