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March 3, 2013

Drug courts come to federal system (and New York Times' front page)

Y-jp-drug-court-articleInlineRegular readers know about the drug courts movement and its (varied but still very important) success as an alternative means to process certain drug offenders through the modern criminal justice system.  But, thanks to this big new front-page article in today's New York Times, which is headlined "Outside Box, Federal Judges Offer Addicts a Free Path," the notable new story of drug court development in the federal criminal justice system is due to get a lot more attention.  Here are extended passages from the Gray Lady's important coverage of this important federal sentencing story:

Federal judges around the country are teaming up with prosecutors to create special treatment programs for drug-addicted defendants who would otherwise face significant prison time, an effort intended to sidestep drug laws widely seen as inflexible and overly punitive.

The Justice Department has tentatively embraced the new approach, allowing United States attorneys to reduce or even dismiss charges in some drug cases.  The effort follows decades of success for “drug courts” at the state level, which legal experts have long cited as a less expensive and more effective alternative to prison for dealing with many low-level repeat offenders.

But it is striking that the model is spreading at the federal level, where judges have increasingly pushed back against rules that restrict their ability to make their own determination of appropriate sentences.  So far, federal judges have instituted programs in California, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington.  About 400 defendants have been involved nationwide.

In Federal District Court in Brooklyn on Thursday, Judge John Gleeson issued an opinion praising the new approach as a way to address swelling prison costs and disproportionate sentences for drug trafficking.  “Presentence programs like ours and those in other districts mean that a growing number of courts are no longer reflexively sentencing federal defendants who do not belong in prison to the costly prison terms recommended by the sentencing guidelines,” Judge Gleeson wrote.

The opinion came a year after Judge Gleeson, with the federal agency known as Pretrial Services, started a program that made achieving sobriety an incentive for drug-addicted defendants to avoid prison.... 

The new approach is being prompted in part by the Obama administration, which previously supported legislation that scaled back sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine. The Justice Department has supported additional changes to the federal sentencing guidelines to permit the use of drug or mental health treatment as an alternative to incarceration for certain low-level offenders and changed its own policies to make those options more available.

“We recognize that imprisonment alone is not a complete strategy for reducing crime,” James M. Cole, the deputy attorney general, said in a statement.  “Drug courts, re-entry courts and other related programs along with enforcement are all part of the solution.”...

The development of drug courts may meet resistance from some Republicans in Congress. “It is important that courts give deference to Congressional authority over sentencing,” Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, a member and former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.  He said sentencing should not depend “on what judge happens to decide the case or what judicial circuit the defendant happens to be in.”

At the state level, pretrial drug courts have benefited from bipartisan support, with liberals supporting the programs as more focused on rehabilitation, and conservatives supporting them as a way to cut spending.  Under the model being used in state and federal courts, defendants must accept responsibility for their crimes and agree to receive drug treatment and other social services and attend regular meetings with judges who monitor their progress.  In return for successful participation, they receive a reduced sentence or no jail time at all.  If they fail, they are sent to prison....

In interviews, the federal judges who run the other programs pointed to a mix of reasons for their involvement. Judge Ricardo S. Martinez ran a state drug court in Seattle before he was appointed to the federal bench.  “People that have a serious addiction, you can put them in custody, but the minute you put them back in the community, they go back to the same thing and lo and behold you see them again,” Judge Martinez said in an interview.

Some of the most pointed criticism of the status quo has come from Judge Gleeson, a former federal prosecutor.  The drug court he helped set up is open to defendants who committed a range of nonviolent crimes, like fraud and selling prescription pills, and whose addictions fueled their actions.

In a 35-page opinion he issued this week, he criticized the Justice Department for charging defendants with drug offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences, urged the Sentencing Commission to reduce the guideline range for many drug offenses and called for more programs that divert defendants from prison time.  The opinion chronicled the case of three graduates of the drug court....

Loretta E. Lynch, the United States attorney in Brooklyn, said she backed the program because drug courts elsewhere had lowered recidivism rates. “Our overall strategy of law enforcement and crime prevention isn’t just incarceration,” Ms. Lynch said.

At a sentencing hearing for Ms. Leitch last month, a prosecutor vacated her guilty plea and agreed to dismiss the charges if she did not use drugs or get arrested for 18 months. After the hearing, Judge Gleeson offered some encouraging words for the defendant, and then a hug. “I don’t know them as just the judge,” Ms. Leitch said later. “People see judges as the bad guy. They get deeper. They get to know who you are.”

Judge Gleeson's 35-page opinion in US v. Leitch et al, 11-CR-00609 (EDNY Feb. 28, 2013), not only merits NY Times front-oage coverage, but also a read in full. I have uploaded that opinion here.

Download Gleeson SOR in Nunez.Leitch

Some older and newer related posts about drug court programs and research:

March 3, 2013 at 02:04 PM | Permalink

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Bill Otis has to be choking on this news with his stab'em, slab'em and lock'em up and throw away the key mindset that he presents on this blog...

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Mar 4, 2013 11:19:48 AM

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