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May 21, 2012

Celebrity federal drug sentencing appeal prompts doctors' brief urging treatment over punishment

This morning's New York Times has this article, headlined "Doctors Seek New Approach for Jailed Addicts," discussing a notable appellate brief filed in a high-profile federal drug sentencing case.  Here are the interesting details:

A group of prominent addiction doctors has mounted a quiet legal campaign on behalf of Cameron Douglas, the troubled son of the actor Michael Douglas, in hopes of finding a sympathetic ear for their view that drug addiction is best handled with more treatment, not more prison time.

In December, Mr. Douglas, who is 33 and already serving a five-year federal sentence for drug distribution and heroin possession, was sentenced to an additional four and a half years after being caught behind bars with heroin and Suboxone, a prescription medication used to blunt the pull of opioid addiction.

And it was that sentence, believed to be one of the harshest ever handed down by a federal judge for drug possession for an incarcerated prisoner, that prompted about two dozen addiction doctors and groups to file a brief on behalf of Mr. Douglas, whose case is under review by a panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Their argument is that Mr. Douglas, who began injecting heroin daily in his mid-20s, is a textbook example “of someone suffering from untreated opioid dependence” and that more prison time would do nothing to solve his underlying problems.  “My outrage is as a physician for someone who has a medical condition which has been ignored,” said one of the brief’s signees, Dr. Robert Newman, the director of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild Chemical Dependency Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center. “What the judge has imposed has zero benefits for the community and has staggering consequences for society.”

The sentence, handed down by Judge Richard M. Berman of Federal District Court in Manhattan, came after heroin and Suboxone was found in a cell Mr. Douglas was occupying at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, while testifying against a former drug supplier.  Shortly after that, he pleaded guilty to one count of drug possession by a federal prisoner.

Such charges are unusual; most inmates caught with drugs behind bars are sanctioned administratively with loss of prison privileges, said Daniel N. Abrahamson, the director of legal affairs with the Drug Policy Alliance, the drug reform group that drafted the brief. Those punishments have also been levied on Mr. Douglas, whose penalties have included stints of isolated confinement in his cell and loss of family visits.

At a sentencing in December, prosecutors asked for an additional term of anywhere from 18 to 24 months, according to Mr. Douglas’s appeal.  But Judge Berman made it clear that his patience with Mr. Douglas was done, saying the inmate had been “continuously reckless, disruptive and noncompliant” and had repeatedly squandered opportunities and refused to obey the law.

Mr. Douglas would seem an unlikely candidate for a cause célèbre, as the scion of an acting family.  But Mr. Abrahamson said the case had little to do with Mr. Douglas’s fame, though he acknowledged that few inmates have the resources needed to wage an appeal in federal court.  He said the goal of the brief was not only to help obtain a reduction, or dismissal, of Mr. Douglas’s 54-month sentence, but also to have the appellate panel make a statement on “how the federal corrections systems, in particular, but corrections in general have for a long time ignored the treatment need of their inmates.”

Mr. Douglas’s travails since his arrest, including episodes in which drugs were smuggled to him while he was incarcerated, have been tabloid fodder, something Howard Josepher, another of the brief’s signees, said has probably made efforts at recovery harder.  “A guy like this gets into prison, he’s got star power, so people inside actually they want to get close to him,” said Mr. Josepher, who runs the New York-based Exponents, which offers drug treatment programs.  “And they do that by offering him drugs.”

Mr. Josepher, 73, an ex-convict and heroin user who said he has been clean for 45 years, said he hoped Mr. Douglas’s case would highlight what he called a contradictory approach to drug abuse by the criminal justice system.  “The various powers that be view addiction as a disease,” he said. “But they treat people who have this illness as criminals.

I will provide a link to this "doctors' brief" if and when I can track down a copy.  This article makes me hopeful that the Second Circuit might issue an important opinion concerning reasonableness review in this case, though it is often hard to predict whether and when high-profile cases will produce truly consequential court rulings.

Prior posts concerning Cameron Douglas's federal sentencings:

May 21, 2012 at 10:59 AM | Permalink

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"Mr. Douglas’s travails since his arrest, including episodes in which drugs were smuggled to him while he was incarcerated, have been tabloid fodder, something Howard Josepher, another of the brief’s signees, said has probably made efforts at recovery harder."

Q: Why does the defendant's taking the considerable trouble of arranging for drugs to be smuggled into his cell so he could continue to get high count as his "travail"?

A: Because the word "travail" has no meaning except that ascribed to it by the NYT.

Q: Why do we have the passive voice here, as in, "drugs were smuggled to him..."?

A: Because the active voice would read: "He arranged with a defense lawyer to smuggle drugs to him in her bra."

But I'm glad these holier-than-thou doctors, not to mention the reporter, are willing to airbrush all that.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2012 10:06:41 PM

Mario A. Machado, Esq.: Criminal Defense Attorney, practicing in Miami, Florida.

Here's the link to the "doctor's brief:"

http://www.drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/U.S.%20v.%20Douglas%2C%20Brief%20of%20Amici%20Curiae%2C%202nd%20Cir.%20%285-3-12%29.pdf

Kudos on the Blog, Professor.

Posted by: Mario A. Machado, Esq. | May 22, 2012 12:53:58 PM

Mr. Bill Otis speaks of the Doctors and Reporters as follows,"But I'm glad these holier-than-thou doctors, not to mention the reporter, are willing to airbrush all that." As an interested reader and citizen of the United States I can only say to Otis, that is the pot calling the kettle black!

Posted by: Kathy Patalano | May 5, 2013 5:29:22 PM

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