Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war

Regular readers know I am always interested in Senator Rand Paul's distinctive perspective on criminal justice issues.  This new Time op-ed, headlined "The Politicians Are To Blame in Ferguson," has Senator Paul touching on broader themes as he connects recent events in Ferguson with his belief in the need for systemic reforms to the US criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:

We are witnessing a tragedy in Ferguson. This city in Missouri has become a focal point for so much. The President and the late Michael Brown’s family have called for peace. I join their calls for peaceful protest, but also reiterate their call to action — “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change.”

In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians. Michael Brown’s death and the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate something is wrong with criminal justice in America.  The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.

In Ferguson, the precipitating crime was not drugs, but theft.  But the War on Drugs has created a tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy.  One need only witness the baby in Georgia, who had a concussive grenade explode in her face during a late-night, no-knock drug raid (in which no drugs were found) to understand the feelings of many minorities — the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.

Three out of four people in jail for drugs are people of color.  In the African American community, folks rightly ask why are our sons disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and maimed?

African Americans perceive as true that their kids are more likely to be killed.  ProPublica examined 33 years of FBI data on police shootings, accounted for the racial make-up of the country, and determined that: “Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts — 21 times greater.”

Can some of the disparity be blamed on a higher rate of crime in the black community? Yes, but there is a gnawing feeling that simply being black in a high-crime area increases your risk for a deadly altercation with police.

Does bad behavior account for some of the interactions with law enforcement?  Yes, but surely there must be ways that we can work to prevent the violence from escalating....

Reforming criminal justice to make it racially blind is imperative, but that won’t lift up these young men from poverty.  In fact, I don’t believe any law will.  For too long, we’ve attached some mythic notion to government solutions and yet, 40 years after we began the War on Poverty, poverty still abounds.,,,

This message is not a racial one.  The link between poverty, lack of education, and children outside of marriage is staggering and cuts across all racial groups.  Statistics uniformly show that waiting to have children in marriage and obtaining an education are an invaluable part of escaping poverty....

I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing.  I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion.  I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences.  But my hope is that out of tragedy, a preacher or teacher will arise — one who motivates and inspires all of us to discover traits, ambitions, and moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair.

I will continue the fight to reform our nation’s criminal justice system, but in the meantime, the call should go out for a charismatic leader, not a politician, to preach a gospel of hope and prosperity.  I have said often America is in need of a revival.  Part of that is spiritual.  Part of that is in civics, in our leaders, in our institutions. We must look at policies, ideas, and attitudes that have failed us and we must demand better.

November 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, November 24, 2014

USSC Chair's discussion of "A Generational Shift for Drug Sentences" now in print

I noticed via the US Sentencing Commission's official website that Chief Judge Patti Saris, Chair of United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judge, has now in print this law review article titled “A Generational Shift For Drug Sentences.” The article is based on a like-titled speech given by Judge Saris noted here earlier this year, and here is a snippet from the article's introduction:

It has been a generation since the laws governing federal drug sentences were put into place. Since the 1980s, our society, our attitudes, and our criminal justice system have evolved.  The Supreme Court case law, the statutes and United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”), and the realities on the ground have changed significantly. With the benefit of experience and new thought, many are considering whether a change — a generational shift — in our approach to federal drug sentences is appropriate....

This article focuses on policies regarding drug offenders and drug penalties as one means to effect change in the federal prison populations and costs.  Drug offenders make up about a third of the offenders sentenced federally every year and a majority of the prisoners serving in the federal Bureau of Prisons, so they are in many ways the key to the size and nature of the federal prison population.  This article has four parts: Part I explores the history of the current mandatory minimum drug penalties, the Sentencing Commission, and the federal drug sentencing guidelines; Part II examines criminal justice system shifts over the past thirty years; Part III identifies what changes can be made by Congress and elsewhere to address the burgeoning federal prison population; and Part IV explains the Commission’s significant amendments in 2014 to reduce drug guideline sentences.

November 24, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

It has been a few weeks since I have done a round up of notable new posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, so here goes: 

November 19, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Marshall Project gets AG Holder to talk about his criminal justice reform work

I am pleased to see that The Marshall Project is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. Though I am concerned that this notable criminal justice media project, like some others, may end up focusing too much attention on the death penalty, it seems clear that The Marshall Project is going to have lots of material that sentencing fans will want to follow regularly.

Most notably today, The Marhsall Project has posted this exclusive interview with outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. The piece is headlined "Eric Holder on His Legacy, His Regrets, and His Feelings About the Death Penalty," though I consider the discussion about drug sentencing reform to be most interesting. The piece is a must-read, and here is how it gets started:

The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?

Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.

And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.

[MP]: And the biggest disappointment?

Holder: I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.

[MP]: Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?

Holder: That is something that I know the president believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a drug court in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the president, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term.

November 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 14, 2014

Over lengthy dissents, en banc Eleventh Circuit shuts 2255 door to claims based on advisory guideline misapplication

The Eleventh Circuit has today provided some special weekend reading for hard-core federal sentencing fans with a special interest in finality issues (which, I realize, might be a small group).  Specifically, the en banc ruling together with dissents in Spencer v. US, No. 10-10676 (11th Cir. Nov. 14, 2014) (available here), runs more than 100 pages. More than three-quarters of those pages come from the dissents to a majority opinion (per Judge William Pryor) that begins this way:

This appeal concerns whether a federal prisoner may relitigate an alleged misapplication of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines in a collateral attack on a final sentence.  After he pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and we affirmed the judgment against him, Kevin Spencer moved to vacate his sentence of imprisonment, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, for an alleged error in the application of the advisory guidelines. Spencer argues that an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008), makes clear that the district court and this Court erroneously classified him as a “career offender” based on a prior conviction for felony child abuse, which he argues is not a “crime of violence.”  United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1 (Nov. 2006).  Spencer maintains that this alleged error represents a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice,” Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S. Ct. 468, 471 (1962), that can be revisited on collateral review.  We disagree.

Spencer cannot collaterally attack his sentence based on a misapplication of the advisory guidelines.  Spencer’s sentence falls below the statutory maximum, and his prior conviction for felony child abuse has not been vacated. Spencer’s sentence was and remains lawful.  We affirm the denial of Spencer’s motion to vacate his sentence.

At the very end of a very long week, I cannot do justice to the majority opinios or the dissents in this space, so I will close by quoting from the start of one of the dissents (per Judge Jordan) to highlight the human story at the center of the legal debate in Spencer:

At the end of the day, what constitutes a fundamental defect resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice comes down to a matter of considered judgment.  In my judgment, having an individual serve an additional 81 months in prison due to an erroneous career offender designation under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines constitutes such a miscarriage of justice, and for that reason I respectfully dissent.

Kevin Spencer is serving more than 12 years in prison (151 months to be exact) for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine.  The panel found, see Spencer v. United States, 727 F.3d 1076, 1100 (11th Cir. 2013), the government now concedes, see En Banc Brief for the United States at 57-58, and the majority does not dispute, that Mr. Spencer’s mistaken career offender designation more than doubled his advisory sentencing range from 70-87 months to 151-188 months.  For those of us familiar with — and sometimes numbed by — the ranges produced by application of the Sentencing Guidelines, it may be easy to overlook the dramatic increase resulting from the error.  To put it in perspective, the 81-month increase is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school.

Mr. Spencer timely and consistently objected to the career offender designation, only to be told he was wrong.  As it turns out, he was right.  Unfortunately, the majority now rules that Mr. Spencer cannot use 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to correct the error.

November 14, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Federal judge wonders if marijuana sentencing should be impacted by state reforms

As reported in this Oregonian article, a "federal judge in Portland last week delayed the sentencing of a convicted bulk marijuana runner from Texas, saying he needed to get a better read on the U.S. Department of Justice's position on the drug before imposing a sentence." Here are more details:

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman, presiding on Thursday in the case of U.S. v. Bounlith "Bong" Bouasykeo, asked lawyers if the vote in Oregon and a similar vote in Washington, D.C., signal "a shift in the attitude of people generally towards marijuana."

"I guess I'm curious whether I ought to slow this down a little bit," he asked lawyers, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Oregonian. Under federal law, marijuana in any form or amount remains illegal.

Mosman wondered aloud if there was any move afoot to take a different position on marijuana enforcement in Oregon. This was not to suggest – he hastened to add – that he agreed on marijuana legalization. The judge wondered whether his position on sentencing ought to move a notch in the defendant's favor because of the nation's evolving view of pot.

"I'm not suggesting that what's on the table is that the whole case ought to go away or anything like that," the judge said. "But would something like that at the margins have some sort of impact on my sentencing considerations? I think I ought to take into account any evolving or shifting views of the executive branch in determining the seriousness of the crime?

"Should I delay this, in your view, or go ahead today (with sentencing)?" After hearing arguments from the lawyers, Mosman decided to delay Bouasykeo's punishment.

November 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 06, 2014

"After the Cheering Stopped: Decriminalization and Legalism's Limits"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely paper by Wayne Logan which I just saw on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

To the great relief of many, American criminal law, long known for its harshness and expansive prohibitory reach, is now showing signs of softening. A prime example of this shift is seen in the proliferation of laws decriminalizing the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana: today, almost twenty states and dozens of localities have embraced decriminalization in some shape or form, with more laws very likely coming to fruition soon.

Despite enjoying broad political support, the decriminalization movement has however failed to curb a core feature of criminalization: police authority to arrest individuals suspected of possessing marijuana. Arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed in number in recent years, including within decriminalization jurisdictions. This essay examines the chief reasons behind this disconnect, centering on powerful institutional incentives among police to continue to make arrests, enabled by judicial doctrine that predates the recent shift toward decriminalization. The essay also identifies ways to help ensure that laws decriminalizing simple marijuana possession, as well as other low-level offenses, better achieve decriminalization’s goal of limiting the arrest authority of police and the many negative personal consequences of arrest.

November 6, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

California sentencing reform initiative Prop 47 wins big getting almost 60% support

As repoted in this Huffinton Post piece, "California approved a major shift against mass incarceration on Tuesday in a vote that could lead to the release of thousands of state prisoners."  Here are the basics from a piece headlined "California Voters Deal Blow To Prisons, Drug War":

Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession will be downgraded to misdemeanors under the ballot measure, Proposition 47.  As many as 10,000 people could be eligible for early release from state prisons, and it's expected that courts will annually dispense around 40,000 fewer felony convictions.

The state Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the new measure will save hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons.  That money is to be redirected to education, mental health and addiction services -- a novel approach that reformers hope will serve as a model in the larger push against mass incarceration.

This official webpage with California ballot measure voting results reports that Prop 47 received 58.5% of votes in support. This big margin of victory strikes me as big news that can and should further propel the political narrative that, at least in some places, significant numbers of voters are significantly interested in significant sentencing reform.

November 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

US District Judge Kopf reports on retroactive implementation of new reduced federal drug guidelines in Nebraska

As noted in this post from last week, the start of November2014  marked the official start for the new reduced federal guidelines for drug offenses put in place by guideline Amendment 782.  At his great blog, US District Judge Richard Kopf has this lengthy new post on the practicalities of implementing the Amendment's retroactivity in his district.   I recommend the whole post, from which these excerpts are drawn:

I will take a moment to describe the implementation of Amendment 782 in the District of Nebraska.  We are a small district with a large criminal case load, especially including drug cases.  As of June 30, 2014, on a per-judge basis, we ranked seventh in the nation and first in the Eighth Circuit for criminal cases. Indeed, Amendment 782 may impact over 700 offenders previously sentenced in our court.  Behind the scenes, the implementation of Amendment 782 has had a huge impact on us as we try to fully and fairly implement this important retroactive change to the Guidelines.

With 700 offenders potentially eligible for a sentencing reduction, our district decided that every potentially eligible offender would have his or her case individually scrutinized whether or not a motion had been filed and that every such offender would have a lawyer.  After conferring with the United States Attorney, the Federal Public Defender and our probation office, we issued general (standing) orders....

Four people are responsible for superintending the implementation of Amendment 782: two very senior United States Probation officers who are experts in the Guidelines; the head of the drug prosecution unit of the US Attorney’s office; and the Federal Public Defender.  They have cooperated nicely, and have established internal operating protocols between them.  After the Clerk’s office tracked down the whereabouts of each of the 700 or so offenders through the Bureau of Prisons (a huge task), the group of four sensibly decided upon a “triage” plan.  Offenders who are eligible for release on the earliest possible date (November 1, 2015), get attention first.  Offenders who are eligible later receive attention later.

Ultimately, the Federal Public Defender, or one of his assistants or a Criminal Justice Act panel lawyer, will file a motion for relief when the group of four decide that the time is right.  A probation officer will submit and file as a restricted document a worksheet that includes a calculation under Amendment 782 and the Guidelines.  That worksheet will also include a report on the offender’s institutional adjustment and the probation officer’s recommendation about whether relief should be granted....

After the motion is filed, and the worksheet is submitted, the prosecutor and defense lawyer will confer and in most cases a stipulation will be reached.  Assuming a stipulation is reached, it will be filed.  After that, and without a hearing, relief will normally be granted.  If no stipulation can be reached, then in my cases a hearing will be held.

It is possible that a judge might tentatively conclude not to follow a stipulation. While I cannot speak for the other judges, in my cases, I will hold a hearing to give the parties an opportunity to be heard.  Whether or not the defendant will be present at such a hearing has yet to be determined by me.  In the past, if a dispute of fact arose and the offender could be expected to have unique knowledge of the facts, I have not hesitated to give the offender an opportunity to appear and testify.  It is probable that I will follow the same approach for Amendment 782 factual disputes where the testimony of the offender is critical to the fair resolution of the matter.  However, in the huge majority of cases, this will not be necessary.

In summary, the equitable and effective implementation of Amendment 782 requires a lot of “behind the scenes” work.  We are fortunate to have the cooperative, but always zealous, assistance of prosecutors and defense lawyers, aided by a probation office that is second to none.

November 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Will Election 2014 speed up or slow down the marijuana reform movement?

This new Quartz piece, headlined "However the US votes on marijuana today, it’s 2016 that really matters," highlights that the marijuana reform movement will march on even if voters this election cycle reject various reform initiatives now on the ballot: 

There are three marijuana ballot initiatives in today’s midterm elections — in Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC — where voters will decide on outright legalization of recreational marijuana.  In a fourth ballot, in Florida, voters will vote on a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution, which would legalize medical marijuana.  Initiative 71 in the nation’s capital is the only ballot that looks certain to pass. The remaining three are expected to go down to the wire.

While passage of these ballots could potentially signal growing momentum for the pro-marijuana legalization movement nationally, marijuana advocates are looking to the 2016 general elections as a more accurate barometer of where they stand within the American cultural and political mainstream.  The reason being is that more younger and minority voters — groups who polls show support marijuana legalization in higher numbers — vote during quadrennial general elections, while the electorate tends to be older and more conservative in the midterms.

At least five US states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — will hold ballot initiatives in 2016.  And the diverse political makeup of those states, from the conservative battleground of Arizona to the liberal hotbed of Massachusetts, means that success at the ballot box would show that legalization spans the political and ideological spectrum, says Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project.  “Whatever happens Tuesday, we don’t see a step backwards for the movement going into 2016,” Tvert tells Quartz.  “Public opinion is on our side, it is only going in one direction, and that is toward an end to marijuana prohibition in this country.”

Though it is a near certainty that marijuana reform issues will be an even bigger part of the political conversation in 2016 than in 2014, I expect the final voting results in Alaska, Florida, Oregon and Washington DC will have a huge impact on the tenor and tenacity of those advocate pushing for and resisting reform. If most of the reform initiatives pass in this year, advocates for reform will be able to continue a narrative of legalization's inevitability it will become every harder for serious candidates for state and federal offices to avoid discussing this issue. But if all of these initiatives fail, opponents of reform can and will assert that the voters are already starting to turn away from supporting legalization now that they are seeing what it really means in a few states.

Over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, I have completed this series of posts on the dynamics in play in the three states with big reform initiative on the ballot:

November 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, November 03, 2014

Arguing for releasing all drug prisoners and reparations to "right the drug war’s wrongs"

Lucy Steigerwald has this provocative new Washington Post blog/commentary piece headlined "Sentencing reform and how to right the drug war’s wrongs." Here are excerpts:

On November 1, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s plan to reform sentencing for certain drug crimes went into effect. The details were hammered out back in April and July, and they could have been challenged by Congress. Thankfully, Congress declined to do so, and now the commission has a chance at helping nearly half of the 100,000 inmates in federal prison come home earlier than they otherwise would have.

For decades, the war on drugs rolled onward, leaving a pulpy mass of casualties in its wake. But since at least 2012, when Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use of marijuana, there has been some serious strides against this dangerous domestic policy. Generally, however, any progress made on drugs has been confined to changing the legality of substances....

Even the tentative, good-but-not-good-enough Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine in 2010, was initially not retroactive until the USSC voted to make it so.... The USSC is doing something more substantial still with their new guidelines, which allow for retroactive petitioning for reduced time in prison starting in November 2015. Prisoners may begin petitioning for these reductions now, however. Unfortunately, those sentences cannot fall below the mandatory minimums, which can only be changed by Congress. Ideally, the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory minimums, will be eventually signed into law, allowing for some of the damages wrought by these mandatory sentences to be mitigated.

In addition, even though the sentencing reforms help the federal prison population, we are very far from instituting anything as optimistic on a statewide level. Most of the some-400,000 state prisoners in jail on drug-related crimes are out of luck unless they get individual commuting of their sentences.

As the war on drugs loses popularity, the question of what to do about the lives ruined and interrupted is going to come up again and again. One of the more fascinating, though politically unrealistic suggestions for what to do about this mess is one offered by a Green Party candidate for governor of New York: Howie Hawkins suggests releasing all drug prisoners, and putting together a “panel on reconciliation” between them and their communities and governments. They want voting rights restored, school grants restored, help for children of the former cons, and prevention of would-be employers asking about criminal histories. They even suggest full-on reparations for “the communities affected.”

This won’t pass muster, probably not even in the most liberal states. The slow reforms being offered by the USSC, and criminal justice advocates like Sen. Paul might be all we get. But the reparations idea does present a question of what society should do after the madness of a moral panic dims, and the end result turns out to be 2.3 million people in prison or jail. Most people wouldn’t object to a payment to any of the 147 people freed from death row, especially those who turned out to be unequivocally innocent. What happens when we realize that neither possessing nor selling drugs is a real criminal act? Doesn’t that suggest that we have a lot of innocent people in prison who will need a lot of help in restarting their lives?

November 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Narcotics Prosecutors as Problem Solvers"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing little new piece by Mark Osler now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

When deciding whether and how to pursue narcotics cases, federal prosecutors should focus not on number of convictions or quantity of drugs intercepted, but rather on whether they are solving problems through the cases they choose.  He first examines federal prosecutors' extremely broad discretion in selecting narcotics defendants and charges, as well as some of the negative effects of the failure to employ a "problem solving" rubric in the war on drugs to date.  He then suggests a number of changes that such a rubric would bring to the way narcotics cases are pursued, including a change in the proxy that prosecutors use for defendant culpability from drug quantity to drug profits.

November 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, October 31, 2014

New reduced federal drug sentencing guidelines about to become official

Hard core federal sentencing nerds know that November 1 is a special day because it is the official date on which any proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines proposed by the US Sentencing Commission become official in the absence of congressional rejection thereof.  Tomorrow, November 1, 2014, is especially notable because it will make official the most significant and consequential reduction in guideline sentencing ranges in history.  This USSC press release, which includes a statement from the chair of the USSC, provides background context for why this is such a big deal: 

[Background:] The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch charged with setting federal sentencing guidelines, voted unanimously in April to reduce sentencing guidelines levels for most drug trafficking offenses and voted unanimously again in July to make that change retroactive.  Because Congress has not acted to disapprove the Commission’s actions, the amendment becomes effective tomorrow.  Offenders sentenced after tomorrow will be sentenced under the new, reduced guidelines, and current prisoners may begin petitioning courts for sentence reductions based on retroactive application of the reduced guidelines. Prisoners can have their sentences reduced if courts determine that they are eligible and a reduction is appropriate, and they may not be released pursuant to such reductions before November 1, 2015.

[Comment by USSC Chair Patti Saris:] “The reduction in drug guidelines that becomes effective tomorrow represents a significant step toward the goal the Commission has prioritized of reducing federal prison costs and overcrowding without endangering public safety.  Commissioners worked together to develop an approach that advances the causes of fairness, justice, fiscal responsibility, and public safety, and I am very pleased that we were able to agree unanimously on this reasonable solution.  I am also gratified that Congress permitted this important reform to go forward.

This amendment is an important start toward addressing the problem of over-incarceration at the federal level. Commission researchers estimate that applying the amendment going forward may reduce the prison population by 6,500 in five years and far more over time, while more than 46,000 current prisoners could be eligible to have their sentences reduced by retroactive application of the amendment.  Still, only Congress can act to fully solve the crisis in federal prison budgets and populations and address the many systemic problems the Commission has found resulting from mandatory minimum penalties.  I hope that Congress will act promptly to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation.”

October 31, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, October 27, 2014

Notable new Cato working paper examines "Marijuana Policy in Colorado"

Dr. Jeffrey Miron, who is director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, has just produced this significant new Cato working paper titled "Marijuana Policy in Colorado."  The paper is relatively short, though it includes lots of data, and here is its Executive Summary and its closing paragraphs:

In November 2012, voters in the states of Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives that legalized marijuana for recreational purposes.  Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia are scheduled to consider similar measures in the fall of 2014, and other states may follow suit in the fall of 2016.

Supporters and opponents of such initiatives make numerous claims about state-level marijuana legalization.  Advocates believe legalization reduces crime, raises revenue, lowers criminal justice expenditure, improves public health, improves traffic safety, and stimulates the economy.  Critics believe legalization spurs marijuana use, increases crime, diminishes traffic safety, harms public health, and lowers teen educational achievement.  Systematic evaluation of these claims, however, has been absent.

This paper provides a preliminary assessment of marijuana legalization and related policies in Colorado.  It is the first part of a longer-term project that will monitor state marijuana legalizations in Colorado, Washington, and other states.

The conclusion from this initial evaluation is that changes in Colorado’s marijuana policy have had minimal impact on marijuana use and the outcomes sometimes associated with use.  Colorado has collected non-trivial tax revenue from legal marijuana, but so far less than anticipated by legalization advocates....

The evidence provided here suggests that marijuana policy changes in Colorado have had minimal impact on marijuana use and the outcomes sometimes associated with use.  This does not prove that other legalizing states will experience similar results, nor that the absence of major effects will continue.  Such conclusions must await additional evidence from Colorado, Washington, and future legalizing states, as well as more statistically robust analyses that use non-legalizing states as controls.

But the evidence here indicates that strong claims about Colorado’s legalization, whether by advocates or opponents, are so far devoid of empirical support.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

October 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, October 24, 2014

Election season round-up of posts on pot politics from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

For various reasons and in various ways, I find the politics of modern marijuana reform even more interesting than its policies and practicalities. Consequently, a number of my recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform have focused on political developments and discourse in those states with significant reform proposals on the ballot in 2014.  As this election season now kicks into its final stretch, I thought it useful to collect some of these posts in this space:

As time and energy permits, I am hoping soon to start a series of posts on pot politics circa 2014 over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform  in order to explain why I think the results of this election season in a Alaska, Florida and Oregon are likely to have a huge impact on marijuana policy and national politics in the coming years.

October 24, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Does new DOJ appointee want to decriminalize all drug possession ... and would that be so bad?

The questions posed by the title of this post are prompted by this recent commentary authored by Cully Stimson and titled "The New Civil Rights Division Head Wants to Decriminalize Possession of All Drugs." Here are excerpts:

So who supports decriminalizing cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, ecstasy and all dangerous drugs, including marijuana? No, it’s not your teenage nephew. It’s President Obama’s new acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta. In 2012, Gupta wrote that “states should decriminalize simple possession of all drugs, particularly marijuana, and for small amounts of other drugs.” (Emphasis mine).

Last week, President Obama appointed Vanita Gupta to the position of acting head. According to the Washington Post, the administration plans to nominate her in the next few months to become the permanent assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. Her views on sentencing reform – a bi-partisan effort in recent years – have earned her qualified kudos from some conservatives. But her radical views on drug policy – including her opinion that states should decriminalize possession of all drugs (cocaine, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana etc.) should damper that support of those conservatives, and raise serious concerns on Capitol Hill....

To begin, she believes that the misnamed war on drugs “is an atrocity and that it must be stopped.” She has written that the war on drugs has been a “war on communities of color” and that the “racial disparities are staggering.” As the reliably-liberal Huffington Post proclaimed, she would be one of the most liberal nominees in the Obama administration.

Throughout her career, 39-year old Gupta has focused mainly on two things related to the criminal justice system: first, what she terms draconian “mass incarceration,” which has resulted in a “bloated prison population, and second, the war on drugs and what she believes are its perceived failures.

She is particularly open about her support for marijuana legalization, arguing in a recent CNN.com op-ed that the “solution is clear: …states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.”...

But Gupta does not stop with marijuana. In calling for all drugs to be decriminalized – essentially legalizing all dangerous drugs – Gupta displays a gross lack of understanding of the intrinsic dangers of these drugs when consumed in any quantity.

Heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and methanqualone are Schedule I drugs, which are defined as “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Cocaine, methamphetamine, Demerol and other drugs are Schedule II drugs, defined as “drugs with a high potential for abuse…with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.”

Sound public policy must be based on facts, not radical unsafe, and dangerous theories.

I concur 100% with the statement at the end of this commentary that "sound public policy must be based on facts," and that it why I am more than a bit troubled that this commentary quite false asserts that Gupta's seemingly reasonable suggestion that persons should not be deemed criminals for possessing a small amount of a narcotic is tantamount to advocacy for "legalizing all dangerous drugs."

The term "decriminalize" in this context means to treat in a less-serious regulatory manner like we treat traffic offenses. Nobody would assert that we have "essentially legalized" all speeding and other traffic offenses because we only respond to the offense with fines and limited criminal sanctions. Likewise, advocacy for decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts of drugs is not the equivalent of endorsing a fully legalized marketplace for drugs comparable to what we are seeing in a few states now with marijuana.

That all said, I think Vanita Gupta's suggestion that states decriminalize simple possession of drugs as a way to de-escalate the drug war, as well as Cully Stimson's obvious concerns with such a suggestion, are very legitimate issues for engaged political and public policy debate.  (For the record, I would generally support most state drug-decriminalization efforts, though I also would generally advocate that criminal sanctions kick in based on possession of larger dealer-size quantities of certain drugs.)   I am pleased to see this commentary, even in a effort to assail a new DOJ nominee, start to bring overdue attention to these important modern drug-war issues.  But I hope in the future Mr. Stimson and others will make and understand the important distinction between advocating for decriminalization and advocating for full legalization.

October 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, October 20, 2014

New top Justice in Massachusetts urges repeal of mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders

Download (2)I just came across this notable Boston Globe article discussing this notable speech delivered late last week by the new Chief Justice of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.  Here is how the Globe article starts:

The head of the state’s highest court called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders on Thursday, saying they interfere with judges’ discretion, disproportionately affect minorities, and fail to rehabilitate offenders.  

Citing the opioid-addiction crisis, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said the state needs to find better ways to treat addicts than sending them to jail. In 2013, 674 people died of opioid overdoses, compared with 338 in 2000.  “To those who favor the status quo in the so-called war on drugs, I ask: How well is the status quo working?” Gants said.

Gants, selected as chief justice by Governor Deval Patrick, called on the Legislature to pass laws to abolish mandatory sentencing.  His remarks, in his first State of the Judiciary speech, were part of a call for broader changes in the court system.  “We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism,” he said.

Sworn in just 80 days ago, Gants said he will convene a group of judges, probation offices, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to study best practices to ensure what he called “individualized, evidence-based sentences.”  That means considering mental health or substance abuse treatment as well as time in prison.  Mandatory minimum sentences are automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes, limiting judges’ discretion.

Gants’s proposal drew quick praise from members of the Massachusetts Bar Association, his audience at the association’s annual Bench-Bar Symposium in the John Adams Courthouse.  Marsha V. Kazarosian, president of the bar association, called Gants’s call to action “a gutsy move.”  She said there are “no cookie-cutter remedies” for drug defendants, and that an offender’s background should taken into consideration, and “that’s exactly what a judge is supposed to do.”

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency agreed. “So many people involved in the criminal justice system have substance abuse and mental health issues,” Benedetti said.  “That’s the root of the problem, and this gets back to individual, evidence-based sentencing.”

The proposal was criticized by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, who argued that the laws are designed to target drug traffickers, not merely drug users.  “The midst of an opiate overdose epidemic is not the time to make it easier for drug traffickers to avoid accountability and incarceration,” Blodgett said.  “An experienced trial judge should know that the drug defendants sentenced to incarceration are the ones who carry and use firearms, who flood communities with poison, and who commit the same distribution offenses over and over again.”

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants' full speech is worth reading, and here is a notable excerpt from the text:

Mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases has had a disparate impact upon racial and ethnic minorities.  In fiscal year 2013, 450 defendants were given mandatory minimum sentences on governing drug offenses. In that year, which is the most recent year for which data are available, racial and ethnic minorities comprised 32% of all convicted offenders, 55% of all those convicted of non-mandatory drug distribution offenses, and 75% of all those convicted of mandatory drug offenses.  I do not suggest that there is intentional discrimination, but the numbers do not lie about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences.

The impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences is far greater than the number of defendants who are actually given mandatory sentences.  Prosecutors often will dismiss a drug charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence in return for a plea to a non-mandatory offense with an agreed-upon sentence recommendation, and defendants often have little choice but to accept a sentencing recommendation higher than they think appropriate because the alternative is an even higher and even less appropriate mandatory minimum sentence.  For all practical purposes, when a defendant is charged with a drug offense with a mandatory minimum sentence, it is usually the prosecutor, not the judge, who sets the sentence.

I have great respect for the prosecutors in this Commonwealth, and for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that comes with the job; I was a prosecutor myself for eight years.  But where there is a mandatory minimum sentence, a prosecutor's discretion to charge a defendant with a crime effectively includes the discretion to sentence a defendant for that crime.  And where drug sentences are effectively being set by prosecutors through mandatory minimum sentences, we cannot be confident that those sentences will be individualized, evidence-based sentences that will not only punish and deter, but also minimize the risk of recidivism by treating the root of the problem behind many drug offenses -- the problem of addiction.

October 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Rolling Stone laments enduring casualties of drug war's mandatory minimums

ImagesRolling Stone magazine has just published this extensive "special report" titled "The Nation's Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums." The piece details the stories of seven notable low-level drug defendants serving high-level prison sentences. The piece has this subheading: "For decades, lawyers, scholars, and judges have criticized mandatory drug sentencing as oppressive and ineffective. Yet tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders continue to languish behind bars."  And here is a portion of the lead into the seven cases profiled:

Widely enacted in the Eighties and Nineties amid rising crime and racially coded political fearmongering, mandatory penalties — like minimum sentences triggered by drug weight, automatic sentencing enhancements, and three-strikes laws — have flooded state and federal prisons with nonviolent offenders.  Intended to ensure uniform discipline, these policies simply shifted discretion to prosecutors.  Judges lost latitude to tailor sanctions based on whether someone was a kingpin or courier, for example, while [Professor Mark] Osler says, prosecutors gained "a big hammer.  The easy way of doing things is to threaten people with a lot of time, and then plead them out," he says.  "But easy and justice don't go together very well."...

[T]he drug war is entrenched in decades of prison buildup. Between 1980 and 2010, state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold, while the federal drug prisoner population ballooned by a factor of 20.  Every year, taxpayers shell out $51 billion for drug war spending.  Meanwhile, 2.2 million people — or a quarter of the world's prisoners — crowd a system that exacts its harshest toll on the most vulnerable. Racism undermines the justice process from initial stop to sentence, and 60 percent of those incarcerated are people of color.  Rates of illiteracy, addiction, and mental illness are disproportionately high.

Amid utter congressional deadlock, sentencing reform is the only issue that has cut across partisan bickering to unite such normally irreconcilable voices as Rand Paul, Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan and John Conyers.  Yet the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has since run aground. The bill would halve key mandatory minimums, make relief under the Fair Sentencing Act available to 8,800 federal crack defendants locked up before 2010 and save $4 billion in the process.  More than 260,000 people have been imprisoned under federal drug mandatory minimums, and more will continue to cycle through the system — even as others are granted clemency — as long as reforms remain stalled.  At the state level, reforms without retroactive application strand drug defendants in prison even after the laws that put them there are reassessed as unjust.  The following seven cases epitomize the rigid regimes of the past, and the challenges involved in dismantling them.

October 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Concurrence laments "trend" of federal prosecutors seeking "significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of 'relevant conduct'"

An otherwise unremarkable federal drug sentence appeal in the US v. St. Hill, No. 13-2097 (1st Cir. Oct. 1, 2014) (available here)  took on some blogworthy character because of a lengthy concurrence by Judge Torruella. Here is the start, heart and close of Judge Torruella's opinion in St. Hill:

I join the court's opinion but write separately to note a disturbing trend in criminal prosecutions.  All too often, prosecutors charge individuals with relatively minor crimes, carrying correspondingly short sentences, but then use section 1B1.3(a) of the Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines") to argue for significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of "relevant conduct" — other crimes that have not been charged (or, if charged, have led to an acquittal) and have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt....

St. Hill was subject to an additional six to eight years in prison due to isolated drug sales not directly related to the twenty oxycodone pills which led to his conviction, all of which he was never arrested for, never charged with, never pleaded guilty to, and never convicted of by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  This is a prime example of the tail wagging the dog.  Even more disturbing: the government could, if it so chooses, still charge St. Hill for these uncharged crimes in a separate proceeding, and he could be convicted and sentenced again without protection from the Double Jeopardy Clause.  See Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389, 406 (1995)....

[I]f the government intends to seek an increase in a criminal defendant's sentence for conduct that independently may be subject to criminal liability, the government should charge that conduct in the indictment.  The Fifth Amendment requires that "[n]o person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," U.S. Const. amend. V, while the Sixth Amendment provides an accused with the right to a trial "by an impartial jury," id. amend. VI.  The practice of arguing for higher sentences based on uncharged and untried "relevant conduct" for, at best, tangentially related narcotics transactions seems like an end-run around these basic constitutional guarantees afforded to all criminal defendants.  Cf. Alleyne, 133 S. Ct. at 2162 ("When a finding of fact alters the legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury.").  The government's role is to ensure justice, both to the accused and to the public at large; it is not to maximize conviction rates and argue for the greatest possible sentence.  And, while it is unclear to me whether this trend is due to shaky police work resulting in cases that cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutorial laziness, or other less nefarious factors, it remains troubling regardless....

Nevertheless, as a judge, it is my responsibility to faithfully apply the law as articulated by both the Supreme Court and this court, and I do not dispute that both the Guidelines and our interpretation of them currently condone this questionable process.  See Witte, 515 U.S. at 396, 406 (finding no constitutional violation where the sentence was based in part on a cocaine offense that defendant "clearly was neither prosecuted for nor convicted of"); United States v. Lombard, 102 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1996) (finding no constitutional violation where the district court "choose[s] to give weight to the uncharged offenses in fixing the sentence within the statutory range if it finds by a preponderance of evidence that they occurred").  I nonetheless question whether this interpretation should be revisited — either by the courts or by revisions to the Guidelines.

October 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

This is your federal sentencing data on drugs (after the minus-2 amendment)

I could not help but think about the famous 1980s "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" campaign from Partnership for a Drug-Free America once I took a close look at the US Sentencing Commission's latest greatest data on federal sentencing appearing now in this Third Quarter FY 2014 Sentencing Update.  The famous "egg" ad make clear that drugs could scramble your brain, and a "Note to Readers" appearing early in the latest USSC data report makes clear that a recent amendment to the drug sentencing guidelines has started to scrambling cumulative federal sentencing data.

Here is the USSC's "Note to Readers," which highlights why it will prove especially challenging to fully assess and analyze federal sentencing practices in FY14 because of mid-year drug sentencing reforms:

On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress a proposed amendment to the sentencing guidelines that would revise the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses.  That amendment will become effective on November 1, 2014 and will be designated as Amendment 782 in the 2014 edition of Appendix C to the Guidelines Manual.  Amendment 782 changes the manner in which the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses are incorporated into the base offense levels in the drug quantity table in section 2D1.1 of the Guidelines Manual.  Specifically, the amendment generally reduces by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities described in section 2D1.1 and makes corresponding changes to section 2D1.11.  On July 18, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782, beginning on November 1, 2014.

On March 12, 2014, the Department of Justice issued guidance to all United States Attorneys regarding the sentencing of drug trafficking offenders in anticipation of an amendment to the guidelines lowering the base offense levels for drug trafficking cases. In that guidance, the Attorney General authorized prosecutors to not object to a defense request for a two-level variance from the sentencing range calculated under the current version of the Guidelines Manual in drug trafficking offenses, provided that several other conditions were met.  Judges and probation offices have informed the Commission that in some districts the prosecutors themselves are requesting that the court depart from the sentencing range calculated under the Guidelines Manual and impose a sentence that is two levels below that range.

The data the Commission is reporting in this Preliminary Quarterly Data Report appears to reflect those practices.  On Table 1 of this report, the Commission reports the rate at which the sentence imposed in individual cases was within the applicable guideline range. The rate through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 was 47.2 percent.  This compares with 51.2 percent in fiscal year 2013. However, as can be seen from Tables 1-A and 1-B, most of this decrease is attributable to sentences imposed in drug offenses. As shown on Table 1-A, the within range rate in cases not involving a drug offense was 53.3 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014, compared with 54.8 percent in fiscal year 2013.

Table 1-B presents data for drug cases only.  As shown on that table, the within range rate for sentences imposed in drug cases through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 was 30.0 percent, a decrease of more than eight percentage points from the rate of 38.8 percent at the end of fiscal year 2014.  This decrease in the within range rate resulted from an increase in the rate at which the government requested a below range sentence, from 39.4 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 45.7 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014, as well as an increase in the rate of non-government sponsored below range sentences, from 20.8 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 23.5 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014.

Because this change in sentencing practices did not occur until more than five months into the fiscal year, the impact of this change is not fully reflected in the average data presented in this cumulative quarterly report.  The Commission expects a further reduction in the within range rate for drug offenses to be reflected in the data for the completed fiscal year 2014. 

October 1, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack