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Johnson v. United States: Three years out

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in at least two speeches this August [links to remarks as prepared for delivery], called the consequences of a recent Supreme Court decision “devastating for Americans.”

Sessions was referring to 2015’s Johnson v. United States, in which the Supreme Court struck down the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act, finding it unconstitutionally vague.

ACCA imposes sentencing enhancements on repeat offenders who commit crimes with guns. Specifically, under ACCA, a defendant who is convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm and who has three or more prior convictions for serious drug offenses or violent felonies is subject to an increased prison term of at least 15 years. The residual clause had included under the definition of “violent felony” any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

After the decision in Johnson, individuals sentenced under ACCA’s now-defunct residual clause filed petitions for collateral review, a procedure that allows prisoners, within certain constraints, to ask a court to amend their sentences. Additional follow-on litigation to Johnson has involved questions about other aspects of ACCA’s “violent felony” definition, as in next term’s United States v. Stitt, as well as vagueness challenges to definitions of “violent felony” in other statutes, as in last term’s Sessions v. Dimaya.

But even as these and other challenges play out in the courts, Johnson’s real-world consequences in the three years since the case was decided raise other questions about recidivism, re-entry and policy. For example, have people sentenced as career offenders and released early after Johnson gone on to commit more crimes? If some have, are certain, less vague sentence enhancements — as Sessions has recommended and as new legislation introduced by two Republican senators would impose — the proper “fix” to Johnson? This post looks at some of the different factors at play.

Recidivism and re-entry programming after Johnson

In his speeches, Sessions indicated that Johnson “has resulted” in more than 1,400 inmates obtaining early release from sentences originally enhanced for prior convictions under ACCA’s residual clause. Of this population, he said, 600 have been arrested again. Sessions highlighted certain crimes; for instance, in a speech on August 1, he discussed six individuals who allegedly went on to commit murder, rape and aggravated assault after their release. “Releasing repeat offenders has consequences,” he said.

Sessions called this recidivism rate “staggering” and “likely an underrepresentation” of illegal activity. He also cited a 2016 U.S. Sentencing Commission report on recidivism that found a 69.5 percent recidivism rate for people sentenced as career offenders, including those sentenced under ACCA.

Sentencing-reform advocates question the conclusions Sessions drew from his data. Priya Raghavan of the Brennan Center for Justice observes that it’s unclear from Sessions’ speech what offenses caused the rearrests. She also suggests that the individuals specifically mentioned by Sessions are not representative of the entire population of 1,400 released prisoners. She points to two studies by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the one on recidivism mentioned by Sessions and one on career-offender sentencing enhancements.

The second report indicates that the most frequent “most serious” offense committed by people sentenced as career offenders who were rearrested was assault, not homicide or rape. The report also reveals that the percentage of rearrested career offenders who had assault as their most serious new charge (24.9 percent) was the same as for non-career offenders. Raghavan clarifies that assaults are not all violent; simple assault “typically involves only a verbal threat against another person.”

The career-offender report does not include the percentages of rearrested career offenders who had homicide or rape as their “most serious” recidivism offense. However, the recidivism report shows that homicide and rape were the “most serious” post-release offenses committed by only 1.3 percent and 1.9 percent of all rearrested offenders, respectively. It’s not clear how many homicides and rapes were committed by people sentenced as career offenders, but Raghavan believes these low rates suggest that only a small percentage of the 600 rearrested prisoners released after Johnson committed such crimes.

Even for those who have recidivated, it remains unclear how much being released early after Johnson contributed to their recidivism. Amy Baron-Evans, the national sentencing resource counsel for Federal Public and Community Defenders, adds that the proper comparison for recidivism by those released early after Johnson would be with recidivism by those who served full sentences under ACCA’s enhancement. It is “too early” for such an analysis after Johnson, but Baron-Evans points to a third U.S. Sentencing Commission report, “Recidivism Among Federal Offenders Receiving Retroactive Sentence Reductions: The 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment.” Although focused not on those sentenced as armed career criminals but on drug offenders who received a sentence reduction after the Sentencing Commission gave retroactive effect to an FSA guideline amendment for certain drug offenses, the report reveals “no difference in the recidivism rates of offenders who were released” early and “similar offenders who served their full sentences.”

To confront recidivism, Sessions called on Congress to “fix the law so violent career criminals are not let out of jail early.” But Raghavan contests the implication that longer sentences will lower crime rates.

A Brennan Center report, “How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?,” reviews social science that “indicates that in the worst case scenario, longer lengths of stay produce higher recidivism rates, while the best case scenario points to diminishing returns of incarceration on public safety.”

John Seibler, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, suggests that longer sentences can reduce recidivism somewhat because individuals “age out” of criminality. However, echoing Raghavan, Seibler reports “general consensus” among researchers about the importance of prison programming toward reducing recidivism.

And indeed, to the extent that inmates released after Johnson have recidivated, that may be in part because they did not receive re-entry programming, despite the existence of policies promoting such support.

According to a 2007 program statement, the Federal Bureau of Prisons claims that the reduction of inmate recidivism is an objective of its Release Preparation Program. This program includes classes on different topics, such as employment and personal finance. Inmates “should enroll” in the program “no later than 30 months prior” to release. Additionally, a “unit release preparation phase” provides inmates with individual assistance from staff, which “usually begins in earnest” 11 to 13 months before release. This phase includes a focus on concrete “release plans” that address aftercare, conditions of supervision, release destination, relocation, residence and employment.

Inmates bringing Johnson claims for shortened sentences were often not in the final 13 or even 30 months of their original sentences. As a result, they did not all receive adequate re-entry planning before they were released, according to Benji McMurray, an assistant federal public defender in Utah. McMurray adds that the bureau rebuffed his attempts to coordinate important late-stage programming for his Johnson clients.

Bureau policy does state that “inmates are encouraged to participate in RPP courses throughout their confinement,” but McMurray says his clients report that meaningful opportunities did not always exist or were not helpful. Todd Bussert, an attorney in private practice with more than 20 years’ experience addressing issues related to the bureau, including as a member of the Sentencing Commission’s Practitioners’ Advisory Group, says of the bureau’s re-entry services that “a chasm between policy and practice” exists, so that the stated policy is not a “true barometer” of what is available to prisoners.

McMurray’s and Bussert’s anecdotal concerns find support in the Office of the Inspector General’s 2016 Review of the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ Release Preparation Program. The report, which was not focused just on those released as a result of Johnson, indicates that the bureau “does not ensure that the RPP meets inmate needs” and “releases many inmates who have not completed the RPP.”

Despite recidivism by some after Johnson, there are success stories as well. McMurray reports that clients of his have gone to school and joined the work force. One now runs a mechanics business.

Congressional response

Earlier this month, two Republican senators, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, introduced the Restoring the Armed Career Criminal Act to, as they wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, “fix the law that was struck down.” In their press releases announcing the proposed legislation, Hatch and Cotton mentioned victims in their states whom Sessions also discussed.

According to a one-pager about the legislation, the act “would do away with the concepts of ‘violent felony’ and ‘serious drug offense’ and replace them with a single category of ‘serious felony.’ A serious felony would be any crime punishable by 10 years or more.”

Brian Colas, Cotton’s general counsel, and Baron-Evans agree that this new legislation would avoid the vagueness problems of the original ACCA residual clause. They disagree on how broadly the law would sweep. Whereas Colas points to the fact the crimes must be punishable by 10 years or more, which he takes as a proxy for the high seriousness of an offense, Baron-Evans worries about the many people regularly sentenced to less than 10 years but for whom 10 years or more would represent a statutory maximum.

Raghavan suggests that subjecting drug offenders to the same sentencing enhancement as violent offenders may not be warranted based on recidivism rates. In its 2016 report on people sentenced as career offenders, the Sentencing Commission split individuals into three categories: career offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses, those with only violent offenses, and those with mixed offenses.

People sentenced as career offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses had a lower recidivism rate than those in the other categories. Among those who did recidivate, those with only drug-trafficking offenses “tended to take longer to do so” than those in the other categories. Additionally, “offenders in the other two pathways who were rearrested were more likely to have been rearrested for another violent offense” than offenders with only drug-trafficking offenses.

The next step for the legislation is the Senate Judiciary Committee. Colas estimates that it will take six to eight months for this legislation to get through the committee. He notes that the act will be absorbed into a “broader fight” for criminal justice reform in Congress. At the same time, Seibler observes that “if there’s anything Congress can efficiently pass, it’s a criminal penalty, especially when law enforcement wants it.”

Recommended Citation: Andrew Hamm, Johnson v. United States: Three years out, SCOTUSblog (Sep. 5, 2018, 8:01 AM),