Sunday, September 23, 2018

Two exciting DEPC events this coming week

In separate prior posts here and here, I noted two substantive events scheduled this week involving the new OSU Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (which I help direct).  I am quite excited about both events, the first of which is in DC on Sept 25, the second of which is in Columbus on Sept 27 to 28.  Here are the titles of the events, descriptions, and links to registration pages:

 

"Laboratories of Democracy: Drug Policy In The United States" (September 25 in Washington, DC):

Drug use and substance abuse are circumstances that no longer impact only a small percentage of our population. In 2016, over 20 million Americans dealt with a substance use disorder, and the CDC estimates that more than 10 percent of the American population use some form of illegal drug each month. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 58 percent of those in state prisons and 63 percent of those sentenced to state jails meet the medical criteria for drug dependence or abuse.

The Ohio State University’s newly established Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC), with support from the Charles Koch Foundation, will host Laboratories of Democracy: Drug Policy in the United States. This important event will bring together leading academics, members of law enforcement, policymakers, think tank scholars, community advocates, media figures, and other influencers from different spheres and perspectives to discuss the diverse and challenging policy questions that have emerged in the drug policy area.

The event will be held at The Willard InterContinental in Washington, DC on September 25, 2018 from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. The experts speaking at this event have used their knowledge to propose positive drug policy solutions to tackle the difficult problems faced by our country, and the program will engage attendees in an action-oriented discussion on how our country can move forward with positive solutions to addiction and substance abuse.

More details about and registration for this event are available here and here.  

 

"From Punishment to Public Health: Embracing Evidence-Based Solutions to End the Overdose Crisis" (September 27-28 in Columbus, OH):

This conference aims to explore the impact of criminal justice laws and policies in compounding drug use harms, including overdose deaths, and offer an alternative framework for addressing problematic drug use and drug-related fatalities that is rooted in evidence, compassion, and the principles of harm reduction.

The country is in the middle of a tragic increase in drug overdose deaths and Ohio is at the epicenter of the overdose crisis. According to new preliminary estimates for 2017 from the Center for Disease Control, the country has suffered a record 72,000 overdose deaths, with Ohio’s rate of overdose deaths increasing by more than 17%.  In 2016, Ohio ranked second in the nation in drug overdose death rates (at 39.1 per 100,000) and third in the nation in total number of deaths (4,329).  Ohio is losing nearly 12 citizens each day to a drug overdose.

Responses to the overdose crisis across the nation and within the state have been mixed.  There has been a renewed emphasis on treatment, expanded access to the overdose antidote naloxone, and the passage of Good Samaritan laws that offer protection to those calling for help during an overdose. Health officials in Ohio are even engaging in serious discussions of previously-taboo harm reduction interventions, such as drug checking strips.  Nonetheless, use of the criminal justice system continues to dominate local, state, and federal responses to increasing rates of opioid use and overdose. Ohio, for instance, charges more people with manslaughter for delivery of a controlled substance resulting in death than any other state except one.  Local and state elected officials have proposed legislation that would increase penalties for fentanyl, create a specific drug-induced homicide offense, and refuse medical assistance after a third overdose.  Resources for supply side interventions are dwarfing those dedicated to evidence-based interventions like community-based naloxone or syringe exchange.

In this conference hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, Harm Reduction Ohio, and ACLU-Ohio along with partners Harm Reduction Coalition, The Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health and the Ohio State College of Public Health, we will explore why a public health approach to problematic drug use and overdose is critical to reducing needless deaths and other harms and why punitive measures can be counterproductive and destructive. Local, national, and international expert panelists will articulate why and how we can reverse course in our response to the overdose crisis by embracing and applying evidence and the principles of harm reduction rather than principles of punishment.  In so doing, panelists will also dispel common myths about what is effective and what is not based on research, science, and experience.

More details about and registration for this event are available here and here.

September 23, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 21, 2018

Spotlighting ever-increasing overdose casualties amidst the last four decades of the war on drugs

F2.largeA new article in Science presents some notable data and observations about drug overdoses over the last 40 years in the US.  This article by six public health researchers is titled "Changing dynamics of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States from 1979 through 2016." Here is its full abstract:

INTRODUCTION

The epidemic of substance use disorders and drug overdose deaths is a growing public health crisis in the United States.  Every day, 174 people die from drug overdoses. Currently, opioids (including prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and its chemical analogs) are the leading cause of overdose deaths.  The overdose mortality data can reveal the complex and evolving dynamics of drug use in the United States.

RATIONALE

Reports on the U.S. drug overdose epidemic tend to focus on changes in yearly statistics. Improved understanding of the long-term dynamics of the overdose epidemic may aid in the development of more effective epidemic prevention and control strategies.  At present, there are no reliable methods to forecast the likely future course of the epidemic. We focused on deaths from overdoses as a relatively reliable metric of the epidemic because all deaths are required to be reported in all U.S. states and territories using the standardized International Classification of Diseases.  In an effort to understand the epidemic dynamics and perhaps predict its future course, we analyzed records of 599,255 deaths from 1979 through 2016 from the National Vital Statistics System where unintentional drug poisoning was identified as the main cause of death.  We examined the time course of the overall number of deaths; the contributions of individual drugs (prescription opioids, heroin, synthetic opioids like fentanyl, methadone, cocaine, methamphetamine) to the overall curve; changes in the populations most affected by each drug as measured by demographic factors of age, sex, race, and urbanicity; and changes in the geographic distribution of deaths due to each drug as measured by the county of residence of each decedent.

RESULTS

The overall mortality rate for unintentional drug poisonings in the United States grew exponentially from 1979 through 2016.  This exponentially increasing mortality rate has tracked along a remarkably smooth trajectory (log linear R2 = 0.99) for at least 38 years (left panel). By contrast, the trajectories of mortality rates from individual drugs have not tracked along exponential trajectories.  Cocaine was a leading cause in 2005–2006, which was overtaken successively by prescription opioids, then heroin, and then synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. The demographic patterns of deaths due to each drug have also shown substantial variability over time.  Until 2010, most deaths were in 40- to 50-year-old persons, from cocaine and increasingly from prescription drugs. Deaths from heroin and then fentanyl have subsequently predominated, affecting younger persons, ages 20 to 40 (middle panel).  Mortality rates for males have exceeded those for females for all drugs. Rates for whites exceeded those for blacks for all opioids, but rates were much greater among blacks for cocaine.  Death rates for prescription drugs were greater for rural than urban populations. The geographic patterns of deaths also vary by drug. Prescription opioid deaths are widespread across the United States (right panel), whereas heroin and fentanyl deaths are predominantly located in the northeastern United States and methamphetamine deaths in the southwestern United States. Cocaine deaths tend to be associated with urban centers. The online manuscript provides many details of the patterns of mortality in these data.

CONCLUSION

The U.S. drug overdose epidemic has been inexorably tracking along an exponential growth curve since at least 1979.  Although there have been transient periods of minor acceleration or deceleration, the overall drug overdose mortality rate has regularly returned to the exponential growth curve.  This historical pattern of predictable growth for at least 38 years suggests that the current opioid epidemic may be a more recent manifestation of an ongoing longer-term process.  This process may continue along this path for several more years into the future. Paradoxically, there has been substantial variability with which specific drugs have become dominant in varying populations and geographic locales.  This variability all but negates the possibility of confident predictions about the future role of specific drugs.  Indeed, it is possible that a future overdose epidemic may be driven by a new or obscure drug that is not among the leading causes of drug overdose death today. Understanding the forces that are holding multiple subepidemics together onto a smooth exponential trajectory may be important in revealing, and effectively dealing with, the root causes of the epidemic.

Critically, this article makes no effort to suggest any link between overdose data and modern criminal law enforcement efforts described as the "war on drugs." But I still find remarkable that these data in the article start with a relatively low overdose rate right before the Reagan Administration kicked the war on drugs into high gear. If preventing or reducing deaths from drug overdoses is one goal of the the drug war, this article spotlights just how poorly we have been doing on this particular front of the war over the last four decades.

Recent prior related post:

September 21, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The latest argument for "overhauling the [DEA], or even getting rid of it entirely."

Leo Beletsky and Jeremiah Goulka has this new New York Times commentary under the headline "The Federal Agency That Fuels the Opioid Crisis: The Drug Enforcement Administration has proved itself incompetent for decades."  Here is how it starts and ends:

Every day, nearly 200 people across the country die from drug overdoses.  Opioids have been the primary driver of this calamity: first as prescription painkillers, then heroin and, more recently, illicitly manufactured fentanyl.  The death toll has risen steadily over the past two decades.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, the agency that most directly oversees access to opioids, deserves much of the blame for these deaths.  Because of its incompetence, the opioid crisis has gone from bad to worse.  The solution: overhauling the agency, or even getting rid of it entirely.

The problem begins with poor design.  A brainchild of Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs,” the agency sought to cut off supplies of drugs on the black market, here and abroad. But in passing the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, Congress also gave the agency broad authority over how prescription opioids and other controlled substances were classified, produced and distributed.  The agency was supposed to curb problematic drug use, but failed to do so because its tactics were never informed by public health or addiction science.

Despite the investment of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and the earnest efforts of thousands of employees, the D.E.A.’s track record is abysmal. The agency has been unable to balance legitimate access to and control of prescription drugs.  The widespread over-reliance on opioids, along with benzodiazepines, amphetamines and other scheduled medications, has created a booming black market.

The agency’s enforcement strategies, and the support it has lent to local and state police departments, have also fueled abusive police tactics including dangerous no-knock-raids and ethnic profiling of drivers.  It has eroded civil liberties through the expansion of warrantless surveillance, and overseen arbitrary seizures of billions of dollars of private property without any clear connection to drug-related crimes.  These actions have disproportionately targeted people of color, contributing to disparities in mass incarceration, confiscated property, and collective trauma....

We urgently need to rethink how our nation regulates drugs.  What should our goals be?  How can we design institutions and performance metrics to achieve them?

The answers lie at the local and state levels.  In Rhode Island, opioid overdoses are declining because people behind bars have access to effective treatment. Massachusetts has deployed drop-in centers offering treatment, naloxone and other services.  San Francisco and Seattle are planning to open safe consumption spaces which show tremendous promise as a tool to reduce overdose deaths and other drug-related harm.  But the D.E.A. and its institutional parent, the Justice Department, stand in the way of some of these experiments.

We ought to reinvent the Drug Enforcement Administration. Considering its lack of public health and health care orientation, the agency’s regulatory authority over the pharmaceutical supply could be transferred to a strengthened and independent Food and Drug Administration, while the regulation of medical and pharmacy practice can be ceded to the states.  Parts of the D.E.A.’s law enforcement mandate should be transferred to the F.B.I., delegated back to the local or state, or eliminated.  A significant portion of the D.E.A.’s budget should be reinvested in lifesaving measures like access to high-quality treatment.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has had over 40 years to win the war on drugs.  Instead its tactics have fueled the opioid crisis.  To finally make a dent in this national emergency, we need to rethink the agency from the bottom up.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the suggestion to consider abolishing DEA is not novel. A quick google search turned up these other recent like-minded commentary (among others):

September 18, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

"From Punishment to Public Health: Embracing Evidence-Based Solutions to End the Overdose Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this exciting event taking place at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio at the end of next week. OSU's newly established Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) is co-hosting this two-day gathering, and here is the conference description from the full conference agenda:

This conference aims to explore the impact of criminal justice laws and policies in compounding drug use harms, including overdose deaths, and offer an alternative framework for addressing problematic drug use and drug-related fatalities that is rooted in evidence, compassion, and the principles of harm reduction.

The country is in the middle of a tragic increase in drug overdose deaths and Ohio is at the epicenter of the overdose crisis. According to new preliminary estimates for 2017 from the Center for Disease Control, the country has suffered a record 72,000 overdose deaths, with Ohio’s rate of overdose deaths increasing by more than 17%.  In 2016, Ohio ranked second in the nation in drug overdose death rates (at 39.1 per 100,000) and third in the nation in total number of deaths (4,329).  Ohio is losing nearly 12 citizens each day to a drug overdose.

Responses to the overdose crisis across the nation and within the state have been mixed.  There has been a renewed emphasis on treatment, expanded access to the overdose antidote naloxone, and the passage of Good Samaritan laws that offer protection to those calling for help during an overdose. Health officials in Ohio are even engaging in serious discussions of previously-taboo harm reduction interventions, such as drug checking strips.  Nonetheless, use of the criminal justice system continues to dominate local, state, and federal responses to increasing rates of opioid use and overdose. Ohio, for instance, charges more people with manslaughter for delivery of a controlled substance resulting in death than any other state except one.  Local and state elected officials have proposed legislation that would increase penalties for fentanyl, create a specific drug-induced homicide offense, and refuse medical assistance after a third overdose.  Resources for supply side interventions are dwarfing those dedicated to evidence-based interventions like community-based naloxone or syringe exchange.

In this conference hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, Harm Reduction Ohio, and ACLU-Ohio along with partners Harm Reduction Coalition, The Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health and the Ohio State College of Public Health, we will explore why a public health approach to problematic drug use and overdose is critical to reducing needless deaths and other harms and why punitive measures can be counterproductive and destructive. Local, national, and international expert panelists will articulate why and how we can reverse course in our response to the overdose crisis by embracing and applying evidence and the principles of harm reduction rather than principles of punishment.  In so doing, panelists will also dispel common myths about what is effective and what is not based on research, science, and experience.

More details about and registration for this event are available here and here.

September 18, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 14, 2018

"Laboratories of Democracy: Drug Policy In The United States"

The title of this post is the title of this exciting event taking place in Washington DC later this month that I have had the honor of helping to plan.  Here is the event's description:

Drug use and substance abuse are circumstances that no longer impact only a small percentage of our population. In 2016, over 20 million Americans dealt with a substance use disorder, and the CDC estimates that more than 10 percent of the American population use some form of illegal drug each month. The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that 58 percent of those in state prisons and 63 percent of those sentenced to state jails meet the medical criteria for drug dependence or abuse.

The Ohio State University’s newly established Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC), with support from the Charles Koch Foundation, will host Laboratories of Democracy: Drug Policy in the United States. This important event will bring together leading academics, members of law enforcement, policymakers, think tank scholars, community advocates, media figures, and other influencers from different spheres and perspectives to discuss the diverse and challenging policy questions that have emerged in the drug policy area.

The event will be held at The Willard InterContinental in Washington, DC on September 25, 2018 from 9:00 am until 3:00 pm. The experts speaking at this event have used their knowledge to propose positive drug policy solutions to tackle the difficult problems faced by our country, and the program will engage attendees in an action-oriented discussion on how our country can move forward with positive solutions to addiction and substance abuse.

More details about and registration for this event (which will include a panel discussion on the opioid crisis and a panel discussion on marijuana reform) are available here and here.  

September 14, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Marijuana, mandatory minimums and jury nullification, oh my: split Ninth Circuit affirms panel federal convictions, though remands to address DOJ spending rider

A big, long and split decision by a panel of the Ninth Circuit yesterday in US v. Lynch, No. 10-50219 (9th Cir, Sept. 13, 2018) (available here), prompted the weak "Wizard of Oz" reference in the title of this post.  There is so much of interest in Lynch for sentencing fans and others, I cannot cover it all in this post. The majority's introduction provides a sense of the case's coverage:

Charles Lynch ran a marijuana dispensary in Morro Bay, California, in violation of federal law.  He was convicted of conspiracy to manufacture, possess, and distribute marijuana, as well as other charges related to his ownership of the dispensary.  In this appeal, Lynch contends that the district court made various errors regarding Lynch’s defense of entrapment by estoppel, improperly warned jurors against nullification, and allowed the prosecutors to introduce various evidence tying Lynch to the dispensary’s activities, while excluding allegedly exculpatory evidence offered by Lynch.  However, Lynch suffered no wrongful impairment of his entrapment by estoppel defense, the anti-nullification warning was not coercive, and the district court’s evidentiary rulings were correct in light of the purposes for which the evidence was tendered.  A remand for resentencing is required, though, on the government’s cross-appeal of the district court’s refusal to apply a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, which unavoidably applies to Lynch.

Following the filing of this appeal and after the submission of the government’s brief, the United States Congress enacted an appropriations provision, which this court has interpreted to prohibit the federal prosecution of persons for activities compliant with state medical marijuana laws. Lynch contends that this provision therefore prohibits the United States from continuing to defend Lynch’s conviction.  We need not reach the question of whether the provision operates to annul a properly obtained conviction, however, because a genuine dispute exists as to whether Lynch’s activities were actually legal under California state law. Remand will permit the district court to make findings regarding whether Lynch complied with state law.

Judge Watford dissented from the panel majority in Lynch, and his dissent starts this way:

I would reverse and remand for a new trial. In my view, the district court went too far in trying to dissuade the jury from engaging in nullification.  The court’s actions violated Charles Lynch’s constitutional right to trial by jury, and the government can’t show that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

By its very nature, a case of this sort touches a sensitive nerve from a federalism standpoint.  At the time of Lynch’s trial in 2008, the citizens of California had legalized the sale and use of marijuana for medicinal purposes; the federal government nonetheless sought to prosecute a California citizen for conduct that arguably was authorized under state law. Because federal law takes precedence under the Supremacy Clause, the government could certainly bring such a prosecution, notwithstanding the resulting intrusion upon state sovereignty interests.  See Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1, 29 (2005).  But the Framers of the Constitution included two provisions that act as a check on the national government’s exercise of power in this realm: one stating that “[t]he Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury”; the other requiring that “such Trial shall be held in the State where the said Crimes shall have been committed.” U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2, cl. 3.  The Sixth Amendment further mandates that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the right to trial “by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”  Thus, to send Lynch to prison, the government had to persuade a jury composed of his fellow Californians to convict.

One of the fundamental attributes of trial by jury in our legal system is the power of the jury to engage in nullification — to return a verdict of not guilty “in the teeth of both law and facts.” Horning v. District of Columbia, 254 U.S. 135, 138 (1920).  The jury’s power to nullify has ancient roots, dating back to pre-colonial England.  See Thomas Andrew Green, Verdict According to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200–1800, at 236–49 (1985) (discussing Bushell’s Case, 124 Eng. Rep. 1006 (C.P. 1670)).  It became a well-established fixture of jury trials in colonial America, perhaps most famously in the case of John Peter Zenger, a publisher in New York acquitted of charges of seditious libel.  See Albert W. Alschuler & Andrew G. Deiss, A Brief History of the Criminal Jury in the United States, 61 U. Chi. L. Rev. 867, 871–74 (1994).  From ratification of the Constitution to the present, the right to trial by jury has been regarded as “essential for preventing miscarriages of justice,” Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 158 (1968), in part because the jury’s power to nullify allows it to act as “the conscience of the community,” Jeffrey Abramson, We, the Jury: The Jury System and the Ideal of Democracy 87 (1994).

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

September 14, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Various federal, state and local perspectives on the latest fronts in the latest battles of the never-ending drug war

As noted in this prior post, the new Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has a lot of programming and resources already assembled on the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment" or just Issue 1.  In particular today, Thursday, September 13 at 12noon, starts a series five public panels about Issue 1 under the title Ballot Insights (and DEPC has also created a Resources Page for Issue 1 and Commentary Page on Issue 1).  I find Issue 1 fascinating because the players involved and perspectives shared on drug enforcement and drug policy amidst a state-wide direct democracy campaign is already proving remarkable (e.g., Ohio judges have been very vocal so far fiercely opposing Issue 1's drug sentencing reforms). 

Meanwhile, this week also brought an interesting local perspective (mostly from Ohio) on another front of the drug war in the form of this very lengthy piece by Jack Shuler in The New Republic titled "Overdose and Punishment." The sub title of the piece highlights its themes: "When Chad Baker died from a lethal combination of cocaine and heroin, prosecutors charged Tommy Kosto, his friend and fellow drug user, with killing him — a tactic from the Reagan-era war on drugs that is gaining popularity around the country and making today's opioid crisis even worse."

Providing yet another perspective on these matters is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who yesterday delivered this speech to the National Narcotics Officers' Association’s Coalition Drug Enforcement Forum.  Those who regularly read the AG's speeches will find a lot in this latest speech familiar, but I still though it useful to reprint some of his discussion of the drug war "surge" now on-going at the federal level:

[I]n the districts where drug deaths are the highest, we are now vigorously prosecuting synthetic opioid trafficking cases, even when the amount is small. It’s called Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge — or S.O.S.

We are in a desperate fight to curtail the availability and spread of this killer drug. Synthetic opioids are so strong that there is no such thing as a small case. Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. That’s equivalent to a pinch of salt. Depending on the purity, you could fit more than 1,000 fatal doses of fentanyl in a teaspoon.

I want to be clear about this: we are not focusing on users, but on those supplying them with deadly drugs.

In Manatee County, Florida, in partnership with the Sheriff, we tried this strategy and it worked. This past January, they had half the number of overdose deaths as the previous January. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdose calls a day to an average of one a day. Those are promising results. We want to replicate those results in the places that have been hardest hit.

And so I have also sent 10 more prosecutors to help implement this strategy in ten districts where drug deaths are especially high. And that is in addition to the 12 prosecutors I sent to prosecute opioid fraud in drug “hot spot districts.” To help them do that, I have begun a new data analytics program at the Department called the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit to use data to find opioid-related health care fraud....

I have also sent more than 300 new federal prosecutors to our U.S. Attorneys offices across America. This is the largest surge in prosecutors in decades. You can be sure drugs, gangs, and related violence will be a priority for them.

September 13, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, September 10, 2018

Events and resources covering Ohio sentencing and prison reform ballot initiative known now as Issue 1

Depc_testA few months ago, I flagged here the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1.   With early voting in Ohio now just a month away and Election Day 2018 not much more than 50 days away, the new Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has a lot of Issue 1 programming about to begin and has a lot of resources already assembled on its website.

This Thursday, September 13 at 12noon, starts a series five public panels under the title Ballot Insights.  Registration for these panels is available at this link, where you can also find more details on scheduled speakers and on which aspects of the Issue 1 will be the focus for particular panels (e.g., a first panel in October is focused on the Issue 1 provisions expanding "earned time credit" for Ohio prisoners to reduce their sentences through rehabilitative programming; a second panel in October looks at how to ensure any increased funding for drug treatment is utilized effectively). 

I have the pleasure of moderating the first Issue 1 panel this coming Thursday, which is titled simply "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment: Step in the Right Direction."  This panel will include a leading proponent of Issue 1 (Steven JohnsonGrove of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center), a leading opponent of Issue 1 (Louis Tobin of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association), and a leading Ohio criminal justice reform expert (Daniel Dew of The Buckeye Institute).  The bios of the presenters are detailed at this link.

In addition to all the panels, DEPC has also created a Resources Page for Issue 1, which includes links to the ballot language, position statements from various groups and select media coverage.  DEPC is also building out a Commentary Page on Issue 1 for publishing original commentary that the Center has solicited. (A pair of public health scholars submitted this first commentary for publication on the DEPC site.)

 Prior related posts:

September 10, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 03, 2018

Noticing latest USSC data on retroactive impact of "drugs -2" guideline amendment

Just before the long weekend, I saw that the US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated August 2018, provides updated "information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782. The data in this report reflects all motions decided through July 31, 2018, and for which court documentation was received, coded,and edited at the Commission by August 23, 2018."

The official data in the report indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make Amendment 782 (the so-called "drugs -2" guideline amendment) fully retroactive, now 31,381 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of 25 month.  (Notably, this federal register document reports that the "average cost of incarceration for Federal inmates was $34,704.12 ($94.82 per day) in FY 2016 and $36,299.25 ($99.45 per day) in FY 2017."   This "average cost" number is a very imperfect proxy for the actual prison cost savings from reduced sentences resulting from the retroactive drugs-2 guideline amendment, but it suggests federal taxpayers have saved billions in prison costs thanks to drugs -2 retroactivity.)  

Among other impacts, the the drugs -2 amendment and its retroactivity are likely key contributors to a continued decline in the federal prison population.  The amendment was in 2014, and its  retroactivity became effective in November 2015.  In Fiscal Year 2014, the federal prison population clocked in at 214,1495, and in Fiscal Year 2015 the federal prison population was down to 205,723.  By Fiscal Year 2016, the federal prison population dropped all the way down to 192,170; by Fiscal Year 2017, the federal prison population was down further to 185,617.  As as of August 30, 2018, the federal prison population was at 182,797.  (All theses data come from this Bureau of Prisons webpage.)   I keep expecting and waiting for the policies and practices of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to turn around this recent steady decline in the federal prison population, but is seems the "drugs -2" guideline amendment, its retroactivity and other forces have keep a downward pressure on the federal prison population for the time being.

September 3, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Deputy AG Rosenstein suggests more federal prosecutions are key to battling opioid crisis ... but that really hasn't been working

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has this notable New York Times opinion piece under the headlined "Fight Drug Abuse, Don’t Subsidize It."  Here are is how it starts and ends:

Almost 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, a shocking 54 percent increase since 2012.  Dangerous opioids such as heroin and fentanyl contributed to two-thirds of the deaths.  This killer knows no geographic, socioeconomic or age limits.  It strikes city dwellers and Midwestern farmers, Hollywood celebrities and homeless veterans, grandparents and teenagers.

Remarkably, law enforcement efforts actually declined while deaths were on the rise.  Federal drug prosecutions fell by 23 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the median drug sentence doled out to drug traffickers decreased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2016.  The Trump administration is working to reverse those trends.  Prosecutions of drug traffickers are on the rise, and the surge in overdose deaths is slowing.

Unfortunately, some cities and counties are considering sponsoring centers where drug users can abuse dangerous illegal drugs with government help.  Advocates euphemistically call them “safe injection sites,” but they are very dangerous and would only make the opioid crisis worse.

These centers would be modeled on those operating in Canada and some European countries. They invite visitors to use heroin, fentanyl and other deadly drugs without fear of arrest.  The policy is “B.Y.O.D.” — bring your own drugs — but staff members help people abuse drugs by providing needles and stand ready to resuscitate addicts who overdose....

That is not the way to end the opioid crisis. Americans struggling with addiction need treatment and reduced access to deadly drugs.  They do not need a taxpayer-sponsored haven to shoot up.

To end the drug crisis, we should educate everyone about the dangers of opioid drugs, help drug users get treatment and aggressively prosecute criminals who supply the deadly poison.  Under the leadership of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Department of Justice is delivering results.  Many federal, state and local agencies are working with us to combat opioid addiction.  Cities and counties should join us and fight drug abuse, not subsidize it.

I am disinclined to take up here the debate over safe injection sites, which could merit a volume.  I will be content here to point to this recent report from Europe indicating "evaluation studies have found an overall positive impact on the communities where these facilities are located," as well as this new meta-research indicating that "Medically Supervised Injection Centres ... had a significant favourable result in relation to drug-related crime and a significant unfavourable result in relation to problematic heroin use or injection." At Vox, German Lopez covers these research matters in this recent article headlined "Safe injection sites were thought to reduce drug overdoses. The research isn’t so clear."

I am inclined to take issue with how DAG Rosenstein seems to make a case for more federal prosecutions to address overdose deaths and the opioid crisis.  Though he laments that "federal drug prosecutions fell by 23 percent from 2011 to 2016, and the median drug sentence doled out to drug traffickers decreased by 20 percent from 2009 to 2016," DAG Rosenstein leaves out the fact that declines in marijuana and crack prosecutions and the impact of fairer crack guidelines account for these realities (see USSC quick facts data on marijuana and crack).  Meanwhile, as this USSC report explains, in "fiscal year 2016, there were 2,763 heroin trafficking offenders [sentenced in federal court, meaning the] number of heroin offenders has increased by 29.4% since fiscal year 2012."  In other words, though overall federal drug prosecutions have gone down through 2016, federal prosecution of heroin has been going up significantly this period when overdose deaths from dangerous opioids were also surging. 

In addition, there is a basis to question the statement that prosecutions of drug traffickers are now on the rise, as this data from TRAC suggests that FY 2017 and 2018 has seen record low numbers of federal drug trafficking prosecutions.  And to assert that the "surge in overdose deaths is slowing" is not all that reassuring given the new preliminary report of 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017 compared to 64,000 in 2016 (though I suppose it is correct to say the "surge" is slowing given that this 8,000-person increase in deaths is less than the 11,000 increase from 2015 to 2016).  Especially at a time of crisis, I sincerely want to believe that, as DAG Rosenstein asserts, the "Department of Justice is delivering results."  But the data I can find does not seem to support this claim.

August 28, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 20, 2018

"America’s Favorite Antidote: Drug-Induced Homicide in the Age of the Overdose Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new paper authored by Leo Beletsky and now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Nearing the end of its second decade, the overdose crisis in the United States has gone from bad to worse.  Despite the advent of a supposed “public health” approach to this epidemic, progress on scaling up evidence-based prevention and response measures remains slow.  Meanwhile, criminal law and its enforcement continue to dominate the arsenal of policies invoked to address the crisis.

This Article examines the surging popularity of one such approach. Now on the books in the majority of U.S. states and federally, drug-induced homicide laws and their analogues implicate dealers in accidental overdose fatalities.  By engaging criminal law theory and empirical legal research, I articulate an interdisciplinary instrumentalist critique of these measures in response to the overdose crisis.  Data systematically extracted from reports on 263 drug-induced homicide prosecutions informs concerns about facial and as-applied defects.  Patterns identified suggest rapid, accelerating diffusion in these prosecutions in many hard-hit jurisdictions; pronounced enforcement and sentencing disparities by race; and broad misclassification of drug-using partners, family members, and others as “dealers.”

Aside from crowding out evidence-based interventions and investments, these prosecutions run at complete cross-purposes to efforts that encourage witnesses to summon lifesaving help during overdose events.  This analysis illustrates an urgent opportunity to critically re-assess the architecture and mechanisms of drug control in the U.S., reframing criminal justice reform as a public health imperative vital to improving the response to the worst drug crisis in America’s history.

UPDATE: Over at The Crime Report, this short report discusses this article under the headline "Prosecuting Dealers for Opioid Deaths Called ‘Bad Justice Policy’."

August 20, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Interesting commutation developments in wake of initiative reform in Oklahoma

This local story, headlined "49 Oklahoma inmates imprisoned for drug crimes asking for commutations; 49 asking state to consider commutations in light of State Question 780," reports on an interesting clemency echo in the wake of a notable ballot initiative passed in Oklahoma in 2016. Here are the details:

Some state inmates serving 10 years to life in prison for what has been described as “low-level” drug crimes have applied for commutations thanks to the help of advocates and law students.

The 49 inmates and those backing their commutation applications are citing recent changes in state law — and Oklahoma’s highest incarceration rate in the nation — as the reason why. “A lot of these are 20-, sometimes 30-year sentences on a crime that if charged now would be a misdemeanor,” said Corbin Brewster, Tulsa County’s chief public defender.

Brewster’s office assisted Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform with creating the list of inmates. The coalition of business and community leaders, law enforcement experts and advocates across the state is led by former state House Speaker Kris Steele.

The state Pardon and Parole Board will take the up the first batch of 23 commutation requests — all female inmates — on Monday in Oklahoma City. The rest are scheduled to be considered next month.

The requests for commuted sentences, if recommended by the parole board and approved by the governor, would only reduce the length of the prison terms. Some sentences could be modified to “time served,” but the convictions would remain on the inmate’s record.

Push for commutations is spurred by the passage of State Question 780, which starting July 1, 2017, made nonviolent drug possession offenses and low-level property offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies. Steele led the call for the state question, which was approved in November 2016 by 58 percent of Oklahoma voters.

Eight law school students, working as summer interns for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, helped choose applicants and interviewed them, said Stephen Galoob, associate professor at the University of Tulsa Law School. Galoob said the effort is aimed at “just making the system work.”

“These are all cases and these are all stories that are really powerful,” he said. “And a lot of what the students are doing is just telling the stories of the people who are in prison for crimes that the people of Oklahoma don’t really think we should be locking people up for.”...

The parole board uses a two-stage process to consider commutations. During the first stage, the board reviews the application before considering whether to pass the request to a second, more thorough review stage. At least a majority vote of the board is needed to forward the commutation request to the governor for final consideration.

The parole board considered 477 commutation requests in fiscal 2018, which ended June 30, said DeLynn Fudge, the agency’s executive director.  The board passed 19 of the requests to the second stage of its review process, of which 10 were forwarded to the governor with a recommendation that they be approved, Fudge said. 

Especially in light of the historical numbers reported in this article, it is especially interesting and exciting to see this follow-up article headlined "Nearly two dozen cases involved in 'commutation campaign' advance to second stage of consideration":

The Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted Monday to advance a group of nearly two dozen people who are being assisted by a commutation campaign to a second stage of review.

August 15, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

High-profile drug arrest of billionaire addict spotlights issues of what is "trafficking" and who is a "victim" and "recidivist"

A high-profile drug arrest in Las Vegas late last week presents a high-profile setting to explore all of the legal uncertainty that necessarily surrounds the modern drug war.  This CBS/AP story, headlined "Tech billionaire Henry Nicholas facing drug trafficking counts in Vegas," provides some of the basics:

Tech billionaire and advocate of crime victims Henry T. Nicholas III is facing drug counts after being arrested along with a woman Tuesday at a Las Vegas Strip casino-resort. Nicholas was arrested on suspicion of trafficking heroin, cocaine, meth and ecstasy, Las Vegas police officer Larry Hadfield said Thursday. He added police responded to the casino-resort following a report from security, which had found contraband in a room [this local piece provides more details of the search and seizures]....

The woman arrested with Nicholas was identified as Ashley Fargo, reportedly the ex-wife of an heir to the Wells Fargo fortune. Hadfield said she faces the same counts as Nicholas. Court records show she has also been released on her own recognizance. Records for the pair show a court hearing scheduled for September.

Attorney and legal analyst Alex Kazarian tells CBS Los Angeles it's likely Nicholas didn't intend to traffic drugs -- but his intent may not matter. "It sounds like his biggest crime is being an addict," Kazarian said. "He's a billionaire. He's not a person that's trying to make money off of drugs. He's a person that's trying to make friends off of drugs. Unfortunateley, the way the laws are written, if you're giving away drugs or if you're selling drugs, you're trafficking."

Nicholas co-founded high-tech chipmaker Broadcom Corp. in 1991 and resigned as president and CEO in 2003. In 2008, he was indicted on narcotics and securities fraud charges. The charges in the securities case were dismissed in 2009 and the narcotics case in 2010.

The billionaire is an advocate for crime victims and has bankrolled ballot measures in the U.S. to guarantee them and their family members some rights. The so-called "Marsy's Law" victims' bill of rights is named after Nicholas' sister, Marsalee "Marsy" Nicholas, a California college student who was stalked and killed in 1983 by an ex-boyfriend.

Five states - California, Ohio, Illinois, North Dakota and South Dakota - have a Marsy's Law on their books.... In Nevada, Marsy's Law will appear on the ballot in November as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, after the measure was approved during the 2015 and 2017 legislative sessions, as required by law. Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson have previously endorsed the measure.

As people who work in the drug policy and reform space know well, the dividing line between being a "drug possessor" and a "drug trafficker" can often be a thin one and this story seems to effectively highlight this reality. Moreover, given the extraordinary work that Nicholas has done to promote victim involvement in the criminal justice system, this case provides an interesting setting to explore who can and should be able to claim to be a victim of a "drug trafficker."  In addition, here are some more details about Nicholas's prior involvement with drug charges from this local piece:

In a 2008 federal indictment, Nicholas was accused of possessing and conspiring to distribute drugs, including ecstasy, cocaine and methamphetamine. According to federal court records, he was accused of distributing and using drugs on a private flight between Orange County and Las Vegas, “causing marijuana smoke and fumes to enter the cockpit and requiring the pilot flying the plane to put on an oxygen mask.”  The charges against him were dropped in 2010, court records show.

Because charges were drop in the prior case, Nicholas would not qualify as a repeat drug offender subject to recidivist sentencing enhancements. But I cannot help but wonder why and how prior federal drug distribution charges were dropped against him, while also thinking somebody else might get labelled a serious drug offender with this kind of history without Nicholas's legal good fortunes so far.

August 14, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Victims' Rights At Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Ohio gubernatorial candidate talking up criminal justice reform while advocating for state constitutional drug sentencing initiative

A couple of week ago, I flagged here an interesting and intricate drug sentencing initiative headed for the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  As of earlier this week, the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation" amendment (in full at this link) officially qualified for the fall ballot as Issue 1.  And, as reported in this local article headlined "Cordray, Holder support diversion of drug offenders from prison," this proposal is already receiving high-profile support:

Ohio no longer can afford — both in terms of money and lives — to imprison low-level drug offenders who instead should be diverted to addiction treatment, says Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray.  “We need to be tough on violent criminals, but mass incarceration of drug addicts who should be in treatment is unwise, it wastes too much money and it wastes a lot of lives in Ohio,” Cordray said.

The former Ohio attorney general was joined by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss criminal justice reform at a Thursday campaign event at the Downtown YWCA.  The Democrat who served under former President Barack Obama spoke out against “warehousing” minor criminal offenders, saying governors and state attorneys general must steer new policy courses.

Holder chided Republican President Donald Trump and his U.S. attorney, Jeff Sessions, for “going back to the bad, old days of unthinking (criminal) sentences” for non-violent offenders who deserve another chance.

Cordray underlined his strong support for state Issue 1 on the Nov. 6 ballot that would reclassify low-level felony drug use and possession charges to first-degree misdemeanors punishable by only six months in jail, with the goal of diverting offenders to drug treatment.  It also would potentially allow the release of all current such offenders from state prisons.  “I believe It will set the way toward a policy of being smart on crime in the future, smart on how we use taxpayers’ dollars, smart on how we build people’s potential to be productive citizens in our society,” Cordray said.

Holder and Cordray agreed such a sentencing reform would be neither easier nor cheap in the short run, but provide savings and resuscitate more Ohioans from drugs and failed lives in the long run.

Comment is being sought from the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Mike DeWine, Ohio’s attorney general, whether he supports or opposes the statewide ballot issue.

The administration of Republican Gov. John Kasich is spending up to $58 million over two years to divert a flood of non-violent felony offenders, many convicted of drug possession amid the opioid crisis, from state prisons to local programs.  Many counties, however, are not accepting the money, saying it would not cover all local costs. More than a fourth of state inmates are non-violent drug offenders....

A Republican National Committee spokeswoman lambasted the pair.  “Richard Cordray’s decision to fund-raise with disgraced former Attorney General Eric Holder proves just how swampy and out-of-touch he is with Ohioans.  You can tell a lot about a person based on the company they keep, and if Cordray chooses Eric Holder as an ally, then Ohioans ought to be wary and steer clear of Richard Cordray,” said Mandi Merritt.

Prior related post:

July 26, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Could Judge Brett Kavanaugh, as a SCOTUS Justice, encourage his colleagues to take up acquitted conduct sentencing?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Marshall Project piece by Joseph Neff headlined "Punished for Crimes Not Proven: Brett Kavanaugh and the case of Gregory 'Boy Boy' Bell."  Here is how the piece starts and ends:

After a nine-month trial, a jury convicted Gregory "Boy Boy" Bell of selling crack cocaine, three sales totaling five grams and carrying a sentence in the five-year range. More importantly for Bell, the jury acquitted him of 10 serious charges, including a trafficking conspiracy and a racketeering conspiracy that would have meant decades in prison.

At sentencing, the judge ruled that Bell had engaged in the exact same crack cocaine conspiracies that the jury had rejected. The five grams of crack became 1,500 grams, and the judge sentenced Bell to 16 years, not the expected five.

Critics object that the use of “acquitted conduct” to justify longer sentences empowers prosecutors and judges to ignore the judgment of the jury, to base sentences on facts rebuffed by the citizens in the jury box.

Those critics include one of Bell’s jurors and Court of Appeals Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the current nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Allowing judges to rely on acquitted or uncharged conduct to impose higher sentences than they otherwise would impose seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and a jury trial,” Kavanaugh wrote about Bell’s case in 2015 [available here].

Kavanaugh noted that he and his colleagues on the appeals court were powerless to overturn the sentence.  They are required to follow the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, which has allowed acquitted conduct to be a factor in sentencing.  In the meantime, Kavanaugh reminded trial judges that, when asked to use acquitted conduct to increase sentences, they can just say no....

Acquitted conduct and its legal siblings — dismissed conduct and uncharged conduct — are contentious subjects in the arcane world of federal sentencing law.  The tension arises from different standards of proof used at trial.  Juries convict after finding proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  At sentencing, judges use the preponderance of the evidence, a standard requiring more than 50 percent of the evidence to prove something, like the tip of a scale.

The standard makes sense in discretionary sentences, used in varying degrees in all state and federal courts.  Legislatures set ranges for criminal sentences: probation to 20 years in prison, for example, or, five years to life.  In fashioning a precise sentence within a wide range, a judge weighs aggravating and mitigating factors such as criminal record, education, victim testimony, family life, military service, abuse or neglect as a child and work history.

Dating back at least to 1949, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed judges to use uncharged conduct to increase sentences. In later rulings, the Supreme Court explicitly allowed federal judges to make findings of fact that include acquitted conduct at sentencing. But the law is muddled. The Supreme Court began to limit the effect of uncharged and acquitted conduct in 2000, but more recent decisions have undercut those cases.  In Kavanaugh’s words, the Supreme Court lurched toward sentencing reform only to back away.

The court has since avoided the issue. In 2014, the Supreme Court declined to hear the cases of three Congress Park co-defendants: Joseph “JoJo” Jones, Desmond “Dazz” Thurston, and Antwuan “Big Ant” Ball.  Each had his sentence tripled or more based on allegations the jury found unpersuasive.  Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted to hear those cases.  In a dissent, they said the time had come to confront acquitted conduct: “This has gone on long enough.”  It takes four justices to accept a case.

If Kavanaugh tips the balance,it will be too late for Gregory “Boy Boy” Bell, who has been locked up since his arrest in 2005.  He is scheduled to be released on Sept. 4.

In this post earlier this month, I asked "Might Justice Kennedy's retirement lead to defendants having stronger Sixth Amendment rights under Apprendi and Blakely?".  In that post, I highlighted Justice Kennedy's historic hostility to Apprendi and its Sixth Amendment progeny.  The Bell case is properly considered exhibit A to support the possibility that a possible Justice Kavanaugh will have a more rights-protective approach to these issues.  (Then again, Judge Kavanaugh has been heard to compliment the late Chief Justice Rehnquist, who authored the Watts opinion blessing acquitted conduct guideline enhancement in the pre-Apprendi world.)

That all said, it is worth remembering that Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor also refused to vote to grant cert in the Ball case in 2014 (details here), even though all three had voted for extensions of Apprendi rights in prior cases like Southern Union.  Especially with Justice Kennedy gone and thus only Justices Breyer and Alito being on record as being eager to allow judges to enhance sentences without significant constitutional restraint, it is certainly possible to imagine the newer Justices (Gorsuch and Kavanaugh if conformed) convincing the likes of Roberts and Kagan and Sotomayor to be willing to take up this matter.  I sure hope so, but I will not be holding my breath.

A few prior posts with thoughts on a post-Justice Kennedy Court:

Previous related posts on the DC cases discussed above:

July 24, 2018 in Blakely Commentary and News, Booker and Fanfan Commentary, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 23, 2018

A father's perspective on clemency and its potential (and limits)

A helpful reader alerted me to this interesting new commentary authored by John Owen, headlined "A father's plea for mercy for his imprisoned daughter."  Here are excerpts:

President Donald Trump’s recent pardons and commutations have spotlighted, once again, the importance of executive clemency to soften the harshness of our criminal justice system.  President Abraham Lincoln was famous for preferring mercy over “strict justice.”  In fact, he used his clemency power so liberally, his attorney general had to assign someone to shadow him to record the names of all those he pardoned or commuted, according to author Margaret Love....

That’s how executive clemency is supposed to work.  It operates outside our rule of law, but it also respects it. It is the personal prerogative of the leader and so, inevitably, can be arbitrary.  It is also a message to our branches of government and to our society to mitigate our desire for vengeance with compassion....

I have spent the past nine years grieving the almost 20-year sentence imposed on my daughter, Mary Anne Locke, for her low-level, non-violent role in a meth distribution conspiracy.  She was ordered to report to federal prison in 2009, six weeks after she had a Cesarean section.  Along with her baby, she left behind a loving husband and two other children.

Mary Anne did not have an easy life, and I accept the role I played in that.... In her early teens, Mary Anne found drugs and men who were themselves substance abusers and also physically violent....  She relapsed at age 28, triggered by personal tumult, as well as health problems for which she was prescribed amphetamines. It was around this time that she became involved with the head of the meth conspiracy charged in her federal case. He gave her an unlimited supply of meth and, in return, embroiled her in a supportive capacity in his drug distribution activities.

Pregnant with her second child in 2007, Mary Anne again disavowed the drug lifestyle.  The indictment in her federal case was handed down in 2008, when she was pregnant with her third child, after two years of sobriety and a wonderful marriage with her then husband, who had no connection with her drug activities. She cooperated fully upon arrest, at considerable risk to herself.

Imagine our family’s devastation when she was sentenced to 234 months, or 19.5 years.  Murderers get less time. Although nationally, statistics indicate that defendants with her characteristics would receive an almost 50 percent reduction of their applicable guideline, the judge gave her just a 20 percent reduction.  Mary Anne was not the kingpin or organizer. She never engaged in or threatened any violence.  She played a supportive role to fund her addiction.  She had never spent more than a night in custody.  She is precisely the kind of low-level player deserving of leniency.

Rather, her sentence was driven by the charging decisions of the prosecutors she faced and the particular sentencing philosophy of her judge.  This judge has been critiqued as one of the harshest in the country.  In fact, she is the only sitting judge to have been subject to a commutation by Trump (the 27-year sentence of Sholom Rubashkin).  Moreover, today, not only would another judge give Mary Anne an almost 50 percent reduction of her applicable guideline, Mary Anne’s sentencing guideline would be substantially lower....

Needless to say, Mary Anne has served the top end of that guideline.  And she has done so with distinction.  She has been an exemplary prisoner — discipline-free, who has worked and studied consistently throughout her sentence, completing her final year in a three-year college program in office administration.  Don’t get me wrong.  Mary Anne broke the law and deserved punishment.  But her lengthy sentence violates any basic notions of justice and proportionality.  She deserves mercy.

She applied for clemency before President Barack Obama, and has again applied before President Trump.  She was represented in both applications by the Clemency Project at the University of Minnesota Law School.  I am a lifelong Republican. I am, however, forever grateful to Obama for bringing executive clemency back to its roots — to address systemic unfairness, while also acknowledging the humanity of each person behind bars.  I am also buoyed by Trump’s recent clemency decisions, and his pronouncements that he plans to use it even more expansively.

But nothing beats a legislative solution that grants my daughter — and the thousands of prisoners like her — a “second look” at the severity and fairness of their sentence, in a public proceeding, with a judge and an advocate.

July 23, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (16)

"The Budgetary Effects of Ending Drug Prohibition"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper authored by Jeffrey Miron published by the Cato Institute. Here is how it starts:

In the past several years, the national movement to end drug prohibition has accelerated.  Nine states and Washington, DC, have legalized recreational marijuana, with at least three more states (Connecticut, Michigan, and Ohio) likely to vote on legalization by the end of 2018.  Dozens of others have decriminalized the substance or permitted it for medicinal use.  Moreover, amid the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis, some advocates and politicians are calling to decriminalize drugs more broadly and rethink our approach to drug enforcement.

Drug legalization affects various social outcomes.  In the debate over marijuana legalization, academics and the media tend to focus on how legalization affects public health and criminal justice outcomes.  But policymakers and scholars should also consider the fiscal effects of drug liberalization.  Legalization can reduce government spending, which saves resources for other uses, and it generates tax revenue that transfers income from drug producers and consumers to public coffers.

Drawing on the most recent available data, this bulletin estimates the fiscal windfall that would be achieved through drug legalization.  All told, drug legalization could generate up to $106.7 billion in annual budgetary gains for federal, state, and local governments.  Those gains would come from two primary sources: decreases in drug enforcement spending and increases in tax revenue.  This bulletin estimates that state and local governments spend $29 billion on drug prohibition annually, while the federal government spends an additional $18 billion.  Meanwhile, full drug legalization would yield $19 billion in state and local tax revenue and $39 billion in federal tax revenue.

In addition, this bulletin briefly examines the budgetary effects of state marijuana legalizations that have already taken place in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.  This study finds that, so far, legalization in those states has generated more tax revenue than previously forecast but generated essentially no reductions in criminal justice expenditure. The bulletin offers possible explanations for those finding.

I cannot help but being a bit suspicious of parts of this paper because the very first sentence is a little off:  it is not at all "likely" that Connecticut or Ohio will have marijuana legalization votes in 2018.  Michigan will be having an initiative vote in November, and it is possible that Missouri, North Dakota and Oklahoma voters all could also have a chance to vote for full legalization, too.   This state-vote accounting snafu notwithstanding, the other forms of accounting in this paper still seem to me worth checking out, and the paper also seem to provide a good excuse to link to a few related recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

July 23, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 16, 2018

Big Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upholds "drug free" condition of probation

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court handed down this morning a decision in the closely-watched case of Massachusetts v. Eldred, No. SJC--12279 (Mass. July 16, 2018) (available here). The opinion starts this way:

Following a probation violation hearing, a judge in the District Court found that the defendant, Julie A. Eldred, had tested positive for fentanyl, in violation of a condition of her probation requiring her to abstain from using illegal drugs. The judge ordered that the conditions of her probation be modified to require her to submit to inpatient treatment for drug addiction. The defendant appeals from that finding and disposition.  The judge also reported a question drafted by the defendant concerning whether the imposition of a "drug free" condition of probation, such as appeared in the original terms of defendant's probation, is permissible for an individual who is addicted to drugs and whether that person can be subject to probation violation proceedings for subsequently testing positive for illegal drugs.

We conclude that, in appropriate circumstances, a judge may order a defendant who is addicted to drugs to remain drug free as a condition of probation, and that a defendant may be found to be in violation of his or her probation by subsequently testing positive for an illegal drug. Accordingly, we affirm the finding that the defendant violated her probation and the order requiring her to submit to inpatient treatment for her addiction.

July 16, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, July 12, 2018

AG Jeff Sessions "surges" federal war against synthetic opioids in select counties

This new press release from the US Justice Department, headed "Attorney General Jeff Sessions Announces the Formation of Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (S.O.S.)," reports on a notable new federal front in the modern war on drugs. Here are the details (with my emphasis added):

Attorney General Jeff Sessions today announced Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge (S.O.S.), a new program that seeks to reduce the supply of deadly synthetic opioids in high impact areas and to identify wholesale distribution networks and international and domestic suppliers.

As part of Operation S.O.S., the Department will launch an enforcement surge in ten districts with some of the highest drug overdose death rates. Each participating United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) will choose a specific county and prosecute every readily provable case involving the distribution of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and other synthetic opioids, regardless of drug quantity. The surge will involve a coordinated DEA Special Operations Division operation to insure that leads from street-level cases are used to identify larger scale distributors. Operation S.O.S. was inspired by a promising initiative of the United States Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida involving Manatee County, Florida.

"We at the Department of Justice are going to dismantle these deadly fentanyl distribution networks. Simply put, we will be tireless until we reduce the number of overdose deaths in this country. We are going to focus on some of the worst counties for opioid overdose deaths in the United States, working all cases until we have disrupted the supply of these deadly drugs," Attorney General Sessions said. "In 2016, synthetic opioids killed more Americans than any other kind of drug.  Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal — that's not even enough to cover up Lincoln's face on a penny. Our prosecutors in Manatee County, Florida have shown that prosecuting seemingly small synthetic opioids cases can have a big impact and save lives, and we want to replicate their success in the districts that need it most.  Operation S.O.S. — and the new prosecutors who will help carry it out — will help us put more traffickers behind bars and keep the American people safe from the threat of these deadly drugs."...

In Manatee County, a county just south of Tampa with a population of about 320,000, overdoses and deaths skyrocketed in 2015 (780 overdoses/84 opioid related deaths) and 2016 (1,287 overdoses/123 opioid related deaths). In summer of 2016, local law enforcement reported frequent, street-level distribution of fentanyl and carfentanil for the first time.

To combat this crisis, the Middle District of Florida committed to prosecuting every readily provable drug distribution case involving synthetic opioids in Manatee County regardless of drug quantity.  The effort resulted in the indictments of forty five traffickers of synthetic opioids.  Further, from the last six months of 2016 to the last six months of 2017, overdoses dropped by 77.1% and deaths dropped by 74.2%. Overall, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdoses a day to an average now of less than one per day.

I am not at all keen on the idea of federalizing every small local drug case, but these reported data from Manatee County, Florida leads me to understand why AG Sessions might want to try to expand a program that he believes has proven distinctly effective. The Attorney General also delivered this speech in conjunction with the announcement of this new surge. Here is how he described the new initiative:

It’s called Operation Synthetic Opioid Surge — or S.O.S.

I am ordering our prosecutors in 10 districts with some of the highest overdose death rates—including this one—to systematically and relentlessly prosecute every synthetic opioid case. We can weaken these networks, reduce fentanyl availability, and save lives.

We are going to arrest, prosecute, and convict fentanyl dealers and we are going to put them in jail. When it comes to synthetic opioids, there is no such thing as a small case.

Three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. That’s equivalent a pinch of salt. It’s not even enough to cover up Lincoln’s face on a penny. Depending on the purity, you could fit more than 1,000 fatal doses of fentanyl in a teaspoon.

I want to be clear about this: we are not focusing on users, but on those supplying them with deadly drugs.

Manatee County, Florida shows that a united and determined effort, focusing on fentanyl dealers, can save lives. Your counterparts in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida tried this strategy in Manatee County, which is just south of Tampa. Like many parts of this country, they had experienced massive increases in opioid deaths in 2015 and 2016.

In response, they began prosecuting synthetic opioid sales, regardless of the amount. They prosecuted 45 synthetic opioids traffickers—and deaths started to go down. From the first six months of 2016 to 2017, overdose deaths dropped by 22 percent. This past January, they had nearly a quarter fewer overdoses as the previous January. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office went from responding to 11 overdoses a day to an average of one a day. Those are remarkable results.

As you implement this proven strategy, I am sending in reinforcements to help you. Last month, I sent more than 300 new AUSAs to districts across America .... It was the largest prosecutor surge in decades.

Today I am announcing that each of these ten districts where the drug crisis is worst will receive an additional prosecutor. As a former AUSA and U.S. Attorney myself, I know what you can do — and my expectations could not be higher. Our goal is to reduce crime, reduce fentanyl, and to reduce deaths, plain and simple. I believe that this new strategy and these additional prosecutors will have a significant impact.

July 12, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report detailing "inconsistently" applied federal mandatory minimum prior drug offense enhancement

851_coverThe United States Sentencing Commission today issued this big new report, titled "Application and Impact of 21 U.S.C. § 851: Enhanced Penalties for Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders," which examines the use and impact of the huge mandatory sentence increases for drug offenders who have a prior felony drug conviction (which are almost solely in the control of prosecutors and often called 851 enhancements).  A summary account of the 59-page report can be found on this USSC webpage and this two-page "Report-At-A-Glance" publication.  Here are highlights from the web account:

This publication examines the application and impact of the statutory penalty enhancement for federal drug trafficking offenders with a prior felony drug conviction (21 U.S.C. § 851). To trigger these enhanced penalties, a prosecutor must file an information providing notice of which prior convictions support the enhanced penalties.

Using fiscal year 2016 data, this publication provides comparisons between all offenders who appeared eligible for an 851 enhancement, offenders for whom an 851 information was filed, offenders for whom an 851 information was filed and later withdrawn, and offenders who remained subject to the 851 enhancement at sentencing.  The analysis builds on the Commission's 2011 report to Congress, in which the Commission recommended that Congress reassess the severity and scope of 851 enhancements.

Key Findings

Cases in which an 851 enhancement applied are rare.

  • The government filed an 851 information against 757 drug trafficking offenders, which represents just 12.3 percent of 6,153 offenders eligible for an 851 enhancement in fiscal year 2016.
  • The number of offenders is even smaller after considering cases in which the government withdrew the 851 information or made a motion for substantial assistance relief.  There were only 583 cases in which the 851 information was not withdrawn by the time of sentencing, and only 243 offenders (3.9% of eligible offenders) who ultimately remained subject to an enhanced mandatory minimum penalty.

The 851 enhancements were applied inconsistently, with wide geographic variations in the filing, withdrawal, and ultimate application of the 851 enhancements for eligible drug trafficking offenders.

  • In the majority of districts in fiscal year 2016, at least one-quarter of all drug trafficking offenders were eligible for an 851 enhancement.
  • There was, however, significant variation in the extent to which the enhanced penalties were sought against eligible offenders, ranging from five districts in which an 851 enhancement was sought against more than 50 percent of eligible drug trafficking offenders to 19 districts in which the enhancement was not sought against any of the eligible offenders.
  • Districts also varied significantly in the rate at which an 851 information was filed and later withdrawn.  Several of the districts with the highest rates of filing an 851 information also had among the lowest rates of withdrawal. Conversely, some districts have higher rates of withdrawal even where they appear to be more selective in filing an 851 information.

The 851 enhancements resulted in longer sentences for the relatively few drug offenders to which they apply.

  • In fiscal year 2016, offenders against whom an 851 information was filed received an average sentence that was over five years longer (61 months) than eligible offenders against whom the information was not filed (147 months compared to 86 months).
  • Offenders who remained subject to an enhanced mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing had average sentences of nearly 19 years (225 months), approximately ten years longer than the average sentence for offenders who received relief from an enhanced mandatory minimum penalty (107 months) and nearly 12 years longer than the average sentence for eligible offenders against whom the information was not filed (86 months).

While 851 enhancements had a significant impact on all racial groups, Black offenders were impacted most significantly.

  • Black offenders comprised the largest proportion of drug trafficking offenders (42.2%) eligible for an 851 enhancement in fiscal year 2016.
  • Black offenders constituted the majority (51.2%) of offenders against whom the government filed an information seeking an 851 enhancement, followed by White offenders (24.3%), Hispanic offenders (22.5%), and Other Race offenders (2.0%).
  • Such an information was filed against nearly 15 percent (14.9%) of Black offenders who were eligible to receive an 851 enhancement. This rate was higher than the rates for White offenders (11.4%), Other Race offenders (11.7%), and Hispanic offenders (9.4%).
  • The prevalence of Black offenders was even more pronounced for offenders who remained subject to an enhanced mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing, with Black offenders representing 57.9 percent of such offenders.

The is much to be drawn from and said about this data, but an important first-take summary is that this report proves yet again how mandatory minimums controlled by prosecutors can often operate to create rather than reduce sentencing disparities. And, disconcertingly, here is yet another report suggesting that black defendants face the hardest brunt of these disparities.

July 12, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 09, 2018

Lots more great new Quick Facts publications from US Sentencing Commission

In this post a few days ago, I praised the US Sentencing Commission for continuing to produce a steady stream of its insightful little data documents in its terrific series of reader-friendly "Quick Facts" publications (which are designed to "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format").  In my prior post, I gave special attention to the new Quick Facts on "Women in the Federal Offender Population," but now I see there are new Quick Facts on just about every major federal sentencing topic based on the USSC's 2017 fiscal year data.  Here are just a few of these publications I have been checking out:

There are so many big and small stories to notice here, and I find especially interesting the sentence-length and trend data appearing in this document about federal drug sentencing. It shows, inter alia, that despite all the talk about the opioid crisis and enhanced prosecution efforts, in Fiscal Year 2017 there were far more sentencings for methamphetamine trafficking than any other drug and these meth offenders got on average a sentence nearly two years longer than the average heroin dealer sentenced in federal court. Also, of all drug dealers sentenced in federal court in Fiscal Year 2017, roughly three times as many had their guideline range reduced as a minor or minimal participant than had their guideline range increased for having a leadership or supervisory role in a drug offense.

July 9, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Judge Jack Weinstein laments overuse of federal supervised release (and especially its revocation for marijuana use)

As regular readers know, US District Judge Jack Weinstein regularly produces interesting and important sentencing opinions, and his latest effort focuses on supervised release as well as marijuana reform. This New York Times article about this opinion, headlined "Brooklyn Judge Vows Not to Send People Back to Prison for Smoking Marijuana," starts with this accounting of the effort:

Noting that marijuana has become increasingly accepted by society, a federal judge in Brooklyn made an unusual promise on Thursday: He pledged he would no longer reimprison people simply for smoking pot.

In a written opinion that was part legal document, part mea culpa, the judge, Jack B. Weinstein, 96, acknowledged that for too long, he had been sending people sentenced to supervised release back into custody for smoking pot even though the drug has been legalized by many states and some cities, like New York, have recently decided not to arrest those who use it. Under supervised release, inmates are freed after finishing their prison time, but are monitored by probation officers.

“Like many federal trial judges, I have been terminating supervision for ‘violations’ by individuals with long-term marijuana habits who are otherwise rehabilitated,” Judge Weinstein wrote. “No useful purpose is served through the continuation of supervised release for many defendants whose only illegal conduct is following the now largely socially acceptable habit of marijuana use.”

The full 42-page opinion in US v. Trotter, No. 15-CR-382 (E.D.N.Y. July 5, 2018) (available here), is an interesting read and important for lot of reasons beyond the connections of criminal justice supervision and marijuana reform.  This first part of the introduction provides a taste for all the full opinion covers:

This case raises serious issues about sentencing generally, and supervised release for marijuana users specifically: Are we imposing longer terms than are needed for effective supervised release?  Should we stop punishing supervisees for a marijuana addiction or habit?

After revisiting and reconsidering these issues, I conclude: (1) I, like other trial judges, have in many cases imposed longer periods of supervised release than needed, and I, like other trial judges, have failed to terminate supervised release early in many cases where continuing supervision presents such a burden as to reduce the probability of rehabilitation; and (2) I, like other trial judges, have provided unnecessary conditions of supervised release and unjustifiably punished supervisees for their marijuana addiction, even though marijuana is widely used in the community and is an almost unbreakable addiction or habit for some.  As a result of these errors in our sentencing practice, money and the time of our probation officers are wasted, and supervisees are unnecessarily burdened.

In summary, in this and my future cases I will: (1) impose shorter terms of supervised release as needed; (2) give greater consideration to the appropriateness of conditions; (3) provide for earlier termination where indicated; and (4) avoid violations of supervised release and punishment by incarceration merely for habitual marijuana use.

July 7, 2018 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Interesting and intricate Ohio drug sentencing initiative poised to qualify for November 2018 ballot

As reported in this local Ohio article, supporters of "a proposal to reduce penalties for nonviolent drug crime offenders submitted hundreds of thousands of signatures on Wednesday to put the measure on the November ballot." Here is more about the remarkable initiative that seems likely to generate some interesting debate in the midst of a big election year in Ohio:

The "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation" amendment is backed by a bipartisan coalition of community, law enforcement, faith and business leaders and groups. The Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities Campaign submitted 730,031 signatures Wednesday; 305,591 valid signatures of Ohio registered voters are needed to qualify for the ballot....

Under the drug treatment and rehabilitation amendment:

  • Possessing, obtaining or using a drug or drug paraphernalia would be a misdemeanor offense, with a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail and $1,000 fine. First and second offenses within a two-year period could only be punished with probation.
  • Convicted individuals could receive a half day credit against their sentence for each day or rehabilitative work or programming, up to 25 percent of the total sentence.
  • Individuals on probation for a felony offense would not be sent to prison for non-violent violations of that probation.
  • Individuals convicted of such crimes could petition a court to reclassify the offense as a misdemeanor, which could result in their release from prison.

The provisions would not apply to convictions for the sale, distribution or trafficking of drugs or to convictions for any drug offense that, based on volume or weight, are a first-, second- or third-degree felony.

Money saved from those affected by the amendment would be diverted to substance abuse programs (70 percent) and to crime victims services (30 percent.)

Among the many remarkable elements of the ballot initiative, which can be read in full at this link, is that it proposes a state constitutional amendment; voter approval would make it nearly impossible for the Ohio General Assembly to alter the amendment's terms without another initiative vote.  Here is how the summary of the amendment explains its goals at the outset:

This Amendment would add a new section 12 to Article XV of the Ohio Constitution to reduce the number of people in state prison for low-level, nonviolent drug possession or drug use offenses or for non-criminal probation violations and by providing sentence credits for participation in rehabilitative programs and to direct the savings achieved by such reductions in incarceration to drug treatment programs and other purposes.

I have already heard a few folks express support for the initiatives substantive goals but concerns about amending the Ohio Constitution to achieve those goals. Interesting times.

July 5, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 02, 2018

Notable Sixth Circuit panel reverses as procedurally unreasonable big upward variance in cocaine sentence based on opioid overdoses

On Friday, the Sixth Circuit handed down a notable new sentencing opinion in US v. Fleming, No. 17-3954 (6th Cir. June 29, 2018) (available here). The start of the opinion reviews its essentials:

Marcus Fleming was convicted of a cocaine offense, and the United States Sentencing Guidelines provided for a recommended sentence of 60 months’ imprisonment.  At his sentencing hearing, the district court doubled that.  It did so based in large part on a brief local news article that described a recent surge in drug overdose deaths, mostly due to powerful opioids like fentanyl.  Neither this article, nor the underlying Ohio state report on which it was based, was provided to the parties before the start of the sentencing hearing.  Nor was Fleming notified before the hearing that the district court planned to consider the article or the issues it addressed.  Because this procedure denied Fleming a meaningful opportunity to comment on information that led to a substantial increase in his sentence, the resulting sentence was procedurally unreasonable.

Here is small part of the Sixth Circuit panel's analysis:

Here, the district court’s reliance on information about mixed cocaine-opioid overdose deaths in the Cleveland.com article was a surprise, and that surprise was prejudicial to Fleming’s sentencing presentation. Therefore, Fleming’s sentence was rendered in a procedurally unreasonable manner.

The district court’s consideration of information about mixed cocaine-opioid overdose deaths was a surprise because, before the sentencing hearing, there was no indication that opioids were relevant to this case, let alone that they would play a prominent role. Fleming was convicted for possession of cocaine, not opioids.  Nothing in the record suggested that opioids were found in Fleming’s car, or that Fleming had ever sold or possessed opioids, or even that any cocaine Fleming sold had ever been mixed with opioids. Of course, opioids have been a topic of grave public concern in recent years, as their devastating and tragic effects have been felt across the country. But it was far from apparent that they were relevant to Fleming’s sentence for possession of cocaine.

This ruling strikes me as notable or at least two reasons beyond its substantive particulars: (1) one of jurists on Prez Trump's SCOTUS short list, Judge Raymond Kethledge, was one of the judges on this Fleming panel, and (2) this Cleveland.com report highlights that the erroneous sentencing judge has a history of unreasonably long sentences:

An Akron federal judge who has been criticized by a federal appeals court had a sentence reversed again on Friday -- this time because of his reliance on a cleveland.com article....

Adams has been removed from cases a few times in recent years and has been the target of criticism by the 6th Circuit.  Most recently, the appeals court removed him from a case involving two men arrested in Cleveland with more than 200 pounds of cocaine. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case agreed to recommend prison sentences of about three years, but Adams gave them both 10 years and did not give any good reasons for the higher sentences, the 6th Circuit ruled.

July 2, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, June 29, 2018

Two new documents from Center for American Progress on "Ending the War on Drugs"

Download (17)The Center for American Progress released this week two notable new short papers, titled "Ending the War on Drugs" and "Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers."  Here are links to both documents and their introductions:

"Ending the War on Drugs":

Nationwide, communities face an unprecedented rise in substance misuse fatalities. A record 63,600 overdose deaths were recorded in 2016, two-thirds of which involved opioids.  To stem the tide of this crisis, some communities are doubling down on the war on drugs, despite clear evidence that increasing arrests and incarceration does not lower drug use.  But an increasing number of cities are bucking the trend and adopting models that treat substance misuse as a disease, not a crime.  Instead of criminalizing substance use disorders, communities are focusing on saving lives and reducing the harmful effects of drug use.

The idea of “harm reduction” may seem like common sense today, but it signifies a radical departure from traditional U.S. responses to drug use, which relied heavily on the criminal justice system.  More and more cities are expanding access to clean syringes, launching safe-injection facilities, and decriminalizing possession of controlled substances. Public acceptance of these approaches was unthinkable just a few years ago.  Today, however, they are filtering into the mainstream.  In fact, support for harm reduction spans the ideological spectrum.  These strategies are underway in red and blue states alike, representing promising steps toward dismantling the country’s failed drug policy agenda.

"Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers"

President Richard Nixon called for a war on drugs in 1971, setting in motion a tough-on-crime policy agenda that continues to produce disastrous results today.  Policymakers at all levels of government passed harsher sentencing laws and increased enforcement actions, especially for low-level drug offenses.  The consequences of these actions are magnified for communities of color, which are disproportionately targeted for enforcement and face discriminatory practices across the justice system. Today, researchers and policymakers alike agree that the war on drugs is a failure.  This fact sheet summarizes research findings that capture the need to replace the war on drugs with a fairer, more effective model that treats substance misuse as a public health issue — not a criminal justice issue.

June 29, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 25, 2018

Can we predict how federal immigration crackdowns will impact the modern drug war?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this USA Today piece headlined "DOJ: Trump's immigration crackdown 'diverting' resources from drug cases." Here are excerpts:

Federal prosecutors warned they were diverting resources from drug-smuggling cases in southern California to handle the flood of immigration charges brought on by the Trump administration’s border crackdown, records obtained by USA TODAY show.

Days after Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructed prosecutors to bring charges against anyone who enters the United States illegally, a Justice Department supervisor in San Diego sent an email to border authorities warning that immigration cases “will occupy substantially more of our resources.”  He wrote that the U.S. Attorney’s Office there was “diverting staff, both support and attorneys, accordingly.”...

Sessions last month ordered federal prosecutors along the southwest border to bring criminal charges against every adult caught entering the United States illegally, a “zero tolerance” push meant to deter migrants. Those cases typically are seldom more than symbolic — most of the people who are charged are sentenced to no additional jail time and a $10 fee — but they have served as the legal basis for separating thousands of children from their parents at the border.

The border crackdown has produced a high-speed assembly line of minor cases in federal courts from California to Texas, more than doubling the caseloads there.  This month alone, USA TODAY identified more than 4,100 migrants who were charged with minor crimes after crossing into the United States from Mexico.

Kelly Thornton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in a statement that the Justice Department “has given our district the necessary resources -- including 10 additional prosecutor positions plus at least five Department of Defense attorneys -- to prosecute all of these crimes.”  She said the number of smuggling cases prosecuted there is on track to go up this year.  Still, there are signs that border authorities are seeking to prosecute drug smugglers in state courts instead, even though the possible sentences typically are harsher in the federal system.

The District Attorney’s office in San Diego said Friday that the number of cases submitted to them by border authorities had more than doubled since the administration started its border crackdown.  Spokeswoman Tanya Sierra said Homeland Security agents referred 96 drug cases to the office between May 21 and June 21, compared to 47 over the same period last year.  Most of the cases involved more than a kilogram of drugs, Sierra said.

Meanwhile, the number of people charged in federal court has dropped since the start of the administration’s zero-tolerance push, said Reuben Cahn, the chief federal public defender in San Diego....

USA TODAY examined 2,598 written judgments in border-crossing cases filed in federal courts along the border since mid-May.  In nearly 70 percent of those cases, migrants pleaded guilty and immediately received a sentence of time served, meaning they would spend no additional time in jail.  Another 13 percent were sentenced to unsupervised probation, including a condition that they not illegally re-enter the United States.  In both cases, that meant they would immediately be returned to immigration officials to be processed for deportation, leaving them in essentially the same position as if they had not been prosecuted.

This newspaper analysis highlights just some ripple effects of any significant change in federal prosecutorial priorities: with more resources developed to federal immigration cases, there may be fewer federal drug cases brought; but more cases may be handed over to state authorities.  And, in various settings involving non-citizen subject, the results of state or federal prosecution may be impacted by the fact that deportation will follow any conviction.

June 25, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Remarkable tale of how uncertain criminal laws and their enforcement can produce extraordinary punishment inequities

I understand concerns about the potential for sentencing disparities that can arise from broad judicial discretion, but I have always noticed how many significant inequities can result from many other aspects of criminal case processing.  In this recent post, I flagged this new remarkable series produced by Florida newspapers documenting how prosecutors are responsible for locking up defendants of different races for much different periods.  And this morning my local newspaper has this remarkable story, headlined "Two bath-salts prosecutions lead to far different results," reporting on two similar defendants in Ohio getting remarkably different outcomes: one walking free and the other sentenced to 35 years in prison!  Here are the details:

Both men operated retail stores within blocks of each other in the Short North area. Both were arrested in 2012 and charged with selling bath salts, a synthetic hallucinogen.  One walked free, his case dismissed by a Franklin County judge.  The other, whose case was assigned to a different judge, was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison, with no chance for parole....

For Soleiman Mobarak, the man sent to prison, “it’s just a matter of bad timing and bad luck,” said his attorney, Robert Behal. “Hopefully, our system is better than that, where it’s not a matter of luck whether you get 35 years or zero.”

At one point, Mobarak, 35, was set free. In July 2015, 13 months after he was sent to prison, the Franklin County Court of Appeals overturned his conviction.  A three-judge panel ruled that selling and possessing bath salts and other designer drugs known as controlled-substance analogs was not a crime in Ohio when undercover investigators purchased them from Mobarak at his East 5th Avenue convenience store in May, June and July 2012.

Common Pleas Judge Laurel Beatty Blunt had reached a similar conclusion when she dismissed a bath-salts case against Thomas C. Smith in February 2014.  The appeals court upheld Beatty Blunt’s ruling in December 2014.  Smith, 63, who owned three shops on North High Street, and Mobarak both were swept up in a sting operation conducted by the Franklin County Drug Task Force, which was targeting the sale of synthetic designer drugs.

In both cases, the appeals court found that controlled-substance analogs, including bath salts, didn’t become illegal until the Ohio legislature included them in the criminal drug-offense statutes through a bill that took effect Dec. 20, 2012.  The Franklin County Prosecutors Office appealed those decisions to the Ohio Supreme Court. 

The Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Smith’s case in October 2015, which put an end to any efforts to prosecute him....  But before the Supreme Court got around to making a decision on the Mobarak appeal, the 12th District Court of Appeals ruled in a Warren County case that controlled-substance analogs were illegal in Ohio as of October 2011.  When that ruling was appealed to the Supreme Court, the justices had two pending cases in which appeals courts had reached conflicting opinions about the issue.  The justices chose to hear the cases, and in December 2016 they agreed with the 12th District court — controlled-substance analogs were criminalized in October 2011, before the sales made by Mobarak and the Warren County defendant.

Franklin County prosecutors filed a motion asking the trial court to revoke Mobarak’s bond and return him prison to complete his sentence.  The judge who sentenced Mobarak, Pat Sheeran, had since retired. His replacement, Judge Jeffrey Brown, inherited the case. June 12, after months of court filings, Brown issued what appeared to be a reluctant ruling.  Twice in his 38-page decision, Brown wrote that he was “troubled” by Mobarak’s situation. “The court’s hands are tied, however,” by the Supreme Court ruling, he wrote. “This court has no authority to modify the sentence ... Mobarak must begin to serve the remainder of his sentence.”

Had the conflicting case from Warren County not intervened, the Supreme Court presumably would have declined to hear the Mobarak case, just as it had done with Smith, Behal said.  Mobarak, like Smith, would be a free man.  “The passage of time created disparate results, and that’s tough to take,” Behal said.

Prosecutor Ron O’Brien has a different view of the fates of the two defendants.  “It’s unfortunate that Smith evaded responsibility just because of timing, but that does not mean Mobarak should evade responsibility,” O’Brien said. “Mobarak shouldn’t benefit from what was a wrong decision from the beginning.  Everybody knew how bad bath salts were, including the people who were selling them.  They were just playing games with the classifications.  Luckily, the Supreme Court finally straightened it out.”

June 24, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"Possession's not enough: Expunge all weed convictions"

Legal Marijuana Oregon Measure 91The title of this post is the headline of this recent editorial from the Newark Star-Ledger.  Regular readers likely know I take a shine to this opinion piece because of my recent work on a recent article, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices,"  which call for jurisdictions to take an expansive approach to expungement when moving forward with marijuana prohibition reforms.  Here are excerpts from the editorial:

Even as New Jersey is poised to legalize marijuana, the cops are still arresting tens of thousands of people annually, mostly minorities, just for having a little pot. Many can't find work because of the stigma.

Jo Anne Zito was rejected for a job at Godiva chocolates because of a low-level marijuana possession charge, she told lawmakers last week. So, as we contemplate legalizing recreational weed, we need to ask: Does it make sense that people like her still won't be able TO get work at a candy store?

No. We can't legalize marijuana, yet continue to force them to "walk around with a scarlet letter," as Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) put it. The answer is expungement. But the current debate is far too limited.

Quijano introduced a bill to allow those caught with a little pot to apply to have their records cleared; advocates argue they shouldn't have to initiate that onerous process, the state should do it automatically. None of this goes far enough.

We need to think big. We need to admit this was a mistake in the first place, and that a lot of decent people were caught up in the dragnet. So, sparing only those who possessed small amounts is really just a first step.

We need to expunge the records of those caught with more than just a little pot. And we need to expunge the records of low-level dealers as well, if a judge approves, as long as they didn't commit more serious crimes like selling to minors, carrying guns, or committing acts of violence.

Aside from cleaning these records, we need to release those currently imprisoned on such charges. Does it make sense to hold thousands of people behind bars for selling weed, while the government allows sales outside the prison walls?...

All states that have legalized pot have only done so for certain amounts. Anyone arrested for possessing more gets a ticket, rather than a criminal charge. Yet if our expungement policy is modeled to match, those previously charged with having any more pot can't get that wiped from their records. They will continue to be barred from employment, even as people who buy heaps of it after legalization are merely ticketed. That needs to be fixed. Expunging high-level dealing charges is likely impossible, for political reasons. But we should at least include intent to sell and lower level distribution and growing charges.

Granted, this is not without risk. A guy who pled down to a marijuana charge from money-laundering, for example, shouldn't get out of doing his time, or a criminal record. But we could include prosecutorial review, as a bill moving through California's legislature would. It requires the state to automatically dismiss any old marijuana charges, yet prosecutors would sift through the higher-level cases and contest them if necessary. California already allows many past pot charges to be dismissed or reduced based on a defendant's petition, although they might still surface if you apply for a government job.

Yes, it's a huge undertaking to expunge all these convictions retroactively, especially if our state does so without requiring a petition. But we derailed hundreds of thousands of lives with needless marijuana prosecutions, and nobody helped those people get jobs or find housing. Now we are saying it never should have happened. So let the state overcome the logistical hurdles, too.

Actually, with a little bit of advanced planning and the right infrastructure, it does not necessarily have to be a "huge undertaking" to expunge past marijuana convictions. Indeed, as noted in this post over at my marijuana blog, "Code for America helping with technology to enhance marijuana offense expungement efforts in California pilot program," private players are willing to help in various ways with this effort.

I have blogged a lot about this issue over at my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog, and here is just a sampling of some recent postings:

June 12, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"Jeff Sessions Struggles to Get Planned Marijuana Crackdown Going"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Wall Street Journal article with this subtitle summarizing its contents: "Attorney general vowed to toughen federal enforcement of the drug, but he doesn’t have support from Trump or Congress." Here are excerpts: 

Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to use federal law to get tough on marijuana, announcing in January he was ending Obama-era protections for the nascent pot industry in states where it is legal. Six months into his mission, he is largely going it alone.

Mr. Sessions’ own prosecutors have yet to bring federal charges against pot businesses that are abiding by state law. And fellow Republicans in Congress, with support from President Donald Trump, are promoting several bills that would protect or even expand the legal pot trade.

As a result, Mr. Sessions, an unabashed drug warrior, has struggled to make his anti-marijuana agenda a reality, a notable contrast with the success he has had in toughening law-and-order policies in other criminal justice areas.

Marijuana advocates say Mr. Sessions’ approach, in seeking to spur a crackdown on the legal marijuana market, has largely backfired. It has catalyzed bipartisan support for research, they say, and for action to improve the young industry’s access to banks, which have been generally unwilling to accept proceeds from pot sales.

Underlining the pushback, Sen. Cory Gardner, (R., Colo.) on Thursday joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) in introducing a bill that essentially would allow states to pass their own marijuana laws without interference from the federal government. Mr. Trump on Friday reiterated his support for Mr. Gardner, saying “I know exactly what he’s doing, we’re looking at it, but I probably will end up supporting that, yes.”...

In an unusual move by a Republican senator against his own party’s attorney general, Mr. Gardner blocked nominees for Justice Department jobs after Mr. Sessions announced he was undoing the Obama administration’s approach. Mr. Gardner stood down after receiving assurances that Mr. Trump would support protections for pot-legal states like Colorado, essentially undermining Mr. Sessions on the issue. “If they’ve voted to have a legal industry, then it would allow them to continue forward without violating any federal law,” Mr. Gardner said of the bill he co-authored with Ms. Warren.

House Republicans are also supporting a number of other marijuana-related measures. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) is pushing his colleagues to allow more marijuana research, which he hopes will pave the way to rescheduling pot—that is, categorizing it with less dangerous drugs on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of illicit substances.

Supporters of relaxing marijuana drug laws cheer the recent developments. “It was terrific,” said Don Murphy, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project, said of Mr. Sessions’ threat to the industry. “It moved this issue to a burner.” Pot foes caution it is too soon to judge the impact of Mr. Sessions’ changes. “It’s not a win for Jeff Sessions, but at the end of the day he still directs the department and could have the DEA close marijuana businesses,” said Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of the antipot group Smart Approaches to Marijuana.

Mr. Sessions’ January marijuana policy left federal prosecutors to decide what resources to devote to marijuana crimes, stirring fear among dispensary owners that raids and arrests were imminent. Instead, many U.S. attorneys continued to use their limited manpower to target unusually brazen marijuana operations that are also illegal under state law, such as sprawling marijuana growers on federal lands or gangs that peddle pot along with other drugs.

Billy Williams, Oregon’s U.S. attorney, for example, is targeting the trafficking of marijuana across state lines, organized crime and businesses that supply pot to minors. This in many ways resembles the policy that prevailed under the Obama administration, which urged states to tightly regulate marijuana and keep it from crossing state lines to avoid federal scrutiny. “I’m not making any blanket statements that we wouldn’t prosecute anyone,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s a case-by-case basis.”

Colorado’s U.S. attorney, Bob Troyer, is aggressively prosecuting drug traffickers who grow pot on federal lands, which is against both state and federal law. But his office hasn’t brought charges against dispensaries that comply with the state’s regulations. “We never would give anyone immunity for violating federal law,” Mr. Troyer said. “As those threats evolve and change, something else could rise to the top priority level.”

All the particulars of these stories should be familiar to regular readers of my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform blog, and here are just a few of many recent posts providing more of those particulars:

June 10, 2018 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Kimme’s accomplishment: Prez Trump commutes LWOP sentence of Alice Johnson!!

Only a week after an in-person meeting with Prez Trump, Kim Kardashian West can and should be credited with getting President Donald Trump to do something bold and consequential with his clemency power.  This official White House statement explains:

Today, President Donald J. Trump granted a commutation to Alice Marie Johnson, a 63-year-old great-grandmother who has served almost 22 years in Federal prison for a first-time criminal offense.

Ms. Johnson has accepted responsibility for her past behavior and has been a model prisoner over the past two decades.  Despite receiving a life sentence, Alice worked hard to rehabilitate herself in prison, and act as a mentor to her fellow inmates.  Her Warden, Case Manager, and Vocational Training Instructor have all written letters in support of her clemency.  According to her Warden, Arcala Washington-Adduci, “since [Ms. Johnson’s] arrival at this institution, she has exhibited outstanding and exemplary work ethic. She is considered to be a model inmate who is willing to go above and beyond in all work tasks.”

While this Administration will always be very tough on crime, it believes that those who have paid their debt to society and worked hard to better themselves while in prison deserve a second chance.

I give Prez Trump a lot of credit for now moving beyond seemingly politically-motivated clemencies on to seemingly celebrity-motivated clemencies.  Excitingly, this CNN report today, headlined "Exclusive: Trump considers dozens of new pardons," reports that the Trump Administration "has prepared the pardoning paperwork for at least 30 people," which means we might soon get a lot more than just political-celebrity-buzz-worthy grants. 

As we anticipate even more clemency action, I hope someone makes sure to tell Prez Trump that he is now still 1713 commutations (including 567 LWOP sentences) behind President Barack Obama's modern records.  As this accounting highlights, Prez Obama, after a slow start, became the modern pace setter for federal clemency.  Here is hoping that Prez Trump will look to break Prez Obama's record.

Especially amusing among the stories covering all these clemency developments is this new Splinter piece (which predates the grant to Ms. Johnson).  It is titled "Donald Trump is Reportedly Torn Between Kim Kardashian and John Kelly," and it starts this way:

Picture if you will a befuddled Donald Trump. On one shoulder is a tiny Kim Kardashian angel. A tiny John Kelly devil is perched on the other. Both Kelly and Kardashian begin whispering their advice into the president’s ears.

That, essentially, is what is apparently taking place at the White House, as Trump mulls a pardon for 63-year-old Alice Johnson—a great-grandmother currently serving out a life sentence in prison for a non-violent drug-related conviction—following Kardashian’s high profile oval office visit in late May.

Oh how I wish I had the computer graphics skills to turn this imagined Kimme/Kelly shoulder debate into the gif that keeps on giving, especially now that we know how it turned out.

A few of many recent related posts about Trumpian clemency activity:

June 6, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (21)

Monday, June 04, 2018

Many hundreds of federal prisoners surely thrilled by Hughes, but thousands surely disappointed by Koons

As I mentioned in this post a few months ago around the time of SCOTUS oral argument, a lot of federal prisoners had a lot of interest in the two sentence modification cases on the SCOTUS docket.  Now that we have decisions in the sentence modification cases of Hughes and Koons (basics here), a bit of (too) simple accounting seems in order.

Helpfully, Table 8 of the US Sentencing Commission's latest report on retroactive application of the reduction of the drug guidelines reports that 781 prisoners have been denied a sentence reduction "because of binding plea" (the issue in Hughes) and that 3070 prisoners have been denied a sentence reduction because "mandatory minimum controls sentence."  Though these numbers are not the full universe of who might be impacted by these rulings, it does suggest that, speaking quantitatively, these rulings were a bigger win for federal prosecutors than for federal defendants.

Prior related post:

June 4, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (7)

Supreme Court delivers split decision for federal defendants in sentence modification cases of Hughes and Koons

Though the Supreme Court's ruling today about wedding cakes is sure to be what is most remembered from the first set of June 2018 opinions, the Court gave sentencing fans a lot to review with opinions in Hughes v. United States and Koons v. United StatesThe opinion in Hughes v. United States, No. 17–155 (S. Ct. June 4, 2018) (available here), will be a disappointment to some SCOTUS-watchers because the Court avoided addressing the Marks rule concerning fractured opinions.  But Hughes will not be a disappointment those sentencing fans who will be excited to see that Justice Gorsuch joined a majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy in favor of a broad interpretation of who is eligible for sentence modification under retroactive guideline reductions. The opinion in Koons v. United States, No. 17- 5716 (S. Ct. June 4, 2018) (available here), was a unanimous opinoin authored by Justice Alito, which informed readers likely know means it federal prosecutors prevailed.

Here are some key sentences from the Hughes majority:

To resolve the uncertainty that resulted from this Court’s Opinion of the Court divided decision in Freeman, the Court now holds that a sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is “based on” the defendant’s Guidelines range so long as that range was part of the framework the district court relied on in imposing the sentence or accepting the agreement....

This interpretation furthers §3582(c)(2)’s purpose, as well as the broader purposes of the Sentencing Reform Act.  “The Act aims to create a comprehensive sentencing scheme in which those who commit crimes of similar severity under similar conditions receive similar sentences.” Freeman, 564 U.S., at 533. “Section 3582(c)(2) contributes to that goal by ensuring that district courts may adjust sentences imposed pursuant to a range that the Commission concludes [is] too severe, out of step with the seriousness of the crime and the sentencing ranges of analogous offenses, and inconsistent with the Act’s purposes.” Ibid.  And there is no reason a defendant’s eligibility for relief should turn on the form of his plea agreement.

Here is the start of the unanimous (and very short) Koons opinion:

Under 18 U. S. C. §3582(c)(2), a defendant is eligible for a sentence reduction if he was initially sentenced “based on a sentencing range” that was later lowered by the United States Sentencing Commission.  The five petitioners in today’s case claim to be eligible under this provision.  They were convicted of drug offenses that carried statutory mandatory minimum sentences, but they received sentences below these mandatory minimums, as another statute allows, because they substantially assisted the Government in prosecuting other drug offenders.  We hold that petitioners’ sentences were “based on” their mandatory minimums and on their substantial assistance to the Government, not on sentencing ranges that the Commission later lowered. Petitioners are therefore ineligible for §3582(c)(2) sentence reductions.

June 4, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Lamenting how federal supervised release operates and suggesting reforms

Jacob Schuman, a federal public defender, has this extended New Republic piece headlined "America’s Shadow Criminal Justice System" detailing problems with how federal supervised release operates. I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

In the federal criminal justice system, prison is just the beginning of punishment. After prison comes “supervised release,” a set of obligations and restrictions governing an ex-con’s day-to-day schedule, employment, residence, and relationships.

In the best-case scenario, two-thirds of people successfully complete their term of supervised release....  As a federal public defender, I see the remaining one-third of cases—the worst-case scenarios where people violate their supervised release and get sent back to prison for up to five years. In a recent case, I represented a first-time offender who flawlessly completed two years of a five-year term of supervision.  But after he got into a relationship with the wrong person and started using opioids, he was reported by his probation officer, arrested, and held in prison for seven months.  After a failed attempt at rehab, his probation officer reported him again, and the judge sentenced him to 18 months’ imprisonment for violating his release by failing to achieve recovery. He’s now serving that sentence in a maximum-security prison, where no addiction treatment is available.

Improving this system depends on Congress, which has now taken on the worthy task of prison reform. Recently, the House of Representatives passed the First Step Act, a bill that makes it easier for inmates to earn early release and expands their access to job training and education. The proposal won an impressively bipartisan 360-59 vote and the support of the White House.  While the FSA makes good changes, reform will be incomplete unless it also addresses supervised release, a web of restrictions that ensnares many former prisoners, making successful reentry to society more difficult, not less....

The data show that this system is incredibly strict, and that its reach is vast.  Between 2005 and 2009, federal judges imposed supervised release in approximately 300,000 cases, with an average term lasting over 40 months.  By 2010, more than 10,000 federal inmates were locked up for violating their supervised release. The supervision costs the federal government $400 million annually (not including the cost of incarcerating people for violations)....

Created by the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, supervised release was supposed to reduce the monitoring of former prisoners.  Under the old “parole” system, inmates could earn early release from prison, but then had to serve the rest of their sentences in the community, subject to a parole officer’s supervision.  The SRA abolished parole and instead gave judges the option of imposing supervised release only on those defendants who needed extra support to “ease the[ir] … transition into the community.” The idea was that people would spend more of their time in prison, but would also receive less supervision after their release. Yet as the political winds shifted, Congress gradually made supervised release more expansive and more punitive.  Federal judges now impose supervised release in 99 percent of qualifying cases, and the number of people under supervision has increased five-fold.

Over the past 30 years, supervised release has transformed into a shadow criminal justice system that both reflects and perpetuates racial inequality.  In her book, The New Jim Crow, Professor Michelle Alexander examined how restrictions on former inmates, the majority of whom are Black or Hispanic, put them “at increased risk of arrest because their lives are governed by additional rules that do not apply to everyone else.”  This inequality continues into the courthouse, as unlike most defendants, people accused of violating the terms of their supervised release do not enjoy the rights to a speedy trial, a jury, confrontation of adverse witnesses, or proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  The upshot is that in the federal system alone, over 100,000 men and women are now subject to arrest for minor infractions and to imprisonment without the protections of the Bill of Rights....

Reforming this system will not be easy, but there are a few good places to start:

First, Congress should return to its original goal of reducing post-release supervision of former inmates by limiting supervised release only to those defendants who need it most and by reducing the punishments for violations.

Second, both Congress and the courts should ensure that people facing revocation of their supervised release receive all the fundamental protections promised by the Bill of Rights, including the right to a jury, to a speedy hearing, to cross-examine adverse witnesses, and to be proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Finally, judges should stop sending people to prison for violations that are merely symptoms of an underlying drug addiction, not bad intent.  To encourage this practice, Congress should end mandatory revocations for drug possession and prohibit imprisonment for drug-related technical infractions.

Supporters of the First Step Act say their goal is “to control corrections spending, manage the prison population, provide educational and vocational training to inmates so they can successfully reenter society once released, and reduce recidivism.” To achieve this admirable purpose, reforming the nation’s prisons is indeed only the first step. Congress must also look beyond prison walls and fix our broken supervised-release system.

June 2, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Matthew Charles saga: another sad example of why complete abolition of parole was a mistake for federal sentencing

Matthew_charles-_march_2018_outside_wpln_1Last year I wrote an article in this special issue of the journal Federal Probation in which I explained why I believe the federal sentencing system has been disserved by the complete abolition of parole.  I have been thinking about that article in conjunction with the story that blew up my twitter feed over the weekend, the story of Matthew Charles described in this Nashville Public Radio piece.  Here are excerpts from a story that should be read in full:

It looks like a party — but Charles isn’t leaving for a big new job, or trying his luck in a new city. He’s going to prison. To finish out a 35-year term for selling crack to an informant in the 90’s.

Charles had already served 21 years before his sentence was cut short as a result of crack guideline changes passed by the Obama administration. But the U.S. Attorney’s office appealed his release on the grounds that Charles was legally considered a “career offender” due to a prior stint in state prison. They said the retroactive change in the law did not apply to him — and a Court of Appeals agreed.

“He’s rebuilt his life and now they’re coming to snatch it,” says "Wolf", who met Charles at a halfway house in 2016. They’ve volunteered together almost every Saturday since, long after fulfilling their community service requirements.  Wolf is talking to John Hairston, an old friend of Charles’ who flew in from Houston.  They’ve seen each other twice in over two decades — but for years, they wrote each other letters.  “The whole thing pisses me off to be honest,” he says, partly to Wolf and partly to the group of guests seated at another table across the lawn, who're listening intently and shaking their heads. “But it underscores how big a need there is for some reform in the justice system. I don’t care what they say.”

Since his release in 2016, Charles has held a steady job. He volunteers every Saturday, has reconnected with his family, and started a serious relationship. But really, his rehabilitation started years prior.

In prison, he took college classes and correspondence courses, he taught a GED program and became a law clerk. With his training, he helped other incarcerated men understand the judicial system long after their public defenders moved on to the next case.

Charles kept the secrets of those who were illiterate so they wouldn’t face ridicule or harassment — he read them letters from the court and drafted filings for them in the library. He organized bible studies and counseled newcomers. Two decades in federal insitututions — from maximum to low security — without a single disciplinary infraction.

Those that know Charles say they can’t understand why the justice system won’t recognize his rehabilitation. But the federal Bureau of Prisons did away with parole and most "good behavior" incentives years ago — even the best behaved must serve out the majority of their term.

Charles says the whole situation feels surreal. "I'm so tired” he says, after his hearing is postponed for the second time. “I am beyond tired. I always say to myself and others, ‘when is enough going to be enough?’”

Last time Charles faced time in prison, he was a drug dealer in his 20’s. At his sentencing in December 1996, a federal judge called Charles “a danger to society who should simply be off the streets.” Charles doesn’t dispute that. Until then, his entire life was embroiled in chaos....

Now in his 50’s, Charles has the support of friends and his community — and even the judge who ordered him back to prison. Everything is different. And yet, he says, nothing's changed.

On March 28, in a courtroom filled with more than two dozen of Charles’ friends, coworkers and loved ones, Judge Aleta Trauger called Charles’ case “sad” and commended his “exemplary rehabilitation.” But, she added that “her hands were tied” and reimposed his original sentence. She gave him 45 days to get his affairs in order.

The ruling from the Sixth Circuit explaining why Charles' sentencing reduction was improper is available at this link. It makes for an interesting read, as it notes that back in 1996 Charles' "recommended guidelines range [was] 360 months to life, but [the sentencing court] varied upward and imposed a 420-month sentence based on Charles’ background and misconduct." (I highlight this line because it itself reflects how the passage of time distorts reality: the original sentencing court did not quite "vary" upward because the concept of a "variance" did not exist prior to the 2005 Booker decision.) 

The initial decision to impose a prison sentence of 35 years rather than just 30 years on Charles may have made perfect sense circa 1996.  As explained by the Sixth Circuit, the district court had to consider "Charles’ many prior offenses: kidnapping a woman on two consecutive days 'for the purpose of terrorizing her'; burglarizing a home; and fleeing from a police interrogation,
shooting a man in the head, and attempting to run off in the victim’s car."  But, obviously, Charles is now a much different man than the man he was when committing all these prior offenses.  But, just as obviously, modern federal sentencing law presents no way to give effect to changed realities because parole and other like mechanisms were vanquished through the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.

I am a strong supporter of the FIRST STEP Act in part because it includes some parole-like features to enable the early release of offenders who have demonstrated rehabilitation potential in various ways.  (In my Federal Probation article, I describe certain prison reform efforts by Congress as a kind of "parole light.")  But I continue to think the federal system would be even better served by considering a more general return of parole, at least for sentences of a decade or longer, or at least considering the kind of second-look resentencing provisions (allowing judicial modification after serving 15 years of prison sentence) that have been put forward in the new American Law Institute's revised Modern Penal Code sentencing provisions (discussed here and here by leading academics).

May 29, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (22)

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Examining thoughtfully modern trend to prosecute overdose deaths as homicides

The New York Times has this lengthy new article headline "They Shared Drugs. Someone Died. Does That Make Them Killers?".  The subheadline highlights the basic theme of the piece: "Prosecutors are increasingly treating overdose deaths as homicides, but they aren’t just going after dealers.  Friends, family and fellow users are going to prison."  To its credit, the Times here tried to dig into qualitative and quantitative stories here, and I recommend this piece in full.  Regular readers know that I have lamented, such as in prior posts here and here, that reporting on the decision to use homicide laws in overdose cases often fails to note that many states punish unintentional homicide less severely than the feds punish basic drug dealing.  Though the Times fails in this regard as well, it still provides the most thoughtful account of what surrounds these cases.  Here are excerpts:

As overdose deaths mount, prosecutors are increasingly treating them as homicide scenes and looking to hold someone criminally accountable. Using laws devised to go after drug dealers, they are charging friends, partners and siblings. The accused include young people who shared drugs at a party and a son who gave his mother heroin after her pain medication had been cut off. Many are fellow users, themselves struggling with addiction.

Such cases are becoming more common even as the role of the criminal justice system in combating drug abuse has become hotly contested, and even as many prosecutors — including those who pursue overdose death cases — say they embrace the push to treat addiction as a public health crisis rather than a crime.

Overdose prosecutions, they say, are simply one tool in a box that should include prevention and treatment. But there is no consensus on their purpose. Some believe they will reduce the flow of drugs into their communities, deter drug use or help those with addiction “hit bottom.” To others, the cases are not meant to achieve public policy goals, but as a balm for grieving families or punishment for a callous act. “I look at it in a real micro way,” said Pete Orput, the chief prosecutor in Washington County outside Minneapolis. “You owe me for that dead kid.”

Who owes whom for what is less clear in the case of the Malcolm family in Breckenridge, Colo., where Michael Malcolm’s younger son was charged in the overdose death of his older brother, with whom he shared drugs purchased on the internet. The cost of prosecution and incarceration, Mr. Malcolm said, would have been better spent on addiction treatment that the family could not afford. “It’s kind of like blaming the leaves on the tree, you know?” he said. “What about the roots?”

In 15 states where data was available, The New York Times found more than 1,000 prosecutions or arrests in accidental overdose deaths since 2015. Between 2015 and 2017, the number of cases nearly doubled. Dozens more cases were documented in news reports. In all, overdose prosecutions were found in 36 states, with charges ranging from involuntary manslaughter to first-degree murder. In Minnesota, the number of such cases — sometimes referred to as “murder by overdose” — quadrupled over a decade. Pennsylvania went from 4 cases in 2011 to 171 last year after making it easier to prosecute....

Many of those convicted are serving hard time: A Long Island woman whose best friend texted her from a business trip asking for heroin was sentenced to six years after he died taking the drugs she sent him. A former pipe fitter in Minnesota who shot speedballs with a mother of three got 11 years. A Louisiana man who injected his fiancée — both were addicted, his lawyer said — got life without parole....

The concept of overdose prosecutions took hold after the cocaine-related death in 1986 of Len Bias, the college basketball star, two days after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics. A friend, who called 911 when Mr. Bias collapsed, was accused of providing the cocaine, but was acquitted. Soon after, states began passing so-called Len Bias or “drug delivery resulting in death” laws. Louisiana made it second-degree murder. Pennsylvania created a crime punishable by up to 40 years in prison. Congress passed the sweeping 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which included a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years for federal cases in which drugs resulted in death or serious injury.

The Len Bias laws were supposed to go after drug dealers — “greed-soaked mutants,” Howell Heflin of Alabama called them on the Senate floor. But the role of dealer is far less clear cut than lawmakers envisioned. The legal definition of drug dealing, or “distribution,” typically covers behavior that is common for even casual users, including sharing, giving drugs away or getting reimbursed for a buy. Under complicity laws, helping to arrange a deal can be treated the same as dealing....

Despite the high cost of imprisonment — $33,000 a year on average, compared with roughly $5,000 to $7,000 for treating addiction with methadone — new Len Bias laws have begun to appear. Delaware enacted one in 2016, and West Virginia did so last year. In Rhode Island, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin has proposed a mandatory life sentence....

In order to gain a better sense of where defendants fit on the user-dealer continuum, The Times looked to Pennsylvania, where overdose prosecutions have soared since a change in the law in 2011 made it unnecessary to prove that the accused had malice toward the victim. The Times examined drug-related death cases filed in criminal court in the first half of last year — 82 cases in all, with 80 defendants. At least 59 of the accused were drug users themselves, according to police reports, court filings and interviews with law enforcement officials and defense lawyers. Roughly half had a relationship with the victim other than that of dealer. That group included six boyfriends, one girlfriend, a cousin, a brother and a son. A few of those charged had tried to save the victims. (Good Samaritan laws protect those who call for help from drug possession charges, but generally not homicide charges.)...

Overdose prosecutions picked up steam under the Obama administration. In 2015, the National Heroin Task Force recommended that cases against heroin dealers whose drugs proved fatal should be prioritized for three reasons: the product might be particularly potent, the prosecutions would serve as a deterrent, and the attention would educate the public about the “severe harm caused by heroin.”...

Even hard-liners like John Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George W. Bush, question the use of overdose homicide prosecutions without more systematic proof that they reduce drug use and emergency room visits. “In the absence of that, this is all gestures,” Mr. Walters said.

But many law enforcement officers hope that the cases act as a deterrent. When five people overdosed in two months in Twin Lakes, Wis. (population 6,000), the police charged 10 with reckless homicide. “We kind of want to put a bubble around our community and say we don’t — we’re not going to accept this here,” said Adam Grosz, the chief of police. But one of his detectives, Katie Hall, said that the arrests had little effect on supply and demand: “If we can take one off, well, then they just go to the next one.”

Paradoxically, the punitive approach to overdoses is underpinned by the same rationale as the push to treat addiction as a public health issue. In the prosecutorial worldview, a criminal investigation dignifies victims by treating their deaths as crimes instead of sad inevitabilities. “The analogy for me is the dead prostitute,” Mr. Orput said. “You know, years ago, the cop would look and go, ‘Well, that’s what happens,’ and that’s what they’d say with the junkie: ‘That’s why we don’t do drugs.’”

Some of many prior related posts:

May 27, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Sunday, May 20, 2018

US District Judge Bennett explains why meth sentencing guidelines are wrong to treat "drug purity [as] a proxy for culpability"

Long-time readers know that US District Judge Mark Bennett has long made his post-Booker mark with thoughtful opinion explaining why various guidelines ought not merit full respect in light of the purposes of sentencing set forth in 18 USC § 3553(a). Judge Bennett's latest important sentencing work, which a helpful reader made sure I did not miss, comes in US v. Nawanna, No. CR 17-4019-MWB (D. Iowa May 1, 2018) (available here). Like so many of Judge Bennett's opinions, this latest ruling is a must-read for all who follow the federal sentencing system, and it starts and ends this way:

The United States Sentencing Guidelines differentiate between methamphetamine mixture and actual (pure) methamphetamine or "ice."  That difference is the primary basis for the defendant's motion for a downward variance.  Even though he is a first-time drug offender who has never been in prison, he argues that he faces a "breathtakingly high" Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life, where the methamphetamine at issue was treated as actual (pure) methamphetamine or ice.  He argues that the harsh methamphetamine Guidelines overstate his culpability and should be rejected on policy grounds.  Specifically, his argument, of first impression for me, is that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed premise, set out in U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1, cmt. n.27(C), that drug purity is a proxy for culpability.

The prosecution responds that, although I am free to place whatever weight I wish on the various advisory Guidelines, the defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range is appropriate in this case, because it reflects the dangerous role the defendant played in dealing pure methamphetamine . Thus, this case requires me, once again, to consider the question of the merits of the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for a defendant convicted of methamphetamine offenses.  In United States v. Hayes, 948 F. Supp. 2d 1009 (N.D. Iowa 2013), I followed the lead of two other federal district judges by reducing a methamphetamine defendant's advisory Guidelines sentencing range by one third, on the basis of a policy disagreement with the methamphetamine Guidelines.  This sort of variance was for low level, non-violent, addict offenders.  This opinion, which supplements my rationale on the record at the defendant's sentencing hearing, explains why I find that a similar reduction, based on a different calculation, is appropriate in this case....

Exercising my discretion to reject the advisory Guidelines sentencing range for methamphetamine offenses on the basis of a policy disagreement, I determined that a downward variance was appropriate in Nawanna's case.  The reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines, here, were independent of the reasons for rejecting the methamphetamine Guidelines set out in my decision in Hayes.  Here, I concluded that the methamphetamine Guidelines are based on a flawed assumption that methamphetamine purity is a proxy for role in the offense, which, like Judge Robert C. Brack of the District of New Mexico, I find "is divorced from reality." Ibarra-Sandoval, 265 F. Supp. 3d at 1255.  Nawanna's advisory Guidelines sentencing range of 360 months to life would be greater than necessary to accomplish the purposes of sentencing under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).  Instead, for the reasons stated, above, and on the record during Nawanna's sentencing hearing, Nawanna should be sentenced to 132 months incarceration.

May 20, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 12, 2018

"Predatory Public Finance and the Evolution of the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Bruce Benson and Brian Meehan now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

US drug policy has a long history of providing revenue for federal, state, and local governments.  Before the War on Drugs, opium and cocaine were legal and medical professionals who prescribed these substances had to pay extra taxes to do so.  This chapter explains how, as the federal government began enforcing outright bans on drugs, law enforcement agencies took advantage of their newly acquired authority to profit.

Today, civil asset forfeiture related to drug crimes provides officers with incentives to use and abuse their authority and increase their revenue by making more drug arrests.  Key takeaways: (1) Drug policy has a long history of providing law enforcement with increased revenues and authority over time. (2) Law enforcement agencies may be targeting the crimes that present the opportunity to raise revenue for their departments rather than the most serious public safety threats.

May 12, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, May 03, 2018

"The Opioid Crisis and Federal Criminal Prosecution"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new article recently posted to SSRN authored by Rachel Rothberg and Kate Stith. Here are parts of its introduction:

An opioid crisis has swept the United States, ravaging communities across the country. In this Article we examine how federal law enforcement has responded to the crisis, both nationally and in a variety of locales.  We focus in depth, however, on federal investigators and prosecutors in the District of Connecticut, where the epidemic has hit hard....

What role can criminal law — and those who enforce it — play in combatting the opioid crisis?  The Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s Office’s shift in policy represents just one of many federal law enforcement reactions to alarming increases in opioid abuse and overdose deaths.  As opioid users’ tolerance increases and their access to prescription pills dwindle, they often transition to cheaper heroin, and then again to the more powerful synthetic opioids — sometimes unwittingly.  In general, law enforcement has struggled to keep up with the epidemic and the opioid market’s evolving characteristics.

In Part II of this Article we provide an overview of the nationwide, interagency efforts initiated by the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.  In Part III, we briefly survey a number of strategies pursued by various U.S. Attorney’s Offices.  There are ninety-three U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the United States, and although all of them are part of the Department of Justice, each one is semi-autonomous in deciding which cases to investigate and prosecute.

Then, in Part IV, we narrow our focus to the federal prosecutorial efforts of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut.  We focus on the Office’s two main strategies— (1) charging the supplier of an illicit substance resulting in death with the crime of drug distribution; and (2) educating the community, particularly high-school students, about opioid usage — and discuss whether they have implications for the national role of federal law enforcement.  Lastly, in Part V, we address what more might be needed from federal law enforcement going forward to protect communities nationwide from the devastation wrought by opioid proliferation.

May 3, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Might Kim Kardashian West actually convince Prez Trump to grant clemency to federal drug offender?

Download (11)The question in the title of this post is not satire, but a serious inquiry based on this extended Mic report headlined "Kim Kardashian West has talked to White House about pardoning nonviolent drug offender."  Here are excerpts from the report:

Kim Kardashian West and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner have spoken over the phone about a possible presidential pardon for Alice Marie Johnson, a 62-year-old great-grandmother serving a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense.

The telephone calls, according to a source with knowledge of the conversations, have taken place over the course of the past several months and have picked up in intensity over the last several days.

A representative for Kardashian West confirmed to Mic that she has been in communication with the White House and is working to bring Johnson’s case to the president’s desk. The source with knowledge of the conversations also told Mic that Johnson’s case has been reviewed by White House attorneys.

Johnson, who has been in federal prison since October 1996, has captured international attention from criminal reform activists — and Kardashian West.  Kardashian West first learned about Johnson’s case from a Mic video [available here] published in October.  Kardashian West shared it on Twitter, and the video has since been viewed more than 8 million times.

Shortly after, Kardashian West became involved in trying to free Johnson, who was convicted for her role facilitating communications in a drug trafficking case. In November, Kardashian West enlisted a team of lawyers, including her Los Angeles-based attorney Shawn Holley, to advocate for Johnson’s release.

The two women also have communicated, with Johnson expressing her gratitude toward Kardashian West for her support in a November letter. Still, it appears the only clear path for Johnson’s release would be a presidential pardon or clemency — which could come at odds with Trump’s recent proposal to impose the death penalty for certain drug dealers.

In her October op-ed, Johnson told Mic she became involved in drug trafficking as a way to make ends meet following a particularly rough period in her life: She lost her job at FedEx, where she had worked for 10 years, due to a gambling addiction; she got divorced; and then her youngest son died in a motorcycle accident. “I felt like a failure,” Johnson said. “I went into a complete panic and out of desperation, I made one of the worst decisions of my life to make some quick money. I became involved in a drug conspiracy.”

Johnson was arrested and sentenced to life in prison, with no opportunity for parole. As of May 2018, she has spent over two decades behind bars. For criminal justice reform advocates, Johnson’s case serves as a glaring example of why America’s sentencing laws need reform.

Johnson was one of six prisoners featured in the ACLU’s campaign to end mass incarceration. She has also participated in Skype conversations at top universities including Yale and New York University, as well as at companies such as Google, where Mic first became aware of her story. One of Johnson’s daughters, Tretessa Johnson, told Mic in a video in November that her mother is remorseful and has been a model prisoner during her time behind bars....

President Barack Obama granted clemency to 231 individuals in December 2016, many of whom had similar drug-related charges. Johnson was not one of them. “When the criteria came out for clemency, I thought for sure — in fact, I was certain that I’d met and exceeded all of the criteria,” Johnson told Mic. “Oh my goodness, I had so much support.”

Now, her hope rests with Trump. News of Kushner and Kardashian West’s conversations comes on the heels of multiple reports in recent months that Kushner has been working to pass a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill in Congress, co-sponsored by Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), among others.

For a lot more information about Alice Marie Johnson, check out all the materials assembled here at the CANDO website where she is listed #1 on this list of Top 25 Women who deserve clemency from federal prison.

May 2, 2018 in Celebrity sentencings, Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"6 Months Since Trump Declared an Opioid Emergency, What's Changed?" ... other than AG Sessions "strongly" encouraging capital prosecutions?

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the headline of this notable new Governing article, which provides this answer via a subheadline: "Some health officials say nothing. Members of Congress, meanwhile, are taking matters of money for the drug crisis into their own hands." Here are excerpts:

On Oct. 26 last year, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic -- which took more than 64,000 lives in 2016 -- a national emergency.  More specifically, he declared it a public health emergency, which can be used to ease some federal rules for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to, among other things, make more people eligible for Medicaid or dispatch more medical professionals to the areas hit hardest by the drug crisis.

The declaration has already been extended twice, most recently on Tuesday.  But health policy experts say it's unclear what -- if any -- HHS rules have been waived since the declaration.  Moreover, Trump did not directly offer state and local governments more money to combat the drug crisis.  Because of this, some say the declaration has been nothing more than an empty promise.  "We’ve seen no effect here in Baltimore from the emergency [declaration]," says Leana Wen, the city's health commissioner. "We could save so many more lives if we had more resources. We don’t need any more rhetoric."  Wen worked with members of Congress to take matters of money into their own hands....

There are at least seven other bills floating around Congress to address the opioid epidemic. The most comprehensive with the most bipartisan support is the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) 2.0. It offers $1 billion more than current federal funding for treatment and prevention programs and would mandate a three-day limit for first-time opioid prescriptions.

Frustration over federal inaction is even boiling over within the president's own party.  Before Trump traveled to New Hampshire to talk about opioids, the state's Republican governor, Chris Sununu, reportedly confronted White House officials about the lack of funding to back up the emergency declaration.  "The president cannot come to New Hampshire without a plan that has substance," Sununu told White House aides, according to CBS News.

Trump still gave his scheduled speech there in March to unveil new initiatives to fight the opioid epidemic.  He focused on cracking down on illegal immigration and drug dealers. Since then, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has directed federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for some drug traffickers....

His focus on law-and-order tactics exasperated many health officials. "I'm deeply concerned with the focus on incarceration. It goes against what science says, which is that addiction is a disease.  We know that treatment works.  The war on drugs doesn't," says Wen.

The plan the White House released after Trump's New Hampshire speech did include several bipartisan, health-focused efforts to combat the crisis -- but most of the ideas weren't new and there were few specifics about how to pay for them.  Before the emergency declaration, Trump assembled an opioid commission to explore the best tactics the federal government could deploy to stem the tide of overdoses.  A final report was released in November, with some bipartisan recommendations, such as removing barriers to treatment and increasing access to drug courts that divert people struggling with addiction from jail.

But even those who worked on the commission's 138-page report have said that the administration has no plan to systematically address the epidemic.... There have been some encouraging signs, however, that the federal government is serious about addressing the opioid epidemic. The Trump administration has continued an Obama-era policy of approving waivers to let their Medicaid programs pay for addiction and mental health treatment in facilities larger than 16 beds -- which is normally prohibited under federal law. So far, the Trump administration has approved waivers from Indiana, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. Five states -- Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Wisconsin -- have pending waivers still.

And last month, Congress passed a federal spending bill that includes a $3.3 billion increase in funding for the opioid crisis. The $3.3 billion will go toward prevention, treatment and law enforcement activities across the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Department of Veterans Affairs and other entities that help state and local governments. Many health policy experts, however, argue that it still isn't enough to make a meaningful impact.  To put that in context, the federal budget for HIV care in 2017 was $32 billion.

The other part of the title of this post is a reminder that it was a full five weeks ago that AG Jeff Sessions issued a "Memo to U.S. Attorneys on the Use of Capital Punishment in Drug-Related Prosecutions" (full text here) which "strongly encourage[d] federal prosecutors" bringing federal drug prosecutions to "include the pursuit of capital punishment in appropriate cases."  I keep wondering if and when we will see that memo having any real tangible impact.

Roughly speaking, federal prosecutors bring about 400 federal drug prosecutions per week, meaning that there have likely been around 2000 federal drug prosecutions since the AG issued his capital punishment memo.  Even if AG Sessions means by "strongly" encouraging capital prosecutions that only the very worst 0.1% of federal drug defendants should be subject to federal capital charges, we should perhaps have expected to have seen by now two federal drug defendants being subject to a federal capital indictment.  (I am inclined here to recall frequent statements by groups like NAUSAA that that federal system is focused only on "the most dangerous and serious drug traffickers." If this is true, perhaps AG Sessions thinks 1% or even 10% of federal drug prosecutions should include capital charges.  If so, we ought to already be seeing dozens of federal capital prosecutions by now.)

As of this writing, I am not aware of a single new capital drug case since the AG's March memo, though it is certainly possible that some are in the works and that is only a matter of time before we see a lot more federal capital cases.  I know I will be continuing to wonder if, when and how the capital prosecutions that AG Sessions has strongly encouraged will become a reality.

April 25, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, April 23, 2018

"Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper I have written for a forthcoming issue of the Federal Sentencing Reporter which is now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

States reforming marijuana laws should be particularly concerned with remedying the past inequities and burdens of mass criminalization.  State marijuana reforms should not only offer robust retroactive ameliorative relief opportunities for prior marijuana offenses, but also dedicate resources generated by marijuana reform to create and fund new institutions to assess and serve the needs of a broad array of offenders looking to remedy the collateral consequences of prior involvement in the criminal justice system.  So far, California stands out among reform states for coupling repeal of marijuana prohibition with robust efforts to enable and ensure the erasure of past marijuana convictions.  In addition to encouraging marijuana reform states to follow California’s lead in enacting broad ameliorative legislation, this essay urges policy makers and reform advocates to see the value of linking and leveraging the commitments and spirit of modern marijuana reform and expungement movements.

Part II begins with a brief review of the history of marijuana prohibition giving particular attention to social and racial dynamics integral to prohibition, its enforcement and now its reform.  Part III turns to recent reform activities focused on mitigating the punitive collateral consequences of a criminal conviction with a focus on the (mostly limited) efforts of marijuana reform states to foster the erasure of marijuana convictions.  Part IV sketches a novel proposal for connecting modern marijuana reform and expungement movements.   This part suggest a new criminal justice institution, a Commission on Justice Restoration, to be funded by the taxes, fees and other revenues generated by marijuana reforms and to be tasked with proactively working on policies and practices designed to minimize and ameliorate undue collateral consequences for people with criminal convictions.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.

April 23, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Reentry and community supervision, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 22, 2018

SCOTUS to hear seemingly small sentencing case made slightly bigger by Government's advocate

On Monday afterneed the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Chavez-Meza v. United States.  Here is the issue presented in the case (via SCOTUSblog):

Whether, when a district court decides not to grant a proportional sentence reduction under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2), it must provide some explanation for its decision when the reasons are not otherwise apparent from the record, as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 6th, 8th, 9th and 11th Circuits have held, or whether it can issue its decision without any explanation so long as it is issued on a preprinted form order containing the boilerplate language providing that the court has “tak[en] into account the policy statement set forth in 18 U.S.S.G. § 1B1.10 and the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to the extent that they are applicable,” as the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 4th, 5th and 10th Circuits have held.

As this statement of the issue reveals, the Supreme Court likely was inclined to add this case to its docket in order to resolve a circuit split over just want amount of explanation is required when judges grant sentence modifications under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).  But, it appears that only six months of a nine-year prison term is at issue in this case and, as Susan Klein explains via her SCOTUSblog argument preview, it seems unlikely that even a win for the defendant would be all that consequential for others:

I predict that whatever the Supreme Court does in this case will have little effect beyond amending future sentencing modification forms. A reversal would likely result in little more than a “ritualistic incantation” by the judge that she considered a specific Section 3553(a) factor, or that she considered a specific policy statement issued by the sentencing commission.

Of course, SCOTUS could always decide to use this case to talk up the importance of sentencing explanations, though I doubt even an opinion written with great ambition in this matter would have too much of an impact.  And still, though seemingly a small case, Chavez-Meza is getting an extra bit of attention because the Deputy Attorney General will be arguing the case on behalf of the feds.  This new Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Rosenstein Takes a Pause — to Argue a Case Before the Supreme Court," looks at this angle of the case.  (Last but not least, hard-core Breaking Bad fans might get a weird kick out of the fact that Adaucto Chavez-Meza "distributed methamphetamine in Albuquerque, New Mexico," though a bit later than when Walter White was supposedly cooking up the Blue Sky variety in that part of the world.)

April 22, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 20, 2018

Because the calendar suggests I should, here is a round-up of some recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

It has been more than two months since I did a round-ups of posts of note from the blogging I do over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, and this post will be on the second such round up in this space in 2018.  And it is a bit cliche to do this round-up on 4/20.  But because given all the recent activity in the marijuana law and policy universe, here are just some (of many) recent legal and policy highlights from MLP&R that sentencing fans might find worth checking out:

April 20, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 16, 2018

Two notable recent sentencing commentaries on work ahead for Congress

Thehill-logo-bigIn recent months I have noticed lots of notable sentencing commentary in the publication The Hill.  And Friday The Hill published two sentencing commentaries of note. They are linked below with their first few paragraphs:

"Congress must act to fix our broken criminal justice system" by Reps. Cedric Richmond (D-LA.) & Mark Walker (R-N.C.):

Our criminal justice system is crumbling.  Over the last 40 years, our domestic incarceration rate has quadrupled, creating a crisis of more than 2 million people behind bars in the United States today.  Simultaneously, recidivism rates have grown or remained high across almost every identifiable demographic or cross section.  And yet, crime rates have steadily fallen.

This paradox exposes a simple fact: our criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform.  What’s more, almost everyone in Congress knows it. Passing significant reforms to our criminal justice system could bring relief to families and communities in every state, district and territory.

Over the past few weeks, at our respective retreats, members of Congress from both parties discussed our priorities.  We believe criminal justice reform needs to be on the top of that list.

Since arriving in Congress, we have seen increasing awareness, education, energy and interest in criminal justice reform, but, to date, we have not been able to enact necessary changes.  Senators have formed working groups.  The House Judiciary Committee passed strong, bipartisan legislation out of committee last year. But no tangible results.  That has to change.

"Reviving the war on drugs is exactly the wrong response to the opioid crisis" by Ames Grawert & James Cullen:

This week on Capitol Hill, lawmakers met to discuss a bill that would impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences on even minor crimes involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl.  The hearing follows news that the Trump administration will seek the death penalty for drug dealers, part of his overall “war on opioids.”

“You just can’t pass a law increasing punishment and expect the opioid crisis to go away,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appeared to acknowledge at the outset.  “But it’s a pretty good place to start.”

It’s not.  It’s a bad place to start.  This is the logic of mass incarceration, the instinct to always demand the harshest punishment possible. It animates the Trump administration and its Congressional allies on everything from drug policy to immigration.  And it doesn’t work.  Reform advocates can’t be lulled by the false promise of reform.  We need to fight back before we repeat the mistakes of the 1970s.

April 16, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Another federal court reaction to federal sentencing realities of modern drug war

In this post a few weeks ago, I noted an interesting Seventh Circuit ruling which not only explored ineffective assistance of counsel in plea negotiations, but also highlighted how our federal drug laws can functionally operate to turn a seemingly minor crime into an offense carrying a 20-year mandatory minimum.  That post generated a lot of thoughtful comments, leading me to think it worthwhile to spotlight another drug war sentencing tale with a different variation in the work of counsel and court.

Specifically, a couple of helpful readers sent me a notable sentencing memorandum and a recently unsealed sentencing opinion in US v. Smith, No. 6:17-cr-147-Orl-31KRS (M.D. Fla. Feb. 27, 2018). In this case, as explained by the sentencing judge, Judge Gregory Presnell, Tyrone Smith faced a huge increase in his sentence range under the career-offender guideline for two prior low-level cocaine sales:

Smith was arrested and charged in Count 2 of the Indictment with distribution of a mixture containing a detectable amount of carfentanil.  He pled guilty and appeared before me for sentencing.  The PSR (Doc. 80) scored defendant with a base of 24.  Subtracting two levels for his minor role in the offense and three levels for his acceptance of responsibility, his guideline score would be 19.  With a criminal history score of III, his suggested guideline sentence would be 37-46 months. But the prior state court offenses described above make defendant a career offender as defined by USSG 4B1.1.  Application of this enhancement increases defendant’s score from 19-III to 29-VI, resulting in a guideline range of 151-188 months, a 400% increase for selling $120 worth of cocaine ten years ago!

Running through the 3553(a) factors and noting the "growing chorus of federal judges who reject application of the career offender guideline in certain cases," Judge Presnell concluded "that a reasonable sentence in this case is 30 months, which constitutes a modest downward variance from the low end of defendant’s unenhanced guideline score."

I have provided here for downloading counsel's sentencing memorandum for Tyrone Smith as well as Judge Presnell's "Bench Sentencing Opinion":

Download Sentencing memorandum Final

Download Bench Sentencing Opinion

April 15, 2018 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, April 12, 2018

US Sentencing Commission adopts (mostly minor?) 2018 guideline amendments

As reported in this official press release, "The United States Sentencing Commission unanimously voted on a slate of new amendments to the Guidelines Manual. Among other actions, the Commissioners voted to update the federal sentencing guidelines to address evolving challenges related to the distribution of synthetic drugs. The amendments reflect a collaborative, detailed, and data-driven approach to federal sentencing policy." Here are the substantive details:

At the meeting, the Commissioners approved a multi-part synthetic drugs amendment. The amendment draws upon public comment, expert testimony, and data analysis gathered during a multi-year study of synthetic drugs. Before today’s actions, many new synthetic drugs were not referenced in the federal sentencing guidelines. As a result, courts have faced expensive and resource-intensive hearings. The Commission’s actions reflect the evolving nature of these new drugs and will simplify and promote uniformity in sentencing these offenders.

Among today’s actions, the Commissioners voted to adopt a new guideline definition of the term “fentanyl analogue.” The change effectively raises the guideline penalties for fentanyl analogues to a level more consistent with the current statutory penalty structure. To address the severe dangers posed by fentanyl, the Commissioners also voted to adopt a four-level sentencing enhancement for knowingly misrepresenting or knowingly marketing fentanyl or fentanyl analogues as another substance (which equates to an approximate 50 percent increase in sentence).

The new amendment also establishes drug ratios and minimum offense levels for two new classes of synthetics drugs: synthetic cathinones (often referred to as “bath salts”) and synthetic cannabinoids (including, but not limited to, “K2” or “spice”). Following a multi-year study and series of public hearings with experts, the Commission found that synthetic cathinones possess a common chemical structure that is sufficiently similar to treat as a single class of synthetic drugs. The Commission also found that, while synthetic cannabinoids differ in chemical structure, the drugs induce similar biological responses and share similar pharmacological effects. In setting the new drug ratios, the Commission considered among other factors, the severity of the medical harms to the user, the current ratios applied in similar cases, known trafficking behaviors, and concerns for public safety. In recognition that potencies vary, the Commission also adopted departure language for drugs in a class that are more or less potent.

The Commission also voted to adopt a new application note providing that judges should consider alternative sentencing options for “nonviolent first offenders” whose applicable guideline range falls within Zones A or B. Eligible defendants must not have any prior convictions and must not have used violence, credible threats of violence, or possessed a firearm or other dangerous weapon in the offense. This narrowly-tailored amendment is consistent with the directive to the Commission in 28 U.S.C. § 994(j)....

At the meeting, the Commission also increased offense levels for certain Social Security fraud offenses to incorporate statutory changes resulting from the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015. The Commission received valuable comment from the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, and the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee as well as the Social Security Administration. Today’s amendment provides for an enhancement and a minimum offense level for individuals who violate certain positions of trust (e.g., health care providers, claims representatives, and others) in a manner that addresses the seriousness and sophistication of these fraudulent schemes.

The Commission also voted to adopt the recommendations made by the Tribal Issues Advisory Group in its May 2016 report. The amendment provides a non-exhaustive list of factors that courts may consider in determining whether a prior tribal court conviction warrants an upward departure from the recommended sentencing range. The amendment also adds a definition for "court protection order” for purposes of applying an enhancement under the aggravated assault, harassment, and domestic violence guidelines. Other technical and miscellaneous amendments were also adopted at today’s public meeting.

As the press release also explains, these amendments "will be transmitted to Congress by May 1, 2018 [and if] Congress does not act to disapprove the amendments, they will go into effect on November 1, 2018." A reader-friendly version of the amendments are available at this link.

As the title of this post suggest, I think most of the amendments here can and should be described as fairly minor, save for the reworking of of the treatment of synthetic drugs. But I would welcome input from those more informed on the particular about anything here that might be especially blogworthy.

April 12, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Could former House Speaker John Boehner become the first big drug dealer capitally charged by AG Jeff Sessions?

Boehner-gopThe question in the title of this post is my (tongue-in-cheek?) reaction to this news that former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives John Boehner and former Governor of the State of Massachusetts Bill Weld have joined the Board of Advisors of Acreage Holdings.  This company in this press release calls itself "one of the nation’s largest, multi-state actively-managed cannabis corporations" and on this webpage states that it has "cultivation, processing and dispensing operations across 11 states with plans to expand." 

What this really means, legally speaking, is astutely explained in this tweet by LawProf Alex Kreit: "Oh look, here’s the former speaker of the house publicly announcing that he’s joined a conspiracy to manufacture and distribute a schedule I controlled substance and commit federal drug crimes on an ongoing basis."  But, critically, Boehner is not merely announcing that his is not part of a massive drug conspiracy, he is also perhaps putting himself in position to be subject to the new push by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, discussed here, to "strongly encourage federal prosecutors to use" a federal statute that allows for pursuing the death penalty under 18 U.S.C. § 3591(b)(1) for persons guilty of "dealing in extremely large quantities of drugs." 

Of course, as Christopher Ingraham explained in this Washington Post piece a few weeks ago, a whole lot of marijuana is required to make one eligible for the death penalty under federal law: "there is a federal capital punishment on the books for large quantities of marijuana — a substance with no known lethal dose that is legal for recreational use in nine states plus the District. The threshold is huge — 60,000 kilograms, or 60,000 plants, enough to fill several shipping containers."  But, for a company — or should I say major drug conspiracy — like Acreage Holdings, this amount of marijuana may well be a regular part of regular business operations: 

The quantity-based capital punishment provision is of particular concern to state-legal marijuana businesses.  The plant remains illegal under federal law, regardless of what state laws say.  Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group, said in an email that “there are many state-licensed cannabis businesses cultivating 60,000 plants or more.”

Needless to say, I am not expecting John Boehner or Bill Weld to be charged with a federal capital crime or any crime anytime soon.  But I am expecting folks who read this post to better understand why existing federal marijuana prohibition laws garner so little respect and why I think anyone seriously committed to the rule of law ought to be advocating for at least some kind of federal reforms regardless of their particular policy views on particular state marijuana reforms.

April 11, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The intricate realities of the drug war on full display in recent Seventh Circuit ruling on ineffective assistance of counsel in plea negotiations

A helpful reader alerted me to an interesting panel ruling by the Seventh Circuit handed down yesterday in Brock-Miller v. US, No. 16-3050 (7th Cir. April 3, 2018) (available here). The reader rightly noted that this opinion provides a thorough discussion of ineffective assistance of counsel in plea negotiations before ordering the district court to hold a hearing to explore claims of deficient performance by the defendant's lawyer.  I also found remarkable the case's accounting of how our federal drug laws can functionally operate to turn a seemingly minor crime into an offense carrying a 20-year mandatory minimum.

Specifically, as the panel opinion explains, LeeAnn Brock-Miller pleaded guilty, "pursuant to a plea agreement, to one count of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin [resulting in] the agreed-upon sentence of ten years’ imprisonment."   What did she do to get this decade-long sentence?  According to the opinion, she was driving with three other men (one of whom it seems was her husband) on a highway headed to purchase 54 grams of heroin in Chicago; and according to sentencing testimony: "this car trip was an isolated incident, where she agreed to give the others a ride in exchange for one gram of heroin for herself.  Brock-Miller had an extensive criminal history that corroborated her claim that she did not sell drugs but was an addict who simply bought drugs for personal consumption."

Problematically for Brock-Miller, (1) that lone car trip allowed the Government to claim she was part of a drug conspiracy to traffic more than a kilo of heroin, triggering a possible 10-year mandatory minimum, and (2) she had a prior Indiana conviction for “Unlawful Possession of Syringes or Needles” which the Government claimed was a predicate drug felony under 851 that doubled her potential mandatory minimum term to 20 years in federal prison(!).  With the feds threatening this big hammer, the defendant here understandably was amenable to her defense counsel's advocacy to accept a plea deal that called for "only" a 10-year sentence.

But as the Seventh Circuit goes on to explain, the defendant's prior Indiana conviction was not actually a qualifying predicate to double her applicable mandatory minimum and she had a reasonable trial argument that not foreseeable was the "full kilogram of heroin charged in the indictment [for] someone who joined the conspiracy at the very end, in a deal involving only 54 grams."  In other words, the defendant had a winning legal argument that her mandatory minimum should not have been doubled, and a viable argument that she should not be subject to any mandatory minimum term at all.  Luckily for the defendant, a Seventh Circuit panel helped figure this out and the apparent ineffectiveness of her counsel may allow her to get resentenced in a more fitting way.

But I must conclude by stressing the dark cloud that overwhelms any Brock-Miller silver lining: the very possibility that "an addict who simply bought drugs for personal consumption" could be threatened with a 20-year mandatory minimum federal prison term reveals how dysfunctional and morally bankrupt our federal sentencing laws can be.  And I am quite certain that LeeAnn Brock-Miller is not the first person nor the last person to be chewed up by these laws; indeed, sadly, there are many thousands that have come before her, and likely many thousands still to come.

April 4, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (21)

Are prisons and jail now, and should they be, our society's modern addiction treatment centers?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new article in Stateline headlined "Addiction Treatment, for Jails and Prisons, Gains Momentum."  Here are excerpts:

From the moment they are arrested, people with an addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers and those who are taking medications to beat their addictions face the prospect of painful opioid withdrawal.

At least a quarter of the people in U.S. prisons and jails are addicted to opioids. Those who are released rejoin their communities with dangerously reduced tolerance and nothing to blunt their drug cravings, making them highly susceptible to a deadly overdose.

But new scientific evidence and a recently announced federal investigation may soften prison officials’ long-held opposition to medication-assisted treatment.

Rhode Island is the only state that provides all three FDA-approved addiction medications, methadone, buprenorphine and a long-acting, injectable form of naltrexone known as Vivitrol, to all inmates. A recent study in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry found that opioid overdose deaths dropped by nearly two-thirds among recently incarcerated people in the first year of a new program that screens and provides addiction medicines to all state inmates. According to the study by Brown University researchers, the program not only reduces overdose deaths after the inmates are released, but also increases the likelihood they will stay in treatment and avoid getting arrested again.

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, which doesn’t provide methadone or buprenorphine to inmates, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether corrections officials are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by forcing inmates who were taking those addiction medicines when they entered prison to stop taking them while incarcerated.

Massachusetts lawmakers are considering a corrections bill that would require the state’s prisons and jails to offer all three FDA-approved medications. A similar proposal is advancing in Connecticut, which has provided methadone to some inmates in some jails for six years. The bill there would expand the program to all medications for all inmates.

And at the federal level, President Donald Trump promised last month to screen every federal inmate — roughly 180,000 people — for opioid addiction and provide Vivitrol in residential treatment centers prior to release. Trump also called for more federal support for state, local and tribal drug courts to help provide “evidence-based treatment as an alternative to or in conjunction with incarceration, or as a condition of supervised release.”

Fewer than 1 percent of the more than 5,000 U.S. prisons and jails, housing more than 2 million inmates, allow access to the FDA-approved medication, even though medical societies, addiction experts and correctional health organizations support their use. Finding the money to fund correctional drug treatment programs is a challenge in many states. But research shows that the cost of providing addiction medications in correctional facilities is outweighed over time by savings in both future health care and incarceration costs....

Standing in the way are sheriffs and other prison officials, who argue that allowing treatment inside prisons with methadone or buprenorphine — both narcotics that can be abused — will lead to the drugs being diverted within the prison and possibly to illicit street markets.

In Barnstable County, Massachusetts, for example, Sheriff James Cummings said he would not allow buprenorphine to be dispensed in his jail because it is considered contraband. “We ruled out buprenorphine because it doesn’t work for the people we deal with,” Cummings said. “Inmates try to smuggle it into the facility every day. It’s a narcotic. They use it until they can get their next heroin fix so they don’t get sick and they sell it to get money to buy more heroin. It’s not a good fit.”

Instead, Barnstable in 2012 added Vivitrol to its re-entry program for opioid-addicted inmates who are scheduled to leave within the next two weeks. Cummings said the program has reduced overdose deaths and repeat offenses. In general, Vivitrol is an easier sell in most prisons and jails, said Andrew Klein, who runs a Justice Department program aimed at getting more drug treatment into correctional facilities. But it’s not the best medication for everyone, he said.

In fact, nearly all corrections officials reject the use of either methadone or buprenorphine behind prison walls. That’s despite a history of research showing both medicines are highly effective at eliminating cravings, preventing overdoses and keeping people in recovery from opioid addiction....

At least 1 in 5 incarcerated people are imprisoned because of drug charges, but in many states, even more inmates are addicted to heroin and other opioids. In Connecticut, for example, at least 30 percent of the state’s 14,000 inmates are addicted to opioids, according to Kathleen Maurer, the medical director for he state’s corrections department. Nationwide, a quarter of heroin addicts pass through the corrections system each year, according to a study in the Journal for Opioid Management....

Five states — Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Washington — offer both methadone and buprenorphine to some inmates at one or more prisons or jails. Only Rhode Island offers all three medications to all inmates in all of its prisons and jails.

April 4, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

"Recidivism Among Federal Offenders Receiving Retroactive Sentence Reductions: The 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely new report from the US Sentencing Commission. Here is a summary of its coverage and findings from this USSC webpage:

The publication Recidivism Among Federal Offenders Receiving Retroactive Sentence Reductions: The 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment analyzes recidivism among crack cocaine offenders who were released immediately before and after implementation of the 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment, and followed in the community for three years.

In order to study the impact of retroactive sentence reductions on recidivism rates, staff analyzed the recidivism rate for a group of crack cocaine offenders whose sentences were reduced pursuant to retroactive application of the 2011 Fair Sentencing Act Guideline Amendment. Staff then compared that rate to the recidivism rate for a comparison group of offenders who would have been eligible to seek a reduced sentence under the 2011 amendment, but were released before the effective date of that amendment after serving their full prison terms less good time and other earned credits.

Key Findings

The Commission's report aims to answer the research question, "Did the reduced sentences for the FSA Retroactivity Group result in increased recidivism?".

Key findings of the Commission’s study are as follows:

  • The recidivism rates were virtually identical for offenders who were released early through retroactive application of the FSA Guideline Amendment and offenders who had served their full sentences before the FSA guideline reduction retroactively took effect. Over a three-year period following their release, the “FSA Retroactivity Group” and the “Comparison Group” each had a recidivism rate of 37.9 percent.

  • Among offenders who did recidivate, for both groups the category “court or supervision violation” was most often the most serious recidivist event reported. Approximately one-third of the offenders who recidivated in both groups (32.9% for the FSA Retroactivity Group and 30.8% for the Comparison Group) had court or supervision violation as their most serious recidivist event.

  • Among offenders who did recidivate, the time to recidivism for both groups were nearly identical. The median time to recidivism for offenders who recidivated in both groups was approximately 14½ months.

March 28, 2018 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report | Permalink | Comments (7)