Monday, August 03, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases big report on 5-year impact of Fair Sentencing Act

2015_RtC_FSAAs reported in this official USSC news release, today "the United States Sentencing Commission submitted to Congress its report assessing the impact of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which among other things reduced the statutory 100-to-1 drug quantity ratio of crack to powder cocaine." Here are highlights of an encouraging report via the news release:

Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, Chair of the Commission, said: “We found that the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences, substantially reduced the federal prison population, and resulted in fewer federal prosecutions for crack cocaine. All this occurred while crack cocaine use continued to decline.”

To assess the impact of the FSA, the Commission analyzed external data sources and undertook statistical analyses of its own federal sentencing data spanning before and after the enactment of the FSA. Among other things, the study shows that:

• Many fewer crack cocaine offenders have been prosecuted annually since the FSA, although the number is still substantial;

• Crack cocaine offenders prosecuted after the FSA are, on average, about as serious as those prosecuted before the FSA;

• Rates of crack cocaine offenders cooperating with law enforcement have not changed despite the reduction in penalties; and,

• Average crack cocaine sentences are lower, and are now closer to average powder cocaine sentences.

The full report, which runs almost 100 pages including all its materials is available at this link. The USSC's website now has this terrific page with various report-related materials and links for easy consumption of all the data in the report.

August 3, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sentencing reform group propounds "The Dangerous Myths of NAAUSA"

In this post last week, I linked to this white paper produced by the National Association of Assistant US Attorneys titled "The Dangerous Myths of Drug Sentencing 'Reform'."  This week has now brought this response from Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) titled in full, "The Dangerous Myths of NAAUSA: A Response to the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys’ Paper Titled 'The Dangerous Myths of Drug Sentencing Reform'."  Here are excerpts from the executive summary, introductory paragraph and conclusion of this FAMM response paper:

The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA), which represents neither the U.S. Department of Justice nor a significant percentage of assistant U.S. attorneys, opposes mandatory minimum sentencing reform on the basis of several unfounded and patently false claims.  This paper rebuts those claims with data and facts...

The National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA) recently released a white paper in which it purports to respond to the myths of sentencing reform advocates.  Before addressing its substantive points, it is important to keep in mind who NAAUSA represents — or, more important, who it does not represent.  NAAUSA does not represent federal prosecutors or the offices in which its members work.  The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which represents all federal prosecutors and prosecutes all federal cases, supports mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform.  NAAUSA does not even speak for all assistant U.S. attorneys; only 28 percent of the nation’s assistant U.S. attorneys are members of NAAUSA, according to the group’s website.  Former federal and state prosecutors now serving in Congress, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), are leading sponsors of federal mandatory minimum sentencing reforms opposed by NAAUSA.

While advocates from all points of the political spectrum, law enforcement groups, members of both parties of Congress, House Speaker John Boehner, the Department of Justice, and President Barack Obama all agree that significant mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform is needed — and the sooner the better — NAAUSA is using scare tactics and patently false and unsupported claims to attempt to maintain a status quo that indiscriminately incarcerates thousands of nonviolent drug offenders for decades, at the cost of billions of dollars that could be better invested in law enforcement and crime prevention.  NAAUSA wants to maintain a sentencing system that is unjust, ineffective, expensive, harmful to families, and depleting law enforcement of limited resources. NAAUSA may call its opposition to mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform many things, but it cannot be called a serious effort to improve public safety.

July 29, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 27, 2015

"Mr. Chairman, the president’s clemency power is beyond dispute"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary published in The Hill authored by Samuel Morison, who formerly served as a staff attorney in the Justice Department’s Office of the Pardon Attorney.  The piece responds to the curious letter sent by House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte and fellow Republican committee to AG Lynch (discussed here) expressing "deep concern" for how the President has (finally) started to make serious use of his constitutional clemency powers.  Here are excerpts (with links included):

Goodlatte and his colleagues are certainly entitled to take issue with Obama’s decision to grant a measure of relief to persons sentenced under a set of laws that are widely viewed to have been, in practice if not by design, racially discriminatory and unjust.  But their constitutional claims are so illiterate that it is difficult to tell whether they expect the attorney general to take them seriously. 

The chairman’s criticism ignores settled practice stretching back to the beginning of the Republic.  Throughout American history, presidents have granted executive clemency to “specific classes of offenders” on dozens of occasions, from George Washington’s pardon of the Whiskey Rebels in 1795 to George H.W. Bush’s pardon of the Iran-Contra defendants in 1992.  Perhaps more to the point, in the early 1960s, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson commuted the sentences of several hundred prisoners serving mandatory minimum sentences under the Narcotics Control Act of 1956, without objection by Congress.

The historical lack of controversy shouldn’t be surprising.  Under our tripartite system of government, an act of executive clemency in no sense “usurps” legislative or judicial authority.  Rather, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, it “is a part of the Constitutional scheme.  When granted it is the determination of the ultimate [executive] authority that the public welfare will be better served by inflicting less than what the judgment fixed.”  The president’s pardoning authority is therefore limited only by the text of the Constitution itself, not by the transitory terms of the criminal code.  Indeed, that was the Framers’ point in giving the power to the president in the first place, to act as a check on the other branches.

To be sure, the president’s systematic exercise of the pardon power to benefit “specific classes of offenders” has not gone entirely unchallenged by Congress.  But the Supreme Court long ago resolved this dispute in favor of Obama’s authority to redress the injustices entrenched by the current federal sentencing regime.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson issued a series of amnesty proclamations that restored the civil rights of former Confederate sympathizers.  This was enormously controversial at the time, not least because it undermined the Radical Republican’s designs for the post-war reconstruction of Southern society.

In the ensuing legal battle, the Supreme Court repeatedly struck down Congress’s attempts to constrain the president’s pardoning authority.  In 1866, the Court held, without qualification, that “[t]his power of the President is not subject to legislative control.  Congress can neither limit the effect of his pardon, nor exclude from its exercise any class of offenders.  The benign prerogative of mercy reposed in him cannot be fettered by any legislative restrictions.” 

The Court also rejected the effort to draw a false distinction between pardons granted to specific individuals on a case-by-case basis and a pardon granted to a class of persons by means of an amnesty proclamation, precisely the claim that House Republicans are making against Obama.  The president is therefore authorized to grant a general amnesty without congressional sanction, protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

Finally, there is no reason to doubt that the president can grant clemency because of his own policy judgment about a particular law.  As one conservative federal judge recently opined, it is a “settled, bedrock principle of constitutional law” that “the president may decline to prosecute or may pardon because of the president’s own constitutional concerns about a law or because of policy objections to the law.” 

The historical irony, of course, is that a presidential power forged in a bitter political dispute over the property rights of Confederate rebels is now being used to afford a measure of justice to federal drug offenders, who are disproportionately African-American.  Turnabout, I suppose, is fair play.  But the president’s power is beyond dispute.

A few prior recent related posts:

July 27, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

DAG Yates: "our thinking has evolved on [drug sentencing], it’s time that our legislation evolved as well."

Download (6)I have noticed lots of good crime and punishment reporting at BuzzFeed lately, and this new lengthy piece discussing an interview with US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is the lastest must-read. It is headlined "Justice Department: You Don’t Need Mandatory Prison Sentences To Put The Right Drug Criminals In Jail," and here are excerpts:

The central argument against the sweeping changes to the war on drugs proposed by the Obama administration and others goes like this: If you take away stringent mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, prosecutors can no longer use the fear of prison to flip drug criminals. If they can’t flip drug criminals, they can’t go after more powerful and dangerous drug criminals. And if they can’t go after those criminals, they can’t hope to make a dent in the illegal drug trade.

This was the governing principle of the prosecutors fighting the war on drugs for decades. Just a year or so ago, under the direction of former Attorney General Eric Holder, prosecutors changed the way they charged some drug criminals, avoiding charges carrying mandatory minimums when possible. Some prosecutors worried they’d lose their ability to net the biggest fish.

Sally Quinlan Yates, a career federal prosecutor now leading Obama administration efforts to reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum drug sentences on Capitol Hill, says the old system was all wrong, and she can prove it. “There were some out there who were saying, and I understand this, ‘We’ll never get another defendant to cooperate with us, they’re not going to plead guilty, they’re not going to cooperate with us. We’ve lost our leverage, we won’t be able to work our way up the ladder,’” Yates, the deputy attorney general, told BuzzFeed News. “But that’s turned out just not to be true. In fact, the rate of guilty pleas has stayed exactly the same as it was prior to our new mandatory minimum policy and in fact the rate of cooperation is the same or has gone up slightly.”

Yates has been saying for years that mandatory minimums — which don’t apply in the vast majority of cases federal prosecutors coerce cooperation from all the time — aren’t necessary to put high-level drug offenders behind bars. Now she’s overseeing the process by which prosecutors move away from mandatory minimums, and she’s one of the leading advocates in the administration push to eliminate mandatory minimums altogether in most cases.

It’s a fundamental change to the way prosecutors think about their work when it comes to drug cases. Getting convictions without relying on mandatory minimums is a key legacy of Holder’s term as Attorney General, and now it’s a central part of Yates’ argument to lawmakers that it’s time to change the nation’s sentencing laws.

As real momentum builds on Capitol Hill to rewrite sentencing laws with the goal of refocusing prosecution and lowering the prison population — an issue of prime importance President Obama in the final months of his presidency — Yates is among the top administration aides helping the process along on Capitol Hill. She meets regularly with the members of the Senate in both parties attempting to hash out a bipartisan criminal justice compromise they can pass before the end of the year.

As that effort continues, Yates will continue to be among the most prominent administration faces pushing the Obama team position. On Wednesday, she’ll speak at a bipartisan criminal justice policy summit that organizers hope will solidify momentum and help keep the ball rolling in Congress.

Yates has drawn the praise of advocacy groups who say she’s able to connect with Republicans in a way the Justice Department often wasn’t able to when Holder was in charge, due in part to GOP rhetoric that cast Holder as the biggest villain in the Obama administration. Criminal justice is a top policy goal for Holder’s successor, Loretta Lynch, and Yates also works closely with top department officials to help push unilateral changes to prosecution procedure set down by first by Holder and now by Lynch. She also spends a lot of time talking to working prosecutors, the group that has expressed the greatest skepticism toward the sweeping changes pushed by criminal justice advocates and the administration.

“People get used to doing things a certain way. You ask folks to do something differently, there’s naturally some discomfort with that among certain prosecutors, I think,” she said. “So change is hard.” Yates knows how to speak their language. On paper, she is basically the prototypical tough-as-nails federal prosecutor....

Changes implemented by Holder as part of his smart on crime iniative — which guided prosecutors away from throwing the book at low-level nonviolent drug offenses — led to a reduction in prosecutions.  Yates is now in charge of implementing the new approach. She says most prosecutors welcome the changes, but Obama’s recent round of clemencies for nonviolent offenders sentenced under the old rules put into perspective how much of a culture change is still under way at the Justice Department.

“There are cases now that I see when I review clemency petitions and I see cases that were charged under different statutes, different laws at the time, and different policies [at the Justice Department] that certainly trouble me from a fairness perspective,” she said. “The prosecutors who were involved, they were following the department policies that were in place at the time. And so I’m not suggesting they were doing anything improper or unethical. But our thinking has evolved on this. And it’s time that our legislation evolved as well.”

Yates says prosecutors are open to changes, and she’s got the statistics to keep pushing those who are still skeptical. In the end she thinks the Justice Department will be continue to make the changes it can to the way the war on drugs is fought even if Congress can’t.

For Yates, the movement is a personal one. “At the risk of sounding really corny now, I’m a career prosecutor. I’ve been doing this for a very long time. And I believe in holding people responsible when they violate the law,” she said. “But our sole responsibility is to seek justice. And sometimes that means a very lengthy sentence, for people how are dangerous and from which society must be protected. But it always means seeking a proportional sentence. And that’s what this sentencing reform is really about.”

UPDATE: The speech that DAG Yates delivered today on these topics is available at this link. I will likely highlight a few notable passages in a later post.

July 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

"Prosecutors Rally Against Sentencing Reform, Say Build More Prisons"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new piece in U.S. News & World Report. Here are excerpts:

Nervous federal prosecutors attempted to rally opposition Friday to criminal sentencing reform in response to President Barack Obama’s week of issuing commutations and making pro-reform speeches....

“The federal criminal justice system is not broken,” Steve Cook, the association's president, said at a lightly attended event in the nation's capital. “What a huge mistake it would be,” he said, to change sentencing laws.

Cook predicted the crime rate would rise and prosecutors would lose a tool to extract information if laws were made more lenient. He also denounced reform proponents for saying nonviolent offenders are being ensnared by tough Clinton-era drug laws. “They have misled the public every time they say, 'We’re talking about nonviolent drug offenders,'” he said. “Drug trafficking is inherently violent. … If you’re not willing to engage in violence [then] you will be out of the business quickly, or worse.”

Cook said the small number of inmates whose sentences have been shortened by Obama – the president has issued 76 drug crime commutations total, 46 of them this week – shows there’s not much of a problem with people serving unreasonably long sentences.

Rather than focus on reducing sentences, he said, the government should consider building more prison facilities. “Do I think it would be a good investment to build more [prisons]? Yeah, no question about it!” he said....

Molly Gill, government affairs counsel at the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, says Cook’s assertion the crime rate would rise after sentencing reform is a “demonstrably false claim and a shameful scare tactic.” In Michigan, New York and other states, she says, crime rates did not spike after mandatory minimums were repealed....

Cook, who was joined by two other federal prosecutors, made much of his speech Friday about societal ills associated with drug addiction, from babies going through withdrawal to people stealing from their families and dying from overdoses and car accidents. “There’s a pyramid of individuals who are affected by [drug dealers],” he said. “Many view [drug trafficking] as more serious than murder.”

He declined to say if state-legal recreational marijuana businesses and regulators in Colorado and Washington state should face marijuana-related mandatory minimums for breaking federal law.

Cook’s colleagues did not speak at the news conference. He described the event as the first of its kind by the group, which claims to represent 1,500 assistant U.S. attorneys, about 30 percent of the total.

Former President Bill Clinton, one of the leaders responsible for establishing inflexible penalties, this week said doing so led to the imprisonment of a lot of "minor actors for way too long." The association views his reversal as “misinformed,” Cook said: “We think he was right before.”

July 18, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Friday, July 17, 2015

Gov Christie joins growing chorus of GOP leaders urging reform of "broken" criminal justice system

Download (15)As highlighted by this Politico report, headlined "Chris Christie calls for ‘fresh approach’ to criminal justice," the only GOP presidential candidate with a long history as a federal prosecutor has now joined the ever-growing group of mainstream Republican voices advocating for significant criminal justice reform. Here are the basics of what the New Jersey Governor has to say on this front:

Chris Christie, decrying the large number of Americans in prison, on Thursday said it’s time to fix what he called “a broken criminal justice system.”

“Today, our prisons contain more people than any other nation in the world – 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” the New Jersey governor and 2016 presidential candidate said in a speech in Camden, New Jersey. “I believe in American exceptionalism, but that’s not an achievement I think any of us want.”

Christie’s call for action came almost at the same time as President Barack Obama’s tour of a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma on Thursday as part of his administration’s push for criminal justice reform.

In recent months, a series of deaths of unarmed black men by white law enforcement officers, and resulting riots, has sparked a national discussion about racial tensions, policing, and the U.S. prison system. It’s given a boost to a rare bipartisan push on justice reform, especially mandatory minimum sentences that disproportionately affect minority communities.

On Thursday, Christie talked about the importance of getting violent criminals off the streets, but he said harsh prison sentences don’t solve everything. “Peace on our streets is more than just the absence of violence. Justice isn’t something we can jail our way to. Justice is something we have to build in our communities,” Christie said.

He also framed his argument in terms of conservative values. “I happen to be pro-life, and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of life,” Christie said. “But I believe that if you’re going to be pro-life, then you ought to care about life beyond the womb. An unborn child is life. But life is also that 16 year-old addict lying on the floor of the county lockup.”

Specifically, Christie pointed to his own record in New Jersey as a path forward. He said New Jersey’s drug court program works, calling it a policy that keeps people out of prison and saves money. He said if he becomes president he will replicate it on the national level.

“Drug court is about making every one of our citizens long-term productive members of society again – because we should want that for everyone,” Christie said. He said that first time offenders of non-violent crimes should get treatment and non-custodial sentencing options. He also said that when people are put behind bars there needs to be a plan for rehabilitation for when they get out.

I am particularly intrigued to hear a GOP Presidential candidate with a long history as a federal prosecutor (and whose campaign slogan is "telling it like it is") now calling our criminal justice system broken. Another long-time former federal prosecutor, Bill Otis, has frequently taken to Crime & Consequences to complain when former Attorney General Eric Holder said our current system is broken. And in a comment dialogue following his latest posting in this arena, Bill seemed to suggest that some establishment Republicans may only be pretending that they share such a view in order to get campaign dollars from the Koch brothers. But given Gov. Christie's personal background and campaign themes, I would be really surprised if he would now be saying the system is broken if he did not really believe it.

July 17, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"From a First Arrest to a Life Sentence"

Sharanda-1mThe title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post article, which carries the subheadline "Clemency is the only way out for the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders serving life terms in federal prison." Here are excerpts from the start of the lengthy piece, as well as some details of the profiled LWOP defendant's case:

Sharanda Jones — prisoner 33177-077 — struggled to describe the moment in 1999 when a federal judge sentenced her to life in prison after her conviction on a single cocaine offense.  She was a first-time, nonviolent offender.

“I was numb,” Jones said in an interview at the Carswell women’s prison here. “I was thinking about my baby.  I thought it can’t be real life in prison.” Jones, who will turn 48 next week, is one of tens of thousands of inmates who received harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses during the crack-cocaine epidemic, and whose cases are drawing new attention....

Because of her role as a middle woman between a cocaine buyer and supplier, Jones was accused of being part of a “drug conspiracy” and should have known that the powder would be converted to crack — triggering a greater penalty.

Her sentence was then made even more severe with a punishment tool introduced at the height of the drug war that allowed judges in certain cases to “enhance” sentences — or make them longer.  Jones was hit with a barrage of “enhancements.”

Her license for a concealed weapon amounted to carrying a gun “in furtherance of a drug conspiracy.”  Enhancement.

When she was convicted on one count of seven, prosecutors said her testimony in her defense had been false and therefore an “obstruction of justice.”  Enhancement.

Although she was neither the supplier nor the buyer, prosecutors described her as a leader in a drug ring.  Enhancement.

By the end, Jones’s sentencing had so many that the federal judge had only one punishment option.  With no possibility of parole in the federal system, she was, in effect, sentenced to die in prison.

Jones almost certainly would not receive such a sentence today.  Federal sentencing guidelines in similar drug cases have changed, in particular to end disparities in how the courts treat crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine.  And, following a 2005 Supreme Court decision, judges have much greater discretion when they mete out punishment.  In the past decade, they gave lower sentences by an average of one-third the guideline range, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

But a lingering legacy of the crack epidemic are inmates such as Jones.  About 100,000 federal inmates — or nearly half — are serving time for drug offenses, among them thousands of nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.  Most are poor, and four in five are African American or Hispanic.

In the spring of 2014, then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. — who had called mandatory minimum sentences “draconian” — started an initiative to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison.  They had to have served at least 10 years of their sentence, have no significant criminal history, and no connection to gangs, cartels or organized crime.  They must have demonstrated good conduct in prison.  And they also must be inmates who probably would have received a “substantially lower sentence” if convicted of the same offense today.

Jones applied. It has been a halting process, however.  Only 89 prisoners of the more than 35,000 who have filed applications have been freed.  They include 46 inmates who were granted clemency on Monday by Obama.  Jones wasn’t among them....

On Aug. 26, 1999 — after days of testimony about drug deals by people nicknamed “Weasel,” “Spider,” “Baby Jack” and “Kilo,” and a dramatic moment when Jones’s quadriplegic mother was wheeled into the courtroom — the jury acquitted Jones of all six charges of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine and aiding and abetting.  But they found her guilty of one count of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.

Although no drugs were ever found, U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis determined that Jones was responsible for the distribution of 30 kilograms of cocaine.  He arrived at that number based on the testimony of the co-conspirators — the couple who received sentences of seven and eight years, and the Houston dealer, who got 19.5 years.  All have since been released.

The judge determined that Jones knew or should have known that the powder was going to be “rocked up” — or converted to crack.  Using a government formula, the prosecutor said that the 30 kilograms of powder was equal to 13.39 kilograms of crack cocaine.  He then added 10.528 kilograms of crack cocaine that the prosecutors said had been distributed in Terrell and was linked to Jones’s brother.  (The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit affirmed the conviction, but said there was “barely” any evidence of Jones’s connection to the crack distributed in Terrell.)

The judge’s calculation made Jones accountable for 23.92 kilograms of crack.  That, added to the gun and obstruction enhancements, as well as Jones’s role as an “organizer,” sealed her sentence under federal rules that assign numbers to offenses and enhancements.  The final number — 46 — dictated the sentence, leaving the judge no discretion.

“Under the guidelines, that sets a life sentence, mandatory life sentence,” Solis said at a hearing in November 1999.  “So, Ms. Jones, it will be the judgment of the court that you be sentenced to the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons for a term of life imprisonment.” Solis declined to be interviewed. Said McMurrey: “In light of the law and the guidelines and what the court heard during the trial, I know Judge Solis followed the law. He’s a very fair man.”

The sentencing scheme that sent Jones to prison has been widely denounced by lawmakers from both political parties.  And sentences have been greatly reduced for drug offenses. But the differing approaches over time have led to striking disparities.

One illustration: The Justice Department announced last month that one of Colombia’s most notorious drug traffickers and a senior paramilitary leader will serve about 15 years in prison for leading an international drug trafficking conspiracy that imported more than 100,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States.

The jurors who found Jones guilty were never told about the life sentence, which came months after the trial.  Several of them, when contacted by The Washington Post, were dismayed. “Life in prison? My God, that is too harsh,” said James J. Siwinski, a retired worker for a glass company.  “That is too severe.  There’s people killing people and getting less time than that.  She wasn’t an angel.  But enough is enough already.”

July 16, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fascinating new drug guideline resentencing opinion from Judge Jack Weinstein

Judge Jack Weinstein is a justifiably legendary federal judge (whom, I must note, will be turning 94 in a few weeks).  Among the reasons Judge Weinstein is justifiably legendary is his ability to author remarkable (and remarkable long) opinions on an array of federal legal subjects.  Today I learned of his latest such opinion in in US v. Alli-Balogun, 92–CR–1108 (E.D.N.Y July 15, 2015) (available for download below).  Here is how the opinion starts:

The case is a remarkable one.  Though the drug case was nasty, the long-term imprisonment, by today’s standards, was excessive.  Defendant has served 273 months in prison while his wife and children established high status employment in banking and medicine.  See Hr’g Tr., July 15, 2015. Throughout his incarceration, he has maintained close contact with his family. Id. This resentence provides an opportunity to rectify, in modest degree, an unnecessarily harsh sentence imposed in crueler times.

Download Weinstein § 3582(c)(2) OPINION on RESENTENCING

The next 70+ pages goes on to discuss (and break a little new ground) the defendant's motion for a reduction of sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and his challenge to his his conviction under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (For the record, the defendant bats .500 in his efforts.)

July 15, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

"Fatal Re-Entry: Legal and Programmatic Opportunities to Curb Opioid Overdose Among Individuals Newly Released from Incarceration"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by multiple authored recently posted on SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The United States is in the midst of a public health crisis: Every year, well over 24,000 Americans die from opioid overdose.  This staggering death toll is equivalent to a weekly jumbo jet crash. After a decade of rapid growth, overdose caused by prescription opioids and heroin now tops the accidental death rankings, beating out automobile accidents, AIDS, and other high-profile killers.  Overdose does not discriminate, cutting across all geographic, economic, and racial divides.  But some groups are especially vulnerable. This article is dedicated to one such group: individuals re-entering the community from correctional settings.  In the immediate two weeks after release, people in this group are almost 130 times more likely to die of an overdose than the general population.

It is easy to cast post-incarceration substance use — and consequent overdose — as the re-entering individual’s character weakness or a propensity towards reckless behavior. Nevertheless, modern addiction science reframes such relapse as a foreseeable consequence of the chronic nature of substance use disorders.  This scientific evidence also provides clear guidance on how most of the resulting fatalities can be prevented.  This article considers the creation of fatal overdose risk among formerly incarcerated individuals as an unacceptable collateral harm emanating from criminal justice involvement.

In order to address this largely overlooked public health problem, we explore a range of legal channels that can help persuade the state (broadly construed) to address a risk to which it substantially contributes.  We consider a number of doctrinal approaches, guided by the belief that spending time behind bars must not translate to a death sentence for so many Americans.  Whether as a part of possible legal actions or an action agenda on its own right, we present a number of programmatic interventions and policy reforms that may alleviate this crisis.  Our analysis also highlights the potential role of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in facilitating overdose prevention before, during and post-incarceration. This agenda is especially timely given the current move by federal and state governments towards releasing large numbers of individuals incarcerated on drug-related charges to ease prison over-crowding or as a result of legal reforms, pardons, or exonerations.

In Section I, we provide an overview of the opioid overdose epidemic and the special vulnerability among criminal justice-involved individuals.  In Section II, we examine the scientific evidence on prevention measures that should be, but are currently rarely deployed to address this vulnerability.  In Section III, we explore various legal theories that could be invoked in efforts to motivate government actors to take a greater responsibility for preventing post-incarceration overdose deaths.  In Section IV, we cover additional mechanisms to motivate institutional change.  We conclude by outlining a policy and programmatic agenda for reducing the vulnerability of criminal justice-involved individuals to opioid overdose.

July 15, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 13, 2015

Prez Obama commutes sentences for 46 federal drug prisoners (with a video message)

Neil Eggleston, Counsel to the President, has this new White House Blog posting titled "President Obama Announces 46 Commutations in Video Address: 'America Is a Nation of Second Chances'." Here is the text of the posting, with links worth following:

As a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and criminal defense attorney, I'm well acquainted with how federal sentencing practices can, in too many instances, lead nonviolent drug offenders to spend decades, if not life, in prison.  Now, don't get me wrong, many people are justly punished for causing harm and perpetuating violence in our communities.  But, in some cases, the punishment required by law far exceeded the offense.

These unduly harsh sentences are one of the reasons the President is committed to using all the tools at his disposal to remedy unfairness in our criminal justice system.  Today, he is continuing this effort by granting clemency to 46 men and women, nearly all of whom would have already served their time and returned to society if they were convicted of the exact same crime today.

In a video released today, the President underscored the responsibility and opportunity that comes with a commutation.

The President also shared his thoughts in a personal letter written to each of the 46 individuals receiving a commutation today.

In taking this step, the President has now issued nearly 90 commutations, the vast majority of them to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes under outdated sentencing rules. 

While I expect the President will issue additional commutations and pardons before the end of his term, it is important to recognize that clemency alone will not fix decades of overly punitive sentencing policies.  Tune in tomorrow as the President shares additional thoughts on how, working together, we can bring greater fairness to our criminal justice system while keeping our communities safe in an address to the NAACP.

A list of the 46 lucky individuals receiving clemency today can be found here. A too quick review of the list suggests that the vast majority of those receiving clemency today were convicted of crack offenses, though I did notice a couple of marijuana offenders in the group. 

July 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Prez Obama with big plans (finally!!) to prioritize criminal justice reform efforts

Images (11)Way back in 2007, then-Prez-candidate Barack Obama on the campaign trail made much of the need for nationwide (and especially federal drug sentencing) criminal justice reform in a speech to Howard Univesity (which I discussed in this 2010 law review article).  In that speech, candidate Obama promised that as President he would be "willing to brave the politics" to help engineer criminal justice reforms.  As long-time readers know from my commentary here and elsewhere, I have long been disappointed that Prez Obama has left us waiting a long time for the reality of his policy work to match the rhetoric of his first political campaign.  

But now, roughly eight years after making campaign proimises at Howard Univesity (and, tellingly, after the conclusion of every significant nation election in which Prez Obama is the most significant player), it appears that Prez Obama is finally poised to invest his political muscle and capital on crimnal justice reform.  This effective Bloomberg Politics article, headlined "Obama to Push U.S. Sentencing Change Backed by Koch Brothers," explains how and provides effective context:

The White House is preparing to seize advantage of bipartisan concern over the burgeoning U.S. prison population and push for legislation that would reduce federal sentences for nonviolent crimes.

President Barack Obama will champion sweeping reform of the criminal justice system during a speech to the NAACP annual convention on Tuesday in Philadelphia, press secretary Josh Earnest said Friday. Obama will present ideas to make the system “safer, fairer and more effective,” Earnest said.

Later in the week, Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison when he goes to a medium-security facility in El Reno, Oklahoma.  He’ll also sit for an interview with Vice News for an HBO documentary on the criminal justice system, Earnest said.

Obama came to office promising to reduce the number of Americans imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, and in 2010 he signed a law reducing disparities in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine. Some Republicans and police organizations criticized the moves as too lenient, but now a bipartisan coalition that includes Obama’s chief political antagonists, billionaires Charles and David Koch, have joined him to support relaxing federal sentencing guidelines.

Key lawmakers from both parties have been invited to the White House next week to discuss strategy. And Obama is expected to soon issue a spate of commutations for nonviolent drug offenders identified by a Justice Department program launched last year. Top officials from the department, including Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, have recently met with members of Congress to express support for sentencing-reform legislation.

“Engagement with the president has been lacking for the past six years, but this is one topic where it has been refreshingly bipartisan,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who heads the House Oversight Committee, said in a telephone interview....

Chaffetz said he was optimistic that a package of bills would advance because of a diverse coalition of supporters lined up behind it. The president dubbed the legislation “a big sack of potatoes” in a meeting with lawmakers in February, Chaffetz said. The composition of the legislation isn’t final.

The Koch brothers, who are major Republican donors, support a bill introduced last month by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, that would encourage probation rather than imprisonment for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses and improve parole programs in order to reduce recidivism.

The Sensenbrenner-Scott bill is modeled on state efforts to reduce incarceration. While the federal prison population has grown 15 percent in the last decade, state prisons hold 4 percent fewer people, according to Sensenbrenner’s office. Thirty-two states have saved a cumulative $4.6 billion in the past five years from reduced crime and imprisonment, his office said in a report....

Representative Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, held a meeting in late June to listen to proposals from lawmakers in both parties. And Chaffetz, who described the Republican leadership in the House as “very optimistic and encouraging,” scheduled hearings on the issue by his committee for July 14 and 15. “I don’t normally do two days of hearings; we’re giving it that much attention,” Chaffetz said. “So it has more momentum than anybody realizes.”

There is a significant obstacle on the other side of the Capitol: Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs his chamber’s Judiciary Committee.... But supporters of the House legislation have reason for optimism: Last month, Grassley announced he would work on a compromise in the Senate.

While Grassley has indicated a willingness to reduce penalties for some crimes, he wants to increase mandatory minimum sentences for other offenses, a Senate Republican aide said. The person requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. That could make sentencing changes an easier sell to tough-on-crime voters, but endanger the support of lawmakers who see mandatory minimums as bad policy. “There does appear hope for a bipartisan compromise,” Earnest said Monday. “We obviously welcome that opportunity.”

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who has long championed criminal justice reform, is leading negotiations with Grassley. He’s backed by Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on Grassley’s committee, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

The talks remain sensitive. During a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Leahy -- admitting he already knew the answer -- asked Yates, who was testifying before the panel, to restate her support for sentencing reform. “I was born at night, but not last night,” Grassley interjected. “And I know that question was in reference to me, and I want everybody to know that we’re working hard on getting a sentencing-reform compromise that we can introduce. And if we don’t get one pretty soon, I’ll probably have my own ideas to put forward.”

July 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

What drug war lessons should we draw from modern deadly heroin surge?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Los Angeles Times report on new data from the Center for Disease Control. The press article is headlined "Heroin use and addiction are surging in the U.S., CDC report says," and here are excerpts:

Heroin use surged over the past decade, and the wave of addiction and overdose is closely related to the nation’s ongoing prescription drug epidemic, federal health officials said Tuesday. A new report says that 2.6 out of every 1,000 U.S. residents 12 and older used heroin in the years 2011 to 2013. That’s a 63% increase in the rate of heroin use since the years 2002 to 2004.

The rate of heroin abuse or dependence climbed 90% over the same period, according to the study by researchers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deaths caused by heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled between 2002 and 2013, claiming 8,257 lives in 2013.

In all, more than half a million people used heroin in 2013, up nearly 150% since 2007, the report said.

Heroin use remained highest for the historically hardest-hit group: poor young men living in cities. But increases were spread across all demographic groups, including women and people with private insurance and high incomes — groups associated with the parallel rise in prescription drug use over the past decade.

The findings appear in a Vital Signs report published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. "As a doctor who started my career taking care of patients with HIV and other complications from injection drugs, it's heartbreaking to see injection drug use making a comeback in the U.S.," said Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC.

All but 4% of the people who used heroin in the past year also used another drug, such as cocaine, marijuana or alcohol, according to the report. Indeed, 61% of heroin users used at least three different drugs. The authors of the new study highlighted a “particularly strong” relationship between the use of prescription painkillers and heroin. People who are addicted to narcotic painkillers are 40 times more likely to misuse heroin, according to the study....

Frieden said the increase in heroin use was contributing to other health problems, including rising rates of new HIV infections, cases of newborns addicted to opiates and car accidents.  He called for reforms in the way opioid painkillers are prescribed, a crackdown on the flow of cheap heroin and more treatment for those who are addicted.

Some prior related posts:

July 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Former US District Judge Nancy Gertner talks about drug war casualties she had to create

As reported in this Atlantic posting, headlined "Federal Judge: My Drug War Sentences Were ‘Unfair and Disproportionate’," former US Strict Judge Nancy Gertner recently gave a provocative speech about her federal sentencing history and the impact of the drug war.  The posting provides a link to a video of the speech, and Conor Friedersdorf provides this summary account:

Former Federal Judge Nancy Gertner [recently] stood before a crowd at The Aspen Ideas Festival to denounce most punishments that she imposed. Among 500 sanctions that she handed down, “80 percent I believe were unfair and disproportionate,” she said. “I left the bench in 2011 to join the Harvard faculty to write about those stories –– to write about how it came to pass that I was obliged to sentence people to terms that, frankly, made no sense under any philosophy.”

No theory of retribution or social change could justify them, she said. And that dispiriting conclusion inspired the radical idea that she presented: a call for the U.S. to mimic its decision after World War II to look to the future and rebuild rather than trying to punish or seek retribution. As she sees it, the War on Drugs ought to end in that same spirit. “Although we were not remotely the victors of that war, we need a big idea in order to deal with those who were its victims,” she said, calling for something like a Marshall Plan.

She went on to savage the War on Drugs at greater length. “This is a war that I saw destroy lives,” she said. “It eliminated a generation of African American men, covered our racism in ostensibly neutral guidelines and mandatory minimums… and created an intergenerational problem –– although I wasn't on the bench long enough to see this, we know that the sons and daughters of the people we sentenced are in trouble, and are in trouble with the criminal justice system.”

She added that the War on Drugs eliminated the political participation of its casualties. “We were not leveling cities as we did in WWII with bombs, but with prosecution, prison, and punishment,” she said, explaining that her life’s work is now focused on trying to reconstruct the lives that she undermined –– as a general matter, by advocating for reform, and as a specific project: she is trying to go through the list of all the people she sentenced to see who deserves executive clemency.

July 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Noticing Senator Cornyn's notable role in federal criminal justice reform efforts

ImagesRegular readers know that Senator Charles Grassley is perhaps the most critical current player in the current debates over federal sentencing reform because of his role as Senate Judiciary Committee Chair.  But this new National Journal article, headlined "Cornyn's New Role: The 'Bridge' on Tricky Bipartisan Bills," highlights the key role now being played by the current Senate whip.  Here are excerpts from an interesting piece about Texas Senator John Cornyn:

On April 10, John Cornyn toured a huge prison in rural east Texas, about a three-hour drive north of his Houston birthplace. Nearly 700 security employees stroll the H.H. Coffield facility, which has a maximum capacity of around 3,800 prisoners, and Cornyn, a three-term senator who rose to the Texas Supreme Court and attorney general positions during the lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the key 1990s, was there to draw attention to a project helping prisoners learn the skills they need to rehabilitate — and get out.

"Some of the inmates were so poorly educated they couldn't even read a tape measure," said Cornyn in an interview in his Washington office this week. "Which if you think about it, it doesn't say much for our public education system, but it also just shows how big a problem we have when people have zero coping skills — no education — and they basically have lived a continuous life of crime, and they know nothing else in terms of the challenges. We have to break that cycle."

Almost seven months into his role as Senate majority whip, Cornyn talks quite a bit about breaking cycles, whether in prisons or the nature of crises in the Senate. His official role is to keep the Republicans in line and on-message, but he also has been an influential figure — the "bridge," as one Democrat puts it — on bipartisan pieces of legislation, particularly on two in the Judiciary Committee that bedeviled the last Congress: a criminal-justice reform package — the cause du jour infiltrating liberal and conservative think tanks, as well as the 2016 presidential debate — and patent-reform legislation with Sen. Chuck Schumer. Neither is on the Senate GOP leadership's short list, but both bills could see floor action with Cornyn's help, especially if the appropriations process breaks down, leaving room in the schedule.

On criminal justice, Democrats see Cornyn as an instrumental figure in creating the package that requires low-risk offenders to participate in recidivism-reduction programs for an earlier release—saving taxpayer money and making communities safer — and that includes a bipartisan bill reducing mandatory-minimum prison sentences. That bill is supported by members across the ideological spectrum but was opposed by Cornyn — who says now that it wasn't ready for "prime time" — along with Sen. Chuck Grassley, now the Judiciary Committee chairman, and others last year.

"I think we need a marriage of both of those proposals," said Cornyn, who would like to build on his bill to include some sentencing reforms. "I think looking at nonviolent offenders, low-risk offenders, I think there's some things we can do."

"My hope is that in the near future we will have a product that we can then have a hearing on and then mark up, and my hope is that we'll get something to the president this year," he added.

Sen. Dick Durbin, who is leading the sentencing-reform effort with Sen. Mike Lee, said Tuesday that Congress could have a "dramatic impact" on the federal prison population by addressing even just a "very narrow" category of drug offenses not involving firearms, gangs, violence, or terrorism.

Grassley has been an obstacle on the issue, according to Sen. Jeff Flake, a Judiciary panel member. Grassley was not invited to a White House meeting to discuss the topic this year and was advised in his hometown paper to take up sentencing reform a few months ago. But he seems more willing to move the package now — he said recently that the committee has the "capability" of reaching a bipartisan agreement this year — and has been convening meetings to see if a compromise can be struck.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Judiciary Committee Democrat, sees Cornyn as the "bridge" trying to get their bills through the panel. "As you know, I think Chairman Grassley has gone to the floor three separate times to express his displeasure and dissatisfaction with the mandatory-minimum bill," said Whitehouse. "So by way of the chairman putting a marker down that he's not pleased with a piece of legislation in his committee, it would be hard to imagine much of a bigger, louder marker than that."

"And I think Senator Cornyn is a very helpful voice in trying to be a bridge among the different parties involved here," he added. "Whether it's Chairman Grassley, or Senator Lee or Senator Durbin, I think both Senator Cornyn and I are trying to be that bridge, but given that the chairman is a Republican and given that Senator Cornyn is a former attorney general, former judge, and leader within the Republican caucus, I think Senator Cornyn is a particularly important figure in the bridge between Senator Lee and Chairman Grassley."

June 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Notable new federal drug sentencing guideline reform data and discussion from US Sentencing Commission

I just received via e-mail a notable alert from the US Sentencing Commission concerningnotable new information and materials now available on the USSC's website.  Here is the text of the alert I received (along with relevant links):

Today, the U.S. Sentencing Commission released its first report on retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment, which reduced the drug quantity table in the federal sentencing guidelines by two levels.  This report includes motions decided through the end of May 2015 for a reduced sentence under the new amendment.  Read the report.

For background information on why the Commission amended the drug guidelines, read the first of our new Policy Profile series, “Sensible Sentencing Reform: The 2014 Reduction of Drug Sentences.”

The Commission is also seeking public comment on proposed priorities for the upcoming amendment cycle.  Public comment is due on or before July 27, 2015.  More information

There is data and discussion in each of thse three new USSC documents that merit careful study and perhaps future substantive comment. For now, though, I am eager just to praise the Commission for the creation of the reader-friendly and astute "new Policy Profile series." I have long thought it a good idea for the USSC to say a lot more about matters of policy, but to do so in smaller forms than the traditional lengthy 300+ page reports to Congress. Thus, I consider this new Policy Profile series to be both a great idea and one that could pay lots of dividends for all policy-makers, researchers and advocates who are concerned about federal sentencing law and policy,

June 24, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Economist explains "how to make America’s penal system less punitive and more effective"

Download (7)This notable new piece from the print edition of The Economist, headlined "Jailhouse nation: How to make America’s penal system less punitive and more effective," provides advice from across the pond about how the US ought to reform its criminal justice system to address mass incarceration.  Here are excerpts:

More and more Americans accept that the harm caused by mass imprisonment now exceeds its benefits.  Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s 1994 crime bill filled many a cell, has now changed her mind.  On the right, fiscal conservatives decry the burden on taxpayers, while Christians talk of mercy.  Rick Perry, a former governor of Texas and a Republican presidential candidate, boasts of his record of closing three prisons in his state.  Nationwide, the incarcerated population appears to have plateaued; it should be sharply reduced.

A good start would be to end the war on drugs, which would do less harm if they were taxed, regulated and sold in shops, not alleys, as marijuana is in Colorado and Washington state.  In fact, the drug war is already ebbing: in 1997 drug offenders were 27% of all prisoners; now they are around 20%. That could be cut to zero if drugs were legalised.

The next step would be to amend or repeal rules that prevent judges from judging each case on its merits, such as state and federal “mandatory minimum” sentences and “three strikes” rules that compel courts to lock up even relatively minor repeat offenders for most of their lives.  New York has dramatically reduced its state-prison population this way. Prosecutors there have in effect been told to limit the number of people they imprison, giving them an incentive to lock up only the most dangerous. Prosecutors have long had huge discretion in which charges they bring; those in New York now use police intelligence to help them decide.  If the man in the dock seems relatively harmless, they go easy on him; if they know him to be a career criminal who has remained free because he intimidates witnesses, they throw the book at him. Crime has fallen in New York. There has been no backlash among voters.

Reducing the prison population to European levels is probably impossible, for America is still a much more violent place, even if most districts are reasonably safe.  There are roughly 165,000 murderers in American state prisons and 160,000 rapists. If America were to release every single prisoner who has not been convicted of killing or raping someone, its incarceration rate would still be higher than Germany’s.

But still, America does not need to lock up every violent criminal for as long as it does — which is longer than any other rich country. Some 49,000 Americans are serving life without the possibility of ever being released.  (In England and Wales the number is just 55.) Such harshness is unnecessary. A 50-year sentence does not deter five times as much as a ten-year sentence (though it does cost over five times as much).  Money wasted on long sentences cannot be spent on catching criminals in the first place, which is a more effective deterrent.

Reform is hard. Prosecutors and judges are often elected in America; many woo votes by promising to be tougher than their predecessors. Politicians who are seen to be soft on crime run a risk....

Nonetheless, the big fall in crime in the past two decades means that Americans are now less afraid than they were, and more open to reform. Californians voted last year in a referendum to downgrade several non-violent felonies to misdemeanours.  Other states are experimenting with better education in prisons (so that ex-convicts have a better chance of finding work), and drug treatment or GPS-enabled ankle bracelets as alternatives to incarceration.  Some are also trying to improve prison conditions, not least by curbing assaults and rapes behind bars. The aim of penal policy should be harm reduction, not revenge.  Tighter gun laws might help, because guns can turn drunken quarrels into murders; alas, that is politically improbable for now.  There is no single fix for America’s prisons, but there are 2.3m reasons to try.

June 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, June 19, 2015

"Vermont's Prison Chief Says It's Time to Decriminalize Drug Possession"

BildeThe title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new article from an independent paper in Vermont.  Here is how the lengthy article gets started:

Vermont Department of Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito recalled spotting a young woman on a prison tour; he knew she was addicted to heroin, but she wasn't getting treated for it. On another occasion, a former inmate who served five years on a marijuana conviction described his crime to Pallito as "possession of a vegetable."

Pallito has struggled over the years to rein in a DOC budget that has exploded along with the inmate population. All of that has led him to a conclusion shared by few in his field: Pallito believes that possession of all drugs should be decriminalized and that the War on Drugs should be declared a failure, he told Seven Days. The man who supervises Vermont's 1,900 prison inmates believes that many of them shouldn't be behind bars, and that incarceration sets them up for failure.

"Possession of drugs for personal utilization — if somebody is not hurting anyone [else], that should not be a criminal justice matter," Pallito, 49, said in an interview at his Williston office. "I don't think anybody can say that putting somebody with an addiction problem through the corrections system is a good idea."

The DOC commissioner has been following news reports from Portugal, which in 2000 decriminalized all drugs and has since recorded declines in drug abuse and overdose deaths. He's decided it's a brave example that Vermont should emulate. "We should go to the Portugal model, which is to deal with the addiction and not spend the money on the criminal justice system," Pallito said. "We spend so much money on corrections that could be done differently. The only way to do it is spend less on corrections and more on treatment."

Pallito may be the first head of a state prison system to publicly advocate against the prosecution of users of heroin, cocaine and other street drugs. He knows of no one among his peers who has stepped forward. Organizations that question the War on Drugs, such as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition — a group of former and current police officers — have not claimed any state corrections administrators as supporters. "When you're a corrections commissioner, most people think you're tough on crime, law and order, and I am — for certain crimes," Pallito said. He believes that possession of marijuana should be legal, in any quantity. Possession of all other drugs, provided they are in small quantities for personal use, should not result in a criminal charge but rather a small civil fine, along with a mandate to undergo treatment. In essence, he'd treat all drugs in a way that is consistent with Vermont's 2013 marijuana decriminalization law, which stipulates that people found with one ounce or less face a $200 fine but no criminal charge.

Pallito stressed two points: Drug dealers should still face criminal charges. And decriminalization should not happen overnight — there aren't enough drug-treatment providers to handle the effects of such a switch. He would go even further in decriminalizing drug-related activity. The many people who are charged with drug-addiction-related property crimes, such as theft, would not face prison time.

Currently, more than 500 of Vermont's 1,900 inmates are in custody for either property crimes or drug possession. Two of those are being incarcerated for marijuana possession. Freeing such inmates would dramatically reduce the prison population, saving the state several million dollars annually and enabling it to end the controversial program that ships 300 overflow inmates to privately run out-of-state prisons.

Further, Pallito said, decriminalization would allow people to take advantage of effective treatment programs and to avoid criminal convictions that prevent them from rebuilding their lives. "I think you will find a lot of people in the criminal justice system who have been there for a number of years understand its faults most acutely," said Chittenden County State's Attorney T.J. Donovan, who seemed a little taken aback by news of Pallito's stand. "The best policy is front-end work, and Andy sees that, and it's consistent with his progressive ideology."

June 19, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

SCOTUS unanimously rules for federal defendant on mens rea issue in McFadden CSA case

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its opinion in the Federal criminal case of McFadden v. US, No. 14-348 (S. Ct. June 18, 2015) (available here).  Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the Court, which garnered no dissents but generated a short concurrence by the Chief Justice.  The Court's opinion begins this way:

The Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 (Analogue Act) identifies a category of substances substantially similar to those listed on the federal controlled substance schedules, 21 U.S.C. § 802(32)(A), and then instructs courts to treat those analogues, if intended for human consumption, as controlled substances listed on schedule I for purposes of federal law, §813.  The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in turn makes it unlawful knowingly to manufacture, distribute, or possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. § 841(a)(1).  The question presented in this case concerns the knowledge necessary for conviction under § 841(a)(1) when the controlled substance at issue is in fact an analogue.

We hold that § 841(a)(1) requires the Government to establish that the defendant knew he was dealing with “a controlled substance.”  When the substance is an analogue, that knowledge requirement is met if the defendant knew that the substance was controlled under the CSA or the Analogue Act, even if he did not know its identity.  The knowledge requirement is also met if the defendant knew the specific features of the substance that make it a “‘controlled substance analogue.’” § 802(32)(A).  Because the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit approved a jury instruction that did not accurately convey this knowledge requirement, we vacate its judgment and remand for that court to determine whether the error was harmless.

June 18, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Constitution Project gets 130 former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials on letter advocating for SSA

Download (6)As reported here by The Constitution Project, "former judges and prosecutors from across the country are urging Congress to adopt the Smarter Sentencing Act."  Specifcally, The Constitution Project organized "130 former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials" to sign this notable letter "delivered to members of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on June 16."

As The Constitutional Project notes, included among "those signing the letter are Judge William S. Sessions, former director of the FBI; former state attorneys general from Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia; and former state Supreme Court justices from Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Montana and Texas."  And here is how the letter gets started:

As former judges, prosecutors and law enforcement officials, we write to express our support for critical reforms to federal sentencing contained in the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 (SSA), S.502/H.R.920.  This bill is an important step in promoting public safety and addressing unintended and expensive consequences of existing federal sentencing laws.

Nationwide, law enforcement has made significant progress in curbing violent crime in our communities.  At the federal level, we trust Congress to address the parts of our sentencing policies that are simply not working.  Presently, mandatory minimum drug sentences unnecessarily apply to a broad sweep of lower level offenders.  These include low-level, nonviolent people whose involvement in the offense is driven by addiction, mental illness, or both.  Drug offenders are the largest group of federal offenders sentenced each year, now comprising nearly half of the federal prison population. Moreover, individuals most likely to receive a mandatory minimum sentence were street-level dealers, not serious and major drug dealers, kingpins, and importers.  Indeed, of the 22,000 federal drug offenders last year, only seven percent had a leadership role in the crime and 84 percent did not possess or use guns or weapons.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission and other experts have found little deterrent value in sentencing low-level offenders to lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms.

Additionally, over the past three decades, our spending on federal incarceration has increased by over 1100 percent.  Despite this massive investment by taxpayers, federal prisons are now at 128 percent of their capacity, undermining staff and inmate safety and prisoner rehabilitation, as well as reducing the resources available for law enforcement and crime prevention. Incarceration and detention costs have nearly doubled over the last ten years, with the Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) budget at its current level of $7.2 billion in the President’s Fiscal Year 2016 budget request.  As a nation, we are expending enormous amounts of money, but failing to keep pace with our growing prison population.

Maintaining the status quo in federal sentencing policy is both fiscally imprudent and a threat to public safety.  We are deeply concerned that spending on incarceration has jeopardized funding for some of our most important law enforcement priorities.  The BOP budget now accounts for approximately a quarter of the U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) discretionary budget, potentially undermining other DOJ law enforcement priorities. Indeed, in 2014, the BOP’s budget grew at almost twice the rate of the rest of the Department of Justice.  With more resources going to incarcerate nonviolent offenders, funding for federal investigators and prosecutors is threatened. U.S. Attorneys’ Offices and the Drug Enforcement Administration have already lost hundreds of positions and resources for state and local law enforcement have significantly decreased.  Law enforcement will continue to maximize its resources to keep our communities safe, but Congress created our sentencing scheme and needs to act to help solve these problems

June 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

As Gov Jindal talks up sentencing reform and medical marijuana in Iowa, should we wonder what "The Donald" has to say on these issues?

The question in the title of this post captures some notable news from the GOP campaign trail this week.  The seemingly more serious news is discussed in this NOLA.com article, headlined "Bobby Jindal talks medical marijuana, sentencing reform with The Des Moines Register."  Here are the details from that report:

Gov. Bobby Jindal doubled down on his commitment to sign two pieces of state legislation related to marijuana during a video interview with The Des Moines Register. "We are going to sign both bills. They've made it through the process. They are going to make to my desk in the next few days," Jindal told The Des Moines Register....

Jindal backs legislation to establish a framework for access to medical marijuana in Louisiana. Technically, medical marijuana has been legal in the state for years, but there's never been rules written to regulate growing, prescribing or dispensing it. The new law, should Jindal sign it, would set up those regulations. "Look, if it is truly tightly controlled and supervised by the physicians, I'm ok with that," Jindal said.

The governor also said he would approve a bill that reduces maximum sentences allowed for many types of marijuana offenders. As governor, Jindal said he has increased penalties for people who violent offenders -- sex crime perpetrators and others -- but is in favor of reducing penalties for people who commit nonviolent crimes. "At the federal level, I think there is a bipartisan effort to look at sentencing reform. I think that makes sense," Jindal said.

But, perhaps unsurprisingly, a decision by a high-profile individuals to throw his hat in the GOP presidential ring has garnered the most media attention this week. And this ABC News report highlights some reasons why Donald Trump's views on sentencing and marijuana reform may really be consequential in the coming months:

[T]here’s a slice of voters, not insignificant in the Republican primary race, who despise Washington and politicians more broadly. Every candidate likes to try to channel that, but none bring the bluster that Trump does.... Trump is a sideshow, but one whose act will spill on to the main stage, particularly if he earns a debate invitation or three....

From Facebook: “In the 24 hour period between 12:01 a.m. ET June 16 and 12:01 a.m. ET June 17, 3.4 million people on Facebook in the U.S. generated 6.4 million interactions (likes, posts, comments, shares) related to Donald Trump and his announcement. Note: over the last 90 days, conversation about The Donald has been generated by an average of about 39,000 unique people per day.”

June 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Notable new data and other recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

I am pleased to see that the growing state, national and interenation marijuana reform movement is leading to much more research on marijuana use and law enforcement activities (in Colorado and elsewhere).  I have revently reported on some notable new research at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, and here are links to those posts (and a few other recent posts of note): 

June 16, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Citing much research and data, Judge Posner rails against "the problem of the elderly prisoner"

The Seventh Circuit this past week issued an otherwise routine affirmance of a drug conviction in US v. Presley, No. 14-2704 (7th Cir. June 11, 2015) (available here), the opinion end up not at all routine because of Judge Posner's lengthy concluding (dicta?) about problems with exceedingly long federal sentences and the elderly prisoners these sentences create.  I would urge all federal sentencing fans to read Judge Posner's work in Presley in full, and these passages help highlight why (even with lots of Judge Posner's great cites and data left out):

The only questionable feature of the judgment is the length of the sentence — almost 37 years, though it is within the applicable guidelines range because of Presley’s very lengthy criminal history. Presley was 34 years old when sentenced... [and if he] earns the maximum possible good-time credit he’ll be almost 64 years old when released. If he earns no good time he’ll be almost 69.  And after release he’ll undergo five years of supervised release, which like parole is a form of custody because it imposes significant restrictions on the supervisee....

The judge pointed out that Presley is a career offender, that he began his criminal career when he was 16, that he was a large-scale heroin dealer, and that he had committed disciplinary violations in previous incarcerations.  What the judge failed to consider was the appropriateness of incarcerating Presley for so long that he would be elderly when released.  Criminals, especially ones engaged in dangerous activities such as heroin dealing, tend to have what economists call a “high discount rate” — that is, they weight future consequences less heavily than a normal, sensible, law-abiding person would....

The sentencing judge in this case ... gave no reason to think that imposing a 37-year sentence on Presley would have a greater deterrent effect on current or prospective heroin dealers than a 20-year or perhaps even a 10-year sentence, or that incapacitating him into his sixties is necessary to prevent his resuming his criminal activities at that advanced age.  Sentencing judges need to consider the phenomenon of aging out of risky occupations.  Violent crime, which can include trafficking in heroin, is generally a young man’s game.  Elderly people tend to be cautious, often indeed timid, and averse to physical danger.  Violent crime is far less common among persons over 40, let alone over 60, than among younger persons....

There needs finally to be considered the cost of imprisonment to the government, which is not trivial.  The U.S. prison population is enormous by world standards — about 1 percent of the nation’s entire population — and prisons are costly to operate because of their building materials (steel especially is very expensive) and large staffs.  If the deterrent or incapacitative effect on criminal propensities fades sharply with time, the expenses incurred in the incarceration of elderly persons may be a social waste....

We are not suggesting that sentencing judges (or counsel, or the probation service) should conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine how long a prison sentence to give. But the considerations that we’ve listed should be part of the knowledge base that judges, lawyers, and probation officers consult in deciding on the length of sentences to recommend or impose.  There is no indication that these considerations received any attention in this case.  We do not criticize the district judge and the lawyers and probation officers for the oversight; recognition of the downside of long sentences is recent and is just beginning to dawn on the correctional authorities and criminal lawyers.  Neither the Justice Department nor the defendant’s lawyer (or the probation service) evinced awareness in this case of the problem of the elderly prison inmate....

There is much that federal sentencing judges are required to consider in deciding on a sentence to impose — maybe too much: the guidelines, the statutory sentencing factors, the statutory and regulatory provisions relating to conditions of supervised release, presentence reports, briefs and arguments of counsel, statements by defendants and others at sentencing hearings.  But in thinking about the optimal sentence in relation to the problem of the elderly prisoner, probably the judge’s primary focus should be on the traditional triad of sentencing considerations: incapacitation, which prevents the defendant from committing crimes (at least crimes against persons other than prison personnel and other prisoners) until he is released, general deterrence (the effect of the sentence in deterring other persons from committing crimes), and specific deterrence (its effect in deterring the defendant from committing crimes after he’s released).  A sentence long enough to keep the defendant in prison until he enters the age range at which the type of criminal activity in which he has engaged is rare should achieve the aims of incapacitation and specific deterrence, while lengthening the sentence is unlikely to increase general deterrence significantly if the persons engaged in the criminal activity for which the defendant is being sentenced have a high discount rate; for beyond a point reached by a not very long sentence, such persons tend not to react to increases in sentence length by abandoning their criminal careers.

June 13, 2015 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (8)

"The Impact of Drug Policy on Women"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing recent report from the Open Society Institute. Here is its introduction:

In the public mind, the “war on drugs” probably conjures up a male image. In most countries, official statistics would show that men, indeed, are the majority of people who use drugs recreationally, who have problematic use, and who sell drugs.  But punitive drug laws and policies pose a heavy burden on women and, in turn, on the children for whom women are often the principal caregivers.

Men and boys are put at risk of HIV and hepatitis C by prohibitionist policies that impede access to and use of prevention and care services, but women and girls virtually always face a higher risk of transmission of these infections.  Men suffer from unjust incarceration for minor drug offenses, but in some places women are more likely than men to face harsh sentences for minor infractions.  Treatment for drug dependence is of poor quality in many places, but women are at especially high risk of undergoing inappropriate treatment or not receiving any treatment at all.  All people who use drugs face stigma and discrimination, but women are often more likely than men to be severely vilified as unfit parents and “fallen” members of society.

This paper elaborates on the gender dimension of drug policy and law with attention to the burdens that ill-conceived policies and inadequate services place on women and girls.

June 13, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 12, 2015

"Marijuana & Ohio: Past, Present, Potential"

The title of this post is the title of the lengthy research report that was formally released (and extensively discussed) yesterday at the Ohio Marijuana Policy Reform Symposium which I help organize yesterday.  The report and related information about Marijuana Policies of Ohio Task Force that released the report can be found at this webpage.

The report is much longer and more data-heavy than anything else previously written about marijuana reform in Ohio, but this AP article discussing its findings also highlights why the report has also become the subject of criticism.  The AP piece is headlined "Economics of effort to legalize pot in Ohio in crosshairs," and here are excerpts:

A Republican prosecutor who is heading a task force on marijuana legalization in Ohio said the analysis of potential impacts released by his group Thursday presents a balanced look at the issue, a claim questioned by the state auditor.  Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters was asked to chair the Marijuana Policies of Ohio Taskforce by ResponsibleOhio, the group advancing a legalization amendment toward the November ballot.

He said ResponsibleOhio has allowed experts on his task force the editorial freedom to put together a “straightforward assessment” of how legalization might affect law enforcement, public safety, public health and Ohio’s overall economy.  “Our report doesn’t make recommendations, and it doesn’t pull any punches,” Deters said.  “We’ve made a concerted effort to remain objective, take an even-handed approach and lay out both the good and the bad of legalization.”

The report estimates legalization would create 34,791 jobs in Ohio representing $1.6 billion in labor income in connection with nearly $7 billion in output from the cultivation, extraction, processing and sale of marijuana.  The report said research shows legalization doesn’t lead to drastic increases in crime, in adult or teen marijuana use, or in workplace injuries -- a finding Auditor Dave Yost called rosy at best.

“There are unquestionably going to be health and safety impacts,” Yost, an opponent of legalizing marijuana, said.  “This task force was stacked like a BLT. Really, in 30 days? This debate has been going on for 50 years and they did a comprehensive study in 30 days?”

The report came the same day a committee of the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission was reviewing draft language that would amend Ohio’s constitution to ban changes to the constitution that create monopolies or further the economic interests of select individuals. It comes partly in reaction to a piece of ResponsibleOhio’s proposal that would establish 10 grow sites, some of which investors have already purchased.

Because I spent all of yesterday at the Ohio Marijuana Policy Reform Symposium talking about this Taskforce report, I am not going to add extra commentary here yet (though lots will follow before too long at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform).  But I am hopeful that the report can help advance public information and understanding as the debate over marijuana reform heats up in Ohio and nationwide in the months ahead.  Indeed, a letter from the Chair of the Taskforce, Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, stresses this point at the front of the document:

The question of changing Ohio’s approach to marijuana policy may soon be put before voters -- most likely on the November 2015 ballot.  The rapid pace of change in marijuana policy across the country, however, has made it difficult to keep up with the experiences, research, and practices occurring in different states. Political arguments from all sides of this debate have made it even more challenging to separate fact from opinion....

Ohio cannot afford to make decisions about marijuana policy and law based on unsubstantiated and often unsupported talk on both sides of the issue. Ohioans need and deserve an honest and in-depth assessment of the positive and negative impacts that ending marijuana prohibition may have, so they can make up their own minds....

I look forward to continuing this important discussion throughout Ohio in the coming weeks and months.

June 12, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 08, 2015

Can any significant federal prison sentence truly be "reasonable" for any of the Kettle Falls Five marijuana defendants?

Download (2)The question in the title of this post is a serious question I have in light of the remarkable federal marijuana prosecution that reaches sentencing in Washington state later this week.  The case involves the so-called "Kettle Falls Five," a group of medical marijuana patients subject (somewhat mysteriously) to aggressive federal criminal prosecution.  Regular readers may recall prior posts about the case; this new lengthy Jacob Sullum Forbes piece, headlined "In A State Where Marijuana Is Legal, Three Patients Await Sentencing For Growing Their Own Medicine," provides this review and update:

During their trial at the federal courthouse in Spokane last March, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey and her two fellow defendants—her son, Rolland Gregg, and his wife, Michelle Gregg—were not allowed to explain why they were openly growing marijuana on a plot in rural northeastern Washington marked by a big green cross that was visible from the air. According to a pretrial ruling, it was irrelevant that they were using marijuana for medical purposes, as permitted by state law, since federal law recognizes no legitimate use for the plant. But now that Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs have been convicted, they are free to talk about their motivation, and it might even make a difference when they are sentenced next Thursday.

Federal drug agents raided the marijuana garden, which was located outside Firestack-Harvey’s home near Kettle Falls, in 2012. In addition to the three defendants who are scheduled to be sentenced next week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington charged Firestack-Harvey’s husband, Larry Harvey, and a family friend, Jason Zucker. Dubbed the Kettle Falls Five, all had doctor’s letters recommending marijuana for treatment of various conditions, including gout, anorexia, rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and chronic pain from a broken back. Last February prosecutors dropped the charges against Harvey because he has terminal cancer. Zucker, who had a prior marijuana conviction, pleaded guilty just before the trial and agreed to testify against the other defendants in exchange for a 16-month sentence, which was much shorter than the 15-year term he could have received in light of his criminal history....

In the end, after hearing testimony for five days and deliberating for one, the jurors acquitted the defendants of almost all the charges against them, which could have sent them to prison for 10 years or more. “They all saw what was going on,” Telfeyan says. “They understood what the facts were, and they came back with a verdict exactly consistent with what actually happened, which was just a family growing medical marijuana for their own personal use.”

The jury rejected allegations that the defendants distributed marijuana and conspired to do so, that they grew more than 100 plants (the cutoff for a five-year mandatory minimum) over the course of two years, that they used firearms (the Harveys’ hunting guns) in connection with a drug crime (another five-year mandatory minimum), and that Firestack-Harvey maintained a place (i.e., the home she shared with her husband) for the purpose of manufacturing and distributing marijuana. The one remaining charge — cultivation of more than 50 but fewer than 100 plants — does not carry a mandatory minimum penalty, which gives Rice broad discretion when he sentences Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs next Thursday. He can even consider the reason they were growing marijuana.

“But for state-sanctioned medical prescriptions authorizing each member of the family to grow 15 marijuana plants, this family would not be before the Court today,” the defense says in a sentencing memo filed last week [available here]. “Due to the exemplary contributions each family member has made to this society, their lack of criminal records, and the unique role state-sanctioned medical authorizations played in this case, Defendants respectfully seek a probationary sentence with no incarceration.”

The federal probation office recommended sentences of 15 to 21 months, while the prosecution is seeking 41 to 51 months [gov sentencing memo here], based mainly on allegations that were rejected by the jury, including cultivation in 2011 as well as 2012.  To give you a sense of how realistic the government’s assumptions are, it estimates that each plant grown in 2011 produced more than a kilogram of marijuana. As the defense notes, that figure “flies in the face of both empirical reality and legal precedent,” since “numerous courts have recognized that a marijuana plant cannot yield anywhere near 1 kilogram of usable marijuana.” At one point in its sentencing memo, the prosecution even claims the defendants somehow managed to produce “1000 kilograms per plant.” I assume that’s a typo, but who knows? The government also thinks the 2012 harvest should be measured by the weight of the plants, including leaves, stems, water, and clinging dirt.

The prosecution’s insistence that Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs deserve to spend at least three and a half years in prison is puzzling, as is its willingness to posit super-productive, science fictional marijuana plants in service of that goal. But this case has been a puzzle from the beginning.

I assume that this federal prosecution started because federal authorities thought the defendants here were doing a whole lot more than what the feds were able to prove in court.  For that reason, I can sort of understand why the feds started this prosecution way back in early 2012.  But now, three years later, with the defendants acquitted on most charges (and now with lots of persons selling lots of recreational marijuana within the state), I have a very hard time understanding just how the feds can think a lengthy prison sentence is "not greater than necessary" for these defendants in light of the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of these defendants.

I have in the excerpt above links to the parties' sentencing briefs, and I sincerely seek input on the question in the title of this post in light of some of the arguments made thereing.  Notably, the government's sentencing memo is only focused on dickering over the applicable guideline range; it does not appear to make any formal arguments for a signficant prison sentence in light of all the 3553(a) sentencing factos that judges now must consider after Booker.  So I suppose it is still possible that even the government will, come the actual sentencing later this week, acknowledge that this remarkable case does not justify any significant federal prison sentence for any of the defendants with no criminal history.  But if the government seeks a prison term, and if the judge imposes a prison term, I would be ready and eager to argue on appeal for these defendants that such a punishment cannot possibly be reasonable in light of all the sentencing commands Congress put into 3553(a).

Prior related posts:

June 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Extended profile of judge strugging with extended mandatory minimum federal drug sentences

Download (1)The Washington Post has this lengthy article discussing the sentencing struggles of US District Judge Mark Bennett. The piece is headlined "Against his better judgment: In the meth corridor of Iowa, a federal judge comes face to face with the reality of congressionally mandated sentencing." Here are excerpts from the first part of the piece:

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett entered and everyone stood. He sat and then they sat. “Another hard one,” he said, and the room fell silent. He was one of 670 federal district judges in the United States, appointed for life by a president and confirmed by the Senate, and he had taken an oath to “administer justice” in each case he heard. Now he read the sentencing documents at his bench and punched numbers into an oversize calculator. When he finally looked up, he raised his hands together in the air as if his wrists were handcuffed, and then he repeated the conclusion that had come to define so much about his career.

“My hands are tied on your sentence,” he said. “I’m sorry. This isn’t up to me.”

How many times had he issued judgments that were not his own? How often had he apologized to defendants who had come to apologize to him? For more than two decades as a federal judge, Bennett had often viewed his job as less about presiding than abiding by dozens of mandatory minimum sentences established by Congress in the late 1980s for federal offenses. Those mandatory penalties, many of which require at least a decade in prison for drug offenses, took discretion away from judges and fueled an unprecedented rise in prison populations, from 24,000 federal inmates in 1980 to more than 208,000 last year. Half of those inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Federal prisons are overcrowded by 37 percent. The Justice Department recently called mass imprisonment a “budgetary nightmare” and a “growing and historic crisis.”

Politicians as disparate as President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are pushing new legislation in Congress to weaken mandatory minimums, but neither has persuaded Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that is responsible for holding initial votes on sentencing laws. Even as Obama has begun granting clemency to a small number of drug offenders, calling their sentences “outdated,” Grassley continues to credit strict sentencing with helping reduce violent crime by half in the past 25 years, and he has denounced the new proposals in a succession of speeches to Congress. “Mandatory minimum sentences play a vital role,” he told Congress again last month.

But back in Grassley’s home state, in Iowa’s busiest federal court, the judge who has handed down so many of those sentences has concluded something else about the legacy of his work. “Unjust and ineffective,” he wrote in one sentencing opinion. “Gut-wrenching,” he wrote in another. “Prisons filled, families divided, communities devastated,” he wrote in a third.

And now it was another Tuesday in Sioux City — five hearings listed on his docket, five more nonviolent offenders whose cases involved mandatory minimums of anywhere from five to 20 years without the possibility of release. Here in the methamphetamine corridor of middle America, Bennett averaged seven times as many cases each year as a federal judge in New York City or Washington. He had sentenced two convicted murderers to death and several drug cartel bosses to life in prison, but many of his defendants were addicts who had become middling dealers, people who sometimes sounded to him less like perpetrators than victims in the case reports now piled high on his bench. “History of family addiction.” “Mild mental retardation.” “PTSD after suffering multiple rapes.” “Victim of sexual abuse.” “Temporarily homeless.” “Heavy user since age 14.”

Bennett tried to forget the details of each case as soon as he issued a sentence. “You either drain the bathtub, or the guilt and sadness just overwhelms you,” he said once, in his chambers, but what he couldn’t forget was the total, more than 1,100 nonviolent offenders and counting to whom he had given mandatory minimum sentences he often considered unjust. That meant more than $200 million in taxpayer money he thought had been misspent. It meant a generation of rural Iowa drug addicts he had institutionalized. So he had begun traveling to dozens of prisons across the country to visit people he had sentenced, answering their legal questions and accompanying them to drug treatment classes, because if he couldn’t always fulfill his intention of justice from the bench, then at least he could offer empathy. He could look at defendants during their sentencing hearings and give them the dignity of saying exactly what he thought.

“Congress has tied my hands,” he told one defendant now. “We are just going to be warehousing you,” he told another. “I have to uphold the law whether I agree with it or not,” he said a few minutes later.

June 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, June 05, 2015

Imagining a domestic Marshall Plan to rebuild communities after ending the drug war

For many reasons, it is way too early to say the long national war on drugs is over or even that there has been a significant retrenchment of the war at the federal level.  Nevertheless, given the apprarent waning public support and clearly waning criminal justice resources being devoted to this war, it is not too early to start making plans for how best to frame national, state and local policies and priorities when this war ends.  To that end, I have been talking up in some of my classes and lectures the idea of a "Marshall Plan" afte the drug war, and I was pleased and excited when visiting Harvard Law School a few months ago to leasr that some others were thinking along these lines as well.

In particular, David Harris and Johanna Wald, who help run the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, have robustly embraced the notion of a modern domestic Marshall Plan as evidence by this new op-ed they authored for the Boston Globe. The piece is headlined "Proposing a Houston/Marshall Plan for domestic policy," and here are excerpts:

On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall spoke to a crowd of 15,000 at Harvard University’s commencement. In a surprise announcement, he unveiled plans for the United States government to rebuild a Europe devastated by almost a decade of war. In simple straightforward language, he declared that this massive effort — which came to be known as the Marshall Plan — “is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos...” The Marshall Plan is largely credited with restoring confidence and hope along with local economies in Europe. It remains a testament to the power of American fortitude and ingenuity.

Sixty-eight years later, Marshall’s words carry a surprisingly potent punch — albeit in response to a very different kind of “war”; one that we have been waging for decades against our own communities of color. During the past year, the curtain has been pulled back, revealing the maze of punishment, fear, and surveillance that traps so many individuals, particularly young men, living in these communities. They attend underresourced schools that expect them to fail and drop out. Police function as a hostile, occupying force, frequently hunting them down, and subjecting them to humiliating arrests and stop-and-frisk practices. They even lack recreational outlets....

Make no mistake about it. These communities did not simply “evolve.” They exist in their current state because of very deliberate educational, transportation, housing, and economic policy choices. These include investing in highways over subways, creating policies that transfer good jobs to areas beyond the reach of public transportation, redlining practices that keep families of color from moving into higher opportunity neighborhoods, and allocating scarce education dollars on surveillance and police rather than on libraries and laboratories. Each choice closes off one more exit out of the maze, and keeps residents stumbling into dead ends.

“The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle,” stated George Marshall in the speech. Indeed. We propose to create a new Houston/Marshall Plan (named after civil rights giants Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall), focused on helping communities restore themselves after decades of intentional disinvestment.  This new Houston/Marshall Plan will advance strategies, innovations, and solutions designed by those living and working in these neighborhoods.  It is their voices that have been routinely ignored or silenced in public policy discussions.  It will promote public health perspectives that favor recreational, day care and health centers, diversion programs that allow mothers to stay with their children, treatment for addictions, and job training instead of more police, more prosecutions, and more prisons.  It will highlight promising models for building affordable housing units near these jobs, and for creating school cultures that expect students to succeed instead of treating them like criminals-in-waiting.  For those who decry the costs of this rebuilding, we point to the economic and public safety benefits that all of us will reap from investments in communities and lives too long neglected.

June 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Spotlighting the role and importance of federal prosecutors in the drug war

Mona Lynch has this notable new op-ed in today's New York Times headlined "Reining In Federal Prosecutors." here are excerpts:

In recent months, police departments and prison systems have been taking heat for the systemic abuses that mar our nation’s justice system. But one key player has been notably absent: For decades, our federal court system has been quietly perpetrating some of the deepest injustices in the name of the war on drugs.

Federal laws passed at the height of our punitive frenzy in the 1980s have been abused by overzealous federal prosecutors to compel guilty pleas and obtain long, unjust prison sentences, especially against black drug defendants. We must rein in these practices if we are to reshape our country’s criminal justice system for the 21st century.

Prosecutors have a number of tools at their disposal, the most powerful of which is the “851,” which can be filed against those with prior drug convictions to at least double mandatory minimum sentences. In the worst case, a 10-year mandatory minimum becomes a life sentence without parole for a defendant with two prior convictions. The 851 statute was passed in 1970 to give prosecutors more discretion to seek harsh sentences against only the most serious offenders, and exempt lower-level defendants. But it has been deployed in exactly the opposite manner.

I have conducted in-depth qualitative research and interviews in four federal districts; in each, the 851 threat loomed for nearly everyone with the eligible prior record. In the words of one of my interviewees, “the 851 is the ultimate lever” used by prosecutors to force a guilty plea. And it almost always worked: Defendants were compelled to waive their rights and plead guilty to ensure that their sentences were not doubled, or worse.... [N]o entity tracks the threat or use of the 851 in drug cases. We do know, however, from qualitative research like mine and recent work by the United States Sentencing Commission that its coercive use has been pervasive.

Data also indicate that mandatory minimums and enhancements like the 851 have been disproportionately used against black defendants. While research shows that illicit drug use and distribution is generally proportionate to the racial makeup of the nation’s population, black people are overrepresented as drug defendants in federal courts, constituting 30 percent of all those sentenced for drug crimes, and a full two-thirds of those who receive life sentences.

Between 1992 and 2012, about 2,300 black men have been sentenced to life for federal drug convictions, 72 percent of whom had asserted their right to trial. While data cannot pinpoint the 851 as the trigger of those life sentences, it does indicate that 96 percent were subject to drug mandatory minimums at sentencing.

Some effort has been made to address the overzealous use of the 851 threat. In 2014, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. directed prosecutors to refrain from using the 851 as a threat or inducement in plea negotiations. But while his directive has clearly changed behavior in some districts, the 851 threat remains alive in others.

As we grapple with the consequences of a three-decade-long law-and-order binge that has disproportionately affected black communities, we must repair the damage done in the past and prevent a repeat in the future. That means revisiting the unconscionably long sentences that keep Brandon and others behind bars for most or all of their lives, and it means removing hammers like the 851 from the prosecutors’ toolbox to prevent their future abuse.

June 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sentencing message sent: blazing a Silk Road for drugs gets you LWOP

Images (10)A high-profile prosecution of a high-tech drug dealer culminated on Friday with the sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht.  This Wired story provides an effective account of the sentencing, and includes these excerpts:

On Friday Ulbricht was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in creating and running Silk Road’s billion-dollar, anonymous black market for drugs. Judge Katherine Forrest gave Ulbricht the most severe sentence possible, beyond what even the prosecution had explicitly requested. The minimum Ulbricht could have served was 20 years.

“The stated purpose [of the Silk Road] was to be beyond the law. In the world you created over time, democracy didn’t exist. You were captain of the ship, the Dread Pirate Roberts,” she told Ulbricht as she read the sentence, referring to his pseudonym as the Silk Road’s leader. “Silk Road’s birth and presence asserted that its…creator was better than the laws of this country. This is deeply troubling, terribly misguided, and very dangerous.”

In addition to his prison sentence, Ulbricht was also ordered to pay a massive restitution of more than $183 million, what the prosecution had estimated to be the total sales of illegal drugs and counterfeit IDs through the Silk Road—at a certain bitcoin exchange rate—over the course of its time online. Any revenue from the government sale of the bitcoins seized from the Silk Road server and Ulbricht’s laptop will be applied to that debt.

Ulbricht had stood before the court just minutes earlier in navy blue prison clothes, pleading for a lenient sentence. “I’ve changed. I’m not the man I was when I created Silk Road,” he said, as his voice grew hoarse with emotion and cracked. “I’m a little wiser, a little more mature, and much more humble.”

“I wanted to empower people to make choices in their lives…to have privacy and anonymity,” Ulbricht told the judge. “I’m not a sociopathic person trying to express some inner badness.”

Ulbricht’s sentencing likely puts the final seal on the saga of Silk Road, the anarchic underground market the 31-year-old Texan created in early 2011. At its peak, the Dark Web site grew to a sprawling smorgasbord of every narcotic imaginable — before Ulbricht was arrested in a public library in San Francisco in October of 2013. Eighteen months later, he was convicted in a Manhattan court on seven felony charges, including conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and launder money, as well as a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for the leaders of organized crime groups....

Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it will seek an appeal in his case. That call for a new trial will be based in part on recent revelations that two Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents involved in the investigation of the Silk Road allegedly stole millions of dollars of bitcoin from the site. One of the agents is even accused of blackmailing Ulbricht, and of allegedly selling him law enforcement information as a mole inside the DEA. But the judge in Ulbricht’s case ruled that those Baltimore-based agents weren’t involved in the New York FBI-led investigation that eventually took down the Silk Road, preventing their alleged corruption from affecting Ulbricht’s fate.

Speaking to press after the sentencing, Ulbricht’s lead attorney Joshua Dratel said that Forrest’s sentence was “unreasonable, unjust, unfair and based on improper consideration with no basis in fact or law.” He added: “I’m disappointed tremendously.”

In emotional statements at the hearing, the parents of drug users who had overdosed and died from drugs purchased from the Silk Road called for a long sentence for Ulbricht. “I strongly believe my son would still be alive today if Mr. Ulbricht had never created Silk Road,” said one father whose 25-year old son had died from an overdose of heroin, requesting “the most severe sentence the law will allow.”

In the weeks leading up to his sentencing hearing, Ulbricht’s defense team attempted to lighten his punishment with arguments about his motives and character, as well as emphasizing the Silk Road’s positive effect on its drug-using customers. In more than a hundred letters, friends, family, and even fellow inmates pointed to Ulbricht’s idealism and lack of a criminal history. And the defense argued that Silk Road had actually reduced harm in the drug trade by ensuring the purity of the drugs sold on the site through reviews and ratings, hosting discussions on “safe” drug use, and giving both buyers and sellers an avenue to trade in narcotics while avoiding the violence of the streets.

But the prosecution countered that any protection the Silk Road offered drug users was dwarfed by the increased access it offered to dangerous and addictive drugs. And beyond the two parents who spoke at the Friday hearing, it pointed to six individuals who it claimed had died of drug overdoses from drugs purchased on the Silk Road.

In her statement preceding Ulbricht’s sentencing, Judge Forrest fully sided with the prosecution against the defense’s “harm reduction” argument, arguing that the Silk Road vastly expanded access to drugs. “Silk Road was about fulfilling demand, and it was about creating demand,” she said. “It was market-expanding.”

She also tore into the argument that the Silk Road reduced violence in the drug trade, pointing out that most of the academic papers submitted by the defense to support that argument focused only on the protection for the final buyer of drugs. But that digital remove, she argued, did nothing to prevent violence at any other point in the narcotics supply chain, from production to distribution. “The idea that it’s harm reducing is so very narrow,” she said. “It’s…about a privileged group, sitting in their own homes, with their high speed internet connections.”

The Justice Department also argued in their letter to Judge Forrest that Ulbricht should be made an example of to stop even more Dark Web market kingpins from following in his footsteps. After all, dozens of copycat sites and advancements on the Silk Road market model have sprouted in the years since its takedown, including the Silk Road 2, Evolution, and the currently largest Dark Web black market to survive law enforcement’s attacks, Agora. To combat the spread of those anonymous bazaars, prosecutors asked Judge Forrest to “send a clear message” with a sentence for Ulbricht well beyond the mandatory minimum.

Judge Forrest sided with the prosecution on that point, too, arguing that she needed to create a strong deterrent for the next Dread Pirate Roberts. “For those considering stepping into your shoes…they need to understand without equivocation that there will be severe consequences,” Forrest said.

The defense’s arguments about Ulbricht’s character and his idealistic motives were also undercut by accusations that Ulbricht had paid for the murder of six people, including a potential informant and a blackmailer. Those accusations never became formal charges in Ulbricht’s case — five out of six of the murder-for-hires appear to have been part of a lucrative scam targeting Ulbricht, with no actual victims.

But those murder accusations nonetheless deeply colored Ulbricht’s trial, and strongly influenced his sentence. “I find there is ample and unambiguous evidence that [Ulbricht] commissioned five murders to protect his commercial enterprise,” Forrest said, leaving out one alleged attempted murder for which Ulbricht was charged in a different case.

With those attempted murders as context, Forrest was merciless in her assessment of Ulbricht’s seeming multiple personalities: the altruistic and admirable young man described in the letters sent to her as evidence of his character, versus the callous drug lord she saw in his actions. “People are very complicated, and you are one of them,” she said simply. “There is good in you, Mr. Ulbricht. There is also bad. And what you did with the Silk Road was terribly destructive.”

May 31, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Feds seeking LWOP sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

As reported in this Wired piece, "headlined "Silk Road Prosecutors Ask to 'Send a Message' in Ulbright Sentencing," the federal government has now asked for the toughest possible sentence for the defendant convicted of creating the on-line drug market known as Silk Road. Here is part of the story:

Ross Ulbricht's billion-dollar black market Silk Road was in many ways the first of its kind, blending encryption and online drug sales in a business model that plenty of other online drug lords have since sought to emulate. So as Ulbricht’s sentencing for running that massive narcotics-selling experiment approaches, the Department of Justice wants to make an example of Ulbricht’s punishment, too.

Ahead of Ulbricht’s sentencing Friday, prosecutors in his case have sent the judge a 16-page letter asking that Ulbricht be given the maximum possible punishment of life in prison. And one of the reasons for that harsh sentence, the Department of Justice attorneys argue, is to “send a clear message” to anyone who would follow in Ulbricht’s footsteps and create the next Dark Web drug market.

“Ulbricht’s conviction is the first of its kind, and his sentencing is being closely watched,” the prosecution’s letter reads. “The Court thus has an opportunity to send a clear message to anyone tempted to follow his example that the operation of these illegal enterprises comes with severe consequences.”

That deterrence argument is just one in a series of calls for a life sentence made by the prosecution in its letter. At other points, it lists the details of six deaths it argues were caused by drug overdoses facilitated by the Silk Road’s anything-goes drug sales. It rebuts the positive arguments about Ulbricht’s character made by the defense, as well as the over 100 letters from friends, family, and even fellow inmates about Ulbricht’s character, pointing to his cold-blooded recording of his attempted murders of enemies in the journal found on his laptop. And it counters the argument made in the defense’s pre-sentencing letter to the judge: That the Silk Road actually reduced harm for drug users with a rating and review system that assured drugs’ quality and purity....

Indeed, several iterations of the Silk Road have come and gone in the two short years since it went offline. Those copycat sites have included the Silk Road 2, which was shut down in law enforcement’s dark web purge last fall, and Evolution, a giant black market for drugs, guns, and stolen financial information whose leaders absconded with users’ funds in March. Today the black market site Agora reigns as the largest black market still online, with tens of thousands more products listed for sale than the Silk Road ever offered.

In its letter, the Silk Road prosecution points to the difficulty of tracking down and punishing the creators of those markets as one more reason that Ulbricht should be imprisoned for life: If anonymous market administrators can’t be easily caught, perhaps they can be deterred from a life of Dark Web crime by their fear of Ulbricht’s fate. “Although the Government has achieved some successes in combating these successor dark markets, they continue to pose investigative challenges for law enforcement,” reads the letter. “To the extent that would-be imitators may view the risk of being caught to be low, many are still likely to be deterred if the stakes are sufficiently high.”

The government's full sentencing memorandum is available at this link.

Prior related posts:

May 27, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Before sentencing, Ulbricht begs for leniency: 'please leave me my old age'"

This new ars technica posting provides the title of this post and it provides background and links to a high-energy effort by a high-profile defendant to get a lower sentence for his high-tech drug dealing crimes for which he will be sentenced in the coming week.  Here are excerpts:

Convicted Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht and no less than 97 of his friends and family members have written to a judge just days prior to sentencing, asking her to impose the most lenient sentence possible. (Ars has posted the letters online along with the court filing of photos of Ulbricht and many family and friends.)

 Under federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, Ulbricht faces at least 20 years in prison and possibly as long as life behind bars.  “Silk Road turned out to be a very naive and costly idea that I deeply regret,” he wrote in his own 1.5 page letter to United States District Judge Katherine Forrest filed on Friday.

Ulbricht’s own letter marks the first time he has shown any public remorse during the entire saga, during which he did not testify. His attorney, Joshua Dratel, spun unsubstantiated theories that while Ulbricht created Silk Road, unnamed mysterious others took over the site and should be the ones prosecuted for the crime. Dratel previously vowed to appeal the verdict.

In February 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of seven charges including three drug counts: distributing or aiding and abetting the distribution of narcotics, distributing narcotics or aiding and abetting distribution over the Internet, and conspiracy to violate narcotics laws. He was also convicted on a fourth count of conspiracy to run a "continuing criminal enterprise," which involves supervising at least five other people in an organization. In addition, Ulbricht was convicted on conspiracy charges for computer hacking, distributing false identification, and money laundering.

Prior related posts:

May 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, May 22, 2015

Two notable voices from the (far?) right calling again for drug war and sentencing reform

Download (2)The two recent stories about recent comments by notable advocates reinforce my sense that more and more traditional (and not-so-traditional) conservative voices are feeling more and more confortable vocally criticizing the federal drug war and severe drug sentencing:

Headline: "Grover Norquist: Malloy Right On Drug Sentencing Reform"

Money Quotes:   If you told me a year ago that I [Grover Norquist] would be speaking out in favor of one of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's top priorities, I would have said you were crazy. The governor is a tax-and-spend liberal and I have spent my entire career fighting high taxes and wasteful government spending. Yet, just as a broken clock gets it right once in a while, Gov. Malloy is right about the need to reform mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Contrary to their original intent, mandatory minimum laws have done little to reduce crime. They have, however, been significant drivers of prison overcrowding and skyrocketing corrections budgets. That's why conservatives and liberals in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses all across the country are coming together to repeal and reform these one-size-fits-all laws. Oklahoma, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Florida are just a handful of the states where conservatives have not simply supported, but led, the efforts to scale back mandatory minimum sentences.

Conservatives in Connecticut should support the governor's mandatory minimum proposals for two reasons. First, the reforms are very modest — addressing only drug possession. In some states, such as Connecticut's neighbor, Rhode Island, and Delaware, lawmakers have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenses. Still more states have enacted significant reform to their drug mandatory minimum laws so that judges have discretion to impose individualized sentences that fit the crime. In all of these states, crime rates have dropped.

Conservatives in Connecticut also should embrace sentencing reform because of the state's awful budget mess. For too long, fiscal hawks have turned a blind eye to wasteful law enforcement spending. Not wanting to appear "soft on crime," they have supported every program and policy to increase the prison population without subjecting those ideas to cost-benefit analysis.

Those days are over. After watching state spending on prisons skyrocket more than 300 percent over the last two decades, state leaders across the country seem to understand that they can no longer afford to warehouse nonviolent offenders in prison.

-----

Headline: "Glenn Beck Calls for the Repeal of Federal Drug Prohibition"

Money QuotesToday on Glenn Beck's radio (and TV) show, I [Jacob Sullum] debated marijuana prohibition with Robert White, co-author (with Bill Bennett) of Going to Pot: Why the Rush to Legalize Marijuana Is Harming America The conversation turned to the war on drugs in general and also touched on federalism, the Commerce Clause, the nature of addiction, and the moral justification for paternalistic interference with individual freedom.  Reading from my recent Forbes column, Beck said he is strongly attracted to the Millian principle that "the individual is sovereign" over "his own body and mind," which rules out government intervention aimed at protecting people from their own bad decisions. "I'm a libertarian in transit," he said. "I'm moving deeper into the libertarian realm.... Inconsistencies bother me." By the end of the show, Beck was declaring that the federal government should call off its war on drugs and let states decide how to deal with marijuana and other psychoactive substances.

Addendum: Marijuana Majority's Tom Angell notes that Beck indicated he favored marijuana legalization back in 2009, saying, "I think it's about time we legalize marijuana...  We either put people who are smoking marijuana behind bars or we legalize it, but this little game we are playing in the middle is not helping us, it is not helping Mexico and it is causing massive violence on our southern border...  Fifty percent of the money going to these cartels is coming just from marijuana coming across our border." As far as I know, however, this is the first time Beck has explicitly called for an end to federal prohibition of all the other currently banned drugs.

May 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"How America Overdosed on Drug Courts"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and critical analysis of the modern drug courts movement appearing in the Pacific Standard magazine.  The subheadling highlights its main themes: "Hailed as the most compassionate way for the criminal justice system to deal with addicts, drug courts were designed to balance punishment with rehabilitation. But after 25 years, the verdict is in: Drug courts embolden judges to practice medicine without a license—and they put lives in danger." I consider this piece a must-read for all those interested in drug sentencing reform, and here are excerpts:

The first drug court opened in Florida’s Miami-Dade County in 1989, near the height of the hysteria in this country over drugs, particularly crack cocaine.  Both conservatives and liberals found something to love: Conservatives liked the potential for reduced prison spending, and liberals liked the emphasis on therapy.  From the start, however, critics voiced concerns about “cherry picking,” because the courts only allowed into the program defendants who seemed likely to succeed whether or not they received help. This sort of selectivity was built into the system: The federal laws that determine eligibility for grants to create new drug courts (ongoing funding is primarily state and local) require that the courts exclude people with a history of violent crime.  Many drug courts also bar people with long non-violent criminal histories.  Predictably, this eliminates many of those who have the most serious addictions — the very people the courts, at least in spirit, are supposed to help.

Proponents of drug courts celebrate the fact that those who participate do better than similar defendants who are simply incarcerated or given standard probation. This is unquestionably true.  “The average effect is to reduce new crimes by 10 to 15 percent,” says Douglas Marlowe, the chief of science, policy, and law for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.  (Those crimes include not only drug sales and possession but also crimes committed to pay for drugs, such as burglary and robbery.)  “The vast majority of evaluations show that they work,” says Ojmarrh Mitchell, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, “and the effect size is larger than any other large-scale criminal justice intervention.”

These improvements are seen mainly in people who graduate, however, which is only roughly half of those who participate — a fact that the NADCP and other advocates tend to play down.  Worse, defendants who start but do not complete drug court often serve longer sentences, meted out by judges as punishment, than they would have had they simply taken a plea and not tried to solve their drug problem.  That strikes many critics as a manifest injustice.  “This is intensifying the drug war on half of the people,” says Kerwin Kaye, an assistant professor of sociology at Wesleyan University.  “It’s not stopping the drug war, it’s continuing it by other means.”  Not only that, many people who fail to graduate drug court often go on to become worse offenders, compared to both graduates and to similar defendants who do not participate in drug courts.  According to a 2013 study of New York’s drug courts conducted by the Urban Institute and the Center for Court Innovation, which included data on more than 15,000 defendants, 64 percent of non-graduates were rearrested within three years, whereas only 36 percent of graduates were. Among comparable defendants who did not participate in drug courts, just 44 percent were re-arrested in that period, suggesting that those who tried but flunked drug court did worse than those who served their time.

May 21, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Debate over harms of online drug market now at center of upcoming sentencing of Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

As reported in this Wired piece, headlined "Ahead of Sentencing, Ulbricht Defense Argues Silk Road Made Drug Use Safer," the defense in a notable drug sentencing case is making a notable new claim about the nature and consequences of the defendant's drug dealing methods.  Here are the details:

When a jury convicted Ross Ulbricht three months ago of running the Silk Road, it closed the legal question of whether he was guilty of masterminding that billion-dollar online black market for drugs. But as Ulbricht’s sentencing approaches, his defense is opening another ethical question that may be far more societally important: Did the Silk Road’s newly invented method of narcotics e-commerce actually reduce the risks of drug use?

In a memo to judge Katherine Forrest filed Friday afternoon, Ulbricht’s defense has asked her to consider the Silk Road’s potential for “harm reduction” when she determines Ulbricht’s sentence in less than two weeks.  The memo argues that the Silk Road’s community provided drug users a more reliable way to buy untainted drugs, that Ulbricht had expressly tried to encourage “safer” drug use on his black market site, and that the digital nature of the site’s commerce may have protected users from physical interactions that in the traditional drug trade often lead to violence.

“In contrast to the government’s portrayal of the Silk Road web site as a more dangerous version of a traditional drug marketplace, in fact the Silk Road web site was in many respects the most responsible such marketplace in history, and consciously and deliberately included recognized harm reduction measures, including access to physician counseling,” writes Ulbricht’s lead defense attorney Joshua Dratel in the filing.  “In addition, transactions on the Silk Road web site were significantly safer than traditional illegal drug purchases, and included quality control and accountability features that made purchasers substantially safer than they were when purchasing drugs in a conventional manner.”

The memo argues that the Silk Road’s community provided drug users a more reliable way to buy untainted drugs.  One of the Silk Road’s innovations, after all, was to bring an eBay-like system of ratings and reviews for online drug sales.  That system gave buyers a way to quickly weed out dealers selling lower quality or less pure substances. The site maintained a section of its user forum devoted to safer drug use, where users could ask each other for advice and help with health problems.  And Ulbricht’s defense points to archived messages showing that Ulbricht even offered at one point to pay $500 a week to a Spanish doctor, Fernando Caudevilla, who frequented the forum and answered users’ questions.  Ulbricht also asked Caudevilla if he’d be willing to chemically test drugs on the site for quality, though it’s not clear if that testing scheme was ever put into practice.

Regardless, Ulbricht isn’t likely to receive a light sentence.  The 31-year-old Texan was convicted of seven felony charges in February that include conspiracies to traffic in narcotics and money laundering, as well as a “kingpin” statute reserved for the leaders of organized criminal operations, which could add another decade to his prison time.  In all, he faces a minimum of 30 years in prison and a maximum of life.  Ulbricht’s defense team has already said it plans to appeal the case.

The prosecution in Ulbricht’s case has revealed that it plans to present at Ulbricht’s sentencing hearing six cases of individuals who died from overdoses of drugs bought on the Silk Road.  But in its Friday filing, the defense addressed and rebutted each of those examples. In a grisly section of a separate memo, it goes through the details of those six deaths, in each case arguing that the deceased suffered from earlier health conditions and questioning whether the death-inducing drugs had actually been bought from vendors on the Silk Road. “It is simply impossible for the government to prove that drugs obtained from Silk Road ‘caused’ death, and in certain cases, the government cannot even establish to any degree of certainty that any of the drugs ingested came from Silk Road,” Dratel writes....

To bolster its argument about the societal benefits of the Silk Road, the defense includes in its filing sworn statements from a series of experts, including Tim Bingham, the administrator of an addiction-focused non-profit known as the Irish Needle Exchange Forum, and Meghan Ralston, the former director of harm reduction for the Drug Policy Alliance.  Bingham, for instance, published three studies in the International Journal of Drug Policy about the Silk Road based on surveys of users.  He writes in his statement that he “concluded that Silk Road forums…appeared to act as an information mechanism for the promotion of safer and more acceptable or responsible forms of recreational drug use.”

The full text of this Ulbricht Sentencing Defense Letter can be accessed at this link.

Prior related posts:

May 19, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, May 11, 2015

Notable Ohio county prosecutor calls pot prohibition a "disastrous waste of public funds"

Images (9)As reported in this Cincinnati Enquirer article, headlined "Prosecutor Deters OK with legalizing pot," a high-profile prosecutor in Ohio is now publicly getting involved with efforts to reform the state's marijuana laws. Here are the details:

The campaign to legalize marijuana in Ohio found an unlikely friend Monday in Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters.

Deters, a life-long Republican and law-and-order prosecutor, said he agreed to lead a task force on the potential impact of legalization in part because he's been unhappy for years with the state's marijuana laws. He said they waste taxpayer dollars and target people who typically are not much of a threat to society.

"I think they're outdated and ludicrous," Deters said of marijuana laws. "I don't use marijuana, but I know people who do use marijuana, and I'd rather deal with someone who smoked a joint than someone who drank a bottle of vodka any day of the week."

When asked if he favors legalization, Deters told The Enquirer: "I don't have any problem with it at all."

ResponsibleOhio, the group of wealthy investors campaigning for legalization, asked Deters to lead the task force. Deters said he's not being paid for his work on the task force and agreed to do it because he's interested in the issue and the potential impact on law enforcement.

He said finding an affordable and efficient way to test drivers who are suspected of being impaired by marijuana use is one of his concerns. "There is a public safety element to this," Deters said. His goal is to produce a report on the impact of legalization within a few months....

Deters said he doesn't buy the argument that prisons are filled with low-level drug offenders, but he does think the time and money devoted to marijuana enforcement could be better spent elsewhere. "It's been a disastrous waste of public funds," Deters said....

Deters said he's not taking a position on ResponsibleOhio's proposed business model, but he said it makes sense for the state to regulate and tax marijuana. "You can walk outside your building and buy marijuana in 10 minutes," Deters said. "The question is, do we want schools and local governments getting the money or the bad guys?"

He said it's also wise for the state to prepare for legalization, whether or not ResponsibleOhio succeeds, because voters seem more willing to support it and other states are adopting similar measures. "The days of 'reefer madness' are gone, because that's not the reality," Deters said, referring to the 1950s-era movies that vilified marijuana and those who used it.

He said he's reaching out now to academics, elected officials and law enforcement to participate in the task force.

I have long known and respected the work of Joe Deters, even though we have sometimes disagreed on various professional matters through our work on the Ohio Death Penalty Task Force and in other settings.  I had heard from various folks involved with the ResponsibleOhio campaign that they were seeking to have a prominent, knowledgeable person running a task force to examine these important marijuana reform topics, and I am especially pleased to see that Joe Deters is now officially and publicly at the helm.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

May 11, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 08, 2015

"We clearly need criminal-justice reform" says GOP Prez candidate Carly Fiorina

This Des Moines Register article (and video) details some notable new comments on criminal justice reform and drug policy from a notable new GOP Prez candidate.  Here are excerpts: 

The nation should stop overreacting to illegal drug use and stop doling out jail sentences that are way too long, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina said in Iowa on Thursday.

"We know that we don't spend enough money on the treatment of drug use," said Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard. "When you criminalize drug abuse, you're actually not treating it. We had a daughter who died of addictions, so this lands very close to home for me." Fiorina's daughter Lori, a drug and alcohol addict, died in 2009.

The "three strikes and you're out" law doesn't work well, and all the drug laws affect African-Americans more than others, Fiorina told The Des Moines Register's editorial board during an hourlong meeting.

"I don't think that overreacting to illegal drug use is the answer," said Fiorina, who officially entered the 2016 race on Monday and is the only woman in the GOP field. She has never held elected office, but ran unsuccessfully for U.S. senator in California.

Asked whether she favors decriminalizing marijuana, Fiorina answered: "No, I do not think we should legalize marijuana."...

Asked whether, as president, she'd direct the U.S. attorney general to enforce federal drug laws in states such as Colorado, Alaska, Washington and Oregon, Fiorina said she wouldn't. "I believe in states' rights," she said. "They're within their rights to legalize marijuana, and they're conducting an experiment I hope the rest of the nation is looking closely at."

May 8, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Senator Grassley's home-state paper tells him to stop blocking federal sentencing reforms

This new editorial from the Des Moines Register, headlined "Grassley should not block sentencing reforms," highlights that some notable folks are frustrated by Senator Charles Grassley's apparent unwillingness to move forward significantly with federal sentencing reforms proposed by his colleagues. Here are excerpts:

Amid hysteria over growing use of illegal drugs 30 years ago, Congress passed tough new criminal laws carrying long mandatory prison sentences. Regardless of whether mandatory sentences had any effect on drug abuse, they have contributed to a 500 percent increase in the federal prison population and a 600 percent increase in federal prison spending.

Besides filling prisons and imprisoning a generation of largely minority males from inner cities, these one-size-fits-all sentences tie the hands of judges who should tailor penalties to the unique circumstances of individual defendants.  And this obsession with criminalizing drug use has diverted resources that instead should be used to help people overcome their addictions.

Something extraordinary has happened recently, however: A consensus has emerged that this nation has put far too many people behind bars, and in the process it has created an unemployable underclass with criminal records.  That consensus includes a remarkable cross-section of politicians from both ends of the political spectrum, along with religious leaders, corporate executives and opinion leaders.

While there is growing bipartisan support in Congress for changing the mandatory-minimum sentencing law, one potential stumbling block remains stubbornly in place: U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, who as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is in a position to allow federal sentencing reforms to move forward.

Grassley’s rhetoric has not encouraged optimism.  He was dismissive and defensive when a “Smarter Sentencing Act” was introduced in March with the support of senators ranging from Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky to Democrats Dick Durban of Illinois and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.  He referred to supporters of the sentencing reform bill in a floor speech as the “leniency industrial complex.”

Although he recently seemed to soften his tone, saying he is “ready to address some of these issues,” Grassley has ruled out any across-the-board cut in mandatory minimum sentences.  Three Iowa bishops in a guest opinion published by the Register May 1 called on him to support sentencing reform, but he promptly responded with an opinion piece that amounted to a full-throated defense of mandatory minimum sentences.

The argument in favor of mandatory sentences is that the prospect of spending decades in prison gives prosecutors leverage to get lower-tiered dealers to produce evidence against “drug kingpins.”  But this gives prosecutors enormous power to force defendants to plead guilty, and with no prior involvement of a judge in open court.

Despite the assertion that mandatory sentences are aimed at putting away drug lords, “offenders most often subject to mandatory minimum penalties at the time of sentencing were street-level dealers — many levels down from kingpins and organizers,” according to research by the U.S. Sentencing Commission....

This nation’s war on drugs focused on criminal punishment instead of treatment has been a complete failure.  At long last there is growing support for changing that.  Iowa’s senior senator should not stand in the way.

Some recent related posts:

May 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

How many federal prison years are being served by defendants who (plausibly?) claimed compliance with state medical marijuana regimes?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new article from Michigan headlined "West Michigan man sent to prison for purported medical marijuana grow operation."  Here are the basics of this story with some follow-up data/questions:

One of the two leaders of a medical marijuana grow operation has been sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.  Phillip Joseph Walsh, 54, was sentenced Monday by U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney in Kalamazoo.  Betty Jenkins, described as his "life partner" in court records, will be sentenced June 29.

The Kent County residents were convicted at trial of running a marijuana grow operation that prosecutors say brought in $1.3 million.  The two, along with eight others, including a doctor who authorized patients for use of medical marijuana, were arrested last year for growing marijuana in multiple places in West Michigan.

The government contended that much of the marijuana grown was sold outside of Michigan. Jenkins was considered the leader of the organization.  The defendants argued they acted within the guidelines of Michigan's medical marijuana law but were not allowed to use the law as a defense to the federal charges.

Kent County Area Narcotics Team and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration used multiple search warrants to raid numerous properties, including apartment buildings in Gaines Township. