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Is a Prison Escape a Violent Act? Depends

Here is a question for the criminal law attorneys out there: Is a prison escape an act of violence? That was the issue yesterday as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Chambers v. United States. The court's answer will determine whether Deondery Chambers will have to serve the mandatory 15-year minimum sentence required of federal defendants who have committed three violent felonies. There is no question Chambers escaped, but his was not of the dramatic made-for-TV variety. Rather, he simply failed to report to prison. Under Illinois law, his failure to show up was considered an escape. But does that make it violent? A just-published report of the U.S. Sentencing Commission appears to support Chambers' argument that it was not.

At Chambers' sentencing hearing, the district court declined to distinguish between a prison break and a failure to report. It concluded that "escape is escape" and that any escape is a violent felony. On appeal, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in an opinion by Judge Richard Posner, affirmed, finding itself bound by an earlier 7th Circuit precedent. Noting that other circuits had gone both ways on the issue, the panel suggested that further data would be useful in assessing the risks of violence posed by a failure to report. Even as the Supreme Court agreed to review the 7th Circuit's decision, the Sentencing Commission took up its suggestion to review the data and this week made its findings available online.

The transcript of yesterday's argument includes several references to the Sentencing Commission's data. Examining cases from 2006 and 2007, the Sentencing Commission found that of 42 failure-to-report cases and 118 failure-to-return cases, not a single one involved the use or threat of force or resulted in injury. By contrast, in 64 cases of escape from secure custody, nine involved force, 17 involved use of a dangerous weapon and seven resulted in injury. For all types of "nonsecure escapes" -- failing to report, failing to return and leaving nonsecure custody -- just one out of 337 cases involved force. The Sentencing Commission's report presents this data without making a recommendation as to how the Supreme Court should decide the issue. The data clearly draw a distinction between the kind of prison break TV viewers know and love and the devoid-of-violence failure to show up. Some parts of yesterday's argument indicate that the final outcome may turn on whether the court is willing to draw lines between types of escapes or believes that an escape is always an escape.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on November 11, 2008 at 08:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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