Monday, May 22, 2017

"Sentencing Synthetic Cannabinoid Offenders: 'No Cognizable Basis'"

The title of this post is the title of this short notable piece by Brad Gershel now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Application of the United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines (“Guidelines”) to smokable synthetic cannabinoids (“SSC”) produces distinct but familiar inequities in the criminal justice system.  Calling to mind the crack-to-cocaine disparity that belied the rights of countless defendants, the federal government has yet to rectify a Guidelines rule that was promulgated without scientific basis or empirical support.  As prosecutions for SSC accelerate — and in the absence of swift and meaningful reform — federal courts will continue to sentence defendants via a base-offense range that was never justified.

May 22, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Highlighting sentencing reform's momentum in the states despite prosecutorial change of course by US Attorney General

The New York Times has this extended new article detailing recent state sentencing reform realities that stand in contrast to the decision last week by Attorney General Sessions to promulgate tougher charging and sentencing guidelines.  The article is headlined "States Trim Penalties and Prison Rolls, Even as Sessions Gets Tough," and here are excerpts:

Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate.  But this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards struck a deal to reduce sentences and the prison population, saving millions annually. If lawmakers approve the changes, Louisiana will be following more than 30 states, including Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, that have already limited sentences, expanded alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment, or otherwise reduced the reach and cost of the criminal justice system.  Many of those states say they have saved money while crime rates have stayed low.

In Washington, though, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has charted the opposite course.  He announced last week that federal prosecutors should aim to put more people in prison for longer periods, adopting the sort of mass-incarceration strategy that helped flood prisons during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.  His move — which he said would promote consistency and respect for the law — alarmed critics who feared that the Trump administration was embracing failed, even racist, policies.

Even more, Mr. Sessions’s approach conflicted with one of the few major points of bipartisan national agreement over the past decade, that criminal justice could be more effective by becoming less punitive to low-level offenders, treating root causes of crime like drug addiction, and reserving more resources to go after serious, violent criminals.

But if Mr. Sessions’s appointment has dampened the hopes of those wishing for congressional action to reduce incarceration, advocates say it has had little effect on state efforts. “There was a lot of speculation that with the rhetoric from the presidential campaign, there would be a drop in momentum, but we haven’t seen that,” said Marc A. Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a group at the fore of conservative efforts to reduce incarceration rates.  “There have been so many successes in the last several years, particularly in conservative states, that it continues to fuel other states to act,” Mr. Levin said.

The consensus began with a cold, objective judgment that taxpayers were not getting a good return on investment for money spent on prisons.  Bloated corrections budgets took money that could be spent on schools, roads or tax breaks, while many of those who went through the prison system went on to offend again.  Among Republicans and Democrats alike, concern also grew that too many nonviolent criminals who were no threat to society were being imprisoned and given little chance to reform and re-enter mainstream society....

It has not hurt that early adopters included tough-on-crime red states like Texas, which began passing major criminal justice revisions in 2003.  “It was a Nixon-goes-to-China thing, and was really helpful in letting other states know, ‘The water is warm; you can do this,’” Mr. Ring said.  In contrast, he added, Mr. Sessions’s directive flies in the face of state-level successes. “We’re going to double down on an approach everybody else has walked away from,” is how Mr. Ring characterized it.

So far this year, Michigan and Georgia, which previously rewrote their criminal justice laws, have already approved a new round of changes.  In Oklahoma, where Mr. Trump handily carried every county in November, another vote was also popular: Residents approved by a 16 percentage point margin a ballot proposal calling on legislators to curb prison rolls and downgrade numerous drug and property crimes to misdemeanors from felonies.

“Basically, in Oklahoma we’re just warehousing people in prison, and we’re not trying to rehabilitate anybody because of budget constraints,” said Bobby Cleveland, a Republican state representative who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Oklahoma has the nation’s No. 2 incarceration rate. The state is now considering how to heed the voters’ advice, including debating major criminal justice changes. The effort faces opposition from district attorneys who have slowed some pieces of legislation, but the proposals have the firm backing of Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican. Supporters acknowledge that it may take a few tries to succeed. “Texas didn’t do it in one year, either,” Representative Cleveland said.

Louisiana is also moving toward change. On Tuesday, Governor Edwards, a Democrat who has made reducing the prison population a centerpiece of his administration, announced that he had reached an agreement with the state’s politically powerful district attorneys to revise criminal justice laws. The deal, which still faces a vote in the Legislature, would reduce penalties for minor drug possession, give judges more power to sentence people to probation instead of prison, limit how many theft crimes qualify as felonies, and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a number of crimes.

Last year, it also seemed there was a fair chance that even Congress would get in on the action with a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. The bill never got a vote on the floor, and some feared that the appointment of Mr. Sessions, who opposed the legislation as a senator, was a sign that President Trump would never support it. But in March, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met with pro-reform senators, including Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, signaling he considered the issue a priority....

While Mr. Sessions has warned of what he says is a coming surge in crime, advocates for reducing incarceration say they are frustrated by how their goals are often cast as adverse to public safety. “The states that have most significantly reduced their prison population have also seen the biggest drops in their crime and recidivism rates,” said Holly Harris, a former general counsel of the Kentucky Republican Party who is now executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. “Reform makes us safer,” Ms. Harris said. “There’s a misperception with prosecutors that somehow reform is anti-law enforcement, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Highlighting how the Sessions Memo may have particular impact for drug trafficking cases in certain districts

News2-2-Graph-SentencingWith thanks to commenter Daniel for the tip, I just saw this notable local article from New Mexico providing a notable local perspective on the potential impact of the new Sessions federal charging/sentencing memo.  The article is headlined "Two Steps Back: How Jeff Sessions’ memo on federal prosecutions could take New Mexico back to a harsher era," and here are excerpts:

A directive from newly appointed US Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructing prosecutors to seek the most severe charges available threatens to stunt recent progress toward less federal prison time for low-level drug offenders in New Mexico, defense lawyers and drug policy reform advocates tell SFR.

“Drug mule” cases make up many of the drug crimes prosecuted in federal court in New Mexico, federal public defender John Butcher says. Some low-level drug runners who get caught mid-shipment are apprehended in Albuquerque, the first overnight stop on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train from Los Angeles to Chicago. Others are picked up throughout the federally designated “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” which runs east from Farmington down to Santa Fe and into Albuquerque before blanketing most of the southern border from Roswell on. The vast majority of federal drug charges in the state are for trafficking. Possession and brokering drug deals comprise a smaller percentage of crimes.

Drug mule cases, most often involving nonviolent and low-level drug offenders, were among those singled out in a memo issued by former attorney general Eric Holder in August 2013. It encouraged prosecutors not to charge such people with crimes that could trigger stiffer mandatory minimum sentences, which prevent judges from sentencing defendants to prison for fewer than a predetermined number of years. For example, since 1986, federal law has mandated that a person convicted of holding five kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison for a first offense.

Holder asked prosecutors to back off. If somebody was arrested with five kilograms of cocaine, but was not an organizer, did not have deep ties to criminal groups and wasn’t carrying a gun or another indicator of violent intent, prosecutors were asked not to charge that person with the quantity that would have triggered the 10 years. Data from the US Sentencing Commission suggests that some federal prosecutors in New Mexico may have heeded Holder’s directive. It shows that the percentage of sentenced federal drug offenders who received mandatory minimums immediately dropped from 42 percent in 2013 to 25 percent in 2014, and even fell to 20 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which information is available. That’s about half the figure from 2006, the first year the commission began tracking this data. The decrease came even as the number of people prosecuted for trafficking rose from an average of 586 between 2010 and 2012—before the Holder directive—and 646 between 2014 and 2016.

But Sessions has now directed prosecutors to reverse course. The new attorney general wants federal prosecutors to seek the most serious and readily provable charge against all defendants—regardless of circumstance. “This is going to go after the low-level minimum participants with minor records, because they’re the ones who were getting breaks [under Holder],” Butcher tells SFR. “Breaks” didn’t mean that low-level runners weren’t being charged or sentenced to prison after 2013, he says. But in some cases, they weren’t getting the book thrown at them. Butcher suggests the new policy will have an outsized effect in New Mexico, with its relatively higher number of trafficking cases involving nonviolent offenders....

Since 2013, Santa Fe’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, wherein police work with case managers and the local district attorney to enroll low-level offenders in treatment programs, has served as a national example for non-punitive approaches to drug use.  District Attorney Marco Serna doesn’t think there’s much overlap between those who would qualify for LEAD and those who could be charged with a federal drug crime, but he acknowledges that the city’s approach stands in contrast to Sessions’ hardline.  “For nonviolent crimes, we have our own state and local statutes, and luckily I get to influence how we handle it in the first district,” Serna says. “And we won’t be taking that approach.”

Prior recent related posts: 

UPDATE: I just saw this notable new New York Times article which drills even deeper into the impact of the Holder Memo by identifying a number of low-level federal drug offenders who seemingly benefited from more lenient charging practices.  The piece is headlined "5 Years, or 20? How Sessions’ Get-Tough Order Would Extend Prison Stays." and it is interesting to see the cases profiled in the article and even more interesting to consider whether the offenders in the article might have been able, even if charged with more serious offenses, been able to avoid the application of a mandatory minimum sentence through the statutory safety valve or through providing cooperation.

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ninth Circuit dodges federal marijuana offender's claim his imprisonment contravenes appropriations rider

As everyone involved in or following marijuana reform knows, Congress in recent years has included in its omnibus appropriations bills a rider that prevents the US Department of Justice (DOJ) from using any funds to prevent states "from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."  Yesterday, a Ninth Circuit panel considered in Davies v. Benov, No. 15-17256 (9th Cir. May 17, 2017) (available here), a notable contention concerning this rider from a federal prisoner.  Here are the basics from the opinion:

Davies owned and operated medical marijuana dispensaries in Stockton and Sacramento, California, which he contends complied with state and local medical marijuana laws. Davies, however, was charged with violating federal drug laws ... [and] entered into a plea agreement, agreeing to a five-year prison term and pleading guilty to the ten counts filed against him....

Davies filed a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 in the Eastern District of California, contending that the BOP’s use of federal funds to incarcerate individuals, such as himself, who engaged in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws violates the appropriations rider.

I recall talking to some lawyers back when Congress first enacted the medical marijuana appropriations rider that, if the text were interpreted very broadly, it could arguably preclude the federal Bureau of Prisons (which is part of DOJ) from spending any of its budget on those incarcerated for state-compliant medical marijuana activities. So I am not shocked that this argument made it to the Ninth Circuit. But, as this concluding passage from Davies highlights, this argument still has not yet been addressed on the merits:

The collateral-attack waiver provision in Davies’s plea agreement bars him from this particular challenge to the BOP’s use of federal funds to incarcerate him for conduct he contends complied with California’s medical marijuana laws. Because of this waiver, we need not reach and save for another day the issue of whether the expenditure of federal funds to incarcerate individuals who fully complied with state medical marijuana laws violates the appropriations rider. Cf. McIntosh, 833 F.3d at 1177–78 (holding that the appropriations rider prohibits the Department of Justice from using appropriated funds to prosecute individuals for engaging in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws). “We will enforce a valid waiver even if the claims that could have been made [through a collateral attack] absent that waiver appear meritorious, because the whole point of a waiver is the relinquishment of claims regardless of their merit.” United States v. Medina-Carrasco, 815 F.3d 457, 462–63 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks, alterations, and emphasis omitted).

I would be shocked to see the Ninth Circuit or any other court ultimately interpret the DOJ appropriations rider to require the release of any federal prisoners, but the argument has enough technical textual legitimacy to surely justify its pursuit by persons federally imprisoned for state-legal medical marijuana activity. And, for various updates on state activities, I continue to try to keep up with major legal developments and other notable stories at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform as evidenced by some of these recent posts:

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Terrific effort to sort out "How Many Drug Offenders Benefited From the Holder Memo That Sessions Rescinded?"

In this post earlier this week, I talked through the challenge of figuring out the import and impact of the new Sessions Memo on federal charging/sentencing by stressing  uncertainty concerning the impact of various charging memos released by former Attorney General Eric Holder.   Jacob Sullum is carrying forward this effort quite effectively this morning in this terrific new Reason posting asking "How Many Drug Offenders Benefited From the Holder Memo That Sessions Rescinded?".   Here are highlights:

For critics of the war on drugs and supporters of sentencing reform, the policy shift that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last Friday is definitely a change for the worse. But it's not clear exactly how bad the consequences will be, partly because the impact of the policy he reversed, which was aimed at shielding low-level, nonviolent drug offenders from mandatory minimum sentences, is hard to pin down.

Sessions rescinded a 2013 memo in which Attorney General Eric Holder encouraged federal prosecutors to refrain from specifying the amount of drugs in cases involving nonviolent defendants without leadership roles, significant criminal histories, or significant ties to large-scale drug trafficking organizations. Since mandatory minimums are tied to drug weight, omitting that detail avoids triggering them.

Numbers that the Justice Department cited last year suggest Holder's directive, which was the heart of his Smart on Crime Initiative, had a substantial effect on the percentage of federal drug offenders facing mandatory minimums. According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), the share of federal drug offenders subject to mandatory minimums has fallen steadily since Holder's memo, from 62 percent in fiscal year 2013 to less than 45 percent in fiscal year 2016. If the percentage had remained the same, more than 10,000 additional drug offenders would have fallen into that category during this period.

"The promise of Smart on Crime is showing impressive results," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said last year, citing the USSC numbers through fiscal year 2015. "Federal prosecutors are consistently using their discretion to focus our federal resources on the most serious cases and to ensure that we reserve harsh mandatory minimum sentence for the most dangerous offenders."

Counterintuitively, however, the defendants whom the USSC describes as "drug offenders receiving mandatory minimums" include drug offenders who did not actually receive mandatory minimums. Many of them were convicted under provisions that call for mandatory minimums yet escaped those penalties because they offered "substantial assistance" or qualified for the statutory "safety valve."

Paul Hofer, a policy analyst at Federal Public and Community Defenders, took those other forms of relief into account in a 2013 estimate of the Holder memo's possible impact.... Hofer's analysis suggests that the vast majority of drug offenders who seem to have benefited from the 2013 memo—thousands each year—did not actually receive shorter sentences as a result of the policy change.

Then again, the benefits of Holder's memo may extend beyond the federal defendants who avoided mandatory minimums. By encouraging prosecutors to focus their efforts on the most serious drug offenders, Holder may have indirectly reduced punishment by allowing some people to avoid federal charges altogether. That instruction may help explain why the total number of federal drug cases fell from 25,000 in fiscal year 2013 to 21,387 in fiscal year 2016, a 14 percent drop.

As Molly Gill, director of federal legislative affairs at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, points out, there is some evidence that federal prosecutors did try to focus on the most serious cases: During the same period, the share of defendants benefiting from the safety valve (which excludes high-level and violent offenders) fell from 24 percent to 13 percent. "With the directive not to slam low-level drug defendants," says University of California at Irvine criminologist Mona Lynch, "there was likely some shift toward bringing more serious cases and simply passing on smaller, street-dealing type of cases."

Sessions is now telling federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charges against drug offenders (and other federal defendants) unless they believe an exception to that policy is warranted, in which case they have to seek permission from their supervisors and justify the decision in writing. Although Sessions argues that the new default rule will produce more uniform results, Lynch thinks it could have the opposite effect.

"The big question is whether he has the power to roll back time and change the prevailing legal culture that has tempered the 'drug war' mentality of the 1990s in many federal jurisdictions," says Lynch, who studied the behavior of federal prosecutors for her 2016 book Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court. "Even under a more stringent set of charging policies…U.S. attorneys have considerable discretion as to what cases to bring….This policy may only increase the divide between jurisdictions that collectively eschew aggressive federal drug prosecutions and those that dive back into the harsh practices of an older era. This would result in even more geographic disparity in federal justice outcomes, a longstanding concern of Congress and of the U.S. Sentencing Commission."

Prior recent related posts: 

May 17, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reviewing some historical data on the federal prison population, total sentences imposed, and drug cases

Some of the copious commentary critical of the new Sessions Memo complains that he is "bringing back" the War on Drugs.  See, for example, Salon here, "Jeff Sessions is bringing back the drug war — and making it worse"; New York here, "Sessions Takes First Big Step Toward Bringing Back the War on Drugs."  I find this charge a bit curious because I do not think the drug war or its footprint on human lives ever really went away notwithstanding some recent efforts at the federal and state level to temper a bit its reach and impact. 

In an effort to try to see if the federal drug war at some point went away, and also driven by a desire to try to gauge the impact of federal charging policies before the Sessions Memo (as discussed here), I decided it might be useful to take a dive into US Sentencing Commission data over the past two decades to see what we could see.  The USSC has great yearly data assembled here going back to 1996, and basic federal prison population numbers are accessible here going back all the way to 1980.  Though my weak empirical skills and this imperfect blogging space will surely limit my ability to tell detailed data stories here effectively, I hope a few posts reviewing federal case processing and sentencing basics might be of some use and interest.  Here I will start with just the most basic of basics, historical data on the federal prison population, total sentences imposed, and drug cases:

Year        Federal Prison Population         Federal Sentences Imposed         Drug Sentences Imposed

1996                105,443                                        42,436                                    17,267

1998                122,316                                        50,754                                    20,368

2000                145,125                                        59,846                                    23,542

2002                163,436                                        64,366                                    25,920        

2004                179,895                                        70,068                                    24,532

2006                192,584                                        72,585                                    26,122

2008                201,668                                        76,478                                    25,500

2010                210,227                                        83,946                                    24,713

2012                218,687                                        84,173                                    25,712

2014                214,149                                        75,836                                    22,193

2016                192,170                                        67,742                                    19,945

May 15, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Notable comments from AG Sessions about the opioid crisis and combatting drug problems

This press release from the Department of Justice provides the text of remarks delivered today by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the "DEA360 Heroin and Opioid Response Summit" in Charleston, WV. I recommend the speech in full, even though some comments are familiar, and here are a few excerpts that caught my attention:

People in Washington, D.C., use the word "crisis" to describe all kinds of problems.  But this epidemic of opioid and prescription drug abuse is a true crisis.  It is ravaging our communities, bringing crime and violence to our streets, and destroying the lives of too many Americans....

Let’s start by looking at the scope of the problem.  In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans died from a drug overdose.  That means our country is losing the equivalent of a major league baseball stadium full of people every year to overdoses.  That is simply unacceptable. 

Nearly two-thirds of those deaths were from opioids — that includes heroin as well as prescription drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.   Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose.  And each year, more Americans are dying from drug overdoses than from car crashes.  

What’s terrifying is that these numbers may well understate the current problem, due to the recent rise of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is vastly more potent than heroin.  Drug traffickers are now mixing fentanyl with other drugs, resulting in a truly deadly concoction. In just one year, largely as a result of fentanyl, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose an astonishing 73 percent.  Let me repeat that, 73 percent more overdose deaths.

But this plague not only brings death, but a whole parade of horribles. The number of American babies born with a drug withdrawal symptom has quadrupled over the past 15 years.  Here in West Virginia, the situation is so bad that in some hospitals, one out of every 10 babies is born dependent on opioids....

This wave of opioid and heroin abuse also represents a crisis for law enforcement.   We know drugs and crime go hand-in-hand.   Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business.  If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court.  You collect it by the barrel of a gun.

The opioid and heroin epidemic is a contributor to the recent surge of violent crime in America.   Transnational drug cartels are working with street gangs to traffic heroin that is both cheaper and stronger than ever.  As the market for this heroin expands, these gangs fight for territory and new customers — and innocent people get caught in the crossfire.     

Drug abusers miss work, and when they do work, they don’t work well.  According to one estimate, American employers are losing $10 billion dollars a year from absenteeism and lost productivity due to opioid abuse.

Any way you look at it, this drug abuse epidemic is a multi-faced and massive crisis.  It demands an all-hands-on-deck response — from government, law enforcement, health care providers, teachers, community leaders and parents.  All of us must do our part to fight the scourge of drugs.   

As I mentioned before, we have three essential tools in this fight:  enforcement, treatment and prevention.  At the Department of Justice, our principal concern is law enforcement.  Strong enforcement is crucial to effective drug abuse prevention and treatment.

Many people say, "We can’t arrest our way out of this problem."  But no one denies we need good prevention and treatment programs.  What we must recognize is that strong law enforcement efforts are also essential.   Criminal enforcement is crucial to stopping the violent transnational cartels that smuggle drugs across our borders, and the thugs and gangs who bring this poison into our communities....

The DEA has developed what they call their 360 Strategy, and deployed it to six pilot cities, including here in Charleston.  One part of the 360 Strategy is coordinated law enforcement actions against drug cartels and traffickers.   DEA’s field divisions work closely with task force partners in federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify, target and prosecute the biggest drug traffickers.  

We are also targeting links between the cartels and drug trafficking networks across our country, including violent street gangs. Another part of DEA’s 360 Strategy is diversion control.  A lot of drug abuse happens because legitimate controlled substances are diverted from their lawful purposes.... 

We are also targeting and prosecuting dishonest medical providers who violate their oaths by running "pill mills" or otherwise diverting prescription drugs from legitimate uses.  The DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squads, including one here in Charleston, do outstanding work on this front....

The goal of all our enforcement efforts is to take back our neighborhoods from drug traffickers and criminals, and give these communities breathing room.   That allows us to deploy the other tools we have to fight drug abuse:  treatment and prevention....

The best thing we can do is to keep people from ever abusing drugs in the first place.  Our nation must once again send a clear message:  illegal drug use is dangerous and deadly.  We know for a fact it destroys lives — just look around you.

Education does work.  We won’t end this epidemic in a week, or a month, or a year.  This will be a huge undertaking, both here in West Virginia and across our great country.  We must use all the tools we have: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention programs.  

May 11, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

New buzz about AG Sessions considering new tougher charging guidance for federal prosecutors

I had the great honor and privilege tp speak earlier today to a terrific group of judges, along with a terrific lawyer from the US Sentencing Commissions, about federal sentencing trends and developments.  We started the discussion with a particular focus on drug cases, and I mentioned that I was expecting to see new, probably tougher, charging guidelines emerging from the Department of Justice under its new leadership.  This new Washington Post article, headlined "Sessions weighs return to harsher punishments for low-level drug crimes," suggests my informed speculation here may quite soon be reality. Here are excerpts from the piece:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing policy changes set in place by the Obama administration that eliminated harsh punishments for low-level drug crimes and could direct federal prosecutors to again charge drug offenders with crimes carrying the most severe penalties, according to U.S. officials.

The change, if adopted, would overturn a memo by then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that instructed prosecutors to avoid charging low-level defendants with drug offenses that would trigger severe mandatory minimum sentences. Only defendants who met certain criteria, such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, a gang or a cartel, qualified for the lesser charges under Holder’s instructions.

If new charging instructions are implemented, it would mark the first significant move by the Trump administration to bring back the drug war’s toughest practices — methods that had fallen out of favor in recent years as critics pointed to damaging effects of mass incarceration.

“As the Attorney General has consistently said, we are reviewing all Department of Justice policies to focus on keeping Americans safe and will be issuing further guidance and support to our prosecutors executing this priority — including an updated memorandum on charging for all criminal cases,” Ian Prior, a department spokesman, in a statement to The Washington Post.

Sessions has recently peppered his speeches to law enforcement groups throughout the country with tough-on-crime rhetoric and urged Justice Department lawyers to prosecute more drug and gun cases.

The attorney general is considering having his prosecutors bring the most severe charges against drug traffickers, whether they are low-level defendants or not, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Sessions also may allow prosecutors to use more “enhancements” to make sentences even longer. Under what’s referred to as “Section 851” of the Controlled Substances Act, defendants charged with a federal drug, firearm or immigration crime may face enhancements if they have previously been convicted of a felony drug offense.

Holder told his prosecutors four years ago that they should stop using enhancements except in certain cases — such as when the defendant was involved in the use or threat of violence — in an effort, he said, to make punishments more fairly fit the crime.

Holder’s changes came in August 2013 during a growing push among lawmakers and civil rights groups to roll back the strict charging and sentencing policies created in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the war on drugs. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was one of the sponsors of bipartisan criminal-justice legislation that would have reduced some of the mandatory minimum sentences for gun and drug crimes — a bill that Sessions opposed and helped derail....

The Holder memo was also supported by many of the U.S. attorneys in the Obama administration. But some prosecutors across the country fought Holder’s broad effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenders, saying it damaged their ability to build cases from the ground up against major drug organizations.

As I noted in this post a few months ago, the new Attorney General has already issued directives that lead me to suspect that we would be seeing a formal new "Sessions Memo" that seeks to remove some of the "play in the joints" that former AG Eric Holder introduced through prior charging memorandum issued back in 2010 and 2013. Indeed, I have been a bit surprised we have not yet seen new directives from AG Sessions yet in this arena, and this new Post article leads me to suspect a Sessions Memo could be coming out any day now.

UPDATE:  This New York Times article, headlined "Sessions to Toughen Rules on Prosecuting Drug Crimes," suggests that new charging guidance from AG Sessions could be released any day now.  Here is a key paragraph from the article that provides additional context for this important coming federal criminal justice development:

Current and former government officials have said for weeks that Mr. Sessions’s new policy could come at any time. They said Tuesday that they expected to see it finalized shortly, and Mr. Sessions himself has foreshadowed the announcement this year, calling for a return to tougher federal charging policies in speeches and issuing memos telling prosecutors to anticipate policy shifts.

May 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 05, 2017

Might Prez Trump conduct something of a federal "drug war" retreat through major budget cuts?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new CBS News article headlined "Trump administration proposes massive cuts to Drug Czar office."  Here are the details:

The Trump administration is looking to slash the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) budget by nearly 95 percent, according to a memo obtained by CBS News.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has proposed major ONDCP budget cuts for fiscal year 2018 that would cut 33 employees, nearly half the office staff, along with intelligence, research and budget functions at the agency, as well as the Model State Drug Laws and Drug Court grant programs....

The document also zeroes out funding to a number of grant programs including the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program and the Drug-free Communities Support Program.  These grants are "duplicative of other efforts across the Federal government and supplant State and local responsibilities," the memo states.

HIDTA serves as a catalyst for coordination among federal state and local enforcement entities, and funds task forces in 49 states across the country.  It is considered a vital tool used by law enforcement agencies to go after very high profile drug dealers and conduct in-depth interagency investigations.  The drug free communities support program is the nation's largest drug prevention program and funds 5,000 local anti-drug community coalitions across the country.  This program has also enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order last month to create a presidential commission to tackle the national opioid [crisis], chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  The Order stated that the ONDCP would be providing support for the Commission.  "I have been encouraged by the Administration's commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic, and the President's personal engagement on the issue, both during the campaign and since he was sworn into office," the ONDCP's Acting Director, Richard Baum, wrote in an office-wide email. "However, since OMB's proposed cuts are also at odds with the fact that the President has tasked us with supporting his Commission on Combatting drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis."

"These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking, and if carried out, would cause us to lose many good people who contribute greatly to ONDCP's mission and core activities," Baum wrote.

The staff was notified of the cuts Friday after Baum and top aides were notified of the draconian cuts last Thursday.  According to a source familiar with the discussions, Baum has been in close contact with Jared Kushner, who heads up the White House Office of American Innovation.  Baum had hoped to convince the Office of American Innovation that the ONDCP is an essential tool in combatting the opioid epidemic. The discussions did not go as planned.

"The budget process is a complex one with many moving parts," The White House said in a statement to CBS. "It would be premature for us to comment - or anyone to report - on any aspect of this ever-changing, internal discussion before the publication of the document. The President and his cabinet are working collaboratively to create a leaner, more efficient government that does more with less of tax payers' hard-earned dollars."

Due in part of some of the rhetoric used by both Prez Trump and Attorney General Sessions, there has been much talk and consternation about the prospect of the Trump Administration ramping up the federal drug war. But if these significant budget cuts become a reality, it is quite possible that the Trump Administration would be functionally doing a lot more to pull back on the drug war in his first Term than did President Obama during his first Term.

UPDATE: This new CBS News article, headlined "White House dismisses concerns over steep potential cuts to 'Drug Czar' office," includes new statements from White House officials suggesting any ONDCP cuts would not signal a drug war retreat as well as some informed reaction to the budget cutting talk:

A senior administration official suggested that if the White House decided to strip ONDCP of its agency mandate to coordinate collaboration between federal and local law enforcement and public health organizations, transitioning it into an office like the National Security Council or National Economic Council. The official said cuts would "by no means signal the commitment to winning the war on drugs is lessened." The senior administration official pointed to dozens of drug programs across many federal agencies as evidence that the White House is committed to anti-drug efforts, even if the ONDCP loses its ability to issue grants.

But Rafael Lemaitre, a former top spokesman for the ONDCP, countered that the reason the ONDCP was created in the first place was to coordinate these programs into one comprehensive strategy for the president. "Creating chaos at ONDCP or eliminating the agency will mean that each of the bureaucrats who run each those long list of programs and are spread out across government will have no single point of contact or direction to follow," Lemaitre said. "Efforts will be duplicated. Presidential priorities won't be followed. Ineffective programs will continue."...

Scores of former government officials, doctors, community based organizations, law enforcement officials and officials at drug treatment and prevention programs agree. In a letter to senior White House adviser Reed Cordish, dozens called on the White House to maintain ONDCP's funding and strong national influence.

"As we have written before, ONDCP brings essential expertise to the table on complex drug issues, expertise that would otherwise be missing or dispersed across multiple agencies," the letter states. "ONDCP holds all federal, state, and local agencies accountable for achieving specific goals to reduce drug trafficking, use, and other consequences."

Kevin Sabet, the head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a three-time ONDCP adviser who distributed the letter, did not mince words. "To slash anti-drug finding during this opiate and marijuana crisis is exactly the wrong move at the wrong time," he said. 

May 5, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Stories of severe federal sentences and the judges forced to impose them

Two different news sources this morning have these two equally interesting pieces about federal sentencing practices and federal judges struggling with their sentencing responsibilities:

May 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Florida legislative debate provides interesting sign of the modern mandatory-minimum drug sentencing times

This new local article from Florida, headlined "Steube bill aimed at curbing overdoses sparks drug sentencing debate," highlights how legislators even in traditionally "tough" states are starting to have much more nuanced discussions about mandatory minimum sentencing proposals. Here are the interesting details:

Legislation aimed at tackling the opioid epidemic in Florida sparked a debate about mandatory minimum drug sentences in the state Senate Tuesday, prompting an amendment that put the measure sponsored by two Southwest Florida lawmakers in jeopardy.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, have been pushing a bill that would establish penalties for the possession of large amounts of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid often laced with heroin — and its many derivatives.  Manatee and Sarasota counties were the top two communities in the state for fentanyl-related deaths per capita in 2015, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.  Fentanyl was responsible for 911 deaths across Florida in 2015, and continues to be a major health crisis across the state.

But mandatory minimum drug sentences have come under increasing scrutiny nationwide and there is bipartisan concern in the Florida Legislature about what many lawmakers view as overly harsh sentencing laws.  The fentanyl bill — with the mandatory minimums included — already has passed the House, but both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate took aim at the sentencing aspect of the bill Tuesday.

The Senate amended the bill — over Steube’s objections — to strip out the mandatory minimums, which included at least three years in jail for possession of between four and 14 grams, at least 15 years for possession of between 14 and 28 grams and at least 25 years for possession of more than 28 grams. That amendment may kill the bill. Boyd does not seem inclined to push for it now, saying in a text message: “I don’t believe the bill deals with this deadly opioid problem” as amended.

Boyd said if the House takes up the Senate bill he would seek to strip off the sentencing amendment. But that likely would keep it from clearing the Senate. Steube noted that the amended legislation still makes possession of large amounts of fentanyl a crime for the first time.  “We’re still taking — in my opinion — a good step in the right direction,” Steube said of the amended bill.

The Senate debate showed the appetite within the chamber for criminal justice reform, an issue that has been championed by Republican Senate President Joe Negron.

Some lawmakers argued that any reforms tackling mandatory minimum sentences should be done in a comprehensive way and that the fentanyl bill was not the right place to start the discussion. “I have some concerns about how we have these bills come along and we put minimum mandatories on them every year,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. But Bradley added that the Senate needs to have a “global discussion” about the issue and argued against the amendment.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, countered that “it’s the right conversation to have because minimum mandatories don’t work in my opinion.”  Judges need to have discretion over when to crack down and when to show leniency added Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. Tough drug sentencing laws can destroy lives, he said.

Steube said he is sympathetic to concerns about mandatory minimums but believes reform efforts should start with a drug such as marijuana that is not deadly.  “I certainly didn’t want this bill to be the bill that’s talked about,” he said.

The amendment was proposed by Sen. Randolph Bracy, one of the few Democrats in the chamber to chair a committee.  The Orlando lawmaker was not expecting the amendment to generate such a robust debate.  He hopes to address the issue of mandatory minimums in a broad way in his committee next year.

May 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting prosecutorial efforts to prevent rolling back of mandatory minimums

This new Slate article highlights the state of debate over mandatory minimums in various states.  The piece is headlined "Mandatory Minimums Don’t Make Us Safer: Many states are realizing this and changing the rules.  But district attorneys seem intent on blocking the progress." Here is how it gets started:

Mandatory minimum sentences are among the most lasting and damaging result of previous eras of draconian drug policy.  They include, for example, laws requiring at least two years in prison for all drug crimes within 1,000 feet of a school.  Enforcement can lead to irrational outcomes, locking people up for very minor crimes and stripping away discretion from judges.

Moreover, research has shown that tough-on-crime policies like mandatory minimums have not been effective at reducing crime.  Instead, mandatory minimum laws have been shown to cause expanded racial disparities in sentencing.  States that shifted away from minimums have seen lower prison populations and bigger cost savings. And all 17 states that decreased their prison populations over the last decade saw a reduction in crime rates.

Many states are leading the charge in doing away with mandatory minimum laws.  From Massachusetts to Iowa to Florida, momentum has grown in state legislatures this year to rewrite laws that guarantee long sentences for low-level offenders.  The reform has, in most places, won broad bipartisan support, from elected officials, judges, advocacy groups on the right and the left, and law enforcement officials.

One of the only major groups to consistently oppose reforming mandatory minimums is district attorneys.  In almost every state considering reform, local DAs and DA associations have lined up against it, arguing that reducing mandatory sentences would lead to an upswing in drug abuse.  No matter that this fearmongering is likely untrue.  The national scare over opioid use and overdose is fueling the district attorneys’ campaign for tougher drug laws.

The district attorneys claim they need the threat of a long, mandatory sentence as leverage to cajole defendants into pleading guilty to lower crimes and that mandatory minimums ensure a measure of consistency in sentencing.

Boil away this rhetoric and you get to the heart of the argument: “It’s all about power,” said Kevin Ring, the president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  “Mandatory minimums have given DAs — who already had unreviewable charging authority — the ability to pick sentences and cut judges out of the picture.”

The article goes on the discuss developments and debates over mandatory minimums in Massachusetts, Iowa, Nebraska, Florida and Pennsylvania.  And, as regular readers know, this dynamic has also been on full display in the federal system in recent years where various current and former prosecutors (including the current Attorney General) have been the loudest voices opposing proposed federal statutory reforms seeking to reduce the severity of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.

May 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Mandatory Minimum Policy Reform and the Sentencing of Crack Cocaine Defendants: An Analysis of the Fair Sentencing Act"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by David Bjerk just published by the Journal of Empirical Studies. Here is the abstract:

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) affected the U.S. federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine offenders, and represented the first congressional reform of sentencing laws in over 20 years.  A primary goal of this legislation was to lessen the harshness of sentences for crack cocaine offenders and decrease the sentencing gap between crack defendants and powder cocaine defendants.  While the mean sentence length for crack offenders fell following the implementation of the FSA, these changes appear to primarily reflect the continuation of ongoing sentencing trends that were initiated by a variety of noncongressional reforms to federal sentencing policy that commenced around 2007.  However, the FSA appears to have been helpful in allowing these trends to continue past 2010.

April 27, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Noting reasons for the recent drop in the federal prison population mitigating overcrowding at BOP facilities

The US Courts yesterday posted this notable short piece under the heading "Policy Shifts Reduce Federal Prison Population." The piece details the significant decline in the federal prison population in the last few years and also highlights reasons for it:

A decline in the number of federal prosecutions and in the severity of sentences for drug-related crime in recent years has resulted in a significant drop in the federal prison population, according to statistics from the Judiciary, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The federal prison population fell from a peak of nearly 219,300 inmates in 2013 to 188,800 in April 2017, a nearly 14 percent reduction, according to BOP statistics.  The decrease reflects a dramatic shift in federal policies away from stiff penalties for drug trafficking and other drug-related offenses in recent years.  It also has mitigated overcrowding at BOP facilities -- the inmate population, once at 37 percent overcapacity, is now at 13 percent overcapacity.

Changes in sentencing guidelines are a major contributor to the inmate population decline.  In 2011, the USSC implemented lower crack cocaine penalties in line with the Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress the year before.  The new guidelines were made retroactive, which resulted in the release of prisoners who had already served their time under the new guidelines.  Because drug crimes account for nearly a third of all criminal filings in federal courts, changes in drug sentences have a big impact on the federal prison population....  In 2014, the commission took the step of cutting the length of sentences for all drug trafficking offenses, not just crack cocaine.  Sentences were reduced by about 25 percent, and the changes were also made retroactive....

Other factors contributing to the decreasing prisoner population:

• Federal prosecutions for all crimes have declined over the past five years.  Criminal cases were brought against 77,357 defendants in fiscal year 2016, the lowest total since fiscal 1998, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.  Last year, 67,742 defendants were convicted and sentenced, compared to 86,201 in 2011, the USSC reports.  However, the trend could slow or reverse in the coming months as new Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration step up prosecutions of drug-related crime and immigration offenses.

• Two Supreme Court rulings since 2015 resulted in sentence reductions for about 1,200 inmates.  The court in Johnson v. United States found that one of the definitions of a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.  A subsequent high court decision made the Johnson ruling retroactive, which prompted thousands of prisoners to petition for review of their cases.  Many of those cases are still under review by the lower courts.

April 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"I used to support legalizing all drugs. Then the opioid epidemic happened."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Vox commentary authored by German Lopez.  I recommend the piece in full even though I take issue with some of its particulars.  Here are some extended excerpts:

In terms of overdoses, the opioid epidemic is deadlier than any other drug crisis in US history — more than crack, meth, and any other heroin epidemic. In total, more than 560,000 people in the US died to drug overdoses between 1999 and 2015 (the latest year of data available) — a death toll larger than the entire population of Atlanta. And while many of these deaths are now linked to illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl, the source of the epidemic — what got people started on a chain to harder drugs — was opioid painkillers, and legal painkillers are still linked to most opioid overdose deaths.

This was exactly what anti-legalization activists have warned about: Companies got a hold of a dangerous, addictive product, marketed it irresponsibly, and lobbied for lax rules. The government’s regulatory response floundered. The government even worked with the drug companies in some cases — under the influence of lobbying, campaign donations, and drugmaker-funded advocacy groups. And people got addicted and died.

Looking at this crisis, it slowly but surely dawned on me: Maybe full legalization isn’t the right answer to the war on drugs. Maybe the US just can’t handle regulating these potentially deadly substances in a legal environment. Maybe some form of prohibition — albeit a less stringent kind than what we have today — is the way to go.

I should be clear: I am talking about the legalization of harder drugs, so none of this applies to marijuana legalization. While there are real concerns with pot dependence and people doing stupid things on weed, my perspective is that it’s such a relatively harmless drug, according to the best scientific evidence, that the government can afford to screw it up. Especially since the alternative is a prohibition regime that leads to hundreds of thousands of needless arrests in the US each year and fosters violence as traffickers fight over turf or settle other beefs related to the drug trade.

But with the harder drugs, there’s a lot of room to mess up — as the opioid epidemic demonstrates....

Consider the US statistics: In 2015, drug overdoses killed more than 52,000 people, and more than 33,000 of those deaths were linked to opioids. That’s much more than the number of people who died to homicides: nearly 18,000 in 2015, only some of which were linked to violence in the war on drugs. Based on these figures, the legal drug led to a crisis that is killing way more people than black market–related violence possibly could.

while it is true that there are other metrics for suffering under prohibition (such as arrests), the same also applies for the opioid epidemic: There are a lot of people suffering from addiction, along with their friends, family, and broader community, yet haven’t overdosed and may never die of an overdose.

So while it’s hard to draw a perfect comparison in terms of overall suffering, the opioid epidemic, at the very least, seems to be much deadlier than violence related to drug prohibition is in the US.

Still, it’s hard to deny that the current model of prohibition has serious costs. Just like lenient regulation through legalization is dangerous, so too is excessive regulation — via punishment — through prohibition. There’s really little argument that America has been excessive in its punishment: the harsh mandatory minimum sentences, the three-strikes laws that can get someone life for drugs, and the ridiculous probation and parole rules that can get someone thrown back into prison for little more than possession. Not only can these measures cause a lot of human misery, but they also seem to be totally ineffective for actually deterring drug use.

The research is clear on this point: Severity of punishment does little to nothing to deter crime. In particular, a 2014 study from Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago found there’s no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of driving down access to drugs and substance abuse than lighter penalties. So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn’t do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs.

As drug policy experts emphasized in a piece I reported out in 2016, there’s a lot of room for the US to relax its severity of punishment before legalization. One possibility is essentially the Portuguese model: Drugs are decriminalized for personal use, so you can’t be punished with prison time merely for possessing or using illegal substances like cocaine and heroin. But the drugs remain illegal for big companies to produce and sell for profit — effectively stopping the kind of commercialization that’s spurred the tobacco, alcohol, and opioid epidemics....

This milder form of prohibition isn’t a perfect solution. I don’t think there is a perfect solution. As with many policy debates, this is really about picking between a bunch of unsatisfactory options. Faced with an excessively harsh criminal justice system and a legal industry that carelessly causes drug epidemics, I have come down somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

As Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, once told me, “There's always choices. There is no framework available in which there's not harm somehow. We’ve got freedom, pleasure, health, crime, and public safety. You can push on one and two of those — maybe even three with different drugs — but you can’t get rid of all of them. You have to pay the piper somewhere.” After witnessing the opioid epidemic firsthand, I have learned this lesson all too well — and I am genuinely scared of how America would pay for full legalization.;

April 23, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

US Sentencing Commission conducting public hearing with testimony on alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs

As detailed on this USSC webpage, the United States Sentencing Commission in now conducting a public hearing through early this afternoon. As the page details, "the purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to receive testimony on alternatives to incarceration programs in the federal court system. The Commission will also receive testimony from experts on synthetic drugs, including their chemical structure, pharmacological effects, trafficking patterns, and community impact."  The hearing is being streamed live here.

This webpage with the USSC hearing agenda has links to written testimony from all the scheduled witnesses, and this testimony provide a wealth of information and research about alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs.

April 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"Four Decades and Counting: The Continued Failure of the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute authored by Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall. Here is the 28-page document's Executive Summary:

Private individuals and policymakers often utilize prohibition as a means of controlling the sale, manufacture, and consumption of particular goods.  While the Eighteenth Amendment, which was passed and subsequently repealed in the early 20th century, is often regarded as the first major prohibition in the United States, it certainly was not the last.  The War on Drugs, begun under President Richard Nixon, continues to utilize policies of prohibition to achieve a variety of objectives.

Proponents of drug prohibition claim that such policies reduce drug-related crime, decrease drug-related disease and overdose, and are an effective means of disrupting and dismantling organized criminal enterprises.

We analyze the theoretical underpinnings of these claims, using tools and insights from economics, and explore the economics of prohibition and the veracity of proponent claims by analyzing data on overdose deaths, crime, and cartels.  Moreover, we offer additional insights through an analysis of U.S. international drug policy utilizing data from U.S. drug policy in Afghanistan.  While others have examined the effect of prohibition on domestic outcomes, few have asked how these programs impact foreign policy outcomes.

We conclude that prohibition is not only ineffective, but counterproductive, at achieving the goals of policymakers both domestically and abroad.  Given the insights from economics and the available data, we find that the domestic War on Drugs has contributed to an increase in drug overdoses and fostered and sustained the creation of powerful drug cartels. Internationally, we find that prohibition not only fails in its own right, but also actively undermines the goals of the Global War on Terror.

April 13, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Reviewing the "tough-and-tougher" sentencing perspectives of those now leading the Justice Department

The Washington Post has this extended new article reviewing a lot of the old tough-on-crime comments by AG Jeff Sessions and his new right-hand man, Steve Cook.  The article is headlined "How Jeff Sessions wants to bring back the war on drugs," and here is how it gets started (with one important phrase emphasized at the end):

When the Obama administration launched a sweeping policy to reduce harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, rave reviews came from across the political spectrum. Civil rights groups and the Koch brothers praised Obama for his efforts, saying he was making the criminal justice system more humane.

But there was one person who watched these developments with some horror. Steven H. Cook, a former street cop who became a federal prosecutor based in Knoxville, Tenn., saw nothing wrong with how the system worked — not the life sentences for drug charges, not the huge growth of the prison population.  And he went everywhere — Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, congressional hearings, public panels — to spread a different gospel. “The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed,” Cook said at a criminal justice panel at The Washington Post last year.

The Obama administration largely ignored Cook, who was then president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.  But he won’t be overlooked anymore. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought Cook into his inner circle at the Justice Department, appointing him to be one of his top lieutenants to help undo the criminal justice policies of Obama and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.  As Sessions has traveled to different cities to preach his tough-on-crime philosophy, Cook has been at his side.

Sessions has yet to announce specific policy changes, but Cook’s new perch speaks volumes about where the Justice Department is headed. Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.

Crime is near historic lows in the United States, but Sessions says that the spike in homicides in several cities, including Chicago, is a harbinger of a “dangerous new trend” in America that requires a tough response.  “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” Sessions said to law enforcement officials in a speech in Richmond last month. “It will destroy your life.”

Advocates of criminal justice reform argue that Sessions and Cook are going in the wrong direction — back to a strategy that tore apart families and sent low-level drug offenders, disproportionately minority citizens, to prison for long sentences.  “They are throwing decades of improved techniques and technologies out the window in favor of a failed approach,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

But Cook, whose views are supported by other federal prosecutors, sees himself as a dedicated assistant U.S. attorney who for years has tried to protect neighborhoods ravaged by crime.  He has called FAMM and organizations like it “anti-law enforcement groups.”  

The records of Cook and Sessions show that while others have grown eager in recent years to rework the criminal justice system, they have repeatedly fought to keep its toughest edges, including winning a battle in Congress last year to defeat a reform bill.  “If hard-line means that my focus is on protecting communities from violent felons and drug traffickers, then I’m guilty,” Cook said in a recent interview with The Post.  “I don’t think that’s hard-line. I think that’s exactly what the American people expect of their Department of Justice.”

The phrase I have stressed above is the phrase that ultimately matters most for the foreseeable future of the federal criminal justice system.  Though the Attorney General and others senior DOJ officials can and will define and shape the basic policies for federal charging and sentencing, it is local federal prosecutors around the nation who really determine how these policies get implemented and who, collectively, have the greatest impact on prosecutorial and punishment practices.  And I surmise that a whole lot of federal prosecutors — not all, but many and perhaps most — embrace the "tough-on-crime" philosophy that AG Sessions espouses more than the "smart-on-crime" mantra that former AG Holder eventually espoused. 

April 9, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

AG Sessions talks again about "the challenge of violent crime and drugs" and about support for law enforcement

Jeff-sessions-attorney-general-630x354The Department of Justice now has posted here an extended speech delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions today in Richmond, Virginia (which just happens to be where I am headed tomorrow for a faculty workshop).  Those who have been following what AG Sessions has been saying in recent months (and really throughout his whole career) will likely not find anything all that new or surprising in this latest speech.  Nevertheless, I still found the entire speech and especially the following passages worth flagging in this space.  And I have highlight two particular sentences in the discussion of drugs that I have not previously seen and that could and perhaps should capture a lot of attention:

First, we should keep in mind some context. Overall, crime rates in our country remain near historic lows. Murder rates are half of what they were in 1980.  The rate of violent crime has fallen by almost half from its peak....  In the past four decades, we have won great victories against crime in America. This happened under leadership from both political parties, and thanks above all to the work of prosecutors and good police using data-driven methods and professional training.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans are alive today as a result.

But in the last two years, we’ve seen warning signs that this progress is now at risk.  The latest FBI data tell us that from 2014 to 2015, the violent crime rate in the U.S. increased by more than 3 percent — the largest one-year increase since 1991. The murder rate increased 10 percent — the largest increase since 1968.  And all of this is taking place amid an unprecedented epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse....

My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend.  I worry that we risk losing the hard-won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place.  While we can hope for the best, we can’t afford to be complacent.  When crime rates move in the wrong direction, they can move quickly....

Last month the President gave us clear direction, issuing three executive orders that direct the federal government to reduce crime and restore public safety. This task will be a top priority of the Department of Justice during my time as Attorney General. I’d like to talk briefly about how we’re tackling this challenge.

First, we’re making sure the federal government focuses our resources and efforts on this surge in violent crime.  Two weeks ago, I announced the formation of a Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. It includes crime reduction experts from throughout the Department of Justice, including the heads of the FBI, the ATF, the DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service.  The task force will evaluate everything we are doing at the federal level.

Second: We need to use every lawful tool we have to get the most violent offenders off our streets. In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting firearms offenders at the federal level.  This trend will end.  This Department of Justice will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes....

Third: To turn back this rising tide of violent crime, we need to confront the heroin and opioid crisis in our nation — and dismantle the transnational cartels that bring drugs and violence into our neighborhoods.

Our nation is in the throes of a heroin and opioid epidemic.  Overdose deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2014.  According to the CDC, about 140 Americans on average now die from a drug overdose each day.  That means every three weeks, we are losing as many American lives to drug overdoses as we lost in the 9/11 attacks.  Illegal drugs are flooding across our southern border and into cities across our country, bringing violence, addiction, and misery.  We have also seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs.  As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire.

There are three main ways to fight the scourge of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention.  Criminal enforcement is essential to stop both the transnational cartels that ship drugs into our country, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product.  One of the President’s executive orders directed the Justice Department to dismantle these organizations and gangs — and we will do just that.

Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.  So we need to focus on the third way we can fight drug use: preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place.

I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use.  But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable.  I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store.  And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.

In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction.  We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse.

Finally: The federal government alone cannot meet the challenge of violent crime and drugs — so we need to protect and support our brave men and women in law enforcement. About 85 percent of all law enforcement officers in our nation are not federal, but state and local. These are the men and women on the front lines — the ones doing most of the tough and often dangerous work that keeps our neighborhoods safe....

The new challenge of violent crime in our nation is real — and the task that lies before us is clear. We need to resist the temptation to ignore or downplay this crisis. Instead, we must tackle it head-on, to ensure justice and safety for all Americans. We will enforce our laws and put bad men behind bars. We will fight the scourge of drug abuse. And we will support the brave men and women of law enforcement, as they work day and night to protect us. Together, let us act to meet this challenge, so that our children will not look back and say that we let slip from our grasp all we had done to make America a safer place.

I find it quite interesting and significant that AG Sessions, in the first sentence highlighted above, has highlighted the severity of the current US drug problem in term of the number of deaths caused by the worst and deadliest terrorist attack in US history.  The decision to frame the problem in these terms reveals just how seriously the Attorney General sees the problem, and I am in some sense inclined to respect and applaud this framing in part because I fear a lot of people who have not been directly touched by the modern opioid epidemic do not fully appreciate how many lives are being lost to it.

Ironically, though, the kind of wise intensity I see reflected in the first sentence highlighted above is undercut but what strikes me as a misguided intensity reflected in the second sentence highlighted above.  Because tens of thousands of individuals are dying for opioid overdoses and nobody dies from a marijuana overdoes, it make a whole lot of sense to me that a whole lot of people would see a whole lot of value in encouraging people to trade an opioid dependency for a marijuana dependency.  (And this simple analysis, of course, leaves out the statistically reality that the vast majority of people who use marijuana do not become dependent on it.) 

March 15, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Deep dive into litigation over Chicago “Stash House Stings”

Because the President of the United States has often expressed concerning about crime in Chicago and has tweeted about sending in the feds, I hope the Prez and his advisers find time to check out this recent lengthy Chicago Tribune article about some of the work of the feds in this city in the recent past.  The article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," merits a full read, and here is an extended taste:

For four years, Mayfield had been struggling to turn his life around after more than a decade in prison. To escape the street life, he moved to Naperville with his fiancee's family and managed to find a full-time job at a suburban electronics facility that paid 12 bucks an hour. It was there that a co-worker lured him into the robbery after weeks of effort, promising a big score.

Now, inside the police vehicle, the sounds of flash-bang grenades still ringing in his ears, Mayfield started to piece it all together. There was no stash house, no cartel drugs or associates to rob. It was a crime dreamed up by federal authorities and carried out with the help of Mayfield's co-worker to reel him in when he was at his most vulnerable.

Eight years later, Mayfield, 48, and dozens of others are at the center of a brewing legal battle in Chicago's federal court over whether the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' signature sting operation used racial bias in finding its many targets.

A team of lawyers led by the University of Chicago Law School is seeking to dismiss charges against more than 40 defendants in Chicago. The undercover probes, a staple of the ATF since the mid-1990s, have ensnared hundreds of defendants across the country. A recently unsealed study by a nationally renowned expert concluded that ATF showed a clear pattern of racial bias in picking its targets for the drug stings. The disparity between minority and white defendants was so large that there was "a zero percent likelihood" it happened by chance, the study found.

The vast majority of those swept up in the stings in Chicago were minorities, and a close examination of the criminal backgrounds of some of those targeted raises questions about whether they were truly the most dangerous gun offenders whom ATF was aiming to remove from the street.

Some had trouble even coming up with guns to do the job — including one crew that after months of preparation managed to find only one World War I-era pistol with a broken handle that could barely fire a round. Others had no history of carrying out high-risk armed robberies — a key provision in the ATF playbook designed to make sure targets were legitimate, defense lawyers argued in recent court filings....

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a lengthy motion vehemently disputing that minorities were unfairly targeted in the stash house cases, saying the expert report filed by the defense was "riddled with false assumptions that were designed to manufacture a racial disparity where none exists." The dispute sets up what could be an unprecedented hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the coming months involving a panel of district judges hearing the multiple criminal cases at once.

"It's almost like a criminal class action," said Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, which represents most of the defendants in the dozen cases they are seeking to be dismissed. "Judges are seeing this as a coordinated litigation. It's a very unusual situation."...

According to the ATF, stash house stings are a key part of the agency's national effort to target people who "show a propensity of doing harm to the public through violent behavior." Launched in Miami during the cocaine-war days of the early 1990s, the stings have been honed over the years and are run by experienced agents who use a tightly controlled playbook.

They typically begin when an informant provides the ATF information about a potential target who has expressed interest in taking part in a robbery. The informant then introduces the target to an undercover agent who poses as a disgruntled courier for a drug cartel and offers an opportunity to steal large quantities of drugs from a stash house guarded by men with guns.

In a series of conversations captured on undercover wire, the target is told if he is interested he must assemble an armed team to commit the robbery. The target and his crew are arrested after they show up on the day of the supposed crime. "At the time of arrest, the home invasion defendants are poised, at any moment, to invade a stash house, steal kilograms of cocaine guarded by armed cartel members, and in the process, kill or be killed," prosecutors wrote in their recent court filing.

In order to avoid arguments of entrapment in court, the stings are supposed to target only established robbery groups. ATF criteria also require that at least two of the participants have violent backgrounds and that all must be criminally active at the time the investigation is launched. Not only were the operations a boon for the ATF but the resulting prosecutions also netted eye-popping sentences — sometimes up to life in prison — in part because defendants were criminally liable for the amount of imaginary drugs they believed they were stealing. It didn't matter that the robbery was fake or that no drugs actually existed....

The lengthy sentences were just one pattern that raised red flags for the criminal defense bar. In case after case, the ATF stings seemed to be targeting only minorities. In early 2013, a handful of private attorneys and assistant federal defenders, all veterans at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, were so troubled by a stash house case they were defending that they asked the U.S. attorney's office for a complete list of all the defendants in similar cases sorted by race. Prosecutors rebuffed this admittedly unorthodox request. "ATF does not maintain statistics on the nature in question at either the local or national level," Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Fluhr wrote in response, court records show.

The defense lawyers then asked the judge overseeing the case to order prosecutors to turn over detailed information on how the stash house stings are run and the race of the defendants who had been charged so far. They included their own research showing more minorities were targeted. Prosecutors strenuously objected. But a few months later, U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo allowed the discovery to go forward. "History has shown a continuing difficult intersection between the issue of race and the enforcement of our nation's criminal laws," wrote Castillo, concluding that the defense team had "made a strong showing of potential bias."

Similar motions in other stash house cases soon followed, but the effort to prove racial bias was being made case-by-case with no coordination. Then in 2014, the University of Chicago's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic agreed to focus all its efforts on the 12 stash house cases and their 43 defendants. This allowed the defense attorneys to address the alleged racial bias in a coordinated effort, a critical undertaking given the government's massive resources, the attorneys said....

As the movement to fight the stash house cases gathered steam among defense attorneys, the judiciary also weighed in with some key decisions. In November 2014, the full 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted Mayfield a new trial in a rare decision that concluded Potts had "targeted Mayfield at a moment of acute financial need and against a backdrop of prolonged difficulty finding permanent, family-supporting work."

In a 2012 dissenting opinion as the case was winding through the court, appellate Judge Richard Posner had put an even finer point on it, referring to the stings as a "disreputable tactic" that used government informants to target people at a vulnerable time in their lives. Meanwhile, another ruling in July 2015 by the appellate court in Chicago resulted in the government turning over more data on the stash house stings sought by the defense. The ruling allowed the defendants to move ahead with what is believed to be the most thorough analysis of the stings anywhere in the country....

The debate is now potentially headed for a court hearing involving all defendants. The outcome could set precedent for judges in other states. "Courts tend to give law enforcement a lot of leeway," said University of California-Irvine law professor Katharine Tinto, a criminal law expert who has written extensively about the stash house stings. "… The fact that an expert is saying a federal law enforcement agency is discriminating on the basis of race is something everybody should be watching."

March 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Disconcerting review of modern America highlighting impacts of opioid epidemic and mass criminal enforcement

March_2017_CoverA helpful reader highlighted to me this extended article from Commentary by Nicholas Eberstadt that covers a lot of (depressing) ground about modern realities in the United States.  The full title of the piece highlights its themes: "Our Miserable 21st Century: From work to income to health to social mobility, the year 2000 marked the beginning of what has become a distressing era for the United States." I recommend the full article for lots of reasons (especially for those still struggling to figure out why so many folks were inclined to vote for Prez Trump), and here snippets of passages that struck me as particularly interesting for those concerned with modern opioid problem and broader criminal justice realities:

The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century. The terrifying novelty of this particular drug epidemic, of course, is that it has gone (so to speak) “mainstream” this time, effecting breakout from disadvantaged minority communities to Main Street White America. By 2013, according to a 2015 report by the Drug Enforcement Administration, more Americans died from drug overdoses (largely but not wholly opioid abuse) than from either traffic fatalities or guns. The dimensions of the opioid epidemic in the real America are still not fully appreciated within the bubble, where drug use tends to be more carefully limited and recreational. In Dreamland, his harrowing and magisterial account of modern America’s opioid explosion, the journalist Sam Quinones notes in passing that “in one three-month period” just a few years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Health, “fully 11 percent of all Ohioans were prescribed opiates.” And of course many Americans self-medicate with licit or illicit painkillers without doctors’ orders.

In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the real existing opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts — an army now totaling roughly 7 million men — currently take pain medication on a daily basis....

But how did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap. As Dreamland carefully explains, one main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program.... In 21st-century America, “dependence on government” has thus come to take on an entirely new meaning....

The drop in crime over the past generation has done great things for the general quality of life in much of America. There is one complication from this drama, however, that inhabitants of the bubble may not be aware of, even though it is all too well known to a great many residents of the real America. This is the extraordinary expansion of what some have termed America’s “criminal class” — the population sentenced to prison or convicted of felony offenses — in recent decades. This trend did not begin in our century, but it has taken on breathtaking enormity since the year 2000.

Most well-informed readers know that the U.S. currently has a higher share of its populace in jail or prison than almost any other country on earth, that Barack Obama and others talk of our criminal-justice process as “mass incarceration,” and know that well over 2 million men were in prison or jail in recent years. But only a tiny fraction of all living Americans ever convicted of a felony is actually incarcerated at this very moment. Quite the contrary: Maybe 90 percent of all sentenced felons today are out of confinement and living more or less among us. The reason: the basic arithmetic of sentencing and incarceration in America today. Correctional release and sentenced community supervision (probation and parole) guarantee a steady annual “flow” of convicted felons back into society to augment the very considerable “stock” of felons and ex-felons already there. And this “stock” is by now truly enormous.

One forthcoming demographic study by Sarah Shannon and five other researchers estimates that the cohort of current and former felons in America very nearly reached 20 million by the year 2010. If its estimates are roughly accurate, and if America’s felon population has continued to grow at more or less the same tempo traced out for the years leading up to 2010, we would expect it to surpass 23 million persons by the end of 2016 at the latest. Very rough calculations might therefore suggest that at this writing, America’s population of non-institutionalized adults with a felony conviction somewhere in their past has almost certainly broken the 20 million mark by the end of 2016. A little more rough arithmetic suggests that about 17 million men in our general population have a felony conviction somewhere in their CV. That works out to one of every eight adult males in America today.

We have to use rough estimates here, rather than precise official numbers, because the government does not collect any data at all on the size or socioeconomic circumstances of this population of 20 million, and never has. Amazing as this may sound and scandalous though it may be, America has, at least to date, effectively banished this huge group—a group roughly twice the total size of our illegal-immigrant population and an adult population larger than that in any state but California—to a near-total and seemingly unending statistical invisibility. Our ex-cons are, so to speak, statistical outcasts who live in a darkness our polity does not care enough to illuminate—beyond the scope or interest of public policy, unless and until they next run afoul of the law.

Thus we cannot describe with any precision or certainty what has become of those who make up our “criminal class” after their (latest) sentencing or release. In the most stylized terms, however, we might guess that their odds in the real America are not all that favorable. And when we consider some of the other trends we have already mentioned — employment, health, addiction, welfare dependence — we can see the emergence of a malign new nationwide undertow, pulling downward against social mobility.

February 25, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders"

The US Sentencing Commission today released the second major report emerging from a huge assessment of federal offenders released from prison in 2005.  This USSC webpage provides this background and highlights from this 149-page data-rich report:

This report, Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders examines a group of 10,888 federal drug trafficking offenders who were released in calendar year 2005. These 10,888 offenders, who were all U.S. citizens, represent 42.8 percent of the 25,431 federal offenders who were released in calendar year 2005 and analyzed in the Commission’s 2016 report, Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview. In the future, the Commission will release additional publications discussing specific topics concerning recidivism of federal offenders.

Chapter One summarizes the group studied in this report as well as its key findings. It also explains the methodology used in the report. Chapter Two provides an overview of the statutes and guidelines most often applicable to federal drug trafficking offenses, and reports the demographics and recidivist behavior of drug trafficking offenders as a whole. Chapters Three through Seven provide detailed information about offenders as classified by the drug types studied in this report: powder cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Chapter Eight concludes by reviewing the report’s findings.

Some highlights of the Commission’s study are that:

  • Over the eight-year follow-up period, one-half (50.0%) of federal drug trafficking offenders were rearrested (see bar chart). Of those drug trafficking offenders who recidivated, the median time to rearrest was 25 months.

  • In general, there were few clear distinctions among the five drug types studied. One exception is that crack cocaine offenders recidivated at the highest rate (60.8%) of any drug type. Recidivism rates for other drug types were between 43.8% and 50.0% (see table).

  • Nearly one-fourth (23.8%) of drug trafficking offenders who recidivated had assault as their most serious new charge followed by drug trafficking and public order offenses.

  • Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to a cohort of state drug offenders released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9% of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.

  • A federal drug trafficking offender’s Criminal History Category was closely associated with the likelihood of recidivism. But note that career offenders and armed career criminals recidivated at a rate lower than drug trafficking offenders classified in Criminal History Categories IV, V, and VI. (Related data and policy recommendations are discussed in the Commission's 2016 Report to the Congress on Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements.)

  • A federal drug trafficking offender’s age at time of release into the community was also closely associated with likelihood of recidivism.

February 21, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"I sentenced criminals to hundreds more years than I wanted to. I had no choice."

13FRISK-master675The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Post commentary authored by former federal judge Shira Scheindlin. Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:

In my nearly 22 years as a U.S. district judge in New York, I sentenced roughly 1,000 defendants. Thankfully, not all were subject to “mandatory minimum” sentences — in which Congress has imposed a required statutory punishment for a particular crime. But many were; 145 federal crimes still require a minimum sentence, including distribution of narcotics, immigration violations and identity theft, just to name a few.

Every first-year law student learns that sentencing has four goals: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Yet thanks mostly to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, I was often prohibited from assessing a defendant’s history, personal characteristics or role in the offense. In sentencing, where judgment should matter most, I could not exercise my judgment. I felt more like a computer than a judge. And I was not alone. Over the years, many of my colleagues on the federal bench felt the same frustrations.

This problem upset me as soon as I was appointed in 1994. Mandatory minimums were almost always excessive, and they made me feel unethical, even dirty. After seven years, my patience had run thin and my conscience was troubled; I began to consider resigning. I sought the advice of a revered mentor, a federal judge with more than 30 years of experience. He pointed out that quitting would serve nobody, as another judge would be required to impose identical sentences anyway. He also said that if I left, the bench would lose a judge who could advocate for criminal justice reform through her decisions. So I remained. But to this day, I am pained by many of the sentences I was required by law to impose. While I bore the title “Honorable Judge,” I felt less than honorable and more like a complicit tool of an unjust system....

Judicial discretion in sentencing matters. Many judges, including me, routinely sentence below the guidelines, particularly for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. Indeed, in 2015 only 36.5 percent of all drug offenses nationwide resulted in a guideline-compliant sentences. Between 2005 and May 2016, when I retired from the bench, I sentenced more than 200 defendants convicted of narcotics offenses and imposed a lighter-than-advised sentence more than 80 percent of the time. Had I sentenced at the top of the guidelines’ range, these defendants would have served more than a millennium of additional prison time.

After I left the bench, Peter Dubrowski — my last law clerk — and I decided that we would review the sentencing protocols for each of those 200 defendants. As I expected, we found strikingly similar storylines. The overwhelming majority of the defendants were indigent. Seventy-two percent had children to support, and many of the defendants were under the age of 25 — barely adults themselves. More than half had not graduated from high school, most had not obtained a GED, and barely 5 percent had attended college. A majority battled alcohol addiction, drug addiction or both, and had begun abusing substances by age 14. Most were unemployed. Most came from single-parent homes, and most had at least one parent who was, or had been, incarcerated....

Does the length of the sentence deter people outside the courtroom from committing crimes? This is a popular idea in our country. Over time, I came to believe it is fiction. If this effect was real, my fellow judges and I would have seen narcotics arrests and prosecutions decline over the years. They never did. No young man on the street was ever deterred from criminal activity by the sentence given to a buddy. “Contrary to deterrence ideology and ‘get tough’ rhetoric,” says a report from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that studies criminal punishment, the evidence “fails to support” deterrence.

February 19, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Prez Trump talks crime and support for law enforcement with police chiefs . . . and says some interesting things

Prez Donald Trump gave this lengthy speech to a gathering of major city police chiefs, and he had a lot to say about crime and law enforcement toward its conclusion (after an extended Trumpian discussion of the litigation surrounding his travel executive order).  Here is some of what the Prez has to say on the crime front (with a few points of emphasis added based on what struck me as especially interesting):

Right now, many communities in America are facing a public safety crisis.  Murders in 2015 experienced their largest single-year increase in nearly half a century. In 2016, murders in large cities continued to climb by double digits. In many of our biggest cities, 2016 brought an increase in the number of homicides, rapes, assaults and shootings. In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone, and the rate so far this year has been even higher. What is going on in Chicago?

We cannot allow this to continue. We’ve allowed too many young lives to be claimed -- and you see that, you see that all over -- claimed by gangs, and too many neighborhoods to be crippled by violence and fear.  Sixty percent of murder victims under the age of 22 are African American. This is a national tragedy, and it requires national action. This violence must end, and we must all work together to end it.

Whether a child lives in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, or anywhere in our country, he or she has the right to grow up in safety and in peace. No one in America should be punished because of the city where he or she is born. Every child in America should be able to play outside without fear, walk home without danger, and attend a school without being worried about drugs or gangs or violence.

So many lives and so many people have been cut short.  Their potential, their life has been cut short. So much potential has been sidelined. And so many dreams have been shattered and broken, totally broken. It’s time to stop the drugs from pouring into our country. And, by the way, we will do that. And I will say this: General, now Secretary, Kelly will be the man to do it, and we will give him a wall.  And it will be a real wall. (Applause.) And a lot of things will happen very positively for your cities, your states, believe me. The wall is getting designed right now....

It’s time to dismantle the gangs terrorizing our citizens, and it’s time to ensure that every young American can be raised in an environment of decency, dignity, love and support. You have asked for the resources, tools and support you need to get the job done. We will do whatever we can to help you meet those demands. That includes a zero tolerance policy for acts of violence against law enforcement. (Applause.)  We all see what happens. We all see what happens and what’s been happening to you. It’s not fair.

We must protect those who protect us. The number of officers shot and killed in the line of duty last year increased by 56 percent from the year before. Last year, in Dallas, police officers were targeted for execution –- think of this. Who ever heard of this? They were targeted for execution. Twelve were shot and five were killed. These heroic officers died as they lived -– protecting the innocent, rushing into danger, risking their lives for people they did not even know, but for people that they were determined to save. Hats off to you people....

[I]nstead of division and disunity -- and which is so much disunity -- we must build bridges of partnership and of trust. Those who demonize law enforcement or who use the actions of a few to discredit the service of many are hurting the very people they say that they want to help. When policing is reduced, crime is increased, and our poorest citizens suffer the most. And I see it all the time. When the number of police goes down, crime goes up.

To build needed trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, it is not enough for us to merely talk to each other. We must listen to each other. All of us share the view that those in uniform must be held to the highest possible standard of conduct -- so important. ...

That is why our commitment to law and law enforcement also includes ensuring that we are giving departments the resources they need to train, recruit and retain talent. As part of our commitment to safe communities, we will also work to address the mental health crisis.  Prisons should not be a substitute for treatment. We will fight to increase access to life-saving treatment to battle the addiction to drugs, which is afflicting our nation like never ever before -- ever. (Applause.)

I've been here two weeks. I've met a lot of law enforcement officials. Yesterday, I brought them into the Oval Office. I asked a group, what impact do drugs have in terms of a percentage on crime? They said, 75 to 80 percent. That's pretty sad. We're going to stop the drugs from pouring in. We're going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We're going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. (Applause.)

And we're going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence. You have the power and knowledge to tell General Kelly -- now Secretary Kelly -- who the illegal immigrant gang members are. Now, you have that power because you know them, you're there, you're local. You know the illegals, you know them by their first name, you know them by their nicknames. You have that power. The federal government can never be that precise. But you're in the neighborhoods -- you know the bad ones, you know the good ones.

I want you to turn in the bad ones. Call Secretary Kelly's representatives and we'll get them out of our country and bring them back where they came from, and we'll do it fast. You have to call up the federal government, Homeland Security, because so much of the problems -- you look at Chicago and you look at other places. So many of the problems are caused by gang members, many of whom are not even legally in our country.

I saw a few folks tweeting concerns this morning about Prez Trump's statement that we are "going to be ruthless in that fight" against "drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people."  And, with coming likely confirmation of AG Jeff Sessions, there is a very reasonable basis for fearing that the Trump Administration is going to seek to double-down on old tough-and-tougher approaches to the drug war.  But given some of the other Trump comments highlighted here (particular the comment that "prisons should not be a substitute for treatment"), I am holding out at least some hope that some nuance will be a part of the particulars of any new Trumpian drug war offensive.

February 8, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, February 03, 2017

Oklahoma Governor's task force urging significant sentencing reform to deal with surging prison population

As reported in this lengthy local article, "faced with a rapidly growing prison population in a state with the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, a task force created by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a report Thursday calling for dramatic decreases in sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers." Here is more:

Without reform, Oklahoma is on pace to add 7,218 inmates over the next 10 years, requiring three new prisons and costing the state an additional $1.9 billion in capital expenditures and operating costs, the report said. But task members said those costs can be averted and the prison population can be reduced 7 percent over the next decade through a combination of sentence reductions and other reforms, including increased funding for alternative mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Oklahoma currently has 61,385 individuals in its overcrowded prison system. That includes 26,581 incarcerated in state facilities and private prisons, 1,643 awaiting transfer from county jails and 33,161 on some form of probation, parole, community sentencing or GPS monitoring, said Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Oklahoma's prison population, which is at 109 percent of capacity, has grown 9 percent in the past five years and is now 78 percent higher than the national average. Only Louisiana has a higher rate, the report said.

Oklahoma's female incarceration rate remains the highest in the nation, a distinction the state has held for 25 years, task members said. The state's female population grew 30 percent between 2011 and 2016 and Oklahoma now incarcerates women at a rate more than 2 1/2 times the national average.

In a 38-page report that contains 27 recommendations, the governor's task force on justice reform recommends a number of dramatic changes to stave off a looming state financial crisis, including sharply reducing sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers. The report also calls for sweeping changes in the parole system, including allowing many inmates to become eligible for parole after serving a fourth of their sentences. Currently, inmates typically serve about a third of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole for most nonviolent crimes.

Many of the task force's recommendations would require legislative action. The task force is recommending that the penalty for possession of methamphetamine, heroin or crack cocaine with intent to distribute be lowered to zero to five years for nonviolent first-time felony drug offenders, said Jennifer Chance, the governor's general counsel and a member of the task force. It is recommending that the penalty for manufacturing be lowered to zero to eight years.

Possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute currently carries a sentence of two years to life in prison for a first-time felony drug conviction, while possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute carries a term of five years to life and heroin seven years to life.

Oklahoma's criminal justice system has exacerbated the state's prison crowding crisis by repeatedly sentencing more nonviolent offenders — particularly drug offenders — to longer terms than neighboring states like Texas and Missouri, the report says. Many states have been far ahead of Oklahoma in reforming their justice systems, the task force found. "Since 2010, 31 states across the country have decreased imprisonment rates while reducing crime rates," the report states.

Reducing Oklahoma prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes is critical to reversing those trends because nearly a third of all Oklahoma prison admissions are for drug crimes and those prison sentences are often lengthy, the task force said.

Chance said most of the 21 task force members were in agreement with the group's findings, but acknowledged that the two district attorneys on the panel, David Prater and Mike Fields, have strong disagreements with some of the report's recommendations. Prater is the chief prosecutor for Oklahoma County, while Fields is the chief prosecutor for Canadian, Garfield, Blaine, Grant and Kingfisher counties and president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association....

If the state cuts prison sentences for drug manufacturing, distributing and trafficking without dramatically increasing funding for drug addiction treatment programs, Prater predicted it will lead to more home and auto break-ins and other crimes. "This is such a dishonest report," Prater said. "It's going to make Oklahoma a much more dangerous place."

Prater said the report's backers like to point to Texas as a state that has simultaneously reduced its incarceration and crime rates through similar justice reforms, but he noted that Texas appropriated $241 million up front in 2007 to pay for a package of prison alternatives that included more intermediate sanctions and substance abuse treatment beds, drug courts and mental illness treatment slots. Unless Oklahoma dramatically increases upfront funding for substance abuse treatment and parole supervision programs, the state's experience is more likely to parallel that of Utah, Prater said.

That state drastically cut sentences without providing sufficient funding for community programs and police officers and judges there have complained about offenders repeatedly being released out on the street with little or no supervision, he said.  Critics of Utah's reform efforts have cited the January 2016 slaying of Unified police officer Doug Barney as a reason for re-evaluating changes that were made. Barney's shooter, Corey Henderson, went through the revolving door of prison and many have argued he shouldn't have been out of jail when Barney was killed....

The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office was noncommittal about the report.  “The Attorney General's Office was invited to take part in the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, and members of our team were in attendance," Lincoln Ferguson, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, said in a prepared statement.  "The AG's office takes no position on the merits or demerits of the proposal.”

The full report is an interesting read and is available here at this link.

February 3, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, January 28, 2017

An object lesson in what not to do when you find a big bale of cocaine in the ocean

A helpful reader flagged this somewhat amusing though still very serious sentencing tale of a not-so-old man and the sea.   The headline of the article provides the essentials: "Fla. fisherman who hauled in $500,000 worth of cocaine faces life in prison."  And here are some of the particulars:

Cocaine, more so than any other narcotic, is the drug most frequently interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard. In late 2016, the Coast Guard announced it had seized about $2 billion worth of cocaine during a 10-week operation that began in October. (At 26.5 tons, the weight of the seized stimulant rivaled the bulk of four African bull elephants.) Water is the route of choice for drug runners. Some 95 percent of cocaine smuggling operations, a Coast Guard rear admiral told the BBC in 2015, involves traveling via boat.

In the Gulf Coast, a container vessel or freighter may serve as a mother ship, which offloads the drug to sailboats, go-fast cigarette boats, fishing boats and other smaller boats. “Fishermen are great mules because they know the waters and they don’t draw attention,” wrote journalist Erik Vance at Slate in 2013. “And if you have to chuck your haul overboard to avoid the military, other fishermen can dive to retrieve it.” And if the divers sent after the contraband cannot find it, perhaps someone else will.

In 2016, that someone else was Thomas Zachary Breeding. Breeding, 32, was a longline fisherman from Panama City, Fla. The fisherman had accumulated a few run-ins with the law, including drug and gun convictions, the Panama City News Herald reported. In 2012, a federal grand jury indicted Breeding for giving false statements to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Prosecutors also alleged he obstructed the agency’s investigation into why the fisherman had entered grouper spawning grounds, closed to fishing; Breeding, they argued, deliberately sought to catch a valuable species of fish called gag grouper. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

But, until Breeding found the 45-pound cocaine bale, the fisherman said that he had kept a previously clean slate when it came to the narcotics trade. “I do not know where the drugs came from and haven’t ever been involved in the drug trade before. I was just a hard-working, young commercial fisherman,” Breeding wrote recently in a letter to the News Herald, penned from Florida’s Washington County Jail. “I was working as a long line boat captain out of Panama City when I found a package containing 20 kilos of cocaine.”

It was a what-if scenario of the type that fuels Florida crime potboilers: A fisherman finds a package of drugs valued at a huge street sum, and makes a decision. In Breeding’s case, he was 50 miles south of Panama City when he found between $500,000 and $650,000 of cocaine floating in the gulf. As impressive as the sum was, in the annals of washed-ashore cocaine — white lobster, as villagers along the Central American coast euphemize it — its street value was not a record. In 2013, five fishermen found $2.5 million of cocaine in the waters off north Florida. A metal tube filled with an estimated $5 million worth of cocaine washed up in Ireland last summer.

But it was an object lesson in what not to do. In December, Mark “The Shark” Quartiano, a celebrity Miami fisherman, found a kilogram brick of cocaine. He promptly alerted the authorities. Breeding did not. He instead handed over the 45-pound haul to four other people, on the condition they would sell the cocaine and pay a cut to Breeding. All five were caught in the summer — Breeding, a felon, had a firearm in his car when he was arrested — and faced conspiracy charges for the distribution of a controlled substance. Breeding pleaded guilty Wednesday, the News Herald reported, as did the other members of the network; they are awaiting a Feb. 16 sentencing. Breeding may be punished with up to life imprisonment and a fine in the millions of dollars.

January 28, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Split Colorado Supreme Court concludes federal law precludes state officers from returning marijuana to acquitted defendants

The Colorado Supreme Court yesterday issued an interesting ruling driven by the conflict between the state's marijuana reforms and federal prohibition. (SCOTUS fans might note the majority opinion was authored by Justice Allison Eid, who is on Prez Trump's (not-so-)short list.) Here are parts of how the majority opinion in Colorado v. Crouse, No. 2017 CO 5 (Colo. Jan 23, 2017) (available here), gets started:

The state’s medical marijuana amendment, article XVIII, section 14(2)(e) of the Colorado Constitution, requires law enforcement officers to return medical marijuana seized from an individual later acquitted of a state drug charge. The federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) prohibits the distribution of marijuana, with limited exceptions. 21 U.S.C. §§ 801–971 (2012). The question in this case is whether the return provision of section 14(2)(e) is preempted by the federal CSA....

The CSA does not preempt state law on the same subject matter “unless there is a positive conflict between [a] provision of [the CSA] and that State law so that the two cannot consistently stand together.” 21 U.S.C. § 903 (2012). The return provision requires law enforcement officers to return, or distribute, marijuana. Distribution of marijuana, however, remains unlawful under federal law. Thus, compliance with the return provision necessarily requires law enforcement officers to violate federal law. This constitutes a “positive conflict” between the return provision and the CSA’s distribution prohibition such that “the two cannot consistently stand together.”

Moreover, the exemption relied upon by the court of appeals does not resolve this conflict. Section 885(d) of the CSA immunizes only those officers who are “lawfully engaged in the enforcement of any law . . . relating to controlled substances.” 21 U.S.C. § 885(d) (2012) (emphasis added). This court has held that an act is “lawful” only if it complies with both state and federal law. Coats v. Dish Network, LLC, 2015 CO 44, ¶ 4, 350 P.3d 849, 851. The officers here could not be “lawfully engaged” in law enforcement activities given that their conduct would violate federal law.

Here is part of the start of the dissent authored by Justice Gabriel:

Because I believe that the plain language of § 885(d) of the CSA, 21 U.S.C. § 885(d), immunizes federal and state officers from civil and criminal liability in the circumstances at issue here, I perceive no conflict between the CSA and section 14(2)(e) of article XVIII of the Colorado Constitution, nor do I believe that it is impossible to comply with both the CSA and the Colorado Constitution, as the majority implicitly and the People expressly contend.

Though not in any way related to this ruling, I cannot help but take this not-quite-perfect opportunity to share titles and links to some coverage of marijuana reform issues from my other major blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

January 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Prez Obama wraps up his clemency work with 330 more commutations on his final full day in office

As reported here via USA Today, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 330 more federal inmates Thursday, capping an unprecedented clemency effort that has now released 1,715 prisoners — more than any other president in history."  Here is more:

The clemency grants announced on Obama's last full day in office set a one-day record. "Proud to make this one of my final actions as President.  America is a nation of second chances, and 1,715 people deserved that shot," Obama tweeted Thursday.

The clemency initiative, which began in 2014, was targeted at drug dealers who received mandatory-minimum sentences during the War on Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s. But the effort ultimately fell far short of the 10,000 clemency grants former attorney general Eric Holder predicted when the initiative began. And while Obama set a record for granting commutations, he also set a record for denials.  As of the end of 2016, he had denied 14,485 petitions and closed another 4,242 without action — an overall grant rate of 5.9%, a couple of percentage points higher than many of his predecessors.

"The president set out to reinvigorate clemency, and he has done just that," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement.

It's unclear how big of a backlog in clemency cases President-elect Donald Trump will inherit.  But Justice Department officials had promised to give an up-or-down determination on every clemency initiative case it received by August.  “I’m proud to say we kept that promise," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement. "This undertaking was as enormous as it was unprecedented, and I am incredibly grateful to the teams of people who devoted their time and energy to the project since its inception."

Obama's final list of clemency grants included no more full pardons, meaning his final pardon tally will stand at 212 — fewer than any modern president except Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (It was the younger Bush who gave Obama this advice in the limo ride to the Capitol on his Inauguration Day eight years ago. "Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.")

The grants on Thursday also did not include any of the more high-profile political cases, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and former congressman Chaka Fattah, all serving time on corruption charges.

With Thursday's action, the Clemency Project 2014 also closes its doors.  The coalition of defense attorneys who had agreed to help inmates with their cases says it completed work on all the applications it received. "Of course we'd be delighted to continue, but we have to wait to see whether the next president says whether he will or will not pursue this," he said.

This NBC News coverage of the final grants and the recent history of Obama's clemency initiative closes with a useful account of its ups and downs:

Obama's clemency grants came in large batches, hundreds at a time, accompanied by statements that framed his effort as a bid to become the most merciful president of all time. But his denials were even more voluminous. The effect on applicants and their lawyers was like an emotional roller coaster.

On Wednesday, sandwiched between Obama's two ballyhooed clemency announcements, the Justice Department quietly released the names of more than 2,000 applicants who'd been denied.

James Felman, a Florida defense lawyer who represents dozens of inmates who applied for clemency, celebrated Tuesday when he learned that four had received commutations. On Wednesday, he learned that a dozen others had been denied, and he mourned. On Thursday, Felman was elated again, this time for four more clients who were on Obama's list. A dozen of Felman's clients still have heard nothing. Three are serving life sentences.

And then there's the matter of reform. Advocates point out that clemency does nothing to change policies that led to mass incarceration. Efforts to ease those laws beyond the 2010 changes have stalled in Congress.

Felman, who won commutation for 44 total clients, called Obama's initiative "the single most gratifying professional experience I've ever undertaken." He added: "I have so much gratitude for the president for having the courage and fortitude for doing this. But we know this is not a substitute for reforming the laws that got us here, and we still haven't accomplished that."

January 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Top Massachusetts court adopts "new protocol for case-by-case adjudication" of over 20,000 drug convictions tainted by misconduct of lab chemist

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issues a huge new ruling to try to resolve a huge old problem caused by drug lab misconduct. The start of the opinion in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, No. SJC 12157 (Mass. Jan. 18, 2017)(available here), provides the back-story and the essential:

We once again confront the tragic legacy of the misconduct of Annie Dookhan when she was employed as a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute (Hinton lab). In Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 471 Mass. 465, 487 (2015) (Bridgeman I), the petitioners and the intervener, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), asked that we exercise our broad powers of superintendence to vacate the thousands of drug convictions affected by Dookhan's misconduct because the time and expense of case-by-case adjudication had become "untenable."  We declined at that time to adopt their proposed "global remedy."  However, the district attorneys have now provided the single justice with lists identifying more than 20,000 defendants who could be eligible for relief based on Dookhan's misconduct but who have not yet sought relief from their drug convictions.  As a result of the number of potentially aggrieved defendants, the single justice issued a reservation and report to the full court that essentially invites us to reconsider whether the time has come for a global remedy or whether further steps must be taken to realistically implement the remedy of case-by-case adjudication of potentially thousands of motions for a new trial.

After such reconsideration, we decline to adopt the district attorneys' argument that we should stay the course we had previously set and take no further action to protect the rights of the "relevant Dookhan defendants."  We also decline to adopt the petitioners' request for a global remedy in which we would either vacate the convictions of all relevant Dookhan defendants with prejudice, and thereby bar any reprosecution, or vacate the convictions without prejudice, and allow the Commonwealth one year to reprosecute, dismissing with prejudice all cases not reprosecuted within that time period.

We instead adopt a new protocol for case-by-case adjudication, which will occur in three phases, and order its implementation by the single justice in the form of a declaratory judgment.  In the first phase, the district attorneys shall exercise their prosecutorial discretion and reduce the number of relevant Dookhan defendants by moving to vacate and dismiss with prejudice all drug cases the district attorneys would not or could not reprosecute if a new trial were ordered.  In the second phase, new, adequate notice shall be approved by the single justice and provided to all relevant Dookhan defendants whose cases have not been dismissed in phase one.  In the third phase, CPCS shall assign counsel to all indigent relevant Dookhan defendants who wish to explore the possibility of moving to vacate their plea or for a new trial.  If the number seeking counsel is so large that counsel cannot be assigned despite CPCS's best efforts, the single justice will fashion an appropriate remedy under our general superintendence authority for the constitutional violation, which may include dismissing without prejudice the relevant drug convictions in cases where an indigent defendant is deprived of the right to counsel.

We recognize that the implementation of this protocol will substantially burden the district attorneys, CPCS, and the courts.  But we also recognize that Dookhan's misconduct at the Hinton lab has substantially burdened the due process rights of many thousands of defendants whose convictions rested on her tainted drug analysis and who, even if they have served their sentences, continue to suffer the collateral consequences arising from those convictions.  And we recognize as well that, more than four years after Dookhan's misconduct was revealed, more than 20,000 defendants who are entitled to a conclusive presumption that egregious government misconduct occurred in their case have yet to receive adequate notice that they may have been victimized by Dookhan's misconduct, that they may file a motion to vacate their drug conviction, and that they have a right to counsel to assist them in the preparation of such a motion.  The remedy we order, challenging as it is to implement, preserves the ability of these defendants to vindicate their rights through case-by-case adjudication, respects the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and maintains the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system in the wake of a laboratory scandal of unprecedented magnitude.

January 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Interesting new report on impact of Prop 47 on drug arrests in California

Via email I received notice of this notable new research report, titled "Declinining Drug Enforcement After Proposition 47," coming from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Drug Policy Alliance. This executive summary provides the report's highlights:

In November 2014, California took a significant step toward reforming mass criminalization and over-incarceration by passing Proposition 47, a law that changed certain low-level crimes from potential felonies to misdemeanors, prioritizing drug treatment over punishment. Prop 47 reclassified three drug possession offenses (possession of a narcotic, concentrated cannabis, or a non-narcotic) and reinvested state savings in direct services. In 2015, the first full year after Prop 47, felony drug arrests fell by over 92,000 while misdemeanor drug arrests increased by only 70,000. Taken together, these shifts produced a 10 percent decline in total drug arrests.

In response to Prop 47’s reclassification statute, some law enforcement departments began redirecting drug enforcement resources to community policing or the enforcement of other, more serious, offenses. Critics of the policy, however, claim that it limits police authority and constrains the effectiveness of drug control, a contention that has led some law enforcement agencies to deemphasize the enforcement of Proposition 47-related offenses.

This report seeks to understand how enforcement and prosecution of drug possession offenses have changed after Prop 47 by analyzing arrests and citations made by Los Angeles and San Diego law enforcement, and charges filed by county prosecutors. Some of the findings include:

Prop 47 reduced inconsistencies in the classification of drug possession offenses as felonies or misdemeanors.  Prior to Prop 47, qualifying drug possession offenses could be prosecuted as misdemeanors, felonies, or “wobblers.” After the passage of Prop 47, these offenses are filed as misdemeanors, eliminating prosecutorial discretion and the presence of “justice-by-geography,” which can disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color.

Drug arrests and citations were increasing in the years immediately preceding Prop 47.  From 2010-2014, arrests and citations for Prop 47 drug possession offenses increased in 72 percent of law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Between 2014-2015, 58 percent of agencies reported declines.

Arrests and citations declined after Prop 47, but varied by county, city, and substance.  For example, while both San Diego and Los Angeles counties experienced declines in arrests and citations, Los Angles reported a decrease of 45 percent while San Diego reported 7 percent decline.

January 10, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Any astute thoughts about the sentencing year that was or the year that will be?

A variety of other (mostly non-work) engagements have prevented me from having the time to do any elaborate year-in-review or year-to-come posts about sentencing topics.  That said, as I take my 2016 calendars down and replace them with the 2017 versions, two matters come to mind that implicate both the year that was and the year to come:

1. SCOTUS transition: though representing only one vote, Justice Scalia's voice and impact on sentencing and criminal justice jurisprudence was far larger than his voting record.  The impact and import of his legacy and his absence, along with the coming character of his SCOTUS replacement, cannot be readily overstated.

2. Marijuana reform (but few other big sentencing reforms): with four more states voting for full recreational reform and nearly a dozen others enacting or enhancing medical regimes, in 2016 marijuana reform continued at a remarkable clip while broader drug war and other sentencing reform stalled (at least at the federal level). What the new GOP executive leaders in DC will now do on these fronts is among the most interesting and dynamic and uncertain story to watch in 2017.

As always, I welcome reader throughout on these topics and any others about the year that ended yesterday or the new one getting started today.

January 1, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Clemency seeker to Obama: please don't forget us"

The title of this post is the headline of this new CNN commentary, authored by Alice Marie Johnson.  Here is how it gets started and concludes:

The week before Christmas, President Obama gave a second chance -- in the form of clemency -- to 231 people. I was not among them, but since many of them, like me, were incarcerated on drug-related charges, I feel I know their stories.  I am only one of thousands of first-time, non-violent offenders given a mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing a crime under financial distress.

In 1996, I was given a death sentence without sitting on death row. I was convicted as a first-time nonviolent drug offender to life behind bars in federal prison.  Since I went to prison, the laws governing my wrong-doing have changed.  If I were convicted again today for the same crime, my life might look very different.

Last month, as I was preparing to put on a short play I wrote, entitled "The Strength To Be," a fellow inmate pulled me aside and gave me the news that the Obama Administration had just started announcing its next slate of clemencies.  My mind went racing. What if this could be my chance to be reunited with the outside world, to see my family or what is left of it?

For 20 years I have been incarcerated, and I won't lie, it's hard to keep the hope of freedom alive for that long.  But my faith in God has carried me this far.  Despite the impending announcement, I knew that the show had to go on. I channeled the uncertainty of my future into my play and danced a duet to Whitney Houston's song, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength."...

I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs.  This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down.  I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers.  I participated in a drug conspiracy and I was wrong.

My trial took a toll on my family.  At the time of my conviction, I had two children in college and a senior in high school. Bryant, the senior, ended up dropping out of school because of the trial.  Tretessa had a good paying job with Motorola and was flying down to support me.  Members of the community were at my hearings encouraging me and hoping for the best.

But I was convicted on October 31, 1996 -- and sentenced to life in prison. The day after my oldest son Charles "celebrated" his 20th birthday.  It was his first birthday spent away from me. It's hard to imagine that I have now served 20 years of my life sentence for that one mistake.  The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, with five percent of the world's incarcerated population and one-quarter of the world's prisoners.  I am one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders who were given mandatory lengthy prison terms.

During my two decades in here, I've become an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are also in prison.  And if I get out -- I have a job secured, and plan to continue to help those in prison and work hard to change our justice system.  My daughter started a petition to President Obama asking him to grant me clemency, and more than 100,000 people have signed it.  It a source of strength and hope for me -- a chance to be free.

The President has made an incredible push at helping to right the wrongs of our criminal justice system.  I applaud him and hold out hope for me and thousands of others who face lifelong sentences for nonviolent crimes.  But with the historic Obama administration coming to an end, this could be a last chance at freedom for me and for many others -- so I also hope he moves quickly.  I hope his administration will process all the applications for clemency currently waiting for the President's review.

No matter what happens, I was not built to break. I will keep writing. I will continue to hold my head high and live a productive life either as a free woman or here behind bars.  God has shown me my strength.

December 29, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Fulsome (and incomplete) criticisms of Prez Obama's fulsome (and incomplete) clemency efforts

Liliana Segura has this lengthy new Intercept commentary headlined "Obama's Clemency Problem – And Ours."  I recommend the full piece and here are some excerpts:

President Obama broke his own remarkable clemency record [last week], granting an unprecedented 231 commutations and pardons in a single day. Headlines and tweets broadcast the historic tally; on the White House website, a bar graph tracks Obama’s record to date, which has dramatically outpaced that of his predecessors. With a total of 1,176 recipients, the White House boasted, Obama has granted clemency “more than the last 11 presidents combined.”

The president certainly deserves credit for making clemency a priority before leaving office....  Those who make the cut are, as the White House put it this week, “individuals deserving of a second chance.”  Many have been serving long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, crimes for which they have shown remorse.  Applications list courses completed, prison jobs maintained, records untarnished by disciplinary write-ups. Last spring, Obama highlighted a handful of men and women who “have made the most of their second chances,” describing their ability to leave prison, get a job, and piece their lives back together as “extraordinary.”

With his legacy and the politics of crime in mind, it makes sense that Obama would be cautious with his commutations, while amplifying the success stories. Yet there’s something disingenuous in the now-familiar rhetoric peddled by the White House with every clemency announcement, which repeatedly tells us we are a “nation of second chances.” Even within the narrow scope of Obama’s clemency initiative — and putting aside his treatment of immigrants and whistleblowers — this is wishful thinking at best.  As Obama himself has written in his congratulatory letters to clemency recipients, “thousands of individuals have applied for commutation, and only a fraction of these applications are approved.” Before the latest round of pardons and commutations, Obama had rejected nearly 14,000 clemency applications....

[W]hen it comes to the president’s pardon power — the one place where Obama could directly address the problem — there are few signs of a transformation.

Instead, the White House has promoted a story about exceptionalism: The president has proven exceptionally merciful and the clemency recipients are uniquely deserving — even extraordinary.  If the former is true, it is only because we have set the bar so low. As for the latter, it is certainly no small thing to survive — even thrive — while serving some of the harshest prison sentences in the world. But praising such men and women as exceptional diminishes the vast human potential that exists behind bars.  As one clemency recipient told me last month, recalling an exchange with the former White House pardon attorney, “I have a list of names of people I would like to see come home. But there are even more people who I’ve never met.  To give a list of names would exclude too many people.”...

On the same day activists published their letter exhorting Obama to expand his clemency efforts, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled “False Hope: How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences.” Documenting how states routinely deny release to those eligible for parole, the ACLU offers numerous profiles of men and women sent to grow up (and in many cases, to die) in prison, whose efforts to prove their value as adults have been repeatedly rebuffed.  The stories are all too familiar.  They show how poverty, neglect, trauma, and mental illness factor into the lives of young people arrested for violent crimes.  They also show how harshly we continue to punish such youth, first with decades in prison, and then with repeated refusals to grant parole, no matter how much they change in the years that follow — or how much evidence shows that older people “age out” of crime.  People of color are seen as even less amenable to rehabilitation. Today, despite the wide rejection of the “superpredator” myth, state parole boards show very little mercy to people serving sentences that grew out of such racist hysteria.

As with Obama’s clemency initiative, the problem is largely political: Nobody wants to be the person to free an individual who might go out and commit another crime, even if it has been decades since the original offense — and even if the sentence was disproportionate to begin with.  What’s more, the ACLU notes, by focusing on the original crime, “parole board members may never know about the success stories: people convicted of serious crimes who, once released, have become successful community leaders supporting themselves and their families, who grew up and moved beyond the worst thing they ever did.”

One bright spot of Obama’s clemency initiative has been in these very kinds of success stories — publicized in the press and by the White House itself. But in the absence of a deeper rethinking of what we consider a second chance, such anecdotes are no match for generations of fear mongering that has entrenched fear of violent criminals into our very psyche, even at times when crime has hit historic lows....

Just a few days after the ACLU report on parole, the Washington Post unveiled a front-page, four-part investigative series called Second Chance City, which examined a D.C. law called the Youth Rehabilitation Act.  Passed in 1985, the law aimed to give judges discretion in handling juvenile cases — including by circumventing mandatory minimums — to allow deserving young people to avoid harsh punishment and, ultimately, expunge their record.  The Post series raised alarm, finding dozens of cases where beneficiaries of the law had gone on to commit new, often violent offenses, and describing the crimes in dramatic detail....

Most counterproductive was the framing of the series, placed squarely as a counterpoint to efforts at prison reform on Capitol Hill. “At a time when the Obama administration and Congress are working to ease ‘mandatory minimum’ sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses, in part because of concerns that such laws have unjustly imprisoned large numbers of African-Americans,” the authors write, “D.C. law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about the number of repeat violent offenders on the streets.”

The media should certainly scrutinize attempts at reform, pointing out where they fail. But the Post series was a reminder of how quickly we revert back to old narratives about crime, to convince ourselves that more imprisonment will keep us safe. With the real fights over prison reform happening at the state and local level — over things like the Youth Act — any efforts by the president were always going to be limited.  But if the pendulum is to swing back toward a more punitive era, as many fear it will under Trump, Obama must do as much as he can now to preserve the legacy he has carved out.

But beyond Obama — and if we are to make a dent in mass incarceration — Americans must also begin to think much bigger than his administration ever did. We should refuse to let the same government that gave us mandatory minimums define what counts as a “second chance.” We must stop letting our leaders — whether the president or a parole board — divest their responsibility to remedy draconian punishments by placing the burden on people who never should have received them in the first place. Ending mass incarceration will require mercy, but fundamentally it is about justice.  And the state has not even begun to account for its own mistakes.

I credit Segura for noting and lamenting that what's most remarkable about Prez Obama's clemency efforts are how non-transformative they are. Despite lots of advocacy from lots of advocates for the development of a new structure for clemency decision-making, Prez Obama has barely tweaked the status quo in order to better discover a few thousand prisoners with extreme prison sentences that could be shortened. Prez Obama merits praise and credit for doing something, but that something is largely a last-minute tweak rather than a timeless transformation.

The story of clemency here is a variation on the broader drug war reality throughout the Obama years. As of 2013, then-AG Eric Holder started talking up a new "Smart on Crime" initiative. But, despite this useful talk and some tweaked approaches to federal prosecutions, Prez Obama's Department of Justice for all eight years of his presidency continued to prosecute, on average, 20,000 new federal drug cases each year even though there is still little evidence that severe federal drug sentences for nonviolent drug offenders help reduce drug crime or violent crimes. (Of course, the prior decade saw on average 25,000 federal drug prosecutions, so the Obama DOJ can claim credit for being a lesser evil.) Running these numbers, if Prez Obama commuted 2000 federal drug sentences each and every year he was in the Oval Office, through the work of his DOJ, he still would be responsible for a net addition of 18,000 federal drug sentences each and every year.

Put simply, at the margins, Prez Obama left federal criminal justice matters somewhat better than he found them. But the federal criminal justice system continues to need a wide array of reforms that go, in my mind, far beyond the margins.

December 25, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Prez Obama grants another large bunch of commutations as well as a big batch of pardons

Big pre-holiday news on the federal clemency front is reported in this new White House blog posting: "President Obama Grants 153 Commutations and 78 Pardons to Individuals Deserving of a Second Chance." Here are the details as reported by White House Counsel Neil Eggleston:

Today, President Obama granted clemency to 231 deserving individuals — the most individual acts of clemency granted in a single day by any president in this nation’s history. With today’s 153 commutations, the President has now commuted the sentences of 1,176 individuals, including 395 life sentences. The President also granted pardons to 78 individuals, bringing his total number of pardons to 148. Today’s acts of clemency — and the mercy the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients — exemplify his belief that America is a nation of second chances.

The 231 individuals granted clemency today have all demonstrated that they are ready to make use — or have already made use — of a second chance. While each clemency recipient’s story is unique, the common thread of rehabilitation underlies all of them. For the pardon recipient, it is the story of an individual who has led a productive and law-abiding post-conviction life, including by contributing to the community in a meaningful way. For the commutation recipient, it is the story of an individual who has made the most of his or her time in prison, by participating in educational courses, vocational training, and drug treatment. These are the stories that demonstrate the successes that can be achieved — by both individuals and society — in a nation of second chances.

Today’s grants signify the President’s continued commitment to exercising his clemency authority through the remainder of his time in office. In 2016 alone, the President has granted clemency to more than 1,000 deserving individuals. The President continues to review clemency applications on an individualized basis to determine whether a particular applicant has demonstrated a readiness to make use of his or her second chance, and I expect that the President will issue more grants of both commutations and pardons before he leaves office. The mercy that the President has shown his 1,324 clemency recipients is remarkable, but we must remember that clemency is a tool of last resort and that only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure over the long run that our criminal justice system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of public safety.

This news is sure to bring holiday cheer to all those advocating for Prez Obama to go big on this front before he heads home.  These grants now have me thinking Obama may end his time in office with more than 2000 clemency grants.

Some recent (post-Election Day) posts on Prez Obama and clemency:

December 19, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Interesting review of impact of Prop 47 on drug cases and offenders in California

Prop-47-jpgThis lengthy local article takes a remarkable and effective deep dive into the impact and import of California's Prop 47 two years after its passage. The piece carries a lengthy headline that serves as a kind of summary: "Two years after Prop 47, addicts walk free with nowhere to go: In 2014, California Voters Freed About 13,500 Low-Level Offenders From Crowded Prisons and Jails. But Many Ex-inmates Have Traded Incarceration for a Cycle of Homelessness, Drug Abuse and Petty Crime." Here are excerpts:

Two years after it was approved by California voters, Prop 47 has scaled back mass incarceration of drug addicts, but successful reform is woefully incomplete.  Proponents celebrate how the law freed at least 13,500 inmates like Lopez from harsh sentences in crowded prisons and jails, but Prop 47 has done little to help these people restart their lives. Instead, the unprecedented release of inmates has exposed the limits of California’s neglected social service programs: Thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime.

Prop 47 earmarked millions saved in prison costs for inmate rehabilitation, but not a penny has been spent. Meanwhile, the state’s shortage of treatment programs is more glaring than ever. Expanding rehab would be expensive, but it is still a cheaper, more effective and more humane strategy for addressing addiction than locking drug abusers in prison.

"The problem is, if you don’t actually do anything to change conditions of their lives, they’re going to be back on the streets anyway," said Elliot Currie, a University of California, Irvine criminologist.  "What’s to prevent them from going back to the same old ways when they get out? The answer is nothing."

This alarming lack of support services is one key finding in a landmark investigation by USA TODAY Network-California journalists who spent seven months analyzing the impacts of Prop 47, a sweeping criminal justice reform law that has been debated and demonized but rarely understood. To uncover the ramifications of the law, reporters from four publications — The Desert Sun, The Ventura County Star, The Record Searchlight and The Salinas Californian — filed 65 records requests, scrutinized thousands of pages of public documents and performed over 50 interviews with policymakers, academics, police, district attorneys, public defenders, drug addicts and former felons. Among our findings:

  • California police have dramatically deprioritized drug busts in the wake of Prop 47, arresting and citing about 22,000 fewer people in 2015, a 9.5 percent decrease in the first year since the possession of meth, heroin and cocaine was downgraded to a misdemeanor.

  • Nearly 200,000 felony convictions have been retroactively erased by Prop 47 as of September, according to a first-ever analysis.  Government agencies were not required to track how many convictions were reduced, so journalists gathered public records from 21 counties to calculate a statewide estimate.  Many former felons will be slow to take advantage of their restored rights because they are unaware their convictions have been downgraded.

  • For those who are aware, however, Prop 47 offers an unparalleled chance for better jobs.  Tens of thousands of people no longer have to report felony convictions on job applications, making them drastically more employable than they’ve been in years or decades.

Michael Romano, a Stanford law expert who helped write Prop 47, stressed in a recent interview the law has been "amazingly successful" in its primary goal, which was always to get low-level drug offenders out of California’s crowded, damaging prison system.  But tackling drug addiction and mental illness, which plague so many who were released under the law, is a task that will require investing hundreds of millions of dollars in community treatment programs across the state.   "It is incumbent on local governments to engage this problem," Romano said. "Prop 47 was not a cure-all. It’s not a panacea.  It is one piece in an extraordinarily complicated puzzle — perhaps the most complicated puzzle in our communities."

December 15, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Nobel Peace Prize winner suggests that drug war may be most harmful of all wars currently being waged, combines

The BBC News account of this weekend's Nobel Prize awards highlights a notable comment from a notable Nobel laureate.  The article is headlined "Nobel Peace Prize: Santos calls for 'rethink' of war on drugs," and here are some excerpts:

The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, has used his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to call for the world to "rethink" the war on drugs. He said the zero-tolerance policy might be "even more harmful" than all the other wars being fought worldwide.

Mr Santos's government and the country's biggest rebel group, the Farc, signed a peace deal last month.  Bob Dylan, the first songwriter ever to receive the Nobel literature prize, did not collect his award in person. He received a standing ovation nevertheless.

The conflict with the Farc rebels in Colombia has killed more than 260,000 people and left millions internally displaced. Accepting the prize for his efforts in the peace process, Mr Santos paid tribute to the families of victims of the conflict. He said the "great paradox" of peacemaking was that "the victims are the ones who are most willing to forgive, to reconcile and to face the future with a heart free of hate".

In a deviation from his prepared remarks, he asked the representatives of the victims present to stand and be recognised for their own efforts in the peace process, to much applause. He previously pledged to donate the prize money -- eight million Swedish krona ($925,000) -- to help the conflict's victims. "I have served as a leader in times of war -- to defend the freedom and the rights of the Colombian people -- and I have served as a leader in times of making peace," he said. "Allow me to tell you, from my own experience, that it is much harder to make peace than to wage war."

Mr Santos said it was "time to change our strategy" on drugs, and that Colombia had "paid the highest cost in deaths and sacrifices" in the so-called war on drugs. The term, coined by US President Richard Nixon more than four decades ago, refers to US-led efforts to stop drug production at its source. In Latin America this has included on-the-ground policing, and fumigation of coca fields from the air.

"We have moral authority to state that, after decades of fighting against drug trafficking, the world has still been unable to control this scourge that fuels violence and corruption throughout our global community," he said. "It makes no sense to imprison a peasant who grows marijuana, when nowadays, for example, its cultivation and use are legal in eight states of the United States.

"The manner in which this war against drugs is being waged is equally or perhaps even more harmful than all the wars the world is fighting today, combined."

December 11, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, December 10, 2016

U.S. Supreme Court adds federal drug-offense forfeiture case to its docket

As reported here at SCOTUSblog, on Friday afternoon "the justices issued orders from [their] private conference, adding one new case to their merits docket for the term."  That new case concerns a criminal justice/sentencing issue, forfeiture, that has been a focal point of concerns for reform activists across the political spectrum.  Here are the details from SCOTUSblog about the forfeiture case now before the Justices on the merits:

They agreed to review the case of Terry Honeycutt, who worked as a salaried employee at a hardware store owned by his brother, Tony.  The two brothers were charged with federal drug crimes for the store’s sale of an iodine-based water disinfectant -- which can also be used to make methamphetamines.  Tony pleaded guilty and forfeited $200,000 to account for the proceeds of the illegal sales.  After Terry went to trial and was convicted, the government argued that he should have to forfeit the rest of the proceeds, approximately $70,000.

Terry countered that he should not have to forfeit the remaining proceeds because he did not own the store and therefore did not receive them.  The district court agreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed. It ruled that Terry could be held independently liable for the store’s proceeds from the sales even if the funds never actually reached him.

The federal government acknowledged that the courts of appeals are divided on the question presented by Terry’s appeal. It nonetheless urged the justices to deny review, explaining that the split among the circuits is “lopsided and recent.”  And in any event, it contended, Terry’s case is not a good one in which to consider that question, because he would also be liable for the forfeiture under the conflicting rule adopted by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Despite the government’s objections, the justices granted certiorari [and] Honeycutt v. United States will likely be argued in the spring, with a decision by the end of June.

December 10, 2016 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 09, 2016

As opioid deaths officially surpass gun homicides, will national leaders continue to ignore potential live-saving benefits of medical marijuana?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Washington Post Wonkblog piece, which starts by noting that "opioid deaths continued to surge in 2015, surpassing 30,000 for the first time in recent history, according to CDC data released Thursday." Here is more of the grim data:

That marks an increase of nearly 5,000 deaths from 2014. Deaths involving powerful synthetic opiates, like fentanyl, rose by nearly 75 percent from 2014 to 2015. Heroin deaths spiked too, rising by more than 2,000 cases. For the first time since at least the late 1990s, there were more deaths due to heroin than to traditional opioid painkillers, like hydrocodone and oxycodone....

In a grim milestone, more people died from heroin-related causes than from gun homicides in 2015. As recently as 2007, gun homicides outnumbered heroin deaths by more than 5 to 1. These increases come amid a year-over-year increase in mortality across the board, resulting in the first decline in American life expectancy since 1993.

Congress recently passed a spending bill containing $1 billion to combat the opioid epidemic, including money for addiction treatment and prevention. "The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic continues to devastate communities and families across the country — in large part because too many people still do not get effective substance use disorder treatment,” said Michael Botticelli, Director of National Drug Control Policy, in a statement. "That is why the President has called since February for $1 billion in new funding to expand access to treatment."

Much of the current opioid predicament stems from the explosion of prescription painkiller use in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Widespread painkiller use led to many Americans developing dependencies on the drugs.  When various authorities at the state and federal levels began issuing tighter restrictions on painkillers in the late 2000s, much of that demand shifted over to the illicit market, feeding the heroin boom of the past several years.

Drug policy reformers say the criminalization of illicit and off-label drug use is a barrier to reversing the growing epidemic. “Criminalization drives people to the margins and dissuades them from getting help,” said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It drives a wedge between people who need help and the services they need. Because of criminalization and stigma, people hide their addictions from others.”

These depressing data spotlight one of many reasons I am supportive of medical marijuana reforms for the treatment of pain. It is functionally impossible to die from an overdose of marijuana, and thus it will always be in some important ways safer for someone to become dependent on marijuana rather than on opioids for pain relief. In addition, as highlighted in a number of posts from my other blog, there is considerable research emerging from various sources that the opioid epidemic is somewhat less deadly in states that have robust medical marijuana programs.

Some related posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

December 9, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Recalling the work of AG-designee Senator Jeff Sessions on crack/powder sentencing reform

NA-CM623_SESSIO_16U_20161206163606The Wall Street Journal has this new article flagging the sentencing reform work of Senator Jeff Sessions, who is Prez-Elect Donald Trump's pick to serve as our next Attorney General. The article is headlined "Jeff Sessions, Civil-Rights Groups Find Some Common Ground on Crack Sentencing: Attorney-general pick, targeted for his record on race, advocated for parity in cocaine punishments." Here are excerpts:

Civil-rights groups are set to battle Sen. Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general over what they see as his disturbing record on racial equality. But there is one chapter in the former prosecutor’s career where they share a sliver of common ground.

Mr. Sessions was for years Congress’s most avid supporter of cutting the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, at a time when other lawmakers were loath to be seen as soft on crime. There has been a growing consensus that harsh penalties for crack, typically bought and sold on city streets, have taken an undue toll on African-American communities, while black leaders have long viewed the disparity as little short of racist.

To Mr. Sessions’s critics, the issue doesn’t come close to compensating for his career-long opposition to expanding civil-rights protections and reducing mandatory sentences, and more broadly for what they see as a general indifference to issues important to minorities.

But to the Alabama senator’s supporters, it is an overlooked part of a résumé they say is sometimes caricatured. “This was a personal agenda item for him,” said Matt Miner, Mr. Sessions’s former chief counsel. “This law was not calibrated to target serious drug dealers and was disproportionately affecting African-Americans, and it offended him.”

In a rare bipartisan move, Mr. Sessions and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois ultimately struck a deal in 2010 to reduce, though not eliminate, the sentencing disparity. Mr. Sessions hung a copy of the resulting legislation, signed by President Barack Obama, in a prominent spot in his office next to his desk, Mr. Miner said....

In 1995, the U.S. Sentencing Commission tried to put the sentencing guidelines on par, but Congress rejected the proposal. Weeks later, riots broke out in the federal prison in Talladega, Ala., and spread to other federal facilities, an uprising the Bureau of Prisons attributed partly to Congress’s rejection of the cocaine measure. Mr. Sessions, then Alabama’s attorney general, was elected to Congress the following year. His first sentencing bill, in 2001, lowered the sentencing disparity to 20-to-1.

Mr. Sessions declined to comment for this article. But he told The Wall Street Journal at the time that the crack penalties were unfair and in many cases made cities less safe, not more so. On the Senate floor, he cited studies showing that African-Americans made up 84% of defendants sentenced for trafficking crack but only 31% of those sentenced for powder. “The five-gram trigger point for crack that was intended to protect African-Americans has resulted in heavy penalties for African-Americans, penalties that lack a rational basis,” Mr. Sessions said in 2002. He reintroduced the proposal in 2006 and 2007.

The Fair Sentencing Act, ultimately signed into law in 2010, raised the trigger for a five-year sentence to 28 grams of crack and the 10-year trigger to 280 grams of crack. The triggers for powder cocaine remained at 500 and 5,000 grams.

Advocates for criminal-justice changes aren’t expecting much support from Mr. Sessions on some of their other priorities. “It’s not entirely clear why he supported the Fair Sentencing Act,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which worked with Mr. Sessions on the issue for years. Mr. Sessions has opposed efforts to reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to investigate law-enforcement agencies accused of violating civil rights.

Others are even more downbeat.

“He has taken positions so diametrically opposed to civil and human rights that there is little hope he would bring the sense of hope and openness he brought to the Fair Sentencing Act to the job of attorney general,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “I consider it a one-off where he could show he was more enlightened and less doctrinaire than some of his colleagues.”

Mr. Henderson’s group is one of 145 organizations that signed a letter opposing Mr. Session’s nomination. The letter cites racially insensitive remarks allegedly made by Mr. Sessions; his unsuccessful prosecution of three black voting-rights activists on fraud charges; his support for voter ID laws that many activists say are designed to tamp down minority voting; and his opposition to a 2009 law expanding federal prosecution of hate crimes....

Kevin Ring, vice president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and himself a former offender, said he hopes Mr. Sessions will at least leave discretion to federal prosecutors rather than ordering them to seek maximum penalties. “I’m looking for a silver lining,” he said.

A few prior related posts on Senator Sessions and sentencing reform:

December 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

"How Tough on Crime Became Tough on Kids: Prosecuting Teenage Drug Charges in Adult Courts"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report from The Sentencing Project. Here is its Introduction:

Transfer laws in 46 states and the District of Columbia permit youth to be tried as adults on drug charges.

Successful campaigns to raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction have rolled back some excesses of the tough on crime era.  After the implementation of Louisiana’s SB 324 in 2017 and South Carolina’s SB 916 in 2019, just seven states will routinely charge 17-year old offenders as adults, including the two states that also charge 16-year olds as adults.  Despite other state laws that differentiate between adults and youth, placing limits on teens’ rights to serve on juries, vote, or marry without parental consent, the criminal justice system in these jurisdictions erases the distinction when they are arrested.

Though the vast majority of arrested juveniles are processed in the juvenile justice system, transfer laws are the side door to adult criminal courts, jails, and prisons.  These laws either require juveniles charged with certain offenses to have their cases tried in adult courts or provide discretion to juvenile court judges or even prosecutors to pick and choose those juveniles who will be tried in adult courts.

It is widely understood that serious offenses, such as homicide, often are tried in adult criminal courts.  In fact, for as long as there have been juvenile courts, mechanisms have existed to allow the transfer of some youth into the adult system 2 During the early 1990s, under a set of faulty assumptions about a coming generation of “super-predators,” 40 states passed legislation to send even more juveniles into the adult courts for a growing array of offenses and with fewer procedural protections.  The super-predators, wrote John J. DiIulio in 1995, “will do what comes ‘naturally’: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.”

This tough-on-crime era left in its wake state laws that still permit or even require drug charges to be contested in adult courts.  Scant data exist to track its frequency, but fully 46 states and the District of Columbia permit juveniles to be tried as adults on drug charges.  Only Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts, and New Mexico do not.  States have taken steps to close this pathway, including a successful voter initiative in California, Proposition 57.  Nationwide, there were approximately 461 judicial waivers (those taking place after a hearing in juvenile court) in 2013 on drug charges.  The totals stemming from other categories of transfer are not available.

From 1989 to 1992, drug offense cases were more likely to be judicially waived to adult courts than any other offense category.  Given the recent wave of concern over opiate deaths, it is reasonable to fear a return to this era, even as public opinion now opposes harsh punishments for drug offenses.

The ability of states to send teenagers into the adult system on nonviolent offenses, a relic of the war on drugs, threatens the futures of those teenagers who are arrested on drug charges, regardless of whether or not they are convicted (much less incarcerated) on those charges.  Transfer laws have been shown to increase recidivism, particularly violent recidivism, among those convicted in adult courts.  Research shows waiver laws are disproportionately used on youth of color. Moreover, an adult arrest record can carry collateral consequences that a juvenile record might not.  Since very few criminal charges ever enter the trial phase, the mere threat of adult prison time contributes to some teenagers’ guilty pleas. This policy report reviews the methods by which juveniles can be tried as adults for drug offenses and the consequences of the unchecked power of some local prosecutors.

December 7, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

"An Incubator for (Former) Drug Dealers: 'Hustlers are entrepreneurs denied opportunity'"

Some tough-on-crime folks who still love fighting the drug war remain eager to assert that any and all drug dealers are all vicious and violent criminals in waiting.  For example, in this new commentary, Bill Otis argues we must not now "lighten up on non-violent, low-level drug dealers" because, in his words, "drug dealing is an inherently violent business; an affable transaction today is tomorrow's bloody shootout" and "we cannot reliably tell who is violent and who isn't."  

Based on the bloody history of alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s and recent nonviolent experiences with legalized marijuana markets out west, I have a much different perspective on drug dealing.  Most bootleggers a century ago and many drug dealers today seem really to be street-level entrepreneurs who pursue black-market economic opportunities and who turn to violence only if black market conditions require the use of force.  

Intriguingly, this notable new Bloomberg BusinessWeek piece which carries the headline that is also the title of this post, reports on reentry programming that seems to confirm my perspective on most drug dealers.  I recommend the piece in full, and here are excerpts:

Over the past decade, a number of government, academic, and nonprofit programs have attempted to address the structural problems that face convicts when they’re released from prison — a campaign known as the “re-entry movement.”  One of the biggest contributors to misery and recidivism is an inability to find steady work. Former inmates encounter stigma, bias, and even formal obstacles to getting hired. Connecticut, for example, has 423 employment restrictions based on criminal records, including bans on obtaining a teaching certificate, operating commercial motor vehicles, and becoming a firefighter.

Amid calls for more job training, less automatic background searching, and other changes that would make it easier for ex-felons to become employees, an alternative idea has slowly taken hold: Encourage them to start their own businesses.  The largest nonprofit pushing entrepreneurism of this kind is Defy Ventures, based in New York, which over the past six years has trained more than 500 formerly incarcerated people and incubated more than 150 successful startups.  Defy has become a critical darling among social scientists, boasting a 3 percent recidivism rate among alumni, compared with the national average of 76 percent of released inmates who are reincarcerated within five years....

On the morning of July 9, a year to the day after he shed his prison uniform for street clothes, Bashaun Brown stood in a rented conference room. Beside him were two colleagues, both undergraduates at nearby Wesleyan University, and seated before him were four aspiring entrepreneurs.  This was a meeting of TRAP House, Brown’s creation, an incubator for former drug dealers who want to start legal companies.  The name stands for “transforming, reinventing, and prospering” and is a play on the term for drug-stash locations....

Brown’s premise with TRAP House is that “hustlers are entrepreneurs denied opportunity.” The agenda for class that day included honing elevator pitches, gaining access to seed capital, and calculating financial projections. Brown flipped through slides projected on a screen behind him from his laptop, a silver MacBook with busted hinges and a decal of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. Angel investors, Brown told the group, are “a group of true capitalists who use money to make money. Like how some people live off the thrill of dealing drugs, these guys live off the thrill of that flip.”...

Brown later told me that as he sees it, drug dealers have more business savvy than they realize. “If I’m talking about marketing research, I would tell the guys, ‘Listen, you have done this before,’ ” he said. “ ‘You didn’t just come to your ’hood and set up shop. No, you have to do some kind of research. What type of drugs do they want to buy? What price would they buy it for? How much would I make?’ ” The same is true of gauging risk. In addition to the potential of economic loss, a hustler must “look at the odds of getting caught and then do an analysis,” Brown said. “Most people say that criminals are irrational. But when it comes to selling drugs, it’s a highly rational choice.” He kept riffing on such topics as team-building and customer relations. “The better drug dealers I know have great interpersonal skills,” he said.

November 30, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, November 28, 2016

Will Prez Obama break out of his "clemency rut" and really go bold his last few weeks in the Oval Office?

Now that Prez Obama has granted commutations to more than 1000 federal prisoners (basics here), I suppose I should stop complaining that he has only "talked the talk" about significant sentencing reform.  Having granted now a record number of commutations to federal defendants sentenced to decades of imprisonment for mostly nonviolent drug offenses, Prez Obama can and should retire to the golf course with some justified satisfaction that he has created a new clemency legacy over his final few years as Prez.

That said, a few basic numbers about the reality of federal drug prosecutions in the Obama era should temper any profound praise for Prez Obama here.  Specifically, Prez Obama was in charge from Jan 2009 to Aug 2010 when the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio was still in place.  During that period, using this US Sentencing Commission data as a guide, well over 5000 federal defendants were sentenced under the old crack laws while Prez Obama and his appointees were leading the Justice Department.  So, during just Prez Obama's first 1.5 years in office, federal prosecutors sent five times as many drug offenders to federal prison under the old crack laws than Prez Obama has now commuted.  Moreover, given that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 only reduced the crack/powder unfairness, it is worth also noting that over another 20,000 federal defendants have been prosecuted and sentence under still-disparate/unfair crack sentencing laws from Aug 2010 to Nov 2016 (though crack prosecutions, as this USSC data shows, have declined considerably from 2010 to 2015). 

I bring all this up because I will not consider Prez Obama to be a bold and courageous executive leader in the clemency arena unless and until he grants relief to more folks than just over-sentenced nonviolent drug offenders.  Helpfully, this new Wall Street Journal commentary authored by Charles Renfrew and James Reynolds provides some distinct clemency fodder for Prez Obama to consider.  The piece is headlined "Obama Should Pardon This Iowa Kosher-Food Executive: Prosecutors overstepped, interfered with the process of bankruptcy and then solicited false testimony."  Because I have been an advocate for a reduced sentence for Sholom Rubashkin, whose 27-year federal prison sentence has long seemed grossly unfair and unjustified to me, I will not here make the clemency case for him in particular.  But this WSJ commentary serves as a useful reminder that there are certainly hundreds — and likely thousands and perhaps tens of thousands — of federal prisoners currently serving excessive federal prison sentences who were involved in criminal activity other than nonviolent drug offenses.

Candidly, I am not optimistic that Prez Obama will use his last seven weeks to get out of the notable "clemency rut" of his Administration's own creation.  I say this because I surmise that (1) (1) everyone involved in the Obama Administration's clemency push has been focused almost exclusively on low-level drug prisoners sentenced to a decade or longer, and (2) even the limited group of low-level drug offenders being actively considered still presents tens of thousands of clemency petitions to review.  Meanwhile, I suspect and fear, reasonable clemency requests from thousands of other potentially worthy applications are seemingly being rejected out-of-hand or being left for the next Prez to deal with.

I hope Prez Obama proves me wrong in the next seven weeks by granting clemency to some other types of folks seeing executive relief (both in the form of commutations and pardons).  But on most criminal justice reform issues, Prez Obama has left me deeply disappointed a lot more than he has pleasantly surprised me.

November 28, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Saturday, November 26, 2016

So many marijuana reform developments and questions, with so many more on 2017 horizon

Though I blogged a bit in this space about marijuana reform right around the election (see here and here), over the last few weeks I have been content to cover this issues just over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  But this new post about this new article about the thousands of Californians getting sentencing relief thanks to the state's passage of a major marijuana legalization proposition, Prop 64, reminded me that I should be reminding readers about the close links between marijuana reform in particular and sentencing reform in general.  

The first post linked below tells the sentencing reform story, and some other postings from my other blog tell a whole lot of other interesting and dynamic stories about the current state and possible future of marijuana reform in the United States:

November 26, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 21, 2016

"Four Ways Drug Policy Reformers Must Play It Smart Under the Trump Administration"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new commentary by Bill Piper, which gets started this way:

I began working, advocating and lobbying for federal-level drug policy reform in Washington, DC in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency. I’ve continued to do so ever since: I was a loyal soldier in the war against the War on Drugs through eight years of George W. Bush and then eight years of Barack Obama. But now, with the election of Donald Trump, it feels like the work during those three presidencies was just basic training—the real challenge is just beginning.

Like many people, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the very idea of Donald Trump as president. But what’s certain is that drug policy reformers are going to have to play it smart in the new era, and I do have some initial thoughts.

First, we’re in uncharted territory. We have never had a president like this—so far removed from establishment norms, openly promoting white supremacy, believing in and promoting wacko conspiracy theories. Complicating matters, he doesn’t seem to have fixed positions, rarely gives specifics and contradicts himself often. No one knows for sure what exactly to expect, but we should assume the worst.

His administration, which looks set to be staffed by drug-war extremists, could go after state marijuana laws. Instead of just opposing sentencing reform, they could push for new mandatory minimums. They might demonize drugs and drug sellers to build support for mass deportations and a wall. Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric could fundamentally alter the political environment, nationally and locally.

Right now there is a bipartisan consensus in favor of reducing incarceration—that consensus is in danger. We could be set back decades if we’re not careful. We need to rethink a lot of what we’ve been planning and think about how we message. And it’s more important than ever that we support our allies in other movements and stand strong for racial justice. We need to re-learn how to play defense.

November 21, 2016 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, November 18, 2016

So who is happy or sad about Jeff Sessions for Attorney General?

consider this an open thread.

UPDATE:  I just remembered that Senator Jeff Sessions was long an advocate for equalizing crack and powder cocaine sentences.  Through the FSA enacted in 2010, the notorious 100-1 crack/powder ratio was reduced to roughly 18:1.  I would think it very valuable and very wise for various folks interested in drug sentencing reform to unearth and promotes just what Senator Sessions said in the past on this front.

November 18, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (38)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court"

11_HardBargainsThe title of this post is the title of this soon-to-be released book by Mona Lynch that is now at the very top of my holiday wish/reading list. Here is the publisher's description of the book:

The convergence of tough-on-crime politics, stiffer sentencing laws, and jurisdictional expansion in the 1970s and 1980s increased the powers of federal prosecutors in unprecedented ways.  In Hard Bargains, social psychologist Mona Lynch investigates the increased power of these prosecutors in our age of mass incarceration.  Lynch documents how prosecutors use punitive federal drug laws to coerce guilty pleas and obtain long prison sentences for defendants — particularly those who are African American — and exposes deep injustices in the federal courts.

As a result of the War on Drugs, the number of drug cases prosecuted each year in federal courts has increased fivefold since 1980.  Lynch goes behind the scenes in three federal court districts and finds that federal prosecutors have considerable discretion in adjudicating these cases.  Federal drug laws are wielded differently in each district, but with such force to overwhelm defendants’ ability to assert their rights.  For drug defendants with prior convictions, the stakes are even higher since prosecutors can file charges that incur lengthy prison sentences — including life in prison without parole.

Through extensive field research, Lynch finds that prosecutors frequently use the threat of extremely severe sentences to compel defendants to plead guilty rather than go to trial and risk much harsher punishment.  Lynch also shows that the highly discretionary ways in which federal prosecutors work with law enforcement have led to significant racial disparities in federal courts.  For instance, most federal charges for crack cocaine offenses are brought against African Americans even though whites are more likely to use crack.  In addition, Latinos are increasingly entering the federal system as a result of aggressive immigration crackdowns that also target illicit drugs.

Hard Bargains provides an incisive and revealing look at how legal reforms over the last five decades have shifted excessive authority to federal prosecutors, resulting in the erosion of defendants’ rights and extreme sentences for those convicted.  Lynch proposes a broad overhaul of the federal criminal justice system to restore the balance of power and retreat from the punitive indulgences of the War on Drugs.

November 13, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

In Oklahoma, ballot initiative on death penalty wins big and sentencing reform initiatives also win

Though hard to figure out from just looking at this official Oklahoma election page, it appears that all the sentencing ballot issues being considered by voters passed:

State Question 776 has won 66.5% to 34.5%, thereby amending the Oklahoma Constitution to guarantee the state’s power to impose capital punishment and set methods of execution.

State Question 780 has won 58% to 42%, thereby reclassifying certain state property offenses and simple drug possession as misdemeanor crimes.

State Question 781 as won 56% to 44%, thereby taking the savings from reclassifying certain offenses to fund rehabilitative programs, including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.

November 8, 2016 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Notable new analysis of marijuana arrest rates and patterns acorss the nation

This new post at Marijuana.com, under the headline "Marijuana Decrim Doesn’t Stop Discrimination, New Data Shows," appears to be reporting and analyzing some important new data on the impact of marijuana reform on some key criminal justice metrics.  Here are excerpts from the lengthy entry:

Marijuana arrest rates are plummeting as a growing number of far-reaching state policy reforms like legalization and decriminalization are enacted; however, stark racial disparities in cannabis law enforcement remain, a new Marijuana.com analysis of policing data uncovers. The data provided an illuminating follow-up to the 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report which made headlines by showing that, while African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equivalent rates, blacks are much more likely to be arrested for it.

Public records requests submitted via MuckRock to all 50 states for data pertaining to marijuana-related arrests show, on average, a significant decrease in possession offenses in the years since the publication of the ACLU report, which was based on 2010 data. But despite the apparent shift in focus away from the enforcement of marijuana possession laws, the racial bias in arrest rates uncovered by the ACLU remains intact.

The new data also revealed that decriminalization measures may have become an unintentional barrier to transparency in marijuana law enforcement. The classification of marijuana as a less serious offense in many states has resulted in a deprioritization of tracking critical information regarding who is stopped, and how often.

Among the key findings of the new Marijuana.com analysis are:

  • In New York, despite significant drops in arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, black people are more than 13 times as likely as white people to be arrested for it.
  • Despite significant drops in overall arrest rates, Florida increased the number of people arrested for marijuana possession since 2010.
  • States with a large racial disparity in arrests – New York, North Carolina and South Carolina – also tend to be the states with higher overall arrest rates.
  • The largest drops in overall arrest rates since 2010 occurred in Nevada, Alaska, Connecticut and New York.

In all, data were received from 25 states; 12 states provided arrest numbers for local and state police — many not filtered by agency — while 13 either separated local and state police data or provided numbers only for state police. The remaining states for which data were not obtained either do not keep track of marijuana offenses as distinct from other drug-related crimes, do not keep track of marijuana offenses on a state level or charged prohibitively high fees for the same data which other states provided for free.....

The data we are able to report here do not tell the whole story of marijuana users’ clash with the law in this age of decriminalization and legalization. Public opinion toward marijuana has shifted dramatically, particularly within the last several years. A few states have legalized possession of small amounts, while others have instead opted to reclassify possession of similar amounts from felonies to misdemeanors or from misdemeanors to civil infractions, to reflect this change in perception.

While this shift has been a laudable victory for advocates pushing for full legalization of recreational use, it has also resulted in increased difficulty in tracking important data. Finding the answer to a relatively simple question, such as, “How many people in this state were caught with marijuana in the year 2014?” has become all the more arduous. Researchers are forced to track down data for misdemeanors and felonies at the state level in addition to approaching individual law enforcement agencies directly for data on civil infractions, hoping they keep track of those numbers at all.

Consequently, the data reported here reflect only the marijuana possession offenses which are reported at the state levels; the number of civil infractions in states which have decriminalized possession are evidenced only by the significant drop in arrest rates (misdemeanors) following such a change in the law....

Taken as a whole, the new numbers obtained by Marijuana.com add to the debate about the effects of both prohibition and the decriminalization policies that advocates have succeeded in enacting in a growing number of jurisdictions, and the data (or in some cases lack thereof) shed light on the difficulty in tracking many of those effects.

I find this report and its data quite interesting, but it is a bit opaque and ultimately further convinces me that one of the first (and non-controversial?) priorities for the new federal administration should be to try to collect and analyze data on modern marijuana enforcement nationwide . Of course, I think a priority for everyone interested in the marijuana reform space must include checking out my other blog where you can find these recent posts on various related topics:

November 3, 2016 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Famous "war on drugs" voice now voicing support for marijuana reform: any questions?

This new MarketWatch article, headlined "War on drugs spokesman now supports marijuana legalization," gives me an excuse to flag an iconic 1980s public service announcement while reporting on its new symbolic significance:

The voice behind one of the war on drugs’ most iconic ads has cast a vote to legalize marijuana. During the height of the ’80s war on drugs that gave rise to the “Just Say No” campaign, actor John Roselius stared in an antidrug TV ad for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The ad featured Roselius frying an egg in a skillet to portray what happens to the brain while using drugs.

Roselius, who is now 72, recently told Colorado-based Rooster Magazine he voted “yes” on California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act, or Prop 64, which would legalize and regulate the use and sale of the plant to adults. “I’m 100% behind legalizing it, are you kidding? It’s healthier than alcohol,” Roselius told the publication.

And he’s not alone. Just ahead of the Nov. 8 election — in which five states will vote on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana and four will vote on legalizing medical marijuana—a Gallup poll shows that 60% of Americans support legal marijuana use. That’s the highest percentage of support recorded in the 47-year trend, with support rising among all age groups in the past decade.

That follows a separate poll by Pew Research earlier in the month which found 57% of Americans support legalization. “The topline number obviously bodes well for the marijuana measures on state ballots next month,” said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, an organization tasked with educating people and fighting for marijuana legalization. “More politicians — presidential candidates included — would do themselves a big favor to take note of the clear trend and then vocally support legislation catering to the growing majority of Americans who support modernizing failed marijuana policies.”

Roselius told Rooster Magazine he’d smoked marijuana in the ’60s, and that when he made the ad, he knew it didn’t fry the brain like an egg.

The war on drugs has been one of the most scrutinized and debated policies to come out of the Reagan era. Drug dealers were cast as violent villains and were blamed for devastating some of America’s cities. Incarceration rates shot higher and disproportionately affected men of color.

The cannabis industry has since fought back against that portrayal, calling for an end to arrests for nonviolent marijuana-related offenses. Roselius’ vote to legalize marijuana in California could help push one of the most important states in the movement to the forefront.

Of course, if you do have question about these matter, my blog Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform has a lot more coverage.  And, with that intro and a good excuse now, here is a review of some recent posts there (many of which are the fine work of my relatively new co-blogger):

October 26, 2016 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Latest USSC data suggest prison savings now exceeding $2 billion from "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactivity

The US Sentencing Commission's website has this new data document titled simply "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This report, dated October 2016, 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 September 30, 2016, and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 20, 2016."

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, retroactive, now 29,391 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of over two years. So, using my typical (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers around $2.1 billion dollars.

As I have said before and will say again in this context, kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing evidence that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and taxpayer costs of the federal government. Perhaps more importantly, especially as federal statutory sentencing reforms remained stalled in Congress and as Prez Obama continues to be relatively cautious in his use of his clemency power, this data provide still more evidence that the work of the US Sentencing Commission in particular, and of the federal judiciary in general, remains the most continuously important and consequential force influencing federal prison populations and sentencing outcomes.

October 25, 2016 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (27)