Monday, December 10, 2012

"Marijuana: A Winning GOP Issue?" ... and a lost 2012 Romney opportunity

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable recent commentary by Nate Cohn at The New Republic, which echoes some points that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog.  Here are excerpts from the commentary:

Young voters might be pro-Obama, but they're even more pro-marijuana.  While 60 percent of 18-29 year olds supported the president's reelection, the CBS News and Quinnipiac polls, as well as the Washington and Colorado exit polls, show an impressive 65-70 percent of voters under age 30 supporting marijuana legalization.  The rise of the millennial generation — not persuasion of older voters — is primarily responsible for marijuana’s growing strength in national polls, with 65 to 70 percent of seniors remaining opposed to marijuana legalization.  With generational change already responsible for the GOP's national struggles, the party could really use a break from cultural questions that pit its elderly base against millennials.

Fortunately for Republicans, they actually have a rare opportunity here to seize the middle ground and appeal to younger voters.  While the Republican rank-and-file still oppose outright marijuana legalization, the issue could fit within the party's ostensible state-rights philosophy.  GOP voters seem to agree.  CBS News found that 65 percent of Republicans support allowing state governments to determine the legality of marijuana, compared to just 29 percent who believed the federal government should decide.  Rand Paul has already suggested moderation on marijuana legalization as a helpful step toward coping with generational change.

But Republican advocates of marijuana moderation don't have an easy task.  Just because GOP voters might accept the state-rights frame provided by a poll question doesn’t mean that the frame would prevail in a debate.  The exit polls in Colorado and Washington, as well as recent Quinnipiac polls, suggest that about 65-70 percent of conservatives, white evangelical Christians, and Republicans are opposed to marijuana legalization.  If the Obama administration allowed Colorado and Washington to violate federal law, moderation might become even more difficult as conservative media launch a crusade against a lawless administration....

If Republicans don’t seize the middle ground on marijuana legalization, Democrats will eventually use the issue to their advantage.  Not only will Democratic primary voters demand it, they will have a lot to gain.  As more younger, pro-marijuana voters enter the electorate and replace their elders, support for marijuana legalization will continue to increase, absent intervening events that reshape public opinion, like a disastrous ending to the experiments in Colorado and Washington.  If marijuana becomes another partisan social issue, like gay marriage or abortion, it will make it even more difficult for Republicans to appeal to millennial voters.

Regular readers know I think these sentiments are spot on: way back in April 2012, I urged in posts and in a Daily Beast commentary that then-candidate Mitt Romney should embrace "Right on Crime" rhetoric about the need for criminal justice reforms and stress a states-rights approach to pot policy as a means to appeal to young voters.  I further stressed something missing in Cohn's discussion: the unique and important opportunity for the GOP to use crminal justice reform in general (and pot policy in particular) to stress its pro-liberty and small-government themes in a manner that should be especially salient and menaingful to minority voters. 

I very much doubt that conservatives and white evangelical Christians will be too troubled by a robust and honest GOP-led conversation about the real costs and benefits of pot prohibition.  Meanwhile, I genuinely believe many minority voters (young and old, men and women) will be quite thrilled to be supportive of any and all GOP leaders who, in that conversation, stress the considerable (and often disparate) harms to minority communities from low-level arrests and criminal justice entanglements that can flow from potential selective enforcement of pot prohibition.  In other words, if GOP leaders were to make a concern for racial justice an express feature of any effort to "seize the middle ground" with respect to pot policy, they might benefits politically in a number of diverse ways.

Taking these musing just a step further, I cannot help but (foolishly?) suggest that Mitt Romney might have actually won the November 2012 election if he had headed my criminal justice advice way back in April 2012.  As highlighted in this Nate Silver number-crunching post last month, Romney won every red state save one (North Carolina) by 8 or more percentage point.  It is hard to believe Romney loses any of those states by embracing "Right on Crime" rhetoric and stressing a states-rights approach to pot policy.  Meanwhile, Prez Obama eeked out razor thin victories in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado, all of which are states in which a targeted states-rights message on pot policy and criminal justice reform could have alone possibly moved the needle a bit.  And, even more important, any move to the center on criminal justice would have usefully suggested that Romney was an independent thinker who would not just rely on the tired-old-GOP playbook on social issues. 

Gosh, it sure is fun and easy to be a pundit giving advice to the guy who lost so I can now say "you should have just listened to me...."   Perhaps this could even get me a gig on FoxNews in place of Dick Morris.

A few recent and older related posts: 

December 10, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Republicans a victim of safer streets"

The title of this post is the headlined of this notable recent commentary by Charles Lane in the Washington Post.  Here are some excerpts:

Americans were unhappy about many issues as 2012 began. In one area, though, contentment reigned.  By a margin of 50 to 45 percent, a Gallup Poll reported, the public felt “satisfied” with the nation’s policies on crime.

It was a well-founded sentiment. In 2010, Americans were less than a third as likely to be victimized by violent crime as they had been in 1994; the murder rate had declined by roughly half.  Today we are approaching the low murder rates of the 1950s.

For the Republican Party, this is a triumph — and a disaster, as the 2012 election results proved.  It is a GOP triumph, because the enormous decline in crime over the past two decades coincided with the widespread adoption of such conservative ideas as “broken windows” policing and mandatory minimum sentences.

Whether such policies actually caused the crime decline is a separate, and much-debated, social-science question.  The important thing is that many people believe that they did.  As a result, conservative crime doctrine remains dominant in politics, with the two parties differing mainly over how to control and punish unlawful conduct most cost-effectively.

Hence the 2012 disaster for the GOP.  Beginning with Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign for president in 1968, Republicans pretty much owned the issue.  Fear of street crime — and its association, accurate or not, with post-’60s moral license, liberal Democratic policies and the rise of an urban black population — converted many a white working-class Democrat into a Republican....

As the first Democratic president since Clinton, and the first African American one ever, Barack Obama has done essentially nothing to reverse Clinton’s crime and welfare policies. He signed a bill reducing the disparity in penalties for crack and powder cocaine possession under federal law, a modest reform that enjoyed wide Republican support in Congress....

We’ll never know whether 2012 would have played out the same way if crime had staged a comeback during the recession, as many expected.  Certainly in the past, crime was as important to the Republican brand as abortion and gay rights, if not more important.  Safer streets, though, have blunted what was once a sharp wedge issue, and, perhaps, freed the electorate to consider social and moral issues in a different light.

In the crime-ravaged ’70s and ’80s, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan acted out Middle America’s fantasy of a no-holds-barred war on crime.  By the time an elderly Eastwood appeared at the 2012 GOP convention, though, violent crime was a fading specter. And when he led the crowd in a chorus of “Go ahead, make my day,” it was history repeating itself as farce.

He should have said, “We need a new issue.”

I suggest that Republicans consider for their new issue a call to end federal pot prohibition, replaced by state-level regulation and experimentation on marijuana reform.  Among other benefits for Republicans, if an end to pot prohibition really does lead to an increase in crime and related harms, it can better trade of the political rhetoric of crime yet again.

November 27, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, November 26, 2012

Spotlighting connection between mental illness and extreme three-strike sentences

Yesterday's New York Times ran this interesting editorial by Brent Staples concerning the impact and import of the recent reform of California's three-strikes law.  The piece has a particular focus on the role mental illness may play in many of the most troubling sentencing outcomes resulting from extra tough recidivism sentencing enhancements.  The piece is headlined "California Horror Stories and the 3-Strikes Law," and here are excerpts:

Californians brought a close to a shameful period in the state’s history when they voted this month to soften the infamous “three strikes” sentencing law.  The original law was approved by ballot initiative in 1994, not long after a parolee kidnapped and murdered a 12-year-old girl.  It was sold to voters as a way of getting killers, rapists and child molesters off the streets for good.

As it turned out, three strikes created a cruel, Kafkaesque criminal justice system that lost all sense of proportion, doling out life sentences disproportionately to black defendants.  Under the statute, the third offense that could result in a life sentence could be any number of low-level felony convictions, like stealing a jack from the back of a tow truck, shoplifting a pair of work gloves from a department store, pilfering small change from a parked car or passing a bad check.  In addition to being unfairly punitive, the law drove up prison costs.

The revised law preserves the three-strikes concept, but it imposes a life sentence only when the third felony offense is serious or violent, as defined in state law.  It also authorizes the courts to resentence thousands of people who were sent away for low-level third offenses and who present no danger to the public.

The resentencing process is shaping up as a kind of referendum on the state’s barbaric treatment of mentally ill defendants, who make up a substantial number of those with life sentences under the three-strikes rule.  It is likely that many were too mentally impaired to assist their lawyers at the time of trial.

Mentally ill inmates are nearly always jailed for behaviors related to their illness. Nationally, they account for about one-sixth of the prison population.  The ratio appears to be higher among three-strike lifers in California.  According to a 2011 analysis of state data by Stanford Law School’s Three Strikes Project, nearly 40 percent of these inmates qualify as mentally ill and are receiving psychiatric services behind bars....

Asked about the relationship of mental illness and three-strikes prosecutions, Michael Romano, director of the Stanford project, responded, “In my experience, every person who has been sentenced to life in prison for a nonserious, nonviolent crime like petty theft suffers from some kind of mental illness or impairment — from organic brain disorders, to schizophrenia, to mental retardation, to severe P.T.S.D.,” or post-traumatic stress disorder. Nearly all had been abused as children, he pointed out.  All had been homeless for extended periods, and many were illiterate. None had graduated from high school.

In other words, these were discarded people who could be made to bear the brunt of this brutal law without risk of public backlash.... And as more cases unfold in court, judges, lawyers and Californians should look back with shame at the injustice the state inflicted on a vulnerable population that often presented little or no danger to the public.

Some recent related posts:

November 26, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, November 23, 2012

First California prisoner released under reformed three-strikes has lots of voters to thank

It is poetic that the reform of California's three-strikes law approved overwhelmingly by state voters earlier this month produced the first resentencing and prisoner release just before the Thanksgiving long weekend.  Here are the details from this local report headlined "Revised California 3 Strikes law: Man becomes first to be re-sentenced under Prop. 36":

A man sentenced to 25 years to life in prison under California's "three strikes" law in 1996 was re-sentenced Wednesday to about 15 years, and released based on credit for time served.

Kenneth Glenn Corley, 62, became the first person to be re-sentenced under Proposition 36, passed earlier this month by California voters.  When Corley was convicted of drug possession for sale, he had two felony "strikes" for burglary and attempted burglary and was given the mandatory 25-years-to-life sentence on Oct. 8, 1996.

He was re-sentenced Wednesday by San Diego Superior Court Judge David Danielsen. "Many prosecutors in the state, including our office, were already working to address the unintended consequences of the 'three strikes' law,'" said San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. "Now that Prop. 36 has passed, the work we have already done to review these cases should make the process of assessing the petitions go more smoothly."

Justin Brooks, with the California Innocence Project, told 10News, "No violent offenses; it's basically a guy who had a drug addiction and committed a lot of property crimes and got sentenced to prison for the rest of his life."  Brooks has been working on Corley's case for nearly two years.  He has lined up a job for Corley and even arranged for him to live in a local halfway house....

Prosecutors, defense attorneys and San Diego Superior Court officials are preparing for 200 to 300 requests from state inmates seeking reductions in their prison sentences.  A judge will need to determine if the offender poses an unreasonable risk to public safety before permitting a re-sentencing....

Proposition 36 modified the law to require a sentence of 25 years to life only if the third strike was a serious or violent felony, or upon a conviction for another qualifying factor, such as use of a deadly weapon or intent to inflict injury. It is retroactive to the extent that it allows certain inmates whose third strikes were nonviolent, non-serious felonies and are serving life terms to seek a new sentencing hearing.... Under the three strikes law, 8,800 prisoners have been sentenced to life in prison, and 3,000 of them are eligible for release under Prop. 36.

I suppose the only disturbing part of this story is that shoppers in California now need to worry about one more shopper in line for the big Black Friday sales.

November 23, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Monday, November 19, 2012

Female voters seen as key to success of pot reform initiatives

The Atlantic has this notable new article reviewing the electorial success of the marijuana initiatives in Colorado and Washington.  The piece is headlined "The Secret Ingredients for Marijuana Legalization: Moms and Hispanics," and here are excerpts:

A few days before last Tuesday's election, New Approach Washington, the group pushing a ballot issue to legalize marijuana in the state, posted its final ad of the campaign. The spot featured a "Washington mom" -- a woman in her mid-40s, sitting on her porch, flanked by pumpkins -- who took the viewer through the assorted restrictions and benefits both minors and businesses would see once the measure, Initiative 502, was implemented: ID checks. Fewer profits for the cartels. Increased funds for schools. More time for police to "focus on violent crime instead."  In short, all of the top concerns that an average mom in the Evergreen State would seem to have about making pot legal.

But New Approach's ad was about more than just capturing the votes of a major demographic -- the same one that helped reelect President Obama and the one that kept GOP Senate hopefuls Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin at bay.  Legalization advocates have found that female support tends to be a leading indicator for marijuana measures. In the case of both California's 2010 and Colorado's 2006 votes, sagging support among women preceded a collapse in men's support too.  In California, for instance, support from women saw a 14-point swing against legalization over the final six weeks, dragging support from men under 50 percent.

"Historically, as soon as women really start to create a [gender] gap, a marijuana measure gets killed," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.  "If women get weak-kneed, the men will start to drop."

Armed with that knowledge about why previous attempts had failed, campaigns in both Washington and Colorado set out to court women . Their efforts appear to have paid off. Both states approved measures legalizing marijuana with the backing of some 55 percent of the electorate.  That was stronger than even proponents expected -- they had been cautiously optimistic about the Washington vote, but the Colorado measure appeared to be fading down the stretch. (Advocates in Oregon, where a marijuana-legalization measure failed on Tuesday, faced larger problems than merely enlisting females -- too little time to canvass, too few funds to spend.)

Convincing women -- mothers, especially -- that legalization wasn't simply about stoners and libertarians was essential to ending blanket prohibition.  They needed to be assured this was sound policy and that their children would not be affected. "We definitely wanted to reach [women]," says Tonia Winchester, the outreach director behind the Yes on I-502 camp.  "We were very much focused on not being a pro-pot campaign but a pro-policy campaign, showing that we could shift resources from incarcerating and focus on programs we knew would work."...

[W]omen aren't the sole demographic pro-legalization camps eyed.  After all, much as Obama's reelection showed that the Anglo-Christian-male bloc has become insufficient for victory -- if, as David Simon wrote, "there is no normal" -- marijuana backers understood they'd need to cultivate their own coalition of communities.

Perhaps predictably, a strong majority of the under-65 crowd showed support for measures in both states, leaving seniors as the sole age-based demographic demurring.  The big surprise came in the ethnic breakdown.  While there isn't sufficient polling on non-whites in Washington to draw conclusions, Colorado -- where the white population split on the measure -- saw Latinos support legalization at a 70 percent rate, double the national rate among the group....

Winchester says her organization also focused efforts on campaigning in Washington's Latino community, meaning that women, youth, and minorities -- the triumvirate that sealed Obama's second term -- played a similarly pivotal role in ending marijuana prohibition in both states....

Now that his organization has arrived at the hemp-lined embankments on the far side of the Rubicon, St. Pierre noted the momentum and demographics were firmly on legalizers' sides. With the victories -- and with the new numbers from a Washington Post national survey showing that 48 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization, the highest number in the history of the poll -- St. Pierre laid out a handful of states that he thinks may be the next to pass outright marijuana legalization, including Vermont and Maine, as well as second attempts in California and Oregon.

November 19, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Effective report on three-strikes reform implementation in San Diego

The San Diego Union-Tribune has this new article headlined "Some prisoners to get out of life sentencing," providing an effective overview on how the initiative-passed reform of California's three-strikes law is going to be implemented in one locality.  Here are excerpts:

Prosecutors, defense lawyers and San Diego Superior Court officials are preparing for about 250 requests from state inmates seeking reductions in their prison sentences after voters approved a ballot measure revising California’s three-strikes law.

Since voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 36 on Nov. 6, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has received a dozen petitions from state prisoners. The county’s Office of the Public Defender, which will handle the bulk of the cases, estimates 243 state prisoners are eligible for resentencing.

Some, but not all, could end up with a chance at getting out from underneath life sentences in state prison.  Not everyone who asks for a new hearing will qualify for one, lawyers said. And for those that do, a sentence reduction will not be automatic.  Judges will still have the final call on whether to reduce the sentence....

Proposition 36, which is retroactive, modified the law to require a sentence of 25 years to life only if the third strike was a serious or violent felony.  It also allows certain inmates whose third strike was a nonviolent, nonserious felony — writing fraudulent checks, for example — and are serving life terms to seek a new sentencing hearing.

Their sentences could be reduced to that of a two-strike defendant.  So, someone who was convicted of a third-strike crime whose normal sentence was four years, and was sentenced under the original law to 25 years to life, could now end up with a sentence of eight years.

But several provisions under the ballot measure would disqualify some inmates who appear to meet that criteria from getting a new hearing, said Deputy District Attorney Lisa Rodriguez, who is working to implement the new law.  Inmates who are registered sex offenders won’t qualify, Rodriguez said.  Prisoners with convictions for rape or child molesting also won’t qualify for a new hearing, even if their final strike was a nonserious felony, she said.  Certain convictions that involved the use of a firearm or drugs also will disqualify inmates, Rodriguez said.

Those who do qualify for a hearing still have to face a judge, who can refuse to resentence an inmate if it is determined doing so presents an “unreasonable risk to public safety.” That clause will likely be the focus of contested hearings where lawyers for inmates will argue against prosecutors opposed to a lighter sentence.  Rodriguez said inmates’ prior convictions and their record of behavior in prison will be part of those hearings....

The first hearings in San Diego County to reduce sentences under the new law are weeks away, Deputy Public Defender Michael Popkins said.  He estimated about 3,000 inmates in the state could qualify for resentencing. Popkins said Proposition 36 has given inmates and their families new hope. Cases identified by his office involve prisoners sentenced as long as 18 years ago, and as recently as two years ago....

Statewide, the measure passed with a resounding 68.8 percent of the vote.  Voters in San Diego County backed the measure by about the same margin, with 67 percent in favor.

I find notable and valuable the reality that an offeners' "record of behavior in prison" will be part of any resentencing proceedings.   I suspect one under-appreciated benefit of any and all retroactive sentencing reforms — whether achieved via new statutes, new sentencing guidelines or Eighth Amendment litigation — is that they create an enduring incentive for even prisoners serving extremely long terms to behave well while incarcerated and to seek out whatever rehabilitation programs are available to them even if they have only limited prospects for release from prison for many decades.

November 18, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Group of Congress members formally urge DOJ and DEA not to bogart pot policy

As reported in this local piece from Seattle, headlined "Rep. Adam Smith asks DOJ to respect state marijuana laws in formal letter," a collection of Democratic members of Congress have sent a request to the US Justice Department and the US Drug Enforcement Administration concerning state marijuana reform efforts. Here are the basics from the press report:

U.S. Rep. Adam Smith and 17 other U.S. Congress members formally asked the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration not to enforce federal drug laws against marijuana use in Washington and Colorado in a letter released Friday. Though both states have made regulated, recreational use of marijuana legal, federal agencies still have the power to enforce a federal ban on the drug.

“We believe that it would be a mistake for the federal government to focus enforcement action on individuals whose actions are in compliance with state law,” says the letter addressed to Attorney General Eric Holder and Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart....

The letter then goes on to ask federal drug law enforcers to allow states such as Washington and Colorado to be “laboratories of democracy” that help progress drug policy nationwide.  “These states have chosen to move from a drug policy that spends millions of dollars turning ordinary Americans into criminals toward one that will tightly regulate the use of marijuana while raising tax revenue to support cash-strapped state and local governments,” the letter says.  “We believe this approach embraces the goals of existing federal marijuana law: to stop international trafficking, deter domestic organized criminal organizations, stop violence associated with the drug trade and protect children.”

The full letter is available at this link.

November 18, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Americans Voting Smarter About Crime, Justice At Polls"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy commentary by Radley Balko at The Huffington Post. Here are excerpts, which close with an especially interesting quote about folks inside the Obama Administration being surprised by some of the election day criminal justice outcomes:

A headline from the Denver Post this week read: "Colorado Drug Force Disbanding." Another from the Seattle Times announced, "220 Marijuana Cases Dismissed In King, Pierce Counties." Just 15 or 20 years ago, headlines like these were unimaginable. But marijuana legalization didn't just win in Washington and Coloardo, it won big.

In Colorado, it outpolled President Barack Obama.  In Washington, Obama beat pot by less than half a percentage point.  Medical marijuana also won in Massachusetts, and nearly won in Arkansas.  (Legalization of pot lost in Oregon, but drug law reformers contend that was due to a poorly written ballot initiative that would basically have made the state a vendor.)

But it wasn't just pot. In California, voters reined in the state's infamous "Three Strikes and You're Out" law, passing a measure that now requires the third offense to be a serious or violent felony before the automatic life sentence kicks in.  The results don't negate the law, but they do take some of the teeth out of it.  And the margin -- the reform passed by more than a 2-to-1 margin -- has significant symbolic value.  Three Strikes was arguably the most high-profile and highly touted of the get-tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. It epitomized the slogan-based approach to criminal justice policy that politicians tended to take during the prison boom.

Eric Sterling served on the House Subcommittee on Crime in the 1980s.  Today, as president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, he works to reform many of the laws he helped create. Sterling is encouraged by what he saw last week. "I definitely think we're seeing a shift in the public opinion," he says. "This election was really a game changing event."...

But Julie Stewart, president of the criminal justice reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, remains skeptical. "I think it’s too early and too easy to say that the electorate has moved away from its love affair with punishment," Stewart says.  "While it’s refreshing to know that voters in the initiative states understand that reforms were necessary and good, I hear from prisoners every day who are being sentenced to decades behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses.  We still have a very long way to go to reach the tipping point that will significantly change our national affection for over-punishment."

Another reason for putting too much emphasis on the election results: Even if the public mood has shifted, Congress is usually way behind.... Politicians at the state and local level have been more willing to embrace reform.  Both Stewart and Sterling say that's because they have no choice. "Governors need to balance budgets," Sterling says....

Stewart says the right will also need to come on board before there's any major changes to the federal system. "I don’t think significant reform could ever happen without conservative leadership," she says. "The crack cocaine sentencing reforms of 2010 would not have happened without Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) support...."

The one thing the 2012 results may do at the federal level is begin to convince some politicians that advocating reform is no longer political suicide.  "This year’s initiatives in California, Colorado and Washington do indicate a changed public perception about punishment and marijuana in those states," Stewart says. "That should give legislators the freedom, if they choose to exercise it, to ease their tough-on-crime positions and not have to worry about surviving the next election."

Sterling agrees. "I think it could give some cover to political leaders who already thought these things but were afraid to say them.  My contacts close to the Obama administration say they were really taken aback by the results in those states.  They didn't expect the vote to be as lopsided as it was. I think they really don't know what to do right now. But when medical marijuana first passed in California 16 years ago, you saw (Clinton Drug Czar) Barry McCaffrey preparing his counterattack within hours.  I haven't heard of anything like that in the works this time around.  I think that's a good sign."

November 16, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Reform advice for Prez Obama's second term at The Crime Report

The folks at The Crime Report have recently posted this group of terrific commentaries with post-election advice for President Obama:

November 16, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Recommended reading | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

California voters appear to be approving three-strikes reform, rejecting death penalty repeal

As of the writing of this post, Election Day has been over for three hours in my time zone and is just about to end in California.  According to the result on this official California webpage with right now just over half of all precincts reporting, Proposition 34 calling for the repeal of California's death penalty is losing the popular vote by 46% to 54% and Proposition 36 calling for the reform of California's severe three-strikes sentencing law is winning the popular vote by 68% to 32%.

Assuming that the precinct which have reported are faily representative, it looks as though the voters in California are going to keep the death penalty on the books and are going to curtail the harshest aspects of the state's recidivism sentencing law.  Though I had predicted these basic outcomes (informed by the generally on-point polling data from the last few weeks on these issues), I am a bit surprised that the death penalty repeal vote is so close and that the three-strikes reform vote is so one-sided.

Ain't democracy grand!

November 7, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Voters call for experimenting with pot in the state laboratories of Colorado and Washington

I thought it would be remarkable and remarkably important if voters in just one state through the ballot initiative process had legalized marijuana.  But, as reported in this NBC News piece headlined "Colorado, Washington approve recreational marijuana use," it appears voters in two states are ready to experiment with ending pot prohibition. Here are the basics:

Voters in Colorado and Washington on Tuesday approved measures allowing adults to use marijuana for any purpose, NBC News projected, marking an historic turning point in the slow-growing acceptance of marijuana usage.

In Massachusetts, voters also approved an initiative allowing people to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, NBC News projected. In Arkansas, a similar initiative failed, according to NBC News projections....

The laws legalizing marijuana for recreational or other purposes could face federal challenges, because marijuana possession is still a federal crime. But so far, the Justice Department has declined to discuss how it might react if the laws pass....

Opponent Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor to the Obama administration and an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s college of medicine, said he was expecting legal challenges at the state and federal level. “This is just the beginning of the legalization conversation, so my advice to people who want to toke up legally or think that they can buy marijuana at a store tomorrow is that we’re a very long way from (that),” Sabet said.

Proponents of the legislation also said they expected some legal wrangling. “It sets up a clear and obvious challenge with the federal government,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, which has fought for years to legalize cannabis.

But proponents also were celebrating what they saw as a turning point in a long-running battle to make marijuana more available to the general public. “We are reaching a real tipping point with cannabis law reform,” said Steve DeAngelo, a longtime advocate for legalizing marijuana and the director of the nation’s largest medical cannbabis dispensary, Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper acknowledged legal challenges but said the state would work to resolve the conflict between federal and state laws. "It's probably going to pass, but it's still illegal on a federal basis. If we can't make it legal here because of federal laws, we certainly want to decriminialize it,” he told NBC’s Brian Williams.

This lengthy Huffington Post article discusses these developments and the intricacies of the legal process going forward in Colorado.   This piece also includes this amusing reaction to the Colorado outcome:

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a vocal opponent to the measure, reacted to the passage of A64 in a statement late Tuesday night: "The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly."

November 7, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

With Prez Obama projected to win second term, could sentencing reform get a boost?

All the major networks are now projecting that President Barack Obama has tonight won a second term; my first thought, of course, is to start to speculate about what this could mean for the future of sentencing reform.  For many reasons, I think the outcomes of the three state marijuana legalization initiatives and the California three-strikes and death penalty initiatives could ultimately have more national criminal justice echoes than the presidential results.  Still, with the occupant of the White House now certain again, I see two great new uncertainties concerning the prospects for future criminal justice reforms:

1.  After a pretty "status quo" first term with very little political capital or energy spent on criminal justice reform, might President Obama give more attention to criminal justice reform issues in his second (lame-duck) term?  Might he, for example, start using his clemency powers more fully or urge his Justice Department to advocate more forcefully for reductions in federal prison populations?

2.  Upon recognizing that the party's national election fate could be doomed by an enduring failure to appeal to minority and younger voters, might some of the smartest stategists within the GOP view criminal justice reform (and especially drug war reform) as a potential means to seek to reconnect with these critical voting blocks?

I fear that the answer to all these questions will end up being no, but it could become a really exciting time for sentencing reform fans if some of these questions are answered yes.

November 7, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Seeking Election Day predictions on the biggest criminal justice initiatives

Vote-buttonAs regular readers know, I will be staying up very late this evening to see election results from all the western states that have been criminal justice initiatives on the ballot today.  I have long been tentatively predicting that one of three marijuana legalizations initiatives will pass and that California voters will approve reform of its three-strikes law and reject abolition of its death penalty.  But this is guesswork, and I am eager to hear other prediction as we all await these (and other) results.

P.S.  Nobody is allowed to comment unless and until they have at least tried to vote!

November 6, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, November 05, 2012

A few criminal justice headlines on Election Eve

I may be too exhausted from fast-forwarding through a stunning number of election ads to put together a detailed SL&P election 2012 guide in the next few days. Fortunately, a lot of the highlights for sentencing fans can be found in old and new media stories, such as these I noticed this morning:

November 5, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, November 02, 2012

Latest poll shows death penalty repeal leading in California

Field pollAs reported in this new front-page Sacramento Bee article, advocates for repeal of the death penalty in California have some (surprisingly?) good news in the latest polling data.  The article is headlined "Field Poll shows measure to end death penalty gaining, but still lacking 50%," and here are excerpts:

With concern over the cost of capital punishment rising, California voters may be poised for a historic vote to abolish the state's death penalty, a new Field Poll indicates.

Support for the measure, Proposition 34, remains below 50 percent. But the poll released this morning found 45 percent of likely voters favor replacing the punishment with life in prison, while 38 percent oppose doing away with capital punishment. Another 17 percent say they remain undecided.

The latest survey shows support for abolishing the death penalty rising as Election Day nears. A Field Poll released in September found 42 percent in favor of the measure and 45 percent opposed, with 13 percent undecided at that time.

"It's certainly an encouraging poll for the Proposition 34 supporters, but it still has a long way to go," Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said. "It's got to get above 50 percent, and it's moving in the right direction." DiCamillo said many measures tend to lose support after voters take a closer look at the issues, but Proposition 34 "is actually gaining strength as voters learn more about it."

That may stem from the fact that there is an increasing number of likely voters – 53 percent in the new poll – who have concluded that maintaining the death penalty is more expensive than keeping inmates in prison for the rest of their lives. The proponents of Proposition 34 have based their campaign on that notion, saying California could save hundreds of millions of dollars by doing away with the death penalty and that the state has spent $4 billion to execute only 13 inmates since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.

"The single issue that reasonates is cost," said Sacramento attorney Don Heller, who wrote the initiative that restored the death penalty in California in 1978 but now opposes capital punishment. "Even when you address the issue of potentially executing an innocent person, it's the cost that reasonates. All of a sudden it's being brought home, when counties are going bankrupt and cities are going bankrupt, that there's just not enough money out there."

Death penalty supporters dispute the cost savings claims and questioned the latest poll figures, especially the finding that 17 percent of voters are undecided on such an issue. "This poll shows that Proposition 34 continues to be under 50 percent," said Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for opponents of the measure. "It's never been above 50 percent since the beginning of the campaign. And I think the 17 percent undecided is significantly inaccurate for an issue that is of such familiarity in California."

DeMarco said he believes that when voters are asked to actually decide, they will trend toward keeping the death penalty in place. He noted that numerous law enforcement groups, prosecutors and political leaders have spoken out against Proposition 34....

The poll of 1,566 likely voters was taken in two waves of telephone questioning, the first from Oct. 17-24 and the second from Oct. 25-30, and the initiative gained support in the later survey period. In the first wave, the measure was nearly tied, with 41 percent saying they would vote to abolish the death penalty and 40 percent opposed. It was in the second round of interviews that support rose to 45 percent.

I think it is fair to predict that repeal of California's death penalty via voter initiative would be a transformative moment in the modern history of the death penalty in the United States.  Depite these latest poll numbers, I am still expecting/predicting that Proposition 34 will fail.  Nevertheless, I find the trends here fascinating and perhaps yet another example of Justice Thurgood Marshall's (in)famous hypothesis in Furman that the more informed people are about the actual operation of the death penalty, the less likely they are to support its administration.

Some very recent related posts (with lots of notable comments):

November 2, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

If nothing else, pot legalization initiatives in 2012 have produced serious buzz

With now less than a week to go before election day, the mainstream media is starting to discuss more broadly the possibility that one or more state will legalize marijuana.  Here is just a sampling of some of the notable recent media stories from outside the trio of states (Colorado, Oregon, Washington) in which voters are soon to have their say on state pot prohibition:

UPDATE This new AP story provides more interesting marijuana reform food for thought. It is headlined "Mexican think tank says Colorado, Washington, Oregon pot legalization would cut cartel profit."

October 31, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Three former California Govs (but not the Terminator) advocate against terminating the death penalty

As reported in this Reuters article, which is headlined "Trio of former California governors seeks to preserve death penalty," some former chief executives of the Golden State are speaking out about the state's death penalty ballot initiative. Here are the details:

A trio of former California governors urged voters on Tuesday to preserve the death penalty in the state by defeating a ballot initiative seeking to abolish capital punishment on cost grounds, and a recent poll showed the measure gaining support but falling short of passing.

The initiative, if passed by voters next week, would automatically commute the sentences of 725 death row inmates in California, which has nearly a quarter of the nation's condemned prisoners but has executed none in the last six years.

"Prop. 34 is a horrible injustice," said former Democratic Governor Gray Davis, referring to the ballot proposition.  "Like a giant eraser, it would wipe out the death penalty convictions of 700 killers on death row."

Those convicts are responsible for killing 200 children and 43 police officers, said Davis, who was governor from 1999 to 2003 and who was joined in opposing death penalty repeal by former Republican governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian.  "Don't let the bad guys on death row win," Davis said.  The governors were joined at a Los Angeles hotel by relatives of murder victims, prosecutors and police officers.

California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been silent on the initiative.

The push by the former governors follows a poll of 1,504 registered voters released on Friday by USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times that showed support for repeal at 42 percent, with 45 percent opposed.  The poll had a margin of error of 2.9 percent.  Those numbers represented a much narrower gap than in a September survey by the same group that showed the pro-repeal side at 38 percent compared to 51 percent who wanted to keep the death penalty.

October 30, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, October 26, 2012

Latest California polling data suggests hard-core sentencing will be up real late on election night

La-me-death-penaltya1-20121025-gI have an inkling (and certainly a hope) that we will know the outcome of the 2012 presidential election not all that long after 9pm EST on November 6th: the polls will by then be closed in the crucial swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia.  But this big Los Angeles Times article, which provides the latest poll numbers on the two big sentencing reform ballot initiatives in California, suggests that hard-core sentencing fans should plan for very late night watching election returns from the Golden State. the article is headlined "Support for end to California death penalty surges; Nearly half of registered voters still back capital punishment, but the margin has shrunk to 3 percentage points; Voters also favor easing the three-strikes law." Here are excerpts:

Voter support for a ballot measure to repeal California's death penalty has jumped dramatically, though not enough to ensure its passage, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll has found. Support for a separate measure that would ease the state's three-strikes sentencing law remained high, with more than 60% in favor of amending it.

The survey, conducted last week, showed that the gap between supporters and opponents of Proposition 34, the capital punishment measure, is now very small — only 3 percentage points — compared with last month.  Still, less than half of respondents said they would vote for the measure, which would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Forty-two percent said they would vote for Proposition 34, with 45% saying no. In September, the gap was 38% to 51%, a 13-point difference.  A significant 12% of respondents said they did not know how they would vote, nearly identical to the 11% who had not decided last month.  "There is no question there has been a sharp shift," said Dan Schnur, who heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.  The results suggest that passage is "not impossible" but still "very difficult," Schnur said.

When voters heard more information about Proposition 34, such as its financial ramifications and details of the effect on prisoners, responses flipped: 45% were in favor and 42% against — still very close to the survey's margin of error, which is 2.9 percentage points.

The latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll [with crosstabs available here] questioned 1,504 registered voters by telephone from Oct. 15 to Oct. 21, before the Proposition 34 campaign launched radio and television ads. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm, did the survey with American Viewpoint, a Republican company. 

Proposition 34 would apply retroactively to condemned inmates, require convicted murderers to work in prison and contribute to victim restitution funds, and direct $100 million to law enforcement over four years.  It could save the state as much as $130 million a year, according to California's nonpartisan legislative analyst.  California has more than 727 inmates on death row, the most in the nation....

Natasha Minsker, campaign manager for Proposition 34, said the poll's findings prove that "this election is absolutely moving in our direction."  But Peter DeMarco, a strategist for the opposition, expressed confidence that the shift was too small to make a difference....

La-me-death-penalty-inside-20121025-g

Meanwhile, support for the three-strikes measure, Proposition 36, has held relatively steady in recent weeks, with 63% of voters in favor, 22% opposed and 15% undecided or not answering.  Last month, the initiative was leading by 66% to 20%.  "Unless the opponents can convince voters that the criminals being impacted by this measure are still dangerous, the initiative looks pretty safe at this point," Schnur said. 

The three-strikes law allows prosecutors to seek sentences of 25 years to life for any felony if offenders were previously convicted of at least two violent or serious crimes, such as rape or residential burglary. Proposition 36 would amend the law so offenders whose third strikes were relatively minor felonies, such as shoplifting or drug possession, would no longer be eligible for life terms.  Of the state's nearly 8,900 third-strikers, about a third were convicted of drug or minor property crimes.

This week, the proposition's campaign unveiled a television ad in which the district attorneys from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties tell voters that the amendment would ease prison overcrowding, save the state millions of dollars and "make the punishment fit the crime."  Opponents point out that the current law already allows prosecutors and judges to spare a third-striker the maximum sentence and argue that flexibility is needed to protect the public.

I suspect that the polling on these sorts of initiatives can be subject to lots of statistical noise, so I am quite chary about making book on these latest poll numbers.  That all said, it will be big news if either of these sentencing reform initiatives pass, and huge news if they both do.  Thus, I now have yet another reason to wish Election Day 2012 was here already.

October 26, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Latest campaign front news concerning California death penalty repeal initiative

This new local article, headlined "California's Prop. 34: Battle over fate of state's death penalty heating up," reports on the latest campaign developments two weeks before California's go to the polls to decide whether to repeal the state's death penalty. Here are excerpts:

[T]he two rival campaigns are unveiling ads this week relying on very different messages to appeal to voters being asked for the first time to abandon the death penalty since it was restored more than three decades ago. In short, the pro-Proposition 34 forces are asking voters to save California money and rid the state of the justice system's most costly and controversial law. And law enforcement foes of the measure are reminding the public of the notorious killers who wind up on death row, from Richard Allen Davis to mass murderer Charles Ng.

Proposition 34 backers on Monday launched a series of statewide television and radio ads, bankrolled by a campaign that has pulled in more than $6.5 million from a roster of the rich and famous. Actors Martin Sheen and Edward James Olmos provide the introductions to the television ad, which features a Los Angeles man who spent more than 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

The radio spots focus on the central theme of the Proposition 34 campaign: that the California death penalty system is too flawed and expensive to maintain and should be scrapped to save what backers say could be a billion dollars or more in the coming decade. Don Heller, a former Sacramento prosecutor who co-authored the 1978 law and has now renounced the death penalty, anchors the radio ads. "These ads are going to be important," said former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, a one-time death penalty supporter now backing the campaign.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped opposition to Proposition 34, with just a few hundred thousand dollars in campaign funds raised so far, is relying on Web advertisements that offer up a new death row villain to profile every few days, highlighting victims' families and law enforcement officials who've encountered the worst killers in California. The ads thus far have included Ng and the most recent released on Monday about Tahua "Tao" Rivera, sentenced to die for the 2004 slaying of a Merced police officer.

Using what they call a "grass roots" campaign, the No on Proposition 34 leaders are also taking their show on the road. That includes a public event Tuesday in San Jose, where Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe and Marc Klaas, father of murder victim Polly Klaas, will speak out against the measure.

October 23, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rooting for crime and punishment questions at tonight's town-hall Prez debate

600x399101In this post before the first debate in Denver between the Prez candidates, I correctly predicted that there would not be a single question dealing with criminal justice issues (despite the reality that a significant portion of federal government spending and a massive portion of state government spending is devoted to these big government programs).  Tonight's scheduled town-hall tussle on Long Island is probably going to follow the same script.  But I think there is at least a slim chance that one of the real people being allowed to ask real questions might be allowed to really press the candidates on the really interesting issues for sentencing fans like federal pot prohibition or mass incarceration or even the administration of the federal death penalty or perhaps state felon disenfranchisement. 

For old-times sake, I tracked down the last memorable discussion of crime and punishment in a town-hall debate.  Specifically, almost exactly 12 years ago, on October 17, 2000 to be precise, the death penalty came up during the town-hall debate between then-Governor George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore.  Here are excerpts from this capital Q&A from a dozen years ago via this debate transcript:

Mr. ANDERSON:  In one of the last debates held, the subject of capital punishment came up, and in your response to the question, you seemed to overly enjoy, as a matter of fact, proud that Texas leads the the nation in execution of prisoners.  Sir, did I misread your response, and are you really, really proud of the fact that Texas is number one in executions?

Gov. BUSH:  No, I'm not proud of that. The death penalty is very serious business, Leo. It's an issue that good people obviously disagree on. I take my job seriously, and if you think I was proud of it, I think you misread me, I do.  I was sworn to uphold the laws of my state.  During the course of the campaign in 1994 I was asked, `Do you support the death penalty?' I said I did if administered fairly and justly, because I believe it saves lives, Leo. I do.  I think if it's administered swiftly, justly and fairly, it saves lives....

There have been some tough cases come across my desk.  Some of the hardest moments since I've been the governor of the state of Texas is to deal with those cases.  But my job is to ask two questions, sir: Is the person guilty of the crime, and did the person have full access to the courts of law?  And I can tell you, looking at you right now, in all cases those answers were affirmative.  I'm not proud of any record.  I'm proud of the fact that violent crime is down in the state of Texas.  I'm proud of the fact that we hold people accountable, but I'm not proud of any record, sir. I'm not....

Vice Pres. GORE:  I support the death penalty. I think that it has to be administered not only fairly, with attention to things like DNA evidence, which I think should be used in all capital cases, but also with very careful attention if, for example, somebody confesses to the crime and somebody's waiting on death row, there has to be alertness to say, 'Wait a minute, have we got the wrong guy?'  If the wrong guy is put to death, then that's a double tragedy, not only has an innocent person been executed but the real perpetrator of the crime has not been held accountable for it and in some cases may be still at large.  But I support the death penalty in the most heinous cases.

Mr. LEHRER:  Do both of you believe that the death penalty actually deters crime? Governor?

Gov. BUSH:  I do. That's the only reason to be for it.... I don't think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge. I don't think that's right.  I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people's lives.

Vice Pres. GORE:  I think it is a deterrence.  I know it's a controversial view but I do believe it's a deterrence.

Back to the present day, In this prior post and in many others, I have already detailed some of the federal criminal justice questions I would love to hear asked of the candidates this season.  Perhaps readers will join in my on-going (and seemingly futile?) debate game by adding some queries of interest  via the comments.

A few recent and older related posts: 

October 16, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack