Tuesday, October 16, 2012

"Marijuana backers court conservatives with appeals on states’ rights, ineffective pot laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP article, which includes these passages:

It’s not all hippies backing November’s marijuana legalization votes in Colorado, Oregon and Washington.  Appealing to Western individualism and a mistrust of federal government, activists have lined up some prominent conservatives, from one-time presidential hopefuls Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul to Republican-turned-Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

“This is truly a nonpartisan issue,” said Mark Slaugh, a volunteer for the Colorado initiative who is based in Colorado Springs, which has more Republicans than anywhere else in the state.  “States’ rights! States’ rights!”  Slaugh cried as he handed out flyers about the state’s pot measure outside a rally last month by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.  Quite a few passing Republicans took the flyer....

Most Republicans still oppose legalization.  Presidential candidate Mitt Romney vows to enforce federal law.  When Ryan told a Colorado Springs TV station in September that medical marijuana was “up to Coloradans to decide,” his campaign quickly backtracked and said he agreed with Romney.

When activists make their appeal, it goes like this: States should dictate drug law. Decades of federal prohibition have failed where personal responsibility and old-fashioned parenting will succeed.  Politicians back East have no business dictating what the states do....

Tancredo launched a radio ad this week in which he compares marijuana prohibition to alcohol prohibition as a “failed government program” that, in this case, “steers Colorado money to criminals in Mexico.”

“Proponents of big government have duped us into supporting a similar prohibition of marijuana — even though it can be used safely and responsibly by adults,” Tancredo said.

Pot supporters have lined up other surprising allies this year, even as many Democrats oppose the measures.  Conservative stalwart Pat Robertson, for example, said marijuana should be legal.

In Washington state, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Michael Baumgartner is running a longshot bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who opposes it.  “It’s taking a different approach to a very expensive drug war, and potentially a better approach,” he said.

In Oregon, at least one Republican state Senate candidate backs legalization. Cliff Hutchison reasoned that legalizing pot would “cut wasteful government spending on corrections and reduce drug gang violence.”...

Pro-pot conservatives have counterparts on the other side — Democrats who say pot shouldn’t be legal without a doctor’s recommendation.  Democratic governors in Colorado and Washington oppose legalization.  Oregon’s Democratic governor has not taken a stand. President Barack Obama’s administration has shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado.

Republican Colorado state Sen. Steve King is a frequent critic of Colorado’s medical marijuana law.  Conservatives abhor government, but they also fear legalization would increase children’s drug use, he said. “It’s pretty easy to come in and say, ‘Let’s decrease government.’ And I’m all for that. This just isn’t the place to start,” King said. “We have a next generation to protect,” he said.

October 16, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, October 15, 2012

Will there be a "constitutional showdown" if a state legalizes pot? And would that be so bad?

The question in the title of this post are prompted by this new piece at the Huffington Post, which is headlined "States Legalizing Marijuana Will Violate Federal Law, Trigger Constitutional Showdown: DEA, Drug Czars." The piece starts this way:

On a Monday teleconference call, former Drug Enforcement Agency administrators and directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy voiced a strong reminder to the U.S. Department of Justice that even if voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington pass ballot measures to legalize marijuana use for adults and tax its sale, the legalization of marijuana still violates federal law and the passage of these measures could trigger a "Constitutional showdown."

The goal of the call was clearly to put more pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to make a public statement in opposition to these measures. With less than 30 days before Election Day, the DOJ has yet to announce its enforcement intentions regarding the ballot measures that, if passed, could end marijuana prohibition in each state.

"Next month in Colorado, Oregon and Washington states, voters will vote on legalizing marijuana," Peter Bensinger, the moderater of the call and former administrator of DEA during Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, began the call. "Federal law, the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court decisions say that this cannot be done because federal law preempts state law."

Bensinger added: "And there is a bigger danger that touches every one of us -- legalizing marijuana threatens public health and safety. In states that have legalized medical marijuana, drug driving arrests, accidents, and drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed. Drug treatment admissions are up and the number of teens using this gateway drug is up dramatically."

Bensinger was joined by a host of speakers including Bill Bennet and John Walters, former directors of the While House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Chief Richard Beary of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP); Dr. Robert L. DuPont, founding director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and who was also representing the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) and several others.

The position being pushed here by past and current drug warriors seems to have a little bit of a "chicken little" sky-is-falling quality to it.  Nevertheless, the apparent urgency of these respected voices confirms my strong belief that this is a topic very worthy of discourse on the Presidential campaign trail.  I am cautiously (and perhaps foolishly) optimistic that the next Prez debate's town hall format has the best chance to bring these issues into national discourse.  But even if it does not, I hope some members of the media might follow-up on these matters in interviews with both of the presidential contenders.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 15, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Noting the intriguingly unpredictable politics around Washington's marijuana initiative

This New York Times article, headlined "Marijuana Referendum Divides Both Sides," provides an intriguing reports on the political debates in Washington state over its ballot initiative to repeal the state's pot prohibition. Here is how the piece starts:

Most efforts to legalize marijuana possession have generally run aground in the face of unified opposition. Mothers Against Drunk Driving led the charge in helping to defeat a ballot measure in California in 2010. Law enforcement groups, not too surprisingly, have also been largely opposed in the past.

But in Washington State, as a measure that would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana heads toward a vote next month, the opposition forces have been divided, raising hopes by marijuana advocates of a breakthrough. A poll conducted last month by Elway Research showed that 50 percent of voters either definitely or probably were in favor of legalizing the possession of an ounce of marijuana or less.

Some former law enforcement officials have appeared in television ads in favor of the legalization. Safety concerns about drugged driving have been muted by a provision of the measure, called Initiative 502, that would create a standard to measure impairment. A promised flood of tax money to drug and alcohol treatment programs from legal marijuana sales has also kept some antidrug groups on the sidelines.

But if opponents are in disarray or disagreement, supporters of legalization are as well. And that is making the outcome hard to predict, both sides say. In fact, some of the most vehement opposition to the initiative is coming from what might seem the least likely corner of all: medical marijuana users. Organized through a group called No on I-502, they say the plan, especially the new legal standard of impairment while driving, creates a new legal risk for regular users because THC, marijuana’s primary psychoactive ingredient, can stay in the bloodstream for days after consumption, and thus be measurable by a blood test whether a person is impaired or not.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 13, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Is there any chance for any crime and punishment discussion at tonight's VP debate?

In this post before last week's dog-fight in Denver between the Prez candidates, I correctly predicted that there would no be a single question focused on 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 contest in Kentucky between the VP candidates seems pretty sure to follow the same script.  (That said, a variation of Murphy's Law might suggest that there will be lots of crime and punishment talk because I will not be able to watch the debate while traveling this evening out to California to participate in this great event at Loyola Law School.)

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 all the candidates this season.  Perhaps readers will join in my (futile?) debate game by adding some queries of interest on these topics via the comments.

A few recent and older related posts: 

October 11, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Is it really "shocking" that President Obama has not spoken out concerning state criminal justice reform proposals?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a comment in this new Fox News piece, which is headlined "High times: 3 states to vote on recreational marijuana use."  Here are excerpts:

Advocates of legalizing marijuana for recreational use may be closing in on their first statewide victory. Voter initiatives that would legalize up to an ounce of pot will be on the ballot in three states in November: Oregon, Colorado and Washington State. Polling shows the measures leading in Washington and Colorado with at least 50 percent support.

“If Washington or Colorado wins in November, and both of them have a good chance to do so, it is going to be transformative in the way we think about marijuana policy in this country and even outside,” says longtime legalization advocate Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance....

President George Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, can’t understand why President Obama is not using his bully pulpit.  “I think it’s shocking that Attorney General Holder, the Director Kerlikowski, but most of all the president of the United States, can’t talk about this,” says Walters.  “It’s about health, it’s about safety, it’s about the future of the country.”

Meantime, Initiative 502 in Washington State keeps racking up endorsements. Most elected leaders in Seattle support the measure, including the current sheriff and his opponent in the upcoming election. Former U.S. Attorney John McKay is one of its sponsors. But the most stunning endorsement came from the Children’s Alliance, an umbrella organization for 100 child welfare groups.

Jon Gould, Deputy Director of the Children’s Alliance, says marijuana laws are being enforced unevenly and that hurts minorities and the poor. “If those kids’ parents are shut out of housing, shut out of employment, shut out of education opportunities, we’re not helping those kids,” says Gould.

Legalization opponents argue very few people are locked up for marijuana possession. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that .07% of all state inmates were busted for marijuana possession only. “We need to understand that drugs and gangs go hand in hand,” says Paul Chabot, who advised Presidents Clinton and Bush on drug policy. “They destroy communities. What we have to do is work keeping people off this stuff, not liberalizing policies.”

Legal or not, young people would still be barred from smoking pot.  And critics argue more kids would try it, something the administration has always been against.  But so far this election year, instead of using the power of the office, that message has gone up in smoke.

Regular readers know I share John Walters hope that President Obama, as well as wanna-be President Romney, will address marijuana policy on the campaign trail and in the debates. But I hardly think it is "shocking" that the President has not opined on the proposals to legalize marijuana at the state level in three states, just as I do not think it is "shocking" that he has not addressed California's big criminal justice initiatives or other state-level reforms that may or may not impact federal criminal justice enforcement priorities.

Regular readers likely know that I am following the politics surrounding drug policy reform closely because I have a hard time connecting conservative talking points about freedom, states' rights and nanny-state over-regulation with the categorical opposition to state-by-state reconsideration of absolute pot prohibition.  Given that Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan has indicated that he believes states should be free to develop their own medical marijuana laws while other Republicans have endorsed pot legalization in Colorado and Washington, I am surprised and somewhat disappointed that Fox News thinks it is "fair and balanced" to assail President Obama on this front, especially given how hard his US Attorneys are going after medical marijuana facilities throughout the west.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 9, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, October 05, 2012

"Prominent Republicans in Washington state, Colorado endorse legal pot"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Reuters piece.  Here are excerpts:

Ballot measures to legalize marijuana in Washington state and Colorado gained support this week from a pair of prominent Republicans -- U.S. Senate candidate Michael Baumgartner and former Representative Tom Tancredo -- who could help sway conservative voters.

No state has ever legalized marijuana for recreational use. The federal government considers it an illegal drug, but 17 states and the District of Columbia allow it as medicine.

Baumgartner, the Republican challenger to Washington state's Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, said in a phone interview the state initiative, which would allow the sale of marijuana to people 21 and older at state-sanctioned stores, is a "thoughtful way forward."...

Tancredo, who served five terms in the House of Representatives from 1999 to 2009, this week endorsed the legalization campaign in Colorado.  He argued government should not interfere with people's choice to use pot.

In Oregon, a third state where voters this November will decide whether to allow recreational use of pot, the campaign has struggled to find big name Republican supporters.

Legalization opponent Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to the Obama administration's drug policy director, disputed the argument of many libertarians that government should not interfere in pot use by people.  "The libertarian argument is fundamentally flawed because drug use does not affect just the individual, it affects healthcare costs, criminal justice costs that we see with a legal drug like alcohol and costs to our highway safety," Sabet said.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 5, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Gov Jerry Brown's notable (wise? unprincipled? chicken$%#&?) evolution concerning California's death penalty

Today's Sacramento Bee has this intriguing front-page article headlined "Jerry Brown sidesteps death penalty discussion as California voters face choice." Here are excerpts:

Two years ago, in the waning days of the gubernatorial campaign, Jerry Brown was asked why, given his moral reservations about the death penalty, he wouldn't try to stop it anymore.  As a young man, Brown had lobbied his father, then-Gov. Pat Brown, to stay a man's execution, and he vetoed death penalty legislation when he was governor before.

"I don't know," Brown said on an airplane between campaign rallies in the Central Valley. "You want to reinvent the world. But we have the world.  And this is a matter that's been before the voters … been before the Legislature.  At this point in time, it's relatively settled."

It may still be.  Though the margin is slight, a plurality of likely voters opposes a Nov. 6 ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, according to the Field Poll.  Nevertheless, the measure, Proposition 34, is on the ballot -- and Brown wants no part of it.

The Democratic governor has declined to say how he will vote on the death penalty or other ballot measures, and he is not expected to do so before Election Day.  He said is focused solely on his own initiative to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners.

Brown's careful distance from abolishing the death penalty, a cause he once championed, reflects the caution of a governor who has grown more sensitive to the limitations and political hazards of his office than when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983....

Brown was 21 when, one night in 1960, he called his father to urge a temporary stay of execution for convicted rapist Caryl Chessman.  Chessman was ultimately executed, but not before his father granted the temporary stay.  The decision was unpopular, and Pat Brown later said his political career suffered badly for it.

Seven years later, when Aaron Mitchell was executed at San Quentin State Prison, Jerry Brown participated in a vigil outside the prison, and 10 years after that, Brown vetoed legislation -- overridden by the Legislature -- to reinstate the death penalty.

He called it "a matter of conscience," a sentiment he expanded upon when he was asked while running for president in 1992 if his opposition to the death penalty was absolute. "Yes," Brown said.  "When someone is contained in a cage, then to bureaucratically, coldbloodedly snuff out their life, whether by poison or by electrocution or by gas, it seems, it doesn't seem right to me."

Peter Finnegan, a longtime friend of Brown's and his debate partner in high school, recalled holding candles outside San Quentin with Brown when they were young men.  They don't talk about the death penalty anymore.  "He just doesn't want to talk about it," said Finnegan, now a retired lobbyist and political activist. "You get nowhere talking about it, really, and it's kind of behind him, and everyone knows where he is, and that's that." When Brown was governor before, Finnegan recalled, "we'd sit around until 2 in the morning (discussing) this stuff." Now, Finnegan said, "he's just more focused … . I just think he's so much more mature."...

His position has been made awkward, however, by the presence of the death penalty initiative.  One day in April, Brown called it a "very, very important issue" and said he was glad the measure would be on the ballot, before saying that afternoon that his commitment to enforcing the death penalty was unwavering.  "I will carry out the law," Brown said, "without fear or failure and with fidelity to the will of the people."

A governor's endorsement can matter in an initiative campaign, but less so in one that involves a high-profile matter such as the death penalty, about which voters typically hold highly emotional, pre-existing beliefs.  Likely voters oppose Proposition 34, the measure to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, 45 percent to 42 percent, according to a recent Field Poll.

As suggested by the title of this post, I am interested in hearing reader views as to the right adjective to describe Gov Brown's death penalty evolution. I am inclined to pick the adjective "chickenshit" because I consider Brown's effort to stay mute on such a significant and symbolic aspect of the state's criminal justice system to be an act of profound political and personal cowardice.  Moreover, I think it would be pretty easy for Brown and his advisers to develop a politically astute and personally satisfying statement on this topic. That statement could read something like:

"Though I have long been morally opposed to the death penalty, I deeply respect those with contrary moral views, and I am personally and professionally committed to vigorous enforcement of any and all duly enacted criminal justice laws reflecting the will of the people in our state.  I am thrilled that this important issue is garnering renewed attention and that our citizens will now have the opportunity to express their current position on this matter directly via the ballot box.  Based on my long-standing moral beliefs, I expect to vote for Prop. 34, and I am especially excited to learn about the views of all fellow Californians on Prop 34 come November 6."

October 5, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Some questions I might ask during the upcoming Presidential debates

As this recent post noted, crime and punishment — and especially federal crime and punishment — does not seem a big concern for the electorate this campaign season.  Nevertheless, there are no shortage of timely and important sentencing law and policy questions that could usefully be posed at the big debate tonight in Denver to the two Harvard Law School graduates seeking to be the US President for the next four years.

I fear there will not be a single question focused on criminal justice issues in tonight's debate, 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.  But, in the spirit of the evening, I must articulate some serious questions on serious federal criminal justice topics that might provide an interesting window into the candidates' views:

Regular readers likely know that I could go on and on with these kinds of wonkish questions — concerning the application of the federal death penalty or the problems of federal prosecutorial misconduct or the importance of federal clemency authority — but at this point I will bring this pre-debate post to a close and welcome comments from readers on this front (which can, of course, be posted before during or after tonight's debate).

A few recent and older related posts: 

October 3, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Friday, September 28, 2012

"Crime not on presidential contest radar"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new USA Today piece, which includes these excerpts:

Presidents and lesser politicians have been delivered to victory more often than not for taking tough stands on crime. Yet during a year punctuated by mass shootings at a Colorado movie theater and temple in Wisconsin, crime has all but vanished from public discussion this campaign season.

In a presidential election cycle dominated by concerns for a faltering economy and unemployment, crime rated a forgettable asterisk earlier this month in a Gallup Poll, representing less than 1% of Americans who believed it was the nation's most pressing problem. "When the economy is as big a problem as it is, it kind of squashes out the others," said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief....

According to polling data..., 2012 represents just one more presidential election in which the often-emotional issue of crime has ranked near the bottom of the public agenda. The last time crime rated as the top concern of the American public was in 1996, according to Gallup.

"The most important responsibility of an elected official is to provide for the safety of the people they represent, and we haven't heard much talk about that," said Jim Pasco, the FOP's executive director. "When there is the kind of violence that we have seen this summer, you do expect there to be a discussion about it," he said. "But it seems like it is the last thing on the public agenda."

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the law enforcement think tank Police Executive Research Forum, said the apparent lack of attention is "a sign of the times."

"Twenty years ago, the homicide rate was double what it is today," he said. "If we compare ourselves against ourselves, crime has declined fairly dramatically.  But if we compare ourselves to countries like the United Kingdom, that's another story." There were more than 600 murders in Great Britain last year, compared to more than 13,000 in the U.S. "The gun issue is radioactive in this country for both Democrats and Republicans," Wexler said. "No one nationally has spoken about it. It's not even on the radar screen."

Long-time readers likely recall my laments that national crime and punishment issues failed to garner any significant attention in the 2004 or 2008 campaigns. Rather than curse this criminal justice darkness, I hope this weekend to do a post with timely federal crime and punishment questions that could be interesting and revealing during next week's first big presidential debate. In the meantime, I wonder if readers are inclined to complain or cheer the failure of any significant national politicians to give any real attention to these issues.

Some recent and older related posts: 

September 28, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

New poll suggests death penalty repeal has a chance on California ballot

This new San Francisco Chronicle piece, headlined "Death penalty repeal close in poll," reports that the latest polling shows a close contest for the California ballot initiative calling for repeal of the state's death penalty. Here are the details:

California voters are closely divided on a November ballot measure to repeal the state's death penalty law, with significant differences in support among regions and age groups, a new Field Poll reports.

The survey found that Proposition 34, which would make life in prison without parole the maximum punishment for murder, was opposed by 45 percent of likely voters and favored by 42 percent, with 13 percent undecided. The results amounted to a statistical tie, since the poll's margin of error was 4.3 percentage points.

The poll, released Tuesday, was conducted Sept. 6-18 among a random sample of 468 voters....

Prop. 34 will be California's first vote on capital punishment since 1978, when a 71 percent majority approved expansion of a death penalty law that had been passed the previous year over Gov. Jerry Brown's veto.

Backers of the Nov. 6 measure are focusing on the economic impact of the death penalty, citing studies that found the state spends as much as $184 million a year more than it would if the maximum sentence were life without parole. Prop. 34 would transfer $100 million over four years to law enforcement programs to solve murder and rape cases.

The new poll found that Prop. 34 was supported by Democrats, 50-37 percent, and even more strongly by unaffiliated and third-party voters, 54-33 percent, but opposed 23-65 percent by Republicans.

Residents of coastal counties favored the measure 45-41 percent, within the poll's margin of error, but inland residents opposed it 34-55 percent. The Bay Area provided the strongest regional support, 57-35 percent.

Men were evenly split, while women narrowly opposed the measure. Younger voters were about equally divided, but those ages 50 to 64 opposed Prop. 34 by 39 to 51 percent, and voters over 65 opposed it 38 to 46 percent.

Recent related posts:

September 25, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Should Prez Obama become much more aggressive on judicial appointments if he gets a second term? How exactly?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this commentary from Professor Pam Karlan in the Boston Review, which carries the headline "Empty Benches." Here are excerpts:

Recent Republican administrations have pursued a judicial nomination strategy that seeks to appoint young, deeply committed conservative lawyers to the federal district courts and courts of appeals.  Republican activists pressed judicial nominations as a priority, and conservative presidents and senators worked hard to get these nominees confirmed.  The result is not just a deep farm team of potential Supreme Court nominees, but also a host of conservative judges inscribing their views of constitutional law and their interpretations of statutes in thousands of cases that never reach the Supreme Court.  If their cases are appealed to the top, then those judges’ opinions shape the terms of the debate in the high court.

By contrast, the Obama administration has done relatively little to bring the courts back into balance.  When Obama was sworn into office, there were 55 vacancies on the federal bench.  There are now more than 75, and Obama will likely “become the first president since Reagan, and possibly much earlier, to finish his first term with more vacancies than he inherited,” according to Alliance for Justice. (Vacancies weren’t tracked before the Reagan years.)

To be sure, much of the problem is conservative obstructionism.  Several of the president’s most prominent nominees have been filibustered.  Many others have been victims of “blue slips”—an internal Senate procedure that allows either senator from a nominee’s home state essentially to block a nomination. Even candidates who ultimately are confirmed by overwhelming votes have faced a series of procedural roadblocks. And the prospect of having to put their careers on hold has probably dissuaded many qualified candidates even from seeking nominations.

But conservative obstruction is not the only problem.  During the period when Democrats held a filibuster-proof senate, the administration moved far too slowly to make nominations.  Granted, it was a busy time, with the economic crisis, two Supreme Court openings, and health care reform occupying the administration’s attention.  But the delay also reflects a sense that judicial appointments are less important than other policy levers and that the president’s base does not really care about the issue.

Moreover, while the current administration has achieved an admirable degree of gender and racial diversity among its picks (nominating roughly two times more women and persons of color, by percentage, than the preceding administration had), its court of appeals nominees are generally older than their conservative counterparts.  And very few of them have backgrounds either as public-interest lawyers for liberal or progressive causes or as scholars who have responded to conservative legal thought.

The administration’s inability to fill vacant seats on the federal bench has both immediate and long-term effects.  Right now, more than half of Americans live in jurisdictions facing what the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts calls “judicial emergencies”: their empty benches can’t handle heavy caseloads. Because criminal prosecutions take priority, plaintiffs with civil claims — workers, victims of government misconduct, consumers, and others — face severe delays in vindicating their rights.

In the longer term, vacancies accrued during a liberal-leaning administration that remain open for succeeding conservative administrations to fill will ensure that courts continue to skew to the right, meaning that progressive legislation and regulations will be undercut when it comes time to enforce them.  The lack of a vigorous judicial response to conservative versions of originalism and “strict construction” — which often means little more than a cramped reading of broadly worded statutes and constitutional provisions — will bias popular discussion and debate.

Professor Karlan's answer to the questions in the title of this post seem clear:  via this commentary, she is essentially urging an Obama Administration to make a concentrated effort to "appoint young, deeply committed" liberal lawyers with a background as "public-interest lawyers for liberal or progressive causes or as scholars who have responded to conservative legal thought." (Notably, Karlan's own professional background fits her description, but at age 53 I wonder if she even considers her "generally older" than her own view of the ideal Obama nominee.)

I share Professor Karlan's view that President Obama and others in his administration probably ought to give more attention and emphasis to judicial nominees, especially given the large number of judicial emergencies that can negatively impact the administration of justice in so many ways.  That said, I am more inclined to praise the Obama team's efforts to date, particularly for its ability to bring much greater gender and racial diversity to the federal bench.  (My chief disappointment on this front has been Obama's apparent eagerness to elevate persons who are already judges rather than often seeking to bring in bold new perspectives into the judiciary.)

I wonder if readers have thoughts on this front (which, of course, impacts sentencing law, policy and practice in many ways).  In particular, I wonder if anyone would urge the Obama Administration to start gearing up for a massive post-election judicial appointment push soon if Obama is elected to a second term.  I do not know if any re-elected president has ever put forward a huge bunch of judicial nominations in the early days of a second term (or even in the closing period of his first term when a lame duck senate could perhaps be prodded into some confirmation activity).   But it wold be quite an impressive spectacle if the Obama Administration could put up candidates for every open judgeship not  long after the election.  (The same might be said, for that matter, about a possible Romney Administration.)

September 5, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Following the money surrounding medical marijuana initiative in Arkansas

120831122320_marijuana_voteThis local story, headlined "Financial side of medical marijuana on ballot in Arkansas," provides a detailed account of investments on the competing sides in the Arkansas ballot initiative over medical marijuana. Here are the basic detail:

Thousands of dollars has been spent to put the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act on the ballot and now with a lawsuit against the state of Arkansas to remove the act, thousands more will be spent to fight it.

It's an issue that is getting individuals and national organizations to open their checkbooks. "It's been a full on campaign for a little over a year now," says Chris Kell, spokesperson for Arkansans for Compassionate Care.  It is a non-profit campaign instrumental in putting the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act on the ballot.

"We've raised a lot of money from Arkansans from very generous support financially from Marijuana Policy Project," says Kell.  The Marijuana Policy Project is a national non-profit agency that works to reform marijuana laws.  So far, they've spent more than $250,000 to get medical marijuana legalized in Arkansas.

"We are entirely a member supported organization.  We have over 50,000 dues paying members and basically when we go into these campaigns, we like to focus on whatever we can do to get the issue in front of the voters.  In this case, paying for petition gatherers and public education," says Morgan Fox with MPP.

"Our funding comes from individuals and churches right here in Arkansas and that's what I would expect to be the case with this campaign as well," says Jerry Cox, Director of the Family Council Action Committee.  It is a group formed by four Arkansas non-profit agencies (Family's First, The Arkansas Family Coalition, The Arkansas Faith and Ethics Council and Family Council) fighting to remove the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act from the ballot. They recently filed a lawsuit against the state of Arkansas saying the ballot title did not adequately explain the measure.

Cox says fundraising has just begun and only a few thousand dollars is being used to fight the measure right now but he expects that number to change.  "I would expect our funding to come from right here in Arkansas and it should because the people here in Arkansas are the ones most affected if this measure passes," says Cox.

Recent related post:

September 5, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, September 03, 2012

"The GOP platform’s surprisingly progressive stance on crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this astute recent Washington Post piece.  Here are excerpts:

Four years ago, Republicans devoted a section in their platform to the War on Drugs, lamenting the “human toll of drug addiction and abuse” and vowing to “continue the fight against producers, traffickers, and distributor of illegal substances.”

That plank is conspicuously missing from the GOP platform this year.  The fight against illegal drugs is only mentioned in passing, mostly with reference to drug cartels and the ban on using controlled substances for doctor-assisted suicide.

Policy experts agree that the omission is significant.  “This is less a ‘tough on crime’ document than you would have expected.  And leaving out the War on Drugs [is] quite astounding,” says Mark Kleiman, a crime policy expert and professor at UCLA.  “It’s a bit more of a libertarian attitude,” says Marc Levin, who runs a conservative criminal justice reform project called “Right on Crime” that’s attracted the support of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

What’s more, the 2012 platform includes new provisions that emphasize the importance of rehabilitation and re-entry programs to help ex-prisoners integrate back into society — using language that Kleiman describes as “a lot less ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key.’”

“While getting criminals off the street is essential, more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community,” the platform says.  “Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization.”  The document also criticizes the “overcriminalization of behavior,” though it doesn’t elaborate on the point much further.

Both Kleiman and Levin believe it’s partly the outgrowth of a prison-reform push on the part of GOP governors whose state budgets have been saddled with high incarceration expenses.  In recent months, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Gov. Chris Christie have embraced crime reform legislation to support the kind of rehabilitation programs that the GOP platform now advocates, with some also reducing jail time for non-violent offenders....

To be sure, there are still some aggressively “law-and-order” provisions in the platform, some of which go farther than the 2008 version.  The previous platform called for mandatory sentences for “gang conspiracy crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, rape, and assaults resulting in serious bodily injury.”  This year, the provision has been expanded to include all “gang crimes, repeat drug dealers, robbery, and murder.”

But overall, the platform reveals a notable policy shift for the GOP, although it’s hasn’t been one that either side has mentioned much in this year’s election.

Some recent and older related posts:

September 3, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Reform records notable (though not so far noted) at Republican National Convention

I listened to most of the major speeches during the first night of the Republican National Convention; not surprisingly, I heard no mention of crime and punishment issues.  But that does not mean RNC speakers lack notable records on crime and punishment issues, as this post from FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn highlights:

The Republican National Committee's list of speakers for the GOP convention ... [includes many speakers who have] embraced the “Smart on Crime” model ..., and in the process have demolished the tired idea that conservatives aren’t open to common-sense criminal justice reform.

Take Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who could never be confused with a liberal.  He has argued that “we have not been very successful in incarcerating our way out of the drug problem.  We’ve created a bigger problem.  Our prisons are teeming with people who don’t need to be incarcerated as full-time inmates . . . I’m not soft on crime. Crime needs to be punished, but realistically, and justly.”...

Ohio Governor John Kasich ... has a lifetime rating of 88% with the American Conservative Union.  Governor Kasich made criminal justice reform a priority of his administration, and last year he signed a reform bill designed to “send low-level nonviolent felons to rehabilitation facilities in lieu of prison, put a credit-earned system in place, and adjust prison sentences for drug and petty theft offenses.  The package was proposed as a means to save money, reduce recidivism, and ease overcrowding.”...

Another speaker, Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, recently joined Right on Crime, a group of conservative heavyweights that supports criminal justice reform (including mandatory minimum sentencing reform) and includes Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, and Ed Meese.  Governor Bush said of the effort, “States across the country, including Florida, are proving that policies based on these sound conservative principles will reduce crime and its cost to taxpayers.”

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin worked with Right on Crime, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Republican legislators to craft a comprehensive Justice Reinvestment bill that included sentencing reforms and is projected to save her state millions of dollars.  On signing the bill, Governor Fallin said, “[I]n addition to saving tax dollars, [community sentencing options ] will help nonviolent offenders, many of whom have substance abuse problems, to receive treatment and safely get back into their communities.”

Of all the speakers at the convention, Senator Rand Paul might be the most vocal critic of mandatory minimum sentencing.  Not only has Senator Paul blocked federal drug legislation because it contained mandatory minimums, he’s said on the record that “On mandatory minimums, I don’t think teenagers accused of possessing drugs should get twenty years in prison.  I’ve fought to get rid of this.”

Perhaps most notably, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said recently that “[t]he war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has been a failure.”  Christie signed reform legislation designed to reduce New Jersey’s reliance on incarceration in drug cases, and made the case that such reforms go beyond saving money:  “If you're pro-life, as I am, you can't be pro-life just in the womb,” he said. “Every life is precious and every one of God's creatures can be redeemed, but they won't if we ignore them.”

Across the country, conservatives understand that criminal justice systems should be subject to the same analysis as every other area of public policy.  They realize we spend far too much on incarceration and receive far too little in return.  Thankfully, some of the GOP’s “brightest stars” have made criminal justice reform a part of governing and leading “effectively and admirably.” It’s good to see the Republican Party not only embracing such reforms, but also rewarding the conservative leaders in criminal justice reform with a chance to share their views at the convention.

Some recent and older related posts:

August 29, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Colorado marijuana legalization among crucial issues in state"

The title of this post is the headline of this Politico article, which reinforces my view (discussed here) that the presidential candidates will have a hard time dodging all discussion of federal pot prohibition and state pot policy reforms this election cycle.  Here are excerpts:

With the first presidential debate in Denver less than six weeks away, strategists and academics intimately familiar with Colorado gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss issues particular to the vital swing state, such as marijuana decriminalization, “personhood” votes, the death penalty, and the influence of rising Democratic star Gov. John Hickenlooper.

In a panel sponsored by the University of Denver and moderated by former White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers, participants said the Aurora, Colo., shooting failed to spark efforts at gun control, but instead elevated talk of the death penalty, an issue that hasn’t received much national attention during this campaign cycle.

“Gun sales went up in Denver the week of the shooting, so it doesn’t seem to have been the impetus for a conversation on gun control. It has generated a fair amount of discussion about the death penalty however,” said Dr. Sam Kamin, a professor of law at the University of Denver.

The University of Denver will be the site of the first 2012 presidential debate between President Barack Obama and presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, to be held on Oct. 3....

And while the issues like the economy, Medicare and the deficit will no doubt be addressed during the debate, panelists took the time to address the specific policies making waves in the state.

At the same time as voters in Colorado head to the polls to cast a vote for president, they will also be addressing ballot questions on abortion and “personhood,” as well as the decriminalization of marijuana — so it is likely that the two presidential candidates might be asked about them.

The marijuana issue “is hugely popular with younger voters. … If they come out strongly and the Obama campaign doesn’t do anything to antagonize them on this issue, they could have a real impact,” Kamin said. “There’s a huge push online to get youth voters energized around that proposition, those are the exact same voters that had a lot of enthusiasm for the president four years ago.” Dee Dee Myers pointed out that Colorado is a state with more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks locations.

Some recent and older related posts on pot policies and politics: 

August 20, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, August 10, 2012

When and how might pot prohibition or federal pot policy enter the 2012 Prez campaign?

With the summer winding down and the political conventions not far away, I am already giving thought to whether, when and how crime and punishment issues could become part of the 2012 Presidential campaign.  One notable and distinguishing feature of recent big national elections has been the lack of engagement with domestic crime and justice issues, due in part probably to a combination of declining crime rates, declining differences in the policies of the major parties, and the focus on terrorism as the chief public safety concern to get national political attention in the wake of 9/11.

For various reasons, I expect Obama and Romney to both make the (wise? safe?) decision to avoid significant discussion of many serious domestic criminal justice issues.  Neither candidate has an exemplary record on these issues, but neither has an obvious political vulnerability on this front that the other might seek to exploit.  Thus, I will be very surprised if either campaign brings up crime and punishment issues or if there is any discussion of them at the conventions.

But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, I suspect it may prove very hard for the candidates to completely dodge some engagement with pot prohibition or federal pot policy over the next three months.  This is so for various reasons: (1) there are state pot legalization initiatives on the ballot in three states, including the swing state of Colorado, (2) Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson may work hard to get these issues into the campaign mix; (3) many local candidate are engaging with these issues in state campaigns (see, e.g., this recent story from Vermont); and (4) pro-legalization forces are very effective at pushing these issues when given a chance to post questions on YouTube or via other open avenues.

I doubt pot policy will ever become a "big" issue in the fall campaign, but I would be working hard on a nuanced answer to the many potentially tough marijuana questions if I were working for one of the campaigns.  Indeed, if Romney really needs and is looking for a "Sister Souljah Moment," as this recent New Republic commentary argues, he might consider going after Obama for seemingly breaking his 2008 campaign promise to leave states alone to do their own thing on medical marijuana fronts.  (Though were Romney to talk about reformed pot policies, we might now call this a Pat Roberson moment.)

Some recent and older related posts on pot policies and politics: 

August 10, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Beastly articulation of my (foolish?) hope candidate Romney might embrace the Right on Crime movement

I had the great fortune and honor to be asked by folks at The Daily Beast to expound a bit on themes in this post from earlier this week titled "Could Romney appeal to independents and minorities with bold crime and punishment vision?."  The last few paragraphs of this now-published Daily Beast piece of mine adds these ideas to my prior thoughts:

A conservative politician with true conviction on [liberty and limited government] issues could further argue that federal and state governments ought to rely far less on incarceration as a response to less serious crimes, or that the long-running “war or drugs” (which surely restricts individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise as much as alcohol prohibition did a century ago) suffers from many of the same big-government flaws as other top-down efforts to improve society.

Of course, it may be not only naive but even foolish to expect Romney to pioneer change in this arena.  After all, he has not yet shown much boldness in his campaign strategies so far, and I wonder if he has either the political courage or the personal convictions needed to reshape the GOP message on crime and punishment for the better.  Indeed, when Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he took heat from both the left and the right when he tried to develop a “foolproof” death-penalty system for the state.  That experience, together with the knee-jerk tough-on-crime stance most politicians still readily embrace, may ensure that Romney will see more political risks than rewards on this path.

But there’s a “toe in the water” opportunity here, provided last summer by none other than Ron Paul. Together with outgoing Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, Paul introduced a bill that, while allowing the federal government to continue enforcing interstate marijuana smuggling, would let states develop and apply their own distinct laws on marijuana production and use so that individuals could grow and sell it in places that choose to make it legal.

If Romney were to express his support for this bill, he might not only pull in libertarian-leaning independents who have helped fuel the Paul campaign, but he would signal to minority groups — who rightly lament the disparate impact of the drug war on people of color — that he understands and respects their concerns.  Further, if Romney adopted this sort of “states’ rights” approach to marijuana laws and regulations, he could reinforce and reiterate the nuanced principles behind his claims in the health-care-reform debate that there are some areas where the federal government ought to butt out.

But Romney’s apparent lack of conviction isn’t his only obstacle.  In the last few election cycles, traditional criminal-justice issues have not been a topic of much discussion, perhaps because of recent declines in the crime rate and because, post-September 11, voters seem to care more about how candidates view the war on terror than how they view the war on drugs.  Tellingly, Romney’s official campaign website has an Issues page with detailed positions on two dozen topics, none of which address traditional crime and punishment concerns.  Yet that same page asserts that the “foundations of our nation’s strength are a love of liberty and a pioneering spirit of innovation and creativity,” and another page champions a “simpler, smaller, smarter government” and asserts that “as president, Mitt Romney will ask a simple question about every federal program: is it so important, so critical, that it is worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?”

The important recent work of many Republican governors on sentencing reform, as well as the existence of prominent conservatives supporting the Right On Crime movement, indicate that many on the right would support and even help champion a commitment to reconsider the efficacy of drug war and to question which parts of the massive federal criminal-justice system are not worth the cost.  Perhaps with prodding from those on both sides of the aisle, this election could bring us more real talk about criminal-justice reform from candidate Romney than from President Obama.

April 13, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Could Romney appeal to independents and minorities with bold crime and punishment vision?

It seems now all but certain that Mitt Romney is going to secure the Republican nomination and take on President Obama in the general Presidential election this Fall.  Consequently, I am starting to think about whether and how criminal justice issues might play a role in the coming Romney v. Obama 2012 campaign.  In particular, I am wondering about who might be giving Romney advice on crime and punishment issues, and I am especially hoping that Romney might seriously consider a bold new GOP approach to these issues in an effort to reach out to independent and minority voters (especially young ones). 

As regular readers know, the Right on Crime folks have set forth an effective "conservative case" for criminal justice reform.  In this statement of principles, which stresses "limited government, transparency, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise," there is a strong suggestion that incarceration should play a smaller role in modern criminal justice systems and that the drug war ought to be scaled back significantly.  GOP stalwarts ranging from Jeb Bush to Newt Gingrich to Grover Norquist to Edwin Meese to John DiIulio to Ralph Reed to Larry Thompson have all signed off on these principles and likely would be supportive of their embrace by candidate Romney.

Meanwhile, I strongly suspect that many folks (myself included) who thought President Obama might be an effective advocate for needed criminal justice reforms have been persistently disappointed by the work of the Obama Administration in this arena. On issues ranging from federal marijuana policy to criminal discovery reform to mandatory minimum sentencing statutes to clemency practices, the last few years have represented a missed opportunity for needed federal reforms with a deeply disappointing failure in leadership and vision.

I fully understand political and practical reasons why President Obama has not been able to engineer the sort of hope and change in the criminal justice system promised by candidate Obama.  But this very reality prompts me to believe there is a real opening for candidate Romney to seize on this issue and, without having to do any major Etch-a-Sketch revisions to his campaign rhetoric, to demonstrate to many potential swing voters and even a part of the Obama base that he is ready and willing to bring the GOP's rhetoric about the evil of big government to bear on the big federal criminal justice system.

Because Romney has not yet shown much boldness in his campaign strategies to date, and because criminal justice issues are sure to continue to take a back seat throughout the rest of the 2012 election season, I am not expecting much here.  But I continue to hope for change, and the recent work of a number of GOP governors on sentencing reform suggests to me that it now may be more likely to hear real talk about real criminal justice change from candidate Romney than from President Obama.

Some recent and older related posts: 

April 10, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack