Thursday, September 18, 2014
"The War on Drugs and Prison Growth: Limited Importance, Limited Legislative Options"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Pfaff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Many commentators argue that the War on Drugs has played a major role in the four-decade long explosion in US incarceration rates, but in this paper I demonstrate that these claims do not generally rest on sound empirical footing. The direct incarceration of drug offenders explains only about 20% of prison growth (compared to over 50% for violent offenders), and drug convictions do not appear to drive parole revocations nor act as prior felonies that trigger harsh repeat offender laws for subsequent non-drug offending. Furthermore, drug offenders also appear to comprise only about 20% of those flowing through prison, which could be a more accurate measure of the War on Drugs' impact, since drug offenders generally serve disproportionately short sentences and thus may be under-represented in the one-day prison counts that are standard metric of prison's scope.
That said, the War on Drugs could still matter, but in more indirect -- and much harder to measure -- ways. Drug enforcement could contribute to overall social instability in high-crime, high-enforcement communities, or at least to the perception of instability, in ways that may trigger more enforcement by police and prosecutors, even if crime rates are relatively low and falling. Furthermore, while prior drug offenses do not appear to trigger formal recidivist statutes, they may alter prosecutorial charging decisions for later non-drug offenses, but prosecutorial charging behavior is currently impossible to measure with existing data.
Finally, even though the War on Drugs has played only a secondary role in prison growth, there are over 200,000 people in state prison every day on drug charges, and states appear eager to reduce the scope of drug-related incarcerations. So I conclude by considering some of the options available to states. I point out that the leading contenders -- decriminalization and sentence reduction -- will likely have little effect, since few offenders are in prison on marijuana charges (the only drug for which decriminalization is currently feasible), and all drug offenders serve relatively short sentences, well below the statutory maximums. I then consider broader options, such as proposals that target the financial incentives prosecutors have to send offenders, including drug offenders, to prison. I also touch on the implications of adopting broader definitions of "drug offenders," such as those who commit violent or property crimes either to support drug habits or in the course of selling drugs.
Tuesday, September 09, 2014
Group of world leaders call for end to criminal drug war and urges experiment with legalization
As detailed in this AP report, a prominent group of prominent international leaders "urged a global overhaul of drug policies on Tuesday, calling for some drugs such as marijuana to be regulated, an end to incarceration for drug use and possession, and greater emphasis on protecting public health." Here are the details:
The Global Commission on Drug Policy said traditional measures in the "war on drugs" such as eradicating acres of illicit crops, seizing large quantities of illegal drugs, and arresting and jailing violators of drug laws have failed. The commission's 45-page report pointed to rising drug production and use, citing the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime's estimate that the number of users rose from 203 million in 2008 to 243 million in 2012.
The commission includes former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan; the former presidents of Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland; British tycoon Richard Branson and former U.S. Federal Reserve chief Paul Volcker. It was established in 2010 with a stated purpose of promoting "science-based discussion about humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs to people and societies."
The commission's first report in 2011 condemned the drug war as a failure and recommended major reforms of the global drug prohibition regime. This report goes further, encouraging experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs "beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances."
It called for "equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain," noting that more than 80 percent of the world's population has little or no access to such medications. It also called for an end to criminalizing people for drug use and possession, a halt to "compulsory treatment" for such people, and alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low-level participants such as farmers, couriers and others involved in producing, transporting and selling illegal drugs.
"The facts speak for themselves," said Annan, who is also the convener of the West Africa Commission on Drugs. "It is time to change course." He said drug policies must be based on what works, not on policies that criminalize drug use while failing to provide access to effective prevention or treatment. "This has led not only to overcrowded jails but also to severe health and social problems," Annan said in a statement.
Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said the ultimate goal must be reform to permit legal regulation. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue — rather than a crime — and by reducing drug demand through proven education initiatives," he said. "But let's also allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking."
The full report from this Global Commission can be accessed at this link.
Sunday, September 07, 2014
Editorial laments how some part of Ohio are "addicted to prisons"
The Toledo Blade has this lengthy new editorial headlined "Addicted to Prisons" that discusses lots of interesting facets of Ohio's criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:
Stark differences in judges, as well as access to local treatment programs, have created appalling disparities in how justice is handed out to addicts and nonviolent drug offenders in Ohio. Two cases involving heroin addicts, portrayed today in a front-page column by The Blade’s deputy editorial page editor, Jeff Gerritt, show what Ohio is doing right and what it continues to do wrong.
In Hardin County, Kaylee Morrison, 28, was just sentenced to four years in prison, where she will cost taxpayers $100,000 while failing to get the help she needs to manage her addiction. In neighboring Marion County, Clayton Wood, 29, was sentenced to drug court, where he gets treated in his community while working full time and paying taxes.
Ohio’s heroin and opioid epidemic has rocked the state’s criminal justice system, flooding its crowded prisons and burdened courts with addicts and minor drug offenders who would be more effectively — and inexpensively — treated in their communities. Of the more than 20,000 people entering Ohio’s prisons each year, the share of inmates admitted for opioid- and heroin-related crimes has increased more than 400 percent in the past 13 years.
Moving Ohio to a more cost-effective, rational, and humane criminal justice system will take, among other things, more drug courts, sentencing and code reforms, and a significant shift of resources from state prisons to community-based treatment programs....
Statistical profiles of the state’s incoming inmates underscore the need for change. They show many low-level offenders with short sentences that community-based sanctions could handle more effectively at a fraction of the $25,000 a year it costs to imprison them.
More than 5,000 people a year go to prison in Ohio for drug crimes, mostly low-level offenses. Almost the same number of incoming prisoners — most of them addicts — have never been arrested for, or convicted of, a violent offense. Moreover, nearly 45 percent of those who go to prison each year in Ohio — almost 9,000 people — serve less than a year. That’s not enough time for them to get involved in meaningful programs that would reduce their chances of returning to prison.
Incarcerating minor drug offenders is costing Ohio tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. Ohio taxpayers get little return on that investment, as untreated addicts return to their communities unequipped to cope with their disease.
Adult felony drug courts, which combine treatment with more-frequent but shorter sanctions, offer an excellent alternative. Residents of every Ohio county should have access to one. Still, such specialized dockets, with assigned probation officers, exist in fewer than a third of Ohio’s 88 counties....
With or without drug courts, judges need sufficient resources in their communities to treat drug addiction and serve as cost-effective alternatives to incarceration. Such programs give judges more sentencing options.
Nearly 10,000 offenders leave Ohio’s prisons each year with an intense history of addiction. As part of its re-entry efforts, DRC must ensure they are linked to treatment programs immediately after they’re released, including support groups and medication-assisted treatment.
Finally, the administration of Gov. John Kasich and the Ohio Supreme Court, through symposiums and other outreach effects, should educate all Ohio judges on how addiction works. Likewise, the General Assembly must make sure that Ohio’s legal code doesn’t mandate inappropriate or ineffective penalties and sanctions for offenses that are rooted in addiction.
The growing number of addicts and low-level drug offenders in Ohio’s costly and crowded prisons is a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its opioid and heroin epidemic. Changing course will require a far greater understanding of addiction among those who make and execute Ohio’s laws and criminal code, and a seismic shift in resources and investments from the state’s prisons to its struggling communities.
The article referenced in the first paragraph of this editorial is headlined "Criminalizing addiction: Whether drug users go to prison depends on where they live," and it is available at this link.
Wednesday, September 03, 2014
"Life sentence for buying marijuana?"
The question and title of this post comes from the headline of this new CNN commentary by Vanita Gupta, who is deputy legal director at the ACLU. An editorial note at the start of this piece provides this background: "CNN's David Mattingly reports on the case of a Missouri man sentenced to life in prison for purchasing marijuana Wednesday at 7 p.m. on Erin Burnett OutFront." And this companion piece, headlined "The price of pot," provides this additional preview:
Penalties for the personal use of marijuana vary across the country, the most severe standing in stark contrast as more states legalize medical and even recreational use. Possession of an ounce of pot in Colorado is penalty-free, but if you’re in Kansas, that same ounce could land you a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
This week on "Erin Burnett OutFront," CNN's David Mattingly investigates two marijuana cases involving stiff penalties, including one man spending life in prison on pot charges. "OutFront" asks: Does the punishment fit the crime? Watch the two-part "OutFront" investigation Wednesday and Thursday, September 3-4 at 7 p.m. ET.
And now here are now excerpts from the commentary by Vanita Gupta:
Clearly something is broken when a Missouri man named Jeff Mizanskey can be sentenced to die in prison for purchasing seven pounds of marijuana. With two nonviolent marijuana convictions already on his record, Jeff received life without parole under Missouri's three strikes law.
The punishment of growing old and dying behind bars for offenses like Mizanskey's is extreme, tragic, and inhumane. This should outrage us, but it should not surprise us. This country has spent 40 years relentlessly ratcheting up the number of people going to prison and dramatically expanding the time we hold them there. We've spent decades criminalizing people with drug dependency, passing extreme sentencing laws, and waging a war on drugs that has not diminished drug use. Small wonder, then, that even less serious crimes like Mizanskey's marijuana purchase result in costly and cruel sentences....
While many of the lawmakers who passed harsh sentencing laws thought they were doing the right thing, the results are now in: This approach has devastated families and communities, generated high recidivism rates, drained state budgets from more productive investments, and has reinforced generations of poverty and disadvantage that disproportionately fall on communities of color. There were ways to hold Mizanskey and others like him accountable for their actions short of sentencing them to die in prison.
We can and must do better. It's time for states to end the costly criminalization of marijuana and recalibrate sentencing laws so that the punishment actually fits the crime as opposed to a politician's reelection agenda. Public attitudes toward marijuana are rapidly evolving, and a Gallup poll last year found for the first time that a majority of Americans now favor legalization as a better course than criminalization.
Unfortunately, laws and police practices that enforce them are out of step with public opinion. Nationally, nearly half of all drug arrests are for marijuana offenses. At least one person is arrested for marijuana possession every hour in Mizanskey's home state of Missouri, which also wasted nearly $50 million on marijuana enforcement in 2010. Although black people and white people use marijuana at about the same rate, a black person in Missouri was 2.6 times more likely to be arrested for having marijuana than a white person.
The solution is clear. Instead of taxpayers spending millions of dollars on this unnecessary enforcement and keeping folks like Mizanskey in prison for the rest of their lives, states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.
But even if states are not ready to expand their tax base in this manner, state lawmakers need to take a good, hard look at their sentencing laws and eliminate penalties that far outweigh the crimes they seek to punish. It is tempting to think that Mizanskey's case is an anomaly, but that is not the case.
According to a report released by the American Civil Liberties Union last year, there are currently 3,278 people serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent crimes, including marijuana offenses. Many of them, like Mizanskey, are there because of three-strikes laws and mandatory sentencing regimes. These policies force judges to impose excessively cruel sentences and forbid corrections officials from granting early release or parole, even despite exemplary records in prison.
The good news is that there is a growing bipartisan consensus all over the country that our criminal justice system has gone too far and that we can and must safely downsize our prison population. Missouri recently reformed the three strikes law that sentenced Jeff to prison for life. If he were sentenced today, he could have received a significantly shorter sentence and be eligible for parole.
As states like Missouri make these kinds of reforms, we must not forget the people who languish behind bars because of old sentencing laws now thought to be excessive. Smart reforms that correct past injustice should be made retroactive, and governors must use their clemency powers more frequently. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon should grant clemency to Jeff Mizanskey. Public safety is not served by having him die in prison.
September 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Tuesday, September 02, 2014
Another drug sentencing sign of these political times in Massachusetts
This local article from Massachusetts, headlined "Candidates back reform of drug sentencing guidelines," provides more evidence that political candidates these days appear much more likely to support repeal or reform of severe drug sentencing laws rather than support increasing sentences for drug offenses. Here are the details:
Candidates for major offices this year in Massachusetts are backing the repeal or reform of mandatory minimum criminal sentences for drug offenses, according to a report released Tuesday.
Families Against Mandatory Minimums found 92 percent of the 24 candidates who responded to its survey favored repeal or reform of mandatory minimum drug sentences, with 75 percent, including Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker, supporting repeal of such laws. "No candidate was in favor of longer mandatory minimum sentences or additional mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses," the group wrote in its report, released just over a week before the Sept. 9 primary elections.
In part as a pledge to Gov. Deval Patrick, legislative leaders vowed in 2012 to revisit criminal sentencing reform ideas in the 2013-2014 session but never got behind legislation to fulfill that promise.
In her questionnaire, attorney general candidate Maura Healey backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, reforming bail to ensure that indigent defendants are not in jail for lack of ability to pay, and expanding the use of drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans treatment courts.
Attorney general candidate Warren Tolman referred the group to his "Smart on Crime" plan and wrote, "I not only support repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, I will lead the fight to repeal them!"
Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe bucked the trend, saying he would support reforms to minimum mandatory sentences but not an outright repeal, and disputed FAMM's contention that low level drug offenders are ensnared by laws intended to punish criminals higher up the food chain. "Your contention that 'non-violent/low level drug offenders are receiving the same lengthy sentences intended for kingpins' is not true yet is repeated over and over again. Please supply me the name of one case. Just one. Thank you," O'Keefe wrote, noting his involvement with a 2012 sentencing reform law....
In her response, Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor, said she supports "increased flexibility" for sentencing non-violent offenders. "I support mandatory minimum sentences for the most dangerous criminals, like murderers and those who prey on children, but I support increased sentencing flexibility for individuals convicted of non-violent crimes," Coakley wrote.
"I support eliminating or curtailing inflexible and often counterproductive mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses to provide judges with wider discretion in sentencing," Treasurer Steven Grossman, who is facing Coakley in the primary, wrote.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Don Berwick and Baker both supported repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Baker's primary opponent, Mark Fisher, did not respond to the survey. The three independents running for governor, Jeff McCormick, Evan Falchuk and Scott Lively, all supported repealing mandatory minimums for drug offenders, while McCormick said he would "stand behind tougher sentencing for more violent crimes or those involving 'king pins'."
"These results confirm that drug sentencing reform is now a mainstream issue," said Barbara Dougan, director of FAMM's Massachusetts project, in a statement. "Political candidates in Massachusetts are clearly eager to take a second look at our state's sentencing policies, just as federal and state legislators across the U.S. are doing."...
The 2012 reform law lowered mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and also established a sentencing requirement that habitual offenders of certain violent crimes receive the maximum penalty. The Legislature has not returned to sentencing reform. Asked about that in July, Senate President Therese Murray said she was following the will of the members.
Monday, September 01, 2014
Gendered perspective on Ohio's challenges with opioids and prison growth
As reported in this recent Toledo Blade editorial, headlined "Women in prison: A big increase in female inmates should prompt changes in how Ohio’s courts deal with addiction," Ohio has struggled of late with an increase in its prison population. And this reality has prompted at least one prominent paper to urge reforms focused on a particular demographic:
A stunning rise in the number of women entering Ohio prisons should encourage elected officials to seek better ways of managing the state’s $1.5-billion-a-year prison system.
Driven largely by a growing number of drug-addicted offenders from rural counties, Ohio prisons now hold nearly 4,200 women. From 2012 to 2013, the number of women coming to state prisons increased by 11 percent, from 2,580 to 2,854, said JoEllen Smith, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
Ohio’s opioid and heroin epidemic is largely to blame for the increase, as more low-level female drug offenders are sent to prison. “That population is very much nonviolent and drug-addicted, often with male co-defendants leading the case,” state prisons Director Gary Mohr said recently.
At the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, which holds more than 2,600 prisoners, the top three offenses for women entering the prison are drug possession, theft, and trafficking, said public information officer Elizabeth Wright. Moreover, the statewide share of women prisoners coming from rural counties — those with fewer than 100,000 residents — has nearly doubled in the past decade. Altogether, Ohio’s 28 prisons hold more than 50,000 inmates....
Mr. Mohr has prudently called for diverting more low-level drug offenders from prison to community-based treatment programs. To do that, Ohio will need more adult drug courts. Most counties, including Lucas County, still don’t have a drug court. The state also needs more community programs to serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.
Ohio’s prosecutors and judges also must get better educated on addiction. Too many of them still don’t understand that chemical addiction is a compulsive disease, not a moral choice. “A big part of the problem is that a number of people, including judges and prosecutors, see addiction as a state in which people have more control than they actually have,” Orman Hall, the director of Gov. John Kasich’s Opiate Action Team, told The Blade’s editorial page. “Opioid and heroin addiction is a compulsive disorder. In the early stages, people have very little ability not to relapse.”
Finally, prisons must expand the amount of effective drug treatment they provide, even as Ohio courts continue to send them people who would be better served in community programs. The growing number of women entering prison in Ohio is more than a demographic shift. It’s a grim reminder that the state’s criminal justice system is failing to deal effectively, and humanely, with its heroin and opioid epidemic.
September 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, August 28, 2014
How should governments approach a product that research suggests reduces overdose deaths, domestic violence and Alzheimer's?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this week's research news indicating, as reported in recent posts here and here, that reform of marijuana prohibition and/or marijuana use might alleviate some of biggest social ills and public health concerns in the United States.
In a prior post, I noted that I have been trying to avoid claiming that marijuana reform likely can and will improve many social ills and that marijuana is some kind of magical wonder drug. But upon seeing this notable new FoxNews piece, headlined "Marijuana compound may slow, halt progression of Alzheimer's," it is now that much harder for me to resist suggesting that marijuana reform could very well end up being a real boon for public health.
Perhaps even more importantly, as the question in the title of this post highlights, I think it is now becoming especially difficult for government officials and bureaucrats to keep saying seriously and aggressively that even considering the reform of marijuana prohibition is obviously dangerous and is sure to result in profound public health problems. I certainly understand and appreciate and respect concerns of anti-drug advocates who, I believe in good-faith, fear the potential consequences of wide-spread repeal of marijuana prohibition. But, especially in light of the growing research suggesting marijuana reform may do a whole lot more good than harm, I hope prohibitionist might become a bit more open-minded about array of positives that might come from smart, good-government, liberty-enhancing reforms in this arena.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014
Drug addiction specialist laments that "our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts"
I just saw this notable recent Washington Post commentary by David Sack, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist, headlined "We can’t afford to ignore drug addiction in prison." The piece merits a full read and here are excerpts:
As the addiction epidemic rages and prisons overflow, our nation seems to be backing away at last from the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” mindset that has characterized the failed war on drugs.... Sure, this is inspired largely by the need to relieve the pressure on our prison system, which is straining to cope with a population that has more than quadrupled since 1980. But it’s also recognition that we can't incarcerate ourselves out of our drug problems.
As someone who helps people with addictions, I consider this good news. But I'd be more encouraged if we also focused on improving conditions in prison. In the long run, this will have more power to reduce our inmate population. As it is, our prison system does little more than teach addicts how to be better addicts.
Inmates are likely to find a drug trade as active as the one outside prison walls.... Of the more than 2.3 million people in American prisons and jails, more than 65 percent meet medical criteria for substance abuse addiction. When you combine this with those who have histories of substance abuse, were under the influence when they committed a crime, committed it to get drug money, or were incarcerated for a drug or alcohol violation, the percentage rises to 85 percent. In other words, if an inmate is looking for encouragement to “Just say no,” odds are he won't find it from his bunkmates.
But most disturbing is the fact that inmates who do hope to kick an addiction can’t count on getting the help they need. The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University found that only 11 percent of inmates with substance use disorders received treatment at federal and state prisons or local jails. The best that most can hope for is occasional mutual support or peer counseling meetings. No wonder that more than half of inmates with addiction histories relapse within a month of release.
So what is needed? Inmate evaluations to spot addictions and underlying issues that may be fueling them.... Consistent treatment by a trained staff that includes addiction medicine specialists who understand how to use evidence-based treatments, including medication-assisted therapy. Long-term treatment programs that follow the inmate into his community and continue to support him after his release.
It’s a substantial investment, and your first thought may be, “We can't afford to do that.” But the reality is we can’t afford not to do it. As it stands now, only 1.9 cents of every dollar our federal and state governments spend on substance use and addiction go to pay for prevention and treatment; 95.6 percent pay for the consequences. That means we are shelling out billions of dollars to clean up the mess of addiction rather than doing what we know pays off -- helping people overcome it.
A 2010 CASA study, for example, determined that if we gave quality addiction treatment and aftercare to every inmate who needed it, we'd break even on the investment in only a year if just more than 10 percent were successful in staying employed, out of trouble and drug free. In dollar terms, that translates to an economic benefit for the nation of more than $90,000 annually per former inmate. Studies confirm that addicts pressured to undergo treatment by the legal system fare as well or better than those who seek treatment voluntarily....
While it’s tempting to think punishment is the answer [to drug crimes and addiction], prison alone doesn’t teach addicts how to change their thinking and behavior, doesn’t help repair damaged neural pathways and doesn't take away drug cravings or offer strategies to prevent relapse. In most cases, prison just buys a little time before the addict relapses and re-offends, perpetuating the cycle and hurting himself along with the rest of us.
Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Two positive reports on positive public health results from marijuana reform and use
My Google news feed with marijuana headlines was topped this morning with these two notable reports about research suggesting both legal reform and usage can have positive public health consequences:
From Newsweek here, "In States With Medical Marijuana, Painkiller Deaths Drop by 25%"
From Huffington Post here, "Marijuana Use Lowers Risk Of Domestic Violence In Married Couples, Study Finds"
I am strongly trying to resist the impulse to claim that marijuana reform can and will improve many social ills and that marijuana is some kind of magical wonder drug. Nevertheless, it is hard not to get excited about the results of the research reported above. Of particular note, the study concerning opiate overdoses, which is available in full here and is titled "Medical Cannabis Laws and Opioid Analgesic Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1999-2010," is published in the highly-respected JAMA Internal Medicine journal.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
After Ferguson, can and should marijuana legalization and drug war reform become a unifying civil rights movement?
The question in the title of this post is prompted in part by my own uncertainty concerning the fitting public policy responses to the events in Feguson this month and in part by this potent and provocative new Huffington Post piece by Jelani Hayes headlined "Ending Marijuana Prohibition Must Take a Historical Perspective." Here are excerpts from the commentary (with links from the original):
Underlying marijuana prohibition is a familiar philosophy: to preserve social order and white supremacy and secure profits for an influential few, it is permissible, even advisable, to construct profit-bearing institutions of social control. Historically, this philosophy has been advanced by governmental action, guided by special interests. The traditional tactics: manufacturing mass fear, criminalizing the target or demoting them to a sub-citizen status, and profiting from their subjugation.
Cannabis prohibition did all three. The [New York] Times editorial board dedicated an entire article to explaining this phenomenon. Part 3 of the series begins, "The federal law that makes possession of marijuana a crime has its origins in legislation that was passed in an atmosphere of hysteria in the 1930s and that was firmly rooted in prejudices against Mexican immigrants and African-Americans, who were associated with marijuana use at the time. This racially freighted history lives on in current federal policy, which is so driven by myth and propaganda that it is almost impervious to reason."...
Additionally, business interests play a part in keeping cannabis illegal. Some pharmaceutical companies, drug-prevention nonprofits, law enforcement agencies, and the private prison industry have an economic interest in criminalization, what is known as the drug control industrial complex. It pays big to help fight the war on drugs, and marijuana prohibition is a crucial facet of that effort. The Nation has recently called these interests "The Real Reason Pot is Still Illegal."
The United States should legalize marijuana. It should also end the drug war, which would be a tremendous and beautiful accomplishment, but it would not be enough.
The war on drugs is a mechanism of social control — not unlike African slavery, Jim Crow, alcohol Prohibition, or the systematic relegation of immigrants to an illegal status or substandard existence. Different in their nature and severity, all of these institutions were tools used to control and profit from the criminalization, regulation, and dehumanization of minority communities. Legalizing marijuana will not alone rid society of the tendency to turn fear into hatred, hatred into regulation, and regulation into profit. To address this cycle, we must put cannabis prohibition (and the drug war) in its historical context and connect the dots where appropriate.
Already we have seen that the reality of legalization does not alone ensure justice or equality. As law professor and best selling author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness Michelle Alexander points out, thousands of black men remain in jail or prison in Colorado (where licit weed has been on the market since January) while white men make money from the now legal marijuana market -- selling the drug just as the incarcerated men had done. She warns that legalization without reparation is not sufficient, drawing the parallel to what happened to black Americans post-Reconstruction. "And after a brief period of reconstruction a new caste system was imposed — Jim Crow — and another extraordinary movement arose and brought the old Jim Crow to its knees...Americans said, OK, we'll stop now. We'll take down the whites-only signs, we'll stop doing that," she said. "But there were not reparations for slavery, not for Jim Crow, and scarcely an acknowledgement of the harm done except for Martin Luther King Day, one day out of the year. And I feel like, here we go again."
Alexander's historical perspective is warranted because despite the size and intensity of marijuana prohibition, of the drug war in its entirety, its purpose is not unlike that of Jim Crow or other structural forms of social control and oppression. The drug war was never about drugs. Therefore, our solution to it can't be either.
We must frame the campaigns for cannabis legalization across the states as civil rights movements — as institutional reform efforts — so that the public might demand justice oriented outcomes from the campaigns....
In order to undue the damage — to the extent that that is possible — that the criminalization of marijuana specifically and the war on drugs more broadly have caused, we must pay reparations and retroactively apply reformed drug laws. More importantly, we must undermine the philosophies that allow for the construction of institutional harm, and we must be able to identity them when they creep up again and be ready to take action against them, to arm our minds and our bodies against the next wave of social oppression — whatever and wherever it may be and to whomever it may be applied. This is my plea to make history matter so that it doesn't repeat itself — again, and again, and again.
Regular readers likely know that I see marijuana and drug sentencing reform efforts as tied to a broader civil rights movement (and not just for people of color). But, especially in the wake of what has transpired this month in Ferguson, I am getting especially drawn to the idea that appropriate public policy response is to connect criminal justice reform efforts to civil rights messages and history as this HuffPo commentary urges.
A few (of many) recent and older related posts (some from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform):
- Senator Rand Paul blames ugliness of Ferguson on the ugliness of big CJ government
- Is an end to the modern drug war the only real way to prevent future Fergusons?
- "The New Jim Crow? Recovering the Progressive Origins of Mass Incarceration"
- Senator Rand Paul talking up restoring voting and gun rights for felons, as well as sentencing reform
- Do (and should) marijuana reform advocates consider themselves civil rights activists like MLK?
- Is pot already really legal for middle-aged white folks?
- Fittingly for MLK day, Prez Obama laments class and race disparities from pot prohibition
August 21, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Is an end to the modern drug war the only real way to prevent future Fergusons?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this provocative new commentary by John McWhorter in The New Republic. The piece is headlined "There Is Only One Real Way to Prevent Future Fergusons: End the War on Drugs," and here are excerpts:
At times like this, with the raging protest in Ferguson, an implication hangs in the air that these events are leading somewhere, that things are about change. The saddest thing, however, is that this is, indeed, a “time like this” — one of many, before and certainly to come. It is impossible not to conclude that what happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson is now status quo, not a teaching lesson to move us forward....
We don’t know the details yet, but it’s apparent that, in spite of all we went through with [Trayvon] Martin so recently, in a clinch — the mean, messy place where these things always happen — the Ferguson cop Darren Wilson assumed that a big black guy was trouble, serious trouble, and shot him dead. It’s what happens in that clinch that matters, and we can now see that no amount of articulate protest can cut through such visceral human tendencies as bias and fear....
So, what will really make a difference? Really, only a continued pullback on the War on Drugs. Much of what creates the poisonous, vicious-cycle relationship between young black men and the police is that the War on Drugs brings cops into black neighborhoods to patrol for drug possession and sale. Without that policy — which would include that no one could make a living selling drugs — the entire structure supporting the notion of young black men as criminals would fall apart. White men with guns would encounter young black men much less often, and meanwhile society would offer young black men less opportunity to drift into embodying the stereotype in the first place.
But that’s the long game. In the here and now, we are stuck. Michael Brown was not “it.” The journalists assiduously documenting the events in Ferguson can serve as historians, but not as agents of change.
Recent related post:
Saturday, August 09, 2014
Early data from Colorado suggest teenage use of marijuana is down since legalization
I have tended to assume that teenage use of marijuana would likely increase in the wake of legalization in Colorado, but the early data suggest a reduction in teenager use of marijuana since the stuff became legal for adults. This recent news report, headlined "Pot Use Among Colorado Teens Appears to Drop After Legalization," provides these details:
Marijuana use among Colorado high school students appears to be declining, despite the state’s pioneering voter-approved experiment with legalization. According to preliminary data from the state’s biennial Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, in 2013 - the first full year the drug was legal for adults 21 and older - 20 percent of high school students admitted using pot in the preceding month and 37 percent said they had at some point in their lives.
The survey’s 2011 edition found 22 percent of high school students used the drug in the past month and 39 percent had ever sampled it. It’s unclear if the year-to-year decline represents a statistically significant change, but data from 2009 suggests a multiyear downward trend. That year 25 percent of high school kids said they used pot in the past month and 45 percent said they had ever done so.
The data released Thursday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also appears to show post-legalization pot use among Colorado teens was lower than the national average....
Supporters of marijuana legalization argue underage use will shrink as states impose strict age limits. Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, fear that declining perceptions of harm associated with the drug will lead to an uptick in teen use. According to the data released Thursday, students surveyed do have a lowered perception of harm - 54 percent perceived a moderate or great risk in using the drug, down from 58 percent in 2011 - but use did not increase.
“Once again, claims that regulating marijuana would leave Colorado in ruins have proven to be unfounded,” Marijuana Policy Project Communication Director Mason Tvert said in a statement. “How many times do marijuana prohibition supporters need to be proven wrong before they stop declaring our marijuana laws are increasing teen use?”
Tvert, co-director of Colorado’s successful Amendment 64 legalization campaign, said “the drop in teen use reflects the fact that state and local authorities have far more control over marijuana than ever before.” He argues “our goal should not be increasing teens’ perception of risk surrounding marijuana. It should be increasing teens’ knowledge of the actual relative harms of marijuana, alcohol, and other substances so that they can make smart decisions."
Foes of legalization haven't thrown in the towel. "No statistician would interpret that as being a decline," Kevin Sabet, co-founder of the anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, says of the 2 percentage point year-to-year drop. Sabet says it will be important to review county-level data when full survey results are released later this year and points out that state-licensed stores were not open in 2013.
Sunday, August 03, 2014
Significant AG Holder comments asserting severe rigid sentences are not needed to induce cooperation
Attorney General Eric Holder's significant speech at the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' Annual Meeting made headlines mostly due to his expression of concern about the use of risk assessment instruments in initial sentencing determinations (as previously discussed here). I will discuss AG Holder's nuanced comments on this front in some future posts.
Before discussing the use of risk assessment instruments in initial sentencing determinations, I first want to recommend that everyone read all of AG Holder's NACDL speech, which is available here, because it includes a number of notable passages addressing a number of notable sentencing topics. Of particular note, these paragraphs seek to debunk the oft-heard statements that reform of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions could prevent prosecutors from securing needed cooperation from defendants:
[T]he Smart on Crime initiative has led us to revise the Justice Department’s charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal, drug-related crimes — so that sentences will be determined based on the facts, the law, and the conduct at issue in each individual case. This means that the toughest penalties will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. Over the last few months — with the Department’s urging — the U.S. Sentencing Commission has taken additional steps to codify this approach, amending federal sentencing guidelines for low-level drug trafficking crimes to reduce the average sentence by nearly 18 percent. Going forward, these new guidelines will impact almost 70 percent of people who are convicted of these offenses. And last month, the Commission voted to allow judges to apply these revised guidelines retroactively in cases where reductions are warranted.
Now, some have suggested that these modest changes might somehow undermine the ability of law enforcement and prosecutors to induce cooperation from defendants in federal drug cases. But the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.
Like anyone who served as a prosecutor in the days before sentencing guidelines existed and mandatory minimums took effect, I know from experience that defendant cooperation depends on the certainty of swift and fair punishment, not on the disproportionate length of a mandatory minimum sentence. As veteran prosecutors and defense attorneys surely recall — and as our U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, John Vaudreuil, has often reminded his colleagues — sentencing guidelines essentially systematized the kinds of negotiations that routinely took place in cases where defendants cooperated with the government in exchange for reduced sentences. With or without the threat of a mandatory minimum, it remains in the interest of these defendants to cooperate. It remains in the mutual interest of defense attorneys and prosecutors to engage in these discussions. And any suggestion that defendant cooperation is somehow dependent on mandatory minimums is plainly inconsistent with the facts and with history.
Far from impeding the work of federal prosecutors, these sentencing reforms that I have mandated represent the ultimate expression of confidence in their judgment and discretion. That’s why I’ve called on Congress to expand upon and further institutionalize the changes we’ve put in place — so we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and reducing our overreliance on incarceration.
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
Indiana reforms highlight how sentencing laws impact cops as well as courts
This interesting local article from Indiana, headlined "Meth Suppression Unit Encounters Positive, Negative Aspects to Massive Sentencing Overhaul," spotlights some of the ways sentencing reform impacts law enforcement operations and priorities. Here are excerpts:
Indiana's criminal sentencing reform took effect nearly a month ago and police detectives and prosecutors are still trying to take it all in. The overhaul brought sweeping changes for law enforcement officers, especially the Evansville Police Department's Meth Suppression Unit.
During the 2013 session, the General Assembly passed House Enrolled Act 1006 which re-wrote the felony portion of the state's criminal code. The new law expands upon the state's four levels of felonies (Class A-D) and creates six levels of felonies (Level 1-6). The reform was intended to ease prison crowding and give judges more discretion to let low-level offenders serve their time in community correctional programs.
For example, what was once a Class A felony became a Level 1 or Level 2 felony, depending on severity. As part of the reform, offenders would have to serve 75% of their sentences instead of the current 50%. While the reform strengthens the sentences for sex crimes and violent crimes, it lessens the sentences for drug crimes. While it has some positive and negative aspects, the jury is still out on the reform, said Evansville Police Detective Patrick McDonald.
"For me, I've been on the street now for 10 years," Det. McDonald said. "There hasn't been a major overhaul of the criminal code like this. Under the old system, manufacturing [meth] was manufacturing [meth]. It was never able to be enhanced by weight so now we have to look at how we process meth labs and try to get a weight out of that."...
The criminal sentencing overhaul eliminated some enhancement charges the Meth Suppression Unit frequently used, McDonald said. McDonald detailed one such example in which a man previously convicted of meth was allegedly caught trying to buy pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth production. Because that man had already been convicted of a meth-related offense, prosecutors added the enhancement charge which bumped up his sentence by eight years.
Some other enhancement charges have been clarified and more clearly defined, McDonald said. He cited the enhancement charge of dealing drugs within 1000 feet of a park or school. Under the new sentencing guidelines, detectives no longer have to prove children were present; the enhancement charge is applicable when it can be 'reasonably expected' that children are present.
The reform also brought drastic changes to what level felony shall apply to how much narcotics detectives discovered. "What used to be dealing over three grams [the General Assembly] raised that up to be 28 grams," McDonald said. "Three grams is a fairly significant amount, about $300 to $350 worth of meth or cocaine. What we historically considered a 'dealer weight' has been pushed down to minimal prison time."
Monday, July 28, 2014
"The Injustice of Marijuana Arrests"
The title of this post is the headline of this latest editorial in the New York Times series explaining its editorial judgment that marijuana prohibition should be ended (first noted here). This lengthy editorial is authored by Jesse Wegman, and here are excerpts:
America’s four-decade war on drugs is responsible for many casualties, but the criminalization of marijuana has been perhaps the most destructive part of that war. The toll can be measured in dollars — billions of which are thrown away each year in the aggressive enforcement of pointless laws. It can be measured in years — whether wasted behind bars or stolen from a child who grows up fatherless. And it can be measured in lives — those damaged if not destroyed by the shockingly harsh consequences that can follow even the most minor offenses.
In October 2010, Bernard Noble, a 45-year-old trucker and father of seven with two previous nonviolent offenses, was stopped on a New Orleans street with a small amount of marijuana in his pocket. His sentence: more than 13 years. At least he will be released. Jeff Mizanskey, a Missouri man, was arrested in December 1993, for participating (unknowingly, he said) in the purchase of a five-pound brick of marijuana. Because he had two prior nonviolent marijuana convictions, he was sentenced to life without parole.
Outrageously long sentences are only part of the story. The hundreds of thousands of people who are arrested each year but do not go to jail also suffer; their arrests stay on their records for years, crippling their prospects for jobs, loans, housing and benefits. These are disproportionately people of color, with marijuana criminalization hitting black communities the hardest.
Meanwhile, police departments that presumably have far more important things to do waste an enormous amount of time and taxpayer money chasing a drug that two states have already legalized and that a majority of Americans believe should be legal everywhere....
Nationwide, ... [f]rom 2001 to 2010, the police made more than 8.2 million marijuana arrests; almost nine in 10 were for possession alone. In 2011, there were more arrests for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes put together.
The costs of this national obsession, in both money and time, are astonishing. Each year, enforcing laws on possession costs more than $3.6 billion, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. It can take a police officer many hours to arrest and book a suspect. That person will often spend a night or more in the local jail, and be in court multiple times to resolve the case. The public-safety payoff for all this effort is meager at best: According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report that tracked 30,000 New Yorkers with no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession, 90 percent had no subsequent felony convictions. Only 3.1 percent committed a violent offense.
The strategy is also largely futile. After three decades, criminalization has not affected general usage; about 30 million Americans use marijuana every year. Meanwhile, police forces across the country are strapped for cash, and the more resources they devote to enforcing marijuana laws, the less they have to go after serious, violent crime. According to F.B.I. data, more than half of all violent crimes nationwide, and four in five property crimes, went unsolved in 2012.
The sheer volume of law enforcement resources devoted to marijuana is bad enough. What makes the situation far worse is racial disparity. Whites and blacks use marijuana at roughly the same rates; on average, however, blacks are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession, according to a comprehensive 2013 report by the A.C.L.U.
While the number of people behind bars solely for possessing or selling marijuana seems relatively small — 20,000 to 30,000 by the most recent estimates, or roughly 1 percent of America’s 2.4 million inmates — that means nothing to people, like Jeff Mizanskey, who are serving breathtakingly long terms because their records contained minor previous offenses....
Even if a person never goes to prison, the conviction itself is the tip of the iceberg. In a majority of states, marijuana convictions — including those resulting from guilty pleas — can have lifelong consequences for employment, education, immigration status and family life. A misdemeanor conviction can lead to, among many other things, the revocation of a professional license; the suspension of a driver’s license; the inability to get insurance, a mortgage or other bank loans; the denial of access to public housing; and the loss of student financial aid....
As pioneers in legalization, [Colorado and Washington] should set a further example by providing relief to people convicted of crimes that are no longer crimes, including overturning convictions. A recent ruling by a Colorado appeals court overturned two 2011 convictions because of the changed law, and the state’s Legislature has enacted laws in the last two years to give courts more power to seal records of drug convictions and to make it easier for defendants to get jobs and housing after a conviction. These are both important steps into an uncharted future.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
"There’s little evidence that fewer prisoners means more crime"
Of all of the notions that have motivated the decades-long rise of incarceration in the United States, this is probably the most basic: When we put people behind bars, they can't commit crime. The implied corollary: If we let them out, they will.
By this thinking, our streets are safer the more people we lock up and the longer we keep them there. This logic suggests that there would be serious public-safety costs to reducing prison populations, a policy in the news again after the U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted last Friday to retroactively extend new, lighter drug sentencing guidelines to about 46,000 offenders currently serving for federal drug crimes. As the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys warned, opposing the move, "tough sentencing laws . . . led to safer communities, which are now threatened."
Crime trends in a few states that have significantly reduced their prison populations, though, contradict this fear. [A] recent decline in state prison populations in New York and New Jersey, [as noted by] a new report by the Sentencing Project, [has not resulted in a crime surge]....
It's important to note that crime has been falling all over the country over this same time, for reasons that are not entirely understood (and, no, not entirely explained by the rise of incarceration). But the Sentencing Project points out that declining violent crime rates in New York and New Jersey have actually outpaced the national trend, even as these states have reduced their prison populations through changing law enforcement and sentencing policies.
We certainly can't take these three charts and conclude that reducing prison populations reduces crime. But these trends do make it harder to argue the opposite — particularly in the most heavily incarcerated country in the world.
I am not sure which of the many data-driven publications by The Sentencing Project served as the basis for this latest Workblog posting. But I am sure, as evidenced by these posts from the last few weeks, that sentencing fans ought to make a habit of checking out Wonkblog regularly:
UPDATE: I now realize that the recent Sentencing Project publication reference in this post is the basis for the Wonkblog discussion.
Friday, July 18, 2014
USSC votes for full (though slightly delayed) retroactivity of new reduced drug guidelines
I just received this early report via a credible source as to what the US Sentencing Commission did this afternoon on the issue of making its new lower guidelines retroactive:
The Commission just voted unanimously to make the "drugs minus 2" amendment retroactive with a single limitation -- no order reducing a sentence can take effect until Nov. 1, 2015. This is later than the Judicial Conference recommended (they proposed that it effect in May 2015 to give courts and probation time to prepare)....The Commission predicts that more than 46,000 will be eligible to seek a reduction. Part of the reason for the delayed effective date is to make sure each inmate is released with a re-entry plan and the opportunity for transitional steps such as halfway houses or home confinement.
UPDATE: Here is a link to the USSC's official press release about its vote, which starts this way:
The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously today at a public meeting to apply a reduction in the sentencing guideline levels applicable to most federal drug trafficking offenders retroactively, meaning that many offenders currently in prison could be eligible for reduced sentences beginning November 2015.
The Commission voted unanimously in April to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types, which may mean lower sentences for most drug offenders going forward. Today the Commission decided that judges could extend that reduction to offenders currently in prison, but with a requirement that reduced sentences cannot take effect until November 1, 2015. Under the guidelines, no offender would be released unless a judge reviews the case to determine whether a reduced sentence poses a risk to public safety and is otherwise appropriate.
“This amendment received unanimous support from Commissioners because it is a measured approach,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “It reduces prison costs and populations and responds to statutory and guidelines changes since the drug guidelines were initially developed, while safeguarding public safety.”
Congress has until November 1, 2014 to disapprove the amendment to reduce drug guidelines. Should Congress choose to let the guideline reductions stand, courts could then begin considering petitions from prisoners for sentence reductions, but no prisoners could be released pursuant to those reductions before November 1, 2015.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Here is a link to the official statement in response to this vote from AG Eric Holder, which runs this single paragraph:
“The department looks forward to implementing this plan to reduce sentences for certain incarcerated individuals. We have been in ongoing discussions with the Commission during its deliberations on this issue, and conveyed the department's support for this balanced approach. In the interest of fairness, it makes sense to apply changes to the sentencing guidelines retroactively, and the idea of a one-year implementation delay will adequately address public safety concerns by ensuring that judges have adequate time to consider whether an eligible individual is an appropriate candidate for a reduced sentence. At my direction, the Bureau of Prisons will begin notifying federal inmates of the opportunity to apply for a reduction in sentence immediately. This is a milestone in the effort to make more efficient use of our law enforcement resources and to ease the burden on our overcrowded prison system."
Thursday, July 17, 2014
Huge reduced drug guideline retroactivity decision expected from US Sentencing Commission on 7/18
As this official public notice reports, on July 18, 2014 at 1pm EDT, the US Sentencing the Commission will hold a public meeting at which "the Commissioners will vote on whether or not to retroactively apply, in whole or in part, [its recent guideline] amendment reducing the drug quantity table by two levels." At the risk of overstating the importance of this vote, I am inclined to assert that it may be the most practically consequential USSC decision in nearly a decade. The (slightly misleading) headlines of these two media discussions of the coming vote helps to highlight why:
It is likely hard for anyone who has not followed federal sentencing very closely for decades to fully appreciate all the dynamic challenges that this vote presents for the US Sentencing Commission (as well as for the US Department of Justice and for all those who work day-to-day the federal sentencing system). Helpfully, this extended BuzzFeed article by Evan McMorris-Santoro provide a primer on some of the issues swirling around this important USSC vote. The article's headline highlights its themes: "Despite Rhetoric, Obama Administration Pushes To Keep Thousands Of Felons In Jail Under Old Rules: The Justice Department announced major changes to the way federal drug crimes are punished this year. But the rules for existing convicts might be different — and many White House allies are angry."
Some recent related posts on reduced drug guideline retroactivity:
- Big US Sentencing Commission hearing on reduced drug guideline retroactivity
- DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"
- Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"
- US Sentencing Commission releases two significant research reports concerning drug sentencing reform and retroactivity
- Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform
- Two thoughtful criticisms of DOJ's request for only limited retroactivity of proposed lower drug guidelines
July 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Monday, July 14, 2014
Are federal drug sentences for mules now too short?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable and fascinating new article in the New York Times headlined "Second Thoughts on Lighter Sentences for Drug Smugglers." Here are excerpts:
For years, a steady parade of drug smugglers have tried all sorts of ways to ferry contraband into the United States through Kennedy International Airport in Queens, posing a challenge not only to Customs and Border Protection officers, but also to federal prosecutors.
To avoid clogging up the court, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn has embraced a strategic approach that allows couriers to plead guilty and offer information in return for lighter sentences. The policy reflected a view among many prosecutors that the mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses — which require prison terms of five years and higher in these smuggling cases — were too harsh on defendants who were typically nonviolent and disadvantaged.
But in recent months, changes in drug sentencing have served to further lower punishments for these couriers. A year ago, drug couriers regularly faced three years in prison; now they might face guidelines starting at only a few months, or no prison time at all.
The changes are raising questions of whether the pendulum has swung too far. Some prosecutors say that couriers have little to no incentive to cooperate anymore. Border patrol officials grumble that they are working to catch smugglers, only to have them face little punishment. And judges who once denounced the harsh sentencing guidelines are now having second thoughts....
The debate over what constitutes a fair sentence for drug crimes has persisted for decades. Critics — many of them judges in this court — have said that sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum punishments had become hugely problematic. Nonviolent drug offenders, like couriers or people selling marijuana on the street, could face longer guideline sentences than an underground gun dealer. And until recently, possession of five grams of crack warranted a minimum five-year sentence. To get the same sentence for powdered cocaine possession, 500 grams would be required.
Various reforms have been instituted to address the inequities in sentencing. In 1994, a “safety valve” provision allowed nonviolent first offenders on drugs — which describes most couriers — to avoid mandatory minimums if they admitted to all prior criminal conduct. And in 2010, Congress passed legislation toward balancing the crack versus cocaine disparity....
In August, the United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., ordered prosecutors nationwide to charge couriers and other low-level drug offenders who met certain criteria in a way that did not result in mandatory-minimum sentences. (Guideline sentences must still be considered, but they are not mandatory.)
Then, in April, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for drug crimes by two points, or several months. The reduced guidelines go into effect in November, pending congressional approval, but prosecutors in many districts have agreed to apply them now.
The changes made things more difficult in Brooklyn, where prosecutors still wanted to give low-level couriers an incentive to avoid trials and to assist in prosecutions against larger drug distributors. Believing they had to further sweeten the deal, prosecutors agreed to give an additional four points off those reduced sentences for couriers who agreed to cooperate.
As a result, drug-courier defendants can now face sentencing guidelines that suggest no prison time.
My first reaction to this piece is to suggest that it's a nice change of pace for federal judges to now view at least some federal sentencing guidelines to be too lenient and that any problems this creates can and should be addressed through judicial discretion to sentence above the guidelines, case-by-case, as needed and appropriate. But I imagine this viewpoint is not very satisfying for federal prosecutors and investigators who depend on the threat of severe sentences to get mules to cooperate to their satisfaction.
For additional intriguing and diverse reactions to these intriguing new drug sentencing realities, check out these posts from other informed bloggers:
From Simple Justice here, "The Pendulum and the Mule"
From Hercules and the Umpire here, "Should Interstate 80 be treated like JFK airport in New York?"
Wednesday, July 09, 2014
Following the money behind sustaining pot prohibition
The Nation has this fascinating new investigative report with a headline and subheadline that highlights its themes: "The Real Reason Pot Is Still Illegal: Opponents of marijuana-law reform insist that legalization is dangerous — but the biggest threat is to their own bottom line." Here are excerpts from the start of a lengthy article:
Taking the stage to rousing applause last February, [Patrick] Kennedy joined more than 2,000 opponents of marijuana legalization a few miles south of Washington, DC, at the annual convention of the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA), one of the largest such organizations in the country....
Given that CADCA is dedicated to protecting society from dangerous drugs, the event that day had a curious sponsor: Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxy-Contin, the highly addictive painkiller that nearly ruined Kennedy’s congressional career and has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths nationwide.
Prescription opioids, a line of pain-relieving medications derived from the opium poppy or produced synthetically, are the most dangerous drugs abused in America, with more than 16,000 deaths annually linked to opioid addiction and overdose. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that more Americans now die from painkillers than from heroin and cocaine combined. The recent uptick in heroin use around the country has been closely linked to the availability of prescription opioids, which give their users a similar high and can trigger a heroin craving in recovering addicts....
People in the United States, a country in which painkillers are routinely overprescribed, now consume more than 84 percent of the entire worldwide supply of oxycodone and almost 100 percent of hydrocodone opioids. In Kentucky, to take just one example, about one in fourteen people is misusing prescription painkillers, and nearly 1,000 Kentucky residents are dying every year.
So it’s more than a little odd that CADCA and the other groups leading the fight against relaxing marijuana laws, including the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America), derive a significant portion of their budget from opioid manufacturers and other pharmaceutical companies. According to critics, this funding has shaped the organization’s policy goals: CADCA takes a softer approach toward prescription-drug abuse, limiting its advocacy to a call for more educational programs, and has failed to join the efforts to change prescription guidelines in order to curb abuse. In contrast, CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids have adopted a hard-line approach to marijuana, opposing even limited legalization and supporting increased police powers.
A close look at the broader political coalition lobbying against marijuana-law reform reveals many such conflicts of interest. In fact, the CADCA event was attended by representatives of a familiar confederation of anti-pot interests, many of whom have a financial stake in the status quo, including law enforcement agencies, pharmaceutical firms, and nonprofits funded by federal drug-prevention grants....
The opponents of marijuana-law reform argue that such measures pose significant dangers, from increased crime and juvenile delinquency to addiction and death. But legalization’s biggest threat is to the bottom line of these same special interests, which reap significant monetary advantages from pot prohibition that are rarely acknowledged in the public debate....
[B]oth CADCA and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids are heavily reliant on a combination of federal drug-prevention education grants and funding from pharmaceutical companies. Founded in 1992, CADCA has lobbied aggressively for a range of federal grants for groups dedicated to the “war on drugs.” The Drug-Free Communities Act of 1997, a program directed by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, was created through CADCA’s advocacy. That law now allocates over $90 million a year to community organizations dedicated to reducing drug abuse. Records show that CADCA has received more than $2.5 million in annual federal funding in recent years. The former Partnership for a Drug-Free America, founded in 1985 and best known for its dramatic “This is your brain on drugs” public service announcements, has received similarly hefty taxpayer support while advocating for increased anti-drug grant programs.
The Nation obtained a confidential financial disclosure from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids showing that the group’s largest donors include Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, and Abbott Laboratories, maker of the opioid Vicodin. CADCA also counts Purdue Pharma as a major supporter, as well as Alkermes, the maker of a powerful and extremely controversial new painkiller called Zohydrol. The drug, which was released to the public in March, has sparked a nationwide protest, since Zohydrol is reportedly ten times stronger than OxyContin. Janssen Pharmaceutical, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that produces the painkiller Nucynta, and Pfizer, which manufactures several opioid products, are also CADCA sponsors. For corporate donors, CADCA offers a raft of partnership opportunities, including authorized use of the “CADCA logo for your company’s marketing, website, and advertising materials, etc.”