Prison Legal News Victorious In FOIA Lawsuit
WASHINGTON, DC -- On June 26, 2006, U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled in favor of Prison Legal News in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed against the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Prison Legal News (PLN), founded in 1990, is a Seattle-based non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human rights in U.S. prisons. PLN publishes a monthly newsletter that includes articles, reports, reviews and analysis of court rulings and news related to prisoners' rights and criminal justice issues.
PLN has over 4,500 subscribers in all 50 states, including prisoners, lawyers, journalists, judges, courts, public libraries and universities. PLN also operates a website that contains a comprehensive national database of prison-related court rulings, verdicts and settlements.
PLN filed suit against the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) on Sept. 13, 2005 after the agency refused to grant PLN a fee waiver for a FOIA document request, claiming in part that PLN did not have the "intent and ability" to disseminate the requested documents to the public. PLN had requested documents related to public funds the BOP had paid out as a result of lawsuits and claims between January 1, 1996 and July 31, 2003.
PLN argued that release of the requested documents was in the public interest since the BOP operates the nation's largest prison system (with over 190,000 prisoners in 106 prisons) -- and because the expenditure of taxpayer dollars for lawsuits and claims filed against the agency, often due to constitutional violations, was a matter of important public concern.
The BOP delayed ruling on the fee waiver request for almost two years and then denied the request, effectively barring PLN's access to the information. Absent a fee waiver, smaller public-interest media organizations such as PLN are unable to obtain government documents that are supposed to be available to the public. In this case the BOP had attempted to impose a $7,000 fee for the requested documents for search and copying costs.
In ruling for PLN on a summary judgment motion, Judge Walton found that the disclosure of the requested information was "likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government." The Court further held that PLN had the ability to "widely disseminate" the information to the public, and the BOP was ordered to produce the requested documents without payment of fees.
On February 4, 2006, the New York Times noted in an editorial, The High Cost of Public Information, that the Bush administration had adopted a de facto policy of using high search fees to deprive non profit and public interest media organizations access to information that is and should be public. Prison Legal News' case is the first to strike a blow against this administration policy.
PLN Editor Paul Wright stated, "This ruling is an important vindication for the independent media and, once the information is released, will bring an important measure of accountability and oversight to our nation's federal prisons."
The case is Prison Legal News v. Lappin, U.S. District Court D.C., Civil Action No. 05-1812 (RBW).
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Prisoners Challenge Lack Of Access And Retroactivity Post-Booker
A group of federal prisoners has filed a class action lawsuit claiming federal courts are denying access to thousands like them who are eligible for reduced sentences after the United States Supreme Court's January 2005 ruling in U.S. v. Booker. Plaintiffs Rodney Doggett, Russell Kaemmerling, Gary Callahan, and Brian Culwell allege, individually and together, that Defendants Alberto Gonzales, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, et. al., routinely deny access to court on the basis of technical rules and thereby refusing to consider arguments that would vacate illegal portions of their sentences.
The lawsuit was filed in early April 2006 in the District of Columbia Federal Court. Each Plaintiff is serving a significant sentence, and each is classified a non-violent offender. They are "currently serving the illegal portion of their sentences and have been denied access to the courts for the redress of their grievances and correction of each man's illegal sentence. Some sentences of those named in the lawsuit are as much as 15 times the maximum allowed by law based on the Supreme Court ruling," according to Plaintiff's Press Release dated April 4, 2006.
Plaintiffs insist that while each rightfully seeks redress for personal grievances dismissed and denied by Defendants, they also insist that "the issue is much bigger than our own individual situations. We are confident that federal courts will ultimately acknowledge that 'individual errors' are not an excuse, or rationale, for the clearly systemic failure and abuse."
Plaintiff Kaemmerling concludes the Press Release with a startling irony, "State courts have recognized the significance of this U.S. Supreme Court Booker ruling and have moved aggressively to grant those inmates currently and illegally confined in state prisons redress. Yet, there are approximately 100,000 individuals with illegal sentences incarcerated in the Federal system that have been given no avenue to bring those issues to court and receive relief."
For updates and more information about
this prisoner-initiated action, contact Barry Ward, certified
paralegal, at firstname.lastname@example.org
A Critical Race Examination Of Post-Booker Developments
By Douglas A. Berman, Ohio law professor
During the recent Miami Federal Sentencing Guidelines conference, one troubling idea kept coming to mind: white defendants seem to be doing better than minority defendants in the post-Booker world.
Notably, the Sentencing Commission's March Booker report asserts that, after Booker, "black offenders are associated with sentences that are 4.9% higher than white offenders." And here are other notable data from post-Booker statistics:
According to Table 25 in the USSC Booker report, roughly 1 in 5 first offenders who are white are getting a below-guideline sentence after Booker. For black first offenders, the number is roughly 1 in 6; for Hispanic first offenders the number is about 1 in 9.
The theft/fraud category of crimes -- crimes which have a statistically higher percentage of white defendants -- have the highest rate of Booker variances according to the most recent post-Booker data.
In addition to these data points from the post-Booker world, consider also these qualitative realities:
Though the crack-cocaine debate has an obvious racial dimension, circuit rulings rejecting efforts to impose lower crack sentences have not fully grappled with the racial impact of the 100-1 crack/powder ratio.
As evidenced by this recent (record?) variance, it seems some of the larger Booker breaks have gone to white-collar defendants.
With these comments, I do not mean to make a blanket assertion that racial bias infects the post-Booker world. But I do hope to encourage everyone to examine closely post-Booker developments through the lens of race and to explore critically whether there may be skews in how increased discretion is being applied in the federal sentencing system after Booker.
FREE Spanish Law Book
Thanks to a generous publisher, we can distribute to Spanish speaking prisoners or prison libraries - for no charge -- a limited number of David Zapp's "Manual De Pautas de la Comision Federal De Sentencias par las Sentencias Federales."
Sentencias Y Leyes, Federales De Narcotrafico Y Lavado De Dinero. Edicion en espanol compilada por el licenciado en Direcho Penal.
Send requests for a FREE copy of Zapp's book to:
Zapp Manual, c/o November Coalition, 282 West Astor, Colville, WA 99114 or call (509) 684-1550.