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

Monday, October 05, 2009

Some interesting snippets from the latest crime speech by Attorney General Holder

At the new Department of Justice website (which, personally, I do not find very aesthetically pleasing), one can now find the text of this new speech by Attorney General Eric Holder on crime issues.  This speech was today delivered to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Denver, and I found these passages especially notable:

But as important as it is to foster a stronger national dialogue between federal, state, and local law enforcement, talk alone is not enough.  Talk alone isn’t going to keep crime rates down.  Talk alone isn’t going to protect innocent victims.  Talk alone isn’t going to stop rival gangs from shooting up our streets, or drug dealers from peddling dope in our schools, or terrorists from attacking our cities.  Indeed, we all know that the best ideas in the world are worth little without the resources to implement them....

I want the Justice Department to be a partner with you as we develop the most up-to-date thinking about law enforcement strategies.  Therefore, I have directed our Office of Justice Programs to transform itself into an evidence-based agency that supports strong research, that shares scientifically-reliable findings that will ultimately help you do your jobs better and then provides the funds necessary to make sound theory into viable reality.  I am confident that this new direction will ultimately help you take advantage of new approaches that will greatly assist you in your efforts to further the cause of justice.

October 5, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Important new NACDL report critical of modern drug court movement

As detailed in this news release, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has today released an important new report on drug courts.  The title of the press release. "Drug Courts Endanger Rights, Block Access To Needed Treatment for Drug Users: Defense Lawyers Call for Major Overhaul," highlights that the NACDL is not in favor of extant drug court models.  Here is the start of the press release, which provides a partial summary of the report:

Drug courts – first created 20 years ago as an emergency response to an epidemic of drug-related criminal cases that clogged courts and prisons – have in many places become an obstacle to making cost-efficient drug abuse therapy available to addicts and reducing criminal case loads, the nation’s largest association of criminal defense attorneys said today.

In too many places, access to treatment comes at the cost of a guilty plea for low-level drug offenses while hard cases are denied and offenders wind up in jail at great expense to taxpayers, a report by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers found. The report flowed out of a two-year task force study of problem-solving courts.

Well-intended prosecutors and judges, generally with little input from the defense bar, often limit entry to treatment to offenders most likely to solve their own problems while insisting that “harder cases” go to jail, at considerable taxpayer expense, the study found. Minorities, immigrants and those with few financial resources are often under-represented in drug court programs.

The full report, which is titled "“America’s Problem-Solving Courts: The Criminal Costs of Treatment and the Case for Reform,” is available at this link.  This report strikes me as quite an important development in the drug court movement, and thus it is today's must-read for any and everyone who has tended to view drug courts and other problem-solving courts as a positive development and part of a healthy evolution away from unduly punitive tough-on-crime approaches.

This report also seems especially timely in light of President Obama's and Attorney General Holder's apparent affinity for drug courts (as noted in prior posts here and here and here).  Indeed, as evidence by many links below, there have been very few loud voices speaking up against modern drug courts until this new report by NACDL.

Some related posts about drug court programs and research:

September 29, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Immigration Prosecutions at Record Levels in FY 2009"

The title of this post is the headline of this new data item from the folks at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Here is how the report starts:

The latest available data from the Justice Department show that during the first nine months of FY 2009 the government reported 67,994 new immigration prosecutions. If this activity continues at the same pace, the annual total of prosecutions will be 90,659 for this fiscal year.  According to the case-by-case information analyzed by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), this estimate is up 14.1 percent over the past fiscal year when the number of prosecutions totaled 79,431.

The comparisons of the number of defendants charged with immigration-related offenses are based on case-by-case information obtained by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act from the Executive Office for United States Attorneys.

These numbers ought to bring a smile to Lou Dobbs and others who are often calling for tougher enforcement of immigration laws.  Whether it amounts to change we can believe in is, of course, a distinct question.   

September 22, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Detailed sentencing data, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Will new US Attorneys have a big impact on federal sentencing law and policy?

The new Administration's approach to crack sentencing shows how new personnel in Main Justice is already impact some parts of federal sentencing law and policy.  But, on a case-by-case basis, who serves in local US Attorney offices may have an even bigger long-term impact on the shape and direction of the federal criminal justice system.  Thus, sentencing fans should be very interested in this new article from The National Law Journal, which is headlined the "U.S. Attorney Picks Are Under Way: Some Senate Republicans want a say in who gets selected."  Here are a few of the basics:

President Barack Obama began filling the nation's 93 U.S. Attorney positions on May 15, announcing his first wave of six nominees. The move touched off a closely guarded process freighted with symbolism in the wake of the Bush administration firings scandal.

President George W. Bush and President Bill Clinton made their first U.S. Attorney nominations days before Congress' summer recess in August. Each nominated more than two dozen in the first round.

U.S. Attorney nominations pose a potential hurdle for Obama, as he reconciles the nature of these plum political posts with his pledge of bipartisanship and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr.'s promise to rid the department of partisan meddling. Some Republicans have already signaled their intention to block candidates if they're left out of the process, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, whose membership on the Senate Judiciary Committee gives him an outsized role in nominations....

On May 15, Obama said he intended to nominate Preet Bharara for the Southern District of New York, Tristram Coffin for Vermont, Jenny Durkan for the Western District of Washington, Paul Fishman for New Jersey, John Kacavas for New Hampshire and Joyce Vance for the Northern District of Alabama.

Though just six have been named so far, about 20 candidates have come to Washington for interviews at the Justice Department in the past two months, according to a source familiar with the process. The meetings are one of the final steps before nomination.

Obama is announcing his picks for U.S. Attorneys in waves, replacing holdover Bush prosecutors once his nominees are confirmed or appointed on an interim basis while awaiting confirmation, Justice Department officials said. That breaks sharply with the system adopted by President Bill Clinton, who sacked nearly all holdover U.S. Attorneys at the start of his first term. The move angered many career Justice Department lawyers who say the turnover disrupted their work and left some prosecutors out on the street.

Some related posts:

May 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Revised discussion of criminal justice plans on White House website

Though perhaps this is old news, I just noticed that the discussion of criminal justice issues has changed over at the Civil Rights webpage on WhiteHouse.gov.  As detailed in this old post, this webpage used to take a bullet-point approach to describing agenda items, and the key bullet points were "Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Support"; "Eliminate Sentencing Disparities"; "Expand Use of Drug Courts."  Now this page has just this paragraph with a single heading:

Lead Criminal Justice Reform

The President will lead the fight to build a more fair and equitable criminal justice system.  He will seek to strengthen federal hate crime legislation and will work to ensure that federal law enforcement agencies do not resort to racial profiling.  He supports funding for drug courts, giving first-time, non-violent offenders a chance to serve their sentence, if appropriate, in drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than prison terms in changing behavior. President Obama will also improve ex-offender employment and job retention strategies, substance abuse treatment, and mental health counseling so ex-offenders can successfully re-join society.

I am not sure the changed text suggests any formal changes in policy plans.  However, the prior text stated expressly that President Obama and VP Biden favored completely eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity.  It is somewhat peculiar that the crack/powder discussion has now itself been completely eliminated from WhiteHouse.gov even though Obama's Justice Department has now urged Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity.

Meanwhile, I cannot help but use this opportunity to spotlight, yet again, that President Obama has completely failed to make any use of his clemency power, even though a few strategic clemency grants would present an especially effective means to show he was genuinely committed to "lead[ing] the fight to build a more fair and equitable criminal justice system" and to "giving first-time, non-violent offenders a chance" to avoid excessive and ineffectual prison terms.  I stress this point again and again because, though President Obama has been very active in his first 100+ days on so many other issues, when it comes to hope and change for the federal criminal justice system, he can and should be assailed for being all talk and little action.

Some old and new related posts:

May 12, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, April 20, 2009

How about some targeted clemency grants to save $100 million of federal tax dollars?

This new Politico piece, headlined "Obama to order $100 million in cuts," spotlights this latest news from the White House:

At the first Cabinet meeting of his presidency, President Obama on Monday will challenge the departments to collectively cut $100 million over the next three months, a senior administration official said.  The official said the exercise is “part of his commitment to go line by line through the budget to cut spending and reform government.”

“Agencies will be required to report back with their savings at the end of 90 days,” the official said.

Here is my suggestion for a simple way to cut $100 million of wasteful federal spending ASAP: commute the final year(s) of the prison sentences for a few non-violent offenders serving overly long federal prison terms due to mandatory sentencing statutes/guidelines.  There are now well over 200,000 federal inmates costing US taxpayers around $50,000 per year to keep incarcerated.  Commuting just the final year of the prison sentence for just the most deserving 1% of this population would, in one quick and easy step, cut $100 million in wasteful federal government spending.

Consider in this context that the retroactive application of the new reduced crack guidelines, according to the latest official USSC data, has cut over 25,000 years of scheduled federal imprisonment (over 12,500 crack offenders have received sentence reductions that have averaged 2 years in length) and thus saved federal taxpayers over $1 billion in scheduled federal incarceration costs.  I think we could and should try to save an addition $100 million by cutting some breaks to a few other federal offenders).

Some related (old and new) posts:

April 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2009

Change comes to medical marijuana raids and to the federal death penalty

I have been awaiting not too patiently for all the hope and change that was promised by the new administration to find its way to the federal criminal justice system.  In recent days, Attorney General Eric Holder has started walking the walk rather than just talking the talk:

1.  As detailed in this MSNBC piece, late last week AG Holder officially stated that the Drug Enforcement Administration would end federal raids on state-approved medical marijuana dispensaries.  This is big news for supporters of medical marijuana, and could be the first step toward a strategic withdrawl from the worst battlefields in the war on drugs.

2.  As detailed in this new piece from The Recorder, just today AG Holder "has authorized a deal that could abruptly end a rare San Francisco death penalty trial only days after it began."  The piece rights notes the broad implications of this decision: "Not only does Holder's reversal likely spare defendant Emile Fort his life, but it may signal a less aggressive approach to the death penalty in federal court."

March 2, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2009

Will AG Holder really lead a "new birth of freedom" in prison nation?

In addition to all the interesting advocacy for frank conversations about racial issues (details here), Attorney General Eric Holder articulated this potent commitment to freedom in his first major speech:

Through its work and through its example this Department of Justice, as long as I am here, must — and will — lead the nation to the "new birth of freedom" so long ago promised by our greatest President. This is our duty and our solemn obligation.

I am pleased to hear the new AG talking the talk of freedom.  But, especially with United States as the world's leader in incarceration, the big question with whether he will really walk the walk.  There are many ways that AG Holder could and should fulfill this duty and solemn obligation to usher in a new birth of freedom in prison nation, and I hope he will start trying to make criminal justice realities live up to his rhetoric.

Some recent related posts:

February 20, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The US Department of Justice's take of ARRA stimulus

This new press release from the US Department of Justice details the monies that will be going to crime-fighting programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Here is how the press release starts:

Today President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (H.R.1), which includes $4 billion in Department of Justice grant funding to enhance state, local, and tribal law enforcement efforts, including the hiring of new police officers, to combat violence against women, and to fight internet crimes against children, the Department of Justice announced.

“This funding is vital to keeping our communities strong,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “As governors, mayors, and local law enforcement professionals struggle with the current economic crisis, we can’t afford to decrease our commitment to fighting crime and keeping our communities safe. These grants will help ensure states and localities can make the concerted efforts necessary to protect our most vulnerable communities and populations.”

Some recent related posts:

February 18, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What does Prez Obama's pick for drug czar suggest for possible drug policy reform?

As detailed in this Seattle Times article, "Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has accepted a job as the nation's drug czar in the Obama administration, according to a source in Washington, D.C., who is familiar with the administration's plans."  This Seattle Post Intelligencer article, which is headlined "Kerlikowske seen as a progressive," suggests advocates for drug policy reform are relatively pleased with the decision: 

Many people, including those traditionally at odds with government policies, were "cautiously optimistic" about Kerlikowske, who became police chief in 2000.

"He's likely to be the best drug czar we've seen, but that's not saying much," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit group focused on changing drug policies.

Nadelmann called Kerlikowske, 59, a "blank slate" because of his notable absence in drug-policy debates. But he was encouraged by the chief's ability to thrive in a city famous for its drug courts, needle exchanges, methadone vans and annual Hempfest celebration. "At least we know that when we talk about needle exchanges and decriminalizing marijuana arrests, it's not going to be the first time he's heard about them," he said.

Over at TalkLeft, Jeralyn in this post quotes some other reactions to the pick and expresses some faint praise.

Some recent related posts:

February 12, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 09, 2009

Hoping someone in a town hall might ask Prez Obama about government spending for the drug war in prison nation

This new entry at the White House blog reports that President Obama "is on his way to Elkhart, Indiana, for a town hall about the economic recovery plan. He'll talk for a bit, then take questions from the audience of about 1,700 people."

Though I seriously doubt any crime and justice issues will arise in this event or other such town halls, I am hoping someone in Indiana or elsewhere might have the courage to ask about the costs of the drug war and mass incarceration.  Specifically, I want President Obama pressed on whether his team, in its development of an "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan," has given any attention at all to the apparent harms and ineffectiveness of investing so much federal and state taxpayer money in the never-ending war on drugs and in the still-growing US prison population.

Some recent related posts:

February 9, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

After fast work on excessive pay, now how about similar work on excessive sentences?

As detailed in this CNN piece, President Obama and his administration is responding quickly to last week's news that corporate executives handed out $18 billion in bonuses in 2008.  While I am disinclined to opine on the specifics of such matters, I am pleased the new folks in DC are concerned about how my tax dollars are being spent on Wall Street.  Now, with the new Attorney General in place, the new administration should start showing similar concern for how taxpayer dollars are being spent on Main Street.

Specifically, as highlighted in many prior posts (examples here and here), states are struggling with tight budgets and are having to make hard choices about the prison economy.  Along the way, many states are asking for taxpayer dollars from the federal government (here is a piece about Ohio's eagerness for stimulus dollars).  Just as President Obama is seeking to limit excessive corporate pay for any company requesting monies from the feds, how about also seeking limits on excessive and costly imprisonment terms for any state requesting monies from the feds?

There is significant precedent for tying federal aid to state sentencing reform efforts: during the Clinton years, the feds required states to eliminate parole in order to get certain funds; during the Bush years, the feds required states to change sex offender registration laws to get certain funds.  For so many reasons, the feds ought to try this method again, but do so in ways that encourage states to make more sensible choices concerning short and long-term corrections spending. 

Sadly, other than perhaps Senator Jim Webb, I doubt any other politician inside DC has the insight and the courage to even consider such a bold idea to these festering prison economy problems.  Still, this kind of prison economy reform would not have to have a legislative push to get started.  President Obama could jump-start cost-oriented sentencing reforms by just granting a few clemencies to non-violent first offenders while stressing the savings from no longer having to use federal tax-payer dollars to continue housing and feeding offenders who clearly pose no threat to public safety.

Some recent related posts:

February 4, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 02, 2009

Eric Holder confirmed as Attorney General

This AP article has the news about the confirmation of the nation's new top cop:

Eric Holder won Senate confirmation Monday as the nation's first African-American attorney general, after supporters from both parties touted his dream resume and easily overcame Republican concerns over his commitment to fight terrorism and his willingness to back the right to keep and bear arms. The vote was 75-21.

Some posts on the Holder pick for Attorney General and related issues:

February 2, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Why I fear change will not come quickly to federal sentencing policy and practice

The headline of this new article in the New York Times, "Justice Dept. Under Obama Is Preparing for Doctrinal Shift in Policies of Bush Years," might make sentencing fans hopeful that change may be coming soon to federal sentencing policy and practice as new personnel and new philosophies take over the top positions at the Justice Department.  But, as these snippets highlight, issues other than traditional federal criminal justice enforcement top the new DOJ's agenda:

Eric H. Holder Jr., whom the Senate is expected to confirm on Monday as the nation’s 82nd attorney general, plans to take the oath of office that evening to demonstrate a quick start, which will include overseeing the creation of a new detention policy for terrorism suspects.

Mr. Holder will have to contend with that and other issues rapidly. Lawyers inside and outside the department say he will face crushing time constraints. Chief among them is a pledge by President Obama to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Mr. Holder and a department task force must find a solution to the question of what to do with the remaining prisoners there and any apprehended in the future....

“I can’t imagine a more challenging time to come in as attorney general,” said Walter Dellinger, a legal scholar who was an acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration. “The number of legal issues left behind to be resolved is really staggering.”

In the Justice Department, there is considerable restiveness as employees await new direction. The civil rights division, which had been reshaped in a conservative direction under President George W. Bush, is ripe for sharp change, administration officials said. “Many of us cannot wait for the changes,” said one career lawyer in the division, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the atmosphere.

As this article documents, the triage plan for change at DOJ starts with terrorism policies and then turns to civil rights issues.  And though I view many ugly aspects of federal criminal justice law and policy to be the most pressing of civil rights issues, I doubt that the new personnel making key decision in the Obama Administration are focused first and foremost on acquitted conduct enhancements or inconsistent application of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.

In other words, with so much else to do under extraordinary conditions, I fear that the status quo of federal sentencing policy and practice will seem good enough for the time being even to the most change-oriented of the new DOJ decison-makers.  And, even if new DOJ appointees might be eager to change course on various federal criminal justice policies, I fear that advisors will formally assert or informally suggest that the Obama Administration ought not risk spending political capital on any potentially hot-button criminal justice reforms when so many other issues are vying for attention.

The fact that we have not seen any clemency action in the first two weeks of the Obama presidency (which, as noted here, puts him behind the historical pace of presidential pardoning) confirms my instinct that change will not come quickly to federal sentencing policy and practice.  Though this comes as no surprise, my deeper concern is whether change will come at all in this arene of justice.

Some recent related posts:

February 2, 2009 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack