New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
November 8, 2007

EDNY and DNJ Judges Hold Below Guidelines Sentences Merited Due to Unduly Punitive Circumstances of Defendants' Pretrial Detention

In quick succession, two district courts have held that the circumstances of a defendant's pretrial detention can justify below-Guidelines sentences.  One case involved factors unique to the particular defendant; the other involved systemic factors affecting all inmates in a particular facility.  Taken together, the cases are useful precedents for variances below the Guidelines where the defendant's detention is unreasonably harsh.

United States v. Baum, 2007 WL 3274894 (E.D.N.Y. October 30, 2007), involved a defendant who pled guilty to robbery, gun possession and crack dealing.  Judge Weinstein imposed a sentence substantially below the Guidelines, primarily based on the defendant's cooperation efforts, but also in part because of the "difficult circumstances" of his incarceration.  As the court explained, "Baum was detained for almost four years in the same correctional facility as his brother's killers, where he himself was under constant threat.  Under these circumstances, he was visibly devastated and convinced not to commit another crime."

In United States v. Sutton, 2007WL 3170128 (D.N.J. October 25, 2007), the court issued a lengthy opinion following unusually candid hearings on the defendant's motion for a non-Guidelines sentence based on the severe overcrowding at the county jail in which he was housed.  Saying it was time for federal courts to stop turning "a deaf ear," Judge Hayden found that the Passaic County Jail was a "very rough place to serve time:" operating at more than double its design capacity, a crumbling infrastructure, numerous fire safety violations, "mind-boggling[ly]" small living space per inmate, excruciating noise levels, and heightened frustration, depression, illness, hostility and violence. 

Rejecting the government's argument that "something special must befall Sutton for sentencing relief," she found that Sutton had "demonstrated a quality of prison life well below that required . . . by the federal criminal code."  Applying the sentencing factors of 18 U.S.C. § 3553, the court noted that § 3553(a)(2)(D) speaks of providing the defendant with educational, vocational and other correctional treatment, thus implicitly "forbid[ding] a sentence that degrades and dehumanizes the offender who serves it, that in effect provides correctional mistreatment" (emphasis in the original).  Since pretrial detention becomes part of the overall sentence served, the sentencing court "must factor into the full sentence the overly punitive nature of such an experience."  A variance below the Guidelines was also consistent with the sentencing factor relating to the need "to promote respect for the law."  As the court elaborates: "Respect for the moral law that makes the conditions in Passaic County Jail stick in the craw supports a variance, big or small, as a statement that there is a law of reason and fairness behind detention." 

It would be fascinating and no doubt sobering to see a similar analysis of pretrial detention conditions for federal inmates in New York. 

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