Friday, April 13, 2018

"President Trump has promised a top Senate Republican that he will support congressional efforts to protect states that have legalized marijuana"

The title of this post is the lead sentence of this new Washington Post article headlined "Trump, Gardner strike deal on legalized marijuana, ending standoff over Justice nominees." Here is more from the article:

In January, the Colorado Republican said he would block all DOJ nominations after Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo that heightened the prospect of a federal marijuana crackdown in states that had legalized the substance. Gardner’s home state made recreational marijuana legal in 2014.

In a phone call late Wednesday, Trump told Gardner that despite the DOJ memo, the marijuana industry in Colorado will not be targeted, the senator said in a statement Friday. Satisfied, the first-term senator is now backing down from his nominee blockade.

“Since the campaign, President Trump has consistently supported states’ rights to decide for themselves how best to approach marijuana,” Gardner said Friday. “Late Wednesday, I received a commitment from the President that the Department of Justice’s rescission of the Cole memo will not impact Colorado’s legal marijuana industry.”

He added: “Furthermore, President Trump has assured me that he will support a federalism-based legislative solution to fix this states’ rights issue once and for all. Because of these commitments, I have informed the Administration that I will be lifting my remaining holds on Department of Justice nominees.”...

Trump “does respect Colorado’s right to decide for themselves how to best approach this issue,” White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said in an interview Friday....

A bill has not been finalized, but Gardner has been talking quietly with other senators about a legislative fix that would, in effect, make clear the federal government cannot interfere with states that have voted to legalize marijuana. “My colleagues and I are continuing to work diligently on a bipartisan legislative solution that can pass Congress and head to the President’s desk to deliver on his campaign position,” Gardner said.

In addition to Gardner’s holds, DOJ has faced notable bipartisan pushback from Capitol Hill when it comes to marijuana. Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) wrote to Sessions this week, urging him to back off efforts to curtail medical marijuana research at the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Washington Post reported in August that Sessions’s DOJ was effectively hamstringing the agency’s research efforts by making it harder to grow marijuana.

Separately, former House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced this week he is joining the board of directors for a cannabis company and engaged in efforts to allow veterans to access marijuana for medicinal use. He has opposed decriminalizing the substance as an elected official.

A few recent related posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

April 13, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Donald Trump officially pardons Scooter Libby

Today the White House issued this "Statement from the Press Secretary Regarding the Pardon of I. “Scooter” Lewis Libby." Here is what it says:

Today, President Donald J. Trump issued an Executive Grant of Clemency (Full Pardon) to I. “Scooter” Lewis Libby, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Richard Cheney, for convictions stemming from a 2007 trial. President George W. Bush commuted Mr. Libby’s sentence shortly after his conviction. Mr. Libby, nevertheless, paid a $250,000 fine, performed 400 hours of community service, and served two years of probation.

In 2015, one of the key witnesses against Mr. Libby recanted her testimony, stating publicly that she believes the prosecutor withheld relevant information from her during interviews that would have altered significantly what she said. The next year, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals unanimously reinstated Mr. Libby to the bar, reauthorizing him to practice law. The Court agreed with the District of Columbia Disciplinary Counsel, who stated that Mr. Libby had presented “credible evidence” in support of his innocence, including evidence that a key prosecution witness had “changed her recollection of the events in question.”

Before his conviction, Mr. Libby had rendered more than a decade of honorable service to the Nation as a public servant at the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the White House. His record since his conviction is similarly unblemished, and he continues to be held in high regard by his colleagues and peers.

In light of these facts, the President believes Mr. Libby is fully worthy of this pardon. “I don’t know Mr. Libby,” said President Trump, “but for years I have heard that he has been treated unfairly.  Hopefully, this full pardon will help rectify a very sad portion of his life.”

I sure hope that Prez Trump might think to use his pardon powers for lots of other persons that he doesn't know that he may "have heard [were] treated unfairly" by our federal criminal justice system. So far, only a quite unrepresentative sample of four men have gotten clemency relief from this President.

April 13, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Federal prison reform bill reportedly moving forward in House of Representatives

This article in the Hill, headlined "Prison reform bill set for House markup next week," reports that there is some movement in Congress on the federal criminal justice reform bill that would seem to have a reasonable chance of passage this year.  Here are the details:

The House Judiciary Committee is expected next week to mark up a Republican proposal that aims to reduce prison recidivism rates, according to a senior Republican staffer who has been briefed on the plans.

Rep. Doug Collins’s (R-Ga.) Prison Reform and Redemption Act would allow prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in a halfway house or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment.

The White House announced in February it was throwing its support behind prison reform measures such as Collins's bill instead of measures to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences. The announcement marked a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session....

The senior Republican staffer said they feel confident Collins's bill will pass through the House Judiciary Committee. A committee spokesperson said only that the committee is working toward a markup as soon as possible.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have a bill in the Senate that mirrors Collins's proposal.

The full text of the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA) is available at this link, and its text is so dense I find it difficult to effectively summarize its provisions or assess its impact.  Helpfully, FAMM has this detailed summary of the PRRA that runs a full eight pages.  I am hopeful that this news that the PRRA is moving forward in the legislative process could lead more folks to focus more attention on what this bill would and would not do and how many offenders it could impact.

April 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 09, 2018

Two notable new accounts of Jared Kushner's push for criminal justice reforms inside Trump Administration

This weekend brought two notable new articles focused on Jared Kushner's efforts to help move forward criminal justice reform from within the Trump Administration.  Here are links to the articles and their starts:

"Inside Jared Kushner's personal crusade to reform America's prisons":

Amid the daily turmoil and intrigue of President Donald Trump’s West Wing, senior adviser Jared Kushner has been quietly pursuing a personal passion: seeking to improve the lives of roughly 6.7 million people in jail, prison, on parole or probation in the United States and sharply reducing the chances ex-convicts return behind bars.

Over the past 14 months, the president’s son-in-law has met with dozens of members of Congress, 11 governors and convened nine listening sessions, with experts and advocates developing initiatives to reduce the nation’s recidivism rate, an administration official said.

Kushner’s mission has so far been largely below-the-radar in a White House that’s branded itself as tough on crime, but sources familiar with the effort say he has persisted in elevating it as a legislative priority – even winning the president’s ear. His approach is somewhat novel — taking the reins on an issue that traditionally has not been at the forefront of the Republican platform.

Along the way, Kushner’s had to carve an acceptable path for reform within the Republican party and with an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who has long held tough on crime views. Kushner's "come in and provided a very good ‘let’s get it done’" attitude, said Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, a leading advocate on prison reform in the U.S. House.

President Trump has even come to see the effort as a way to help the “forgotten men and women” whose voices he vowed to represent with his historic 2016 campaign, according to several people close to the effort. One senior administration official went so far as to characterize the White House view of what they called unacceptable conditions of America’s prisons as being like warehouses for storing human trash.

“The Administration wants to assist long-time prison reform advocates with their initiative to create a prison system that will rehabilitate citizens who have made mistakes, paid the price and are deserving of a second chance — which will ultimately reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars,” Kushner told ABC News of the effort.

"For Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, prison reform is personal":

President Donald Trump wants to help federal inmates “who have served their time get a second chance.” That’s what he said in his 2018 State of the Union address. Thank Trump’s senior aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, not his attorney general. For Kushner, prison reform is personal. In 2005, his real estate mogul father was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion, witness tampering and making illegal campaign donations.

“Like me, Jared understands because of dealing with the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) and his father,” observed Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform and a former California GOP state lawmaker who served 29 months in federal prison on a racketeering conviction.

Nolan has been at the forefront of a bipartisan movement to overhaul the federal criminal justice system spurred by the left’s aversion to big spending on prisons and the right’s support for smaller, less invasive government. The conservative side of the initiative calls itself “Right on Crime.” He lauded Kushner for quickly learning “what’s important to do and what we can’t do.”

April 9, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 06, 2018

AG Sessions announces new "zero-tolerance policy" for immigration offenses ... which could mean ... (a lot or no) more fast-track sentencing?

This new Department of Justice press release reports on a notable new announcement from the Attorney General. Here is the substantive heart of the release:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions today notified all U.S. Attorney’s Offices along the Southwest Border of a new “zero-tolerance policy” for offenses under 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a), which prohibits both attempted illegal entry and illegal entry into the United States by an alien. The implementation of the Attorney General’s zero-tolerance policy comes as the Department of Homeland Security reported a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018, and a 37 percent increase from February 2018 to March 2018 — the largest month-to-month increase since 2011.

“The situation at our Southwest Border is unacceptable. Congress has failed to pass effective legislation that serves the national interest — that closes dangerous loopholes and fully funds a wall along our southern border. As a result, a crisis has erupted at our Southwest Border that necessitates an escalated effort to prosecute those who choose to illegally cross our border,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “To those who wish to challenge the Trump Administration’s commitment to public safety, national security, and the rule of law, I warn you: illegally entering this country will not be rewarded, but will instead be met with the full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice. To the Department’s prosecutors, I urge you: promoting and enforcing the rule of law is vital to protecting a nation, its borders, and its citizens. You play a critical part in fulfilling these goals, and I thank you for your continued efforts in seeing to it that our laws — and as a result, our nation — are respected.”...

Today’s zero-tolerance policy further directs each U.S. Attorney’s Office along the Southwest Border (i.e., Southern District of California, District of Arizona, District of New Mexico, Western District of Texas, and the Southern District of Texas) to adopt a policy to prosecute all Department of Homeland Security referrals of section 1325(a) violations, to the extent practicable.

The one-page memo sent from AG Sessions to all federal prosecutors along the Southwest border is available at this link, and the title of this post flags the big follow-up question that I have.

As federal sentencing fans know, the large number of immigration cases historically prosecuted in border districts led to the creation of a special kind of sentencing adjustment (known as a "fast-track" departure) in order to speed case-processing through sentence reductions. If, as this AG Sessions memo suggests, prosecutors on the border are now going to be bringing even more immigration prosecutions, I would expect to see even more "fast-track" departures. But the memo above speaks of bringing the "full prosecutorial powers of the Department of Justice" to those "illegally entering this country." That language would arguably suggest that federal prosecutors ought not anymore be agreeing to lower sentences for offenses under 8 U.S.C. § 1325(a) now that we are to have a "zero-tolerance policy."

April 6, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Making the case for making the best of federal sentencing changes in the form of prison reform

Lars Trautman has this notable new Hill commentary, headlined "Incentivized early release the right path to sentencing reform under Trump-Sessions," making the argument that advocates ought to pursue even limited prison reform if that is the only form of politically viable federal sentencing reform. Here are excerpts:

The heated “tough-on-crime” rhetoric of the president and many in his administration has greatly complicated criminal justice reform efforts and left Congress scrambling to figure out how to make sentencing reform palatable to the White House.  The problem has become particularly acute after the attorney general summarily dismissed one of the Senate’s leading proposals and the White House sent Congress a set of criminal justice priorities that pointedly ignored front-end sentencing reforms.

So how can Congress possibly move the needle on something as controversial as federal sentencing reform under this administration?

By passing sentencing reform that doesn’t look like sentencing reform.  Plans that reduce the potential penalties for certain offenses or provide other sentencing safety valves have struggled because they focus on the crime committed, essentially forcing proponents to argue that an individual deserves less punishment for a given offense. This is a fundamentally moral issue that has no easy answer.  It’s particularly susceptible to emotional appeals that couple a shared sense of outrage at criminal behavior with a fear of emboldening criminals.

As long as the focus remains on the wrong perpetrated, opponents are able to falsely claim that it’s impossible to be in favor of both victims and criminals, and then portray themselves as defenders of the former....  As worthy and necessary as this kind of front-end reform may be, demanding its inclusion is much more likely to frustrate than achieve any criminal justice reform.

So, if traditional sentencing reform is dead in the water, what’s left?  Reentry programs that offer prisoners the opportunity to shorten their sentences on the back-end would be a good place to begin.  Rather than trimming sentences from the start, these programs allow prisoners to earn credits toward early release by participating in programs intended to help reintegrate them into society and reduce their propensity to reoffend.  Although they face some of the same political resistance as front-end sentencing reductions, it is significantly easier to overcome.

These programs avoid many of the usual pitfalls that sentencing reform legislation encounters because they shift the narrative from one of retribution to redemption, from past wrong to future promise.  Instead of getting bogged down on issues like whom to punish and for how long, politicians are able to talk about what comes next.  Leaving the nominal sentence unchanged insulates these reforms from charges that they don’t adequately reflect the egregiousness of a given crime or that they will negatively impact deterrence.  Public safety and prison budgets are both improved as prisoners are given the tools to leave prison and never return.

Reentry programs also represent a more targeted approach to early release that is eminently easier to defend. This further moves the debate to more favorable terrain by limiting discussion only to those prisoners who have taken the initiative and successfully completed programs to reduce their risk of reoffending. Instead of having to defend the early release of all offenders, including those who may be unrepentant or otherwise incorrigible, proponents need only support those who have actively taken steps to better reintegrate themselves into society....

With opportunities for movement on criminal justice reform likely few and far between under this administration, reformers need to pick their fights more wisely. Demanding upfront sentencing reductions may feel righteous, but in the face of our current political intransigence it will likely do little to help those serving unnecessarily long sentences. Such energies are better spent working to expand the use of incentivized early release and ensure that it actually results in the conclusion of a sentence in legislation such as Rep. Doug Collins' (R-Ga.) Prison Reform and Redemption Act.

While there is much more that can and should be done on sentencing reform, for now at least, Congress should focus on progress that might actually garner a presidential signature.

April 6, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Prez Trump declares April 2018 to be "Second Chance Month"

As reported in this official White House statement, President Donald Trump yesterday proclaimed April 2018 as "Second Chance Month." Here is the heart of the statement with a few lines stressed here that will become the basis for some commentary in a future post:

During Second Chance Month, our Nation emphasizes the need to prevent crime on our streets, to respect the rule of law by prosecuting individuals who break the law, and to provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance. Affording those who have been held accountable for their crimes an opportunity to become contributing members of society is a critical element of criminal justice that can reduce our crime rates and prison populations, decrease burdens to the American taxpayer, and make America safer.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, each year, approximately 650,000 individuals complete prison sentences and rejoin society. Unfortunately, two-thirds of these individuals are re-arrested within 3 years of their release.  We must do more ‑‑ and use all the tools at our disposal ‑‑ to break this vicious cycle of crime and diminish the rate of recidivism.

For the millions of American citizens with criminal records, the keys to successful re-entry are becoming employable and securing employment. Beyond the income earned from a steady paycheck, gainful employment teaches responsibility and commitment and affirms human dignity. As a Nation, we are stronger when more individuals have stable jobs that allow them to provide for both themselves and their loved ones.

I am committed to advancing reform efforts to prevent crime, improve reentry, and reduce recidivism. I expressed this commitment in my 2018 State of the Union Address and reinforced it by signing an Executive Order to reinvigorate the “Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry.”  In the spirit of these efforts, I call on Federal, State, and local prison systems to implement evidence-based programs that will provide prisoners with the skills and preparation they need to succeed in society. This includes programs focused on mentorship and treatment for drug addiction and mental health issues, in addition to job training.

This month, we celebrate those who have exited the prison system and successfully reentered society.  We encourage expanded opportunities for those who have worked to overcome bad decisions earlier in life and emphasize our belief in second chances for all who are willing to work hard to turn their lives around.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim April 2018 as Second Chance Month.  I call on all Americans to commemorate this month with events and activities that raise public awareness about preventing crime and providing those who have completed their sentences an opportunity for an honest second chance.

A few prior recent related posts:

March 31, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Some more perspective on the crime-and-punishment thinking of AG Jeff Sessions

UntitledTime magazine has this new lengthy cover story on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The whole piece is an interesting read, and here are some excerpts sentencing fans are likely to find of interest:

Sessions believes today’s low crime rates are a direct result of “proactive policing” and harsh sentences, and that dialing them back is causing crime to rise.  According to the FBI, the violent crime rate rose 7% between 2014 and 2016, and the murder rate rose 20%, following years of decline.

Sessions has moved swiftly to unwind the Obama Justice Department’s policies.  He canceled the “smart on crime” initiative and replaced it with a directive to pursue maximal charging and sentencing.  He pulled out of the consent decrees and rescinded Holder’s hands-off marijuana-enforcement policy.  He announced the end of DACA, stepped up deportation orders and sued California over sanctuary cities. 

He has embraced Trump’s call to impose the death penalty on some drug dealers, which some legal scholars consider unconstitutional.  Emphasizing treatment for drug addicts isn’t just ineffective, according to Sessions -- it’s dangerous. “The extraordinary surge in addiction and drug death is a product of a popular misunderstanding of the dangers of drugs,” he told me. “Because all too often, all we get in the media is how anybody who’s against drugs is goofy, and we just ought to chill out.”

In February, Sessions sent a letter warning the Senate that a bill to reduce federal sentences risked “putting the very worst criminals back into our communities.” (An outraged Chuck Grassley, the Republican Senator from Iowa, told reporters that if Sessions wanted to keep making laws, he should go back to elected office.)  Sessions believes his erstwhile colleagues have been misled. “This whole mentality that there’s another solution other than incarceration,” he told me, “all I will say to you is, people today don’t know that every one of these things has been tried over the last 40 years.”

Sessions seemed exasperated when I asked him to address the disproportionate impact of harsh policing and incarceration on black families and communities.  He cited the work of Heather Mac Donald, the controversial conservative scholar who argues that racial bias in the criminal-justice system is a myth and that the real problem is a “war on cops.”  Mac Donald popularized the concept of the “Ferguson effect,” an unproven theory that crime rises when police feel hamstrung by political oversight. Sessions embraces this notion.  In cities like Baltimore and Chicago, he told me, politicians “spend all that time attacking the police department instead of the criminals.”...

Sessions contends that the policies he champions help minority communities by cleaning up their neighborhoods.  “If you do the map of your city and you’ve got five times the murders in a minority neighborhood, do you just go away?” he asked me, eyes narrowed.  “Or do you prosecute the criminals who are committing the murders?  That’s the fundamental answer.  And the other thing is, you think the mothers who’ve got children, the older people who are afraid to walk to the grocery store -- shouldn’t they be free just like they are in the elite part of town?”

Sessions leaned over the plastic airplane table.  “Whose side are you on?” he asked. “I’m on the victims’ side, and overwhelmingly the victims are minorities.  The prosecution of certain minorities for murder, the victim is overwhelmingly another African American or Hispanic.  It occurs within their own communities.” (Law-enforcement statistics show white criminals also tend to target white victims.)

His eyes gleamed as he sat back. “We are protecting minority citizens,” he concluded. “The fundamental question is, Who rules the streets? The government, or the outlaws?”

March 29, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Latest update on battles over criminal justice reform inside the Trump Administration

The New York Times has this lengthy new article under the headline "Sessions and Kushner Square Off, and Prisoners Hang in the Balance." It covers ground that will largely be familiar to regular readers, and here are a few excerpts:

In the final months of the Obama administration, the Justice Department announced a new approach to preparing prisoners for life beyond their cells. Officials created a prison school system, pledged money for technology training and promised to help prevent former inmates from returning to prison.

Almost immediately after taking office, Trump administration officials began undoing their work. Budgets were slashed, the school system was scrapped and studies were shelved as Attorney General Jeff Sessions brought to bear his tough-on-crime philosophy and deep skepticism of Obama-era crime-fighting policies.

Now, nearly a year and a half later, the White House has declared that reducing recidivism and improving prisoner education is a top priority — echoing some of the very policies it helped dismantle.

This whiplash approach to federal prison policy reflects the tension between Jared Kushner, the president’s reform-minded son-in-law and senior adviser, and Mr. Sessions, a hard-liner whose views on criminal justice were forged at the height of the drug war. It has left both Democratic and Republican lawmakers confused and has contributed to skepticism that the Trump administration is serious about its own proposals....

Mr. Kushner, administration officials say, supports such sweeping change. Mr. Sessions is adamantly opposed. The two men reached a compromise in recent months: Mr. Kushner could push for the prison changes, but Mr. Sessions would position the administration strongly against a broader overhaul.

“I do believe that Jared Kushner is earnest in his desire for criminal justice reform,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, of the liberal-leaning Brennan Center for Justice. “But Jeff Sessions is still stuck in 1980. He hasn’t moved along with everyone else, including top prosecutors and police chiefs, who realize that tough-on-crime doesn’t work.” Ms. Chettiar said she was not convinced that Mr. Kushner’s support was enough to get the administration behind real change — even in the narrow area of prisons.

The Justice Department said Mr. Sessions fully supported the White House principles and was committed to helping inmates develop the skills needed to return to society. But Mr. Sessions is not rushing to promote those efforts: Over two weeks, the Justice Department refused to make anyone available to discuss them and would not identify which prison education programs have been cut and which remain.  “They’re not going to talk to you about this,” said Joe Rojas, a teacher at the federal prison complex in Coleman, Fla.  He said the Justice Department could not answer those questions without acknowledging that the Trump administration had cut more than 6,000 prison jobs. Staffing is so short that teachers around the country are regularly reassigned to cover routine guard duties, he said.

One of the White House priorities is to offer incentives to encourage inmates to enroll in programs to prepare them for life outside prison.  Mr. Rojas and others are quick to note that incentives are not the problem: Educational programs are so popular that more than 15,000 federal inmates are on waiting lists for high school equivalency diploma and literacy programs, according to a 2016 Justice Department report. “It sounds pretty on paper,” said Mr. Rojas, who is the president of his American Federation of Government Employees union local. “But when you cut staff, you can’t do anything.”

Mr. Grassley said that he while appreciated Mr. Kushner’s desire to get something done, he did not support any effort to try to address prisons without fixing what he saw as fundamental unfairness in sentencing laws. And he believes Mr. Kushner shares his views.  “But he sees a chance of getting half a loaf, and he’s willing to settle for a half a loaf,” Mr. Grassley said. “I’m not going to.”

The White House argues that Mr. Grassley’s argument is moot because the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, will not allow a vote on a broad criminal justice bill that divides Republicans. Mr. Grassley sees that as an excuse.  “If the president would start tweeting about it every other day like he tweets about everything else, McConnell would come along,” he said.

Mr. Kushner believes that the White House can forge consensus around prison reform. He wants the federal government to look to states for proven ideas to reduce recidivism. The White House recently hired Brooke Rollins, a conservative lawyer who advocated such changes in Texas, a state that is often held up by both conservatives and liberals as a leader in reducing recidivism.

Amy Lopez, a former teacher in the Texas prison system, agreed that the federal government could learn from states. More data exists than ever before, she said, and it shows that education reduces the chance that a former inmate will be arrested again.

The Justice Department hired Ms. Lopez in 2016 to replace the patchwork prison education system with a centralized school district that offered diplomas, technology training and vocational education. “It was interesting to have this focus at the federal level on education,” she said. “That was new.”

Within months, she was fired, the school system axed. She took a job overseeing education in Washington’s city corrections system. Trump administration officials say that, as part of the new focus on prisons, if the school idea turns out to have been a good one, they can always reconsider it.

March 28, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 23, 2018

New spending bill includes a lot more money for Justice Department to fight drug war even harder

A helpful reader made sure that I did not miss the important criminal justice story within this week's budget drama.  Specifically, the new spending bill signed today, as detailed here, includes lots more money for the Department of Justice to hire a lot more agents and prosecutors to, presumably, bring a lot more federal drug cases:

TITLE II

DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

GENERAL ADMINISTRATION

SALARIES AND EXPENSES

This Act includes $114,000,000 for General Administration, Salaries and Expenses.

Opioid and heroin epidemic. -- The Act includes significant increases in law enforcement and grant resources for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to combat the rising threat to public health and safety from opioid, heroin and other drug trafficking and abuse. This includes a total of$446,500,000, an increase of $299,500,000 more than fiscal year 2017, in DOJ grant funding to help State and local communities respond to the opioid crisis.

Federal Law Enforcement and Prosecutors. -- The Act includes significant increases for DOJ Federal law enforcement and prosecution agencies which will help DOJ investigate and prosecute high priority cases, including those involving opioids, heroin, and other drug trafficking amongst other law enforcement priorities that were agreed upon by the Committees in this explanatory statement. The overall increase is $717,691,000 more than fiscal year 201 7 which includes: $101,750,000 for U.S. Attorneys; $62,452,000 for U.S. Marshals Service operations; $36,912,000 for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) diversion control program and $87,350,000 for DEA operations; $25,850,000 for the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Forces; $263,001,000 for Federal Bureau oflnvestigation (FBI) operations; $35,176,000 for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF); and $105,200,000 for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) operations.

My sense is that these "significant increases" in resources for federal agents and prosecutors could and likely will impact the federal prison population a lot more than any number of higher-profile developments like a memo encouraging pursuit of the death penalty or changes in marijuana policies. one can never repeat the mantra too much: "Follow the money."

March 23, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Brennen Center releases new report: "Criminal Justice: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislators"

The Brennan Center today released this notable new report titled, "Criminal Justice: An Election Agenda for Candidates, Activists, and Legislators." Here is its executive summary reprinted here:

This report sets forth an affirmative agenda to end mass incarceration in America.  The task requires efforts from both federal and state lawmakers.

Today, criminal justice reform stands on a knife’s edge.  After decades of rising incarceration and ever more obvious consequences, a powerful bipartisan movement has emerged. It recognizes that harsh prison policies are not needed to keep our country safe.

Now that extraordinary bipartisan consensus is challenged by the Trump administration, through inflammatory rhetoric and unwise action.  Only an affirmative move to continue reform can keep the progress going.

The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population, but nearly one quarter of its prisoners. About 2.1 million people are incarcerated in this country, the vast majority in state and local facilities.  Mass incarceration contributes significantly to the poverty rate. It is inequitable, placing a disproportionate burden on communities of color. It is wildly expensive, in some cases costing more to keep an 18-year-old in prison than it would to send him to Harvard.  Our criminal justice system costs $270 billion annually, yet does not produce commensurate public safety benefits.

Research conclusively shows that high levels of imprisonment are simply not necessary to protect communities.  About four out of every ten prisoners are incarcerated with little public safety justification.  In fact, 27 states have reduced both imprisonment and crime in the last decade.  A group of over 200 police chiefs, prosecutors, and sheriffs has formed, whose founding principles state: “We do not believe that public safety is served by a return to tactics that are overly punitive without strong purpose . . . we cannot incarcerate our way to safety.”

In cities, states, and at the federal level, Republicans and Democrats have joined this effort.  They recognize that today’s public safety challenges demand new and innovative politics rooted in science and based on what works. The opioid epidemic, mass shootings, and cyber-crime all require modern responses that do not repeat mistakes of the past.

Crime is no longer a wedge issue, and voters desire reform.  A 2017 poll from the Charles Koch Institute reveals that 81 percent of Trump voters consider criminal justice reform important.  Another, from Republican pollster Robert Blizzard, finds that 87 percent of Americans agree that nonviolent offenders should be sanctioned with alternatives to incarceration.  And according to a 2017 ACLU poll, 71 percent of Americans support reducing the prison population — including 50 percent of Trump voters.

But the politician with the loudest megaphone has chosen a different, destructive approach.  Donald Trump, and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, falsely insist there is a national crime wave, portraying a country besieged by crime, drugs, and terrorism — “American carnage,” as he called it in his inaugural address.

But, crime in the United States remains at historic lows.  While violent crime and murder did increase in 2015 and 2016, new data show crime and violence declining again in 2017. The national murder rate is approximately half of what it was at its 1991 peak.  Those who seek to use fear of crime for electoral gain are not just wrong on the statistics; they are also wrong on the politics.

Now, to continue the progress that has been made, it is up to candidates running for office to boldly advance policy solutions backed by facts, not fear.  This report offers reforms that would keep crime low, while significantly reducing incarceration.  Most solutions can be enacted through federal or state legislation.  While most of the prison population is under control of state officials, federal policy matters too.  The federal government’s prison population is larger than that of any state.  Further, Washington defines the national political conversation on criminal justice reform.  And although states vary somewhat in their approach to criminal justice, they struggle with similar challenges. The state solutions in this report are broadly written as “models” that can be adapted.

Steps to take include:

• Eliminating Financial Incentives for Incarceration

• Enacting Sentencing Reform

• Passing Sensible Marijuana Reform

• Improving Law Enforcement

• Responding to the Opioid Crisis

• Reducing Female Incarceration

March 23, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Highlights from Prez Trump's tough talk about the opioid crisis and federal response

This FoxNews piece, headlined "Trump declares war on opioid abuse, calls for death penalty for traffickers, more access for treatment," provides some details on Prez Trump's comments on the opioid crisis today in New Hampshire.  Here are excerpts:

Speaking from one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, President Trump on Monday laid out a battle plan that calls for harsher sentences — and even the death penalty — for traffickers.

Trump called for expanded treatment options for victims in the Manchester, N.H., speech, but leveled most of his emphasis on beefed-up enforcement. And he heaped plenty of scorn on the people he believes are responsible for as many as 42,000 U.S. deaths per year. "These are terrible people and we have to get tough with those people," Trump said of traffickers and dealers. "This isn’t about committees... this is about winning a very tough problem."

"The ultimate penalty has to be the death penalty," Trump said, before musing, "maybe our country is not ready for that."

Trump wants Congress to pass legislation reducing the amount of drugs needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences for traffickers who knowingly distribute certain illicit opioids. The death penalty would be pursued where appropriate under current law. Justice Department says the federal death penalty is available for several limited drug-related offenses, including violations of the "drug kingpin" provisions in federal law.

Trump reiterated an observation he has shared several times before — that a person in the U.S. can get the death penalty or life in prison for shooting one person, but that a drug dealer whose actions could lead to thousands of overdoses can spend little or no time in jail.

The president said the federal government may consider aggressive litigation against pharmaceutical companies deemed complicit in the crisis. "Whether you are a dealer or doctor or trafficker or a manufacturer, if you break the law and illegally peddle these deadly poisons, we will find you and we will arrest you and we will hold you accountable," Trump said.

Trump singled out Mexico and China as main sources of illicit opioids. A Drug Enforcement Administration report last year said: "Seizures indicated that China supplies lower volumes of high-purity fentanyl, whereas fentanyl seizures from Mexico are higher volume but lower in purity."...

Trump also announced a nationwide public awareness campaign, as well as increased research and development through public-private partnerships between the federal National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies. He announced a new website, Crisisnextdoor.gov, where people can share their stories about addiction. The hope is that horror stories will scare people away from behavior that could lead to addiction. The Trump administration aims to see the number of filled opioid prescriptions cut by one-third within three years.

A third part of the plan addresses improving access to treatment and recovery programs that have proven effective. Many health professionals, relatives of those who have died of overdoses and people who have experienced addiction to opioids have been pushing for treatment to be a key component of any campaign to fight the epidemic. "Failure is not an option," the president said. "Addiction is not our future. We will liberate our country from this crisis."...

Meanwhile, Congress plans to weigh a range of bills targeted at curbing the epidemic. The bills cover everything from improving access to treatment to intercepting shipments of illicit opioids en route to the United States. "Our recommendations will be urgent and bipartisan, and they will come very quickly," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, according to published reports.

Interestingly, though the media (and Prez Trump himself in his spoken remarks) are making much of the death penalty and other tough-on-crime pieces of the plan, this official White House accounting of the plans, described as "President Donald J. Trump’s Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce Drug Supply and Demand," gives significantly more attention to public health elements and actions.

Prior related posts:

March 19, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly to call for more capital cases under current federal laws, but not seeking new death penalty laws

Ever since Prez Trump starting talking up his affinity for using the death penalty for drug dealers, I have been wondering if he was planning to call for Congress to develop new capital statutes to help pursue that end.  But, according to this new Wall Street Journal piece, a big speech coming from Prez Trump on Monday will only call for more capital cases to be brought under existing federal criminal laws.  The WSJ piece carries this full on-line headline "Trump’s Opioid Battle Plan Includes Seeking More Death-Penalty Prosecutions: The president will ask the Justice Department to press more cases against drug traffickers under current law."  Here are highlights:

President Donald Trump on Monday will call for new steps to combat the opioid epidemic, including a push to reduce opioid prescriptions by a third over three years, asking the Justice Department to seek more death-penalty cases against drug traffickers under current law, and for federal support to expand the availability of overdose-reversal medication.

The proposals will come in a speech in the hard-hit state of New Hampshire. They form part of a broader blueprint by Mr. Trump, which senior White House officials on Sunday described as seeking to deploy education, law enforcement and treatment to try to reverse abuse of particularly addictive drugs that claim the lives of more than 100 people a day in the U.S.

Other elements of the strategy, the White House said, would include a fresh public-awareness campaign about drug abuse, a research-and-development partnership between the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical companies into opioid prescription alternatives, tougher sentences for fentanyl traffickers, and screening of all prison inmates for opioid addiction.

But it is the death penalty proposal that is likely to dominate discussion of the package.  “The Department of Justice will seek the death penalty against drug traffickers when it’s appropriate under current law,” said Andrew Bremberg, the president’s top domestic-policy adviser.

Senior White House officials referred specific questions about the death-penalty stance to the Justice Department but emphasized that the administration was seeking to use current law rather than call for a new federal statute.

A 1988 federal law imposes the death penalty on drug “kingpins” who commit murder in the course of their business.  Some legal analysts say that it has resulted in dozens of sentences but few executions since then.  John Blume, a law professor at Cornell Law School and director of its death-penalty project, said the statute as enforced to date typically has ensnared “mid- to low-level drug dealers…None of them were really objectively the people they said they were going to get.”...

In November, a presidential commission headed by Mr. Trump’s one-time political rival for the Republican presidential nomination, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, issued a 56-recommendation report that included calls for the federal government to set up drug courts across the U.S., retrain medical prescribers on opioid use and reduce incentives for doctors to offer the powerful painkillers. It also called for engaging with states to expand access to naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug. The administration accepts all 56 recommendations, a senior White House official said Sunday.

At a brief appearance at a White House summit on opioids earlier this month, Mr. Trump openly mused that other countries allow the death penalty for drug trafficking and that he believed they had less of a drug problem as a result. He said that translated into a need for more “strength.” He offered few further details, saying only that he also wanted to see the federal government bring legal action against opioid manufacturers, because “if the states are doing it, why isn’t the federal government doing it?”

Such remarks had sparked speculation that Mr. Trump would seek a new death penalty for drug trafficking, and with it, a revived debate about the permissibility of such laws under the constitutional amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has rejected capital punishment for crimes such as child rape in recent years and has taken a narrower view of arguments that seek to execute people for indirectly causing deaths through criminal actions.

Prior related posts:

March 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, March 16, 2018

The latest account of Trump Administration's latest punitive ideas for responding to drug problems

Politico has this lengthy new article reviewing the soon-to-be-released (and perhaps still in development) plan from the Trump Administration to respond to the opioid crisis and other drug problems.  The piece is headlined "Trump finalizing opioid plan that includes death penalty for dealers," and here are excerpts (with an emphasis on punishment pieces though it seems there will be important public health parts to the coming plan):

The Trump administration is finalizing a long-awaited plan that it says will solve the opioid crisis, but it also calls for law enforcement measures — like the death penalty for some drug dealers — that public health advocates and congressional Republicans warn will detract from efforts to reverse the epidemic.

The ambitious plan, which the White House has quietly been circulating among political appointees this month, could be announced as soon as Monday when President Donald Trump visits New Hampshire, a state hard hit by the epidemic. It includes a mix of prevention and treatment measures that advocates have long endorsed, as well as beefed-up enforcement in line with the president’s frequent calls for a harsh crackdown on drug traffickers and dealers.

Trump’s plan to use the death penalty in some cases found at least one fan among congressional Republicans: Rep. Chris Collins of New York, one of the president’s most consistent cheerleaders. “I’m all in on the capital punishment side for those offenses that would warrant that,” he said when asked about the plans Thursday afternoon. “Including drug cases. Yep.”

But several congressional Democrats said they were alarmed by Trump's plan to ramp up punishment. “We are still paying the costs for one failed 'war on drugs,' and now President Trump is drawing up battle plans for another," said Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. "We will not incarcerate or execute our way out of the opioid epidemic."

The White House's most concrete proposal yet to address opioids comes after complaints from state health officials and advocates that Trump has moved too slowly to combat the epidemic after his bold campaign promises to wipe out the crisis touching all parts of the country.

However, the plan could cost billions of dollars more than Trump budgeted — and likely far more than any funding package that Congress would approve — raising questions about how much of it can actually be put into practice. Trump's emphatic embrace of the death penalty for some drug dealers has also alarmed some advocates, who say the idea has been ineffective when tried in other countries and resurrects the nation’s unsuccessful war on drugs.

Under the most recent version of the plan, which has gone through several revisions, the Trump administration proposes to change how the government pays for opioid prescriptions to limit access to powerful painkillers. It also calls on Congress to change how Medicaid pays for treatment, seeking to make it easier for patients with addictions to get inpatient care. It would also create a new Justice Department task force that more aggressively monitors internet sales....

POLITICO obtained two versions of the White House plan and spoke with four individuals who have reviewed it. The White House confirmed that a plan was in development but didn’t respond to multiple requests for further comment. Many of the measures in the plan were recommended by the president’s opioids commission last fall or discussed at a March 1 White House opioid summit. For instance, it endorses a long-promised priority: greatly expanding first responders' access to naloxone, a medication used to reverse opioid overdoses. It also calls on states to adopt a prescription drug monitoring database that health care providers can access nationwide to flag patients seeking out numerous opioid prescriptions.

On the policing side, the plan would ramp up prosecution and punishment, underscoring the tension in how public health advocates and law enforcement officials approach the crisis. Public health advocates say the nation's opioid epidemic should be treated as a disease, with emphasis on boosting underfunded treatment and prevention programs. But some law enforcement officials back tougher punishments as a deterrent, especially for drug dealers. The two camps don’t always see eye-to-eye, at times pitting HHS and DOJ officials against each other. “There is a lot of internal dissension between the health folks and the enforcement folks,” said an official involved in the crafting of the plan.

While Trump this month repeatedly suggested using the death penalty to deter drug dealers and traffickers — an idea roundly opposed by public health advocates — many lawmakers have said they weren’t sure whether to take the idea seriously. “I would have to strongly evaluate and look at any proposal like that,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) on Wednesday. “I don’t know if the president was serious or just said it off the cuff. … It’s a big issue when you decide to bring a capital case or pass a law that allows for capital punishment.”

According to language circulating this week, the Trump administration will call for the death penalty as an option in "certain cases where opioid, including Fentanyl-related, drug dealing and trafficking are directly responsible for death."

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), whose home state is one of the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, said she doesn't support the death penalty for drug cases. “I mean, I get the message he’s delivering: We’ve got to treat it seriously,” she said. “I don’t see that that’s going to solve the problem.”

The White House plan also calls for making it easier to invoke the mandatory minimum sentence for drug traffickers who knowingly distribute illegal opioids that can be lethal, like fentanyl. It also proposes a new Justice Department task force known as “Prescription Interdiction and Litigation,” or PIL, which would be empowered to step up prosecutions of criminally negligent doctors, pharmacies and other providers.

As serious sentencing fans perhaps already realize, though any proposal for the death penalty for drug dealers is sure to garner a lot of attention, proposals to expand the reach or application of mandatory minimum sentences are sure to be far more consequential to the day-to-day operation of the federal criminal justice system.

Prior related posts:

March 16, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Interesting data from the US Courts on federal criminal justice caseloads in FY 2017

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts yesterday released here is Annual Report on "Judicial Business 2017" providing lots of statistics on the work of the federal Judiciary for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2017. Here are some criminal justice-related items from data pages here and here that caught my eye:

This year, filings in the U.S. courts of appeals declined 16 percent to 50,506. Total filings in the U.S. district courts decreased 7 percent to 344,787 as civil case filings dropped 8 percent to 267,769, although filings for criminal defendants remained relatively stable at 77,018....

Filings in the regional courts of appeals, which rose 15 percent the previous year, dropped 16 percent to 50,506 in 2017. Filings by pro se litigants, which accounted for 50 percent of new cases, went down 20 percent. Civil appeals grew 1 percent. Criminal appeals fell 14 percent.

Filings for criminal defendants (including those transferred from other districts) remained stable, decreasing less than 1 percent to 77,018.

The biggest numeric decline was in filings for defendants charged with property offenses, which fell 6 percent to 10,115 filings and accounted for 13 percent of total criminal filings.  Filings for defendants charged with fraud, which constituted 9 percent of total filings and 71 percent of property offense filings, dropped 5 percent to 7,165.  Fraud filings related to identification documents and information, which are often associated with immigration crimes, decreased 16 percent to 639.

Drug crimes remained the offenses prosecuted most frequently in the U.S. district courts, constituting 32 percent of all defendant filings. Filings for defendants charged with crimes related to marijuana decreased 19 percent to 4,181.  Filings for non-marijuana defendants rose 4 percent to 20,175.  Filings related to the sale, distribution, or dispensing of illegal drugs decreased 17 percent to 2,249 for marijuana and rose 1 percent to 17,560 for all other drugs.

Criminal filings for defendants charged with immigration offenses fell 2 percent to 20,438 and accounted for 27 percent of criminal filings. This was the lowest total since 2007. Defendants charged with improper reentry by an alien decreased 3 percent to 16,554, and those charged with improper entry by an alien dropped 12 percent to 172.  Immigration filings in the five southwestern border districts declined 7 percent to 15,638 and constituted 77 percent of national immigration defendant filings, compared to 81 percent in 2016.  Filings fell 32 percent in the District of New Mexico, 16 percent in the Southern District of Texas, and 5 percent in the District of Arizona, but rose 51 percent in the Southern District of California and 6 percent in the Western District of Texas.

General offense defendants declined 5 percent and amounted to 2 percent of total criminal filings. Reductions also occurred in filings related to violent offenses (down 1 percent) and sex offenses (also down 1 percent); each of these categories constituted 4 percent or less of total criminal filings.

Filings for defendants prosecuted for firearms and explosives offenses rose 11 percent to 9,672 and represented 13 percent of total criminal filings. Filings involving justice system offenses, which increased 5 percent, constituted 1 percent of total criminal filings. Defendants charged with regulatory offenses grew 3 percent and accounted for 2 percent of total criminal filings. Traffic offense filings increased 2 percent to 2,292 and accounted for 3 percent of total criminal filings.

Because FY 2017 ending in Sept 2017 really represents a big transition year at the executive branch, it is way too early to draw too much from these data concerning the patterns of prosecution we might expect during the Trump years. But these data present an interesting baseline from which to look for notable patterns that might develop in the years ahead.

March 14, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Trump Administration reportedly looking (seriously?) at the death penalty for serious drug dealers

In reported in prior posts here and here, Prez Trump has reportedly talked privately about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and has talked publicly about using the "ultimate penalty" to address drug problems. Now according to this new Washington Post article, headlined "Trump administration studies seeking the death penalty for drug dealers," these musings by President Trump are now a policy proposal being seriously examined by the administration:

The Trump administration is studying new policy that could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers, according to people with knowledge of the discussions, a sign that the White House wants to make a strong statement in addressing the opioid crisis.

President Trump last week suggested executing drug dealers as a way to make a dent in opioid addiction. Opioids killed nearly 64,000 people in 2016, and the crisis is straining local health and emergency services.

People familiar with the discussions said that the president’s Domestic Policy Council and the Department of Justice are studying potential policy changes and that a final announcement could come within weeks. The White House has said one approach it might take is to make trafficking large quantities of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid — a capital crime because even small amounts of the drug can be fatal. White House officials also are studying tougher noncapital penalties for large-scale dealers.

Trump said last week that the administration would soon roll out unspecified “strong” policies on opioids. White House officials said Trump has privately expressed interest in Singapore’s policy of executing drug dealers. “Some countries have a very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty, and they have much less of a drug problem than we do,” Trump said during an appearance at a White House summit on opioids last week.

Trump also has endorsed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s approach to the issue; Duterte’s “drug war” has led to the deaths of thousands of people by extrajudicial police killings. Last year, Trump praised Duterte in a phone call for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” according to the New York Times. Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, is leading much of the work on opioids for the White House. Singaporean representatives have briefed senior White House officials on their country’s drug policies, which include treatment and education, but also the death penalty, and they provided a PowerPoint presentation on that country’s laws.

Singapore’s model is more in line with the administration’s goals for drug policy than some other countries, a senior administration official said. “That is seen as the holistic approach that approximates what this White House is trying to do,” a senior administration official said....

Federal law currently allows for the death penalty to be applied in four types of drug-related cases, according to the Death Penalty Information Center: murder committed during a drug-related drive-by shooting, murder committed with the use of a firearm during a drug trafficking crime, murder related to drug trafficking and the death of a law enforcement officer that relates to drugs.

Peter H. Meyers, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law, said he doesn’t agree with the idea of adding more capital crimes for drug dealers, but he said it could be a legal approach: “It very likely would be constitutional if they want to do it.”

The administration’s directives come as prosecutors nationwide are cracking down on higher-level drug dealers and law enforcement officials are looking at increased penalties for fentanyl trafficking and dealing. But at the same time, public health officials — including those in the Trump administration — and many in law enforcement are emphasizing treatment rather than punitive measures for low-level users and those addicted to drugs.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to pursue the most severe penalties for drug offenses.  The Department of Justice said last year it will aggressively prosecute traffickers of any fentanyl-related substance.

If (when?) we see a serious formal death penalty proposal for drug dealers, I will have a lot more to say on the topic. For now, I will be content with three "hot takes" (with number 3 to get a lot more attention if this discourse continues):

1. It is not at all clear that death sentences for drug dealers, even for those whose drugs cause multiple deaths, would be constitutional; it is entirely clear that the issue would be litigated extensively and would have to be definitively decided by the US Supreme Court.

2. If Prez Trump is truly interested in "executing drug dealers" rather than just sending them to death row, he needs to get his Justice Department to get serious about trying to actually execute some of the five dozens murderers languishing  on federal death row (some of whom have been on federal death row for two decades or longer).  

3. If the White House (and/or Attorney General Sessions) is seriously interested in a legislative proposal to make the "worst of the worst" drug dealers eligible for the death penalty, I would seriously urge Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley to consider adding the proposal to his Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act as part of an effort to get the White House and AG Sessions to support that bill.  Even if drafted broadly, any federal "death penalty for drug dealers" law would likely only impact a few dozen cases per year, whereas the SRCA will impact tens of thousands of cases every year.  And the SRCA could help tens of thousands of least serious drug offenders while any death penalty bill would impact only the most serious drug offenders.

Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Not long after this posting, Prez Trump gave a speech in Pennsylvania that, as reported in this new Washington Post piece, covered this ground and received a positive response for the audience:

President Trump on Saturday again called for enacting the death penalty for drug dealers during a rally meant to bolster a struggling GOP candidate for a U.S. House seat here. During the campaign event in this conservative western Pennsylvania district, the president also veered off into a list of other topics, including North Korea, his distaste for the news media and his own election victory 16 months ago.

Trump said that allowing prosecutors to seek the death penalty for drug dealers — an idea he said he got from Chinese President Xi Jinping — is “a discussion we have to start thinking about. I don’t know if this country’s ready for it.”

“Do you think the drug dealers who kill thousands of people during their lifetime, do you think they care who’s on a blue-ribbon committee?” Trump asked. “The only way to solve the drug problem is through toughness. When you catch a drug dealer, you’ve got to put him away for a long time.”

It was not the first time Trump had suggested executing drug dealers. Earlier this month, he described it as a way to fight the opioid epidemic. And on Friday, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration was considering policy changes to allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

But on Saturday his call for executing drug dealers got some of the most enthusiastic cheers of the night. As Trump spoke about policies on the issue in China and Singapore, dozens of people nodded their heads in agreement. “We love Trump,” one man yelled. A woman shouted: “Pass it!”

March 10, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

Prez Trump issues his second pardon; Kristian Saucier, whom prosecutors sought imprisoned for six years, served year for taking photos in classified sub room

I am pleased to report that President Donald Trump is continuing to make use of his clemency power during the first part of his first term.  A relatively high-profile case is yet again the subject of his activity, as reported in this Politico article headlined "Trump pardons sailor in submarine photos case." Here are the details:

President Donald Trump has pardoned a Navy submariner sentenced to prison for taking photos inside the classified engine room of a nuclear submarine, the White House announced on Friday.

Petty Officer First Class Kristian Saucier pleaded guilty in May 2016 to two felony counts, one for unlawful retention of national defense information and another for obstruction of justice, for taking cellphone pictures inside the Navy vessel and later destroying his own equipment upon learning he was under investigation.

“The president has pardoned Kristian Saucier, a Navy submariner,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced at a briefing with reporters. The Justice Department later confirmed the move. Sanders added that “the president is appreciative of Mr. Saucier's service to the country.”

The move marked just the second pardon Trump has granted since entering office, with the first extended in August to Joe Arpaio, the former Arizona sheriff who was convicted of criminal contempt of court in a case involving his tactics targeting undocumented immigrants.

Saucier was sentenced to 12 months in prison for mishandling classified information. Critics have cited the episode to allege a double standard in how low- and high-ranking U.S. officials handle sensitive material. The president brought the case back into public view in January, when he compared the treatment of Saucier with that of his former electoral opponent Hillary Clinton and her top campaign officials....

Prosecutors had sought a much steeper sentence for the former Navy machinist, calling for him to face six years in prison, but the judge gave a more lenient sentence, a point the White House highlighted in announcing his pardon. “The sentencing judge found that Mr. Saucier’s offense stands in contrast to his commendable military service,” Sanders noted.

Though I would like to see Prez Trump issuing many more clemency grants, particularly in lower-profile cases, I remain quite pleased that Prez Trump is continued to use his clemency powers more during his first three years in office than did the last three presidents combined.

Related post on prior clemency grants:

March 10, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Via executive order, Prez Trump creates new Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry

Images (8)As reported in this Axios piece, "President Trump on Wednesday launched, by executive order, the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry." Here is more:

The president enacted the council with the aim of reducing crime while looking for ways to "provide those who have engaged in criminal activity with greater opportunities to lead productive lives."...

“We applaud President Trump for following through on his stated commitment to reducing crime, reforming our prisons and rehabilitating individuals who are hungry for a second chance,” [said] Mark Holden, general counsel at Koch Industries who recently launched the Safe Streets and Second Chances prison reform initiative, told Axios. Holden said he is particularly encouraged that Jared Kushner will be one of the co-chairs.

While she thinks this is a good step from the administration, Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice told Axios, "there can be no real criminal justice reform without reducing the number of people entering prison. The President and Attorney General are attempting to kill bipartisan sentencing reform in Congress, and offering incremental reentry reforms instead."...

The executive order calls for "mental health, vocational training, job creation, after-school programming, substance abuse, and mentoring," for inmates. "Incarceration is necessary to improve public safety, but its effectiveness can be enhanced through evidence-based rehabilitation programs." The order asks for a report from the council within 90 days that will outline a timeline for ways to reduce crime and recidivism.

The council will be co-chaired by Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Assistant to the President of Domestic Policy Andrew Bremberg.  The council will include the heads of: The Department of the Treasury, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The executive order asks for ways to reduce recidivism and better re-entry for those coming out of the criminal justice system, but does not suggest looking at changes to sentencing guidelines. 

The full Executive Order creating the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry can be accessed at this link. The first section of the EO provides as follows:

Section 1. Purpose. The Federal Government must reduce crime, enhance public safety, and increase opportunity, thereby improving the lives of all Americans. In 2016, the violent crime rate in the United States increased by 3.4 percent, the largest single-year increase since 1991. Additionally, in 2016, there were more than 17,000 murders and nonnegligent manslaughters in the United States, a more than 20 percent increase in just 2 years. The Department of Justice, alongside State, local, and tribal law enforcement, has focused its efforts on the most violent criminals. Preliminary statistics indicate that, in the last year, the increase in the murder rate slowed and the violent crime rate decreased.

To further improve public safety, we should aim not only to prevent crime in the first place, but also to provide those who have engaged in criminal activity with greater opportunities to lead productive lives.  The Federal Government can assist in breaking this cycle of crime through a comprehensive strategy that addresses a range of issues, including mental health, vocational training, job creation, after-school programming, substance abuse, and mentoring. Incarceration is necessary to improve public safety, but its effectiveness can be enhanced through evidence-based rehabilitation programs.  These efforts will lower recidivism rates, ease incarcerated individuals’ reentry into the community, reduce future incarceration costs, and promote positive social and economic outcomes.

I am not going to get too excited by this new Council until I see what kind of "recommendations for evidence-based programmatic and other reforms" appear in the various reports it is tasked to issue. But this order provides still more reason to believe that the Trump White House wants to (and wants to be able to claim) it is doing something productive in the arena of criminal justice reform.

Notably, President Barack Obama formally acted in a fairly similar manner via this Presidential Memorandum in late April 2016 discussing "Federal Interagency Reentry Council." That memorandum noted that "in 2011, the Attorney General formed the Federal Interagency Reentry Council, a Cabinet-level working group dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintegration of individuals returning to their communities from prisons and jails" and said the 2016 memorandum was being issued to "ensure that the Federal Government continues the important work of this council and builds on its successes." This new Executive Order by Prez Trump formerly states that it revokes Prez Obama's 2016 memorandum, but in substance it looks quite similar.

March 8, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 02, 2018

Lots of notable reaction to Prez Trump's nominations to the US Sentencing Commission

As reported in this prior post, Prez Trump yesterday announced these notable new nominations to the US Sentencing Commission.  Usually, only hard-core sentencing nerds like me play much attention to USSC nominations, but this slate of nominees, especially the nomination of Bill Otis, has led to some notable media attention.  Here are some of the commentary I have already seen: 

From The Daily Caller, "Trump's Sentencing Commission Nominees Show He May Not Be That Angry At Jeff Sessions"

From Mother Jones"'I Live to Put People in Jail': Here Are Trump's Nominees for the US Sentencing Commission"

From Reason, "Trump Nominates Man Who Called for Abolishing US Sentencing Commission to US Sentencing Commission"

From Slate, "Trump picked a mass-incarceration advocate obsessed with 'black-on-black' crime for a job setting federal sentences"

From Splinter, "Trump Nominates the Last Person You'd Ever Want to Help Oversee the Criminal Justice System"

And perhaps best highlighting how this one nomination is not like the others, here is the text of this press release from Families Against Mandatory Minimums released just a few hours after Prez Trump announced his new USSC picks:

FAMM president Kevin Ring issued the following statement on William Otis, one of four nominees put forward today by the Trump administration for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the administrative body that writes and updates the federal sentencing guidelines used to sentence more than 70,000 people each year in federal courts:

FAMM has never taken a position before on U.S. Sentencing Commission nominees, but we feel compelled to change that policy in light of today’s announcement.  Mr. Otis’s outdated views are well-known and well-documented.  This is not a person who will be guided by evidence and data.  The Senate should reject this nomination.

