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

Sunday, November 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

The full letter is available at this link.

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

Friday, November 16, 2012

"Americans Voting Smarter About Crime, Justice At Polls"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 10, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Are Our Sex Crime Laws So Radical They Deter Reporting?"

The provocative question in the title of this post comes from Professor Dan Filler via this post at The Faculty Lounge, which in turn links to this extended op-ed also by Dan Filler appearing in today's Philadelphia Inquirer.  The op-ed carries the headline "Penn State scandal shows sex-abuse laws can backfire," and here are excerpts:

[T]here is another lesson to be learned from this horrible [Sandusky] story, and it's time we acknowledged it.  Penn State's administrators might have buried the charges against Sandusky partly because our national anxiety about sexual abuse has resulted in a lattice of laws so toxic that people are afraid to report it.  Although Penn State officials may have wanted Sandusky to stop, they also may have feared the overwhelming consequences of reporting the crime....

Over the past two decades, advocates, the media, and politicians have stoked public fears about sexual abuse.  The resulting panic has had serious consequences.  It has subjected all sexual offenders to greater stigma and, more importantly, has led to a complex array of laws that dramatically increase the costs of conviction even for less serious sexual offenses.  In some states, a low-grade sex offender faces greater repercussions than a murderer.

Prison is just the start. Every state also imposes the public shame of community notification.  Most restrict where such offenders can live — in some cases so severely that homelessness becomes the only viable option for offenders.  Some states are even incarcerating people beyond their regular sentences because they are expected to commit sex crimes in the future.

There is little evidence that all these measures reduce the incidence of sex crimes one whit.  They have, however, dramatically raised the stakes of reporting and charging such crimes.

There's no doubt that Penn State administrators were trying to protect the university and its football program.  But they were also trying to protect Sandusky and themselves from the tsunami that would follow.  I take [former Former Penn State president Graham] Spanier at his alleged word that he feared an inhumane result.  He isn't alone: Some recent research suggests that some prosecutors shape their charging and plea-bargaining decisions to moderate the effects of current laws.

And then there are the victims. If administrators and prosecutors are concerned about inhumane responses to sex offenses, think about the most common kind of victims: those who are abused by relatives.  There is already plenty of pressure on children to keep quiet about abuse within families; public shaming and residential restrictions compound the consequences, which in many ways may end up hurting victims by dissuading them from reporting abuse and excluding them from communities when an offending family member is released.

There is no question that society needs strong laws prohibiting and punishing sexual abuse.  But those laws must be well-reasoned and tailored to be both just and effective.

Over the past 20 years, society has approached sex crimes with unbridled passion and anger.  This emotional search for justice is entirely appropriate in particular cases; that is one purpose of sentencing.  But when the same intense feelings become an engine for policy-making, they may undermine the crafting of effective laws.

The goal, after all, is to prevent Jerry Sandusky and others like him from victimizing children, and that won't happen if we deter people from reporting their crimes.  When laws become so radical that they work against the protection of victims, they are inherently inhumane.

July 10, 2012 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sex Offender Sentencing, Victims' Rights At Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (49) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"The Kinder, Gentler Drug Czar Still Wants to Lock You Up for Pot"

The title of this post is the headline of this amusing new piece by Russ Belville at The Huffingon Post.  Here are excerpts:

Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske has a new article on The Huffington Post where he once again attempts to fulfill his statutory duty to scare the bejeezus out of Americans who might be considering the legalization of marijuana in three states and the medicalization of marijuana in a dozen others.  This time he cites stats from something called ADAM, warning that over half of arrestees in ten surveyed metro areas tested positive for drugs! You need to be afraid, very afraid, of the crime-seeking drug junkies!

He opens by setting the "Kinder Gentler Drug Warrior" frame established by his former adviser, Kevin Sabet, Ph.D. -- the idea that both legalization and prohibition are ideological extremes.  Gateway Gil has even begun using our terminology ("we can't arrest our way out of this problem") to pretend that the Obama Administration presents a rational, compassionate third approach...

How does that "third way" work? Well, instead of busting you for smoking pot and putting you in a cage, the kinder gentler drug warrior will bust you for smoking pot and put you before a judge in a drug court who lets you "choose" between rehab and a cage.  Then in rehab, they'll force you to swallow and regurgitate lies about your "problem" marijuana use, require you to pee in a cup and, should that turn up positive, put you in a cage for smoking pot for a longer time than if you'd just chosen the cage in the first place.  See, in the old "War on Drugs" paradigm, we only created jobs and revenue for cops, judges, lawyers, and prison guards.  With the "Kinder Gentler War on Drugs," we add jobs for rehabs, pee testers, and probation officers, too.

They say if you want to understand an organization's priorities, don't look at their mission statement, look at their budgets.... The Obama Administration has, indeed, increased funding for treatment and prevention over the Bush Administration's budgets.  But Obama has increased funding for law enforcement, interdiction, and international funding, too. In overall terms, Obama has devoted $102 billion in his first term to the War on Drugs, while in Bush's last four years, the figure is $91 billion.  The percentage of the War on Drugs that is still dedicated to the "war" side averages at 59.3 percent throughout the first four years of Obama, when it averaged 59.0 percent in the last four years of Bush.

Some recent and older related posts on drug courts and drug politics: 

May 22, 2012 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 19, 2012

"Data suggests drug treatment can lower US crime"

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

U.S. crime statistics show illegal drugs play a central role in criminal acts, providing new evidence that tackling drugs as a public health issue could offer a powerful tool for lowering national crime rates, officials said on Thursday.

An annual drug monitoring report, released by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, also showed a decline in the use of cocaine since 2003, a sign that drug-interdiction efforts and public education campaigns may be curtailing the use of the drug's powder and crack forms. The rate of overall illegal drug use in the United States has declined by roughly 30 percent since 1979.

But Thursday's report, based on thousands of arrestee interviews and drug tests, showed that on average 71 percent of men arrested in 10 U.S. metropolitan areas last year tested positive for an illegal substance at the time they were taken into custody.  The figures ranged from 64 percent of arrests in Atlanta to 81 percent in Sacramento, California, and were higher for nearly half of the collection sites since 2007.

U.S. officials held up the data as evidence to support President Barack Obama's strategy aimed at breaking the cycle of drugs and crime by attacking substance abuse with treatment rather than jail for nonviolent offenders. "Tackling the drug issue could go a long way in reducing our crime issues," Gil Kerlikowske, head of the office that issued the report, told Reuters in an interview. "These data confirm that we must address our drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue."

The arrest figures included men taken into custody on more than one charge as well as those arrested in drug busts. The data showed that on average about 23 percent of violent crimes and property crimes, including home burglaries, were committed by people who tested positive for at least one of 10 illegal drugs including marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines. Charlotte, North Carolina, had the highest proportion of drug-related violent crime offenses at 29 percent, while New York City had the highest for drug-related property crimes at 32 percent....

U.S. health officials says the link between drugs and crime is socially complex. But the effect drugs have on human behavior can seem more straightforward. "Drugs impact things like inhibitory control. And our ability to weigh risks and consequences of certain behaviors is severely effected by drug abuse," said Dr. Redonna Chandler of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Drug enforcement experts say the evidence strongly supports wider use of drug courts, which seek to impose treatment regimens instead of prison sentences on repeat criminals that are dependent on illegal drugs.

West Huddleston, of the Alexandria, Virginia-based National Association of Drug Court Professionals, said a convicted criminal who successfully completes a court-imposed treatment regimen is nearly 60 percent less likely to return to crime than those who go untreated. There are more than 2,600 drug courts operating in the United States. But they reach only a fraction of drug-addicted offenders.

According to Chandler, 5 million of an estimated 7 million Americans who live under criminal justice supervision would benefit from drug treatment intervention. But only 7.6 percent actually receive treatment.

The full official report serving as the basis for this story is available at this link, and it provides lots of interesting information about persons who get arrested, including these data:

Over half (55 percent) were not working either full or part time.  Depending on the site, from 27 percent to 82 percent had no form of health insurance, either private, work related, or government subsidized.  They were also a population very familiar with the criminal justice system: in 9 of the 10 sites, 80 percent or more of arrestees had been arrested before, and from 13 to 30 percent had been arrested more than two times in just the prior year.

Perhaps appropriately, I have not seen any effort to spin this 2011 arrestee information to assert that data suggest job growth or health care reform can lower US crime.  More generally, I feel confident that the relationship(s) between drug use, employment, health care and crime rates are very complex and defy any simple solutions. 

Still, this new arrestee data is interesting and important.  And I am pleased to see the Obama Administration, via this White House post by drug czar Gil Kerlikowski, use the data to push for more drug treatment and not simply to push for still greater funding for the federal drug war.

Some recent and older related posts on drug courts and drug politics:

May 19, 2012 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, January 30, 2012

"Marijuana questions dominate White House online chat -- again"

The title of this post is the headline of this CBS News report, which gets started this way:

President Obama's live, online chat slated for Monday afternoon is intended to focus on issues raised during last week's State of the Union address -- but his online audience seems to be much more interested in marijuana policy.

Following Mr. Obama's State of the Union address, the White House invited voters to submit questions to the president via YouTube. The president plans on answering some of those questions during a 45-minute "hangout" session on on Google's social networking site Google Plus. In the "hangout" session, Mr. Obama will chat from the West Wing with some of the voters who submitted questions. The chat will be streamed live on YouTube and WhiteHouse.gov at 5:30 p.m. ET. 

According to the White House's YouTube page, 133,216 questions were submitted for the discussion (voting is now closed). YouTube visitors could give the questions a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" rating, and more than 1.6 million votes were cast. 

Sorting the questions by popularity reveals that 18 of the 20 most popular questions, according to YouTube, have something to do with marijuana policy, including the legalization of marijuana use, the cost of the war on drugs and other related issues.

January 30, 2012 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"Bummer: Barack Obama turns out to be just another drug warrior"

1314063741342251_lg The title of this post is the title of this lengthy and sharp new piece by Jacob Sullum, which is the cover story in the October 2011 issue of Reason magazine. This title provides an effective summary of the piece, and here are some snippets from the piece's introduction and conclusion:

It is not hard to see how critics of the war on drugs got the impression that Barack Obama was sympathetic to their cause. Throughout his public life as an author, law professor, and politician, Obama has said and done things that suggested he was not a run-of-the-mill drug warrior....

[But] Obama’s drug policies ... by and large have been remarkably similar to his predecessor’s. With the major exception of crack sentences, which were substantially reduced by a law the administration supported, Obama has not delivered what reformers hoped he would. His most conspicuous failure has been his policy on medical marijuana, which is in some ways even more aggressively intolerant than George W. Bush’s, featuring more-frequent raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), ruinous IRS audits, and threats of prosecution against not only dispensaries but anyone who deals with them.  “I initially had high hopes,” says Marsha Rosenbaum, “but now believe Obama has abdicated drug policy to the DEA.”

It would be going too far to say that Obama has been faking it all these years, that he does not really care about the injustices perpetrated in the name of protecting Americans from the drugs they want.  But he clearly does not care enough to change the course of the life-wrecking, havoc-wreaking war on drugs....

We know how Obama responds when the question of marijuana legalization comes up in public: He laughs. The highest-rated questions submitted for his “virtual town meeting” in March 2009 dealt with pot prohibition. “I don’t know what this says about the online audience,” Obama said with a smirk, eliciting laughter from the live audience, “but…this was a fairly popular question.”

Obama’s dismissive attitude was especially galling in light of his own youthful pot smoking, which he presents in Dreams From My Father as a cautionary tale of near-disaster followed by redemption.  “Junkie. Pothead,” he writes.  “That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the would-be black man.”  Judging from the reports of friends interviewed by The New York Times in 2008, Obama exaggerated his brush with addiction for dramatic effect.  More important, he has never publicly acknowledged the plain truth that people who smoke pot rarely become junkies or suffer any other serious harm as a result — unless they get caught.

As Richard Nixon’s National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse pointed out when Obama was all of 10 years old, the biggest risk people face when they smoke pot is created by the government’s attempts to stop them.  In 1977, when Obama was a pot-smoking high school student in Honolulu, President Jimmy Carter advocated decriminalizing marijuana possession, telling Congress that “penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”

That is hardly a radical position.  Polls indicate that most Americans think pot smokers should not be treated like criminals...

In New York City, where marijuana arrests have increased dramatically since the late 1990s, blacks are five times as likely to be busted as whites.  The number of marijuana arrests by the New York Police Department (NYPD) from 1997 through 2006 was 11 times the number in the previous 10 years, despite the fact that possession of up to 25 grams (about nine-tenths of an ounce) has been decriminalized in New York....

Obama attended Columbia University in the early 1980s, well before the big increase in marijuana arrests that began a decade later.  There were about 858,000 pot arrests nationwide in 2009, more than twice the number in 1980, and the crackdown has been especially aggressive in New York City under Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg (another former pot smoker).  “The odds are not bad,” observes Ethan Nadelmann, “that a young Barry Obama, using marijuana at Columbia, might have been arrested had the NYPD been conducting the number of marijuana arrests then that it is now.”

A misdemeanor marijuana conviction could have been a life-changing event for Obama, interrupting his education, impairing his job prospects, and derailing his political career before it began.  It would not have been fair, but it would have spared us the sorry spectacle of a president who champions a policy he once called “an utter failure” and who literally laughs at supporters whose objections to that doomed, disastrous crusade he once claimed to share.

Though I had never expected the Obama Administration to seek a withdrawal from the "war on drugs," I was hoping this Administration might seek to foster a broader national conversation about the obvious costs the traditional federal approaches to fighting a "war" that seems impossible to really "win" or complete.  In addition to being disappointed that the Obama Administration seems eager to avoid such a conversation, I am saddened that this area of federal law and policy appears to be the only one in which President Obama's opponents are silent with any criticisms.

Some recent and older related posts on the modern politics of the drug war:

September 13, 2011 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Resistance Widens to Obama Initiative on Criminal Immigrants"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting article in today's New York Times.  Here are excerpts:

Mayor Thomas Menino, who often invokes his heritage as the grandson of an Italian immigrant, was one of the first local leaders in the country to embrace a federal program intended to improve community safety by deporting dangerous immigrant criminals.

But five years after Boston became a testing ground for the fingerprinting program, known as Secure Communities, Mr. Menino is one of the latest local officials to sour on it and seek to withdraw. He found that many immigrants the program deported from Boston, though here illegally, had committed no crimes. The mayor believed it was eroding hard-earned ties between Boston’s police force and its melting-pot mix of ethnic neighborhoods.

Last month, Mr. Menino sent a letter to the program with a blunt assessment. “Secure Communities is negatively impacting public safety,” he wrote, asking how Boston could get out. On Aug. 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which runs the program, gave an equally blunt response. Its director, John Morton, announced he was canceling all agreements that 40 states and cities had signed to start Secure Communities. Their assent was not legally required, he said, and he planned to move ahead anyway to extend the program nationwide by 2013....

Mr. Menino’s disenchantment illustrates the widening resistance from cities and states that is troubling one of President Obama’s most far-reaching programs to toughen enforcement against illegal immigration.

Administration officials are pressing ahead, saying that information-sharing laws passed after the Sept. 11 attacks mandate the program. The clash will gain a higher profile this month, when a task force Mr. Morton named to recommend fixes is to hold public hearings in a half-dozen cities....

Obama administration officials vigorously defend Secure Communities, saying it is essential for identifying immigrant gang members and other violent criminals arrested by the local police, so federal agents can focus on deporting them. Officials say they are taking steps to avoid deporting foreigners detained for immigration violations, which generally are civil, not criminal, offenses.

In a July 25 letter defending his strategy, Mr. Obama said that deportations of convicted criminals over all increased by 70 percent in 2010 over 2008, while the share of noncriminals among deportees was declining. “The increase in the proportion of criminal removals demonstrates that this strategy is having a real impact,” the president wrote.

Under Secure Communities, the fingerprints of anyone booked into jail are checked against the F.B.I.’s criminal databases — long a routine police practice — and forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security to be run through its databases, which record immigration violations. If an immigration check yields a match, the immigration agency decides whether to detain the foreigner for deportation.... [T]his year three governors — including Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, as well as Pat Quinn of Illinois and Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, all Democrats — announced that they wanted to pull out, as did officials in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and more than 200 immigrant groups have asked Mr. Obama to suspend the program....

Problems started earlier this year when advocacy groups released immigration data showing that more than half of 313 immigrants deported from Boston under the program had no criminal convictions. Many had been detained in traffic stops.

Boston’s police commissioner, Edward Davis, had been a Secure Communities supporter, because his records showed that it had removed many violent criminal immigrants from Boston jails. But he concluded from the new figures that immigration officials had misled him. They specifically told us they would not be removing people with traffic offenses,” Mr. Davis said. “They said they wouldn’t and now they have.”

Mr. Davis said he was taken aback by the indifference of immigration officials to his questions. “This is a throwback to the bad old days of the federal agencies before 9/11, when we did not have cooperation,” he said. “It is really disconcerting that they are not at all concerned about our precarious situation with immigrant communities.”...

Mr. Menino said a July 7 meeting he held with immigrant leaders had persuaded him to try to cancel the program. He did not hide his anger when immigration officials said it would continue. “People will start to say the police are gestapos,” the mayor said. “My police aren’t gestapos. You can’t be a bureaucrat in Washington and just say, ‘We don’t care.’”

August 13, 2011 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, May 13, 2011

Is the time right for candidate Ron Paul to lead withdrawal from the "war on drugs"?

