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Terrorism sentencing: Challenges for criminal prosecutors in the U.S. and abroad
Boston Marathon bombing, 2013
December 8 - Among the men suspected of helping carry out the Nov. 13, 2015 Paris terrorist attacks is Samy Amimour, a 28-year-old French citizen who already had been charged with terrorist conspiracy in 2012. He is not the first person to be charged with a terrorism-related crime and then later to be associated with a serious attack. In January 2015, two brothers — Chérif and Saïd Kouachi – killed 12 people at the Paris offices of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine. A decade earlier, Chérif Kouachi was charged with conspiring to commit acts of terrorism, for which he served 20 months in prison. An ongoing investigative series by ProPublica has raised questions about Europe’s sentencing policies and their role in the ongoing threat of terrorism.
In the United States, the legal framework for sentencing terrorism-related crimes has not received much attention from scholars, despite an increase in prosecutions since Sept. 11, 2001, according to a 2014 article by University of South Carolina Law School Professor Wadie E. Said. While the U.S. appears to take a stronger stance on terrorism crimes, scholars such as Said have voiced concerns about how the U.S. prosecutes crimes that may be linked to terrorist behaviors. A special sentencing “enhancement” allows courts to drastically increase the penalty for an activity that “involved, or was intended to promote, a federal crime of terrorism,” as defined by Congress. Said offers the example of a defendant who is convicted of obstructing a federal investigation by refusing to testify before a grand jury in a case involving terrorist fundraising allegations. Without the special enhancement, the defendant faces a prison term of 24 to 36 months. The sentencing enhancement boosts the sentence to 135 months.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, more than 250 people have been convicted in the U.S. “for their involvement in homegrown violent jihadist plots,” terrorism specialist Jerome P. Bjelopera said in a statement prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. Because of their long sentences, most of these “terror prisoners” remain behind bars. There are concerns, however, about how the nation eventually will handle their release and whether released convicts will return to terrorist plotting. In October 2015, the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence held a hearing on the issue. The subcommittee chairman, Peter T. King, indicated that more than 100 federal prisoners with links to terrorism would be released within five years. At the hearing, Bjelopera testified that it is unclear whether spending time in U.S. prison fosters a deeper commitment to violence among convicted terrorists.
The Center on Law and Security at New York University has completed a number of statistical analyses and reports related to the charges, convictions, plea bargains and sentences of alleged terrorists in the decade after September 2001.