A federal judge in Little Rock has denied a request for compassionate release from a woman serving 12½ years for defrauding a taxpayer-funded program to feed poor children in Arkansas of about $4 million.
Citing fears of being exposed to the covid-19 pandemic while in prison in Minnesota and concerns about the care of her 6-year-old daughter, Jacqueline Mills of Helena-West Helena filed a motion Aug. 5 seeking a reduction of the sentence imposed Dec. 6, 2017.
Mills, now 45, noted that the 39 wire fraud, bribery and money laundering counts on which a federal jury convicted her in 2017 are nonviolent offenses. She cited “a litany of serious and potentially life-threatening medical issues” that she said make her vulnerable to catching the virus, which has caused outbreaks at several federal prisons.
The outbreaks led U.S. Attorney William Barr to direct the federal Bureau of Prisons to consider releasing certain nonviolent offenders to better manage the prison population.
Mills noted that in May, she sought immediate release directly from officials at the prison in Waseca, Minn., but she didn’t receive a response within 30 days, making her eligible to seek release through her sentencing judge.
In an order filed Monday afternoon, U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr., who presided over her 2017 jury trial, denied her request to reduce her sentence to time served and order her placed on supervised release — which is the only option federal judges have for granting early release.
The federal Bureau of P r i s o n s h a s released many federal prisoners on its own initiative, in response to Barr’s order, so it is still possible that Mills could be released despite Moody’s order.
Mills noted that she has served about 30 months of her 150-month sentence, and has a projected release date of Nov. 12, 2028. She described her medical conditions as obesity, high blood pressure, chronic kidney disease and cardiac disease.
Her attorney noted that Mills has a record of good conduct behind prison walls and, because of her advanced degrees in education, has been teaching classes to help other inmates.
He said her mother, Rosie Farr, has congestive heart failure that “is now making it nearly impossible” for her to care for Mills’ daughter. Farr is the sole caregiver for the girl, the motion said.
It notes that under federal law, courts can reduce sentences for “extraordinary and compelling reasons,” and that many courts have done so based on concerns about the pandemic.
Moody, however, said Mills’ cited health concerns “are not ‘extraordinary and compelling’ reasons warranting release,” noting that none of the conditions she cited are listed in the First Step Act of 2018, which lessened procedural hurdles for inmates seeking compassionate release.
He also said Mills hasn’t shown that her health conditions can’t be controlled without medication, and that she doesn’t meet age and minimum time-served requirements under the legislation.
He also noted, “according to the medical records, [Mills’] mother is 67 years old and had heart surgery in April 2019. This is not incapacitation,” as Mills contended.
Even if Mills could establish extraordinary and compelling reasons for her release, Moody said, statutory factors concerning the severity of her offense and the need to protect the public from additional crimes require that her request be denied.
He noted that she “continued to engage in fraudulent behavior” while her case was being investigated, including asking people to lie on her behalf about feeding sites she claimed to operate and the number of children she said were fed at the sites.
Mills “was involved in a years-long scheme to fraudulently obtain USDA program funds intended to ensure that financially disadvantaged children were provided good nutrition when they were not in school,” Moody said.
Jurors found that Mills falsely claimed to have fed children at 34 sites in eastern Arkansas, so that she would obtain false reimbursement from the USDA. The federal program was administered by the state Department of Human Services, and two state employees admitted accepting bribes to approve sponsors’ feeding sites despite knowing they weren’t legitimate, and to submit false claims on behalf of several sponsors, including Mills.
Mills, one of only two defendants in the case to go to trial, sought reimbursement for feeding at more sites than any other sponsor. Several witnesses testified that they saw no children at some of the sites and only a handful of children at other sites.
Upon her conviction, Mills was required to forfeit homes, businesses, vehicles and bank accounts to the government.
On Monday, Moody also denied, for a second time, Mills’ mother’s petition asserting an interest in some of the seized property. He said Farr didn’t prove that she or her husband have a legal interest in an account she shared with Mills, which the FBI said was supplied by the proceeds of Mills’ crimes.