The federal judicial system has a perverse way of treating similarly situated criminal defendants in shameful disparate ways. For example, a federal drug defendant who fights their case at trial will receive a sentence three times more severe than a drug defendant who pleads guilty to the same charge. Federal prosecutors enjoy inordinate power to coerce defendants into accepting “plea agreements” will the very real threat that if they stand trial, the prosecutor will seek, and secure, a more severe sentence.


Some Federal Judges Weary of Plea Bargain Process


All federal judges are aware of this practice and the continuous inequities it produces. While most of these judges have no problem either with the harm the practice does to the sentencing process or the unjust impact it has on many defendants, there are some judges who are so offended by the plea bargaining practice that they are lobbying for reduced sentences for some defendants they believe have been treated unjustly by the practice.


Judges Seeking Reduced Sentences


Last November the Wall Street Journal ran a piece written by Joe Palazzalo titled “Persuasive Judges Win Reduced Sentences for Some Convicts.” The article reflects a significant shift taking place in the federal sentencing process concerning what constitutes the appropriate punishment for criminal wrongdoing.


Defendant Rejected Plea Bargain of 11 Years, Got 57 after Trial


The WSJ article highlighted New York’s U.S. District John Gleeson’s years-long efforts to secure a reduced sentence for Francois Holloway, an armed carjacking defendant the judge had sentenced to 57 years in prison. Holloway rejected a deal that would have resulted in an 11-year sentence. After electing to stand trial, prosecutors demanded a 45-year mandatory minimum sentence because one of Holloway’s co-defendants had brandished a gun during the three carjackings they committed. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines demanded the additional eleven years for other criminal offenses committed by Holloway.


Judge Gleeson had no real choice about the sentence he imposed on Holloway.


Mandatory Minimum for Carjacking


In 1992, Congress enacted the Carjacking Prevention Emergency Amendment Act which proscribed a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years when a weapon is used in a carjacking offense.


Holloway was convicted of being involved in three carjackings. Those convictions required a 45-year minimum sentence be imposed


Under the federal goodtime provisions, Holloway would have to serve roughly 50 years of the total 57-year sentence.


After his direct appeals were exhausted, Holloway invoked a federal law which allows an inmate to challenge his sentence as being excessive or his conviction as being unconstitutional.


Judge Lobbies US Attorney for Justice


Judge Gleeson lobbied federal prosecutors for years to reduce Holloway’s sentence. He did this by urging the U.S. Attorney’s Office to abandon its opposition to Holloway’s motion because of the inmate’s “extraordinary” prison record and the fact that Holloway’s victims had no opposition to his release.


Current U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch headed the U.S. Attorney’s office at the time. After Judge Gleeson vacated two of Holloway’s convictions, he re-sentenced the defendant to time-served without any opposition from Lynch’s office.


Lauding Attorney General Lynch’s decision not to oppose Holloway’s motion in a 2014 ruling, Judge Gleeson said: “Prosecutors are almost never criticized for being aggressive… Doing justice can be much harder.”


Judge Gleeson Saves Man from Additional 30 Years


Thanks to Judge Gleeson, Francois Holloway walked out of prison 30 years earlier than he expected.


Indeed, the Holloway case represents a rare instance where a federal judge becomes personally involved in seeing justice done. But in recent years federal prosecutors have acquiesced to requests by federal judges for a “do-over” in the sentencing process. Most of these cases involve defendants like Holloway who were given a much more severe sentence after rejecting plea agreements and electing to stand trial.


But not all cases involving a sentence injustice end as well as the Holloway case ended.


Federal Prosecutors Seek Life Sentence in Drug Case


The WSJ article pointed to the case of Tyrone Trader who was convicted in federal court in Philadelphia for his role as a street-level dealer in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy. U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois urged prosecutors for a penalty that “serves the interest of justice.”


Prosecutors were not persuaded, filing a notice with the court showing that Trader had prior felony drug convictions requiring the judge to impose a mandatory life sentence.


Judge Dubois was not pleased. He pointed to the fact that the other street-level dealers in the same conspiracy had already been released from prison and that the average federal sentence in Fiscal Year 2014 for murder was less than 23 years.


“It is difficult to see how a sentence of life imprisonment in Trader’s case is just,” Judge DuBois wrote in a ruling in the case.


U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger responded to the judge’s criticism by saying that the “government” carefully considers “each case” before it makes a charging decision and that he saw “no basis” for reducing Trader’s sentence.


Task Force to Study Federal Corrections Program


In 2014, Congress established the Chuck Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections to study the federal justice system and report back to lawmakers it with specific recommendations.


In January 26, 2016, the Task Force did just that with its new report, “Transforming Prisons, Restoring Lives.”  The bipartisan blue-ribbon panel focused its attention on the nation’s overcrowded and costly federal prisons.


Task Force Chairman J.C. Watts, Jr., a former Republican congressman, sent its report to Congress, the President and the Justice Department.


Reduce Prison Population by 60K and Save $5 Billion


“We have laid out a detailed roadmap of ambitious, consensus-based recommendations that place public safety first while reserving prison for those who truly need it,” Watts said in a press release announcing completion of the report. “If taken together, these reforms are projected to reduce the federal population by 60,000 people in the coming years and save more than $5 billion.”


The three core recommendations of the Task Force are:


  • Mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses should be reserved for “drug kingpins”–those found to have served a leadership role in a large cartel;
  • Program and treatment participation in prison should be incentivized through earned time off one’s sentence; and
  • The BOP should better assess the risks, needs, and assets of its population and align programming and treatment accordingly to reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.


If these and other sentencing reforms currently being considered by Congress become law, the need for federal judges to independently seek justice for some defendants would be greatly diminished. There seems to be a bipartisan consensus in Congress for the need to reform both the federal sentencing process and its corrections system.


But the reforms have detractors who are part of the same law-and-order mindset that put us in this place where the need for reform begs congressional attention and forces judges to lobby for justice.  The federal criminal justice system is in grave need of reform.