Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Could GOP Senator John Cornyn be the next big advocate for reducing federal prison terms?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this very interesting new piece by Greg Sargent via the Washington Post under the headline "Where are Republicans on sentencing reform?." Here are excerpts:

When Eric Holder announced recently that he is pursuing an ambitious package of sentencing reforms, including proposals to reduce “mandatory minimum” sentences, there was a widespread sense it could attract broad bipartisan support. The thinking was that agreement cuts across party lines that our decades-long experiment in mass incarceration has been a huge policy failure.

Now Dem Congressional aides are asking: Will leading Republicans step forward and support reform?...

I can report a new development on this front. I’m told GOP Senator John Cornyn is working on a separate but related package of prison-reform legislation that could help bring more attention to the overall debate.  According to his office, Cornyn is developing proposals designed to reduce recidivism rates and time served in prison. The ideas are not sentencing reform and would not reduce the sentences themselves — as would Holder’s proposals — but instead would give prisoners ways to reduce already-doled-out sentences.

The policies, which are modeled on similar reforms in Texas, would allow certain types of non-violent prisoners to do various programs — such as recidivism reduction programming, work programs, or other productive activities.  Prisoners at low risk of recidivism could trade in the time they do in such programs to convert their remaining time in prison into time in halfway houses or home confinement.

While these ideas don’t attack the problem in precisely the same way the ideas pushed by Holder and Dems do, there is overlap. As Cornyn’s office notes, their goal would be to reduce the amount of time people spend in prison, reduce recidivisim, and reduce costs. Cornyn’s office says he will try to round up Republican and Democratic support for them and possibly introduce them this fall.  If that happens, it could help ignite a conversation on the broader set of issues here....

But we have yet to hear from leading Republicans whose support would be required to push this debate forward, such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, both of whom are on the Judiciary Committee and (to my knowledge) have not seriously weighed in on Holder’s push.  The question is whether establishment Republicans are going to have a real voice on this issue this fall.  Let’s hope so.

I am pretty sure there are more than a few folks within the Justice Department who have advocated (both formally and behind the scenes) for expanding "good time" credits and creating "earned time" credits in order to make it much easier for nonviolent federal prisoners "to reduce already-doled-out sentences."  Consequently, it is not so much the specifics of Senator Cornyn's working plan that are such a big deal, but rather that someone without a obvious Tea Party history is working on a federal prison reduction plan at all.  Kudos to Senator Cornyn, and I hope joins the ever-growing chorus of GOP voices calling for federal criminal justice reforms.

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder's speech and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

September 11, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Bill and Doug's excellent adventure ... debating mandatory minimums in Federalist Society Teleforum

Bill and tedFor anyone who especially enjoys the verbal sparring between me and Bill Otis in the comments to this blog, you may want to quickly become a member of the Federalist Society so you can hear us go at in for a full hour as part of this exciting event being put on this afternoon by the FedSoc folks:

Is Eric Holder Right About Mandatory Minimums?

Criminal Law & Procedure Practice Group

Douglas Berman, William G. Otis

Start : Tuesday, September 3, 2013 2:00 PM

Location:  Federalist Society Teleforum Conference Call

On August 12, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department will no longer pursue mandatory minimum sentences for what he described as certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.  Our experts will discuss Holder’s announcement and approach.  In addition, they will address a variety of other issues related to mandatory minimum sentencing, including the question whether or not mandatory minimums are conceptually sound.

Featuring:

  • Prof. William G. Otis, Adjunct Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center
  • Prof. Douglas A. Berman, Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law, Moritz College of Law, The Ohio State University

Registration details:

Teleforum calls are open to all dues paying members of the Federalist Society. To become a member, sign up here. As a member, you should receive email announcements of upcoming Teleforum calls which contain the conference call phone number. If you are not receiving those email announcements, please contact us at 202-822-8138.

Post-forum UPDATE: As you might have expected, Bill and I had a grand time talking past each other in an effort to highlight the pros and cons of mandatory minumum sentencing statutes. In all seriousness, I share Bill's perspective appearing in the comments below that "listeners got a full airing of the most persuasive points on both sides." And, valuably, you can still hear for yourself as a podcast of the hour-long discussion is now available from The Federalist Society via this link.

September 3, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, August 26, 2013

Could "momentum for sentencing reform [now] be unstoppable" in the federal system?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a comment in the final paragraph of this lengthy new piece by Juan Williams appearing in The Hill. The piece is headlined "Amid gridlock, a surprising accord on drug-law sentencing," and here are excerpts (including the final paragraph):

Reporters missed a story earlier this month when Attorney General Eric Holder announced new guidelines for his federal prosecutors in handling non-violent drug crimes.   Holder said President Obama plans to “reach out to members of Congress from both parties” to begin work on legislation to revise federal mandatory sentencing rules for people convicted of non-violent drug crimes....

In this era of deep political paralysis on Capitol Hill it should have been headline news that legislation revising sentencing guidelines for drug convicts is miraculously bringing together conservatives and liberals, even Tea Party conservatives and Obama....

Conservatives, including Republicans such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who regularly use tough rhetoric about punishing criminals, have already signed on to the essence of what Holder and Obama want to see in congressional legislation.  Even hardline conservative lobbying groups seem to be on board: “It’s a step in the right direction, though about five years too late,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, in an interview with Time magazine.

My Fox News colleague, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a strong conservative Republican, proclaimed on Twitter: “Finally found something I can agree with Eric Holder on — sentencing too many people to prison for non-violent drug crimes.”

The goal is to reduce the nation’s record prison population, now 40 percent over capacity. Conservatives as well as the president and attorney general are amazingly close to agreeing on the need to permanently revise thinking born during the crack epidemic of the 1980s that still has federal prosecutors asking for heavy mandatory sentences in 60 percent of cases involving any kind of illegal drugs....

Durbin and Lee, Democrat and Republican, have introduced a bill — “The Smarter Sentencing Act” — to revise the fixed sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders.  Leahy and Paul, another pairing across political lines, have introduced a similar bill — the “Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013” — which gives judges more discretion to break away from the current mandatory sentencing guidelines.  This bill has already won bipartisan House endorsements.

After Holder’s speech, Paul seemed to indicate the administration is following his conservative, libertarian lead in wrapping its arms around the idea of reducing prison sentences and cutting the cost that comes with housing so many prisoners.  “I am encouraged that the president and the attorney general agree with me that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety,” Paul said.

In fact, Paul’s home state, Kentucky, as well as other GOP strongholds, including Arkansas and Texas, have already put in place programs to explore the impact of lesser drug sentences.  In Kentucky, as Holder told the ABA, the prison population is being reduced by an estimated 3,000 inmates over the next decade, which will net savings of $400 million. Texas, Holder said, has reduced its prison population by 5,000 in the last year with new approaches to drug treatment and parole. Arkansas cut 1400 prisoners with a similar plan. “Clearly these strategies work,” Holder said.  “They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in ‘red states’ as well as ‘blue states.’  And it is past time for others to take notice.”

Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director, confirmed to me Holder’s announcement that the president’s fall agenda will include meeting “with folks in Congress who are pursuing legislation as well as governors and mayors who have done innovative work on this issue.”

The president’s personal attention to the issue could spark some conservative opposition because of their personal antipathy to him.  But with existing support for the idea among Republicans on the Hill and in statehouses nationwide there is also a chance that a White House push on sentencing reform will raise public awareness, generate public support and gain the votes in Congress needed to enact potentially historic changes to 1980s sentencing laws that came out of the “War on Drugs.”

With the president and a line-up of his usual antagonists behind the same bill, the momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable. The result will be one of the biggest surprises of all the years of the Obama presidency — a bipartisan success in passing new laws to reduce the nation’s prison population.

Gosh knows I sure hope there might now be unstoppable momentum to get the Smarter Sentencing Act and/or the Justice Safety Valve Act passed in the next few months.  Indeed, right after AG Holder's big speech (which did, I think, make a few headlines), I advocated in this op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that AG Holder and his boss do everything possible ASAP to turn this reform talk and momentum into legal changes.  But the history of advocacy for federal crack sentencing reform, as well as the aftermath of the FSA, always bring me back to the real-world reality that big talk about sentencing reform is always a lot easier and a lot more common than big action.

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder's speech and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

August 26, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sequester now requiring still more foolish cuts to federal criminal justice services

As reported in this USA Today piece, headlined "Public defenders, probation services to have cutbacks," another fiscal shoe is dropping as a result of sequester in a manner that seems likely to harm both the federal justice process and crime control efforts. Here are the details:

The federal judiciary for the first time is cutting the fees of court appointed defense lawyers, including those representing death penalty defendants, to deal with the "dire consequences'' of required government budget reductions known as sequestration.

The reductions, outlined in a notice to U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake, chairwoman of the Federal Judicial Conference Committee on Defender Services, are part of an unprecedented criminal justice cost-cutting effort that also will scale back operations of federal probation services at a time when authorities are planning to rely more heavily on programs like probation to help reduce the rising federal prison population.

The cuts in attorneys' fees will be implemented next month with payments dropping from $125 per hour to $110 in non-death penalty cases and from $179 per hour to $164 in cases where capital punishment is being sought.

The reductions are aimed at saving $50 million during the next 13 months to avoid further cuts into the full-time staff of the federal defenders service. The defender program consists of both full-time public defenders, who have been targeted for furloughs and layoffs, and private court-appointed lawyers who assist in the representation of the indigent. In addition to the fee cuts, millions of dollars in fees to the outside court-appointed counsels, scheduled for payment in fiscal year 2014 (beginning in October), would be deferred into fiscal year 2015.

In the letter to Blake made public Monday, William Traxler Jr., chairman of the Judicial Conference's Executive Committee, warned that the fee cuts "may impact the delivery of justice, but are necessary to avoid permanent damage to the federal defender program."

"Measures of this kind, however, are not sustainable in the long term and certainly would not be required if the judiciary were receiving an appropriate level of funding in this account," Traxler said....

Notice of the fee reductions come less than a week after the chief judges of 87 federal districts warned congressional leaders and Vice President Biden that funding reductions to the judiciary have "put public safety at risk."

Although the number of convicted offenders supervised by probation officers is expected to increase from a record 187,311 in 2012 to 191,000 by 2014, the number of probation and pre-trial services officers employed by the judiciary to supervise those offenders has been reduced by 7% since 2011 to a staff of about 6,000....

"Cuts to officer staffing levels have forced cutbacks in these activities to crisis levels," the judges said in the letter last week. "Particularly troublesome is the 20% cut that had to be made to the … allotments that fund drug, mental health and sex offender treatment and testing services for offenders and electronic GPS monitoring."

U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, chief judge of New York's Southern District and one of the two main authors of the judges' letter, said the appeal to Congress is the first she can remember in more than two decades on the bench. In her own district, forced budget reductions have hit the probation and treatment programs especially hard, Preska said in an interview, requiring a 43% cut in substance abuse treatment for offenders, a 7% drop in mental health treatment and a 24% cut in special location monitoring programs, including GPS monitoring of those on supervised release.

She said the reduction in attorneys' fees is "very dangerous" in regions of the country like New York, where legal fees are especially high. "Fees of $125 per hour is virtually charity work in New York," she said. "We want to make sure we can attract competent lawyers to join the panel" of court appointed attorneys. "We are very concerned," she said.

These cuts, though seemingly necessary because of the failure of Congress to act on funding issues, are hard to even consider "penny wise" and they are certainly "pound foolish."  Less funding for evidence-based treatment programs are very likely to lead to increased recidivism and its associated long-term costs.  And poor funding of defense services are very likely to lead to inadequate representation in some cases which likewise creates long-term costs due to future appeals and/or the imposition of excessive prison sentences.

I am pleased that the district judges are taking steps to alert Congress to the crisis that these budget issues are now producing, but I am disappointed that others in the federal judiciary are not also making a bigger deal about these issues.  In particular, I believe both the US Sentencing Commission and the Justices of the Supreme Court could and should be saying a lot about these issues given that they both have unique institutional insights and responsibilities concerning the functioning and fairness of the federal criminal justice system.

Recent related posts:

August 20, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, August 19, 2013

Notable inside-the-Beltway discussion of modern sentencing politics

The Washington Post has this notable new piece with lots of notable quotes and notes about the modern politics of sentencing reform.  The piece is headlined "Cuccinelli says sentencing policy should be judged, in part, on cost," but it covers both federal and state sentencing politics.  Here is how the article starts:

Five days after he announced his candidacy for governor of Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli II showed a side of himself seemingly at odds with his reputation as a tough law-and-order conservative.

The Virginia attorney general stood proudly at a news conference in late 2011 announcing the exoneration of a Richmond man who had spent 27 years in prison after being falsely convicted of rape. Cuccinelli had personally championed the man’s innocence, a sign of the broad evolution in Cuccinelli’s views on crime and punishment that would also lead him to argue that a frugal government should be more discerning about whom it puts behind bars.

“There is an expectation that the generic Republican position is tough on crime,” Cuccinelli said in an interview Thursday. “But even that has budget limits, particularly on the prison side."

Two decades after Republican George Allen charged into the Virginia governorship by vowing to eliminate parole for violent offenders, a rhetorical shift among the state’s leading conservatives reflects changing attitudes toward criminal justice nationwide.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. underscored the new dynamic last week when he announced reforms aimed at reducing sentences for some low-level offenders and slowing massive growth in the nation’s prison population. Republicans, who have targeted Holder on other issues, were generally supportive. The attorney general urged passage of legislation that has been introduced in Congress with bipartisan support that would give ­judges more discretion in applying stiff sentences to some drug crimes.

One person who discussed the plans with Holder said that the Obama administration felt like the political terrain was safe to make those kinds of policy ­changes because of the “conservative cover." The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussion was private.

Amid fiscal problems caused in part by massive prison populations and research showing that mass incarceration causes social harm, some leading conservatives have been pushing for reforms.

A generation ago, Republicans savaged Democrats as soft on crime, until former President Bill Clinton and others joined the GOP in a crackdown that continued even as the nation’s violent crime rate plummeted to historic lows. “This is a fundamental shift in how we see criminal justice," said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies crime and police. “There is a growing awareness of the fiscal and social costs of our great experiment in mass incarceration, and the balance has shifted from trying to look unrelentingly tough to asking what works best."

In a 1994 Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans called crime the nation’s most pressing problem. Last month, that number was 2 percent. Other surveys show that fewer Americans support mandatory prison terms for offenders than in the mid-1990s, and fewer believe courts are too lenient with criminals.

August 19, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, August 12, 2013

Some sentencing-related highlights from AG Holder's remarks today to the ABA

HolderI am back on line, and now able to link to and provide some extensive excerpts from Attorney General Eric Holder's high-profile remarks earlier today at the Annual Meeting of the American Bar Association's House of Delegates.  Everyone should make time to read AG Holder's remarks in full, but below I will try to excerpt those portions likely to be of greatest interest and import for sentencing fans.  Here goes (with apologies at how much text is excerpted, and with some of my very favorite text in bold and even italics):

In so many ways, today’s ABA is reminding us that, although our laws must be continually updated, our shared dedication to the cause of justice — and the ideals set forth by our Constitution — must remain constant. It is this sense of dedication that brings me to San Francisco today — to enlist your partnership in forging a more just society. To ask for your leadership in reclaiming, once more, the values we hold dear.  And to draw upon the ABA’s legacy of achievement in calling on every member of our profession to question that which is accepted truth; to challenge that which is unjust; to break free of a tired status quo; and to take bold steps to reform and strengthen America’s criminal justice system – in concrete and fundamental ways.

It’s time — in fact, it’s well past time – to address persistent needs and unwarranted disparities by considering a fundamentally new approach. As a prosecutor; a judge; an attorney in private practice; and now, as our nation’s Attorney General, I’ve seen the criminal justice system firsthand, from nearly every angle. While I have the utmost faith in — and dedication to — America’s legal system, we must face the reality that, as it stands, our system is in too many respects broken. The course we are on is far from sustainable. And it is our time — and our duty — to identify those areas we can improve in order to better advance the cause of justice for all Americans.

Even as most crime rates decline, we need to examine new law enforcement strategies —and better allocate resources — to keep pace with today’s continuing threats as violence spikes in some of our greatest cities.  As studies show that six in ten American children are exposed to violence at some point in their lives — and nearly one in four college women experience some form of sexual assault by their senior year — we need fresh solutions for assisting victims and empowering survivors. As the so-called “war on drugs” enters its fifth decade, we need to ask whether it, and the approaches that comprise it, have been truly effective — and build on the Administration’s efforts, led by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to usher in a new approach.  And with an outsized, unnecessarily large prison population, we need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate — not merely to warehouse and forget.

Today, a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration traps too many Americans and weakens too many communities.  And many aspects of our criminal justice system may actually exacerbate these problems, rather than alleviate them.

It’s clear — as we come together today — that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.  It’s clear, at a basic level, that 20th-century criminal justice solutions are not adequate to overcome our 21st-century challenges.  And it is well past time to implement common sense changes that will foster safer communities from coast to coast.

These are issues the President and I have been talking about for as long as I’ve known him — issues he’s felt strongly about ever since his days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago.  He’s worked hard over the years to protect our communities, to keep violent criminals off our streets, and to make sure those who break the law are held accountable.  And he’s also made it part of his mission to reduce the disparities in our criminal justice system.  In Illinois, he passed legislation that addressed racial profiling and trained police departments on how they could avoid racial bias.  And in 2010, this Administration successfully advocated for the reduction of the unjust 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine....

Over the next several months, the President will continue to reach out to Members of Congress from both parties — as well as governors, mayors, and other leaders — to build on the great work being done across the country to reduce violent crime and reform our criminal justice system.  We need to keep taking steps to make sure people feel safe and secure in their homes and communities.  And part of that means doing something about the lives being harmed, not helped, by a criminal justice system that doesn’t serve the American people as well as it should.

At the beginning of this year, I launched a targeted Justice Department review of the federal system — to identify obstacles, inefficiencies, and inequities, and to address ineffective policies.  Today, I am pleased to announce the results of this review — which include a series of significant actions that the Department has undertaken to better protect the American people from crime; to increase support for those who become victims; and to ensure public safety by improving our criminal justice system as a whole. We have studied state systems and been impressed by the policy shifts some have made. I hope other state systems will follow our lead and implement changes as well. The changes I announce today underscore this Administration’s strong commitment to common sense criminal justice reform.  And our efforts must begin with law enforcement.

Particularly in these challenging times — when budgets are tight, federal sequestration has imposed untenable and irresponsible cuts, and leaders across government are being asked to do more with less — coordination between America’s federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies has never been more important. It’s imperative that we maximize our resources by focusing on protecting national security; combating violent crime; fighting against financial fraud; and safeguarding the most vulnerable members of our society.

This means that federal prosecutors cannot — and should not —bring every case or charge every defendant who stands accused of violating federal law.  Some issues are best handled at the state or local level.  And that’s why I have today directed the United States Attorney community to develop specific, locally-tailored guidelines — consistent with our national priorities — for determining when federal charges should be filed, and when they should not.

I’ve also issued guidance to ensure that every case we bring serves a substantial federal interest and complements the work of our law enforcement partners.  I have directed all U.S. Attorneys to create — and to update — comprehensive anti-violence strategies for badly-afflicted areas within their districts.  And I’ve encouraged them to convene regular law enforcement forums with state and local partners to refine these plans, foster greater efficiency, and facilitate more open communication and cooperation.

By targeting the most serious offenses, prosecuting the most dangerous criminals, directing assistance to crime “hot spots,” and pursuing new ways to promote public safety, deterrence, efficiency, and fairness — we in the federal government can become both smarter and tougher on crime.  By providing leadership to all levels of law enforcement — and bringing intelligence-driven strategies to bear — we can bolster the efforts of local leaders, U.S. Attorneys, and others in the fight against violent crime....

Fifty years ago last March, this landmark ruling [in Gideon] affirmed that every defendant charged with a serious crime has the right to an attorney, even if he or she cannot afford one.  Yet America’s indigent defense systems continue to exist in a state of crisis, and the promise of Gideon is not being met.  To address this crisis, Congress must not only end the forced budget cuts that have decimated public defenders nationwide — they must expand existing indigent defense programs, provide access to counsel for more juvenile defendants, and increase funding for federal public defender offices.  And every legal professional, every member of this audience, must answer the ABA’s call to contribute to this cause through pro bono service — and help realize the promise of equal justice for all.

As we come together this morning, this same promise must lead us all to acknowledge that — although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system —widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable.  It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.

As a nation, we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts. While the entire U.S. population has increased by about a third since 1980, the federal prison population has grown at an astonishing rate — by almost 800 percent. It’s still growing – despite the fact that federal prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above capacity. Even though this country comprises just 5 percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.  More than 219,000 federal inmates are currently behind bars.  Almost half of them are serving time for drug-related crimes, and many have substance use disorders.  Nine to 10 million more people cycle through America’s local jails each year. And roughly 40 percent of former federal prisoners — and more than 60 percent of former state prisoners — are rearrested or have their supervision revoked within three years after their release, at great cost to American taxpayers and often for technical or minor violations of the terms of their release.

As a society, we pay much too high a price whenever our system fails to deliver outcomes that deter and punish crime, keep us safe, and ensure that those who have paid their debts have the chance to become productive citizens.  Right now, unwarranted disparities are far too common.  As President Obama said last month, it’s time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities, support young people, and address the fact that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system — as victims as well as perpetrators.

We also must confront the reality that — once they’re in that system — people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers.  One deeply troubling report, released in February, indicates that – in recent years – black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.  This isn’t just unacceptable — it is shameful. It’s unworthy of our great country, and our great legal tradition.  And in response, I have today directed a group of U.S. Attorneys to examine sentencing disparities, and to develop recommendations on how we can address them.

In this area and many others — in ways both large and small — we, as a country, must resolve to do better.  The President and I agree that it’s time to take a pragmatic approach.  And that’s why I am proud to announce today that the Justice Department will take a series of significant actions to recalibrate America’s federal criminal justice system.

We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.  Some statutes that mandate inflexible sentences — regardless of the individual conduct at issue in a particular case — reduce the discretion available to prosecutors, judges, and juries.  Because they oftentimes generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system.  When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety.  They — and some of the enforcement priorities we have set —have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color.  And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive.

This is why I have today mandated a modification of the Justice Department’s charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.  They now will be charged with offenses for which the accompanying sentences are better suited to their individual conduct, rather than excessive prison terms more appropriate for violent criminals or drug kingpins.  By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation — while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.  We’ve seen that this approach has bipartisan support in Congress — where a number of leaders, including Senators Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul have introduced what I think is promising legislation aimed at giving federal judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimums to certain drug offenders.  Such legislation will ultimately save our country billions of dollars while keeping us safe.  And the President and I look forward to working with members of both parties to refine and advance these proposals.

Secondly, the Department has now updated its framework for considering compassionate release for inmates facing extraordinary or compelling circumstances — and who pose no threat to the public.  In late April, the Bureau of Prisons expanded the criteria which will be considered for inmates seeking compassionate release for medical reasons.  Today, I can announce additional expansions to our policy — including revised criteria for elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and who have served significant portions of their sentences.  Of course, as our primary responsibility, we must ensure that the American public is protected from anyone who may pose a danger to the community.  But considering the applications of nonviolent offenders — through a careful review process that ultimately allows judges to consider whether release is warranted — is the fair thing to do.  And it is the smart thing to do as well, because it will enable us to use our limited resources to house those who pose the greatest threat.

Finally, my colleagues and I are taking steps to identify and share best practices for enhancing the use of diversion programs — such as drug treatment and community service initiatives — that can serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.

Our U.S. Attorneys are leading the way in this regard — working alongside the judiciary to meet safety imperatives while avoiding incarceration in certain cases.  In South Dakota, a joint federal-tribal program has helped to prevent at-risk young people from getting involved in the federal prison system —thereby improving lives, saving taxpayer resources, and keeping communities safer. This is exactly the kind of proven innovation that federal policymakers, and state and tribal leaders, should emulate.  And it’s why the Justice Department is working — through a program called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — to bring state leaders, local stakeholders, private partners, and federal officials together to comprehensively reform corrections and criminal justice practices.

In recent years, no fewer than 17 states — supported by the Department, and led by governors and legislators of both parties — have directed funding away from prison construction and toward evidence-based programs and services, like treatment and supervision, that are designed to reduce recidivism.  In Kentucky, for example, new legislation has reserved prison beds for the most serious offenders and re-focused resources on community supervision and evidence-based alternative programs.  As a result, the state is projected to reduce its prison population by more than 3,000 over the next 10 years — saving more than $400 million.

In Texas, investments in drug treatment for nonviolent offenders and changes to parole policies brought about a reduction in the prison population of more than 5,000 inmates last year alone.  The same year, similar efforts helped Arkansas reduce its prison population by more than 1,400. From Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio, to Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and far beyond — reinvestment and serious reform are improving public safety and saving precious resources. Let me be clear: these measures have not compromised public safety.  In fact, many states have seen drops in recidivism rates at the same time their prison populations were declining. The policy changes that have led to these welcome results must be studied and emulated.  While our federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population — including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year.

Clearly, these strategies can work.  They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in “red states” as well as “blue states.” And it’s past time for others to take notice.

I am also announcing today that I have directed every U.S. Attorney to designate a Prevention and Reentry Coordinator in his or her district — to ensure that this work is, and will remain, a top priority throughout the country.  And my colleagues and I will keep working closely with state leaders, agency partners, including members of the Federal Interagency Reentry Council – and groups like the American Bar Association — to extend these efforts.

In recent years, with the Department’s support, the ABA has catalogued tens of thousands of statutes and regulations that impose unwise and counterproductive collateral consequences — with regard to housing or employment, for example — on people who have been convicted of crimes.  I have asked state attorneys general and a variety of federal leaders to review their own agencies’ regulations.  And today I can announce that I’ve directed all Department of Justice components, going forward, to consider whether any proposed regulation or guidance may impose unnecessary collateral consequences on those seeking to rejoin their communities.

The bottom line is that, while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry. We must never stop being tough on crime.  But we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it.

Ultimately, this is about much more than fairness for those who are released from prison. It’s a matter of public safety and public good.  It makes plain economic sense. It’s about who we are as a people.  And it has the potential to positively impact the lives of every man, woman, and child — in every neighborhood and city — in the United States.  After all, whenever a recidivist crime is committed, innocent people are victimized.  Communities are less safe. Burdens on law enforcement are increased.  And already-strained resources are depleted even further.

Today — together — we must declare that we will no longer settle for such an unjust and unsustainable status quoTo do so would be to betray our history, our shared commitment to justice, and the founding principles of our nation. Instead, we must recommit ourselves — as a country — to tackling the most difficult questions, and the most costly problems, no matter how complex or intractable they may appear.  We must pledge — as legal professionals — to lend our talents, our training, and our diverse perspectives to advancing this critical work.  And we must resolve — as a people — to take a firm stand against violence; against victimization; against inequality — and for justice.

This is our chance — to bring America’s criminal justice system in line with our most sacred values. This is our opportunity — to define this time, our time, as one of progress and innovation. This is our promise —to forge a more just society.

And this is our solemn obligation, as stewards of the law, and servants of those whom it protects and empowers: to open a frank and constructive dialogue about the need to reform a broken system.  To fight for the sweeping, systemic changes we need. And to uphold our dearest values, as the ABA always has, by calling on our peers and colleagues not merely to serve their clients, or win their cases — but to ensure that —in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community — justice is done.

August 12, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

More reporting on (and now seeking reactions to) AG Holder's big sentencing speech

I am about to head off-line for the next few hours, and the conspiracy theorist in me lead me to think that DOJ has been reading my e-mail and that AG Eric Holder specifically decided to give his big sentencing speech to the ABA exactly when he knew I would be unable to blog about it.  Man, those socialist-fascists running this administration sure our sneaky! 

Jokes aside, today's Holder speech is clearly a big deal for a bunch of reasons, and I am pleased to see that the New York Times already has up this new lengthy story based on its text, now running under the headline "Justice Dept. Seeks to Curtail Stiff Drug Sentences." Here are some more details:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in a speech at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, is expected to announce the new policy as one of several steps intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and help correct what he regards as unfairness in the justice system, according to his prepared remarks.

Saying that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Mr. Holder is planning to justify his policy push in both moral and economic terms.

“Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

Mr. Holder will also introduce a related set of Justice Department policies that would leave more crimes to state courts to handle, increase the use of drug-treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration, and expand a program of “compassionate release” for “elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.”

The policy changes appear to be part of Mr. Holder’s effort, before he eventually steps down, to bolster his image and legacy. Turmoil over the Congressional investigation into the botched Operation Fast and Furious gun trafficking case ensnared him in the Obama administration’s first term, and more recently, controversy has flared over the department’s aggressive tactics in leak investigations....

Mr. Holder’s speech on Monday deplores the moral impact of the United States’ high incarceration rate: although it has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners, he notes. But he also attempts to pre-empt political controversy by painting his effort as following the lead of prison reform efforts in primarily conservative-led Southern states.

Under a policy memorandum being sent to all United States attorney offices on Monday, according to an administration official, prosecutors will be told that they may not write the specific quantity of drugs when drafting indictments for drug defendants who meet the following four criteria: their conduct did not involve violence, the use of a weapon or sales to minors; they are not leaders of a criminal organization; they have no significant ties to large-scale gangs or cartels; and they have no significant criminal history.

For example, in the case of a defendant accused of conspiring to sell five kilograms of cocaine — an amount that would set off a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence — the prosecutor would write that “the defendant conspired to distribute cocaine” without saying how much. The quantity would still factor in when prosecutors and judges consult sentencing guidelines, but depending on the circumstances, the result could be a sentence of less than the 10 years called for by the mandatory minimum law, the official said.

It is not clear whether current cases that have not yet been adjudicated would be recharged because of the new policy....

“While the federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population — including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “Clearly, these strategies can work. They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in ‘red states’ as well as ‘blue states.’ And it’s past time for others to take notice.”...

Mr. Holder’s speech marches through a litany of statistics about incarceration in the United States. The American population has grown by about a third since 1980, he said, but its prison rate has increased nearly 800 percent. At the federal level, more than 219,000 inmates are currently behind bars — nearly half for drug-related crimes — and the prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above their official capacity.

 

Of course, the devil (and the real impact of all this) will be in the details. When I have the opportunity later tonight, I will be sure to post a link to the full copy of the Holder speech, and I also will try to get posted a copy of this important new policy memorandum being sent to all United States attorney offices on Monday. (I am hopeful that DOJ will post both item on this official web page shortly, as there seems to be a lot of justified media interest in these topics, and not just among sentencing addled blogges.)

As I have already said to a few reporters, what may prove most important for the impact of what Holder does may be how other important persons inside and outside the Beltway react to this speech and its various policy elements. Will members of Congress, for example, publically praise Holder for what he says and will they say additional legislation is needed (or no longer needed) in response? Will federal judges make sure to allow defense attorneys to "enforce" this new policy in some way? Will the US Sentencing Commission alter is planned priorities for the coming year for guideline reforms based on both the themes and specifics in the Holder speech?

Exciting times! (Perhaps too exciting, and perhaps it is a good thing I will be off line until late tonight!)

Some recent and older related posts about AG Holder's speech the new federal politics of sentencing:

August 12, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

"With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new NPR piece, which includes lots of notable quotes from Attorney General Eric Holder.  Here are excerpts:

Sit down with the attorney general to ask him about his priorities, , and he'll talk about voting rights and national security. But if you listen a bit longer, Eric Holder gets to this: "I think there are too many people in jail for too long and for not necessarily good reasons."

This is the nation's top law enforcement officer calling for a sea change in the criminal justice system. And he's not alone. Over the past few weeks, lawmakers have introduced bipartisan measures that would give judges more power to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent criminals and even get rid of some mandatory minimum terms altogether.

"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder said. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

That's one reason why the Justice Department's had a group of lawyers working behind the scenes for months on proposals the attorney general could present as early as next week in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

Some of the items are changes Holder can make on his own, such as directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute certain kinds of low-level drug crimes or spending money to send more defendants into treatment instead of prison. Almost half of the 219,000 people currently in federal prison are serving time on drug charges.

"Well we can certainly change our enforcement priorities, and so we have some control in that way," Holder said. "How we deploy our agents, what we tell our prosecutors to charge, but I think this would be best done if the executive branch and the legislative branch work together to look at this whole issue and come up with changes that are acceptable to both."

Late last week, two senators — Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee — moved in that direction. Their bill, called the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, would give judges more discretion to sentence nonviolent criminals below the so-called mandatory minimums. It would also lower mandatory minimums for several drug crimes to lower costs and cut down on crowding in a prison system that's estimated to be operating at 40 percent over capacity.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, says he'll hold a hearing on mandatory minimums next month. "They all sound like a great stop-crime idea when they were passed," Leahy said on the C-SPAN Newsmakers program Sunday. "Most of them sound better on paper than in practice."

His partner in that effort is Republican Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite from Kentucky. They've introduced their own legislation, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, to give judges more power to impose lower sentences — and not just in drug crimes. "Doing away with mandatory minimums, giving more discretion to judges, that shouldn't be Republican or Democrat," Leahy added. "It just makes good sense."

The idea has already taken off in nearly two dozen states including Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas, where it won support from prominent conservatives including Grover Norquist, part of a coalition known as Right on Crime. "It's easier to say, 'Let's spend a few dollars a day managing you at your home where you can spend time with your family, where you can work, instead of hundreds of dollars a day, keeping you in a cell,'" Norquist said in a video on the group's web site.

And the Justice Department explicitly pointed to state reform efforts in a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in July. The old system, wrote official Jonathan Wroblewski, is being replaced with the idea that budgets are "finite," prison is a power that should be "exercised sparingly and only as necessary" and that "reducing reoffending and promoting effective reentry are core goals."

August 7, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Conservative group ALEC joins the growing calls for sentencing refom

As reported in this Daily Caller piece, headlined "Conservative group advocates sentencing reform,"a notable new public policy group has joined the chorus of right-leaning advocates for significant sentencing reforms. Here are the basics:

A major conservative policy organization has endorsed criminal justice reform, lending further bipartisan support to a bill in Congress that would lessen mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenses.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market advocacy group that works with legislators and businesses to craft model legislation, gave its approval to the Justice Safety Valve Act on Monday.

The bill would allow judges to depart from imposing mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent criminals when they believe different sentences are appropriate. Such a policy would save money by ensuring that only truly dangerous criminals spend decades in prison on the taxpayer’s dime, wrote Cara Sullivan, a legislative analyst at ALEC.

“This helps ensure lengthy sentences and prison spaces are reserved for dangerous offenders, allowing states to focus their scarce public safety resources on offenders that are a real threat to the community,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This approach, as opposed to simply throwing more dollars at corrections, reduces prison overcrowding while still holding offenders accountable.”

Many of the people sentenced under mandatory minimums were convicted of selling drugs, and committed no violence. Some were found guilty of breaking federal marijuana laws, even though they resided in states where growing and selling marijuana are legal under state laws.

While many conservative lawmakers once held to a “tough on crime” approach to criminal sentencing, the inefficiency and financial waste of imposing harsh sentences on low-level drug offenders has pushed libertarian-leaning elements of the GOP to embrace the Justice Safety Valve Act.  Conservatives are also concerned that federal laws interfering with judges’ abilities to set appropriate sentences — and states’ rights — are just another example of overreach on the part of the Obama administration....

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice advocacy group, praised ALEC’s decision to add its voice to the call for sentencing reform. “There is nothing conservative about inefficient, one-size-fits-all sentencing laws that cost billions in tax dollars and offer no public safety benefit in return,” wrote Greg Newburn, Florida project director for FAMM, in an email to TheDC News Foundation. “ALEC’s adoption of a model safety valve reflects the growing consensus among conservative lawmakers that mandatory minimums are ripe for reform.”

Wow.  It would now seem that  it may only be Bill Otis (and, I fear, still some members of the Obama Administration) who resistant to serious efforts to reform federal sentencing statutes.

Some recent and older related posts about the new federal politics of sentencing:

August 6, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought after seeing this post by Nate Silver at his 538 blog headlined "Senate Control in 2014 Increasingly Looks Like a Tossup." I am not counting any Senate chickens at least until this time next summer, but I also do not think it is crazy for folks who favor significant federal sentencing reforms to actually believe such reforms might actually become more politically viable if the Senate were to change political hands while Barack Obama is still the President.

A lot would depend, of course, on the circumstances and results of the 2014 election cycle and especially on who would play leadership roles in a GOP-led Senate. But if, for example, Senator Rand Paul and other libertarian-leaning Senator were to become chairs of key Senate Judiciary subcommittees, I think the odds of significant federal criminal justice reforms getting through Congress might actually go up.

I fear that some commentors will ask what I am smoking when raising this notion, and I do fear that this post may be just some serious wishful thinking on my part. But, hey, if folks are going to start predicting election outcomes for 2014, why not have some fun speculating on what those outcomes could mean for sentencing law and policy?

Some recent and older related posts:

July 16, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Released sex offenders in Great Britain soon to be required to take regular polygraph tests

Keep-calm-and-protect-kids-from-sex-offenders-6As reported in this article from across the pond, a novel (and apparently somewhat efficacious) approach to sex offender monitoring is being expanded in part of Great Britain after a successful pilot program.  The article is headlined "Lie detector tests set to be introduced to monitor sex offenders: Politicians expected to approve law allowing compulsory polygraph tests of sex offenders released into community," and here are excerpts:

MPs are expected to clear the way for the introduction of compulsory lie detector tests to monitor convicted sex offenders across England and Wales from next January.

The national rollout of US-style mandatory polygraph tests for serious sex offenders who have been released into the community after serving their prison sentence follows a successful pilot scheme. The trial was carried out from 2009-11 in two Midlands probation areas and found that offenders taking such tests were twice as likely to tell probation staff they had contacted a victim, entered an exclusion zone or otherwise breached terms of their release licence.

Continuing concerns about the reliability of the tests and misinterpretation of the results mean they still cannot be used in any court in England and Wales. But it is expected that the compulsory polygraph tests will be used to monitor the behaviour of 750 of the most serious sex offenders, all of whom have been released into the community after serving a sentence of at least 12 months in jail.

The tests involve measuring reactions to specific questions by monitoring heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and levels of perspiration to assess whether the subject is being truthful. The results will be used to determine whether they have breached the terms of their release licence or represent a risk to public safety and should be recalled to prison.

The power to introduce compulsory lie detector tests was put on the statute book six years ago in the Offender Management Act 2007. On Tuesday MPs will debate secondary legislation in the form of a statutory instrument to come into force from 6 January 2014. The House of Lords will be asked to approve it later this month.

The justice minister Jeremy Wright said: "Introducing lie detector tests, alongside the sex offenders register and close monitoring in the community, will give us one of the toughest approaches in the world to managing this group.

"We recently announced the creation of a National Probation Service tasked with protecting the public from the most high-risk offenders. They will be able to call on this technology to help stop sex offenders from reoffending and leaving more innocent victims in their wake."

Hertfordshire police used the tests in a pilot scheme in 2011 to help decide whether to charge suspected sex offenders and gauge the risk they posed to the public. "Low level" sex offenders were involved in the original pilot. At least six revealed more serious offending and were found to pose a more serious risk to children than previously estimated. A further trial was ordered but at the time the Association of Chief Police Officers voiced caution about the adoption of such tests: "Polygraph techniques are complex and are by no means a single solution to solving crimes, potentially offering in certain circumstances an additional tool to structured interrogation," a spokesman said.

Polygraph testing is used in court in 19 states in America, subject to the discretion of the trial judge, but it is widely used by prosecutors, defence lawyers and law enforcement agencies across the US.

I find curious that this article speaks of "US-style mandatory polygraph tests"; I am not aware of any US jurisdiction that uses mandatory polygraph testing as part of a program of sex offender monitoring.  That said, I would not be at all surprised if some jurisdictions in the US were to consider such a requirement if there is good reason to believe that such testing does a reasonable job of sorting out more (and less) dangerous released sex offenders.

Though I suspect a number of civil rights and civil liberties groups in the US would be quick to express concerns about mandatory polygraph tests of sex offenders, I tend to be open-minded about the use of any form of technocorrections that might serve as a means to both increase public safety and ultimately offender liberty.  For if post-release polygraph testing serves as a means to better assess enduring threats from more-dangerous released sex offenders, then other sex offenders can and should be able to rely on such a program to argue for allowing earlier release of some likely less-dangerous sex offenders (e.g., those who download child pornography but have never been involved in any contact offenses).

July 2, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Reentry and community supervision, Sentencing around the world, Sex Offender Sentencing, Technocorrections, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Monday, June 03, 2013

"some in the West Wing privately tell associates they wish he would step down, viewing him as politically maladroit"

The intriguing phrase in the title of this post comes from this lengthy New York Times article about our Nation's Attorney General. The article is headlined "Seeking a Fresh Start, Holder Finds a Fresh Set of Troubles," and here is an excerpt that especially captured my attention:

The president is also said to appreciate Mr. Holder’s integrity and his positions during some of the big debates over antiterrorism policies and other volatile issues.  The White House also points to his department’s successful defense of the president’s health care program before the Supreme Court and prosecutions in high-profile terrorism, financial crimes and corporate wrongdoing cases.

Moreover, advisers said, Mr. Obama after a full term in office is less likely to worry about political flare-ups that will eventually die down. “It’s very easy sitting in that town to overestimate the longevity and impact of these issues,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s political strategist, said from Chicago.  “I don’t think Americans are sitting around their kitchen tables clamoring for Holder’s head because of the A.P. or Fox subpoenas.  It’s not water-cooler discussion.”

I find the first paragraph of this excerpt notable because, at least in my view, the legal accomplishments of the Obama Administration have been achieved mostly despite Holder's underwhelming sterwardship of the Justice Department, not because of it.  And I think the second paragraph is amusing because Kate Litvak in this article years ago described the "Blog as a Bugged Water Cooler," and the posts below highlight that many folks on this blog (myself included) have in fact been sitting around this virtual kitchen table talking about who should be the next Attorney General.

A few prior posts which include clamoring for Holder's head:

June 3, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Former Acting AG Jim Comey appears in line to be next head of FBI

ComeyAs reported in this New York Times article, "President Obama plans to nominate James B. Comey, a former hedge fund executive who served as a senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, to replace Robert S. Mueller III as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation." Here is more from this article concerning what I consider to be a fine and shrewd pick by the President:

By choosing Mr. Comey, a Republican, Mr. Obama made a strong statement about bipartisanship at a time when he faces renewed criticism from Republicans in Congress and has had difficulty winning confirmation of some important nominees. At the same time, Mr. Comey’s role in one of the most dramatic episodes of the Bush administration — in which he refused to acquiesce to White House aides and reauthorize a program for eavesdropping without warrants when he was serving as acting attorney general — should make him an acceptable choice to Democrats.

It is not clear when Mr. Obama will announce the nomination. Senior F.B.I. officials have been concerned that if the president does not name a new director by the beginning of June, it will be difficult to get the nominee confirmed by the beginning of September, when Mr. Mueller by law must leave his post.

The White House declined to discuss Mr. Comey on Wednesday. But according to the two people briefed on the selection, Mr. Comey traveled from his home in Connecticut in early May to meet with the president at the White House to discuss the job. Shortly afterward, he was told that he was Mr. Obama’s choice, and they met again for a further discussion.

Mr. Comey, 52, was chosen for the position over the other finalist, Lisa O. Monaco, who has served as the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser since January. Some Democrats had feared that if the president nominated Ms. Monaco — who oversaw national security issues at the Justice Department during the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, last September — Republicans would use the confirmation process as a forum for criticism of the administration’s handling of the attack.

May 30, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Prison-Sentence Reform: A bill to give judges flexibility to impose shorter sentences deserves conservatives’ support."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Review commentary by David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union, explaining why conservatives should support the Justice Safety Valve Act.  Here are extended excerpts:

Like many conservatives, I supported many [mandatory minimum sentencing] laws when they were enacted and still believe that, in some narrow situations, mandatory minimums makes sense. But like other “one-size-fits-all” solutions to complicated problems, they should be reviewed in light of how they work in practice.

Fortunately, Senators Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) have crafted a smart and modest reform bill that will fine-tune these laws to eliminate many of the unforeseen and, frankly, unfair consequences of their application when the facts demand more flexibility. This bipartisan measure deserves conservative support.

The bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, maintains existing federal mandatory-sentencing laws. It enables judges to depart from the minimums in certain cases, however, such as when the mandatory sentence is not necessary to protect public safety and seems blatantly unfair in light of the circumstances of the offense. In so doing, their proposal fulfills the primary objective of criminal-justice policy: protecting public safety, while promoting our constitutional separation of powers and saving taxpayers the expense of unnecessary and counterproductive incarceration.

Many people, conservatives as well as liberals, have come to believe that most mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws should be repealed. These laws give prosecutors nearly unchecked power to determine sentences, even though courts are in a better position to weigh important and relevant facts, such as an offender’s culpability and likelihood of reoffending.

Federal mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws are especially problematic. Not only do they transfer power from independent courts to a political executive, they also perpetuate the harmful trend of federalizing criminal activity that can be better prosecuted at the state level.

For years, conservatives have wisely argued that the only government programs, rules, and regulations we should abide are those that can withstand cost-benefit analysis. Mandatory minimum sentences, by definition, fail this basic test because they apply a one-size-fits-all sentence to low-level offenders, even though the punishments were designed for more serious criminals.

Economists who once wholeheartedly supported simple pro-prison policies now believe they have reached the point of diminishing returns. One is University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt, best known for the best-selling Freakonomics, which he co-authored with Stephen J. Dubner. Levitt recently told the New York Times, “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration,” and, today, “I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

In other words, the initial crackdown was a good thing, but we are now suffering the effects of too much of that good thing. If Levitt’s estimate is even close, right now we are wasting tens of billions of dollars locking people up without affecting the crime rate or enhancing public safety. In fact, spending too much on prisons skews state and federal budgetary priorities, taking funds away from things that are proven to drive crime even lower, such as increasing police presence in high-violence areas and providing drug-treatment services to addicts.

The Paul-Leahy bill will help restore needed balance to our anti-crime efforts. Repeat and violent criminals will continue to receive and serve lengthy prison sentences, but in cases involving lower-level offenders, judges will be given the flexibility to impose a shorter sentence when warranted.

The Paul-Leahy bill is a modest fix that will affect only 2 percent of all federal offenders, and even they won’t be spared going to prison. They will simply receive slightly shorter sentences that are more in line with their actual offenses. The bill will improve public safety, save taxpayers billions of dollars, and restore our constitutional separation of powers at the federal level while strengthening federalism. This is a reform conservatives should embrace.

Some recent and older related posts:

May 24, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Wall Street Journal pitch for the Prez to get behind the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013

Thanks to the suggestions, and insights and energy of Harlan Protass, a criminal-defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Cardozo School of Law, some of the ideas first expressed in this recent post concerning the proposed Justice Safetly Valve Act of 2013 now find expression in this Wall Street Journal opinion piece we co-authored.  Here is are snippets from the the piece:

There are few topics on which leading Democratic and Republican voices agree these days. But the recently introduced Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013 — which would authorize federal judges to impose prison terms below statutory mandatory minimums in some cases — represents a new bipartisan effort at addressing America's overcrowded prisons and bloated budget.  Passage of the act, though, will depend on President Obama and his Justice Department getting behind it....

The Justice Safety Valve Act, recently introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Rand Paul (R., Ky.), and to the House by Reps. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (D., Va.) and Thomas Massie (R., Ky.), could help reduce the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted keeping thousands of people sentenced under mandatory minimum laws locked up.  The bill would enable federal judges to consider when or whether a mandatory-minimum sentence serves legitimate law-enforcement purposes given the particular circumstances of the crime and defendant.  Judges could impose prison terms below the statutory minimums only when they explain, through an on-the-record, reviewable opinion, that a shorter term is sufficient to serve the express goals of the criminal justice system set out by Congress....

[B]ipartisan support and sponsorship of the Justice Safety Valve Act highlights that prominent lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree — at this time of lean budgets, sequester cuts and overcrowded prison facilities — that the current federal sentencing scheme is neither fair nor effective, and that mandatory-minimum sentencing laws lie at the heart of the problem.

President Obama's vocal support of this bill would signal a real commitment to using his bully pulpit to advocate on behalf of significant reform proposals.  If he does not, the president's failure to champion sentencing reform may become his most lasting federal criminal-justice legacy.

Some recent and older related posts:

May 7, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Prez Obama makes three great new nominations to the US Sentencing Commission

I am very pleased and excited to have learned that late yesterday the White House officially announced three great new nomination to fill the three now-empty spots on the US Sentencing Commission.  A colleague forwarded me a copy of the official press releases with the appointments, but I cannot yet find it linked on-line.  Ergo, I will rely on this local press report from the Montgomery Advertiser, headlined "Obama nominates Bill Pryor for sentencing commission," for the basics:

President Barack Obama nominated former Alabama attorney general and current U.S. circuit judge Bill Pryor to be a commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the White House announced Monday evening.

Pryor, who served as attorney general from 1997 to 2004, serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. President George W. Bush appointed Pryor to the federal bench in 2004....

Pryor would serve a term that expires Oct. 31, 2017, and would replace commissioner William B. Carr, whose term has expired.

Obama also intends to nominate Rachel Elise Barkow, the Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy at the New York University School of Law, and U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer of the Northern District of California to the sentencing commission, according to the White House.

I am familiar with and greatly respect the sentencing work of all three of these folks, and I cannot readily think of many persons whom I would be more excited to see joining the U.S. Sentencing Commission. I hope they are all swiftly confirmed and can get right to work on all the area of federal sentencing reform now in urgent need to attention and action.

UPDATE:  The official press release about these nomination are now available at this link.

April 16, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Monday, December 24, 2012

Any "halftime" assessment of Obama judges' impact on sentencing jurisprudence?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Post article headlined "Obama’s impact on federal judiciary." The piece is most about partisan battles over appointments, though it starts and ends with these judicial branch basics:

It takes a calculator and perhaps the rigor of Sherlock Holmes to cut through the partisan rhetoric about President Obama’s first-term record on judicial nominations.  But the bottom line is clear enough.

There are more vacancies on the federal courts now than when Obama took office nearly four years ago.  And he is the first president in generations to fail to put a nominee on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the second most influential court in the land and traditionally a training ground for Supreme Court justices.

Obama has, of course, left his mark on the high court by nominating Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.  Their confirmations leave those two seats for decades in liberal hands, and marked a historic diversification of the court.

But, depending on what the Senate does in these final days,Obama’s record on the rest of the federal judiciary will show one more opening on the nation’s powerful 13 courts of appeal than when he took office, and more than a dozen additional vacant district court judgeships....

But as [scholar Russell] Wheeler points out, a two-term president almost always has a major impact on the makeup of the federal judiciary.  “Democratic appointees, who in 2009 constituted about a third of active circuit judges, might constitute about two-thirds in 2017,” Wheeler wrote.

In any answer to the question in the title of this post, it is especially easy to focus on notable sentencing votes and opinions authored by Prez Obama's Supreme Court nominees (e.g., Kagan wrote Miller; Sotomayor wrote Pepper; both were key fourth and/or fifth votes on lots of the 5-4 rulings in favor of criminal defendants). But I would be eager to hear from anyone laboring the the federal district and circuit courts concerning any Obama appointments to the lower courts who have already had a distinctive impact on sentencing law and policy.

Some older and more recent posts on Prez Obama's judicial appointments:

December 24, 2012 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, December 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few recent and older related posts: 

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

"Pardon people, not turkeys: Under President Obama, the odds of clemency or commutation are shamefully slim"

The title of this post is the headline and subheading of this recent commentary by Professor Mark Osler, which echoes my own frustrated reaction to today's scheduled holiday symbolism at the White House. Here are excerpts from the commentary:

While the president has been a regular dispenser of clemency to fowl, he has not been so generous to humans.  It is time for that disjuncture to end.

As ProPublica journalist Dafna Linzer pointed out earlier this month, President Obama has granted clemency more rarely than any modern president.  This is particularly striking when considering commutations, or the power to lessen a sentence while maintaining the underlying conviction (a pardon wipes out the conviction). According to Linzer's calculations, "under Reagan and Clinton, applicants for commutations had a 1 in 100 chance of success. Under George W. Bush, that fell to a little less than 1 in 1,000. Under Obama, an applicant's chance is slightly less than 1 in 5,000."

The founding fathers did not intend for the pardon power to fall into such disuse. As the framers made clear, this vestigial power of kings is rooted in policy concerns that ring very true today.  Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 74, argued that "the criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel."

Our federal system of criminal law has, of late, been "too sanguinary and cruel." For example, thousands of federal prisoners still languish under long sentences doled out under the now-amended 100-to-1 ratio between powder and crack cocaine that was built into the federal statutes and sentencing guidelines.  That ratio has been actively rejected by all three branches of government, but the only avenue to relief for those prisoners is commutation.  President Obama should look to the approach President Ford employed for draft evaders in 1974: A mass commutation pursuant to a process created to provide careful review of each case.

At the individual level, there are strikingly strong petitions for clemency currently before the president.  Since we started the nation's first law school clinic focused on federal commutations here at the University of St. Thomas, we have been deluged with letters asking for help.  One was from Weldon Angelos, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for three small marijuana infractions and the possession of firearms that were neither used nor brandished.  He had only one prior conviction, stemming from a juvenile court charge for gun possession.

The Angelos case grew out of a perversion of mandatory minimum sentences embedded in federal statute and the actions of overaggressive prosecutors in Utah.  The result was so unfair that the sentencing judge, George W. Bush appointee Paul Cassell, pled for a presidential commutation of the sentence on the very pages of the sentencing opinion, saying that the 55-year term of imprisonment he was forced by statute to issue was "unjust, cruel, and even irrational."  Cassell substantiated this by pointing out the types of crimes that would have received a much shorter sentence: hijacking planes, raping children and murder....

For too long, we have filled our prisons with similar minor-league players in the drug game. It might make sense if this had solved a problem, but it hasn't.  The billions spent have not bought success at reducing drug use in this country.

A step in the right direction would be to use the pardon power to release those who present the strongest cases and those sentenced under statutes we have now seen fit to amend.  In those cases, clemency is more justice than mercy.  Instead of a photo op with a turkey, President Obama should begin a Thanksgiving tradition that reaches back to our true origins and our best values.

November 21, 2012 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Press reporting that AG Eric Holder to stay in position another year

FoxNews has this notable new report concerning the state and fate of the Justice Department during Prez Obama's second term.  Here are the details:

Attorney General Eric Holder will honor President Obama’s request to stay into the second term and but will remain on the job only “for about a year,” Fox News confirmed Monday.

A senior administration official told Fox News that Obama does not want a mass exodus at the start of his second term, especially with his national security team going through major changes. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton already has said she will leave soon....

The names of potential replacements are already starting to emerge.  Among those mentioned is Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, the official told Fox News.  Other names being mention on Capitol Hill are Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a former state attorney general.  Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s name also has been mentioned, a source told Fox News.

AG Holder's decision to stay on an extra year could have lots of interesting (though unpredicatable) impacts on federal crime and punishment policies in the months ahead. Also, the politics of naming and confirming his potential successor to head DOJ could also change considerably come late 2013 and 2014.

For some holiday week fun, I urge readers to suggest novel names for taking over the Justice Department after AG Holder moves on. I will start by throwing out three (crazy?) high-profile names for the AG position a year from now: Chris Christie, Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris.

November 20, 2012 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack