Sentencing guidelines

  • February 17, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., Research Analyst, The Sentencing Project; author of Race and Punishment: Racial Perceptions of Crime and Support for Punitive Policies and Fewer Prisoners, Less Crime: A Tale of Three States (co-authored with Marc Mauer).

    *This post is part of our two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.

    Between 2007 and 2009, black men received federal sentences that were 14 percent longer than those for white men with similar arrest offenses, criminal histories and other prior characteristics.  In their Yale Law Journal article, Sonja B. Starr and M. Marit Rehavi show that prosecutors – not judges – have been the “dominant procedural sources of disparity.”  This is because prosecutors were twice as likely to charge black defendants with offenses that carried mandatory minimum sentences than otherwise-similar whites.  Similar patterns emerge at the state level.  Mandatory minimum sentences have therefore not eliminated sentencing disparities by standardizing judicial decisions as some had hoped.  Instead, mandatory minimums have merely transferred power from judges to prosecutors.

    In my recent report with The Sentencing Project, I outline the major sources of racial disparity in criminal justice outcomes and highlight recent initiatives for targeting these inequities.  Racially biased use of discretion – not just among prosecutors, but also police officers, judges and potentially even public defenders – is just one source of racial disparity in sentencing.

    A second cause is ostensibly race-neutral policies and laws that have a disparate racial impact. For example, drug-free school zone laws mandate sentencing enhancements for people caught selling drugs near school zones.  The expansive geographic range of these zones coupled with high urban density has disproportionately affected residents of urban areas, and particularly those in high-poverty areas – who are largely people of color. A study in New Jersey found that 96% of persons subject to these enhancements in that state were African American or Latino. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have some form of drug-free school zone law.

  • October 31, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Happy Halloween from ACS! Here is your daily roundup of legal news from around the web:

    Ed Pilkington discusses in The Guardian the troubling story of a “born and raised” Texan who will not be allowed to participate in the upcoming elections because of a Texas voter ID law. “What’s happening here is that the state of Texas is using tax dollars consciously to suppress their own voters. It’s absolutely about intimidation,” explains Abbie Kamin of the Campaign Legal Center in the story.

    In Slate, John Paul Rollert looks at how Justice Sonia Sotomayor pushes the other Supreme Court justices past their comfort zones.

    Ronald J. Sheehy argues in Salon that the Supreme Court has created a system in which the impact of institutional racism is ignored.

    The New York Review of Books features a story from Jed S. Rakoff on the problem of plea bargaining in the U.S. criminal justice system.

    Nina Totenberg questions in NPR the claim of the Justice Department that it can cut off internet or cable and then pose as repairmen to search a home.

  • September 17, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Congratulations to Mary L. Bonauto, member of the ACS Boston Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors, and Jonathan Rapping, member of the ACS Georgia Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors, on their selection as a 2014 MacArthur Fellow (commonly known as the MacArthur Genius award).

    Happy Constitution Day! Dahlia Lithwick of Slate examines the holiday and whether the celebration is itself unconstitutional.

    In The New York Times, Adam Liptak previews an upcoming Supreme Court case that examines the privacy of statements made during jury deliberations.

    Brian Bakst of The Associated Press reports on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent comments that a ruling on same-sex marriage from the U.S. Court for the Sixth Circuit could influence when the Supreme Court weighs in.

    In The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin explores how the standard of “undue burden” is disappearing from abortion rights debates and cases.

  • August 11, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    The Editorial Board of The Washington Post calls for a removal of politics from judicial selection, “[t]he application of due process and the maintenance of Americans’ civil rights should be more isolated from the pressures of majoritarian elections.”

    Ari Berman writes for The Nation on the recent decision from the U.S.  District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina that denies a preliminary injunction to block provisions of one of the strictest voting laws in the country.   

    The Atlantic’s James Hamblin argues against a Florida law that bans doctors from talking about firearm safety with their patients.

    Abbe R. Gluck writes in Politico on the inconsistencies in the interpretation of Affordable Care Act found between the 2012 constitution challenge and the recent Halbig case. These inconsistencies seem to challenge the Halbig verdict and its reasoning.

    In The New York Times, Sonja B. Starr discusses the unfair and potentially unconstitutional practice of evidence-based sentencing. 

  • August 4, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Reuben A. Guttman, Director, Grant & Eisenhofer; Member, ACS Board of Directors

    *This post originally appeared on The Global Legal Post.

    The ‘Hide No Harm Act’ is to be welcomed but why should corporate offenders be treated any differently from street criminals.

    'The Hide No Harm Act' puts a duty on a corporate officials not to knowingly conceal a corporate action that would pose a danger of death or injury to consumers and workers. United States Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Bob Casey (D- Pennsylvania) have introduced legislation that, according to their press statement, 'would  make it a crime for a corporate officer to knowingly conceal the fact that a corporate action or product poses a danger of death or serious injury to consumers and workers.' The Senators call the Bill the 'Hide No Harm Act.' According to Senator Blumenthal 'this measure would criminally punish corporate officials who conceal that a product is dangerous.'  The proposed legislation would impose penalties of up to five years in prison because – as the Senators noted in their press statement – concealment by corporations has 'resulted in deaths and injuries.'

    Kudos to the three Senators for introducing this legislation. But wait just a second – I thought it was already a crime to intentionally injure or even negligently kill someone. Do not most, if not all, of the State penal codes make negligent homicide a crime? Surely the three Senators do not mean to say that absent this legislation, there is no vehicle – at least for some state prosecutors – to initiate a criminal prosecution of corporate officials who place revenue over safety and cause injury or death?  

    Do not misunderstand what I mean; the Hide No Harm Act is needed. In an age where we depend on corporations to provide the basic necessities of life, including food, health care, transportation and energy, the proposed legislation is an attempt to punish those who – perhaps for direct, or even indirect, economic gain – have compromised the delivery of life’s essentials and placed workers and consumers at peril. This legislation will be a powerful tool for federal prosecutors. And like any new tool, someone may pick it up and try it.  

    Corporations are fictions

    Yet, while the legislation is a positive step, it is thought provoking. Corporations, of course, are what lawyers call fictions; it is those individuals who control them that steer these global enterprises toward wrongdoing. Often these titans of capital do so because it is in their own economic interest. In an era where multinationals from drug companies to auto makers have knowingly concealed the risks of their products or the deficiencies of their services, why have state prosecutors been reluctant to pursue individual culprits with zeal? It is almost as if there is an unwritten rule that those who commit crimes in the course of their employment should be treated differently from the street criminal whose crime is so transparent that there actually may be a 'smoking gun'.