The Pittsburgh Press
Sunday, December 22, 1991
WASHINGTON – Tears used to work. Packing the courtroom with relatives, preferably babies could be effective. At the least, someone being sentenced for a federal crime once was able to make a plea for mercy by wearing nice clothes to court and looking very, very sorry.
Times have changed. Today, as more people accused of federal crimes are going to prison for longer terms, one sign of the times is contained in the current issue of the Champion, a magazine for defense lawyers.
“How to Get Your Client Into Club Fed.” it reads – more evidence that for many, the question no longer is, “Can I avoid prison?” but “Can I get the top bunk?”
The “where” question is vital. If the answer is the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, the prisoner will enter a grim, 19th century edifice and find triple tiers of barred cells stacked like rabbit hutches.
But federal prison also can mean relatively genteel work camps with tennis courts instead of fences, dormitories, quiet libraries and the opportunity for college.
There is no question that the chances of ending up in a federal prison have increased. There are approximately 60,000 inmates in federal prison today, up 10 percent from 1989, according to the Bureau of Prisons. The current ratio of 274 inmates per 100,000 populations is a record high, a trend fueled by the drug crisis and an emphasis on federal drug prosecutions.
Moreover, a recent study in the Georgetown Criminal Law Review of 800 cases in the Midwest concludes that sentences, on average, are more than twice as long as those imposed before sentencing guidelines came into widespread use in 1989.
The guidelines are the single most important reason for the change in sentencing, because they reduce judicial discretion. Instead of listening to character witnesses and tearful pleas, judges now calculate prison terms using a formula that measures things such as the severity of the crime and even the gram weight of the narcotics seized in drug cases.
With fewer options for keeping clients out of prison or reducing their sentences, defense lawyers still can make themselves useful, the Champion article said. But, it added, lawyers are finding “very little guidance” in trying to help clients with “the other side of the confinement equation,” a euphemism for what prison lies ahead.
The options are summarized in a volume published by the Bureau of Prisons titled “Facilities 1991.” A sort of Michelin guide to the 67-institution federal prison system, it describes the accommodations at each facility, from the minimum-security camp at Petersburg, Va., temporary home of former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, to the maximum-security prison at Marion, Ill.
Unlike the usual travel guide, however, Facilities 1991 makes no effort at hype. Bureau spokesman Dan Duanne said the bureau is sensitive on this topic. Defense attorneys freely admit they are looking hard at the angels available.
“The very best thing that a federal judge can do to help your client get into Club Fed is to pick up the telephone and call the director of the (Bureau of Prisons) … and then follow up that call with a detailed personal letter,” write the article’s authors, lawyers Alan Ellis and Alan J. Chaset Jr.
But, they add, don’t get your hopes up: “We can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times we’ve been able to have that happen.”
More common, Duanne said, is for lawyers to ask the judge to jot down a recommendation in the paperwork that goes to the bureau. Though every federal prison these days is crowded – the system is running at 163 percent of capacity – Duanne said the bureau makes an effort to take the judge’s recommendation into account.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]