Prior related post:

March 2, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Prez Trump talks up "very strong" criminal penalties "with respect to the pushers and to the drug dealers"

In this post from a few days ago, I noted a report that Prez Trump has been known privately to give "a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty."  Now, as reported here by CBS News under the headline "Trump brings up death penalty for drug dealers, suing drug companies at opioids summit," Prez Trump has brought his thinking into the public discourse:

President Trump made an unexpected appearance at a White House summit on the opioid crisis Thursday afternoon, floating penalties for "opioid companies" and tougher punishments for drug dealers, noting that some countries have the "ultimate penalty."

"The administration's gonna' be rolling out policy over the next three weeks and it'll be very, very strong," the president said. "I've also spoken with Jeff (Sessions) about bringing a lawsuit against some of these opioid companies. I mean, what they're doing and the way, the distribution. You have people who go to the hospital with a broken arm and the come out addicted. They're addicted to painkillers, and they don't even know what happened."

"So we're going to very much, you know, as you know, I think we've been more involved than any administration by far. It's a problem that's growing.  And drugs are a similar but different problem in the sense that we have pushers, and we have drug dealers that don't — I mean, they kill hundreds and hundreds of people.  And most of them don't even go to jail. You know, if you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty. These people can kill 2,000, 3000 people, and nothing happen to them. And we need strength with respect to the pushers and to the drug dealers. And if you don't do that, you're never going to solve the problem."

"Some countries have a very, very tough penalty, the ultimate penalty," the president said.  "And by the way, they have much less of a drug problem than we do.  So we're going to have to be very strong on penalties.  Hopefully we can do some litigation against the opioid companies."

A video of Prez Trumps comments are available at this link via CNN.  Yikes!

Prior related post:

March 1, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Trump White House expresses opposition to sentencing reform part of SRCA of 2017

Given that the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 could not even get very far in Congress despite the support of then of the President and Attorney General, I have never been all that optimistic about the prospects for the 2017 version of this bill.  Attorney General Sessions has been against it from the get-go, and this new report from the The Hill indicates that the White House has now put its opposition forward.  Here are the details:

The White House on Tuesday said it sees no path forward for legislation to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences, instead throwing its support behind measures aimed at reducing recidivism rates. "The conclusion we reached was that, at this time, it's appropriate for us to go forward with prison reform," a senior administration official said.

The White House's position represents a major setback for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been working to move his criminal justice reform bill through Congress after it stalled last session.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act to the floor by a 16-5 vote earlier this month over the objections of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a few GOP members on the committee....

A senior White House official said the administration respects Grassley’s efforts, but sees no path forward for sentencing reform. "The sentencing reform part still does not have a pathway forward to getting done," the official said. "And so what we see now is an environment where the prison reform does have enough support to get done. And we think that by maybe doing this in smaller bits and pushing the prison reform now, we think this has a better chance of getting done."

A second official said the White House is instead focused on prison reform legislation like Rep. Doug Collins's (R-Ga.) bipartisan Prison Reform and Redemption Act. That bill, co-sponsored by nine Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement if they complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates.

Prison programming could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment. "I think that that is a good basis that we can look at and start with," the second senior White House official said of Collins's bill. “I do think that as the conversation continues over the coming weeks, there might be additions, changes, amendments, and we want to go through the regular order committee processes. But I do think that that's a big piece of legislation to look at as a starting point."

A source familiar with the talks with the White House told The Hill in January that Collins’s bill is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Taylor Foy, a spokesman for Grassley, said the chairman is focused on passing sound policy, not the path of least resistance. "Bipartisan support continues to grow in the Senate for comprehensive criminal justice reform, which includes providing additional discretion for judges at sentencing for lower level, non-violent drug crimes," he said. "Chairman Grassley’s broadly bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is cosponsored by nearly a quarter of the Senate. Our office continues to have productive conversations with the White House on this issue.”

A senior White House official said President Trump is planning to sign an executive order Wednesday to revamp the Federal Reentry Council and move it from the Department of Justice to the White House. Under the Obama administration, the interagency council worked to reduce recidivism and improve employment, education, housing, health and child welfare outcomes, according to the Department of Justice website.

The White House said Tuesday it sent a list of legislative principles for reform efforts to Congress. In addition to effectively using government resources to reduce crime and incentivize re-entry programs, the White House wants Congress to expand access to prison work programs. It also wants lawmakers to evaluate and facilitate public and private partnerships that improve pre- and post-release employment opportunities for inmates.

I am disappointed but not especially surprised that the White House is indicating that it is only willing to support a more modest prison reform bill rather than all the significant sentencing reforms that appear in the SRCA.  Prez Trump has to date only voiced support for prison reform efforts, and he has formally and informally talked up a "tough and tougher" approach to sentencing drug dealers.  Those eager to see reductions in federal drug sentences should likely be grateful many leading GOP legislators favor such reforms because otherwise Prez Trump might well be actively advocating for enhancing the severity of federal drug sentences.  

I have long been saying that, for various reasons and for lots of offenders, significant prison reform could end up even more consequential than some proposed sentencing reform.  Thus, I sincerely hope that everyone interested in the kinds of reforms that the SRCA represent will be prepared to get behind the Prison Reform and Redemption Act (PRRA) and work to make it as effective and expansive and consequential as possible.  Some version of the PRRA looks now to be the only significant federal criminal justice reform proposal with a realistic chance of becoming law in 2018. 

It has already been nearly a decade since we have seen anything close to significant legislative reforms benefiting federal defendants or prisoners. (I am thinking of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act as the last big legislative change, though the 2014 "Drugs-2" guideline amendment was also a very big deal.)  I want to believe that the passage of something like the PRRA could help create new momentum for a range of reforms bog and small in Congress and elsewhere, and so the fact that the White House is endorsing some reform efforts is still encouraging despite its discouraging view of the SRCA.

A few prior related posts:

February 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Prez Trump reportedly "would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America"

The quoted portion of the title of this post comes from this new Axios report by Jonathan Swan headlined "Trump privately talks up executing all big drug dealers." The piece is notable for more than just the death penalty talk, and here are extended excerpts:

In Singapore, the death penalty is mandatory for drug trafficking offenses.  And President Trump loves it.  He’s been telling friends for months that the country’s policy to execute drug traffickers is the reason its drug consumption rates are so low.  "He says that a lot," said a source who's spoken to Trump at length about the subject. "He says, 'When I ask the prime minister of Singapore do they have a drug problem [the prime minister replies,] 'No. Death penalty'."

But the president doesn't just joke about it. According to five sources who've spoken with Trump about the subject, he often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty.  Trump tells confidants a softer approach to drug reform — the kind where you show sympathy to the offenders and give them more lenient sentences — will never work. He tells friends and associates the government has got to teach children that they'll die if they take drugs and they've got to make drug dealers fear for their lives.

Trump has said he would love to have a law to execute all drug dealers here in America, though he's privately admitted it would probably be impossible to get a law this harsh passed under the American system.

Kellyanne Conway, who leads the White House's anti-drug efforts, argues Trump's position is more nuanced, saying the president is talking about high-volume dealers who are killing thousands of people. The point he's making, she says, is that some states execute criminals for killing one person but a dealer who brings a tiny quantity of fentanyl into a community can cause mass death in just one weekend, often with impunity.

Trump may back legislation requiring a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for traffickers who deal as little as two grams of fentanyl.  Currently, you have to deal forty grams to trigger the mandatory five-year sentence. (The DEA estimates that as little as two milligrams is enough to kill people.)...

Conway told me this kind of policy would have widespread support. “There is an appetite among many law enforcement, health professionals and grieving families that we must toughen up our criminal and sentencing statutes to match the new reality of drugs like fentanyl, which are so lethal in such small doses,” she said. "The president makes a distinction between those that are languishing in prison for low-level drug offenses and the kingpins hauling thousands of lethal doses of fentanyl into communities, that are responsible for many casualties in a single weekend."

Trump wants to get tough on drug traffickers and pharmaceutical companies. Stay tuned for policy announcements in the not-too-distant future. Trump and some of his advisers are discussing whether they might adopt other aspects of Singapore's "zero tolerance" drug policies, like bringing more anti-drug education into schools.

Notably, Section 109 of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 that just recently passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee includes a five-year mandatory consecutive term of imprisonment for dealing fentanyl.  So the report that "Trump may back legislation requiring a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for traffickers who deal as little as two grams of fentanyl" may be a reference to this provision of the SRCA or it might be a reference to another piece of proposed legislation.  Either way, it would seem that Prez Trump is now inclined to embrace a punitive mind-set for dealing with the nation's drug problems (though, as this old press story reveals, he once previously said "you have to legalize drugs to win that war ...  to take the profit away from these drug czars.")

February 25, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Donald Trump and the Undoing of Justice Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy New York Times editorial.  Here are excerpts:

In the decade or so before Donald Trump became president, America’s approach to criminal justice was changing fast — reckoning with decades of destructive and ineffective policies that had ballooned the prison population and destroyed countless lives.  Red and blue states were putting in place smart, sensible reforms like reducing harsh sentencing laws, slashing prison populations and crime rates, and providing more resources for the thousands of people who are released every week.

President Obama’s record on the issue was far from perfect, but he and his first attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., took several key steps: weakening racially discriminatory sentencing laws, shortening thousands of absurdly long drug sentences, and pulling back on the prosecution of low-level drug offenders and of federal marijuana offenses in states that have legalized it.  This approach reflected state-level efforts and sent a message of encouragement to those still leery of reform.

Within minutes of taking office, Mr. Trump turned back the dial, warning darkly in his Inaugural Address of “American carnage,” of cities and towns gutted by crime — even though crime rates are at their lowest in decades. Things only got worse with the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who, along with Mr. Trump, appears to be stuck in the 1980s, when politicians exploited the public’s fear of rising crime to sell absurdly harsh laws and win themselves re-election.  Perhaps that’s why both men seem happy to distort, if not outright lie about, crime statistics that no longer support their narrative....

Under Mr. Trump, the Justice Department has pulled back from his predecessor’s investigations of police abuse and misconduct; resumed the use of private, for-profit prisons; and stopped granting commutations to low-level drug offenders who have spent years or decades behind bars.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sessions, who as a senator was one of the most reliable roadblocks to long-overdue federal sentencing reform, is still throwing wrenches into the works as Congress inches toward a bipartisan deal.  Mr. Sessions called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, a sweeping bill that would reduce some mandatory-minimum sentences, and that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, a “grave error.”  That earned him a rebuke from the committee’s chairman, Senator Charles Grassley, who pointed out that the attorney general is tasked with enforcing the laws, not writing them.  “If General Sessions wanted to be involved in marking up this legislation, maybe he should have quit his job and run for the Republican Senate seat in Alabama,” Mr. Grassley said.

Mr. Grassley is no one’s idea of a justice reformer, but he supports the bill because, he said, it “strikes the right balance of improving public safety and ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system.”

So what has this administration done right?  The list is short and uninspiring.  In October, Mr. Trump declared the epidemic of opioid abuse a national emergency, which could be a good step toward addressing it — but he’s since done almost nothing to combat a crisis that killed more than 64,000 Americans in 2016.

In his State of the Union address last month, Mr. Trump promised to “embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”  It’s great if he really means that, but it’s hard to square his assurance with his own attorney general’s opposition to a bill that includes recidivism-reduction programs intended to achieve precisely this goal....

The rhetoric from the White House and the Justice Department has emboldened some state and local officials to talk tougher, even if just as ignorantly, about crime.  The good news is that it’s not working as well anymore. In Virginia’s race for governor last fall, the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, attacked his opponent, Ralph Northam, with ads blaming him for violence by the MS-13 gang.

It was a despicable stunt, its fearmongering recalling the racist but effective Willie Horton ad that George H. W. Bush ran on in his successful 1988 presidential campaign.  Thankfully, Virginia’s voters overwhelmingly rejected Mr. Gillespie, another sign that criminal justice reform is an issue with strong support across the political spectrum.  In the era of Donald Trump, candidates of both parties should be proud to run as reformers — but particularly Democrats, who can cast the issue not only as a central component of a broader progressive agenda, but as yet another example of just how out of touch with the country Mr. Trump and his administration are.

February 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Notable White House personnel development that should help the cause of criminal justice reform

This recent press article about a new person joining the White House staff should hearten those hoping to see some form of federal criminal justice reform become a reality.  Here are the details:

Brooke Rollins is headed to Washington to join a new White House office run by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.  Rollins, 45, is a former aide to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and a member of Trump’s economic advisory committee.  Since 2002, she’s run the influential think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, which lobbies on a host of conservative issues in Austin.

Rollins has been working closely with the office she’ll join, Trump’s Office of American Innovation.  The office’s mission is to apply ideas from corporate America to solve the nation’s problems.  Kushner said in a statement he’s “grateful” to have Rollins join his team, where she’ll “continue executing on our key initiatives.”

Rollins already works closely with Kushner and his office on criminal justice reform, an issue she added to TPPF’s policy priorities and championed for more than a decade in Texas. Rollins recently paired with the Koch network on a $4 million, multi-state criminal justice reform project.

Trump campaigned promising to take a tough-on-crime approach. Rollins said the White House has been receptive to TPPF’s ideas on the issue, and the think tank recently added staff in D.C. to work specifically on criminal justice.  “They’re business oriented people and they want results fast,” Rollins said of the Office of American Innovation last year. “They see an organization like ours… and we’ve been able to implement that in Texas, and they want to understand how to do that here.”

Here are snippets of an op-ed piece that Rollins co-authored that was published just last week:

Far too many inmates are incarcerated when they could instead be rehabilitated. Of the 1.3 million people held in state prisons at the end of 2015, 197,200 had as their most serious offense a drug charge; 44,700 of those were for simple possession....

The emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation has a high dollar cost — $80 billion a year for incarceration, and an even higher cost in the diminution of the human spirit.

The system traps individuals in a soul-crushing cycle of poverty and prison, while doing next to nothing to make our streets safer or change the behavior of those who are going to be living among us when their time is served.

Proposals to address these challenges are not pie-in-sky do-gooderism; they are a clear-eyed assessment based on evidence and experience. We must ensure that individuals coming out of prison are better people than when they entered. Preparations for re-entry and reintegration into communities must begin on the first day of incarceration, not 90 days before they are released, as often happens now....

[S]tates have seen the results and are instituting programs focusing on education and training that are showing success in rehabilitating individuals and reducing recidivism. Everyone deserves a second chance.

Rollins will not be able to ensure federal criminal justice reforms become a reality ASAP, but her very hire suggests to me continuing commitment from at least some persons to have effective advocates for reform working within the White House.

February 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, February 12, 2018

"Yes, Trump is embracing criminal justice reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this new opinion piece that struck me as notable for any number of reasons: the piece appears in the right-leaning Washington Examiner and is authored by well-known conservatives Ken Blackwell and Ken Cuccinelli.  The piece also ends with a call for Congress to catch up to states in the criminal justice reform arena.  Here are excerpts:

Throughout the last election cycle, there came fevered predictions from many commentators on the Left that, given candidate Donald Trump’s frank messaging about returning to "law and order" and confronting violent crime in American cities, criminal justice reform efforts were officially dead in the water.  Criminal justice reform appears “bleak in the age of Trump,” stated one article. “How Criminal Justice Reform Died,” intoned another.

Such fatalism was both misplaced and inaccurate. Misplaced, because the lion’s share of successful criminal justice reforms over the last ten years have advanced at the state and local levels, not in D.C.— mainly by southern red states. With oversight over roughly 90 percent of the country’s incarcerated population, the states will always be the primary mover of criminal justice policies, not the federal government.

But such predictions have now been proven inaccurate as well, given recent remarks made by now-President Trump about the need for federal prison reform....

Society is justified in expecting individuals to take ownership not just for their actions, but also for their reformation. This is hampered, however, when the weight of accumulated barriers to re-entry becomes a millstone. Research has been clear that getting a job upon release is among the most critical steps to reducing a person’s likelihood for recidivism. When President Trump and others say society has a “great interest” in helping ex-offenders get on the path of self-sufficiency, he’s speaking a well-established truism.

Fortunately, conservative states have long since begun helping ex-offenders land on their feet upon release. Chief among them: Texas, long known as a “tough on crime” stalwart. In 2007, state lawmakers passed a $241 million “justice reinvestment” package to increase capacity for substance abuse and mental health treatment and expand probation and parole services, as well as community-based diversion programs. This avoided the immediate need for $2.1 billion in spending just to meet their expected needs for new prison capacity.

More recently, Texas has passed indemnity laws to insulate employers and landlords from liability when they extend a job or lease to ex-offenders.  This makes it less likely that a criminal record will be an insuperable barrier to work or finding a place to live. Communities in Texas have been getting safer at the same time.  Crime rates have fallen by 31 percent, while incarceration rates have fallen by more than 20 percent. Eight prisons have been shuttered even as Texas’ population has soared, saving millions in annual operating costs.

In 2012, Georgia began investing in efforts aimed at reducing recidivism, including an expansion of in-prison educational resources.  They’ve since reduced their prison population and nearly eliminated its backlog of inmates awaiting transfer, all the while reducing crime by 8 percent and saving $25 million.  A large reform package passed in Louisiana last year has similar aims of steering less serious offenders away from incarceration and into more effective community-based programs. South Carolina, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, and others have passed comprehensive reforms, as well.

As we mentioned above, the states are the natural gatekeepers for criminal justice reform.  But Congress has shortcomings within its own prison system to address, and is quickly running out of excuses for doing so.  President Trump, whom so many on the Left falsely assumed would spell the end of reform, has instead sounded a clarion call to advance it. He was right for doing so, as many conservative states have proved, and it's time Congress took up that challenge as well.

February 12, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 now has 20 sponsors in the Senate but...

1518381838864this Roll Call article suggests Senators cannot figure out how to break a "logjam" that is created by the Attorney General and Prez Trump. The Roll Call article is headlined "Senators Ponder How to Break Criminal Justice Logjam: With Trump not on board with bipartisan bill, 'we’re stuck,' Grassley says," and here are excerpts:

Senate Judiciary Committee members grappled Thursday with the best strategy to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system, since the leading bill has broad bipartisan support but the White House apparently backs only one part of it.

Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa set a markup next week for a bill that represents a hard-negotiated compromise — first struck in 2015 — that backers say would pass the Senate with a bipartisan supermajority if brought to the floor. It is expected to easily advance from the committee and could be a signature legislative accomplishment for the Senate.

A broad and politically varied coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups off Capitol Hill generally back the overhaul, which has two main components. One section aims to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and the other aims to ease re-entry for prisoners.

But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t bring a version of the legislation to the floor in the last Congress because of opposition to the sentencing section from law enforcement groups and some Republican senators, Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told the committee Thursday. And now, President Donald Trump has voiced support only for the prison changes.

Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, said, “I honestly don’t see a path forward” this year for the broader bipartisan bill. “I’m worried that if we just revisit the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which failed during the Obama administration, given this change in the new administration and its views on the sentencing reform component of it, we’re going to have nothing to show for our efforts,” said Cornyn, using the bill’s formal title. “I know we all tried to work together on this and it just didn’t work out.”

Instead, Cornyn said the committee’s best opportunity to move a criminal justice bill would be his legislation, proposed along with Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, which contains only provisions aimed at easing re-entry for prisoners — “and then building on that as we can” with an amendment process on the floor. That process could include amendments on sentencing, based on a bill introduced in previous sessions by Lee and Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

Grassley responded that the compromise bill would be the best way to get the sentencing and prison provisions into law. The measure currently has 19 co-sponsors, and he said the backers are seeking more. “It’s a matter of process and around here — nothing gets done unless it’s bipartisan,” Grassley said. “And I don’t often agree with Sen. Durbin, but we put together a bill that we worked really hard and we think it’s the only way of advancing both bills.”

Whitehouse said he would support both ways of moving forward since the sentencing bill was proposed five years ago, but that Cornyn’s strategy “actually might provide a more realistic way of getting this matter resolved.” The Senate, however, could end up in the same place if the prison bill gets to the floor and then a supermajority of senators add the sentencing portion back in with an amendment, Whitehouse said. “Waiting here for there to be the ultimate global concord to sort this out has yielded five years of nothing and I’m ready to go forward,” Whitehouse said.

Grassley countered, however, that there could still be senators who would block the prison bill from the floor if they knew there were more than 60 senators supporting a sentencing amendment. “That’s what we face,” Grassley said. “There’s some people around here [who] are just a little bit afraid of what you call an Assistant U.S. Attorneys Association and they’re stopping everything from being done that is so successful in the other states. When people are willing to stand up to those leaders of the Senate, we’ll get something done in both areas.”

Interestingly, this new Axios article has an entry, headed "Grassley twists Trump’s arm for criminal justice reform," reporting on an interview that suggests Senator Grassley might seek to use his political capital with the President to try to get the SRCA into law:

Grassley didn't deny the White House’s cool reception of his bill, but he plans to use his substantial political clout to press Trump to change his mind.

As I've reported, Trump bends over backwards to keep Grassley happy. He knows that as Judiciary Chairman, Grassley played a crucial role in delivering two of Trump's biggest successes so far: the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and a modern record for circuit court judges in a president's first year.

"I've carried a lot of water for the White House," Grassley told me. "They ought to give some consideration for the close working relationship we’ve had on issues we agree on." "I think people at the White House have not wanted to go against Gen. Sessions," he added, before closing with a sentence crafted perfectly to appeal to Trump's ego. "This is an opportunity for a bipartisan victory by the President of the United States."

I think the best way to convince Trump to support this bill is to move it for votes ASAP in the full Senate and House.  I suspect that if 70+ Senators and 300+ members of the House vote for these reforms, which seems quite possible, the Prez will be inclined to sign it.  For that reason, perhaps we should start a hash tag campaign: #voteonSRCA2017.

A few prior related posts:

February 11, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Brennan Center releases report on "Criminal Justice One Year Into the Trump Administration"

As detailed in this press release, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law has produced this new report about federal criminal justice developments in the first year of the Trump era. Here is an overview via the press release:

Criminal Justice One Year Into the Trump Administration examines how the executive branch has used memoranda or more subtle changes in enforcement strategy to reverse Obama-era reforms and implement a more draconian law enforcement strategy.  Their efforts threaten to increase the federal prison population and disrupt state and local movements for reform that have broad, bipartisan backing.

“From day one at the Inauguration podium, Trump immediately shifted how federal officials talk about criminal justice issues,” said Inimai Chettiar, the director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program. “He has sounded false alarms about rising crime nationwide and wrongly linked immigration to both this phantom increase and the opioid crisis. He preys on people’s fears to try to justify these ineffective and overreaching policies from his administration.”

Researchers note that:

  • The administration’s changes to policy have so far focused on increasing aggressive prosecutorial practices, changing federal drug enforcement policy, decreasing oversight of problematic police practices, and resurrecting rhetoric around fear of crime.

  • In fiscal year 2017, arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials rose by more than 30 percent. Arrests of individuals with no criminal conviction increased 146 percent from fiscal year 2016. ICE increased its use of detainers, or requests that local law enforcement hold someone in custody and hand them over to federal law enforcement authorities, by 65 percent. And, the number of detainers that local law enforcement declined to honor also rose.

  • Opioid deaths are expected to rise in 2017 and surpass the record of nearly 50,000 deaths in 2016.

  • The White House is poised to support federal legislation that improves formerly incarcerated individuals’ reentry into society, but has not made a commitment to back federal sentencing reform efforts with bipartisan support.

“In some areas the effects of Trump’s changes to policy are not yet clear,” said Ames Grawert, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.  “But that is not the case when it comes to immigration. Under his tenure, more people are entering ICE’s system and fewer are leaving it.  The Department of Homeland Security expects the daily population in immigration detention centers will increase by 25 percent.  That will not only have significant impact on the lives of the individuals put behind bars, but on the nation’s criminal justice system as a whole.”

February 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Reviewing how crime and punishment (but not AG Sessions' approaches) have changed in recent decades

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux has this extended piece that is a kind of retrospective on the evolution of crime and punishment in the US over the last 30 years, with a particular focus on the perspectives of AG Sessions. The piece is headlined "Jeff Sessions Is Trying To Take Criminal Justice Back To The 1990s," and here is how it gets started:

Thursday is the first anniversary of Jeff Sessions’s confirmation as attorney general. Over the past year, he has announced that he would seek to increase the use of the federal death penalty; reversed a series of Obama-era memos that instructed federal prosecutors not to go after the marijuana industry in the states that have legalized it; and directed prosecutors to slap drug suspects with the most serious charge they can prove.

None of these policies would have seemed out of place 30 years ago. And, in fact, it’s clear that Sessions has set his sights on returning the country’s criminal justice system to the days of harsh penalties for crime and hardline drug laws. The problem: A lot has changed over the last three decades — in particular, crime and our understanding of how to fight it.

Thirty years ago, there were open-air drug markets in big cities from New York to Los Angeles, residents of those cities were robbed or even killed on public transportation, and the murder rate was near its all-time high. At the crest of the crime wave, harsher penalties for criminals like mandatory minimum sentences and expanded use of the death penalty seemed like a reasonable response to a devastating national crisis, and most Americans supported them.

But today, the crime rate is much lower than in the 1990s, and Sessions’s policies are out of step with most public opinion. Moreover, many criminologists view his strategy as a throwback that’s unlikely to significantly curb violence or drug crime.

That’s because since these policies were implemented, decades of social science research has led experts like David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, to conclude that they don’t work well enough to justify their cost. “The evidence shows that they’re expensive, there’s enormous human damage, and they’re not actually effective in deterring crime,” he said.

Sessions has long established himself as a hard-liner on criminal justice issues: As Alabama’s attorney general, he proposed a crime bill that would have made the death penalty mandatory for a second conviction for drug trafficking. As the U.S. attorney general, he’s billed his new policies as a rejection of the “soft” strategies on crime that characterized the Obama administration, arguing that capital punishment and long sentences deter criminals and that pot is a “gateway drug” for harder substances and addiction.

There’s no question that crime did start to drop precipitously during the era of harsher penalties. And in 2010, the homicide rate hit a four-decade low, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Though most experts agree that the harsher strategies alone can’t explain the decline, there’s still no consensus about why the crime rate started to drop three decades ago. Scholars do note that it was already falling before many tough-on-crime measures were widely introduced, and they have offered theories from improved policing to the roaring economic growth of the 1990s to explain the change.

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Sessions deserves some credit for calling attention to the recent uptick in the murder rate, which rose for the second consecutive year in 2016 after a 25-year decline. But Rosenfeld, who studies the causes behind crime rate shifts, and other mainstream criminal justice experts reject the notion that the Obama-era criminal justice reforms, like the decision not to pursue mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, caused an increase in violent crime. Instead, Rosenfeld blames the increased violence in part on the drug market, with more demand for heroin because of the opioid epidemic. Rosenfeld also said that tensions between African-American communities and the police could be a factor.

And there’s even debate about whether the violent crime rate — as opposed to just the murder rate — is actually increasing. With a criminal justice outlook that seems more suited to the 1990s than today, Sessions finds himself implementing policies on sentencing, capital punishment and drug enforcement — particularly marijuana — that are out of sync with much of the country.

February 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

AG Sessions gives full accounting of his full law-and-order approach to his work as Attorney General

Jeff-sessions-attorney-general-630x354Last night, Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered this extended speech at the Reagan Alumni Association's Celebration of President Reagan's Birthday.  I recommend the full text as a window into how the current AG thinks about and approaches various law enforcement issues, and here are some highlights that ought to interest sentencing fans:

[President Reagan] was elected to stop the dramatic rise in crime that arose after the Great Society.  The violent crime rate tripled from 1964 to 1980.  Robbery tripled. Rape tripled. Aggravated assault nearly tripled. Murder doubled.  The people were not happy.  Personal safety was a huge issue.  The last liberal, as was said, was mugged.

By 1980, judicial activism looked triumphant.  It was praised as a virtue and not a vice.  Originalism seemed to have gone the way of the Dodo.

Ronald Reagan was elected to fix this situation.  He was the law & order candidate — that’s for sure.  It was not Jimmy Carter.  Nixon had run on law and order successfully.

President Reagan promised change and he delivered.  His achievements with regard to legal reform are nothing short of remarkable.  They have not been fully appreciated....

President Reagan was a strong leader and a good boss.  There was never any doubt about what he expected from us.  And I drew a lesson from that: a strong leader is one who makes his expectations simple and clear.  When I became a United States Attorney, I told my staff, “I know why Ronald Reagan put me here: to put crooks in jail and to protect the treasury.”

We took on violent crime, drug dealers, the Miami cocaine cowboys, the mafia, government corruption, waste fraud, and abuse in government programs.

President Reagan signed into law a number of legal reforms that empowered the law enforcement effort.  There was the elimination of parole, the issuing of sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences in certain cases, the elimination of bail on appeal, and increased bail for dangerous criminals before trial.  We increased the DEA, FBI, ATF, and federal prosecutors.  Many states followed Reagan’s leadership.

I was a prosecutor before these laws went into effect and I was a prosecutor after these laws went into effect.  I can tell you firsthand that they were transformational. These were the biggest changes in law enforcement since the founding of this country.  These laws were critical to re-establishing law and order.

When a criminal knows with certainty that he is facing hard time, he is a lot more willing to cooperate.  When the sentence is uncertain and up to the whims of the judge, criminals are a lot more willing to take a chance.  The certainty of a significant sentence does, in fact, have a deterrent effect.  And the recidivist can’t commit his crimes if he is in the slammer.

We got tough about drug abuse because — as surely as night follows day — violence, addiction and death follow drug activity.  And those who were put in jail in the mid-to-late 1980s could not commit crimes in the 1990s, which is when the steep decline in crime became most apparent.

I mentioned how dire the situation was in 1980.  That was before Reagan. After the changes that we made were put in place, from 1991 to 2014, the violent crime rate was cut in half. So were the murder rate and the robbery rate.  Aggravated assault was cut by 47 percent, and rape was cut by more than one third.  These are remarkable achievements that made this country a better place.  So when I look up at my portrait of Ed Meese on the wall of my conference room, that’s what I think about.  And that example inspires the work that we do every day.

Under President Trump, we are determined to advance President Reagan’s work of restoring the rule of law.  President Trump sent us an order to support our men and women in blue and to “reduce” crime in America.  We embrace that goal and intend to achieve it.  Of course, the anti-crime effort often goes unnoticed no matter how important....

We are hammering violent groups — especially the vicious MS-13.

We are not going to pretend that there is not a law against marijuana, or that it’s not bad for you....

We don’t think illegal drug use is “recreation”.  Lax enforcement, permissive rhetoric, and the media have undermined the essential need to say no to drug use — don’t start.  And we are identifying pill mill doctors and sending large members to the slammer.

We have taken many other steps to restore the rule of law at the Department.  But I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we still have work to do.  There have been some very sharp criticisms about the Department.  I hear these criticisms and welcome the discussion.  Sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.  We will not ignore these problems or hide our heads in the sand.

Much of what we are doing is behind the scenes — matters I can’t discuss publicly.  I’m sure that you can understand why.  We will also make sure that all our employees are treated fairly.

February 7, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Prez Trump trumpets again his interest in getting "really, really tough, really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers"

As noted in this prior post, Prez Trump last week in his State of the Union address spoke about "reforming our prisons" and the need to "get much tougher on drug dealers."  The first comment, coming on the heels of other prison reform talk, has garnered the most attention among criminal justice reform advocates.  But the second comment ought also get some attention, especially because Ronald Bailey has highlighted at Reason that Prez Trump doubled-down on these comments this week.

This Reason commentary, headlined "Trump Wants Us 'To Get Really, Really Tough, Really Mean with the Drug Pushers': Doubling down on a drug war that has failed for 40 years," take a critical look at what the President is saying. Here is how is starts (with links from the original):

What's the best way to address the national problem of opioid abuse and overdose deaths? "My take," President Donald Trump declared in Ohio yesterday, "is you have to get really, really tough, really mean with the drug pushers and the drug dealers. We can do all the blue ribbon committees we want—[applause]—we have to get a lot tougher than we are."

The president's dismissal of blue ribbon commissions is somewhat perplexing, since he ordered that one be created just last March—the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. In any case, the president is evidently eager to rev up the war on drugs.

What might the president mean by getting really tough on drug pushers? One clue might be his phone call to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte last April. "I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," Trump said. "Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that."

As big a blustering blowhard as our president is, I trust that he is not actually contemplating Duterte-style extrajudicial killings when he says "we have to get a lot tougher than we are." Nevertheless, it is clear that the president has learned nothing from the failures of the war on drugs. Over the past four decades, the government has spent more than trillion dollars, locked up millions of Americans, and undermined our civil liberties, especially our Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure, to stop the drug trade. Despite all the resources wasted and lives lost, the prices of illicit drugs have generally declined.

Prohibitionists claim that the drug war has reduced drug-related crime, decreased drug-related disease and overdose, and disrupted and dismantled organized criminal enterprises. But in a paper last year for the Cato Institute, George Mason University economists Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall show that "prohibition is not only ineffective, but counterproductive, at achieving the goals of policymakers both domestically and abroad. Given the insights from economics and the available data, we find that the domestic War on Drugs has contributed to an increase in drug overdoses and fostered and sustained the creation of powerful drug cartels."

February 6, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, February 05, 2018

Reviewing the potential import and impact of Prez Trump's talk of prison reform

Matt Ford at The New Republic has this new piece with this full headline" "A Chance for Criminal Justice Reform Under Trump: Despite his fear-mongering over crime, the president recently promised to help ex-prisoners 'get a second chance at life'."  Can he deliver?"  Here are excerpts from the second half of the piece (with a particular paragraph stressed for additional comment):

Some Republican leaders in deep-red states have taken aggressive steps in recent years to reshape how their own states approach crime and punishment. Georgia has overhauled its criminal code and juvenile-justice system, leading to noticeable declines in its prison population. Texas rewrote its probation and parole guidelines and expanded treatment options for mental health and drug addiction. Kentucky expanded its pretrial services programs as part of a broader push towards bail reform.

At the same time, conservative policy organizations have taken up the cause. The Koch brothers and their network of nonprofit advocacy groups are reform’s most prominent backers on the right, drawing some skepticism from the left. The result is an unusually broad alliance in modern American politics that brings together the Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union alongside the ACLU and the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

Credit for this trend’s arrival at the White House apparently goes to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and and a close adviser. In recent months, Kushner has met with key Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Congress, reform-oriented governors, and advocacy groups. The issue may also carry some personal resonance for Kushner: His father, Charles Kushner, received a two-year prison sentence for tax evasion and other crimes in 2005.

So far, the administration is keeping mum on its exact vision for reform. When asked for more details about the president’s plan, the White House provided a factsheet that described the depth of the problem as well as Trump’s meetings with Republican state officials who’ve tackled the issue in their own backyard. The document contained no specific policy proposals, but those meetings could still provide a window into what sort of policy proposals the Trump administration might favor from Congress. “Kansas improved its juvenile justice system to help make sure young offenders do not become repeat offenders,” Trump noted at a criminal justice summit he hosted at the White House in January. “Kentucky is providing job training to inmates and helping them to obtain professional licenses upon release, and it’s been very successful.”

Proposals like those overlap with policies favored by Democrats, to an extent.  Liberals typically focus on preventing or limiting how Americans enter prison in the first place, through sentencing reform, diversion programs, or decriminalization for nonviolent drug offenses.  Conservative policymakers, on the other hand, tend to gravitate toward measures that help prisoners successfully reenter society like prison education and work-release programs.

But Trump’s rhetoric of late gives hope for bipartisan efforts in Congress to push through a criminal-justice reform bill this year.  While Trump prides himself as a master dealmaker, he’s been content to let Republican lawmakers and his top advisers sketch the details of major legislation on health care, tax reform, and immigration. As long as he’s not actively hostile to whatever lawmakers send him, reformers could find Trump more amenable to the final package if they can convince him it’s a win.

More important, Trump’s lip service to prison reform could be a political boost for reformers in deep-red states.  Any serious effort to reverse mass incarceration will take place in the state criminal-justice systems, where roughly 90 percent of American prisoners are housed.  By endorsing some type of reform, the president could bolster local efforts against challenges from the right.

Trump’s electoral victory, driven by his fear-mongering over crime, raised fears among many reformers that the moment for taking substantive, bipartisan steps against mass incarceration has passed.  Instead, he’s proving that the shift could be more durable than expected.

The paragraph that I have emphasized here strikes me as an especially important aspect of Prez Trump's recent reform talk even if major or significant federal statutory reform fails to emerge from Congress anytime soon.  Just as the "Right on Crime" movement has helped enable state-level politicians feel comfortable supporting criminal justice reform consistent with conservative principles, the avowed commitment by Prez Trump to prison reform allows state-level politicians to feel they can support prison reform consistent with supporting the President.  Indeed, effective criminal justice advocates in red states now may be able to call out any opponents of prison and reentry reform for seeking to undermine or resist what President Trump says is important for Making America Great Again.

February 5, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Yet another notable pitch for "why Conservatives should support criminal justice reform"

Long time readers know I have been talking a long time about a "new right" on a range of sentencing and corrections issues (though recalling this post on the topic back in January 2005 lead me to realize that the new right is not so new circa 2018). And lately it is hard now to pull up Fox News and not see some discussion of some criminal justice reform issue. Today's example is in this form of this new Fox News commentary authored by Texas Representative Jerry Madden titled "Here's why Conservatives should support criminal justice reform." U recommend the full piece, and here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform may wind up being the most significant conservative policy change in Washington this year. That may sound surprising to some, but not to anyone who has been watching this movement in conservative states over the last decade.

Starting in Texas, conservatives of all stripes – fiscal, social, constitutional, or otherwise – have found favor with reforms to the criminal justice system that focus on increasing public safety and cutting costs to taxpayers. This is, seemingly, a very commonsense goal. But take a look at how most states and the federal government operate and you will find that well-functioning, well-focused systems are far from the norm.

The results are undeniable: Texas has lowered its overall crime rate 31 percent, putting it at levels that have not been seen since 1967. In that time, the Lone Star State has closed eight prisons and lowered the incarceration rate. This flies in the face of the old, mistaken ways of viewing criminal justice policy that considers incarceration the default rather than one tool of many to protect public safety.

At the heart of the Texas reforms is the idea that the nearly all of those incarcerated will eventually return to society after serving their sentence and therefore they must be rehabilitated to ensure that they do not return to a life of crime. Prisons cannot be mere people warehouses. For the offenders who commit to it, there is a real opportunity for redemption and second chances.

To no conservative’s surprise, the federal government lags behind in this area. The budget for the Bureau of Prisons is growing out-of-control. The BOP’s budget is now over 25 percent of the total budget for the Justice Department – a massive line item for an already over-indebted government. The outdated policies passed by Congress in the 1980s and 1990s are in desperate need of updating to match what states have shown to be successful.

There are two bills currently before Congress that will push for conservative changes. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, both Republicans, are the lead sponsors on two prison reform bills that focus on preparing prisoners for re-entry. These bills don’t reduce the sentences for crimes, but rather encourage inmates to participate in recidivism-reducing programming by offering incentives that include more phone calls and visits with family, and earned time to spend the end of their sentence in a halfway house, home confinement, or community supervision....

There is further encouragement coming from, of all places, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Trump has stated the case well: there is a path to remain “very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity to the future.” In his listening session at the White House recently, the president further explained: “My administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.” President Trump has made it clear that this is an issue that conservatives across the country can rally behind.

With the state examples as proof, and with a push from conservatives in the White House and Congress, criminal justice reform is a clear winner for the right. It is time for Congress to move on conservative reform as soon as possible.

February 4, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Prez Trump speaks again about prison reform at the 2018 House and Senate Republican Member Conference  

As noted here a few days ago, President Donald Trump in his very first State of the Union address said that prior reform was on his agenda for the coming year.   Lest anyone think he was not serious about this issue, today in remarks at the 2018 House and Senate Republican Member Conference he spoke again about the topic.  From this official transcript, here is what Prez Trump had to say today:

We can reform our prison system to help those who have served their time get a second chance at life.  And I’ve watched this, and I’ve seen it, and I’ve studied it.  And people get out of prison, and they made a mistake.  And not all — some are very bad, but many are very good.  And they come home and they can’t get a job.  It’s sad.  They can’t — there’s — they can’t get a job.

Now, the best thing we’ve done to fix that, Paul, is the fact that the economy is just booming.  I mean, that fixes it better than any program we can do, anything we can do at all.  But the economy is so strong now and so good, and so many companies are moving in that I really believe that problem — it’s a big problem — is going to solve itself.  But we’re working on it.

I find notable (and a bit amusing) Prez Trump's assertion about prison reform that he has "studied it" (and I am not quite sure what "it" he is referencing).  Moreover, because I hope to see significant reforms coming out of Congress, I am bit concerned that Prez Trump is here also suggesting that the prisoner reentry problem "is going to solve itself."

Still, with Prez Trump's two statements this week about prison reform, following a White House meeting on this issue a few weeks ago, it now seems he is genuinely interested in this topic. That reality bodes well for the prospect of some measure of federal reform making it through Congress and to his desk.  But what developing reform might specifically look like, and just how it gets implemented, are the critical follow-up realities.  And, of course, nothing should be considered a done deal in DC until it is truly a done deal.

A few prior recent related posts:

February 1, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Prez Trump, in his first State of the Union address, mentions "reforming our prisons" and need to "get much tougher on drug dealers"

As had been predicted (see this prior post), President Donald Trump in his very first State of the Union address said that prior reform was on his agenda for the coming year.  But later in this speech, he suggested that he supported an even tougher criminal justice response to our nation's drug problem.  These were both very small parts of a very long speech, and here is the context with key sentences highlighted from this official text

As America regains its strength, this opportunity must be extended to all citizens.  That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance....

In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses: 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour.  We must get much tougher on drug dealers and pushers if we are going to succeed in stopping this scourge.  My Administration is committed to fighting the drug epidemic and helping get treatment for those in need. The struggle will be long and difficult — but, as Americans always do, we will prevail.

With these sentences and sentiments, I believe Prez Trump has defined the terms of what is truly possible on the federal criminal justice reform front in 2018. It would seem "back-end" prison reforms to facilitate earlier release from prison for all federal offenders and enhanced reentry efforts are quite possible and may truly be a priority for the Trump Administration; it would also seem that "front-end" sentencing reforms to reduce mandatory minimum terms for drug trafficking offenses many not be possible and may be actively opposed by the Trump Administration. Interesting times.

A few prior recent related posts:

January 30, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Is Prez Trump really going to talk about criminal justice and prison reform in his first State of the Union address?

Images (7)The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable report from Jim Geraghty at the National Review headlined "Expect Criminal-Justice and Prison Reform from President Trump Tuesday Night."  Here is what he is predicting:

Let’s start this week off with some news: President Trump will talk about criminal-justice reform and prison reform in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

For several months now, the president’s son-in-law and key adviser Jared Kushner has had monthly meetings with Mark Holden, Koch Industries general counsel; Brooke Rollins, president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation; and Doug Deason, a wealthy businessman and advocate for criminal-justice reform. The conservative groups aim to bring prison reforms and anti-recidivism programs that have achieved sterling results in Texas and Georgia to the nation’s federal prison system.

About 10 percent of all incarcerated individuals in the United States are in federal prison. “If they were a state, they would be the largest state in the country,” Deason said. To bring these kinds of anti-recidivism programs to federal prisons, “all it requires is an executive order instructing Jeff Sessions to open up the Bureau of Prisons to outside service providers,” he explained. “Right now they do so, but only on a very limited basis.”

The Koch network hopes to add momentum to the effort with new initiative called Safe Streets and Second Chances, which will research the most effective methods across eight prisons in Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, featuring a “randomized controlled trial involving more than 1,000 participants in a mix of urban and rural communities.” The research will be directed by Dr. Carrie Pettus-Davis of Washington University in St. Louis. The aim is to provide “a counselor for a prisoner from the time he enters prison to years after he’s left, to stop this cycle of recidivism,” Deason said, and “have them leave better equipped to be a productive member of society than when they went in.”

Deason characterizes Sessions as open to proposals on prison reform and programs focused on a prisoner’s re-entry into society, but still “closed-minded” on reducing mandatory minimum sentences.

Interestingly, and perhaps enhancing my basis for reasonably hoping Prez Trump brings up this topic, this CNN article has different Senators talking about what they hope to see in the SOTU speech, and it includes this tidbit:

"I talked to the President about talking about prison reform," Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said, which is "something I've been working on, something I know that he and others are interested in."

Inspired by these reports, we ought to collectively work on a 2018 State of the Union drinking game.  Perhaps it ought to be a gulp of beer or a sip of wine/liquor for every time Prez Trump says prison reform or job training or mentoring or addiction treatment.  And if he says mandatory minimums or sentencing guidelines need to be reformed, I will buy a round for everyone!

A few prior recent related posts:

UPDATE: I just noticed this White House webpage detailing "Special Guests for the State of the Union Address." Because it does not seem that any of the special guests have a prison past, I am now doubting prison reform is getting any significant attention in the speech. Some of the listed guests, though, do suggest some other criminal justice issues will be getting mentioned:

Elizabeth Alvarado, Robert Mickens, Evelyn Rodriguez, and Freddy Cuevas are the parents of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, who had been close friends since elementary school, but in September 2016, the two girls were chased down and brutally murdered by MS-13....

Police Officer Ryan Holets and his wife adopted a baby from parents who suffered from opioid addiction, breaking down walls between drug addicts and police officers to help save lives....

Agent CJ Martinez has spent much of his 15-year tenure working with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations to dismantle criminal organizations, resulting in more than 100 arrests of MS-13 gang members who were prosecuted for crimes including homicide, assault, and narcotics and weapons trafficking.

January 29, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Encouraging new report on prospects for prison reform legislation emerging from Congress

This report from The Hill, headlined "Prison reform gains new momentum under Trump," suggests that recent talk from the White house about prison reform might soon become real action from Congress.  Here are the details of an encouraging story:

Momentum is building under the Trump administration for criminal justice reform. The path forward, however, is looking a little different than it has in the past.

Previous efforts to reform the justice system have focused on cutting prison time for convicted felons. But those taking part in the current discussions say the focus has shifted to preventing ex-convicts from returning to jail, suggesting this approach has the best chance of winning approval from both Congress and the White House.

A source familiar with the talks between the White House and GOP members of Congress said a bipartisan prison-reform bill offered by Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) is expected to be marked up in the House Judiciary Committee before the first quarter ends in April.

The Prison Reform and Redemption Act, co-sponsored by eight Democrats and seven Republicans, allows prisoners to serve the final days of their sentences in halfway houses or home confinement. To do so, prisoners have to complete evidence-based programs while in prison that have been shown to reduce recidivism rates. The legislation directs the attorney general to identify the most effective programs, which could include everything from job and vocational skills training to education and drug treatment....

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Collins and Cornyn are working closely together to ensure any differences between their bills are reconciled, the source familiar with talks said.

President Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, have met with lawmakers and advocates to talk about prison reform and the success states have had in the last few months, signaling there’s White House support for legislation. “The administration strongly believes that prison reform is a conservative issue that will help reduce crime and save taxpayer dollars and has the potential to gain bipartisan support,” a White House source said.

Bipartisan criminal justice reform efforts until now have largely focused on proposals to reduce mandatory minimum sentencing for certain nonviolent drug offenders and armed career criminals.  While talks now appear focused on prison reform, advocates say sentencing reform isn’t off the table just yet.

Brooke Rollins, president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which started the national Right on Crime campaign, said there’s more divisiveness around sentencing reform. “My best educated guess is that at some point that will become part of the discussion, but right now there is an encouraging [group] coalescing around prison reform.”

Rollins notes that criminal justice reform is a big issue and commended the administration for tackling it one piece at a time. “When trying to get it done all at once, you often end up with nothing,” she said. “I think this administration is smart to focus on prison reform for now.”

I share the view that an effort to get everything in one big reform bill can sometimes prevent getting any bill through the legislative process. And given that a good prison reform bill with lots of potential sentence-reduction credits could prove even more consequential for current and future federal prisoners than even broad mandatory minimum reforms, I am especially encouraged by the prospect of a prison reform bill being the first priority for Congress in the months ahead.  Of course, as with all parts of sentencing reform, the devil is in the details; I will not get to revved up about possible reform until the particulars are made public.  But this report heightens my hope that some significant federal reform may actually get done in the first part of 2018.

Recent related post:

January 24, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

An accounting of how criminal justice has changed as the folks inside the Beltway have changed

The Marshall Project has this notable new piece headlined "Trump Justice, Year One: The Demolition Derby; Here are nine ways the law-and-order president has smashed Obama’s legacy." Here is how the piece sets up its listing (readers can click through to review the particulars):

On criminal justice, Donald J. Trump’s predecessor was a late-blooming activist.  By the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, his administration had exhorted prosecutors to stop measuring success by the number of defendants sent away for the maximum, taken a hands-off approach to states legalizing marijuana and urged local courts not to punish the poor with confiscatory fines and fees.  His Justice Department intervened in cities where communities had lost trust in their police.

After a few years when he had earned the nickname "Deporter-in-Chief," Obama pivoted to refocus immigration authorities — in effect, a parallel criminal justice system — on migrants considered dangerous, and created safeguards for those brought here as children.  He visited a prison, endorsed congressional reform of mandatory minimum sentences and spoke empathetically of the Black Lives Matter movement.  He nominated judges regarded as progressives.

In less than a year, President Trump demolished Obama's legacy.

In its place, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has framed his mission as restoring the “rule of law,” which often means stiffening the spines and limiting the discretion of prosecutors, judges and law officers. And under President Trump’s “America first” mandate, being tough on crime is inextricably tied to being tough on immigration.

“I think all roads in Trump's rhetoric and Sessions’ rhetoric sort of lead to immigration,” said Ames Grawert, an attorney in the left-leaning Brennan Center’s Justice Program who has been studying the administration’s ideology.  “I think that's going to make it even harder for people trying to advance criminal justice reform because that's bound up in in the president's mind, in the attorney general's mind, as an issue that they feel very, very passionately on -- restricting immigration of all sorts.” 

Here are nine ways Trump has transformed the landscape of criminal justice, just one tumultuous year into his presidency.

January 18, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Detailing how AG Sessions seeks to block sentencing reforms in White House criminal justice reform push

Vice News has this new piece providing a little backstory on how and why the event last week at the White House was focused only on prison reform and lacked any discussion of sentencing reform.  The piece is headlined "Jared Kushner’s prison reforms hit a brick wall called Jeff Sessions," and here are excerpts:

For the past six months, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been working on a potentially bipartisan initiative: to reform the U.S. criminal justice system.  Kushner has been holding “listening sessions” to develop White House agenda on criminal justice reform, including policy recommendations such as providing incentives to companies for hiring former felons, investing in inmates once they leave prison, and perhaps most importantly, reforming sentencing laws, including mandatory minimum sentencing, a relic of the 1980s and 90s war on drugs and the focus of a three-year bipartisan reform effort in the Senate.

It all culminated in last week’s White House roundtable discussion on prison reform with President Trump, several Republican governors, and conservative activists. Except one thing was missing: sentencing reform.  Attorney General Jeff Sessions opposes reforming mandatory minimum sentencing and effectively blocked it from becoming part of the White House reform agenda, according to three people who attended meetings with White House advisors on the issue over the past few months.

“Sessions was very powerful in the Senate, but I think he’s actually more powerful now to oppose the bill,” a source familiar with White House meetings on the issue said. “He has an ability to keep in line several members on the conservative side, the DOJ would take a position on the bill, that would scare the Republicans.”

As the prison reform debate played out, Kushner expressed support for limiting mandatory minimum sentencing, according to individuals who have discussed these issues with him, aligning him with Senate Republicans on the Judiciary Committee.  But Kushner dropped the issue from the agenda in order to get Sessions to attend the roundtable discussion last week.

At the meeting Trump suggested creating more programs for job training, education, mentoring and drug addiction aimed at rehabilitation.  There was no discussion of sentencing laws. The White House did not respond to a request for clarification about the Kushner’s nor the White House’s official position on sentencing reform.

“The president directed the Attorney General to reduce violent crime in this country and he is focusing the Department’s efforts on achieving that goal. Incarceration remains necessary to improve public safety, and the effectiveness of incarceration can be enhanced by the implementation of evidence-based reentry programs,” a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said.

“They were never going to be able to get the President to say he supports sentencing reform based on what Sessions has told him,” a source familiar with the meetings said.

A majority of Republicans and Democrats support reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, which takes sentencing leeway away from judges.  Since then the federal prison population has quadrupled; more than half of all federal inmates were sentenced using mandatory minimum laws.

Meaningful sentencing reform is considered key to any reform package that could be brought to vote in the Senate.  Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Judiciary Committee Chairman, said sentencing reform is a must-have if Trump wants a bill to pass.  “Any proposal that doesn't include sentencing reform is not going to get through the committee,” a spokesman for Grassley said in an email....

In October, the Senate Judiciary Committee unveiled its latest criminal justice reform bill — the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — to eliminate many mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes.  This is not the first time Congress has tried to pass comprehensive reform.  The same bill made it out of the committee in 2015, but was never voted on due to loud opposition from a group of Republicans, including then-Senator Jeff Sessions.

I remain confident that any number of bills with sentencing reform components could get a majority of votes on the floor of the House and the Senate if leadership would bring these bills up for a vote.  But I surmise AG Sessions has enough sway with leadership (especially in the Senate) to get them to prevent a vote on any bills the AG opposes.

That all said, the kinds of prison reform being discussed and seemingly now endorsed by AG Sessions — some version of the corrections part of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act — could be a very significant type of reform that could have a positive impact for every federal offender. Sentencing reform in the form of a reduction in the length and reach of mandatory minimums would be very important in lots of ways, but these mandatories only directly impact roughly 1/4 of all new federal offenders each year and it is unclear exactly when and how any mandatory minimum sentencing reforms would be extended to the roughly 90,000 current federal drug offense prisoners. Corrections reforms that allow prisoners to earn reductions in their sentences could and likely would impact all 180,000+ current federal prisoners and all those new prisoners brought into the system every years.

Of course, we need to see the particulars of any "evidence-based reentry programs" and other prison reforms that AG Sessions can abide before being able to assess effectively who might benefit from a reform bill with only the corrections part of the reform equation.  But my main point it to highlight that the import and impact of any discussed reform always has devilish elements in the details, and a that good form of prison reform may be even better and much more consequential than a middling form of sentencing reform.

January 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Lies, damn lies and fascinating statistics in the US Sentencing Commission FY 2017 sentencing data

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission last week released its latest standard quarterly data report, and this one is extra exciting because it contains preliminary data on all cases sentenced during fiscal year 2017.  Critically, FY17 runs October 1, 2016 through September 30, 2017, so a good chunk of the data reflect a period in which Attorney General Loretta Lynch was still in charge of the Justice Department.  Still, a majority of the data reflects sentencings after Attorney General Jeff Sessions took over, and the final third of FY 2017 had all sentencings taking place after AG Sessions issued his May 2017 charging and sentencing memorandum directing federal prosecutors to more regularly seek within-guideline sentences.

I provide all this backstory largely as a prelude to highlighting how similar the USSC FY17 data look to FY16 data. I also thought it interesting to compare some of these data to FY13 and FY09, the last two Prez election year USSC data sets. (I am drawing all these data from Table 19, then Table 6 of these USSC data reports.)

USSC FY        Total Sentences (mean in month)     Drug Trafficking Sentences (mean in month)     Immigration Sentences (mean in month)

2009                81,347 (47 months)                                  23,931 (78 months)                                         25,924 (17 months)

2013                80,035 (45 months)                                  22,354 (72 months)                                         24,972 (16 months)

2016                67,740 (44 months)                                  19,231 (66 months)                                         20,052 (13 months)

2017                66,409 (45 months)                                  18,980 (70 months)                                         20,333 (12 months)

One can mine a lot more data from the FY 2017 report to tell a lot more stories about how, at least so far, formal and informal changes by AG Sessions have not yet made a dramatic impact on federal sentencing statistics.  Indeed, one might be heartened by the fact that fewer federal cases were sentenced in FY 2017 than in the last 15 years, and I think fewer federal drug trafficking sentences were imposed in FY17 than in nearly any other year in the past two decades (though the uptick in average sentence is interesting and may prompt a future post). 

Of course, these data may start looking very different in FY 2018 and beyond as new US Attorneys appointed by Prez Trump take over and their new cases make it all the way to sentencing. Still, I think it notable and interesting that the first run of federal sentencing data of the Trump Era shows a continued decline in overall sentences imposed and in drug trafficking sentences imposed.

January 17, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Notable comments by Prez Trump during meeting on prison review

I spent most of Thursday on the road, and various news stations were reporting on statements by Prez Trump others than those on the topic of prison reform. But, as this official White House page reveals, Prez Trump made some comments during a meeting that ought not be overlooked. Here are excerpts:

We’ll be discussing a number of opportunities to improve our prison system to better promote public safety and to help former prisoners reenter society as productive citizens. Very important. Very big topic. It’s become a very big topic, especially, I think, over the last 12 months or so. We’ve been focused on it very strongly.

We support our law enforcement partners, and we’re working to reduce crime and put dangerous offenders behind bars. At the same time, we want to ensure that those who enter the justice system are able to contribute to their communities after they leave prison, which is one of many very difficult subjects we’re discussing, having to do with our great country.

The vast majority of incarcerated individuals will be released at some point, and often struggle to become self-sufficient once they exit the correctional system. We have a great interest in helping them turn their lives around, get a second chance, and make our community safe. Many prisoners end up returning to crime, and they end up returning to prison. Two-thirds of the 650,000 people released from prison each year are arrested again within three years.

We can help break this vicious cycle through job training — very important, job training — mentoring, and drug addiction treatment. And you know how we’re focused on drugs pouring into our country and drug addiction. It’s a big problem even as we speak of this subject. We’ll be very tough on crime, but we will provide a ladder of opportunity to the future....

My administration is committed to helping former inmates become productive, law-abiding members of society.

This Hill article about the meeting, headlined "Trump, Kushner meet with advocates on prison reform," includes quotes from advocates and lawmakers suggesting reasons for optimism and pessimism concerning possible federal legislative reforms moving forward after this notable meeting.

January 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Press reports indicate White House listening session to be focused only on reentry issues, not sentencing reform

As noted here yesterday, there are plans for an afternoon meeting at the White House on criminal justice issues.  But, as this new Newsweek article details, it seems that sentencing reform is not going to be part of the discussion.  The article's headline provides the essentials, "Trump and Kushner's Prison Reform Plan Not Expected to Reduce Sentences or Fix Prison Conditions," and here are the details:

President Donald Trump will hold a listening session on prison reform Thursday that will focus on improving prisoner reentry – the process of preparing inmates for release–with a conservative approach, multiple people in talks with the administration told Newsweek.

The session is only expected to include politicians and religious and nonprofit leaders from the right. It is not expected to include discussion on topics like prison conditions or sentencing reform.

In attendance will be three Republican governors who instituted criminal justice reform in their states–Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia, Governor Matt Bevin of Kentucky and Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas–along with televangelist Paula White, according to Derek Cohen, the director of Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has been in discussions about conservative reentry reform methods with the Trump administration. “All the policy issues we’ve discussed with the administration have a conservative orientation,” said Cohen, who added that prison ministries are crucial to a successful release. “Faith is going to be an integral part of any reentry plan.”

The Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Trump administration have discussed cutting government regulation to make it easier for former prisoners to get jobs, Cohen said. Getting rid of restrictions that bar ex-cons from working as barbers, for example, allow inmates to more easily get a job upon release and reduce the likelihood of recidivism, he added.

Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden will also attend the meeting, which he said will be at 1:30 p.m. in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. “Our point of view at Koch is prisoner reentry needs to begin at day one of the sentence” and not “60 or 90 days out” from release, said Holden, who had also been involved in the prison reform talks that Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner began last summer. Holden added that mental health and drug treatment, along with vocational training, need to happen inside prisons so inmates are prepared for life outside when they are released.

“I’m delighted that the president has made this a priority,” said Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, which has also been in prison reform talks with the Trump administration. “I’ve been working since 1996 to help build a conservative movement in criminal justice reform, and this is a very important turning point.” Cohen and Nolan will not be at the Thursday session, but others from their organizations are attending....

Kushner’s Office of American Innovation is also working on an apprenticeship plan for released prisoners that could match inmates with employers, according to a conservative leader who has been working with the White House on the reforms, but it’s unclear whether that initiative will be announced Thursday.

Excluding organizations that are seen as liberal, like the ACLU or the NAACP, and leaving out sentencing reform was necessary to gain the support of “old guard conservatives” like U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who will also attend the meeting, the conservative leader said. “Reading the tea leaves, I think what they’ve done is sat down with Mr. Sessions and got him to agree to part of the reforms,” said the conservative leader, who requested anonymity in order to freely discuss the issue. He added that he expects White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to attend and that Housing Secretary Ben Carson and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta came to previous meetings on the issue.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment late Wednesday evening.

Recent related post:

January 11, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Interesting report of plans for Prez Trump to hold a "listening session on prison reform" this week

Axios has this notable new scoop about notable White House plans including President Trump under the headline "Scoop: Jared's policy push on prison reform."  Here are the details:

President Trump tomorrow will hold a listening session on prison reform, after six months of quiet exploration of the issue by senior adviser Jared Kushner (who turns 37 today).

Why it matters: The White House sees this as a conservative issue (save money, cut crime) that could get bipartisan support (spending for workforce development), heading into a midterm election year when it'll be even harder to get congressional accomplishments than it was last year.

  • Under the auspices of Kushner's Office of American Innovation, administration officials have met with faith-based leaders, former inmates who have been rehabilitated, conservative leaders, and experts on the issue.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions will join Thursday's session.
  • Jared and his wife, Ivanka Trump, held a dinner discussion at their home, including Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)
  • The administration is exploring possible legislative proposals and administrative actions. An early step could include a push for public awareness involving churches.
  • The issue came up during this weekend's Camp David meeting with GOP congressional leaders.

Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, a longtime champion of the issue, told me he has been impressed with Kushner's passion, and that the approach the administration is exploring "has been showed to markedly reduce recidivism."

Jared Kushner's interest and "passion" for criminal justice reform is not big or new news, but the direct involvement of President Trump and Attorney General Sessions in talks about possible federal reforms does strike me as big news. It is worth watching as the rest of this week unfolds whether and how the White House or the Prez himself speaks about this planned meeting (either before or after it takes place).  I am still not prepared to assert that significant federal statutory sentencing reform is becoming likely, but this reported meeting seems like a good and important sign.

January 10, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, January 08, 2018

Interesting comments on reform and rehabilitation from Deputy AG Rosenstein

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein today delivered these lengthy remarks at the American Correctional Association's Winter Conference.  Folks interested in prison policies and practices, as well as the messages being delivered by the US Justice Department these days, should make time to  read the entire speech.  And sentencing fans (including students in the Sentencing class I start teaching today) may be especially interested in these interesting comments about reform and rehabilitation from the early part of the speech:

The American Correctional Association has a proud history of supporting the work of prison and jail officials.  More than 147 years ago, in 1870, corrections officials from the United States and abroad met in Cincinnati, Ohio and adopted a “Declaration of Principles” they believed should guide the field of corrections.  One of your principles is that the purpose of incarcerating criminals is “the protection of society.”

One of the most important management principles is that it is essential to articulate the big-picture goal for an organization.  That vision filters down into how other managers understand their mission, and ultimately into everything that our employees do. In law enforcement, our goal is to reduce crime.

Correctional agencies play a critical role in achieving that goal.  By providing inmates with structure, and teaching them discipline and skills during their incarceration, you increase the probability that they will become productive members of society and reduce the likelihood of recidivism.

When I read the original version of your principles, I noticed that the word “reform” appears 27 times.  The word “rehabilitate” does not appear at all.  Rehabilitation came into vogue as a sentencing goal in the 20th century.  Many people ultimately concluded that rehabilitation was not a realistic goal for prisons.

After spending almost three decades in law enforcement, I agree that we need to focus on reform of criminals, not rehabilitation.  The reason is that “re-habilitation,” by definition, is about restoring a person’s good reputation and ability to work.

There are some criminals for whom rehabilitation is a reasonable goal.  They are people who lived law-abiding lives and were productive members of society, before something went wrong and caused them to go astray.

But many of the career criminals housed in our prisons unfortunately were not properly habilitated before they offended.  The criminals who were not productive members of society need reform, not rehabilitation.

Admitting that most of our inmates need reform is not a way of disparaging the criminals.  It is instead a frank way to acknowledge that our task is more than just helping them overcome a few mistakes.  Many inmates do not just lack self-restraint.  They lack job skills.  They lack education.  They lack family structure.  They lack discipline.

While they are under governmental supervision, you have the chance to help them reform by imposing discipline and offering opportunities for improvement.  The most important thing for many inmates to learn is the discipline of following a schedule: wake up at a particular time, report to work when required, eat meals at the designated hours, and go to bed early enough to start fresh the next morning.

Some of the programs you offer also may be useful to reform inmates and set them on the right path. Programs such as institutional work assignments, prison industries, substance abuse treatment, and educational or vocational training.  Your work makes our communities safer.

The principles from 1870 also codify the professionalism that defines corrections officials.  They explain that “[s]pecial training, as well as high qualities of head and heart, [are] required to make a good prison or reformatory officer.”

January 8, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 22, 2017

Reviewing the "hope and skepticism" engendered by Prez Trump's Rubashkin commutation

As reported in this prior post, Prez Trump made some minor modern clemency history by commuting the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin. This NBC News piece, headlined "Trump’s first commutation met with hope and skepticism," provides some context and commentary on this decision:

After President Donald Trump commuted the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, a former kosher meatpacking plant CEO convicted of financial fraud, prison reform advocates on Thursday immediately perked up.

Trump, they said, did something not even President Barack Obama — a strong proponent for reform — had done: commuted a sentence during his first year in office. It wasn't until 2011 when Obama — three years into his first term — commuted the sentence of a federal prisoner, although he had pardoned nine people a year before.

"I'm extremely excited about this and am very optimistic that Trump is going to surprise people," said Amy Povah, the founder of CAN-DO, a nonprofit that advocates clemency for federal prisoners convicted of drug crimes.  "I communicate with a lot of prisoners, and I guarantee you they woke up to renewed hope."

Still, the number of commutations that could roll out under the Trump administration remains unknown.  With so much at stake, some fighting for criminal justice reform are asking whether the Rubashkin case is a precursor of things to come — or just a rare one-off.  Neither the White House nor the Justice Department immediately responded to requests for comment Thursday....

Rubashkin had the support of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington for his commutation.  Notably, a push for the Obama administration to take action fell on deaf ears. That was even as Obama moved swiftly later in his final term to begin commuting sentences.  Obama granted clemency to 1,715 federal prisoners — more than any other U.S. president in history. The vast majority had been sentenced under mandatory minimum laws that were enacted in the 1980s and ’90s to address the scourge of drugs....

Kevin Ring, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said he's concerned that the bar might be set too high for inmates seeking commutations — given that Rubashkin's case was high-profile enough to attract the interest of lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.  He also questioned if certain types of prisoners — those not associated with white-collar crimes like Rubashkin — would benefit from clemency.  "Most are just families who don't wield any political influence," Ring said.....

In recent days, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has suggested Congress could tackle criminal justice reform in the next year.  That's important to Holly Harris, the executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network, a lobbying group with advocates from the left and right.

She said a bipartisan bill in the House, the Prison Reform and Redemption Act, which would allow certain prisoners to serve the end of their sentences in halfway homes or home confinement, could be a catalyst in overhauling the system.  "Voters are very well educated and realize that one-size sentencing doesn't work," Harris said.  "The president of the United States has sent a really positive signal" with the release of Rubashkin.

While Trump ran as the "law and order" candidate, his lack of specifics on the criminal justice issue, apart from how it relates to immigration and national security, could end up going beyond what Obama started and result in sweeping change, Povah added.  "We know that he's an outsider, and I don't think he always necessarily cares what's conventional," she said.  "So I kind of hope that that can benefit people."

Recent related post:

December 22, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

"President Trump Commutes Sentence of Sholom Rubashkin"!?!?!

The title of this post is the headline of this press release from the White House this evening.  Here are the details:

Today, President Donald J. Trump commuted the prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, an action encouraged by bipartisan leaders from across the political spectrum, from Nancy Pelosi to Orrin Hatch.

Mr. Rubashkin is a 57-year-old father of 10 children.  He previously ran the Iowa headquarters of a family business that was the country’s largest kosher meat-processing company.  In 2009, he was convicted of bank fraud and sentenced thereafter to 27 years in prison.  Mr. Rubashkin has now served more than 8 years of that sentence, which many have called excessive in light of its disparity with sentences imposed for similar crimes.

This action is not a Presidential pardon.  It does not vacate Mr. Rubashkin’s conviction, and it leaves in place a term of supervised release and a substantial restitution obligation, which were also part of Mr. Rubashkin’s sentence.

The President’s review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case and commutation decision were based on expressions of support from Members of Congress and a broad cross-section of the legal community. A bipartisan group of more than 100 former high-ranking and distinguished Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, prosecutors, judges, and legal scholars have expressed concerns about the evidentiary proceedings in Mr. Rubashkin’s case and the severity of his sentence.  Additionally, more than 30 current Members of Congress have written letters expressing support for review of Mr. Rubashkin’s case.

Because I have some personal history working on this case, I am not inclined to comment at great length beyond wanting to here praise President Trump for bringing some (non-political?) attention to his historic clemency powers through this grant. I also will link to some prior posts about this long-controversial case.

Some of many prior posts on the Rubashkin case:

December 20, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Does the election of Doug Jones in Alabama increase the prospects of federal statutory sentencing reform?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Marshall Project piece headlined "What the Doug Jones Election Means for Criminal Justice Reform." The subheadline of the piece, "The Alabama Democrat represents the flip-side of his predecessor," perhaps best frames the article that follows, and here are excerpts:

Last year, prospects were looking good for a bipartisan effort in Congress to overhaul federal sentencing. But after long and careful negotiations, one senator almost single-handedly torpedoed the measure: the junior Republican from Alabama, Jeff Sessions.

Sessions, of course, went on to become Attorney General, dimming hopes even further.  But Tuesday’s election of his unlikely replacement, Democrat Doug Jones, hands the seat to a former federal prosecutor who has advocated for less harsh sentencing and more alternatives to prison.  “Doug Jones was a groundbreaking voice for prosecutorial reform to end mass incarceration,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, senior counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program.  “He was one of the first prosecutors to speak out about how prosecutors can and should help reduce unnecessary incarceration.”

Jones, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, was best known as a prosecutor for securing the convictions of two former Ku Klux Klan members in the infamous 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four young black girls.  The men were convicted in 2001 and 2002.

Over the last few years, Jones, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday after his victory, has begun to openly push for changes that would give prosecutors more leeway.  He included criminal justice among his top campaign priorities, taking aim at mandatory minimum sentencing, disparities that send a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos to prison, and “three strikes” laws.  “These are bipartisan issues Democrats and Republicans agree on,” Jones told a group of Alabama State University students last month. “Try to reduce the crime, keep our communities safer and at the same time cut down the costs of the criminal justice system.”...

It’s too soon to tell what Jones’ election means for federal sentencing reform. Progress stalled under President Donald Trump, and Sessions has stayed true to his law-and-order roots, calling on U.S. Attorneys to seek the highest possible charges and rolling back a guideline that had allowed prosecutors to ignore some drug charges.  Legislators and advocates instead have focused on trying to create more re-entry programs, prison educational opportunities and job skills training.

But Jones’ election elevates one of the effort’s most vocal supporters.  Two years ago, Jones and another former federal prosecutor, James E. Johnson, and other law enforcement officials formed Law Enforcement Leaders To Reduce Crime & Incarceration, a bipartisan, reform-minded advocacy group.  Jones was among members who signed a letter supporting the effort that ultimately died in Congress....  “While I sought harsh punishments for violent offenders as U.S. attorney, not all cases require severe sentences,” Jones wrote on his website. “Judges and prosecutors should be given flexibility and be empowered to decide the fate of those before them in the justice system.”

For the time being, the prospects of any congressional federal sentencing reform rests primarily in the hands of Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Prez Donald Trump.  Senator McConnell can refuse (and so far has refused) to bring the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act up for a floor vote even though some GOP Senators have said, as noted here, the SCRA could get 70 votes in the Senate right now.   But the SCRA surely would not get 70 votes in Prez Trump were to come out vocally against it, and Senator McConnell surely will not bring it up for a floor vote if he knows doing so would be against the wishes of Prez Trump.  Those realities likely mean that the new Senate 51-49 math and the new voice of Senator-elect Jones will not in any major way directly impact the prospects for congressional federal sentencing reforms in the months ahead.

That all said, I do think the Jones victory in Alabama still has some political ripples in the arena of crime and punishment.  As he did in the gubernatorial race in Virginia, Prez Trump used his Twitter thumbs to make a "weak on crime" attack on the Democratic candidate in Alabama.  That candidate still prevailed, and did particularly well in the suburbs where it is often thought the "soft on crime" epithet is most effective (although surely other factors mattered to suburban Alabama voters earlier this week).   Including the New Jersey race for governor also decided last month, we can and should now say that in the last three significant state-wide elections, the candidate obviously more supportive of criminal justice reform prevailed.

I make these points not to assert that many political candidates are going to now view criminal justice reform advocacy as a winning political strategy, although I expect (and hope) some will.  Rather, I am making the more subtle (but important) point that no current politician or would-be candidate should any more be unduly afraid that supporting criminal justice reform could doom them in the next political cycle.  For much of the last half-century, the conventional wisdom was that any politician who could be effectively painted as soft on crime was sure to lose in the next election  (and I suspect this conventional wisdom in part accounts for why so little significant criminal justice reform was actually achieved during the Obama era).  With every significant victory by any person who calls for criminal justice reform on the campaign trail, that old conventional wisdom becomes much less conventional and much less wise.

December 14, 2017 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 01, 2017

Can, should and will AG Sessions seek a federal prosecution of Garcia Zarate after "disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case"?

Download (4)The provocative question in the title of this post is prompted by this news of a (surprising?) trial verdict in California state court in a high-profile prosecution and the immediate reactions thereto.  Here are the basics (with some emphasis added):

A jury handed a stunning acquittal on murder and manslaughter charges to a homeless undocumented immigrant whose arrest in the killing of Kate Steinle on a San Francisco Bay pier intensified a national debate over sanctuary laws.

In returning its verdict Thursday afternoon on the sixth day of deliberations, the Superior Court jury also pronounced Jose Ines Garcia Zarate not guilty of assault with a firearm, finding credence in defense attorneys’ argument that the shot that ricocheted off the concrete ground before piercing Steinle’s heart was an accident, with the gun discharging after the defendant stumbled upon it on the waterfront on July 1, 2015.

Garcia Zarate, a 45-year-old Mexican citizen who was released from County Jail before the killing despite a federal request that he be held for his sixth deportation, was convicted of a single lesser charge of being a felon in possession of a gun. He faces a sentence of 16 months, two years or three years in state prison. Garcia Zarate, who has already served well over two years in jail and gets credit for that time, will be sentenced at a date not yet determined.

The verdict set off a flurry of reactions.  Defense attorneys said the case had been overcharged, while U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions blamed the killing on San Francisco’s policy of refusing cooperation with immigration agents. Jim Steinle, who had been strolling on the pier with his daughter when she fell, told The Chronicle he was “saddened and shocked,” adding, “Justice was rendered, but it was not served.”...

President Trump, who has cited the case in his effort to build a border wall, said on Twitter, “A disgraceful verdict in the Kate Steinle case! No wonder the people of our Country are so angry with Illegal Immigration.”

Defense attorney Francisco Ugarte suggested a different lesson, saying, “From day one, this case was used as a means to foment hate, to foment division, to foment a program of mass deportation ... and I believe today is a vindication for the rights of immigrants.”...

Garcia Zarate was charged from the beginning with murder, and prosecutors gave the jury the option of convicting him of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Jurors rejected all three.

The defendant is not likely to be released again in the city. San Francisco officials have long said they will turn over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities if they obtain a warrant, and records show Garcia Zarate is being held on a U.S. Marshals Service warrant. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “will work to take custody of Mr. Garcia Zarate and ultimately remove him from the country,” Tom Homan, the agency’s deputy director, said in a statement.

Steinle, 32, had been walking with her arm around her father on Pier 14 when she was struck in the back by a single bullet. The round had skipped off the concrete ground after being fired from a pistol that had been stolen, four days earlier, from the nearby parked car of a federal ranger. Prosecutors told the jury that Garcia Zarate brought the gun to the pier that day to do harm, aimed it toward Steinle and pulled the trigger. Assistant District Attorney Diana Garcia spent much of the trial seeking to prove the pistol that killed Steinle couldn’t have fired without a firm pull of the trigger, while establishing that Garcia Zarate tossed the weapon into the bay before fleeing the scene.

Alex Bastian, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, said Thursday that prosecutors had found sufficient evidence for the charges at every step of the case. “The verdict that came in today was not the one we were hoping for, but I think it’s unequivocal that both sides gave it their all,” Bastian said. “This really is about the Steinle family. They’ve shown incredible resolve during this whole process, and our hearts go out to them.”

Defense lawyers said the shooting was an accident that happened when Garcia Zarate, who had a history of nonviolent drug crimes, found the gun wrapped in a T-shirt or cloth under his seat on the pier just seconds before it discharged in his hands. Lead attorney Matt Gonzalez said his client had never handled a gun and was scared by the noise, prompting him to fling the weapon into the bay, where a diver fished it out a day later....

During the monthlong trial, jurors watched video from Garcia Zarate’s four-hour police interrogation, in which he offered varying statements about his actions on the pier. At one point he said he had aimed at a “sea animal,” and at another point, he said the gun had been under a rag that lay on the ground near the waterfront, and that it fired when he stepped on it. Gonzalez said it was clear in the video that Garcia Zarate — who has spent much of his adult life behind bars, was living on the street before the shooting, and has a second-grade education — did not fully understand what the officers were asking him through an officer’s Spanish translation.

What primarily prompts the question in the title of this post is the possibility that the current federal administration might view the California state court acquittal of Garcia Zarate in terms comparable to the California state court acquittal of Los Angeles police officers for their beating of motorist Rodney King. (These verdicts, as well as OJ Simpson's acquittal, lead me to think Californians at least sometimes take "beyond a reasonable doubt" quite seriously.)  The outrage over that state court acquittal surely played a significant role in the decision by federal authorities to pursue federal charges against the LA officers.  Perhaps similar outrage (at least from Prez Trump) over this state court acquittal will have federal authorities thinking the same way. (And, as criminal procedure gurus know, the dual sovereignty doctrine means there is no Double Jeopardy limit on the feds pursuing parallel charges in this case.)

I highlighted the limited severity of the sentence that Garcia Zarate now faces in state court to highlight another reason why federal authorities might be inclined to take up this case. Even if the federal prosecutors were only able secure a federal conviction for felon in possession, that charge alone in federal court would carry a sentence of at least up to 10 years and might actually have a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years if Zarate's criminal history made him subject to the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA).  And, of course, the feds could and would get their usual two bites at the apple if they also charged various homicide offenses: a jury conviction of homicide charges would immediately raise the sentencing stakes, but even a jury acquittal would not preclude prosecutors from arguing to the judge that Steinle's death was critical "relevant conduct" at sentencing that should drive up his guideline range.

Last but not least, as I was typing up these thoughts, I saw this new FoxNews report headlined "DOJ weighing federal charges in Kate Steinle murder case, after not guilty verdict." Here is a snippet:

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores acknowledged Friday that the DOJ is looking at federal charges.  She suggested a possible charge could be felony re-entry or a charge pertaining to a violation of supervised release.  “We’re looking at every option and we will prosecute this to the fullest extent of the law because these cases are tragic and entirely preventable,” Flores said on “Fox & Friends” Friday.

If DOJ is really serious about "prosecut[ing] this to the fullest extent of the law," it seems to me that there are many more charges available beyond just immigration offenses (although those offenses, too, could be used to imprison Zarate for decades).

December 1, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (18)

Friday, November 17, 2017

New ACLU poll suggests significant interest in criminal justice reform

This ACLU posting, headlined "ACLU Poll Finds Americans Reject Trump’s Tough-on-Crime Approach," reports on the result of notable new poll with notable new findings. Here are excerpts from the posting:

In a rejection of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' tough-on-crime approach, a new ACLU poll finds that a large majority of Americans believe the criminal justice system is unjust and needs to be significantly reformed.

Nine out of 10 Americans from across the political spectrum told our pollster that our criminal justice system needs fixing. This is an astounding number, but the results are even more impressive when you drill down into them. They show that criminal justice reform is a political issue the American people care about....

Our polling shows that Americans are uncomfortable with the land of the free putting so many of its people behind bars, particularly when two out of three respondents do not believe that the criminal justice system treats Black people fairly. Seventy-one percent of respondents said that the United States should reduce its prison population.

This support remained strong across people with very different political beliefs. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats, 67 percent of independents, and 57 percent of Republicans all agreed that we should reduce our prison population. But one of the most encouraging signs that Americans have had enough of mass incarceration is that 52 percent of Trump voters said it was important to reduce the size of the prison population.

Most people polled also believed that mass incarceration wasn’t just a serious problem but counterproductive. Seventy-one percent of respondents agreed that “sending someone to prison for a long sentence increases the chances that he or she will commit another crime when they get out because prison doesn’t do a good job of rehabilitating problems like drug addiction and mental illness.” This includes 68 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Trump voters. Bleeding-heart liberals they are not.

Americans also don’t want their prisons full of people with mental health disabilities. Eighty-four percent of respondents said that people with mental health disabilities belong in mental health programs instead of prison.

Two in three Americans would be more likely to vote for candidates who supported reducing the prison population and using the savings to reinvest in drug treatment and mental health programs, including 65 percent of Trump voters. And 72 percent said that they would be more likely to vote for an elected official who supports eliminating mandatory minimum laws. This is in direct contrast to the agenda pushed forward by President Trump and Attorney General Session, who have supported more mandatory minimums.

The majority of Americans recognize racial bias in the criminal justice system. Fifty-five percent of Americans agree that racism in policing, prosecution, and sentencing are responsible for racial disparities in our nation’s prisons and jails....

Sixty-one percent of Americans believe that people who have committed crimes involving violence can turn their lives around. Sixty-one percent of Americans also believe that people who suffer from drug addiction and commit serious crimes don’t belong in prison but should be in rehabilitation programs where they can receive treatment. And nearly nine out of 10 respondents believe that when people with mental health disabilities commit crimes that involve violence they should be sent to mental health programs where they can receive treatment from professionals.

The full ACLU poll producing these results are available at this link.  Because of the structure of some of the questions asked in this poll, I am not entirely convinced that there is quite as much public opposition to current Trump-era "tough-on-crime" approaches as the ACLU is here asserting.  But I do think this poll provides still further evidence that the public in general is eager to hear policy-makers and political candidates discuss the opportunities and need for criminal justice reform.

November 17, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Notable crime fighting comments by Deputy AG Rosenstein in Chicago

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein delivered this lengthy speech at an awards dinner in Chicago on Thursday evening, and it included a number of interesting passages about crime fighting. I recommend the speech in full, and here are a few passages I thought especially worth highlighting:

In the first few decades after its creation in 1919, the Chicago Crime Commission battled bootleggers, gangs, and public corruption. It famously named Al Capone as Public Enemy Number One, which inspired the FBI to create its Ten Most Wanted List.

The challenges Chicago faces today demand a similar approach. In 2016, more than 4,300 Chicagoans were shot, and 760 were killed. On average, one person was shot every two hours, and two people were killed every day.  This year, with more than 600 homicides so far, Chicago is on track to report the second-highest murder total this century....

Gang violence accounts for the majority of the shootings and killings. Most of the violence relates to drug trafficking. Gang members do not just kill each other. T he also murder innocent bystanders -- men, women, and even children.

I mentioned earlier that I have a particular interest in a Chicago case from almost a century ago. It arose following the most notorious Chicago gang murder in history, known as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  In 1929, seven victims were lined up against a wall and shot with machine guns.  The sensational crime shocked the city and provoked a public outcry to crack down on crime....

So Eliot Ness and his allies sent Capone to prison for a more readily provable crime -- tax evasion. Attorney General Robert Kennedy adopted a similar approach in 1961, when he counseled agents to fight organized crime with all available tools, even if it required prosecuting gangsters for minor offenses. In this century, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered prosecutors to disrupt terrorist plots by pursuing any lawful charges to put suspects behind bars before they carry out their murderous plans.

The lesson of Ness, Kennedy and Ashcroft informs my approach to violent crime.  The lesson is that if we really want to save lives, we must have the courage to order our law enforcement agencies to employ proactive policing. To prevent crime, you need to identify killers and remove them from the community before they strike again.

I support education, job-training, rehabilitation, and other efforts to teach people not to commit crimes. But for police and prosecutors, our unique power is the ability to send people to prison.  The challenge is to focus on the right people and to make it count.  Local police agencies spend much of their time reacting to emergency calls and investigating past crimes, but they convict only a fraction of the perpetrators.

During my briefings with the leaders of the Chicago Police Department this morning, I learned that Chicago is now working to drive down violent crime through proactive policing.  We know that proactive policing works.  Proactive police and prosecutors identify violent repeat offenders, then they commit the resources needed to gather evidence of any readily prosecutable crimes.

Targeting dangerous repeat offenders for proactive enforcement is not a "zero tolerance" strategy of arresting random people for minor offenses.  It is a thoughtful strategy of identifying the career criminals and gangs that are fomenting violence in our communities, and using constitutional policing to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate them....

The lesson is that deterrence requires enforcement and rules that matter to criminals are the ones that carry expected penalties the criminals are unwilling to pay.  Deterrence is about fear of consequences. We want criminals to fear the police and the consequences of committing crimes.  If dangerous criminals are not afraid, then law-abiding citizens are in jeopardy.

When we see a surge in violent crime that follows a dramatic disruption in policing, as happened in Baltimore and Chicago, it is obvious that there is a lapse in the deterrent effect of law enforcement.  The debate about what caused the recent lapse in deterrence will endure, as will efforts to remedy root causes and improve relationships between police officers and residents of crime-ridden neighborhoods.

In the meantime, the crime surge can be suppressed if law enforcement agencies work together to secure lengthy sentences for armed felons, build proactive drug and conspiracy cases against members of gangs that foment violence, and prosecute dangerous offenders who violate probation or parole conditions.  I saw that approach work in Baltimore from 2007 to 2014. Both shootings and arrests fell dramatically.  It can work again....

Unfortunately, some people will not act good.  The national violent crime rate rose nearly seven percent over the past two years. The homicide rate increased more than 20 percent. Proactive policing can help reverse that trend....

The Attorney General also announced the creation of the National Public Safety Partnership to combat violent crime, and we hosted a National Summit on Crime Reduction and Public Safety.  The Attorney General established a new charging policy that authorizes prosecutors to charge defendants with the most serious offense.  It is not really a new policy; it is a return to the policy that worked when crime was falling....

We also are hiring additional federal prosecutors to focus on violent crime.  More police officers will patrol the streets with COPS hiring grants.  The Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Forces helps implement a National Gang Strategy Initiative.  We offer training and technical assistance to state and local partners, and we collaborate with local law enforcement and exchange best practices.

There are many other things that we do to help reduce crime, but I want to conclude by talking about one of the most important.  We fight crime by promoting respect for the police. We need police to serve as role models.  Contacts with the police create indelible memories in the minds of citizens.  Police have a special responsibility to follow ethical and professional standards.  And citizens should show respect for law enforcement.  There is no excuse for people to harass law enforcement officers....

Chicago Police are still burdened by the requirement that they spend up to 45 minutes filling out a form every time they make a routine investigative stop. People who impose those requirements may be well-intentioned, but they usually fail to weigh the benefit of more bureaucracy against the cost of human lives lost to criminals who now are not stopped.

Fortunately, Superintendent Johnson’s police commanders are working to overcome their hurdles and give officers the tools and support they need to fight crime. Those tools include crime cameras, crime-mapping and predicting patrolling. I saw those tools demonstrated this morning at the Chicago Police Department’s Seventh District, where Commander Kenny Johnson and his crime analysts hold daily strategy meetings to decide where to assign patrol officers. They also run weekly shooting reviews attended by both state and federal prosecutors.

I also learned this morning that Chicago police data reports show that drug arrests lead to violent crime reductions. The most important single variable that reduces shootings in Chicago is to make a drug arrests. That is just a fact. As John Adams famously said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of the facts and evidence.”

It is good to see police leaders who are stubborn about facts.  Superintendent Johnson’s police officers do not mindlessly make mass drug arrests.  They arrest drug dealers who disrupt neighborhoods and foment violence.  They do exactly what Ness, Kennedy and Ashcroft did.

There are many notable aspects to this full speech, but I find especially interesting that the Deputy AG (1) references the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre without noting its link to alcohol Prohibition, (2) states that most of Chicago's violence relates to drug trafficking, and (3) asserts drug arrests lead to violent crime reductions.

November 16, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Prez Trump promises "crime will be gone" if Virginians elect the right governor

The politics of crime and punishment are always notable, and the President of the United States today through Twitter added to this always dynamic tale.  Specifically, in this 2017 Election Day tweet, Prez Trump makes a bold claim (with my emphasis added) about the impact of the GOP candidate for Gov in Virginia: "EdWGillespie will totally turn around the high crime and poor economic performance of VA. MS-13 and crime will be gone."  Wow, that is quite a promise, and one I do not recall Prez Trump even making for his own tenure in office.

This new Washington Post article, headlined "Trump plays ‘crime’ card for Virginia GOP as bitter race for governor highlights political rifts," provides more of the context and contents of the President's tweets in this arena. Here is how the article starts:

President Trump weighed in on Virginia’s hotly contested race for governor Tuesday, underscoring the importance of an election seen as a test of his popularity and its possible impact on state-level politics around the country.

Trump urged voters to support Republican Ed Gillespie over Democrat Ralph Northam, the state’s sitting lieutenant governor. Gillespie, a longtime establishment Republican, has embraced the culturally divisive aspects of Trump’s agenda, while Northam has presented himself as a bulwark against Trump.

“Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia,” Trump wrote on Twitter, echoing Gillespie ads tying Northam to violence committed by the gang MS-13. If the Republican wins, Trump said, “MS-13 and crime will be gone.”

Polls show Gillespie and Northam are running neck and neck. They are competing to replace Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is prevented by state law from seeking a second consecutive term.

November 7, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)