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 (5) | 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