Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Could new DEA chief significantly change realities of federal war on drugs?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Huffington Post article, headlined "Lawmakers Encourage Obama To Select A Progressive New DEA Chief," reporting on this recent letter sent by a group of Representatives to Prez Obama. Here are the details: 

In a letter sent Friday, a group of lawmakers are urging President Barack Obama to select a more progressive head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, following the Department of Justice's announcement that the embattled current chief will resign in May. "We encourage you to use this as an opportunity to reshape the DEA's direction to reflect your administration's enforcement priorities," the letter reads.  The letter was signed by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Democratic California Reps. Barbara Lee, Sam Farr, Zoe Lofgren and Eric Swalwell.

While the lawmakers say they appreciate the Obama administration's efforts to allow states to forge their own marijuana policies, they said that current DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart "leaves behind a legacy of strident opposition to efforts to reform our nation's drug policy."  The letter urges the president to nominate a new DEA chief who will be willing to work with state and federal officials to craft more flexible marijuana policies....

With just a little more than two weeks before Leonhart steps down, it remains unclear who the Obama administration could nominate who would both be approved by a Republican-controlled Senate and be a good fit for the DEA.

Leonhart came to head the DEA as acting administrator in 2007, under President George W. Bush.  She was made administrator in 2010 during Obama's first term, but has long seemed out of step on drug policy, clashing with the administration over the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington and with efforts to lower the mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of federal drug crimes.

In their letter, the lawmakers argue that under Leonhart the DEA placed "far too great an emphasis on prosecuting state-legal marijuana activity, as opposed to prioritizing more dangerous drug-related activity," adding that her "misplaced priorities" exacerbated problems with the criminal justice system and put a strain on "legitimate marijuana businesses operating under state law."

May 5, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Timely (but incomplete) report on political debates as de facto moratorium on federal executions continues

The New York Times this morning has this new front-page article discussing a remarkable national death penalty story that seems never to get nearly as much attention it merits.  The article is headlined "Obama Adminintration Steps Back From Effort to End Federal Death Penalty," and here are excerpts:

For a moment last year, it looked as if the Obama administration was moving toward a history­-making end to the federal death penalty.  A botched execution in Oklahoma brought national attention to the issue, public opinion polls began to shift and President Obama, declaring that it was time to “ask ourselves some difficult and profound questions,” directed Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to review capital punishment.

At the Justice Department, a proposal soon began to take shape among Mr. Holder and senior officials: The administration could declare a formal moratorium on the federal death penalty because medical experts could not guarantee that the lethal drugs used did not cause terrible suffering.  Such a declaration would have pressured states to do the same, the officials reasoned, and would bolster the legal argument that the death penalty is unconstitutionally cruel punishment.

But the idea never gained traction, and Mr. Obama has seldom mentioned the death penalty review since.  Now, as the Supreme Court considered arguments Wednesday over whether lethal injection, as currently administered, was unconstitutional, the obstacles the Obama administration faced provide vivid examples of just how politically difficult the debate remains.

“It was a step in the right direction, but not enough of a step,” said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard professor and a death penalty opponent who met with administration officials as part of the review.  The Justice Department, he added, has been refusing to say what he thinks senior officials there believe: “We’ve had too many executions that didn’t work and killing somebody’s not the answer.”

In remarks last May after a prisoner in Oklahoma regained consciousness and writhed and moaned during a lethal injection, Mr. Obama, who has supported the death penalty, seemed to raise expectations for a policy change.  He lamented its racial disparities and the risk of executing innocent people.  He referred the matter to Mr. Holder, a liberal stalwart who opposed capital punishment. But privately the White House was cautious, sending word to the Justice Department to keep its focus narrow, administration officials said.    

Mr. Obama called for the review at a time when there had not been a federal execution since 2003, when Louis Jones Jr. was killed for raping and murdering a 19-­year-­old female soldier. Since 2010, the federal government has effectively had a moratorium on executions — all are carried out by lethal injection — because manufacturers in Europe and the United States refused to sell the government the barbiturates used to render prisoners unconscious. States, however, found alternatives, including the sedative midazolam, which was used in the gruesome execution of Clayton D. Lockett in Oklahoma last year.

As the Justice Department sought advice from experts on both sides of the issue, opposition to the idea came from unexpected corners.  Some of the most outspoken voices against the death penalty also urged the most caution, fearful that a federal announcement would actually do more harm than good. “From my view, we’re better off with things bubbling up in the states,” said Henderson Hill, the executive director of the Eighth Amendment Project and one of several people consulted by the administration last year....

Advocates in particular worried that having Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder as the faces of the anti-­death penalty movement would stoke conservative support for capital punishment at a time when some libertarian­-minded Republicans, Christian conservatives and liberal Democrats appeared to be finding common ground in opposition to it. “I’m not sure that what the administration would have to say would be inherently influential in Nebraska,” Mr. Hill said.

Opposition to the death penalty was growing in Nebraska last year and lawmakers voted overwhelmingly this month to replace it with life in prison, setting up a veto fight with Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican.

Advocates were further worried that if lethal injections were eliminated, states would bring back older methods of execution, a concern borne out in Utah, where officials said they would bring back firing squads if lethal drugs were not available.  Other states are reviving plans to use the electric chair or gas chambers.

Inside the Justice Department, some officials opposed a formal moratorium because it would eliminate the option for the death penalty in terrorism cases like the one against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who faces a possible death sentence for the 2013 bombings at the Boston Marathon.  Others worried that eliminating the death penalty would make it harder to persuade Congress to move terrorist suspects from the island prison at Guantánamo Bay to the United States for trial. There were also logistical hurdles.

Advocates and administration officials asked what would happen to the roughly five dozen people on federal death row. Would Mr. Obama, who has said the death penalty was appropriate in some cases, commute the sentences of men who raped and murdered people? There were no clear answers.

In the end, the question never made it to Mr. Obama’s desk. Last fall, Mr. Holder announced plans to resign, and officials said it would be inappropriate to recommend a major policy change on his way out of office, then leave it up to his successor to carry it out. In January, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of three convicted murderers who challenged the lethal injection drugs. Now with the issue before the justices, the review at the Justice Department has come to a halt because any administration action could be seen as trying to influence the court.

Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who was sworn in this week, told senators during her confirmation hearing that the death penalty “is an effective penalty.” But she did not elaborate. Emily Pierce, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the review continued. “And we have, in effect, a moratorium in place on federal executions in the meantime.” 

The last line in this excerpt highlights for me the federal death penalty story that continue to fail to get nearly as much coverage, legally, politically and practically, as I think it should. The feds have, I believe, a significant number of capital murderers on federal death row who have completed all their appeals but who have been escaping their imposed punishment since 2007 because of all the state lethal injection litigation that resulted in the Supreme Court's Baze ruling and all the subsequent uncertainty that has followed.  

I have long been troubled that the Bush Administration starting in 2007, and the Obama Administration in the years that have followed, have made no apparent effort to try to carry out existing federal death sentences.  Whatever the reasons for a nearly-decade-long de facto executive moratorium on the federal death penalty, I believe federal prosecutors should feel some obligation to defendants, victims and the general public to provide some public explanation about what the heck is going on with the actual administration of the federal death penalty.

April 30, 2015 in Baze lethal injection case, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, February 27, 2015

AG nominee Loretta Lynch one step closer to confirmation

As reported in this Politico piece, "Loretta Lynch cleared a key vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday in her bid to become the nation’s next attorney general, picking up support from three Republicans on the panel in favor of her confirmation." Here are the details:

The vote was 12-8. The three Republicans who backed her nomination, along with all committee Democrats, were Orrin Hatch of Utah, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The next battle is on the Senate floor, where the federal prosecutor from Brooklyn is still expected to have enough GOP backing to be confirmed. But the controversy over President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration have overshadowed her nomination — particularly after her confirmation hearing last month, where she testified that those unilateral moves are legal.

Most GOP senators on the committee stressed that they could not support someone to be the nation’s chief law enforcement official who believes that the executive actions — which Republicans uniformly oppose and say are unconstitutional — are legal....

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), announced Thursday that he would oppose Lynch because he believes she would not be sufficiently independent from Obama and the administration’s policies. “I remain unconvinced she will lead the [Department of Justice] in a different direction,” he said. “Now, I’m confident that if she had demonstrated a little more independence from the president, she would’ve garnered a lot of support today.”

Democrats, meanwhile, have long demanded that the controversy over Obama’s executive actions — which could stop deportations for more than 4 million immigrants here illegally and grant them work permits — stay out of the attorney general battle. “Loretta Lynch, a supremely qualified nominee for a vital national security and law enforcement post, should never have been pulled into the fray” over immigration, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said....

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) invoked the issue of race and gender in regard to the nomination of Lynch, who would be the first black female attorney general if confirmed. He noted that near the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, it was “fundamentally unfair” to reject Lynch because she agrees with Obama’s immigration policies.

That drew the ire of Republicans. Hatch, who has said for weeks that he would support Lynch, said Democrats’ insinuation of a so-called double standard on her nomination was an “offensive and patently false innuendo.”

February 27, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prez Obama talks about criminal justice reform with members of Congress and...

This piece from The Hill, headlined "Obama meets with lawmakers on criminal justice reform," reports that talk about federal criminal justice reform is continuing among most (but not all) key federal policy-makers:

The bipartisan group of 16 lawmakers included Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), two rising Republican stars who have backed reforms meant to reduce the number of adults in prison. They were joined by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who have proposed moderate changes to the mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the Democrat sponsoring a significant update to the nation's primary law dictating how to treat minors in custody, was also in attendance.

Notably absent from the meeting was Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who along with Whitehouse is the sponsor of a major prison reform bill, and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and who is backing the juvenile justice bill.

Grassley was the only top member of either the House or Senate judiciary committees not to attend. House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and ranking member Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) attended the meeting, as did Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

At a time when congressional Republicans and the White House are at loggerheads over several issues, the meeting was another sign that there is some level of bipartisan agreement that changes must be made to federal criminal justice policies. But what form those reforms might takes remains in question. Some in Congress want reforms made to the mandatory minimums, while others — like Cornyn and Grassley — have expressed a preference for other prison reforms that do not change the drug sentences.

The administration has indicated that it would be open to a range of possibilities. 

As long-time readers know, what I think the Obama Administration has truly "indicated" through its work on these matters for six years is that it is always eager to talk about the need for reform and never eager to spend and serious political capital on actually moving needed reforms forward. There has been serious and significant "bipartisan agreement that changes must be made to federal criminal justice policies" for nearly a decade now going back at least to when the Booker ruling invalidated important aspects of the bipartisan Sentencing Reform Act (and even before that if we focus on the crack-powder sentencing disparities).

I had long hoped that Prez Obama and others in his administration, who at least (tepidly) helped secure passage of the (tepid) Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, could and would get bolder and more proactive on criminal justice reforms once reelected. But it is now painfully clear that Prez Obama and his administration has decided that its political and policy energies and capital should always be focused much more on other (more controversial and divisive) issues like gay marriage, immigration and health care.

February 25, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cato director explains why "2015 Can be the Year of Criminal Justice Reform"

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the title of this extended commentary by Tim Lynch, who directs the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece along with its major headings: 

Criminal justice reform appears to be one of the hot topics this year. Unlike most other policy areas, where President Obama and Republicans remain at loggerheads, criminal justice reform holds much greater promise since both political parties seem to agree that there are festering problems that need to be addressed.

Let’s explore some of the most pressing topics.

Militarized policing....

Marijuana legalization....

Sentencing reform....

Civil asset forfeiture....

Indigent defense reform....

The political climate for criminal justice reform is superb. Present low crime rates provide space for policymakers who are inclined to address this compelling need. If there is no movement on reform now, we will all look back on 2015 as a lost opportunity.

February 12, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, February 06, 2015

Highlighting President Obama's pitiful pardon record

ZZoTyPLThis lengthy USA Today piece, headlined "The 50-year-old pardon: Obama picks safe clemency cases," provides yet another review of the now-too-familiar story of President Obama awful record on his use of his clemency authority. Here are excerpts:

Of the 64 pardons President Obama has granted over six years, half are for offenses that happened before 1989. Six are from the 1960s. On average, 23 years have elapsed between the sentencing date and the day Obama has granted a pardon or commutation — an all-time high. A century ago, three or four years was the norm.

It's part of a decades-long trend toward presidents being more cautious in their pardon power, picking older and safer cases for clemency. But Obama has been the most cautious of all, and some critics say he is shirking his constitutional power — some say duty — to "grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States."

"'Safe' is being nice. I would almost say irrelevant. The people who are being pardoned are people on Social Security," said P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political scientist who studies pardons. "The people who need pardons are young and need to establish themselves and get a job, get a Pell grant and go to college."...

Many of Obama's pardons are for old, obscure and sometimes trivial crimes:

• Ronald Lee Foster, of Beaver Falls, Pa., was convicted of mutilating coins in 1963. He had shaved the edges off pennies to fool vending machines into thinking they were dimes. He was pardoned in 2010 at the age of 66.

• David Neil Mercer of Grand Junction, Colo., was convicted in 1997 of violating the Archaeological Resources Protection Act by disturbing Indian artifacts in Utah. He now owns an automotive business and was pardoned last year at the age of 56.

• Bobby Gerald Wilson, of Summerton, S.C., was convicted in 1985 of aiding and abetting in the possession and sale of illegal American alligator hides. He was pardoned in 2011 at the age of 61.

Obama has issued fewer pardons than any president since James Garfield, who served just 199 days in office, and fewer than any two-term president since George Washington, according to Ruckman, a Rock Valley College professor who tracks clemency trends on the blog Pardon Power.

The few pardons Obama is granting often come late in life — sometimes to people on their deathbeds. Albert Byron Stork, a defense attorney from Delta, Colo., was convicted of tax evasion in 1987, when he took money from his fugitive brother for the down payment of a house. He received a pardon the same day as Auvil — and died of brain cancer two weeks later.

The White House said the president has an "ongoing commitment" to granting clemency. "The president believes strongly that a critical component of our criminal justice system is for deserving and qualified applicants to have the ability to petition for clemency," said White House spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine. She said Obama "looks forward to reviewing additional requests for clemency in the coming months."

The Office of the Pardon Attorney, in the Justice Department, is responsible for sifting through the hundreds of applications received each year.... Pardon Attorney Deborah Leff's recommendations go to Deputy Attorney General James Cole, then to White House Counsel Neil Eggleston, and ultimately to the president. That's how it works in principle. But in practice, the Justice Department is run by career prosecutors who are often hostile to those seeking pardons, defense attorneys say.

"They churn out a steady stream of no," said Sam Morison, a lawyer specializing in pardon cases who worked in the Office of the Pardon Attorney in the Clinton, Bush and early Obama administrations. "That doesn't mean that the president has to do what they say. But the president almost always does what the Justice Department recommends, even when he doesn't agree with what the Justice Department recommends." But the Justice Department has to recommend some favorable applications, and they tend to be older, easier cases, he said....

Delegating the decisions to the Justice Department helps to depoliticize the pardon power, but it's also led to its own problems. An internal Justice Department investigation found that President George W. Bush's pardon attorney withheld information from the White House about a commutation he opposed. And in 2010, the nonprofit news organization Pro Publica published an investigation in the Washington Post revealing that, under Bush and Obama, white criminals were four times more likely to get a pardon than black offenders.

Last year, the Justice Department announced a clemency initiative in an attempt to rectify some of the inequities in the system. Inmates who would have gotten lighter sentences under current federal guidelines were encouraged to apply to have their sentences commuted, or reduced.  But the Justice Department says that's a separate issue from pardons. 

Just a few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

February 6, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Imagining a SuperBowl party with the Koch brothers, Al Franken, Rob Portman, David Keene, Piper Kerman and Van Jones

The silly idea reflected in the title of this post is my effort to put a timely spin on what is becoming an old story: lots of folks from lots of different perspectives are coming together to talk about the need for criminal justice reforms. And, as detailed in this press piece, many of these folks got together this past week at an event. Here are the details:

Only one issue in Washington right now could bring together the Koch brothers’ top lawyer, an environmental activist, the former head of the NRA and Sen. Al Franken.  Criminal justice reform.  In a city best known for dysfunction and discord, the issue has stood out as a rare area of common ground between Democrats and Republicans.

And at a panel on reforming the criminal justice system hosted by the Constitution Project advocacy group on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the bipartisan array of speakers seemed genuinely nonplussed by the harmony across an otherwise gaping political divide.

Van Jones, the former Obama administration official and liberal commentator, was seated next to Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ general counsel and the face of the conservative mega-donors’ efforts to lower incarceration rates in the country. (The Koch brothers are planning to spend a reported $889 million during the 2016 election cycle, a figure that puts their operation in the same financial ballpark as the two political parties themselves.)

“That should be a headline in itself,” Jones said of he and Holden sitting at the same table. “Cats and dogs sleeping together,” Holden chimed in. “I don’t know about sleeping together,” Jones quipped.

Jones said he hoped politicians would seize on this moment — when crime is down and interest is high — to reform the U.S. penal system so that the country no longer imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation.  “This is a time for real comprehensive change,” Jones said. “It’s very, very rare that we have a moment where the stars are aligned in this way.”  He later warmly embraced the Kochs' lawyer.

Lawmakers lined up to promote their criminal justice reform bills at the event, which also included remarks from Piper Kerman, the author whose memoir about her experience in federal prison inspired the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”

Sens. Rob Portman, a Republican, and Al Franken, a Democrat, spoke about a bill they’re reintroducing this year to provide more mental health services to prisoners and to fund special mental health courts that emphasize treatment over doing time. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said he believes lawmakers should review every federal regulation or law that carries prison time to decide if it’s merited or not. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who introduced a bill to expunge nonviolent criminal records of juvenile offenders that he’s co-sponsored with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), sat with audience members, saying he wanted to listen and learn.

Holden told the crowd that the Koch brothers have been involved in criminal justice reform for more than 10 years, after a few of their employees were prosecuted for violating environmental regulations in Texas in the 1990s.  (The charges against the employees were later dropped, and Koch Industries settled with the government.)  The Kochs have since invested in providing defense lawyers for poor people and other reform efforts, and have signaled it will be a major policy priority this year.  Their support could lend momentum to the bipartisan reform bills that have already been introduced. “What we should be using the prison system for is people we’re afraid of,” Holden said, not for nonviolent offenders.

I am always pleased to see talk of significant criminal justice reform making headlines. But as I have often said before (and as I likely will say again a lot in the months ahead), "talking the talk" about criminal justice reform is always much easier than "walking the walk" especially at the federal level.  So, if you come upon this notable cast of characters at your SuperBowl party this weekend, you should find it much easier to talk about criminal justice reform than to predict when all this talk will result in significant legislative action.

We are coming on five years since the libertarian/small-government wing of the GOP began talking a lot about significant sentencing reforms (right after the 2010 election cycle).  And yet, circa 2015, we still have not yet seen any proposals for "real comprehensive change" making the rounds on Capitol Hill.  Indeed, even (much-too) small proposed changes reflected in bills like the Smarter Sentencing Act have gained precious little momentum.

I am cautiously hopeful that the involvement of major capitalists like the Kochs will help fuel the work of major activists to turn all the talk into real action. But, ever the realistic (though optimistic) cynic, I am not expecting Congress to enact any truly landmark criminal justice reform legislation anytime soon.

January 31, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Lynch to Cast Herself as Departure From Holder in Bid to Be Attorney General"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times article previewing the start today of hearings concerning President Obama's nomination for Eric Holder's replacement as Attorney General. Here is how the article starts:

Loretta E. Lynch on Wednesday will cast herself as an apolitical career prosecutor who is a departure from Eric H. Holder Jr. when she faces a new Republican-­controlled Judiciary Committee that includes some of the administration’s fiercest critics in Congress.

“I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress — a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance,” Ms. Lynch said in testimony prepared for the confirmation hearing.  “Ultimately, I know we all share the same goal and commitment: to protect and serve the American people.”

If she is confirmed, Ms. Lynch would be the nation’s first African-American woman to serve as attorney general.  Her allies have sought to differentiate her from Mr. Holder, an outspoken liberal voice in the administration who clashed frequently with Republicans who accused him of politicizing the office.

In particular, Ms. Lynch is expected to face tough questioning about her opinion of the president’s decision to unilaterally ease the threat of deportation for millions of unauthorized immigrants.  Mr. Holder approved the legal justification for that action, enraging some Republicans.

In these hearings, I am expecting some Senators to ask some questions about sentencing reform and federal marijuana policy. I hope to be able to provide some coverage and commentary about what gets asked and what nominee-Lynch says in future posts.

Prior related posts:

January 28, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Will this week's confirmation hearings for AG nominee Loretta Lynch produce any fireworks?

This new National Law Journal article suggests the answer to the question in the title of this post may actually be no. The piece is headlined "Nominee Isn't Drawing a Crowd: Loretta Lynch hasn't inspired the passions that Eric Holder Jr. did — but that might be by design." Here are excertps:

Since Loretta Lynch's nomination on Nov. 8 for attorney general, the Senate Judiciary Committee has received about a dozen letters supporting her — a volume that starkly contrasts with the outpouring Eric Holder Jr. inspired six years ago.

That may not be a bad start for a nominee whose Senate hearings are scheduled to begin on Jan. 28. But by the time Holder's confirmation hearings began on Jan. 15, 2009, the committee had received more than 100 letters from law enforcement, victims' rights and civil rights organizations — among other groups and individuals — weighing in on Holder's fitness for the job.

A former White House lawyer who worked on previous Obama administration nominations told the NLJ that the dearth of formal submissions concerning Lynch is less about a lack of enthusiasm for her than the fact her work in the law hasn't generated sharp, easily defined divisions on Capitol Hill.

Lynch's critics so far haven't pointed to any particular moment in her career that raises questions about her fitness to serve as the nation's top law enforcement officer. Indeed, some Republicans intend to challenge Lynch as a proxy for the Obama administration at large — with a focus on the president's executive action on immigration....

As of press time, the Judiciary Committee had posted 13 letters addressing Lynch's nomination. Lynch's public support, so far, represents a cross-section of federal prosecutors, district attorneys, in-house corporate attorneys, African-American lawmakers and law enforcement officers. She has the formal support of general counsel at Alcoa Inc. and Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Officers, the Federal Bar Council, the Congressional Black Caucus and the National District Attorneys Association....

From almost as soon as Obama nominated Lynch, some Senate Republicans signaled they wouldn't stand in her way. In November, for example, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Lynch "looks good to me." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called her a "solid choice." That does not mean there won't be opposition. The difference between 2009 and 2015 in the political climate and the Senate's composition — now with the Republicans in control — may mean Lynch will be confirmed by a narrower margin than Holder's 75-21 tally, which included 19 Republican "yea" votes. "The pattern of recent confirmations has been that nominees will get just enough to get through," Gorelick said.

Gun Owners of America intends to voice its concerns to the judiciary committee for those senators looking for reasons to vote "no" against Lynch. In a proposed letter, the group said Lynch has "no real paper trail." The letter tied her to justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, as well as to Holder, each of whom the Gun Owners of America calls "a committed anti-gun radical." "She's kind of like Eric Holder in a skirt," organization president Larry Pratt told the NLJ. Although Lynch has made her name as a longtime prosecutor, Pratt's letter highlights sustained criticism of Holder as an activist attorney general.

Prior related posts:

January 25, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A (too) brief 2015 State of the Union mention of criminal justice issues

At the tail end of a lengthy speech mostly focused on economic issues and foreign affairs, President Barack Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address mentioned a few matters that should intrigue those focused on federal criminal justice issues.  Here are the passages from this CNN text of the SotU speech that caught my attention:  

As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice -- so it makes no sense to spend three million dollars per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit.  Since I've been President, we've worked responsibly to cut the population of GTMO in half.  Now it's time to finish the job. And I will not relent in my determination to shut it down. It's not who we are....

We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can't walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won't rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift. Surely we can agree it's a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together, and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America's criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.

The absence of anything more substantive or substantial about federal criminal justice reform confirms my sense and fear that President Obama is more content simply to support criminal justice reforms pushed by others from behind rather than committed seriously to leading reform efforts from the bully pulpit.

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the The Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is a description of the report I received today via an e-mail from The Vera Institute of Justice:

Enacted in 1973, New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug offenses.  This heralded a wave of mandatory sentencing statutes that swept the nation, contributing to dramatic increases in state prison populations and fueling the racial disparities that have come to characterize the U.S. criminal justice system.  In 2009, however, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were essentially dismantled by the latest in a series of reforms that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for the possession, use, or small-scale sale of illegal drugs and increased eligibility for diversion treatment.

In End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University examine the impact of reform soon after implementation and suggest mid-course corrections.  The research team compared cases pre and post-reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, recidivism, and cost. Researchers also interviewed 35 criminal justice stakeholders to assess their perceptions of the impact of drug law reform.  The National Institute of Justice-funded study, which focused on New York City where the majority of the state’s prison population is from, found that drug law reform, as it functioned in the city soon after the laws were passed, led to a 35 percent rise in the rate of diversion among eligible defendants. Although the use of diversion varied significantly among the city’s five boroughs, it was associated with reduced recidivism rates, and cut racial disparities in half.

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Hoping for (but not expecting) some mention of sentencing reform in 2015 State of the Union

For criminal justice and especially sentencing fans, the most notable aspects of President Obama's State of the Union addresses have been the absence of any discussion of anything having to do with sentencing or criminal justice.  Notably, the Obama era SOTU silence on sentencing issues contrasts with President George Bush's discussion of reentry and capital defense in his 2004 and 2005 SOTU speeches.  

Calling America "the land of second chance," President Bush in his 2004 State of the Union Address spotlighted prisoner re-entry issues and proposed "a four-year, $300 million prisoner re-entry initiative to expand job training and placement services, to provide transitional housing, and to help newly released prisoners get mentoring, including from faith-based groups."  And asserting that in America "we must make doubly sure no person is held to account for a crime he or she did not commit," President Bush in his 2005 State of the Union Address said he was going to send "to Congress a proposal to fund special training for defense counsel in capital cases, because people on trial for their lives must have competent lawyers by their side." 

I am expecting that President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union Address scheduled for tonight may finally say something about criminal justice issues, in part because I think he will want to say something about race and policing issues in the wake of Ferguson and his creation of a Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  But, as the title of this post reveals, I am not really expecting to hear tonight any discussion of sentencing law and policy  issues even though many in Congress and throughout the nation are concerned about the modern status quo and prospects for federal reforms.

On this front, Andrew Cohen at The Marshall project put together this terrific new piece headlined "‘My Fellow Americans …’: Reimagining the president's State of the Union speech," in which he got "a group of people who think deeply and regularly about criminal justice to share what they would like President Obama to say."   I was honored to be one of the people who Andrew Cohen asked to share my thoughts, though I find most notable what Senator Patrick Leahy, (D-Vt.) had to say:

The biggest issue facing our justice system today is our mass incarceration problem. The president has said before that we should enact laws that ensure “our crime policy is not only tough, but also smart.”  But tonight, while he has the attention of every member of Congress and the American people, I want to hear the president say that he supports an end to all mandatory minimum sentences, as I do.  Mandatory minimums are costly, unfair, and do not make our country safer.  For too long they have served as an easy way to score cheap political points: Want to prove you're tough on crime? Just add another mandatory minimum to the law. No need to bother with evidence that they do not make us safer; they make a nice talking point. That policy fallacy is one of the reasons we have the largest prison population in the world. And why $7 billion – nearly a third of the Justice Department’s budget – goes to the Bureau of Prisons instead of to community policing, victims services, or prison diversion programs that would make us safer and save taxpayers money.

Reagular readers will not be surprised to hear that I support the substance of what Senator Leahy is saying here.  But I am personally a bit surprised that the a ranking member (and former Chair) of the Senate Judiciary Committee is saying he think it is important for an executive branch official to say he opposes a legislative sentencing problem that Congress itself created and seems unable or unwilling to address dynamically. 

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014

Josh Gerstein has this notable new piece up at Politico headlined "Grassley questions Obama commutation drive," about a notable new inquiry directed to Attorney General Holder concerning the Obama Administration's (quirky?) efforts to ramp up its clemency activities. Here are excerpts:

New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley is questioning the arrangements surrounding President Barack Obama's drive to shorten the sentences of some drug convicts.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican asks for information about the relationship between the Justice Department and "Clemency Project 2014" — a consortium of outside groups formed in response to calls from administration officials to help federal prisoners prepare applications for the clemency effort.

"I am unaware of any time in history in which the Department of Justice has delegated any of these core attributes of presidential power to private parties beholden to no one, and who have their own agendas that may not coincide with the President's," Grassley wrote in the letter (posted here). "When private parties are wrongly given the ability to exercise any role in that public trust, then both the fairness of the pardon process and the appearance of its fairness are jeopardized."

Grassley's letter draws in large part on a POLITICO story last week which said that the new effort is struggling with more than 25,000 requests from inmates and that lawyers involved in the project have suggested applicants which route their clemency petitions through the project will stand a better or faster chance of favorable action than those who submit applications independently. The project—run by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers— is also screening applications and weeding out those it considers unmeritorious under criteria the Justice Department set forth last April.

"Please tell me what formal arrangements exist between the Department and the Clemency Project 2014 to coordinate the processing of pardon applications, including what direction Clemency Project lawyers are given, what actions they take for the Department, and, how, if at all, Department of Justice lawyers consider the work product provided by these organizations or follow their recommendations," Grassley wrote. The senator also asks if anyone in the Justice Department is aware of statements suggesting those who submit applications through the project will have "superior access to the Department's pardon process."...

Grassley's letter refers to "pardon applicants," but the petitions prisoners are submitting are actually requests for commutations — a form of executive clemency that serves to shorten a prisoner's sentence.

The president can grant a commutation to anyone for virtually any reason. However, such applications are traditionally routed through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which prepares recommendations and sends them to the department's No. 2 official, who forwards them to the White House.

The new commutation drive the Justice Department announced last year is aimed largely at paring back the sentences of convicts sent to prison for long terms relating to trafficking in crack cocaine. Those prisoners tend to be disproportionately minority as compared to those convicted of handling powdered cocaine. A law Obama signed in 2010 reduced that disparity for defendants sentenced after that time, but it was not retroactive.

The full Grassley letter is quite interesting, and not just because it gives some grief to Obama Administration about how it appears to be approaching its latest clemency push.  The letter asked a host of hard questions about what exactly DOJ and Clemency Project 2014 are up to, while also asserting in a final paragraph that "[j]ustice in the award of presidential pardons requires a transparent, fair process." And, unsurprisingly, the letter does not mention the sad reality that presidential clemency actions of the last two presidents have involved nothing resembling a "transparent, fair process."    

Among other notable aspects of this letter, Senator Grassley's obvious interest in these matter suggests that clemency issues are likely to be raised in some way during the upcoming confirmation hearings for AG Holder's replacement.  

January 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

GOP apparently eager to have Eric Holder as AG for at least one more month

The (slightly) tongue-in-cheek title of this post is my reaction to the news reported in "this notable NPR report, titled "Senate Slow To Schedule Hearings For Attorney General Nominee."  In the piece, Carrie Johnson reports that Democrats have been pushing for confirmation hearings ASAP for Attorney General nominee Lorreta Lynch, but new GOP Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has indicated that these hearings will not take place before the last week in January  at the earliest.

I am very eager for the Lynch hearings because they should provide an important window into what both the GOP-controlled Congress and the Obama Administration are thinking about on federal criminal justice issues for the next two years.  But I suspect the GOP is feeling a bit forced to take a go slow approach on how to best approach (and attack) nominee Lynch and Prez Obama on these fronts, in part because the GOP has real internal divisions on these issues and in part because racial issues and divides are especially salient in criminal justice reform discussions these days.  

So, because AG Eric Holder remains in his position until his successor is confirmed, the GOP Senate is right now functionally extending his term as the nation's top prosecutor and lawyer. 

January 6, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

Former District Judge Paul Cassell at center of two big new victim-rights stories

ImageLong-time readers of this blog are surely familiar with the name Paul Cassell, perhaps primarily for his notable sentencing rulings back when he was a federal district judge concerning mandatory minimums and the impact of Blakely on the federal sentencing guidelines.  Long-time criminal justice academics are familiar with his long-ago scholarly work on Miranda and related police-practices jurisprudence and modern victim-rights advocates know Paul as one of the leading modern (court-focused) advocates for the interests of crime victims.  

With all that background (and the disclaimer that I have worked with Paul on various issues over the last decade and greatly respect his talents, energies and perspectives), I am now fascinating to see Paul Cassell's name at the forefront of two big new victim-rights stories.  Here are links and the start of articles about these stories:

From the Washington Times here, "Loretta Lynch questioned over secret deal depriving fraud victims of $40M":

More than a year before President Obama nominated federal prosecutor Loretta Lynch to be attorney general, a former federal judge quietly called on Congress to investigate her U.S. attorney’s office for trampling on victims’ rights.

Paul Cassell, a law professor at the University of Utah, said Ms. Lynch’s office, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, never told victims in a major stock fraud case that a culprit had been sentenced — denying them a chance to seek restitution of some $40 million in losses. Mr. Cassell, in written remarks to a House Judiciary Committee panel in 2013, said if prosecutors were using secretive sentencing procedures to reward criminals for cooperating with them, it could violate the Crime Victims Restitution Act.

From the Salt Lake Tribune here, "Utah law professor claims British prince, well-known attorney had sex with teen ‘sex slave’":

University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell has come under fire for filing a motion in a victims’ right suit that claims a client was forced as a girl to be a "sex slave" who allegedly was made available to a well-known attorney and a member of the British royal family.

The motion filed Friday in a federal court in Florida alleges that a woman identified as Jane Doe #3 was sexually exploited beginning at age 15 by billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, who also loaned her for sex to politically connected and powerful people — including Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz and Prince Andrew, a son of Queen Elizabeth II.

Both men have denied the allegations, and Dershowitz is threatening to initiate disbarment proceedings against Cassell and Bradley Edwards, a Florida attorney who also represents Jane Doe #3, according to The Wall Street Journal.

For lawyers and politicians, the story about criticisms of the Attorney-General-nominee is much more important and consequential.  But the teen sex slave story is sure to get a whole lot more attention — and that story could, I think, end up making it difficult for Paul Cassell to be called to testify or otherwise be a visible voice in AG-nominee Lynch's upcoming confirmation hearings.

January 5, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Current Affairs, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, December 22, 2014

Prez Obama to nominate Atlanta US Attorney Sally Yates to Deputy AG position

As reported in this Wall Street Journal article, President Obama is apparently going to make some more history with his nominee to take over the number two position at the US Department of Justice.  The headline and subheadline of the article explains: "Obama to Nominate Atlanta U.S. Attorney Yates to No. 2 Justice Department Job: Justice Set to Be Led by Two Women Elevated Directly From U.S. Attorneys’ Offices." Here is more on this notable news:

The expected nomination of Ms. Yates, 54 years old, to serve as deputy attorney general means the Justice Department is set to be led by two women who came straight from running powerful federal prosecutors’ offices outside of Washington. Mr. Obama has already nominated Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch to succeed Attorney General Eric Holder, and the Senate is expected to consider her early next year.

Ms. Yates, who must also be confirmed by the Senate, would succeed Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who has said he plans to leave the department after having served in the No. 2 role for most of the Obama administration. An official announcement of Ms. Yates’s nomination could come as soon as this week....

If Ms. Lynch and Ms. Yates are confirmed, the Justice Department would for the first time in history be run by two people elevated directly from U.S. attorneys’ offices. And though both were nominated by Mr. Obama to serve as U.S. attorney, neither is particularly close to the president. That marks a departure from Mr. Holder, a confidant of the president who worked on his 2008 campaign.

But like Ms. Lynch, Ms. Yates isn’t a stranger to Washington. Both held leadership positions on a committee of U.S. attorneys that advises Mr. Holder and have overseen major prosecutions that drew attention from the Justice Department. And both have won convictions of Democrats in high-profile public corruption cases. Ms. Yates led the prosecution of former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell on charges related to corruption. He was acquitted of some of the charges, but convicted of tax evasion.

A graduate of the University of Georgia law school, Ms. Yates has 2½ decades of experience as a federal prosecutor. Her career includes the prosecution of Eric Rudolph, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to bombing the 1996 Atlanta Olympics....

But Ms. Yates’s career as a prosecutor could help her win confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate. ”I know Sally Yates well and she has been an outstanding U.S. Attorney,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican from Ms. Yates’s home state of Georgia. “She will have my full support.”

Ever the federal sentencing reform optimist, I am eager to assert that this nomination could provide still further help for getting serious sentencing reform moving forward in the final years of the Obama Administration. Assuming that nominees Lynch and Yates have been supporters of AG Holder's reform efforts to date, I expect that will (if confirmed) look to continue and expand upon his initiatives designed to reduce the federal system's reliance on lengthy terms of incarceration for most offenses.

UPDATE:  I just noticed this post at Crime & Consequences by Kent Scheidegger about this nomination, which adds this interesting point:

There is an important diversity aspect to this nomination.  Ms. Yates is breaking the "glass ceiling" that irrationally tends to keep people who went to non-big-name law schools from being considered top-tier lawyers throughout their career.  There is no rational basis for considering long-ago school attendance to be even a significant criterion, much less a primary one, once lawyers have a decade or more of performance in the profession to be judged on, yet people still do it.

December 22, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Notable past remarks by AG-nominee Lynch on criminal justice reform to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination

DownloadI just came across these remarks delivered by Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch in August 2014 to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Switzerland as part of the US delegation. These remarks were intended to share with the Convention "some of the highlights of the Department of Justice’s efforts to eliminate racial discrimination and uphold human rights in the area of criminal justice."

The remarks are largely just a summary of many of the criminal justice reforms championed by Attorney General Eric Holder, but it will be interesting to see if the remarks garner special scrutiny as part of the Senate's confirmation process. Here are excerpts:

[T]he department has made great progress in reforming America’s criminal justice system. Our focus is not just on the prosecution of crime, but on eradicating its root causes as well as providing support for those re-entering society after having paid their debt to it.

There is, of course, much work still to be done. Currently our country imprisons approximately 2.2 million people, disproportionately people of color. This situation is a drain on both precious resources and human capital. The Attorney General is committed to reform of this aspect of our criminal justice system.

Last August the Attorney General announced the “Smart on Crime” initiative. Under this initiative, we’re ensuring that stringent mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crimes will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. This is not an abandonment of prison as a means to reduce crime, but rather a recognition that, quite often, less prison can also work to reduce crime. We’re advancing alternative programs in place of incarceration in appropriate cases. And we’re committed to providing formerly incarcerated people with fair opportunities to rejoin their communities and become productive, law-abiding citizens.

As part of this effort, the Attorney General has directed every component of the Justice Department to review proposed rules, regulations or guidance with an eye to whether they may impose collateral consequences that may prevent reintegration into society. He has called upon state leaders to do the same, with a particular focus on enacting reforms to restore voting rights to those who have served their debt to society, thus ending the chain of permanent disenfranchisement that visits many of them.

To further ensure that the elimination of discrimination is an ongoing priority, the Attorney General has created a Racial Disparities Working Group, led by the U.S. Attorney community, to identify policies that result in unwarranted disparities within criminal justice and to eliminate those disparities as quickly as possible.

From the reduction of the use of solitary confinement, to the expansion of the federal clemency program, to our support for the retroactive reduction of penalties for non-violent drug offenders to the reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, we have worked to improve our criminal justice system in furtherance of our human rights treaty obligations. We look forward to the future and the opportunity to do even more.

Obviously, if Loretta Lynch become the next US Attorney General, she will be in a great position to seize "the opportunity to do even more" with respect to criminal justice reform. I wonder what she might have in mind.

A few recent related posts:

November 11, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How might election results (and subsequent sparring) impact Prez Obama's clemency plans?

In this prior post, I wondered aloud "How might election results impact replacing Eric Holder as Attorney General?."  Since then, I have turned to thinking about, as the title of this post highlights, whether and how the Republican electorial success this election cycle might impact the President's thinking and plans about finally making some real use of his clemency powers.

As regular readers know, I consider President Obama's clemency record to date to be not merely disappointing, but truly disgraceful.  That said, earlier this year, Deputy AG Cole and others talked up a new DOJ effort to identify worthy clemency candidates so that the President might start to do better.  From the get-go, I have been concerned that all the talk of new clemency developments might prove to be just another example of the Obama Administration being real good at "talking the talk" and not nearly so good at really "walking the walk."  Indeed, until President Obama starts seriously and consistently using his clemency power, I remain deeply fearful that the so-called Clemency Project 2014 could prove to be much ado about nothing (or about very little relief for very few).

With these realities as backdrop, I have no sense at all whether the consequential political developments of the last few days will have little, some or much impact on whatever Prez Obama had in mind with respect to clemency.  Does anyone else have any insights or even wild speculations on this front?

A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

November 6, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

How might election results impact replacing Eric Holder as Attorney General?

The question in the title of this post is fraught with all sorts of political and practical uncertainty in light of the various folks thought to be front-runners for replacing Eric Holder in the most important criminal justice policy position in the nation.  This new posting from Constitution Daily highlights some of the lurking issues:  

There were signs this week that the Obama administration may not use the Senate lame-duck session between November and January to put through Holder’s replacement while it enjoyed the advantage of a filibuster-free nomination process.  But other reports indicated President Obama would make an announcement about Holder’s replacement in the days following the mid-term elections.

Through its constitutional advice and consent powers, the Senate needs to approve a new Attorney General in a simple majority vote, after the Obama administration presents a nominee and the appropriate committees question the nominee.

Given the short time frame and the timing of the November election, a public process that gives the President’s opponents a chance to speak about Holder and Holder’s replacement could prove problematic for the Obama administration.  But given the short time frame of lame duck session between November 2014 and January 2015, a troublesome confirmation hearing now would certainly be shorter than a drawn-out process in early 2015.

Three candidates are rumored to be on Obama’s short list: Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch.

Perez would enjoy the advantage of appearing before the Senate in July 2013 during his nomination to head the Labor Department, which could shorten his hearing process now. Ironically, Perez was approved by a 54-46 vote when Democrats and Republicans had agreed to stop fighting, at least temporarily, about filibuster rules.  But if Perez is the Attorney General pick, President Obama would need to get a new Labor Secretary approved by a GOP-controlled Senate.

Even if one were to exclude all political concerns and calculations, there are practical challenges for a nomination and a confirmation process moving forward relatively expeditiously. And, of course, inside the Beltway, political concerns and calculations often eclipse all others when it comes to headline-grabbing presidential appointments. Moreover, all these dynamics should take on an extra level of interest for sentencing fans given that federal sentencing reforms, federal marijuana policy and maybe even the death penalty could be big issues of interest and concerns for the new Republican-controlled Senate. Interesting times.

A few recent related posts:

November 5, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, November 03, 2014

Why I believe criminal justice reform is on the ballot this year ... and reflected in anti-Obama sentitments

The title of this post is designed as something of a retort to this interesting new Daily Beast commentary by Inimai Chettiar and Abigail Finkelman.  The piece is headlined "Why Isn’t Prison Justice on the Ballot This Tuesday?," and here are excerpts (with my emphasis added):

Whichever party wins control of the U.S. Senate, voters can wince at the prospect of continued polarization and gridlock.  But one issue, intriguingly, seems ripe for genuine bipartisan cooperation: criminal justice reform.  Yet, partly because it has become less controversial, discussions about criminal justice policy have been absent from the campaign trail.  This silence creates the risk that a moment of promise will become a missed opportunity for change.

The fact that criminal justice policy is not a campaign issue is, itself, noteworthy. Consider it Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark.  For decades, politicians vied to be the most punitive, from the 1977 New York City mayoral race, which improbably turned on the issue of the death penalty (over which a mayor has no power) to the 1994 referendum that passed “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” in California.  The 1988 presidential race is rightly remembered for its focus on demagogic and racially coded appeals....

But times have changed, and “tough on crime” has been replaced with “smart on crime.”  In the last decade, states as disparate as Texas, New York, Kentucky, and California have instituted reforms to reduce their prison populations and ease up their harsh sentencing laws.  The White House just launched a major initiative to implement a more modern, sensible drug policy.  Even Congress passed a law reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.  And Americans overwhelmingly support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Yet, by and large, candidates have steered clear of criminal justice reform this election cycle.  Perhaps they’re fearful of being painted as soft on crime.  Or perhaps they simply don’t care enough about the issue to take a position.

Check out the issues pages of the websites of Senate candidates in the hottest races. Neither Michelle Nunn nor David Perdue, the two major Senate candidates in Georgia, talk about criminal justice reform.  Neither do Mark Udall and Cory Gardner in Colorado. Or Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley in Iowa.  In fact, you’d have to look far to find a candidate who makes even the most pro forma nod to the issue.

And that’s too bad, because not only is criminal justice important on its own, but because it impacts so many other important issues.  Voters consistently list the economy and inequality as top concerns.  The current system of mass incarceration costs governments around $260 billion annually; that’s about half the 2014 federal deficit.  In fact, it’s among the largest drivers of economic inequality in the United States.  Finding employment or housing can be nearly impossible with a criminal record.  Locking up the primary breadwinner can push a family from working-class to impoverished. And children growing up with incarcerated parents too often get pulled into the system themselves....

Politicians and candidates cannot be allowed to remain silent on one of the largest human rights issues on American soil.  But they also can’t be allowed to limit themselves to bromides about wanting reform without laying out next steps, and taking them.  After all, some officeholders still resist needed changes, even as others link arms for reform.

Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) may have drawn wide attention and praise for their REDEEM Act. But the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, which went further and was cosponsored by Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren, among others, was blocked by a bipartisan group of senators.  Similar battles are unfolding in state legislatures.  But, as always, there’s a way to get legislators to change their actions: threaten to kick them out.

We’ve missed the chance to make mass incarceration an issue in 2014.  But a few weeks ago, Bill Clinton predicted the issue would play prominently in the 2016 presidential election.  Let’s hope he’s right.  But such a drastic change in election politics won’t happen unless we demand to know where candidates stand on criminal justice.  We must ask why they’re holding up bills, and if they’re only paying lip service to reform.

We need to know what they will do — or why they’re not doing anything — so that the United States no longer wears the scarlet letter of being the largest jailor in the world.  And if they can’t answer, hold them accountable.

I have emphasized key phrases above which I believe serve as justifiable criticisms of one particular politician this election cycle: President Barack Obama.  As regular readers know, I have long been talking about what I think President Obama could and should be doing in response to mass incarceration.  On Inauguration Day 2009, in this post, I asked "Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?".  Similarly, in post after post and post, I have highlighted that Prez Obama and others in his administration have been much more willing and eager to "talk the talk" than to "walk the walk" when it comes to criminal justice reform.

In other words, in my view President Obama is the politician who should be getting the most criticism for, in the words of this commentary, being content to spew "bromides about wanting reform without laying out next steps, and taking them," for missing "the chance to make mass incarceration an issue in 2014," and for helping to ensure the United States still "wears the scarlet letter of being the largest jailor in the world."  And, like Inimai Chettiar and Abigail Finkelman, I want this politician to be held accountable.  And, if polling and predictions about a Republican surge on election day tomorrow are accurate, it does appear that President Obama and his party are going to be held accountable for their failings in this regard.

(Side note:  I also think Prop 47 in California as well as the marijuana initiatives on the ballot in a number of states and localities serve as another way that "prison justice" can be seen as being on the ballot this year.)

November 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack