U.S. Appeals court slams handling of supervised release, reverses four sentences

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A ban on “excessive” drinking that doesn’t define what excessive is.

A lifetime prohibition on  a man being in contact with anyone under the age of 18 — even his own children — without the approval of a probation officer.

And an order to get his GED or go back to prison — even if he’s too dumb to pass the tests.

These were just three of a litany of improper conditions of supervised release imposed by federal judges in Illinois on convicts who’ve completed their prison sentences, according to a U.S. Appeals Court ruling issued Tuesday.

Ordering defendants in four otherwise unrelated cases to be resentenced to correct mistakes in how the conditions of their supervised release were determined, the 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals says confusingly drafted laws are to blame for “inevitable” errors.

Unlike parole, which rewards prisoners who behave well behind bars with early release, supervised release is tacked onto the end of most federal prison terms as an additional punishment and attempt to keep convicts on the straight and narrow.

But Appellate Court Judge Richard Posner wrote in Tuesday’s 24-page ruling that it is often treated as an afterthought. In many cases “district judges simply list the conditions that they impose, devoting little or no time at sentencing to explaining them or justifying their imposition,” Posner wrote.

Defendants and their lawyers are typically more worried about prison time and rarely fight over the terms of their supervised release when they are sentenced, Posner wrote.

And judges often include so many restrictions that it’s hard to keep track of them all, he added. Studies show around a third of defendants violate their supervised release, resulting in an average additional sentence of 11 months behind bars.

The ruling means judges in Chicago and Springfield will have to resentence four defendants: sex offender David M. Thompson, who is serving a 17-year sentence for child pornography; bank robber Derek Ortiz, who’s serving an 11-year sentence for three heists; crack cocaine dealer Charles Bates, who’s serving a 15-year sentence, and Domingo Blount, serving a 25-year sentence for dealing heroin.

Thompson’s supervised release, imposed by U.S. District Judge Michael Reagan, includes a lifetime ban on contact with anyone under the age of 18 without the approval of a probation officer — a ban Posner noted would include Thompson’s own children and said went too far.

The sentence U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly imposed on Ortiz required that he “notify third parties of risks that may be occasioned by the defendant’s criminal record or personal history or characteristics,” an unnecessarily vague restriction that also goes too far, Posner ruled.

In Bates’ case, U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle “sprang” the terms of his supervised list on him without fair warning or explanation, Posner wrote.

And in Blount’s case, U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman imposed a lifelong requirement that Blount do 20 hours a week of community service following his release, and that he obtain his GED. Posner wrote, “There is no means of ‘requiring’ that a person pass the GED tests, unless cheating is permitted.”

He added, “This is an example of an improper condition of supervised release that could be fixed by changing a single word and would have been years ago if the Sentencing Commission, the probation services, and the judiciary paid closer attention to the precise scope and wording of conditions of supervised release.”

Resentencing dates for all four men have yet to be set.

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