Fifteen-years ago, Christopher Davis was sentenced to a 262-months in prison for possession with intent to distribute 6.1 grams of crack cocaine. He faced a mandatory-minimum sentence based on the quantity of drugs and his two prior convictions.
On August 27, 2020, Mr. Davis walked out of federal prison 7-years early thanks to the efforts of the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Iowa College of Law.
A federal judge had granted Mr. Davis’s motion for a sentence reduction, recognizing that he deserved the benefit of new, lower crack-cocaine penalties. Everyone, including Congress, had agreed that the prior statutory and Guideline penalties were unjustifiably harsh and had disproportionally imprisoned individuals in the Black community for far too long. Mr. Davis’s motion is one of several successful sentence-reduction motions for the clinic in the past year.
Typically, the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic represents individuals facing federal charges in both the district-court and courts of appeals. Since January 2019, however, much of the clinic’s work has focused on post-conviction decarceration litigation under the First Step Act of 2018.
To understand the need for this litigation, it is important to understand that there is no parole in the federal system.
So, prior to the First Step Act, incarcerated individuals were effectively deprived the opportunity to have their sentences reviewed, no matter how long they had been in custody for offenses where the penalties had been subsequently lowered or no matter how sick they became. The First Step Act not only paved the way for motions like the one the clinic filed on Mr. Davis’s behalf, but it also opened the door to motions for compassionate release.
Prior to the Act, to secure compassionate release, sole discretion to file a motion rested with the Bureau of Prisons. If the prison said no, then the individual could go no further and would remain in prison. Under the Act, individuals in custody can now file on their own behalf.
This change in compassionate release came not a moment too soon given the pandemic. Courts across the world have recognized that jails and prisons are “tinderboxes” for infection. For many suffering from COVID-19 comorbidities, compassionate release is the only option to reduce their sentences and remove them from the highly contagious prison environment.
Given these realities, the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic’s focus quickly adapted. Although incarcerated individuals can file a compassionate-release motion pro se, it can be a complex and time sensitive legal battle, so the clinic stepped up to represent people across the nation who had no other way to obtain counsel.
The law students helping these individuals are directed by Alison Guernsey, the director of the Federal Criminal Defense Clinic, a clinical associate professor, and a former federal public defender. For Professor Guernsey, “It is impossible to spend a career representing people you know should have another shot at life outside of prison walls and not see litigating compassionate release motions as both a professional and deeply personal obligation.”
This obligation is something that Professor Guernsey hopes to pass on to her students in the clinic, as well as a sense of joy and purpose from being a lawyer. She hopes that they find “a real recognition that our clients are people, just like you or me, and that their lives have value regardless of their convictions.”
For Daniel Brown, a client of the clinic, Professor Guernsey and her law students were a valuable tool in challenging the Government’s appeal of his compassionate release. His 42-and-a-half-year sentence was reduced to 19-years by the Honorable Robert W. Pratt in April 2020. “When the law clinic took my case, it was like a sigh of relief,” Brown says. “[T]hat’s what I want you and your students to know; that it does matter.” Without the support of the clinic, Brown would have had to navigate the appeal on his own because after almost 20 years in prison, he did not have the money to hire an attorney.
Daniel Brown was imprisoned for two drug charges and “stacking” 924(c)s in 2005. Title 18 U.S.C. 924(c) criminalizes carrying a gun or having a gun in your home during a drug deal. Each 924(c) charge carried a consecutive mandatory minimum, increasing in severity with each charge. The first charge was a 5-year minimum, the second was 25 years. They had to be run one after the other. The First Step Act of 2018 prohibited stacking, but this act was not retroactive. The Wall Street Journal highlighted Daniel Brown's release this past spring.
The clinic’s compassionate-release advocacy is not limited only to direct representation.
It has also involved two visual-advocacy projects. Since April 2020, the clinic has been actively tracking and graphing the Bureau of Prisons’ daily infection-rate data. Their graph (updated weekly) shows the most dangerous BOP's facilities as measured by COVID-19 cases. This data is crucial in understanding the risks inmates face in prison and how quickly the virus is able to spread in this environment.
Additionally, the clinic tracks those who have died in the BOP from the virus, compiling their names in a style reminiscent of the New York Times’s front-page tribute to COVID victims. For those seeking compassionate release and their lawyers, these pieces of visual, legal advocacy to support their arguments that BOP facilities are unsafe and people are at-risk.
For Cassie Arntsen (3L), who was a student in the clinic, the lessons and opportunities she has had have been extremely impactful on her legal education. “I’ve gotten the opportunity to write motions, briefs, memos, as well as work with real clients and even argue in federal court,” Arntsen says. “Working with Professor Guernsey has helped me improve every aspect of my legal abilities and I’ll be forever grateful to her and the clinic for my experience.”
The University of Iowa College of Law has partnered with several other law schools across the United States to advocate for compassionate release during COVID-19, including clinical faculty at University of California Irvine and the University of Chicago. For each of these institutions, advocating for compassionate release not only provides incredible learning opportunities for their students; it also begins to establish a precedent within the courts that lengthy sentences and mandatory minimums must be reevaluated.
“I hope that the wave of pandemic-related compassionate release motions will open Congress’s eyes to the value in having a robust mechanism for giving those who are serving lengthy terms of imprisonment another look,” says Professor Guernsey. “It is now a non-controversial proposition that we incarcerate too many people for too long. And the human faces of that problem became all the more real when the consequences of those lengthy sentences became death.”
Read more from Professor Guernsey in an article by Miles Pope featured in The Advocate, What We Have Wrought: Compassionate Release in the Time of Our Plague (starting on page 20).
Molly Hill is a Student Employee for the College of Law in External Relations. She majors in English Literature and writes and edits alumni news content. Molly spent a year abroad studying British Literature at Oxford University and will graduate from the University of Iowa with Honors in December 2020.