Nov. 8, 2023 – A federal district court considered a defendant’s mitigation argument when it sentenced her to 18 months in prison, including the potential risk of violence against her as a transgender woman, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled.
In U.S. v. Price, No. 22-2061 (Oct. 25, 2023), the Seventh Circuit held that the district court acknowledged the risk to the defendant during the sentencing hearing and showed that it properly exercised its discretion in sentencing her.
15 Years for Firearms Charge
In 2011, Jazz Price pled guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm in Wisconsin.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin sentenced Price to 15 years imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised release, under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) (18 U.S.C. section 924(e)).
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) determined that Price would serve her sentence in federal penitentiaries, which have the highest level of security among federal prisons except for the maximum security ADMAX facility located in Florence, Colorado.
Unsafe in Prison
As a gay man and later a transgender woman, Price suffered in the penitentiaries. Two months after she was incarcerated, prison officials placed Price in a special housing unit (SHU).
Price was found in the SHU with cuts and bruises on her face and throat. And in 2014, Price was sent to the infirmary multiple times after being injured by violent inmates.
For nearly ten years, the BOP moved Price from penitentiary to penitentiary in an effort to keep her safe. In each penitentiary, Price spent most of her time in the SHU, sometimes for her protection but often because of rules infractions.
The rules violations usually stemmed from fights; Price believed that to protect herself, she had to act tough and fight.
In 2017, Price filed a pro se motion to vacate her sentence; she also filed a habeas petition under 28 U.S.C. section 2255, seeking the same relief.
After the Seventh Circuit ruled that burglary convictions under Wisconsin law don’t count as qualifying convictions under the ACCA, the district court granted Price’s request and re-sentenced her without the penalty enhancement mandated by the ACCA.
The district court reduced Price’s sentence to time served, followed by three years of supervised release.
Violates Terms of Release
After Price was released from prison, she violated the terms of her supervised release multiple times.
In August 2020, Price fled Wisconsin after stabbing a man (she claimed self-defense).
The police arrested Price in Iowa.
During a revocation hearing in May 2022, Price agreed that the district court had grounds to return her to prison.
But Price pleaded with the court not to send her back. She argued that the court should consider the risk that she’d suffer further abuse if returned to prison.
The district court sentenced Price to 18 months of imprisonment and 18 months of supervised release.
Entitled to Mitigation Argument
On appeal, Price argued that the district court erred by failing to consider her susceptibility to abuse in prison and recommending that she be placed in a medical facility.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi began by noting that a study published in 2011 found that 40% of incarcerated transgender women report having been sexually assaulted in prison, compared to 4% of the overall incarcerated population.
Jackson-Akiwumi then noted that during a revocation hearing, a defendant is entitled to make mitigation arguments.
Judge Jackson-Akiwumi concluded that the district court had adequately considered Price’s mitigation argument.
Jackson-Akiwumi pointed out that the district court said that while a two-year sentence was justified, it wouldn’t impose a two-year sentence based on the concerns for Price’s safety voiced by her attorney.
District Court Ruling Was Appropriate
Price argued that the district court should have explicitly based its ruling on one of the following grounds:
- 18 months is appropriate, given that Price would spend her whole time in solitary confinement and be constantly harassed;
- 24 months would be the normal sentence for someone in Price’s position, but because of the difficulties Price would face in prison, 18 months was appropriate; or
- 18 months would be the normal sentence for someone in Price’s position, but given the threats to her safety, the combination of a short prison sentence plus community confinement was appropriate.
But Judge Jackson-Akiwumi reasoned that the district court had grounded its sentencing decision in either the first or second of the three options that Price claimed were legally required.
“When addressing Price’s counsel before imposing the sentence, the district court said that it did not intend to ‘throw the book’ at Price for the reasons counsel had just highlighted about the unique harm that she faced in prison, but the sentence imposed did have to ‘reflect her conduct,’” Jackson-Akiwumi wrote.
Judge Jackson-Akiwumi concluded that the district court had appropriately exercised its discretion in sentencing Price.
“A different judge might have elaborated more or weighed the heightened risk to Price differently and afforded greater relief,” Jackson-Akiwumi wrote.
“But the standard for remanding a district court’s discretionary determination is not met where the court addresses the defendant’s meritorious and principal arguments in mitigation.”