Shadow Sentencing: The Imposition of Supervised Release

A paper posted to SSRN back a few weeks ago takes a close look at the imposition and issues surrounding federal supervised release. Nearly all visitors to PCR Consultants are supervised by the United States Probation Office (USPO) and want to know more. Want to find relief. We offer services that help former offenders get early release from supervision, but our goal is also to create some community.

After completing post incarceration supervision, there isn’t much a former offender hasn’t experienced with the criminal justice system. The entire paper is worth a read, but below is how it gets started:

More than 95 percent of people sentenced to a term of imprisonment in the federal system are also sentenced to a term of supervised release. Since it was first established in the late 1980s, nearly one million people have been sentenced to federal supervised release. The human and fiscal costs of this widespread imposition are significant. Supervised release substantially restricts an individual’s liberty and people on supervised release receive diminished legal and constitutional protections. The fiscal costs of supervised release are also high, particularly when almost one third of people on supervised release will have their supervision revoked and will return to prison.

Despite the importance of supervised release, little is known about how and why sentencing judges impose supervised release and what purpose it is supposed to serve in the federal criminal justice system. In most cases, supervised release is not mandatory and yet judges consistently fail to exercise their discretion in this area and impose supervised release in virtually all cases. Based on an empirical study of sentencing decisions in the Eastern District of New York, this article uncovers previously unidentified features of supervised release. It finds that judges widely impose supervised release without any apparent consideration of the purpose served by the sentence. This article argues that supervised release is over-used and proposes a new framework for its imposition to ensure that courts only impose supervised release on people who need it.

You can download and read the entire 51 page piece by clicking this link.

Read more about supervision on this site by visiting our page dedicated to federal supervision.

9th Circuit Restricts Computer Fraud Prosecutions

As reported by The Recorder, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has done much to narrow the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In their article about this circuit decision, the Recorder reports that you cannot be criminally prosecuted for checking out Facebook or football scores at work.

“We shouldn’t have to live at the mercy of our local prosecutor”

Below is an excerpt from the original article at law.com:

Don’t worry: it’s not illegal to read this article at work.

In a highly anticipated test of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit construed the law narrowly Tuesday, saying prosecutors can’t use it to go after someone who checks sports scores from a work computer or fibs on Facebook. The 1984 law is an anti-hacking statute, not a tool to make federal criminals of anyone who violates employer computer policies or a website’s terms of service, the en banc panel said in a 9-2 opinion in U.S. v. Nosal, 10-10038.

“The government’s construction of the statute would expand its scope far beyond computer hacking to criminalize any unauthorized use of information obtained from a computer,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote for the majority. “This would make criminals of large groups of people who would have little reason to suspect they are committing a federal crime.”

In splitting from other circuits and reversing the panel decision, the court said the plain language of the statute prohibiting someone from “exceeding authorized access” to a computer does not extend to violations of use restrictions. The majority said there are other laws the government can use to prosecute someone who steals confidential information, and that a narrow interpretation of the CFAA is necessary because “we shouldn’t have to live at the mercy of our local prosecutor.”

The ruling affirms San Francisco U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, who junked five counts in the government’s case against David Nosal. He is the former employee of an executive search firm accused of having colleagues access a confidential database to get information for his new competing business. “Because Nosal’s accomplices had permission to access the company database and obtain the information contained within, the government’s charges fail to meet the element of ‘without authorization, or exceeds authorized access,'” Kozinski wrote.

The court illustrated its point with a series of alarmist scenarios: Under the government’s view of the law, the “short and homely” person’s claim on Craigslist to be tall, dark and handsome could earn the poster a “handsome orange jumpsuit.” Vast numbers of teens who used Google could have been deemed “juvenile delinquents” since until last month the company’s use agreement technically barred minors from using its services.

For the government, the case was not about white lies and people goofing off at work. . Nosal, they argue, was up to no good, and the statute requires an “intent to defraud.” The dissenting judges make that point.

“This case has nothing to do with playing sudoku, checking email, fibbing on dating sites, or any of the other activities that the majority rightly values,” Judge Barry Silverman wrote, with Judge Richard Tallman joining. “It has everything to do with stealing an employer’s valuable information to set up a competing business with the purloined data, siphoned away from the victim, knowing such access and use were prohibited in the defendants’ employment contracts.”

Prosecutors have taken an aggressive posture in this case, appealing even when many criminal counts remained intact at the trial level and bringing in a lawyer from Main Justice, Jennifer Ellickson, to argue. Nosal’s appellate counsel Dennis Riordan said in light of that, he expects there to be a push inside the department to file cert. However, he said, the Solicitor General’s office, which makes the call, may think twice about pursuing this particular CFAA case, considering Kozinski’s “very, very powerful and well reasoned opinion.”

It is difficult to imagine why the dissenting opinion here did not see the ‘slippery slope’ of unintended consequences if the en banc decision of the Ninth Circuit were to have gone the other way.

It reminds me of the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Raich which didn’t go as well as this case. In Raich, the Supreme Court decided that marijuana grown for legal, personal use inside a California residence could be federally prosecuted as interstate commerce. This may be confusing to the non-lawyer because the represented facts of the case were neither interstate nor commerce.

I am encouraged when I see appellate decisions that actually curtail federal prosecuting authority, rather than expanding them. Kudos to the 9th!

Good Advise for those Entering Federal Prison

In an article posted Thursday by former Missouri state senator Jeff Smith, a set of tips for entering federal prison were laid out.

The article was written to former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojavich on his impending report to federal prison. These tips are seem very remedial to those that have been inside federal prison, they don’t really need saying. However, for those who have never experienced it themselves, the tips are spot-on.

Below are excerpts from the original article from the Chicago Tribune.

After spending a year in federal prison on an obstruction of justice charge stemming from a 2004 congressional campaign violation, I have a few tips for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as he heads for prison.

1. As your grandma probably taught you, God gave you two ears, two eyes and one mouth — use them in proportion.

• When you get to prison, listen, watch and learn. You’ll have a hundred questions on your first day and in one month you will know the answer to 90 of them without having to ask and risk looking stupid.

• Don’t ever ask anybody about their crime. If they want to tell you what they did, fine. But you won’t know if they’re telling the truth. And if you ask and strike a nerve with someone, the result may not be pretty.

• Don’t talk about how you got railroaded. So did everyone else.

• Don’t ask anything about anyone’s family; it will be a sore subject with many, especially those who have not seen or heard from their children or ex-wives in years.

• Don’t ever talk about how much time you have. Someone else has more.

2. Embrace your background, but don’t try to be a politician.

• The prison guards and administration will probably resent your presence, as it will mean added scrutiny on prison operations. Your charm will not work on them, so don’t try it. Instead, be as deferential as possible and try to blend in.

• You will have a nickname. It will probably be “Governor.” Accept that, but do so with deep humility.

• As a politician you were known for your gregariousness. But prison isn’t the Loop; not everyone wants to shake your hand. In fact, because of a collective obsession with hygiene and a fear of illness, no one in prison shakes hands — they bump fists. That doesn’t mean you should stroll down the compound fist-bumping dudes on your first day. As a hoops announcer might advise a star player in a big game, don’t press too hard; let the game come to you.

3. Get in the best shape of your life.

• Unlike most people, you are coming to prison in great shape. But you can always be in better shape. Set personal goals — maybe you want to run a marathon in prison; maybe you want to bench press 300 pounds. Working out every day will help pass the time, keep your endorphins pumping and keep you in a better frame of mind.

• Use your knowledge of running to help others lose weight. Inmates can control almost nothing, and since their body is one of the few things they can change, most work assiduously to improve themselves. Going running with others and helping them get in shape may be an effective way to build alliances.

• Play sports, but if your taste runs to contact sports such as basketball, be careful. Some people who have it out for you may exploit the opportunity to try to hurt you on the athletic field and not get in trouble for it.

4. Correspond with anyone who writes you.

5. Forgive your enemies.

6. Don’t complain about how bad your prison job is, and don’t brag about how good it is.

• Try to get a job working in the rec center or as a warehouse clerk, two of the most pleasant jobs in prison. But if you don’t get one, don’t complain about it. Just as is the case in any other environment, no one likes complainers. But in prison, people really don’t like them, because it’s a given that everyone is miserable.

7. Learn something new.

• Read all the books you wanted to read, but never had time. Then read all the ones you should have read, but didn’t want to.

• When the novelty wears off and the people who approach you are doing more than rubbernecking, don’t discount the possibility of making lifelong friends. You will meet some of the most fascinating people you have ever met, from all walks of life. Listen to their stories, and learn from them.

8. Use your unique knowledge and skills to help other inmates.

• Use your legal background to help prisoners who are bringing appeals pro se (representing themselves), but do so quietly so that you aren’t swamped with requests.

9. Don’t snitch, under any circumstances.

• The only people in prison who have it harder than child molesters are snitches. You need to learn how to see things (weapons, illegal drugs, people making hooch, pornography, etc) without seeing them; that is, learn to look away before anyone has seen you see the contraband.

• Stay away from snitches, and in general, watch the company you keep: in prison, you are your car (car = the people you “ride” with).

• If you committed other crimes for which you were not prosecuted, or are plotting any, don’t discuss them. As I’m sure you are now aware, you never know who’s listening.

• Don’t be seen talking to the Cos (correctional officers). Just like you could be cordial to Republicans but not be best friends with them without arousing suspicion among Democrats, you cannot be “friends” with the guards. Sure, there may be gangs and racial/ethnic division among prisoners. But there are really only two teams: inmates versus the prison. When guards try to get you to regale them with stories, resist the impulse to be on stage again. Do not forget this rule.

10. Don’t break prison rules.

• This may seem contradictory. The last rule suggested that you should tolerate prison rule-breaking — and you should. But try not to violate rules yourself.

• Don’t gamble. If you lose, you’ll be in debt and you do not want to be compromised like that. If you win, someone is likely to be very angry and may figure out a way to get his money back — a way that might leave you unrecognizable.

• Don’t “hold” anything someone asks you to hold, even if it looks innocuous; it’s probably got contraband inside of it.

• If you need a hustle to survive (i.e., stealing and selling food from the kitchen, washing and ironing others’ clothes), try not to encroach on someone else’s hustle. Presumably, others will need the stamps (money) more than you. Competition can be fierce.

11. Don’t look for trouble.

• Don’t change the TV channel, especially if women’s track is on, or “Ice Loves Coco.” There is an inscrutable yet stringent seniority-based regime when it comes to TV watching, and your celebrity does not entitle you to alter it in any way.

• Don’t stare.

• There is generally no reason to make eye contact with people unless they say your name.

12 Don’t eat the Snickers.

• You’ll go through orientation. You will be shown a mandatory sexual assault prevention video featuring a guy warning you not to eat the Snickers bar that may be waiting for you on your bed in your cell. (The actor ate the one left under his pillow, unwittingly signaling the predator who left it for him that he was ready and willing.) All the guys watching the video will laugh. But take the video’s message to heart: Don’t accept sweets from anyone.

Good luck, Governor. One day at a time.

Although these tips may not be most applicable with higher security prisons (the writer was a very low security level), the advice still resonates and can be applied with reasonable liberalness.