As detailed in this ABC News piece, Representative Ron Paul officially announced his bid for the Presidency saying that "the time is right" for his candidacy for the Republican nomination to take on President Obama in the 2012 election.  This is necessarily important news for anyone like myself concerned about the so-called "war on drugs" because Paul has been a consistent and vocal critic of the drug war and in a recent debate even defended the use of heroin as "an exercise of liberty."

In response to Paul's announcement, the New York Times is rightly asking "Does the Tea Party Make Ron Paul Mainstream?".  And, as detailed in these links below, other serious media folks are already talking about Paul's criticism of the drug war:

Combined with the official entry into the 2012 race of the now-smart-on-crime New Gingrich, I am wondering and hoping that years from now we might look back on this week in May as the official tipping point when talk about retreating from the federal war on drugs became serious. 

Though I am not too optimistic that Paul or Gingrich will get lots of good publicity or traction on these matters, I am hopeful that their advocacy will help allow (and perhaps even force) the Obama Administration to be somewhat more progressive on a number of drug-war crime and punishment issues.  Especially if folks on the left and in the media start playing up the liberty-enhancing, budget-saving aspects of what Paul and Gingrich are saying on these issues, it could (and should) become much easier for both policy and political folks in the Obama Administration to be a little less cautious on issues ranging from medical marijuana to crack sentence reduction to clemency decision.

Some recent and older related posts on modern politics of the drug war and related sentencing issues:

May 13, 2011 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, February 14, 2011

Criminal justice cuts in President Obama's proposed budget

The Crime Report has this effective entry, based on this official document, reviewing the criminal justice cuts in the proposed budget released today by President Obama's administration:

President Obama's proposed federal budget for the year starting Oct. 1, issued today, calls for a 2 percent increase in the Justice Department's spending but a major cut in the Office of Justice Programs and Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, both of which provide state and local anticrime aid.  Describing the reductions as "tough choices," the White House still seeks $600 million to hire "first responders," including police officers and sheriff's deputies.

The proposed budget includes a solid increase for the FBI but a reduction for the Drug Enforcement Administration. It would cut funding for juvenile justice and child safety programs.  The proposed budget calls for $50 million in cuts, "refocusing many formula and other grants into a new $120 million Race to the Top style grant that rewards states for tangible improvements in juvenile justice systems."  For many programs the Obama budget may signify a maximum potential allocation, because Republicans in Congress will seek further cuts in many federal programs.

February 14, 2011 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Drug policy discussed by President Obama after YouTube questions

As detailed in this CBS News piece, which is headlined "Obama: Drugs Should be Treated as a Public Health Problem," President Obama today gave a serious answer to some serious questions about federal drug policies:

Responding to a deluge of questions regarding marijuana and drug policy that came from YouTube, President Obama today said he is not in favor of drug legalization.  However, acknowledging that the "war on drugs" has not been effective, Mr. Obama said he thinks of drugs as "more of a public health problem."

More than 140,000 questions were submitted to the president on the video website for his virtual question-and-answer session today.  YouTube visitors cast more than 1 million votes, rating the questions positively or negatively.  According to the Huffington Post, 198 of the 200 highest-rated questions related to drug policy.

While drug policy is hardly a top priority in Washington, Mr. Obama said it is an "entirely legitimate topic for debate."...  Mr. Obama said ... that focusing the United States' drug policy on arrests, incarceration and interdiction has not had ideal results. Instead, he said, there should be more focus on decreasing demand for drugs, by treating them as other public health concerns like smoking or drunk driving.  "Typically, we've made huge strides over the last 20 to 30 years by changing people's attitudes" on those issues, he said.

The same is not true for illegal drugs.  The annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health released last year showed that the rate of illicit drug use rose from 8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2009.

Mr. Obama said today that more resources could go towards drug rehabilitation so that those looking for help from a drug treatment program do not have to wait for months for assistance. He also said there should be a way of steering nonviolent, first-time drug offenders "into the straight and narrow."

January 27, 2011 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"The Moral Urgency of Crack Retroactivity"

The title of this post is the headline of this commentary by Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which ran yesterday at The Huffington Post.  Here is how it begins:

On August 3, 2010, the nation's first African-American president signed into law a bill to reform what many considered the most racially discriminatory sentencing policy in federal law.  The old policy required dramatically more severe penalties for crimes involving crack cocaine than for offenses involving powder cocaine.  The president and Congress deserve credit for working together to lower crack penalties.  Yet, in a cruel irony, they failed to provide any relief to the very prisoners whose unnecessarily harsh sentences they had pointed to as the impetus for reform.  As our nation celebrates the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we implore the president and new Congress to listen to their consciences, do what is right, and apply the reformed crack penalties retroactively to all offenders.

January 18, 2011 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, December 20, 2010

Any thoughts or insights about how Obama's lower court judges are doing on sentencing issues?

The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by this new AP piece, which is headlined "Quiet deal on Obama's judge nominees in the Senate."  Here are the basics from the article:

After a months-long blockade, Senate Republicans have agreed to let at least 19 of President Barack Obama's non-controversial judicial nominees win confirmation in the waning days of the congressional session in exchange for a commitment by Democrats not to seek votes on four others, according to officials familiar with the deal.

Among the four is Goodwin Liu, a law school dean seen as a potential future Supreme Court pick, whose current nomination to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has sparked strong criticism from Republicans.

As part of the arrangement, the Senate has approved 10 judges in the past few days without a single dissenting vote.  One of them, Albert Diaz, had been awaiting confirmation to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., since clearing the Judiciary Committee in January.

The agreement was worked out between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, with the knowledge of the White House, officials said.  Spokesmen for the two Senate leaders declined comment....

In addition to the 10 nominees confirmed since Thursday, the Senate is expected to approve at least nine more before lawmakers adjourn for the year.  All have been pending in the Senate since Sept. 23 or before.  Another 15 have been awaiting a vote for less than a month.

The unconfirmed nominations will expire when Congress adjourns for the year. Obama is free to reappoint them, but Republicans will have more seats in the Senate in 2011, and there is no assurance the most controversial among them would be approved quickly, if at all.  Apart from Liu, they include Edward Chen, Louis B. Butler Jr. and John J. McConnell, Jr., all nominated to become U.S. District Court judges.

I have not kept up closely with all the lower court judicial nomination debates lately, though I continue to believe that the judges President Obama appoints to the lower courts likely will have a huge impact on the future of sentencing law and policy. I am aware of a few notable sentencing ruling coming from a few of Obama's lower court appointments, but I am sure many Obama newer judges have just barely started developing a significant record on various sentencing issues. Consequently, in the wake of this new nominee news, I thought it might be useful to encourage readers to chime in with any special thoughts or insights on this front.

December 20, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A sentencing fan's Election Day guide

Today's elections (in which I have already voted) do not present numerous major crime and punishment story lines to follow.  But there is one super-duper important direct democracy initiative to watch and  plenty of major (and minor) federal and state races that sentencing fans should keep an eye on.  Here I will briefly spotlight a few of my own (idiosyncratic?) sentencing law and policy takes on today's experiment in democracy:

1.  A real prospect for libertarian change at the federal level: The Tea Party Movement is not obviously committed to all the libertarian principles that would call for massive scaling back of the drug war and mass incarceration.  Nevertheless, the new blood pushing the Republican Party, from Rand Paul to Sarah Palin, seems much more committed to individual liberty and smaller federal government than most of the big-government statists now in Congress representing both parties.

Only a naive optimist could seriously predict that the next Congress will want or will be able to make healthy (and needed) reform of the federal criminal justice system a top priority.  Nevertheless, my inherently optimistic streak leads me to believe that if President Obama wants to move forward with shrewd reform advocacy (e.g., if he says "The Era of Big Government (spending on local crime issues) is over"), he might find a surprisingly receptive audience across the aisle after this election.

2.  A real need to keeping getting real about correction budgets at the state level: The last few years have seen numerous states finally dealing with the significant cost consequences of the "tough-on-crime" mass incarceration binge that defined the 1990s crime politics and policies.  But at least a few notable states (e.g., California and Florida and my own Ohio) have so far avoided making some really tough criminal justice spending choices while this election cycle was heating up.  I do not know which candidates in these states are most likely to deal with these fiscal realities most effectively, but I am sure that persistent economic challenges entail that all state officials elected in 2010 will need to get up to speed on these pressing budget and public safety issues ASAP.

3.  A new dawn (maybe) on pot prohibition and the entire drug war: As regular readers surely already know, I view California's Proposition 19 to be extremely consequential because its passage would be a huge step toward ending pot prohibition and toward serious reconsideration of the entire "war on drugs."  Indeed, even if Prop 19 loses but gets at least 40% of the total vote (and more than 50% of younger voters), we likely will continue to see robust and healthy discussion of the costs and benefits of pot prohibition and other aspects of the drug war.  But if Prop 19 goes down badly, say 65% to 35%, the process of retreating from the worst aspects of the drug war will continue to proceed very, very slowly.

Some related posts on the 2010 election and sentencing issues:

November 2, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 23, 2010

USA Today exposes a "pattern of serious, glaring misconduct" among federal prosecutors

A helpful reader alerted me to this potent and disturbing new piece in USA Today headlined "Prosecutors' conduct can tip justice scales." Here are a few excerpts:

Federal prosecutors are supposed to seek justice, not merely score convictions. But a USA TODAY investigation found that prosecutors repeatedly have violated that duty in courtrooms across the nation. The abuses have put innocent people in prison, set guilty people free and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees and sanctions.

Judges have warned for decades that misconduct by prosecutors threatens the Constitution's promise of a fair trial. Congress in 1997 enacted a law aimed at ending such abuses.

Yet USA TODAY documented 201 criminal cases in the years that followed in which judges determined that Justice Department prosecutors — the nation's most elite and powerful law enforcement officials — themselves violated laws or ethics rules.

In case after case during that time, judges blasted prosecutors for "flagrant" or "outrageous" misconduct. They caught some prosecutors hiding evidence, found others lying to judges and juries, and said others had broken plea bargains.

Such abuses, intentional or not, doubtless infect no more than a small fraction of the tens of thousands of criminal cases filed in the nation's federal courts each year. But the transgressions USA TODAY identified were so serious that, in each case, judges threw out charges, overturned convictions or rebuked prosecutors for misconduct.  And each has the potential to tarnish the reputation of the prosecutors who do their jobs honorably....

With help from legal experts and former prosecutors, USA TODAY spent six months examining federal prosecutors' work, reviewing legal databases, department records and tens of thousands of pages of court filings. Although the true extent of misconduct by prosecutors will likely never be known, the assessment is the most complete yet of the scope and impact of those violations.

USA TODAY found a pattern of "serious, glaring misconduct," said Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman, an expert on misconduct by prosecutors.  "It's systemic now, and … the system is not able to control this type of behavior. There is no accountability."

He and Alexander Bunin, the chief federal public defender in Albany, N.Y., called the newspaper's findings "the tip of the iceberg" because many more cases are tainted by misconduct than are found. In many cases, misconduct is exposed only because of vigilant scrutiny by defense attorneys and judges.

However frequently it happens, the consequences go to the heart of the justice system's promise of fairness....

In a justice system that prosecutes more than 60,000 people a year, mistakes are inevitable.  But the violations USA TODAY documented go beyond everyday missteps. In the worst cases, say judges, former prosecutors and others, they happen because prosecutors deliberately cut corners to win.

"There are rogue prosecutors, often motivated by personal ambition or partisan reasons," said Thornburgh, who was attorney general under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Such people are uncommon, though, he added: "Most former federal prosecutors, like myself, are resentful of actions that bring discredit on the office."

Judges have seen those abuses, too.  "Sometimes, you get inexperienced and unscrupulous assistant U.S. attorneys who don't care about the rules," said U.W. Clemon, the former chief judge in northern Alabama's federal courts.

Wowsa!  I know of more than a few recent high-profile cases in which accusations of federal prosecutorial misconduct were lodged (and generally rejected by lower courts).  It will be interesting to see if this USA Today report prompts efforts by defense attorneys in all such cases to renew assertions of prosecutorial misconduct.  It will also be interesting to see if and how various folks inside the beltway --- ranging from folks inside Main Justice to members of Congress to even Supreme Court Justices --- might respond to this USA Today report.

September 23, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Top House Republican complaining that Obama administration is not fighting drug war hard enough

As detailed in this report from The Hill, which is headlined "Republican: Obama administration fosters use of marijuana," at least one House Republican wants the Obama Administration to keep growing one part of the federal government:

Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas) accused the administration of being too lax in its enforcement of drug laws.  President Obama's drug policies are encouraging increased marijuana use, a top Republican lawmaker charged Tuesday.

Rep. Lamar Smith (Texas), the top Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee who would likely become chairman of the committee under a GOP majority, accused the administration of being too lax in its enforcement of drug laws.  "The administration is clearly sending the message that they don't think it's bad to use marijuana," Smith said on Fox News. "So they're encouraging the use of marijuana.  And that simply is not a good thing to do."

Smith blamed the administration's decision to not enforce federal laws against marijuana dispensaries in states that have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes.  Smith blamed the administration's approach on drug laws for recent statistics showing an increased use of marijuana.

"We ought to be enforcing our drug laws, not backing away from them," said Smith, who also lamented a recent revision of criminal sentencing guidelines that reduced sentencing guidelines for crack-cocaine traffickers.  Proponents of the law in both parties had pushed that reform because sentencing for crack-related drug crimes were much more severe than for similar amounts of cocaine, a disparity which fueled a racial divide in drug sentencing.

As this article highlights, a Republican take-over of the House of Representatives this fall would likely result in Representative Lamar Smith becoming the chair of the House Judiciary Committee.  And Representative Smith has long been a vocal proponent of the war on drugs and an array of other tough-on-crimes measures that have increased the severity and scope of the federal criminal justice system. 

September 22, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Friday, September 17, 2010

Quick textual reflections on Constitution Day

USCon Today, September 17, is the 223rd anniversary of the day in 1787 when the Constitutional Convention officially submitted its proposed constitution to the people of the United States.  To honor the day, I thought I might quoting some of the key criminal justice provisions of the original U.S. Constitution (along with the Bill of Rights):

Part of Article I:  "The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.  No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."

Part of Article II:  "The President ... shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment."

Part of Article III:  "The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury; and such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed."

Amendment I:  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Amendment II:  "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Amendment IV:  "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

Amendment V:  "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law...."

Amendment VI:  "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence."

Amendment VIII:  "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."

I would be interested in readers' perspectives on which criminal justice parts or provisions of the US Constitution they believe or fear is being given the least respect or attention in modern times. 

Regular readers should not be surprised that I believe that it is the Reprieves and Pardons Clause that is in the worst shape in modern times.  Especially in the wake of the Supreme Court's recent work in cases like Heller and Blakely and Graham, I am not unduly worried about the state and fate of the even Amendments (which always seem to get less love than the leading odd Amendments).  But modern presidents have largely ignored their clemency powers until late in their presidencies, and political cronyism rather than constitutional respect seems to best explain many of the major clemency actions of the last few Presidents.  And, as noted here and in many prior posts, President Obama, now almost a full two years into his presidency, has not yet used this historically important constitutional authority a single time (except for two turkeys last Thanksgiving). 

Some related posts:

September 17, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Obama backs off strict crime policy"

The title of this post is the headline of this extended new piece from Josh Gerstein from Politico.  The piece covers a lot of federal sentencing law and policy ground that should be familiar to readers of this blog, and here are excerpts:

For years, it was one of the GOP’s most potent political epithets – labeling a Democrat “soft on crime.” But the Obama White House has taken the first steps in decades to move away from a strict lock-‘em-up mentality on crime – easing sentences for crack cocaine possession, launching a top-to-bottom review of sentencing policies and even sounding open to reviewing guidelines that call for lengthy prison terms for people convicted of child pornography offenses.

The moves – still tentative, to be sure — suggest that President Barack Obama’s aides are betting that the issue has lost some of its punch with voters more worried about terrorism and recession. In one measure of the new political climate surrounding the issue, the Obama administration actually felt free to boast that the new crack-sentencing bill would go easier on some drug criminals....

Despite the tentative moves in the direction of lessening some sentences, there remain numerous signs that Obama and his aides recognize that the issue could still be politically damaging.

When Obama signed the crack disparity bill, only still photographers were allowed in and the president issued no formal statement. The Justice Department’s sentencing review group has indicated it has no plan to issue a formal report that could become a political football. And, 18 months into his presidency, Obama has yet to issue a single commutation or even a pardon to an elderly ex-con seeking to clear his record.

Some advocates note that the crack sentencing bill was not particularly ambitious: it reduced the crack/powder disparity from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. And it wasn’t retroactive, so some who were sentenced under mandatory minimum laws may not benefit.

Asked whether Obama might grant requests to commute the sentences of those who would have gotten less punishment if they committed their crimes today, an administration official said the crack-disparity bill “reflected Congress’s judgment that the law should not be retroactive, [and] the President believes that the Fair Sentencing Act will go a long way toward ensuring that our sentencing laws are tough, consistent, and fair.”

The official also downplayed the notion Obama might offer some kind of blanket clemency for earlier crack-cocaine offenders, saying that “as a general matter, the President agrees with the Department of Justice’s long-held view that commutation is an extraordinary remedy that should only be granted in extraordinary circumstances.”

September 12, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Nuanced and astute (and vague) testimony from DOJ at Sentencing Commission hearing on mandatory minimums

As detailed in this prior post, the United States Sentencing Commission today is conducting a public hearing in Washington DC "to gather testimony from invited witnesses regarding the issue of statutory mandatory minimum penalties in federal sentencing."  The agenda and a list of invited witnesses scheduled to testify today at the USSC can be found here, and this morning the bulk of the written testimony submitted by these witnesses are now linked through this agenda page.

Providing a "View from the Executive Branch" (namely the views of the current US Department of Justice) is Sally Quillian Yates, US Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.  Her submitted written testimony is available at this link, and it is today's must-read for anyone and everyone still following post-Booker sentencing debates and curious about how the Obama Justice Department is staking out ground in these debates.  Just about every paragraph of the DOJ testimony coming from USA Sally Gates is interesting and important, and here are a few extended snippets that really caught my attention:

My testimony today is offered in the context of an ongoing study at the Department of Justice that began soon after Attorney General Holder took office.... The Sentencing and Corrections Working Group is conducting the most comprehensive review of federal sentencing and corrections in the Executive Branch since at least the passage of the Sentencing Reform Act....

The results of the Working Group are guiding the Department’s policies regarding sentencing.  To begin, the Administration has been working hard with Members of Congress to see the enactment this year of legislation to address the current disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses, including the existing 100-to-1 quantity ratio. In addition, last week, the Attorney General issued a new Department policy on charging and sentencing in a memorandum to all federal prosecutors.  This new policy recognizes the reality of post-Booker sentencing and the need for an appropriate balance of consistency and flexibility to maximize the crime-fighting impact of federal law enforcement.  We are also working on new ways to examine racial and ethnic disparities in sentencing beyond federal cocaine sentencing policy to determine if disparities are the result of race-neutral application of statutes and charging decisions and otherwise justified; and we are working on initiatives to promote more effective prisoner reentry.  These and other measures will be announced shortly....

The federal prison population, which was about 25,000 when the Sentencing Reform Act was enacted into law, is now over 210,000.  And it continues to grow.  Much of that growth is the result of long mandatory sentences for drug trafficking offenders.  While these and other mandatory sentences have been important factors in bringing down crime rates, we also believe there are real and significant excesses in terms of the imprisonment meted out for some offenders under existing mandatory sentencing laws, especially for some non-violent offenders. Moreover, the Federal Bureau of Prisons is now significantly overcapacity, which has real and detrimental consequences for the safety of prisoners and guards, effective prisoner reentry, and ultimately, public safety.

At the same time, since the Supreme Court’s decision in Booker, Sentencing Commission research and data – and the experience of our prosecutors – have shown increasing disparities in sentencing.  We are concerned by, and continue to evaluate, research and data that indicate sentencing practices (particularly those resulting in lengthier incarcerations) are correlated with the demographics of offenders.  Further, with more and more sentences becoming unhinged from the sentencing guidelines, undue leniency has become more common for certain offenders convicted of certain crime types.  For example, for some white collar offenses – including high loss white collar offenses – and some child exploitation offenses, sentences have become increasingly inconsistent.  The federal sentencing guidelines, which were originally intended to carry the force of law, no longer do. Thus, for these offenses for which there are no mandatory minimums, sentencing decisions have become largely unconstrained as a matter of law, except for the applicable statutory maximum penalty. Predictably, this has led to greater variation in sentencing. This in turn undermines the goals of sentencing to treat like offenders alike, eliminate unwarranted disparities in sentencing, and promote deterrence through predictability in sentencing.

Our study has led us to the conclusion that in an era of advisory guidelines, mandatory minimum sentencing statutes remain important to promote the goals of sentencing and public safety.  At the same time, we recognize that some reforms of existing mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are needed and that consideration of some new modest mandatory minimum sentencing statutes is appropriate....

In the past, the Sentencing Commission has taken the position that mandatory minimum sentencing statutes were not needed, in part because the sentencing guidelines were themselves mandatory.  This position was also put forward for many years by advocacy groups such as the American Bar Association and Families Against Mandatory Minimums as well as by federal public defenders. However, in our review of federal sentencing over the last year, we have found little support from these groups, in Congress, or the Federal Judiciary for reinstating the presumptive nature of the sentencing guidelines.  In the absence of such a change to the federal sentencing structure that might return presumptive sentencing guidelines (an overhaul that we are not now recommending), we believe that mandatory minimum sentencing statutes must go hand in hand with advisory sentencing guidelines.

May 27, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

DOJ resisting efforts to disinfect the federal celemency process with some sunlight

Light Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously advocated for transparency and honesty in public policy with the wondrous aphorism "sunlight is the best disinfectant.”  This bright idea came to my mind when I saw this fascinating new article in The National Law Journalconcerning federal celemncy policies and practices. The piece is headlined "Justice Department Wants to Keep Pardon Data Under Wraps: DOJ says release of information on applicants violates privacy law," and here are excerpts:

The Obama Justice Department is fighting to keep secret the names of more than 9,200 people whose applications for pardons and commutations were denied by President George W. Bush.

Last year, DOJ attorneys failed to persuade a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the privacy interest of the unsuccessful applicants outweighs any public value of producing a list. The department has asked a federal appeals court in Washington to reverse the ruling.

The case is a politically sensitive one for the Justice Department, given Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s involvement in the decision to pardon fugitive Marc Rich at the end of the Clinton administration. The Rich pardon turned into a Washington scandal that compelled Holder to apologize for mistakes when it came up during his confirmation hearing last year.

Although the case applies only to pardon applicants during the Bush administration, a loss at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit would likely make public the names of those who sought pardons and clemency during other administrations.

Under the current policy, the Justice Department will confirm whether a specific convict received a pardon, but will not disclose a comprehensive list of all the denials.

Since October 2009, Obama has received 382 pardon petitions and 2,275 applications for commutation -- on top of more than 2,000 pending petitions.  Obama has not granted or denied a single petition, according to Justice Department statistics.  The outcome of the dispute has the potential to change the pardon process going forward, said several lawyers in Washington who represent clients seeking clemency.  Routine disclosure of all names could deter some people from seeking a pardon in the first place.

"Pardon grants should be, and are, publicly disclosed because there should not be secret pardons," Hogan Lovells partner H. Christopher Bartolomucci said. "But pardon denials should not be disclosed as a general matter because of the applicant's privacy interest."

The case stems from a Freedom of Information Act request filed by a retired Washington Post reporter, George Lardner, who is writing a book on the history of clemency.  Lardner's lawyers at the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington said that comparing clemency lists on file at the Office of the Pardon Attorney will help determine whether ethnic consideration played a role in Bush's rejection of thousands of applications.

Last July, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued a 35-page opinion ordering the names to be publicly released. "Fundamentally, the disclosure of the requested information shines a light on the most basic information about the executive's exercise of his pardon power -- who is and who is not granted clemency by the President," Kollar-Kotelly wrote.DOJ officials declined to comment.

In the D.C. Circuit, the department continues to mount its privacy argument -- that many applicants have family members, friends and employers who may not know that the person has a criminal record. There's no way to put a favorable spin on the fact an applicant was deemed unworthy of clemency, wrote DOJ Civil Division lawyer John Koppel in court papers filed May 10. "At most, the public would learn the names of those denied clemency, but not the factors favoring or disfavoring the decision, nor whether there were weighty considerations supporting or opposing clemency in the OPA file," Koppel said in court papers. "Without knowing the reasons that factored in the decision, the public learns nothing about how the government works -- even as a significant privacy interest is sacrificed."

One lawyer in Washington whose practice is devoted to clemency said she supports shedding light on the pardon process but also expressed concern about the prospect of a wholesale release of names. "I think a lot of my clients would be really anxious to see their names on a list of applicants who were denied," said Margaret Colgate Love, the U.S. pardon attorney between 1990 and 1997....

Lardner's attorneys at the Public Citizen Litigation Group in Washington note that none of the unsuccessful applicants are participating in the case and that there are public databases -- the Bureau of Prisons has one -- where employers can check whether an employee has served time in the federal prison system. Public Citizen Litigation Group Director Allison Zieve said DOJ's argument "is speculation about worst-case scenarios" without necessary evidence to support the concern. "For an administration that seeks to pride itself on its openness and commitment to FOIA, it's disappointing they would [appeal]," Zieve said. "It's not really the government's interest at stake in this case."

Because I believe assertions of privacy interests and concerns are frequently overstated, and especially because I consider the federal clemency process very badly broken, I am deeply disappointed that Obama Justice Department is fighting so hard to prevent George Lardner and others from getting the most basic information about the operation of the federal clemency process.  Given that President Obama has failed to act in any way on what is now a backlog of nearly 5,000 clemency petitions, I am a proponent of anyone who is eager in any way to shine more sunlight on a clemency process that seem to me to be teeming with infectants.

Some related posts:

May 25, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Insiders reporting James Cole tapped to be next Deputy Attorney General

Sentencing fans know that, with the Justice Department's still on-going internal review of sentencing and corrections policy and with lots of important SCOTUS and USSC sentencing decisions in the works, the DOJ remains a critically important playing in helping to chart the short-term and long-term future of sentencing law and practice.  Consequently, given this new story in The National Law Journal headlined "Source: Bryan Cave Partner Picked to Be Next Deputy Attorney General," I now am eager to hear what folks might know about likely future DAG James Cole.

Here are the basic background details from the NLJ story:

President Barack Obama intends to nominate Bryan Cave partner James Cole as the next deputy attorney general, a source with knowledge of the plans confirms.

Cole, 57, comes to the nomination with a mix of experience in the Justice Department and in private practice.  He spent 13 years at the department, rising to be chief of the Public Integrity Section. He's been at Bryan Cave since 1995, specializing in white-collar defense and corporate investigations, though he took time to serve as special counsel to the House Ethics Committee during its inquiry of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

Cole is also a friend of Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., and the two worked together at the Justice Department. "He's experienced, able, and a very fair-minded guy," said Irvin Nathan, general counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives, who worked with Cole as a partner at Arnold & Porter....

Arnold & Porter partner James Cooper, who led the embezzlement conspiracy prosecution of officials from the Washington Teachers Union in 2003, called Cole an excellent choice for deputy attorney general because he brings the perspective of an attorney who has worked on both sides of the courtroom.

"I am extremely pleased with the selection," said Cooper, who practices in white-collar criminal defense. "He has had the kind of distinguished career inside and outside of the government that suggests to me he has the right kind of judgment and temperament to be an effective manger."

As the Justice Department's No. 2 official, the deputy attorney general manages the day-to-day operations of its tens of thousands of employees nationwide. The deputy serves as the department's top official when the attorney general is unable to do so, and he can be one of the department's top public faces on Capitol Hill and elsewhere....

Gary Grindler of the department's Criminal Division has been acting deputy attorney general since February, when David Ogden stepped down to return to Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. Cole's candidacy was first reported last month by ProPublica, and the plans to nominate him were reported Friday afternoon by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

I doubt Cole would be confirmed before the Supreme Court hands down its expected big rulings in the honest services fraud cases and other still pending big federal criminal law cases this Term.  But he likely would have a hand in how DOJ responds to the Sentencing Commission's important new proposed sentencing guidelines and also its on-going work on mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.  Thus, if anyone has a sense of Cole's sense of these issues, please consider leaving a comment here.

May 23, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Some Reflections on Conservative Politics and the Limits of the Criminal Sanction"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting piece on SSRN from J. Richard Broughton, which I came across only last night (even though it was posted more than a month ago). Obviously, the piece was written well before yesterday's SCOTUS rulings in Comstock and Graham, but the abstract highlights why the piece is still timely and especially worth reading while the ink is still drying on yesterday's intriguing SCOTUS opinions:

This Article, written for the Charleston School of Law’s recent symposium on Crime & Punishment, briefly addresses the significance of popular forces and conservative political thought in an American criminal justice regime that has become too broad in its scope and sometimes unnecessarily harsh in its treatment of certain offenders. Although conservatives can plausibly embrace some judicially-enforceable limits on the criminal law, a conservative view of structural constitutional considerations would still constrain the judiciary’s authority to undermine popular decision-making as to criminal law and punishment. This Article cites the Supreme Court’s disparate approach to capital and non-capital proportionality issues under the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause as an example. Those same structural considerations that would credit popular forces in constitutional adjudication, however, necessarily require popular forces to act as the chief definers of the criminal sanction and enforcers of its limits outside the realm of judicial review.

If conservative politics is to lead a more sensible popular approach to crime and punishment, it cannot do so with unhelpful “soft on crime/tough on crime” rhetoric or mass appeals to popular sentiment about the criminal justice issue of the day.  Rather, it must do so through a conservatism grounded in constitutional balance: an appreciation for the tension between the need for order and the claims of liberty, avoiding the vice of impotence in the face of socially harmful conduct but robustly affirming limits to ensure that the government controls itself as well as the people.  Conservatives can adhere to their impulse for preserving civil order and controlling the governed through formal institutions and arrangements, yet also rely upon those same forms to limit the government’s prosecutorial and penal reach.  Such an approach may require conflict between the political branches of government.  But such conflict is actually a constitutional virtue, and its absence has helped to create many of the current distortions in crime policy. This Article therefore suggests a popular (i.e., non-judge-made) and constitutionalist -- but not a populist -- approach to creating a more limited and responsible crime and punishment regime.

May 18, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Effective USA Today coverage of President Obama's clemency stinginess

Clemencyx Yesterday's edition of USA Today had a pair of pieces (and this reprinted graphis) discussing federal clemency realities, which effectively stressed the significant fact that President Obama has received a huge number of clemency requests while having granted not a single one during his first 16+ months in the Oval Office.  One piece, which is headlined "Record number seek president's clemency," starts this way:

President Obama has received more petitions for pardons and shorter prison sentences than previous presidents at this point in office, and he hasn't approved a single one. 

Obama has already logged 2,361 clemency petitions, according to the Justice Department.  He also faces a backlog of 2,173 old requests, a legacy of a system that civil rights groups and conservative jurists say has fallen into disuse.

A related piece, which is headlined "Convict petitions Obama to reduce crack penalty," highlights the story of, Kenneth Harvey, just one of thousands of offenders hoping that President Obama will give his pledge of hope and change a little more meaning in this context. Here is a brief segment from that piece:

Harvey's family wants him back home — and they thought when Barack Obama got elected president, they'd have a shot. Now, they're not so sure.

Obama has not approved a single request for a pardon or a shorter prison sentence since he took office, despite having more petitions before him — 2,361 according to the Justice Department — than any previous president at this point in his term.

The White House won't discuss the issue, other than to say Obama has asked Justice to review how it processes petitions and makes recommendations.

As regular readers know, I have been urging President Obama to exercise his clemency power with vigor since literally his very first day in the Oval Office (as evidenced by some of the posts linked below).  Though I remain deeply disappointed at the lack of action by the President in this setting, I am perhaps even more disappointed by the lack of criticism concerning the Obama Administration's failings in this historically significant setting.

Some related posts:

April 28, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fascinating report on backstory behind presidential pardon problems

This new post at Main Justice, which is headlined "Despite Efforts, Pardon System Still Unchanged," provides some new and notable details about discussion and debate over pardon policy inside the Obama Administration.  Here are excerpts:

Behind closed doors Justice Department and White House officials have been considering changes to the system since the start of the Obama administration, though the White House appears to have scaled back its ambitions after key personnel changes.

Former White House Counsel Greg Craig, now a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, led a push for major reforms before stepping down last November, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.  He received support from then-Deputy Attorney General David Ogden, who recently returned to his practice at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, the individuals said.

Attorney General Eric Holder — whose involvement in the controversial pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich at the end of the Clinton administration threatened his career — also expressed interest in making the clemency program “more systematic,” said one of the individuals.

The Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney receives clemency applications and makes recommendations to the White House via the Office of the Deputy Attorney General.  A steep backlog in the pardon office coupled with fewer clemency grants in recent years has driven applicants to reach out to the White House directly.

Some critics say the current system is obsolete because it provides the president with no assurances that his grants will be free of political consequences. Meanwhile, they say, the tool used in the past to “correct injustices that the ordinary criminal process seems unable or unwilling to consider,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy once wrote, has fallen into disuse.

An idea favored by Craig was the creation of a blue-ribbon commission or an advisory process inside the Justice Department but apart from the pardon attorney, the people said.  After he stepped down in November, however, discussions turned to developing criteria under which clemency petitions should be granted in the existing program.

“Like every administration, we are updating the policy guidance for DOJ on requests for executive clemency,” a White House official said.  Craig and Ogden declined to comment.  A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment while the policy was under review.

The clemency issue gained attention after the Supreme Court heard arguments last month in Dillon v. U.S., a case brought by a federal prisoner who was sentenced in 1993 to 27 years behind bars for trafficking in crack cocaine.

Percy Dillon, described as a model prisoner, asked the court to decide whether the U.S. Sentencing Commission erred in limiting federal judges’ discretion in new sentencing hearings under Congress’ 2007 reduction in the crack guidelines.  A federal judge had called his original sentence “unfair” and “entirely too high.”

At one point, Justice Kennedy asked the government’s lawyer whether the Justice Department ever recommends clemency for prisoners like Dillon.  He also questioned whether the lack of commutations last year and the five the year before signaled that “something is not working in the system.”

It is quite sad (and perhaps quite telling) that the two official inside the Obama Administration who were most forcefully pushing for clemency reforms are now out of the Administration.  And, of course, it is even sadder and even more telling that we are now deep into the Obama era and have yet to see any tangible evidence of significant hope and change in this setting or in many other federal criminal justice contexts.

As regular readers know, I have been urging President Obama to exercise his clemency power with vigor since literally his very first day in the Oval Office:

April 21, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Grandmother Will Mark President's Day By Petitioning Obama To Commute Her 27-Year Prison Sentence For Non-Violent Crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this new press release from the ACLU.  Here are excerpts from the release, which provides the backstory of a remarkable case, that appears to be the kick-off for a remarkable new project:

Hamedah Hasan, a mother and grandmother serving her 17th year of a 27-year federal prison sentence for a non-violent crime, asked President Obama today to commute her remaining sentence. Hasan's petition was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of the Pardon Attorney, and was accompanied by almost 50 letters of support from prison chaplains, community members, advocates, friends and family. The American Civil Liberties Union represents Hasan in her commutation petition....

In an unusual display of support for a commutation petition by a federal judge, the Honorable Richard G. Kopf, U.S. District of Nebraska, who sentenced Hasan in 1993, wrote a letter to the Department of Justice Pardon Attorney's Office. In it, Judge Kopf said, "…I can say, without equivocation, that Ms. Hasan is deserving of the President's mercy. I have never supported such a request in the past, and I doubt that I will support another one in the future. That said, in this unique case, justice truly cries out for relief."...

President Obama, Vice President Biden and Attorney General Holder have publicly called for equalization of federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine, and the U.S. Sentencing Commission has called for reform of the crack-powder sentencing disparity four times. President Obama's "Blueprint for Change," published soon after he was elected in 2008, stated, "...the disparity between sentencing crack and powder-based cocaine is wrong and should be completely eliminated."...

Hasan's petition is the first of several in a larger project, dubbed "Dear Mr. President, Yes You Can."  The Dear Mr. President Project brings together civil rights advocates, legal scholars, law school clinics, pro bono counsel and others to urge President Obama to depart from the practices of his immediate predecessors and use the pardon and commutation power in a principled way, consistent with his administration's position that the crack Sentencing Guidelines have been far too harsh.  The Project also aims to promote the president's clemency power as a means to correct historical injustices.

Baylor Law School professor and former federal prosecutor Mark Osler, who is a founding member of the Project, noted, "President Obama has gone 387 days (and counting) without granting a single pardon or commutation.  This makes him one of the slowest-acting presidents in history to exercise the power of forgiveness.  Thomas Jefferson employed the pardon power to eliminate the sentences of those convicted under the shameful Alien and Sedition Acts.  President John F. Kennedy granted over 100 commutations in less than three years in office.  President Lyndon Johnson commuted 226 sentences. It's time for President Obama to revive the noble and necessary function of executive clemency in Hamedah Hasan's case."

Hasan is the mother of three daughters, Kamyra, 16, to whom Hasan gave birth in prison, Ayesha, 21, and Kasaundra, 26. Hasan also has two grandchildren.  Hasan's commutation petition materials are available at: www.dearmrpresidentyesyoucan.org  

Awesome stuff here, and I am hopeful (though sadly not especially optimistic) that this campaign might finally help President Obama do something about his truly shameful clemency record to date.  At the very least, I hope that this "Dear Mr. President Project" will lead prompt the media to start taking more note of President Obama truly shameful clemency record to date.

Some related recent posts on federal clemency realities:

February 11, 2010 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Noting big (and wasteful?) budget growth in federal prison spending

Following up on an issue I spotlighted in this recent post (which has generated lots of interesting comments), today this article in USA Today takes a look at the Justice Department's proposed 2011 budget numbers. This piece is headlined "2011 budget gives federal prisons $528M," and here are some highlights:

As states cut their budgets by closing prisons and diverting some offenders to probation and treatment programs, the federal government is proposing to dramatically ramp up its detention operations.

The Obama administration's $3.8 trillion 2011 budget proposal calls for a $527.5 million infusion for the federal Bureau of Prisons and judicial security — $227 million more than the proposed increase to Justice's national security program. The boost would bring the total Bureau of Prisons budget to $6.8 billion.

Nearly half of the new funding is proposed to accommodate the administration's plan to close the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and move some of the terror suspects to an Illinois prison. The Justice Department also projects that federal prisons, which now hold 213,000 offenders, will hold 7,000 more by 2011.

Also included in the Justice budget is a proposal to hire 652 additional prison guards and fill 1,200 vacant detention positions, far more than the combined 448 new agents planned for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and U.S. Marshals Service.

Assistant Attorney General Lee Lofthus says the increased prison system funding does not reflect a de-emphasis of national security, only that the Bureau of Prisons "needs the bed space."...

The federal spending plan contrasts with the criminal justice strategies pursued in many cash-strapped states, including California, Kansas and Kentucky, where officials have closed prisons or allowed for the early release of some non-violent offenders. In Kansas, for example, state officials last year closed three prisons and reduced the number of probation violators sent to prison to reduce detention costs.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates alternatives to incarceration, says states have a "greater sense of urgency" to change policy because of their obligations to balance budgets. "That sense of urgency isn't there at the federal level," Mauer says. "Prison expansion slows the momentum for the reconsideration of some of those policies."

I hope we might hear the usual suspects who usually complain most loudly about excessive federal spending will speak out about the continued (and wasteful?) growth of the federal criminal justice and prison system.  I fear, however, that prison spending tends to be an arena in which many persons who are usually advocates for limited government spending become quite willing to endorse the continued growth of big government.

Some recent related posts:

February 4, 2010 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Obama as Scrooge: no Christmas clemency grants

Scrooge As I complained in posts here and here and here around Thanksgiving, it was sad and telling that President Barack Obama's first use of his historic clemency power was to continue the modern (silly?) tradition of pardoning a turkey.  At that time, however, I was hoping that Prez Obama might be saving up some holiday clemencies for the Christmas season.  But now the Obamas have gone off to Hawaii on their vacation; as this official webpage reveals, Prez Obama has left behind on Christmas Eve nearly 3,500 requests for pardons and commutations sitting unresolved on his Oval Office desk.

In this new Huffington Post commentary, which is titled "What I Want For Christmas: Mass Clemency," Jacob Appel makes a fulsome pitch for all executive branch leaders to consider the granting of mass clemency this holiday season.  Here are some highlights:

[W]ith the United States now boasting the highest incarceration rate in the world -- more than 1 in every 100 Americans in currently behind bars -- our nation is long overdue for a mass clemency of non-violent felons and those unlikely to re-offend.  Such a collective pardon and commutation would reunite hundreds of thousands of families, save billions of dollars in incarceration costs, and might foster a national spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation....

So here's my Christmas wish: Each chief executive should order a special panel to determine, as quickly as possible, which prisoners either have a history of extreme violence or pose a high risk of re-offending.  Those meeting neither criteria should be transitioned home as quickly as possible....

One of the glaring -- yet too often overlooked -- failings of contemporary America is that we have become a nation obsessed with justice and retribution.  We claim to be The Land of the Free, yet we have lost sight of what it means to be imprisoned: denied liberty and access to one's family, subjected to isolation and violence and unspeakable boredom.  We have come to believe, in the most pernicious way, that people should get what they deserve.  What a sea change it might be in our public discourse and our civic life if we focused instead upon mercy and forgiveness.  A merciful and forgiving culture might find itself with less anger, less social disruption, and even less crime.  If we liberated only half of our prisoners, we could spend the billions of dollars saved educating children, or providing substance-abuse treatment to addicts, or training mental health workers -- breaking the cycle of neglect that sets future prisoners on their initial trajectory toward misconduct....

Fortunately, the majority of our more than two million prisoners are not fanatics and sociopaths. Many are good people who have exercised poor judgment.  They have the same hopes and dreams as ordinary, free Americans, but they now squander their lives behind bars because our prison-industrial complex has gone haywire.  They are, in short, the meek and wretched who the Biblical Jesus -- whether literal or figurative -- would want us to remember in our holiday prayers.

Will the White House read this column and decide upon a mass clemency?  Unlikely.  Such a bold step might make President Obama truly worthy of his Nobel Prize, and win him the praise of history, but political leaders of all stripes think in terms of poll numbers.  I suspect that a mass clemency could be sold to the American public -- particularly as more and more Americans find their own loved ones imprisoned -- but I understand that to attempt such a courageous step requires a leap of considerable faith.  I am more optimistic that, if enough people clamor for a mass clemency, one inspired state governor -- possibly a lame-duck chief executive without a political future -- will consider such a dramatic and compassionate act.  If that happens, and the social order does not crumble, other political leaders may have the courage to follow.  In the interim, I can only hope that the government lawyers assembling last-minute pardons lists, possibly as I write this, remember that each name they add to their clemency register is another flesh-and-blood human being who will be able to spent the Christmas holiday with his or her family.

While I am impressed by Appel's pitch for mass clemencies, I would have been grateful if President Obama would have granted even a single clemency before heading off to the islands.  In this Thanksgiving post, I called out President Obama and the criminal justice members of his White House team as turkeys.  Now, this Christmas Eve, the label Scrooge seems fitting for all these folks. 

Relatedly, as I have suggested before, I think that the media, public policy groups and the left side of the blogosphere also merit some spiritual grief this Christmas eve.  Save for an few commentaries like Appel's, there has been precious little media or blogosphere criticism of the failure of President Obama to bring any hope or change to modern federal clemency stinginess.  Sadly, far too many criminal justice groups and bloggers, who should be making a big stink about Obama's failure to show a true concern for the meek and wretched sitting in prison this holiday season, seem to be content tucked in their beds without stirring this night before Christmas.

Some related posts on federal clemency realities:

December 24, 2009 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 03, 2009

"No Decrease In Death Penalty Approval Rate"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new NPR piece discussing the absence of significant change in the handling of the federal death penalty under the new Obama Administration.  Here are excerpts:

During the Bush administration, opponents of capital punishment criticized the Justice Department for bringing federal death penalty cases too often and in states that have outlawed execution as a form of punishment.

With Attorney General Eric Holder running the department, many people expected to see a more limited use of the tactic. But so far, Holder is instructing prosecutors to seek the death penalty at roughly the same rate as President Bush's last attorney general.... Holder has authorized death penalty prosecutions at a pace comparable to that of his immediate predecessor, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Center. The center helps defense lawyers in capital cases, and it also tracks how often an attorney general authorizes prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

According to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Center, President Bush's first attorney general, John Ashcroft, greenlighted 139 federal death penalty prosecutions out of 641 cases that might have been eligible for capital punishment. That's a 22 percent approval rate. Ashcroft's successor, Alberto Gonzales, authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty in 81 out of 423 possible cases, for a 19 percent approval rate.

Michael Mukasey approved 21 out of 159 cases, so his approval rate was 13 percent. Holder's approval rate is almost identical to Mukasey's. As of Oct. 3, capital defense lawyers say, Holder had authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty in 7 cases out of 61 that might have been eligible for capital punishment. That's an 11 percent approval rate.

If you include the five alleged Sept. 11 conspirators headed to New York from Guantanamo for a federal death penalty trial, the rate climbs higher. And Thanksgiving week, Holder instructed prosecutors to seek the death penalty in another four cases....

There is also a question of local standards in death penalty enforcement. Many states have outlawed the death penalty, but even in those states, federal prosecutors can still bring capital charges....

Ashcroft brought federal death penalty cases in states that have outlawed capital punishment. When asked for his view on bringing federal death penalty cases in states that have outlawed capital punishment, Holder said, "I wouldn't say that there's a policy where we're doing it on a state-by-state basis. It really is a case-by-case basis."

December 3, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Obama suggests 9/11 suspect will get death penalty"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Reuters piece. Here is how the piece starts:

U.S. President Barack Obama suggested on Wednesday the self-professed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks would be convicted and put to death, but later said he was not trying to prejudge the trial.

I am bumming that President Obama did not also predict just when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would be executed, especially since the administration of the federal death penalty remains in a virtual legal black hole since some scheduled federal executions were stayed way back in 2006 based on pre-Baze concerns about lethal injection protocols. 

Some related posts:

November 18, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Death Penalty Reforms | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Monday, November 09, 2009

"President Barack Obama proving stingy with his pardon power"

The title of this post is the headline of this little piece today in the Chicago Tribune.  These basics about President Obama's poor clemency track record to date should be familiar to regular readers of this blog:

A lot of things have moved pretty quickly in the Obama administration. Presidential pardons are not among them.  In two and a quarter centuries, only four presidents have been slower than President Barack Obama in exercising their authority of executive clemency -- granting either pardons or commutations of sentences to the convicted -- with thousands of applications pending at the Justice Department.

Some related posts on federal clemency:

November 9, 2009 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 11, 2009

DOJ reviewing some DNA testing waivers in federal plea agreements

This new article in today's Washington Post, which is headlined "Justice Dept. to Review Bush Policy on DNA Test Waivers," spotlights an interesting issues concerning the use of rights waivers in some federal plea agreements. Here are some of the basics:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has ordered a review of a little-known Bush administration policy requiring some defendants to waive their right to DNA testing even though that right is guaranteed in a landmark federal law, officials said.

The practice of using DNA waivers began several years ago as a response to the Innocence Protection Act of 2004, which allowed federal inmates to seek post-conviction DNA tests to prove their innocence.  More than 240 wrongly convicted people have been exonerated by such tests, including 17 on death row.

The waivers are filed only in guilty pleas and bar defendants from ever requesting DNA testing, even if new evidence emerges. Prosecutors who use them, including some of the nation's most prominent U.S. attorneys, say people who have admitted guilt should not be able to file frivolous petitions for testing.  They say the wave of DNA exonerations has little impact in federal court because all those found to be innocent were state prisoners, and the waivers apply only to federal charges. DNA evidence is used far more frequently in state courts.

But DNA experts say that's about to change because more sophisticated testing will soon bring biological evidence into federal courtrooms for a wider variety of crimes.  Defense lawyers who have worked on DNA appeals strongly oppose the waivers, saying that innocent people sometimes plead guilty -- mainly to get lighter sentences -- and that denying them the ability to prove their innocence violates a fundamental right.  One quarter of the 243 people exonerated by DNA had falsely confessed to crimes they didn't commit, and 16 of them pleaded guilty....

Interviews and documents show that language allowing for DNA waivers was inserted into the law at the behest of Republican senators and that the Bush Justice Department lobbied against the measure even with the waiver provision.  Soon after the law passed with bipartisan support, the department sent a secret memo to the nation's 94 U.S. attorney's offices urging them to use the waivers, several federal officials familiar with the memo said.

Holder, a former U.S. attorney in the District, has called for expanded DNA testing in federal courts. After inquiries by The Washington Post, his spokesman, Matthew Miller, said Holder "has ordered that the department review its DNA waiver policy."...  Oregon prosecutor Joshua Marquis, who sits on the executive committee of the National District Attorneys Association, said he's never heard of DNA waivers in state court and that the organization opposes the concept. "I think it's important to always leave the door open for actual proof of innocence," he said.

In federal court, the waivers are part of the standard plea agreement filed by prosecutors in the District, Alexandria and Manhattan, which are among the nation's highest-profile U.S. attorney's offices.  Waivers are used in some or all pleas by at least 16 other offices, including such large ones as Chicago and Los Angeles and such smaller ones as Arkansas and West Virginia. Prosecutors in Maryland rarely use the waivers. "It saves us a lot of spurious litigation down the pike," said G.F. Peterman III, acting U.S. attorney in the Middle District of Georgia. "All they have to do is say I'm not guilty, go to trial and they've waived nothing. It's their decision."

Defense attorneys disagree, saying prosecutors give defendants the choice of signing the waiver or not getting the benefits of a plea agreement, which usually include a lighter sentence. "It's a horrendous provision, and I can never get them to take it out," said Christopher Amolsch, a lawyer whose client recently waived DNA testing rights in a cigarette smuggling case in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. Other lawyers said they don't usually fight the waivers, considering it a losing battle....

At least 24 U.S. attorneys don't use the waivers. It could not be determined how many inmates have been affected by the policy, because the remaining 50 U.S. attorney's offices did not respond to inquiries or declined to comment.  It is also unclear how many federal prisoners have filed petitions seeking post-conviction DNA testing since 2004.  Justice Department officials said the number is small but have also said they expect more petitions over time.

Though this Postarticle is focused on waiver of the right to DNA testing, I am hopeful that the Justice Department is examining critically all the disparate and disturbing use of broad waivers in federal plea agreements.  I am glad to see the Post focusing on one part of this issue, but I hope the inquiry into waivers of rights in plea deals extend beyond DNA concerns.

As this article highlights, though the Justice Department and federal prosecutors are often raising concerns about disparate sentencing practices, the reality of federal criminal practice is that plea bargaining practices and plea agreement terms are often wildly disparate from district to district.  The different and disparate fast-track sentencing programs (discussed in the most recent FSR issue) are the most tangible example of prosecutor-produced disparity, but use of different types of waivers is also profound and pervasive, too. 

The most pervasive and pernicious plea agreement waiver involves waivers of the right to appeal.  Though statistics are hard to come by, I suspect that some (if not most or even all) federal districts include appeal waiver in some (if not most or even all) plea agreement.  As I explained in long ago posts here and here right after Booker, I think a strong argument could and should be made that appeal waivers are void as against public policy as enshrined in the Sentencing Reform Act and Booker.  But, to my knowledge, only a very few federal judges and courts refuse to endorse and uphold appeal waivers.

October 11, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack