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September 13, 2011

"Bummer: Barack Obama turns out to be just another drug warrior"

1314063741342251_lg The title of this post is the title of this lengthy and sharp new piece by Jacob Sullum, which is the cover story in the October 2011 issue of Reason magazine. This title provides an effective summary of the piece, and here are some snippets from the piece's introduction and conclusion:

It is not hard to see how critics of the war on drugs got the impression that Barack Obama was sympathetic to their cause. Throughout his public life as an author, law professor, and politician, Obama has said and done things that suggested he was not a run-of-the-mill drug warrior....

[But] Obama’s drug policies ... by and large have been remarkably similar to his predecessor’s. With the major exception of crack sentences, which were substantially reduced by a law the administration supported, Obama has not delivered what reformers hoped he would. His most conspicuous failure has been his policy on medical marijuana, which is in some ways even more aggressively intolerant than George W. Bush’s, featuring more-frequent raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), ruinous IRS audits, and threats of prosecution against not only dispensaries but anyone who deals with them.  “I initially had high hopes,” says Marsha Rosenbaum, “but now believe Obama has abdicated drug policy to the DEA.”

It would be going too far to say that Obama has been faking it all these years, that he does not really care about the injustices perpetrated in the name of protecting Americans from the drugs they want.  But he clearly does not care enough to change the course of the life-wrecking, havoc-wreaking war on drugs....

We know how Obama responds when the question of marijuana legalization comes up in public: He laughs. The highest-rated questions submitted for his “virtual town meeting” in March 2009 dealt with pot prohibition. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama said with a smirk, eliciting laughter from the live audience, “but…this was a fairly popular question.”

Obama’s dismissive attitude was especially galling in light of his own youthful pot smoking, which he presents in Dreams From My Father as a cautionary tale of near-disaster followed by redemption.  “Junkie. Pothead,” he writes.  “That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the would-be black man.”  Judging from the reports of friends interviewed by The New York Times in 2008, Obama exaggerated his brush with addiction for dramatic effect.  More important, he has never publicly acknowledged the plain truth that people who smoke pot rarely become junkies or suffer any other serious harm as a result — unless they get caught.

As Richard Nixon’s National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse pointed out when Obama was all of 10 years old, the biggest risk people face when they smoke pot is created by the government’s attempts to stop them.  In 1977, when Obama was a pot-smoking high school student in Honolulu, President Jimmy Carter advocated decriminalizing marijuana possession, telling Congress that “penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”

That is hardly a radical position.  Polls indicate that most Americans think pot smokers should not be treated like criminals...

In New York City, where marijuana arrests have increased dramatically since the late 1990s, blacks are five times as likely to be busted as whites.  The number of marijuana arrests by the New York Police Department (NYPD) from 1997 through 2006 was 11 times the number in the previous 10 years, despite the fact that possession of up to 25 grams (about nine-tenths of an ounce) has been decriminalized in New York....

Obama attended Columbia University in the early 1980s, well before the big increase in marijuana arrests that began a decade later.  There were about 858,000 pot arrests nationwide in 2009, more than twice the number in 1980, and the crackdown has been especially aggressive in New York City under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg (another former pot smoker).  “The odds are not bad,” observes Ethan Nadelmann, “that a young Barry Obama, using marijuana at Columbia, might have been arrested had the NYPD been conducting the number of marijuana arrests then that it is now.”

A misdemeanor marijuana conviction could have been a life-changing event for Obama, interrupting his education, impairing his job prospects, and derailing his political career before it began.  It would not have been fair, but it would have spared us the sorry spectacle of a president who champions a policy he once called “an utter failure” and who literally laughs at supporters whose objections to that doomed, disastrous crusade he once claimed to share.

Though I had never expected the Obama Administration to seek a withdrawal from the "war on drugs," I was hoping this Administration might seek to foster a broader national conversation about the obvious costs the traditional federal approaches to fighting a "war" that seems impossible to really "win" or complete.  In addition to being disappointed that the Obama Administration seems eager to avoid such a conversation, I am saddened that this area of federal law and policy appears to be the only one in which President Obama's opponents are silent with any criticisms.

Some recent and older related posts on the modern politics of the drug war:

September 13, 2011 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Will a more diverse federal bench result in a more diverse sentencing jurisprudence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new AP article, which is headlined "Obama increases number of female, minority judges," and begins this way:

President Barack Obama is moving at a historic pace to try to diversify the nation's federal judiciary: Nearly three of every four people he has gotten confirmed to the federal bench are women or minorities.  He is the first president who hasn't selected a majority of white males for lifetime judgeships.

More than 70 percent of Obama's confirmed judicial nominees during his first two years were "non-traditional," or nominees who were not white males.  That far exceeds the percentages in the two-term administrations of Bill Clinton (48.1 percent) and George W. Bush (32.9 percent), according to Sheldon Goldman, author of the authoritative book "Picking Federal Judges."

"It is an absolutely remarkable diversity achievement," said Goldman, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who is only counting judges once, even if they fit more than one category.

Some related older and newer posts on judicial appointments and sentencing jurisprudence:

September 13, 2011 in Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

California to "start releasing thousands of female inmates who have children"

The quote in the title of this post is drawn from the lead of this new Los Angeles Times article, which is headlined "Prison officials are set to let some female inmates out early; Women who have children and are convicted of 'non-serious, non-sexual' crimes could start going home as early as next week as the state seeks to relieve overcrowding." Here is how the article begins:

Drastically redefining incarceration in California, prison officials are about to start releasing thousands of female inmates who have children to serve the remainder of their sentences at home.

The move, which could affect nearly half the women held in state facilities, will help California meet a court-imposed deadline to make space in its chronically overcrowded prisons. The policy could be extended to male inmates in the near future, administrators said Monday.

Mothers who were convicted of non-serious, non-sexual crimes — and have two years or less remaining on their sentences — could start going home as early as next week, prisons spokeswoman Dana Toyama said. The women would be required to wear GPS-enabled ankle bracelets and report to parole officers.

The program is "a step in breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration," state prisons Secretary Matthew Cate said, arguing that "family involvement is one of the biggest indicators of an inmate's rehabilitation."

But skeptics abound, including prosecutors and crime victims' advocates who opposed the idea as it worked its way through the Legislature last year. "If they were such great mothers to begin with, they never would have committed the heinous crime that got them sent to state prison," said Harriet Salarno, founder of Sacramento-based Crime Victims United. In many cases, the children might be better off in foster care, Salarno said.

Reuniting families clearly was not the only consideration that led prison officials to opt for home incarceration. In May, the state lost a U.S. Supreme Court appeal of a ruling that had found California's prison overcrowding and the resulting lack of access to medical care amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

September 13, 2011 in Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Prisons Do Not Reduce Recidivism: The High Cost of Ignoring Science"

The title of this post is the title of this article by Francis Cullen, Cheryl Lero Jonson and Daniel Nagin appearing in the September 2011 issue of The Prison Journal. Here is the abstract:

One of the major justifications for the rise of mass incarceration in the United States is that placing offenders behind bars reduces recidivism by teaching them that “crime does not pay.”  This rationale is based on the view that custodial sanctions are uniquely painful and thus exact a higher cost than noncustodial sanctions.  An alternative position, developed mainly by criminologists, is that imprisonment is not simply a “cost” but also a social experience that deepens illegal involvement.

Using an evidence-based approach, we conclude that there is little evidence that prisons reduce recidivism and at least some evidence to suggest that they have a criminogenic effect.  The policy implications of this finding are significant, for it means that beyond crime saved through incapacitation, the use of custodial sanctions may have the unanticipated consequence of making society less safe.

September 13, 2011 in Data on sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Will any scheduled executions in Texas soon become a political talking point?

As detailed in this UPI article, "Texas is to execute two inmates this week, including one who now has a prosecutor trying to get the sentence stayed because of racially tinged testimony." Here are the details:

Linda Geffin, among the prosecutors in the 1997 trial of Duane Buck and now a supervisor in the Harris County attorney's office, said she now agrees with his attorneys, who argued the sentencing hearing was unfair because of the testimony, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Buck, who is black, was among seven death-row inmates who then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn said in 2000 had been unfairly sentenced to death because of improper racial testimony.  Six of the inmates were again given the death penalty after receiving new sentencing trials but Buck, who is scheduled to be executed Thursday for a 1995 Harris County double murder, was not afforded a re-sentencing....

In the other death-penalty case, Steven Woods, 31, is to die Tuesday for the deaths of a man and a woman who had their throats slashed and had been shot repeatedly near a Denton County golf course in 2002, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram reported.

Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, Woods is to be executed by lethal injection in Huntsville for the killings of Ronald Whitehead, 21, and Bethena Brosz, 19.  It would be the 10th execution this year in Texas.

Recent debates and subsequent poll numbers suggest that the large number of Texas executions under Governor Rick Perry's watch is a kind of merit badge so far serving Gov. Perry well in his pursuit of the GOP nomination for president in 2012.  And yet, as last night's GOP debate revealed, Gov. Perry's rivals are all eager to take shots at the current GOP front-runner.  

Especially with the always sensitive issue of race in the mix in the Buck case, I wonder if anyone will try to make a national political issue of his scheduled execution this week.  In addition, with high-profile condemned inmates like Troy Davis in Georgia and Henry Skinner in Texas making innocence claims as their execution dates approach, I suspect these issues will continue to garner (too?) much attention as long as Gov. Perry is a prominent candidate for the GOP nomination.

Some recent related posts:   

September 13, 2011 in Death Penalty Reforms, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

"The Misuse of Life Without Parole"

The title of this post is the headline of this editorial appearing in today's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

The Supreme Court ruled last year that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life without parole when the crime is short of homicide.  In the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that life without parole shares “some characteristics with death sentences that are shared by no other sentences” in altering “the offender’s life by a forfeiture that is irrevocable.”

The sentence is no less severe when applied to adults.  Yet life without parole, which exists in all states (Alaska’s version is a 99-year sentence), is routinely used, including in cases where the death penalty is not in play and where even an ordinary life sentence might be too harsh.

From 1992 to 2008, the number in prison for life without parole tripled from 12,453 to 41,095, even though violent crime declined sharply all over the country during that period. That increase is also much greater than the percentage rise in offenders serving life sentences.

The American Law Institute, a group composed of judges, lawyers and legal scholars, has wisely called for restricting the use of the penalty to cases “when this sanction is the sole alternative to a death sentence.”...   The overuse of the sentence reflects this excessively punitive era.  But as the institute’s report explains, an “ordinary” life sentence is “a punishment of tremendous magnitude” whose “true gravity should not be undervalued.”  In the past 20 years, the average life term served has grown from 21 years to 29 years before parole.

Interestingly, even the institute’s approach to sentencing reflects the times. In 1962, when it last revised its Model Penal Code on sentencing, which is a blueprint for states to follow in shaping their laws, the group called for prisoners sentenced to life to be considered for parole after 1 to 10 years.  Now the group calls for them to be reviewed by a judge within 15 years, with the expectation that many will “never regain their freedom.”

Still, the group’s view about the proper relationship between crime and punishment is dispassionate and correct.  A fair-minded society should revisit life sentences and decide whether an offender deserves to remain in prison or be released on parole.  And a fair-minded society should not sentence anyone to life without parole except as an alternative to the death penalty.

September 13, 2011 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

September 12, 2011

Lawyers spar in briefing before Rajaratnam's sentencing for insider trading

This New York Times piece, headlined "Rajaratnam Lawyers Call Sentence Request ‘Grotesquely Severe’," reports on the last round of briefing before the scheduled sentencing of convicted trader Raj Rajaratnam.  Here are some details:

Federal prosecutors and lawyers for Raj Rajaratnam filed their second round of sentencing briefs on Friday, setting the stage for later this month when a federal judge will announce the former hedge fund manager’s prison term.

Mr. Rajaratnam is set to appear before Judge Richard J. Holwell in Federal District Court in Manhattan on Sept. 27.  The government has requested a term of 19 and a half to 24 and a half years.  “Rajaratnam is arguably the most egregious offender of the insider trading laws prosecuted to date,” federal prosecutors said in their court filing.

Defense lawyers said the government is overreaching by requesting a “grotesquely severe” sentence. “The government asks the court to ignore Raj Rajaratnam the human being and to sentence a caricature instead,” Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers said. “This court’s role is not to validate a prosecutorial public relations effort, nor is it to single out one man to serve as the whipping boy for Wall Street misdeeds.”

In May, a jury convicted Mr. Rajaratnam, the co-founder of the Galleon Group hedge fund. He was found guilty of generating illegal gains of $64 million by trading on confidential information about publicly traded companies including Intel and Goldman Sachs.

Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld made several arguments in asking Judge Holwell for leniency.  They said that the illegal trades in question accounted for only 1 percent of his trading activity.  They argue that the sentence is disproportionate to the sentences imposed in other insider trading cases, and greater than the average sentence for violent crimes, including kidnapping and sexual abuse.  They also insist that the government’s requested sentence “would guarantee Mr. Rajaratnam’s death in prison” because of the 54-year-old’s medical issues.

The government urged Judge Holwell to reject the arguments presented by Mr. Rajaratnam’s lawyers.  On the issue of the Mr. Rajaratnam’s health, the government challenged the defense to disclose exactly what medical issues would justify a lenient sentence.

I found the defense reply sentencing memo, which runs more than 50 pages, available at this link.  I cannot yet find a link to the Government's filing.

September 12, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"One Book, Two Sentences: Ex Post Facto Considerations of the One-Book Rule after United States v. Kumar"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece by Andrew Adams appearing now on SSRN.   The piece discusses what I view as one of the most challenging enduring doctrinal issues still unresolved in the wake of Booker, and here is the abstract:

This article addresses the ongoing discord among the Courts of Appeals with respect to the implications of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines’ “One-Book Rule” and its constitutionality under the Ex Post Facto Clause.  A recent decision by the Second Circuit, United States v. Kumar, produced the most extreme position in a three-way split among the circuits by holding that the application of a single Guidelines manual to multiple offenses -- even offenses predating that manual’s publication -- is always permissible under the Ex Post Facto Clause.  The issue brings together two separate and difficult areas of jurisprudence applying the Ex Post Facto Clause: the permissibility of allowing one crime to “trigger” heightened punishments for previous crimes, and the ongoing circuit split over the Ex Post Facto Clause application to the Sentencing Guidelines.

The article explores the history of the application of the Ex Post Facto Clause in order to establish that, contrary to the assertions of courts and commentators, the single concern of the Ex Post Facto Clause has been putting people on notice of the consequences of their actions.  The article then argues that Kumar, though an outlier amongst the circuits, was indeed correct in its constitutional analysis of the One-Book rule. Nevertheless, the same constitutional concepts at work in Kumar ultimately imply that the One-Book rule runs counter to the goals of the Sentencing Guidelines themselves -- uniformity of sentencing --even if its application is ultimately constitutional.  The article concludes by advancing two potential resolutions to the problems left unresolved by Kumar, the Courts of Appeals, or the Sentencing Guidelines themselves.

September 12, 2011 in Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Police and prosecutors lamenting juve crime wave in Florida

Any and everyone down in Florida (whether for a football game or a GOP debate tonight) apparently needs to be on the watch for teenage career criminals, at least according to this recent South Florida Sun-Sentinel report headlined "Hard-core juveniles at heart of property crime wave."  (Hat tip: The Crime Report).   Here is the start of the report:

A new type of career criminal is emerging — neighborhood teens. They're breaking into cars, burglarizing homes and robbing people on the street.

Police and prosecutors across South Florida say they are seeing hard-core youth committing burglaries and robberies over and over again and that they are largely helpless to stop what's happening.  Some have been arrested dozens of times in the span of their short life, often while they are on probation or awaiting trial for earlier charges.

In just Fort Lauderdale, a Police Department crime analysis shows that a small group of teens — just 50 youths; some as young as 13 — were charged with almost 700 crimes last year.  They accounted for more than half of all the juvenile arrests in the city. Police brass believe the youths are partly to blame for a recent increase in property crime.

Fort Lauderdale is not alone.  Prosecutors in Palm Beach County were recently surprised when a youth who faced more than a dozen burglary and property crime charges was sentenced to about six months in a state residential treatment facility.

Then, there was the case last week of a 15-year-old from Pompano Beach.  He was charged with robbing two people, punching a behavioral specialist at school and throwing rocks at cars and houses.  Despite a rap sheet that included previous cases of assault and theft, the teen was sentenced to probation and 80 hours of community service.

"We aren't talking about kids arrested for the first time and whether they can be rehabilitated," Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Frank Adderley said.  "These are prolific offenders, and there is no incentive for them to stop.  They have no fear and know the justice system is a revolving door."

The concern comes even though Florida has long had a get-tough reputation on juvenile offenders.  The state has come under intense criticism for incarcerating high numbers of youths and doling out more life sentences to juveniles for non-murder cases than all other states combined.

Still, prosecutors in Broward and Palm Beach counties say teens who commit property crime usually are sentenced to probation.  At most, they are sent to a residential treatment facility for about six months.  Juveniles also cannot be held for more than 21 days while awaiting trial regardless of the charges or their history and then have limited state supervision.

Dare one even suggest that this new Floridian juve crime problem is, perhaps just in some very indirect way, somehow a consequence of the Supreme Court's ruling in Graham prohibiting LWOP for even repeat juve nonhomicide offenses?  I would be very skepitcal of anyone making such a causal claim, but it is hard not to think of the Graham Eighth Amendment ruling in light of this press report.

September 12, 2011 in Assessing Graham and its aftermath, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Will tonight's Tea Party GOP Debate discuss costly government programs like the drug war and mass incarceration?

Teapartydebatebanner I am genuinely excited and intrigued that tonight's scheduled GOP debate in Florida is co-sponsored by the Tea Party Express.  (It is also co-sponsored by CNN, which has me decidedly less excited and intrigued.)  Though Social Security and health care and the economy are sure to be the main topics for discussion, I am (naively?) hopeful that the tea party involvement might prompt at least a little bit of criminal justice discussion.

This debate page on the Tea Party Express website provides notable context for its sponsorship and involvement (with my own emphasis added):

The Tea Party Debate is a truly historic, first-of-its-kind event that will bring conservative candidates for President together to discuss tea party principles, and determine which candidate has the best solutions to lead the United States of America and her people into greater freedom and prosperity.

The debate demonstrates that the tea party, which began as a small grassroots movement, has grown tremendously in size and influence to become a powerful force in American politics.  The Tea Party Debate will focus only on the core principles and values of the tea party movement: limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility....

The Tea Party Debate has tremendous significance because it is powered by engaged tea party activists. The Tea Party Debate will be coordinated by Tea Party Express and CNN, with participation and involvement from co-host local tea party groups in every state across the country.  The questions asked of the candidates will all come from the tea party groups and their members — to ensure the debate is about the issues that matter most to the tea party movement.

The poorly-considered and poorly-delivered question about the death penalty from Brian Williams to Governor Rick Perry at the last debate (lamented here) has me exicted to learn that tea party groups  — and not the "lamestream" media — are to ensure questions in this debate focus on the "core principles and values of the tea party movement: limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility."  And yet, as the title of this post highlights, I am unsure (but perhaps foolishly hopeful) that at least a few debate questions tonight might reflect the application of these Tea Party "core principles" to our modern, massive and costly, government-run criminal justice systems and programs.

Regular readers know that I believe that anyone with a truly serious and sustained commitment to "limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility" must start asking a number of tough questions about huge federal and state government spending on the drug war and mass incarceration.   Here, as just a couple of examples, is how these tough questions might find expression in the tonight's Tea Party Debate:

Though I would love to hear the GOP candidates' response to all of these questions, I will be pleasantly surprised if even a single question about the drug war or big-government criminal justice spending comes up tonight.  If there are not any such questions during the Tea Party Debate, I will continue to wodern if the "core principles and values of the tea party movement" really are "limited government, free markets, and fiscal responsibility."

Some recent and older related posts:   

September 12, 2011 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (21) | TrackBack

A Fifth Circuit reminder that not all federal defendants like the guidelines being merely advisory

One (of many) under-discussed aspects of the post-Booker system is that, in percentage terms, the number of above-guideline sentences have gone up more than the number of below-guideline sentences since the guidelines became adviosry.  Roughly speaking, though the number of below-guideline sentences have increased about 50% post-Booker, the number of above-guideline sentences have increased nearly 100% post-Booker.  

Though the absolute number of above-guideline sentences remain relatively small, the decision late last week from the Fifth Circuit in US v. Pizzolato, No. 10-30729 (5th Cir. Sept. 9, 2011) (available here), provides a useful reminder that not all federal defendants benefit from the guidelines now being merely advisory.  Here is how the Pizzolato opinion starts:

Defendant-Appellant Matthew B. Pizzolato pleaded guilty to multiple crimes related to his conduct in running a fraudulent “Ponzi” scheme. The plea agreement recommended an applicable sentencing range of 151 to 188 months under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (the “Guidelines”).  The district court disregarded the plea agreement’s recommendation and imposed the statutory maximum sentence of 360 months.  Appellant argues that the Government breached the plea agreement by providing the district court with facts and arguments supporting a longer sentence than the parties agreed upon.  We find no merit to defendant’s arguments and affirm.

September 12, 2011 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

An interesting update on Senator Webb's (so-far failed) last crusade

It has been quite some since I blogged about Senator Jim Webb's proposal for creating a national crime commission (which, as reported here, was introduced as a Senate bill way back in March 2009).  I had assumed that Senator Webb's pending retirement was one of many reasons why the Senate was likely to pass Webb's bill.  However, this new Newsweek piece, headlined "Jim Webb's Last Crusade," not only explains the genesis of Webb's proposal but also suggests it may still have some life in it:

“The problem with Congress is that you can get stalled solving any one small aspect of this problem,” Webb says.  “Crack alone took 16 years.”  At the same time, he reasoned that sweeping legislation would polarize rather than galvanize, and would become a target for Republicans and an albatross for Democrats.  Webb settled, instead, on a stepping-stone strategy: a bipartisan panel tasked with conducting a head-to-toe review of the U.S. criminal-justice system and then recommending cost-effective, data-driven, state-based reforms.  Asked about the obvious objection — that legislators will simply ignore whatever inconvenient truths his blue-ribbon board exhumes — Webb is unmoved.  “We’re not looking for a debating society here,” he snaps.  “This is a $14 million bet.  And the alternative — addressing one piece at a time — doesn’t work.”

For the past two and a half years, Webb’s legislation has lingered in Senate limbo; Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn blocked the initial version, and a later iteration was included in last year’s failed omnibus spending package.  (A mirror bill passed the House in 2010.) But time may be on Webb’s side.  Initially, conservatives “assumed this was all about drugs,” the senator says, “so there was hesitation.”  As the recovery faltered, however, Republicans began to realize that prison spending, which is the fastest-growing state budget item behind Medicaid, was ripe for a trim.  As a result, influential GOP governors such as Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels are now working to reduce recidivism, soften sentences, and save money in their home states, while Right on Crime, a new conservative group backed by Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, and Grover Norquist, is championing reform on the national stage.  “People who would’ve been skeptical have gotten on board,” says Webb, noting that he has convinced Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Jeff Sessions, and Orrin Hatch to support his bill.  “And deficits brought them in.”  The fact that America’s violent-crime rate has continued to decline during the recession — it’s now at its lowest level in 40 years — only helps Webb’s cause, as does his looming retirement.  “There was a lot of concern among Republicans about whether passing this bill would help me win reelection,” he says, grinning. “So that’s off the table.”...

Webb believes he has “two thirds” of the Senate on his side, and that his only remaining roadblock is “getting the bill to the floor.”  He’s probably right: so far, his plan has earned the backing of 39 cosponsors and more than 100 outside organizations, including the National Sheriff’s Association, and President Obama has been “supportive.” (In February they “discussed doing it as a presidential commission” should the bill fail.)  But even if the National Criminal Justice Commission Act were to pass tomorrow, its author would leave office long before any recommendations rolled in.  The timing suggests a last crusade of sorts: an old soldier’s final fight.  On his way out of the Fairfax facility, Webb dismisses this interpretation with a characteristic grunt.  “I don’t do last acts,” he says.  But it is clear, as he continues, that criminal-justice reform has, for him, become something larger than just another piece of legislation. “I didn’t do this for political reasons,” Webb says. “I’m a novelist, basically. What do you do with a novel?  You take a complex issue and you think your way through it.  I’ve taken on the same types of issues as a senator and worked to sort them out.  This is one that needs to be done.”

Some related older posts:

September 12, 2011 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 11, 2011

Open thread for reflections on crime and punishment a decade after 9/11/01

9-11_tribute I am inclined to call the terror attacks of 9/11 the worst and most horrible of crimes in US history.  And yet I know it remains somewhat controversial to call the mass murder conspiracy that was carried out 10 years ago today merely a "crime" rather than something else.  However, other than a "terror attack," I am not sure what label provides an accurate description of the mass murder that too place other than horrific crime.

Whatever one's opinion on this issue of semantics, I know that many readers surely have thoughts today about US crime and punishment. These thoughts may be a reaction to, and/or are informed by, what happened 10 years ago and also US and international responses to this mass murder over the last decade.  

My thoughts are too scattered and sad to justify a useful post on this topic or really on other topics on his day of remembrance.  But if others have fitting thoughts to share, or perhaps just want a place to express their grief or their optimism, this post is intended to open a thread for discussion of these and related topics.

September 11, 2011 in Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack