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Noticing surprisingly low federal guideline range for sexual abuse of prisoners


For a variety of reasons, it can be all too easy to conclude that all of the federal sentencing guidelines are set way too high.  After all, federal judges impose sentences below the guidelines in more than half of all cases (see Table 8), and they do so even more frequently in certain child porn, drug and economic cases (see Table 10).  But this AP report on a notable recent federal sentencing in California highlights that there can be cases in which federal judges conclude the applicable guideline is way too low.  The piece is headlined “Chaplain who sexually abused inmates gets 7 years in prison,” and here are just some of the details:

Behind a closed chapel office door inside a federal women’s prison in California, a chaplain forced inmates seeking his spiritual guidance to have sex with him, exploiting their faith and their powerlessness behind bars for his own gratification, prosecutors said.

James Theodore Highhouse was sentenced Wednesday to seven years in prison — more than double the recommended punishment in federal sentencing guidelines.  U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. said the guidelines, which call for a sentence of less than three years, “seriously underestimate the seriousness” of Highhouse’s conduct. “It’s hard to come up with the right words to describe how egregious an abuse of these victims this was,” Gilliam said.

Highhouse is among five workers charged in the last 14 months with sexually abusing inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, California, and the first to reach the sentencing phase of his case…. Highhouse must register as a sex offender once he’s released from prison, Gilliam said.

Highhouse, who was arrested in January and pleaded guilty in February, would tell women he abused at the Bay Area lockup, that everyone in the Bible had sex and that God wanted them to be together, prosecutors said.  An Army veteran, he pressured one inmate into intercourse on Veterans Day by telling her she needed to serve her country and on Thanksgiving by telling her she needed to show her gratitude for him, prosecutors said.

While Highhouse, 49, was charged only with abusing one inmate and lying to authorities, prosecutors say he engaged in predatory conduct with at least six women from 2014 to 2019 — including one he counseled at a veterans hospital where he worked before joining the federal Bureau of Prisons, where allegations were routinely ignored.  “Highhouse ruined my life — he truly did,” one inmate said in a victim impact statement. “I don’t even go to Church anymore because of him.  I have no trust in the Church and really, I don’t trust anyone because of what he did.”

Highhouse, enabled by a toxic culture of abuse and coverups at the prison, warned victims not to report him, telling one of them “no one will believe you because you’re an inmate, and I’m a chaplain,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum. At the same time, prosecutors wrote, a prison counselor would rail about inmates “snitching” on employees, suggesting they instead “tell Trump about it,” referring to then-President Donald Trump.

Prosecutors had sought a 10-year prison sentence.  His lawyers asked for two years, the low end of the federal guidelines, which called for a sentence of 24 to 30 months.  Gilliam’s seven-year sentence matched the recommendation of probation officers who conducted Highhouse’s pre-sentence investigation….

All sexual activity between a prison worker and an inmate is illegal. Correctional employees enjoy substantial power over inmates, controlling every aspect of their lives from mealtime to lights out, and there is no scenario in which an inmate can give consent…. Highhouse pleaded guilty on Feb. 23 to two counts of sexual abuse of a ward, two counts of abusive sexual contact and one count of making false statements to federal agents.

All of the charges stem from allegations Highhouse repeatedly abused a female prisoner over a nine-month span in 2018 and 2019. That woman said in a victim impact statement that she cried herself to sleep after testifying before a grand jury about Highhouse’s abuse….

Other allegations against Highhouse, previously kept quiet by Dublin officials, came to light during the investigation, prosecutors said….  In May, an inmate now incarcerated at another federal prison facility reported that Highhouse raped her multiple times in his chapel office after she sought him out for counseling, prosecutors said.

There are many disconcerting and notable aspects of this story, but I am still struck that a prison official/chaplain can sexually abuse a prisoner repeatedly and yet only face a guideline sentencing range of 24 to 30 months.  That range is, generally speaking, well below the guideline ranges typically facing lower-level drug offenders and lower-level fraudsters.



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