Thursday, July 24, 2014

"There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new posting by Emily Badger now up at the Washington Post Wonkblog. Here are excerpts:

Of all of the notions that have motivated the decades-long rise of incarceration in the United States, this is probably the most basic: When we put people behind bars, they can't commit crime. The implied corollary: If we let them out, they will.

By this thinking, our streets are safer the more people we lock up and the longer we keep them there. This logic suggests that there would be serious public-safety costs to reducing prison populations, a policy in the news again after the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted last Friday to retroactively extend new, lighter drug sentencing guidelines to about 46,000 offenders currently serving for federal drug crimes. As the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys warned, opposing the move, "tough sentencing laws . . . led to safer communities, which are now threatened."

Crime trends in a few states that have significantly reduced their prison populations, though, contradict this fear. [A] recent decline in state prison populations in New York and New Jersey, [as noted by] a new report by the Sentencing Project, [has not resulted in a crime surge]....

It's important to note that crime has been falling all over the country over this same time, for reasons that are not entirely understood (and, no, not entirely explained by the rise of incarceration). But the Sentencing Project points out that declining violent crime rates in New York and New Jersey have actually outpaced the national trend, even as these states have reduced their prison populations through changing law enforcement and sentencing policies.

We certainly can't take these three charts and conclude that reducing prison populations reduces crime. But these trends do make it harder to argue the opposite — particularly in the most heavily incarcerated country in the world.

I am not sure which of the many data-driven publications by The Sentencing Project served as the basis for this latest Workblog posting. But I am sure, as evidenced by these posts from the last few weeks, that sentencing fans ought to make a habit of checking out Wonkblog regularly:

UPDATE:  I now realize that the recent Sentencing Project publication reference in this post is the basis for the Wonkblog discussion.

July 24, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, July 18, 2014

USSC votes for full (though slightly delayed) retroactivity of new reduced drug guidelines

I just received this early report via a credible source as to what the US Sentencing Commission did this afternoon on the issue of making its new lower guidelines retroactive:

The Commission just voted unanimously to make the "drugs minus 2" amendment retroactive with a single limitation -- no order reducing a sentence can take effect until Nov. 1, 2015.  This is later than the Judicial Conference recommended (they proposed that it effect in May 2015 to give courts and probation time to prepare)....

The Commission predicts that more than 46,000 will be eligible to seek a reduction.  Part of the reason for the delayed effective date is to make sure each inmate is released with a re-entry plan and the opportunity for transitional steps such as halfway houses or home confinement.

UPDATE:  Here is a link to the USSC's official press release about its vote, which starts this way:

The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today at a public meeting to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders retroactively, meaning that many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.

The Commission voted unanimously in April to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types, which may mean lower sentences for most drug offenders going forward.  Today the Commission decided that judges could extend that reduction to offenders currently in prison, but with a requirement that reduced sentences cannot take effect until November 1, 2015.  Under the guidelines, no offender would be released unless a judge reviews the case to determine whether a reduced sentence poses a risk to public safety and is otherwise appropriate.

“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”

Congress has until November 1, 2014 to disapprove the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. Should Congress choose to let the guideline reductions stand, courts could then begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners could be released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Here is a link to the official statement in response to this vote from AG Eric Holder, which runs this single paragraph:

“The department looks forward to implementing this plan to reduce sentences for certain incarcerated individuals. We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department's support for this balanced approach. In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence. At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately. This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."

July 18, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Huge reduced drug guideline retroactivity decision expected from US Sentencing Commission on 7/18

As this official public notice reports, on July 18, 2014 at 1pm EDT, the US Sentencing the Commission will hold a public meeting at which "the Commissioners will vote on whether or not to retroactively apply, in whole or in part, [its recent guideline] amendment reducing the drug quantity table by two levels." At the risk of overstating the importance of this vote, I am inclined to assert that it may be the most practically consequential USSC decision in nearly a decade. The (slightly misleading) headlines of these two media discussions of the coming vote helps to highlight why:

It is likely hard for anyone who has not followed federal sentencing very closely for decades to fully appreciate all the dynamic challenges that this vote presents for the US Sentencing Commission (as well as for the US Department of Justice and for all those who work day-to-day the federal sentencing system).  Helpfully, this extended BuzzFeed article by Evan McMorris-Santoro provide a primer on some of the issues swirling around this important USSC vote.  The article's headline highlights its themes: "Despite Rhetoric, Obama Administration Pushes To Keep Thousands Of Felons In Jail Under Old Rules: The Justice Department announced major changes to the way federal drug crimes are punished this year. But the rules for existing convicts might be different — and many White House allies are angry."

Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:

July 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, July 14, 2014

Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?

Drugs and dogsThe question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable and fascinating new article in the New York Times headlined "Second Thoughts on Lighter Sentences for Drug Smugglers." Here are excerpts:

For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the United States through Kennedy International Airport in Queens, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors.

To avoid clogging up the court, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn has embraced a strategic approach that allows couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences.  The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in these smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.

But in recent months, changes in drug sentencing have served to further lower punishments for these couriers.  A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all.

The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far.  Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore.  Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment.  And judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts....

The debate over what constitutes a fair sentence for drug crimes has persisted for decades.  Critics — many of them judges in this court — have said that sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum punishments had become hugely problematic. Nonviolent drug offenders, like couriers or people selling marijuana on the street, could face longer guideline sentences than an underground gun dealer.  And until recently, possession of five grams of crack warranted a minimum five-year sentence.  To get the same sentence for powdered cocaine possession, 500 grams would be required.

Various reforms have been instituted to address the inequities in sentencing.  In 1994, a “safety valve” provision allowed nonviolent first offenders on drugs — which describes most couriers — to avoid mandatory minimums if they admitted to all prior criminal conduct.  And in 2010, Congress passed legislation toward balancing the crack versus cocaine disparity....

In August, the United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., ordered prosecutors nationwide to charge couriers and other low-level drug offenders who met certain criteria in a way that did not result in mandatory-minimum sentences.  (Guideline sentences must still be considered, but they are not mandatory.)

Then, in April, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two points, or several months.  The reduced guidelines go into effect in November, pending congressional approval, but prosecutors in many districts have agreed to apply them now.

The changes made things more difficult in Brooklyn, where prosecutors still wanted to give low-level couriers an incentive to avoid trials and to assist in prosecutions against larger drug distributors. Believing they had to further sweeten the deal, prosecutors agreed to give an additional four points off those reduced sentences for couriers who agreed to cooperate.

As a result, drug-courier defendants can now face sentencing guidelines that suggest no prison time.

My first reaction to this piece is to suggest that it's a nice change of pace for federal judges to now view at least some federal sentencing guidelines to be too lenient and that any problems this creates can and should be addressed through judicial discretion to sentence above the guidelines, case-by-case, as needed and appropriate.  But I imagine this viewpoint is not very satisfying for federal prosecutors and investigators who depend on the threat of severe sentences to get mules to cooperate to their satisfaction.

For additional intriguing and diverse reactions to these intriguing new drug sentencing realities, check out these posts from other informed bloggers:

July 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Following the money behind sustaining pot prohibition

Nat potThe Nation has this fascinating new investigative report with a  headline and subheadline that highlights its themes: "The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal: Opponents of marijuana-law reform insist that legalization is dangerous — but the biggest threat is to their own bottom line." Here are excerpts from the start of a lengthy article:

Taking the stage to rousing applause last February, [Patrick] Kennedy joined more than 2,000 opponents of marijuana legalization a few miles south of Washington, DC, at the annual convention of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA), one of the largest such organizations in the country....

Given that CADCA is dedicated to protecting society from dangerous drugs, the event that day had a curious sponsor: Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxy-Contin, the highly addictive painkiller that nearly ruined Kennedy’s congressional career and has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths nationwide.

Prescription opioids, a line of pain-relieving medications derived from the opium poppy or produced synthetically, are the most dangerous drugs abused in America, with more than 16,000 deaths annually linked to opioid addiction and overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more Americans now die from painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. The recent uptick in heroin use around the country has been closely linked to the availability of prescription opioids, which give their users a similar high and can trigger a heroin craving in recovering addicts....

People in the United States, a country in which painkillers are routinely overprescribed, now consume more than 84 percent of the entire worldwide supply of oxycodone and almost 100 percent of hydrocodone opioids. In Kentucky, to take just one example, about one in fourteen people is misusing prescription painkillers, and nearly 1,000 Kentucky residents are dying every year.

So it’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.

A close look at the broader political coalition lobbying against marijuana-law reform reveals many such conflicts of interest. In fact, the CADCA event was attended by representatives of a familiar confederation of anti-pot interests, many of whom have a financial stake in the status quo, including law enforcement agencies, pharmaceutical firms, and nonprofits funded by federal drug-prevention grants....

The opponents of marijuana-law reform argue that such measures pose significant dangers, from increased crime and juvenile delinquency to addiction and death. But legalization’s biggest threat is to the bottom line of these same special interests, which reap significant monetary advantages from pot prohibition that are rarely acknowledged in the public debate....

[B]oth CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids are heavily reliant on a combination of federal drug-prevention education grants and funding from pharmaceutical companies. Founded in 1992, CADCA has lobbied aggressively for a range of federal grants for groups dedicated to the “war on drugs.”  The Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997, a program directed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was created through CADCA’s advocacy.  That law now allocates over $90 million a year to community organizations dedicated to reducing drug abuse.  Records show that CADCA has received more than $2.5 million in annual federal funding in recent years.  The former Partnership for a Drug-Free America, founded in 1985 and best known for its dramatic “This is your brain on drugs” public service announcements, has received similarly hefty taxpayer support while advocating for increased anti-drug grant programs.

The Nation obtained a confidential financial disclosure from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showing that the group’s largest donors include Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, and Abbott Laboratories, maker of the opioid Vicodin. CADCA also counts Purdue Pharma as a major supporter, as well as Alkermes, the maker of a powerful and extremely controversial new painkiller called Zohydrol.  The drug, which was released to the public in March, has sparked a nationwide protest, since Zohydrol is reportedly ten times stronger than OxyContin. Janssen Pharmaceutical, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that produces the painkiller Nucynta, and Pfizer, which manufactures several opioid products, are also CADCA sponsors.  For corporate donors, CADCA offers a raft of partnership opportunities, including authorized use of the “CADCA logo for your company’s marketing, website, and advertising materials, etc.”

July 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Even as its prospects dim, Smarter Sentencing Act is impacting federal sentencing proceedings

The lack of serious congressional action on the Smarter Sentencing Act now nearly six months after the SSA passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support (basic here) has led me to conclude that the prospect of the SSA's enactment into law this year is now quite dim. Nevertheless, as highlighted by this local story from Maine, the SSA is still impacting the work of federal sentencing courts. The article is headlined "Monroe marijuana farm patriarch sentence postponed for Smarter Sentencing Act passage," and here are the basics:

A federal judge postponed the sentencing of a Waldo County man found guilty in November of operating a large-scale, indoor marijuana farm with his family to allow for the possible passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act, which could decrease his sentence. James F. Ford, 58, of Monroe was convicted by a jury in November of one count each of conspiracy to manufacture 100 or more marijuana plants, manufacturing 100 or more marijuana plants, maintaining a drug-involved place and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by U.S. Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, is a bill making its way through the Senate that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders and allow those incarcerated to apply for sentence reductions, among other changes to mandatory federal sentencing laws.

“The Smarter Sentencing Act may have a drastic effect on Mr. Ford’s sentence,” states the motion filed by defense attorney Hunter Tzovarras of Bangor. ”In the interest of fairness and justice, it is respectfully requested the court use its discretion and continue the sentencing until November 2014.”...

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCormack objected to the defense motion, saying the bill might not provide the desired reductions and there is a possibility the delay could mean the government could lose the right to seize the Fords’ home, where the marijuana growing took place. “It is pure conjecture at this time as to the final form, if any, the Smarter Sentencing Act will take,” McCormack said in his opposing motion. “Even if the Act does eventually pass, it is almost certain to be in a form different than the current bill."...

U.S. District Judge John Woodcock Jr. agreed with Tzovarras and postponed Ford’s sentencing until Nov. 21, 2014. Ford, who was convicted of growing marijuana in Massachusetts, moved the family pot-growing operation from Massachusetts to Monroe after he completed a sentence of probation in the Bay State, McCormack told the jury in his closing argument in Ford’s trial.

Due to the Massachusetts conviction, Ford faces a mandatory minimum of 10 years and maximum of life in prison and a fine of up to $8 million on the conspiracy charge under the current federal sentencing guidelines....

Members of the Ford family were arrested in November 2011 when the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency raided the family’s Swan Lake Avenue garage, and found hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marijuana. During the raid, police seized more than 300 marijuana plants in various stages of growth, 10 pounds of processed marijuana and two semiautomatic assault weapons. Tzovarras, in his Monday motion, states the Smarter Sentencing Act, if passed, would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for manufacturing, distribution, dispensing, possession and importing or exporting specific controlled substances. “If the court determines a mandatory minimum penalty applies to Mr. Ford, that mandatory [minimum] penalty would be reduced by half, from 10 to 5 years,” the defense attorney states.

July 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Fascinating suggestion of "Mitt Romney for drug czar"

The always brilliant and provocative lawprof Mark Osler has this brilliant and provocative new commentary in the Detroit News headlined "Mitt Romney for drug czar." Here is how it starts:

In a series of public appearances, Detroit native Mitt Romney has planted the idea that he might run for president again in 2016. He should resist the idea; that day has passed.

Instead, Romney should apply his experience and passion to public service in a different way: The Mitt Romney who founded Bain Capital and saved the Utah Winter Olympics should be Drug Czar, and use his financial acumen to destroy the narcotics trade without mass incarceration.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney was celebrated (by Republicans) and eviscerated (by Democrats) for his vocation: building up and tearing down businesses. Regardless of how one views the social utility of this enterprise, no one can dispute that Romney is a smart, passionate, well-educated man who loves public service and was very good at what he did while working for Bain Capital.

Romney’s availability matches up with a special moment for narcotics policy. There is a broad right-left consensus that the stale tactics of the war on drugs failed miserably. It wasted billions of dollars in taxpayer money while failing to limit drug use. Meanwhile, millions of Americans went to prison, and a disproportionate number of them were black thanks to harsh new laws focused on crack cocaine. There was something to offend everyone.

I like this idea sooooo much, I really wonder if it could possibly get any legs inside the Beltway. On all modern drug crime and punishment issues — ranging from marijuana reform in the states to the surge of addiction to opiods and heroin to the reduction of federal drug sentences — the country really needs to widely respected "numbers guy" who could bring a clear-headed business perspective to analyzing the pros and cons of various suggested policy initiatives.  I would trust Mitt Romney to be that guy as much, if not more, than just about anyone else President Obama might place in this role.  

July 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, June 30, 2014

Could part of Hobby Lobby "havoc" include new RFRA challenges to federal drug laws and their regulatory enforcement?

I am not an expert on religious freedom doctrines or on interpretations of Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). But my cursory understanding of the basics of the Supreme Court's big ruling today in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., No. 13-354 (S. Ct. June 30, 2014) (available here) is that SCOTUS has now given RFRA a (much?) broader reach and interpretation than the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause and has concluded that a corporation must have its sincere religious objections to a health-care regulation better accommodated for that regulation to comply wit RFRA. Not surprisingly, the Justices in dissent express concern about this ruling, and I especially was struck by these passages from the start of Justice Ginsburg's dissent:

In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises, including corporations, along with partnerships and sole proprietorships, can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs. See ante, at 16–49. Compelling governmental interests in uniform compliance with the law, and disadvantages that religion-based opt-outs impose on others, hold no sway, the Court decides, at least when there is a “less restrictive alternative.”....

In the Court’s view, RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith.... Persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose, and mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce, I dissent.

Legal scholars and pundits will no doubt be picking apart the Hobby Lobby ruling with a view toward its political, policy and practical impact with respect to any number of federal civil laws.  But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, I am already wondering if the Hobby Lobby ruling could end up having an impact on federal criminal laws, in particular drug laws.

Notably, in his Hobby Lobby concurrence, Justice Kennedy highlights that the "American community is today ... a rich mosaic of religious faiths," and says religious freedom must be understood to mean "the right to express [religious] beliefs and to establish one’s religious (or nonreligious) self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community."  I am pretty sure there are more than a few religious groups (some well-established, other not-so-much) that sincerely claim that certain types of drug use plays a role in their members' "self-definition in the political, civic, and economic life of our larger community." In the wake of Hobby Lobby's ruling that sincere religious beliefs now thanks to RFRA justify an opt-out from general laws, I wonder if more folks might have more opportunities to press claims in federal court that their religious beliefs must allow opt outs from federal criminal drug laws.

June 30, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"Forget Sentencing Equality: Moving from the 'Cracked' Cocaine Debate Toward Particular Purpose Sentencing"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting paper authored by Jelani Jefferson Exum now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

While a racial equality-themed discourse has traditionally fueled the crack-versus-powder cocaine sentencing debate, this Article asserts that seeking equality in sentencing outcomes is the wrong goal.  This Article argues that reformers seeking racial equality in sentencing are misguided in using the cocaine sentencing standards as a benchmark of fairness, because the current cocaine sentencing standards do not effectively serve the purposes of punishment.

Rather than focusing on equality, this Article advocates implementing Particular Purpose Sentencing, which involves developing a framework for drug offenses to be analyzed individually and matched with punishments that purposefully address the concerns associated with the particular offense.  Particular Purpose Sentencing also requires that, once sentences are matched to a specific purpose, the outcomes of those sentences be studied to ensure that they are fulfilling their particular sentencing purpose.

This Article analyzes the legislative and judicial limits of basing sentencing reform on racial equality goals, and explores how implementing Particular Purpose Sentencing has the potential to result in more effective and racially equal consequences.  Though this Article introduces Particular Purpose Sentencing using the drug sentencing context, this new sentencing theory can be applied to achieve fairer, more successful sentencing for all offenses.

June 24, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 22, 2014

New York Times editorial laments stalled federal sentencing reform

Today's New York Times has this lengthy editorial, headlined "Sentencing Reform Runs Aground," expressing justified concerning that bipartisan support for federal sentencing reform has not yet been enough to secure legislative action. Here are excerpts:

Criminal justice reform is one of the rare issues on which there has been bipartisan support in Congress and significant progress toward a legislative solution. Until recently, anyway.

Two bills, each with Republican and Democratic sponsors, were expected to come up for a vote by this summer — one that would reduce lengthy sentences for many low-level drug offenders and another that would give low-risk inmates credit toward early release if they participate in job-training and drug treatment programs. But progress on both bills has stalled, and congressional leaders who were once confident about their chances this year are now looking toward 2015, at the earliest.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of federal inmates — many of whom have already served years of unjustly long drug sentences — continue to sit in overstuffed prisons, wasting both their lives and taxpayer dollars at no demonstrable benefit to public safety....

So why the delay? One major factor has been resistance from members of the old guard, who refuse to let go of their tough-on-crime mind-set. In May, three senior Republican senators — Charles Grassley of Iowa, John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama — came out against the sentencing reductions, arguing that mandatory minimums are only used for the highest-level drug traffickers. This assertion is contradicted by data from the United States Sentencing Commission, which found that 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or low-level dealers.

Another factor was the Obama administration’s April announcement that it would consider clemency for hundreds, if not thousands, of inmates currently serving time under older, harsher drug laws. Republicans complained that this — along with other executive actions on criminal justice by Mr. Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. — took the wind out of reform’s sails.

But with the exception of some old-line prosecutors and resistant lawmakers, everyone still agrees on the need for extensive reform. The other branches of the federal government have begun to do their part: Federal judges across the country have spoken out against the mindlessness of mandatory minimums. The sentencing commission voted in April to reduce many drug sentencing guidelines. And the Justice Department under Mr. Holder has taken multiple steps to combat the harsh and often racially discriminatory effects of those laws.

The public is on board too. According to a recent Pew survey, 67 percent say the government should focus more on treating drug users than on prosecuting them.

Some members of Congress get it. On the right, the charge for reform has been led by Rand Paul of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Yet the prospect of reform has become more precarious, even as the need for it has become more urgent.

Judicial pronouncements and executive orders only go so far. It is long past time for Congress to do its job and change these outdated, ineffective and unjust laws.

June 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Citing Windsor, marijuana defendant aggressively attacks federal prosecution

This interesting local article from Michigan, headlined "Attorney says marijuana wrongly classified as dangerous drug, federal prosecution unfair," highlights interesting arguments being made in a local federal prosecution:

A West Michigan man facing federal marijuana charges has filed a constitutional challenge based, in part, on disparate federal prosecution in different states. Shawn Taylor, the alleged leader of a marijuana grow operation, also argues that marijuana has medicinal value and should not be classified as a Schedule 1 drug -- the designation for the most dangerous drugs.

Taylor is seeking an evidentiary hearing on the issues before U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker in Grand Rapids.  “We’re raising arguments that have really never been raised before in a federal marijuana case,” former Kalamazoo attorney John Targowski, now practicing in Santa Monica, Calif., said on Thursday, June 19, after he filed an 86-page brief on behalf of his client. “We’re arguing that cannabis is wrongly scheduled -- it has medicinal value,” Targowski said.

Taylor is one of 37 people arrested for alleged roles in grow operations in Kent, Muskegon, Oceana and Ottawa counties and Traverse City.

Targowski said that a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act should have bearing on marijuana cases.  “Recognizing the historical support for defining marriage as between one man and one woman, the court determined that it was the duty of the judiciary to rectify past misperceptions which result in constitutionally unsound legislation,” Targowski wrote in court documents.

“Like the long held beliefs regarding the marital relationship, the long held beliefs about the effects of marijuana have evolved. While the former evolution has been the result of societal ideologies, the latter is predicated on scientific evidence, and therefore, can be more readily established through an evidentiary hearing.”

Targowski has asked that Jonker consider declarations of three experts, including a former FBI supervisor and a physician, to establish there is no rational basis to treat marijuana as a controlled substance.  Medical science has documented that “marijuana has a notably low potential for abuse,” Targowski wrote.

He said the Supreme Court has acknowledged its medical value.  “Compared to other over-the-counter substances, cannabis has the lowest potential for abuse, as it is impossible to die from an overdose: further, no studies have proven that the use of cannabis causes harms similar to those caused by the use of common over-the-counter medications, even at recommended dosages,” he wrote.  “In effect, the facts upon which marijuana was scheduled as one of the most dangerous narcotics in 1970 have been disproven.”

He also said that the government’s policy of not prosecuting those who comply with their state’s medical marijuana laws amounts to unequal prosecution based on where people live.  “The policy statement presented in the memorandum to U.S. Attorneys from Deputy Attorney General James Cole, issued on Aug. 29, 2013, by Attorney General Eric Holder has resulted in a discriminatory application of federal law, in that it protects similarly situated individuals from criminal sanctions for actions identical to that alleged to have been conducted by the defendant, and therefore violates the Equal Protection Clause,” Targowski wrote.

The government contends Taylor ran a large-scale drug operation that sold marijuana in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.  He worked with a doctor for “certification clinics” for alleged patients, police said. The government said Taylor used the state’s medical marijuana law as a ruse.

As the title of this post suggests, I find the argument based on the Supreme Court's rejection of DOMA in the Windsor ruling the most intriguing (and perhaps most viable) argument here. Until I can see the defense's 86-page filing in this case, as well as the feds response, I am disinclined to predict whether the defendant here will even secure an evidentiary hearing to present all his best evidence to attack federal marijuana law and policy. But I am already inclined to predict that these kinds of arguments could become a real game-changer if hundreds of federal marijuana defendants were to start raising them in dozens of federal district courts.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

UPDATE:  The lawyer representing Shawn Taylor in the federal indictment in the western district of Michigan reported to me via e-mail that he "essentially replicated work that has been successful in another case in the Eastern District of California, which has led to the scheduling of an evidentiary hearing later this summer to allow the defendant to raise the issues with expert testimony." He tells me that "California attorneys Zenia Gilig and Heather Burke wrote the originally brief in the ED of CA case {though] their work didn't get any press." He also provided this link to a California blog covering the case out there which has some pdfs of some key documents.

June 21, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Notable AG Holder speech on modern approach to modern drug war

Attorney General Holder delivered this speech today at a government summit on heroin and prescription drugs use and abuse, and criminal justice fans might be especially interested in these excerpts:

Between 2006 and 2010 -- across America -- heroin deaths increased by 45 percent. That’s a shocking statistic, but it’s only one of many clear indications that we’re up against an urgent public safety and public health crisis -- one that affects Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life.  We’ve learned from scientific studies, treatment providers, victims, and investigations that the cycle of heroin abuse commonly begins with prescription opioid abuse.  And this can make the problem exceedingly difficult to track and to overcome....

Since the beginning of this Administration, with DEA as our lead agency, the Justice Department has adopted a sweeping strategy to prevent pharmaceutical controlled substances from getting into the hands of non-medical users....

We also have stepped up our investigatory efforts, opening more than 4,500 heroin-related investigations since 2011, and increasing the amount of heroin seized along America’s southwest border between 2008 and 2013 by 320 percent.  Of course, like you, I recognize that we cannot solve this problem through enforcement alone.  And we will never be able to arrest or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.

This is why education, prevention, and treatment -- along with vigorous enforcement -- must all be significant components of any comprehensive solution.  Over the past few years, the DEA and others within the Department of Justice have stepped forward to help educate pharmacists, doctors, and other health practitioners in the identification and prevention of controlled substance diversion during the healthcare delivery process....

On the national level, we’re moving even more broadly -- under the Smart on Crime initiative I announced last August -- to put in place a range of targeted, systemic reforms to ensure that 21st century challenges can be met with 21st century solutions.

This groundbreaking new effort relies upon proven, evidence-based strategies to achieve better outcomes throughout the federal criminal justice system -- and particularly with regard to nonviolent, drug-related crimes.  These policy changes are predicated on the notion that our work must be informed, and our criminal justice system continually strengthened, by the most effective and efficient strategies available.

We’re also strengthening diversion programs like drug courts, veterans courts, and community service initiatives -- so we can provide alternatives to incarceration for some people and offer treatment and rehabilitation to those who need it.  Nationwide, the Justice Department is supporting more than 2,600 specialty courts that connect over 120,000 people convicted of drug-related offenses with the services they need to avoid future drug use.

And we’re striving to improve and reinforce reentry programs and initiatives from coast to coast – so we can enable formerly incarcerated individuals to return to their communities better prepared to contribute, and to lead, as full and productive members of society.

Let me be clear: we will never waver in our commitment to act aggressively to keep America’s streets safe and our children free from drug addiction and abuse.  And we will never stop being tough on crime and the choices that breed it.  But, like you, we also recognize that we must be smart, efficient, and effective as we strive to disrupt and diminish the scourge of addiction -- along with the underlying conditions that trap too many individuals in a vicious cycle of drugs, criminality, and incarceration....

At the end of the day, the most important work we do is invariably the work that takes place within our own communities – not simply as professionals, but as mentors, advocates, and counselors; as parents, neighbors, and friends.  We need to make sure our kids live in neighborhoods where adults can reach out to them -- where moms and dads, teachers and faith leaders, little league coaches and Scoutmasters can be trusted and positive influences in young lives.  And this work must be embraced by whole communities – because it is only by standing together, through collective action and comprehensive effort, that we’ll be able to make the difference we seek.

June 19, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"Lawmakers should be parsimonious — not sanctimonious — on drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Jamie Fellner.  Here are excerpts:

Hopes are high that the U.S. Congress will do the right thing this year and reform notoriously harsh federal drug sentencing laws that have crammed U.S. prisons with small-time offenders.

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, approved by the Senate judiciary committee and now awaiting debate in the full Senate, would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, increase the number who can avoid them altogether, and permit prisoners serving time under outdated crack-cocaine sentencing laws to seek lower sentences. Passage would begin to reverse a decades-long trend that's seen "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason," as Attorney General Eric Holder put it earlier this year.

Although legislators may not realize it, reduction of unduly severe sentences for drug offenders will help bring federal sentencing back in line with the long-overlooked principle of "parsimony." In the criminal justice context, parsimony dictates that sentences should be no greater than necessary to serve the legitimate goals of punishment, namely, retribution for past crimes, deterrence of future ones, and rehabilitation of the offender.

Congress once recognized the importance of parsimony. In the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, it instructed federal judges to impose sentences that were “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to advance the purposes of punishment. But starting in 1986, against a backdrop of social and economic turmoil, racial tension, and the advent of crack cocaine, Congress enacted mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws with stunning disregard for whether they would yield needlessly harsh sentences -- which they invariably did for the low-level offenders who made up the bulk of those receiving them....

Opponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act, including some current and retired federal prosecutors, insist — without evidence – that the mandatory drug sentences are necessary to protect public safety. They also claim — and here the evidence is on their side — that the threat of high mandatory sentences helps convince defendants to plead guilty and cooperate with the government in exchange for lesser punishments. Because judges have no choice but to impose the mandatory minimums triggered by the charges prosecutors file, prosecutors can make good on the threat of higher sentences for those defendants who insist on going to trial: their sentences are on average three times longer than for those who plead. Not surprisingly, ninety-seven percent of drug defendants choose to plead guilty. Opponents of drug law reform seem to forget — or don't care — that the purposes of punishment do not include bludgeoning defendants into pleading.

Each year, hopes for federal drug sentencing reform are dashed by legislative inertia and a few powerful legislators who cling to outdated “tough on crime” notions. Perhaps this year will be different. A growing number of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, realize that lengthy mandatory minimum drug sentences are ineffective, wasteful, and expensive. And though few may use the term parsimony, many have come to understand that unnecessarily harsh sentences make a mockery of justice.

June 15, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Notable indication that "smart on crime" sentencing reform in West Virginia is paying dividends

StsealAs highlighted by this local article, headlined "Governor: Justice Reinvestment Act drops W.Va. jail population by 5%," it appears that another state is having significant success with data-driven "smart-on-crime" sentencing and corrections reforms. Here are the encouraging details:

Although in effect for slightly more than a year, legislation to reduce prison overcrowding by reducing recidivism and substance abuse is having a positive impact, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said during an event Thursday in Washington, D.C.

“Since I signed West Virginia’s Justice Reinvestment Act, we have had a 5 percent reduction in our prison population,” Tomblin said. “In April 2013, we had nearly 7,100 prisoners in our state. Last Thursday, that figure was down to 6,743. We have reduced overcrowding at our regional jail facilities by nearly 50 percent.”

The legislation was enacted in May 2013, after a yearlong study coordinated by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which recommended reducing prison overcrowding with accelerated probation and parole for nonviolent offenders, and better community-based resources for parolees, including substance-abuse treatment programs.

Tomblin told the Washington CSG event that, in April 2013, West Virginia’s corrections system was 1,746 inmates over capacity, a figure that has now dropped to 885. “Today, we have more than 1,000 fewer people in our prisons than what was projected just a few years ago,” Tomblin said. “Without these changes, we expected to have more than 7,800 inmates in West Virginia prisons, compared to today’s total of 6,743.”

Since the passage of the legislation, Tomblin said, the state has continued efforts to reduce re-offense rates with new workforce training programs, assistance in helping parolees find appropriate housing and efforts to ensure access to community-based substance-abuse treatment for those released from prison, funded through Medicaid expansion....

The West Virginia Democrat was joined at the event by Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who has overseen similar successes with prison-reform programs in the Keystone State. Corbett noted that, in the 1990s, Pennsylvania was building a new prison nearly every year, as mandatory sentencing laws were causing the state’s inmate population to soar.

Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center, noted that the national dialogue has changed from a partisan debate over which party could be tougher on crime to a bipartisan effort to be smart on crime, a theme echoed by Tomblin. “I hope other states will consider the justice reinvestment model to take a “smart on crime” approach to prison overcrowding and public safety,” he said.

June 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Two thoughtful criticisms of DOJ's request for only limited retroactivity of proposed lower drug guidelines

As reported here on Tuesday, the Justice Department this week advocated to the US Sentencing Commission that it make its new reduced drug guidelines retroactive only for the lowest-level offenders now serving prison sentences under the old drug guidelines. No doubt because many are eager to see the new drug guidelines made fully retroactive and because I suggested the DOJ half-a-loaf approach was politically and practically astute, I have received two lengthy and thoughtful e-mails from informed advocates which are critical of the DOJ retroactivity position and my reaction to it. With permission, I am posting the comments here.

Federal public defender Sarah Gannett had this to say:

I was the Federal Defender witness at yesterday's USSC hearing on drugs-minus-two retroactivity, and I read your post about the DOJ proposal.  Although I can see how the DOJ proposal might have some facial appeal, I urge you to take a closer look at it.

There is little evidence that the exclusions the Department is proposing are tied in any meaningful way to public safety.  At best, they are overbroad, and will result in deserving inmates being excluded from relief (for example, drug addicts who are in high CHCs because of multiple minor prior convictions related to their addictions).  Indeed, the Commission has acknowledged that criminal history is an imperfect proxy for seriousness of criminal history and risk of recidivism, which is why the Guidelines include a departure provision for over-representation.  Unfortunately, because of the way 1B1.10 is currently written, those who received over-representation departures will be ineligible for relief if the Commission adopts the DOJ proposal.  Similar arguments can be made about the enhancements the DOJ proposes as limiting.

Both David Debold, on behalf of PAG, and Mary Price, for FAMM, focused on the DOJ's proposal in their testimony yesterday.  You may wish to speak to either or both of them. I also encourage you to read the Defender testimony, which is available on the Commission's website.  Although we did not know what the Department's proposal would be until it was announced yesterday, we anticipated and addressed many of the points the DOJ proposal raises (see especially pp. 5-6).

Full retroactivity is the just result, which the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference recognized.  In fact, in her oral testimony, Judge Keeley indicated that the CLC considered a proposal like the DOJ's, but rejected it out of fairness concerns.  The CLC recommended a different compromise -- which delays implementation just until the institutional players can adequately prepare to address the volume of cases.  This approach is more principled than the limitations suggested by the Department.  It is discussed in the CLC's statement, which also was posted.  (Defenders took the position that, based on experience gained in the crack retroactivity process and other factors, the players could find a way to manage the caseload.  See our statement at pp. 9-13, 14-15.)

Those who are concerned about community safety should remember that the retroactivity statute and policy statement require the sentencing judge to review and consider the appropriateness of early release in every individual case, an obligation that courts took seriously following the 2007 and 2011 retroactive crack amendments.

Former US Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love had this to say:

I am genuinely puzzled by the Department's proposed "compromise" on the retroactivity issue, and surprised and disappointed by your response to it.  I suggest that you compare the Department's proposal for guidelines retroactivity with the President's eight commutations last December.

Only one or possibly two of the eight individuals whose sentences were commuted -- all presumably pursuant to a favorable Department recommendation -- would qualify for relief under the DOJ proposed "compromise".  Clarence Aaron was enhanced for obstruction, Gray and Wintersmith had guns, and Gilbert, Wheeler and Patterson and probably George were either career offenders or CHC III or above.  Of the eight, only Jason Hernandez (a gang member charged with massive amounts of drug, with juvie gun priors) would appear to be a candidate for relief under the DOJ proposed compromise, a curious result to say the least.

It certainly raises a question why the Department thinks it is appropriate to ask the President to make these tough case-by-case calls but does not trust district judges to make them.  Somehow that does not seem "politically and practically astute" (your words), or respectful of institutional roles and competencies.  Moreover, if DOJ really wanted to lighten the burden imposed on its own staff by its unprecedented and possibly ill-advised invitation to all federal prisoners to apply for clemency, and to the private bar to represent them, one would think it should be asking the courts to do more of this work, not less.

Perhaps this means that DOJ will interpret and apply its six new clemency criteria narrowly, and recommend only those prisoners who fit in this minor-record-no-gun-no-obstruction category -- those few who would not benefit from the guidelines reduction because of a mandatory minimum.  It is not at all clear to me that such a crabbed interpretation of the clemency initiative would be responsive to the President's clear signal in the December 8 grants about what he wants from his Justice Department.

If the only ones recommended for clemency are those who satisfy the criteria commended to the Commission by the Department, this will be a cruel hoax on federal prisoners, who are expecting a lot more.  It will also be deeply unfair to the hundreds of private lawyers who have agreed to donate their time to learn a new skill in preparation for telling a prisoner's story, in what may turn out to be a false hope that one of their clients will win the clemency lottery.

I commend Judge Irene Keeley for saying that full retroactivity is a "moral issue" and the courts’ “burden to bear.”  Good for the POs too, whose professionalism is encouraging. I agree with Judge Keeley that it would be fundamentally unfair to categorically deny full retroactivity to prisoners, just as it would be fundamentally unfair to categorically exclude certain prisoners from clemency consideration.

I hope the Department -- and the President -- will come to see that the apparatus already exists to achieve sentencing fairness, and it is in the courts not the executive.  I hope also that this President does not turn out to be the third in a row to be embarrassed by his Justice Department's clemency program.

Some recent related posts:

June 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform

Long-time readers know that we used to be able to get Bill Otis's tough-on-crime perspective on sentencing reform via the comments to posts here, but now we all need to head over to Crime & Consequences to see his take on current sentencing events.  Not surprisingly, the discussion by US Sentencing Commission about whether to make its new lower drug guidelines retroactive has Bill going strong, and here are a sampling of him recent post from C&C:

The titles of all these posts provide a flavor of their contents, but I urge all folks following closely the debates over recent federal sentencing reform to click through and read all Bill has to say on these topics.  Notably, the first post listed above highlights how perspectives on broader reform debates will necessarily inform views on particular positions taken on smaller issues.  Bill assails DOJ for advocating for "large scale retroactivity" when it decided to yesterday to "support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment."  In notable contrast, I have received a number of e-mails from advocates of federal sentencing reform today (some of which I hope to soon reprint in this space) that assail DOJ for not advocating for complete retroactivity.

June 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"

As detailed in this prior post, today the US Sentencing Commission is conducting a public hearing to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive its new proposed guideline that reduces most drug sentences across the board.  And though that hearing is on-going, the hearing agenda available here now has links to most of the witnesses' submitted written testimony, including the position advocated by the Department of Justice.  

As detailed in this official DOJ press release and this written testimony via US Attorney Sally Yates, the Justice Department is urging the Commission to make the new reduced drug guidelines retroactive for some, but not all, prisoners now serving sentences under the old drug guidelines.  Here are the basics of the compromise advocated by DOJ via its submitted testimony:

After extensive discussions and consideration of the various policy interests at stake in this matter – including public safety, individual justice for offenders, and public trust and confidence in the federal criminal justice system – we support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment. As I will discuss further, we think such an approach strikes the right balance of policy interests and can be rigorously and effectively implemented across the federal criminal justice system within existing resource constraints....

Assessing whether the amendment should be applied retroactively requires balancing several factors.  The primary factor driving our position to support retroactive application of the amendment, albeit limited retroactivity, is that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders.  While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that the sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary, and this creates a negative impact upon both the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources....

Because of public safety concerns that arise from the release of dangerous drug offenders and from the diversion of resources necessary to process over 50,000 inmates, we believe retroactivity of the drug amendment should be limited to lower level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories. Limited retroactivity will ensure that release decisions for eligible offenders are fully considered on a case-by-case basis as required, that sufficient supervision and monitoring of released offenders will be accomplished by probation officers, and that the public safety risks to the community are minimized. Release dates should not be pushed up for those offenders who pose a significant danger to the community; indeed, we believe certain dangerous offenders should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity....

Balancing all of these factors, the Department supports limited retroactive application of the 2014 drug guideline amendment. We urge the Commission to act consistently with public safety and limit the reach of retroactive application of the amendment only to those offenders who do not pose a significant public safety risk. The Commission has the authority to direct limited retroactivity under both 18 U.S.C. § 994(u) and Dillon, which provide authority to the Commission to prescribe the “circumstances” under which an amended guideline is applied retroactively. We believe the Commission should limit retroactive application to offenders in Criminal History Categories I and II who did not receive: (1) a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); (2) an enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(1); (3) an enhancement for using, threatening, or directing the use of violence pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(2); (4) an enhancement for playing an aggravating role in the offense pursuant to §3B1.1; or (5) an enhancement for obstruction of justice or attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to §3C1.1.

With these limitations, all of which should have been determined in prior court action and should be documented in the court file in most cases, courts will be able to determine eligibility for retroactivity based solely on the existing record and without the need for transporting a defendant to court or holding any extensive fact finding. Retroactivity would be available to a class of non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history, did not possess or use a weapon, and thus will apply only to the category of drug offender who warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of reoffending. While the factors we suggest are not a perfect proxy for dangerousness, they are a reasonable proxy based on the Commission’s own research, and identifying them will not require new hearings.

Though I suspect the intriguing middle-ground position embraced here by DOJ will disappoint the usual suspects advocating fully against or fully for retroactivity, I view this DOJ proposal to be both politically and practically astute. In part because SO very many current federal prisoners may be eligible for a sentence reduction based on the new guidelines, I think it make sense (and is consistent with congressional policies and goals) for any retroactivity rule to seek to bring some equities into the application of the new law in an effort to ensure the most deserving of previously sentenced defendants get the benefit of the new guidelines. The DOJ position here seems thoughtfully designed to try to achieve that balance.

Some recent related posts:

June 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Monday, June 09, 2014

Big US Sentencing Commission hearing Tuesday on reduced drug guideline retroactivity

As reported in this official notice, a public hearing of the United States Sentencing Commission is scheduled for Tuesday, June 10, 2014, and the "purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive Amendment 782."  That Amendment, in short form, reduces the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by two levels in most settings.  And, as set forth in this detailed USSC staff analysis, as many as "51,141 offenders sentenced between October 1, 1991 and October 31, 2014, would be eligible to seek a reduction in their current sentence if the Commission were to make the 2014 drug guidelines amendment retroactive.

The hearing agenda and the list of the 16 witnesses scheduled now to testify at this hearing is available here. I am pretty confident that most of these witnesses will advocate that the new drug guidelines be made retroactive, but I am not entirely certain about what positions will be advocated by the Department of Justice and some of the law enforcement witnesses. In addition, advocates on both sides likely will articulate in different ways with distinct emphasis why they think retroactivity for these new reduced drug guidelines would be a good or bad idea.

I am hopeful that by this time tomorrow the written testimony to be submitted by the witnesses with be linked on the USSC's website.  In the meantime, I will be re-reading  this detailed USSC staff analysis in order to have a better understanding of the 50,000+ federal prisoners whose fates could be impacted by the retroactivity decision.

June 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Over 1000 faith leaders sign letter in support of Smarter Sentencing Act

As highlighted by this article, over "1,100 clergy and faith leaders urged Congress to pass legislation reducing federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in a June 3 letter to party leaders in the House and Senate."  Here is more about the prominent voices joining the chorus advocating for federal sentencing reform:

A total of 1,129 signers asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to support the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan measure that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. The faith leaders said tough sentencing laws passed in the 1980s “war on drugs” disproportionately affect minorities....

“For too long, Congress has ignored the consequences of the harsh sentencing policies it approved during the 1980s and the disproportionate harm it has caused people of color and those convicted of low-level offenses,” the letter said. “The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step towards addressing racial injustice as well as reducing mass incarceration that characterizes our current justice system.”

Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, was a lead signer for the letter coordinated by the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group, a coalition of 43 faith organizations chaired by the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society.

June 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"

This notable new commentary in The Huffington Post by Megan Quattlebaum makes the case for the US Sentencing Commission to make fully retroactive its new guidelines amendment reducing most federal drug sentencing recommendations. Here are excerpts:

In a landmark decision, the United States Sentencing Commission voted last month to lower the recommended penalty for federal drug crimes by about 17 percent.  As of now, the change will apply only to defendants who are sentenced after November 1, 2014.  But the Commission is also exploring whether the reduction should be made retroactive, and it issued two reports two reports two reports (available here and here) analyzing that question last week.

Four things struck me as I read the reports. First, the Commission estimates that, if the changes were made retroactive, 51,141 individuals who are currently in prison (an incredible 23 percent of the total population) would be eligible to seek a reduction in their sentences.  That a large number of people will be affected is not surprising -- almost half of all federal prisoners (48 percent) are incarcerated for drug crimes.  But what is surprising is that even if all 51,141 were to get reduced sentences, we would have barely begun to bring the federal prison population down to pre-drug war levels.  We incarcerated approximately 25,000 people in federal prisons in 1980.  By 2013, that number had risen to over 219,000.  As a result, the federal prison system is operating at 36 percent over capacity, costing taxpayers $6.4 billion per year and climbing....

Second, a significant percentage (about 25 percent) of the 51,141 potentially eligible for earlier release are non-citizens who may be subject to deportation.  Many rightly question the wisdom of incarcerating large numbers of ultimately deportable non-citizens at taxpayer expense....

Third, the average age of an inmate who will be eligible for a sentence reduction is 38 years.  In the universe of criminal justice, 38 is old.  Researchers have consistently found that involvement in street crimes, like drug offenses, generally begins in the early teenage years, peaks in young adulthood, and dissipates before the individual turns 30. Explanations for this phenomenon are varied, but "[a] large body of research shows that desistance from crime... is... tied to the acquisition of meaningful bonds to conventional adult individuals and institutions, such as work, marriage and family..."  These older offenders should have a low risk of recidivism generally.  And the more that we can do to foster their re-engagement with their families and communities, the lower that risk will be.

Fourth, 20 percent of the individuals who may be eligible for earlier release come from one state: Texas.  True, Texas is big and populous, but it's also punitive.  The more heavily populated state of California only accounts for five percent of potential sentence reductions, while New York accounts for about four percent.  Reading the charts that accompany the Sentencing Commission report is a statistical window into the American drug war, in which hang 'em high southern states feature prominently, if not proudly.

The Sentencing Commission is accepting public comments until July 7, 2014 on whether to make these changes to drug sentences retroactive. Some will no doubt argue against retroactivity, either out of fear that releasing individuals earlier will permit them re-offend sooner or out of concern for the serious workload that federal courts will have to take onin order to process so many applications for sentence reduction.  But if we have revised our view of what constitutes a just sentence for a drug offense, then we cannot and should not justify continuing to incarcerate 51,141 people under an old, rejected understanding. We should never be afraid of too much justice.

I am grateful to see this thoughtful effort to dig into the US Sentencing Commission data concerning who could benefit from the new drug guidelines being made retroactive. And I think this commentary rightly highlights that the nationality status and the age profile of federal drug prisoners provide some important extra reasons for being comfortable with the new guidelines being made retroactive.

That said, the commentary about Texas justice and the state-by-state analysis strikes me a potentially a bit misguided. I suspect and fear that federal prosecution of drug crimes in Texas is higher than in other states not only because of the likely international dimensions to many drug crimes around the Mexican border but also because state drug laws in other states may be uniquely harsh. This commentary compares data from California and New York, but these two states have had a history of some notorious tough state sentencing laws (i.e., the Three Strikes Law in California, the Rockefeller Laws in NY). There may be so many federal drug prisoners from Texas not because state sentencing policies and practices are so tough, but because federal policies and practices relative to state norms are so much tougher and because local drug crimes are not really local along the border.

My point here is to highlight that state-by-state examination of federal drug sentencing patterns may reflect lots of distinct and dynamic factors.  Notably, the Commission data indicate that about the same number of federal drug prisoners from Iowa will be impacted by retroactivity of the new drug guidelines as from Arkansas and Mississippi combined.  These data alone hardly reveal the corn belt is the real "hang-em-high" center for the national drug war.  Ultimaely, ever-changing local, state and national drug use and trafficking patterns along with dynamic prosecutorial policies and priorities likely better explain state-by-state federal prisoner data than any social or political conventional wisdom.

Some various somewhat recent related posts:

June 3, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack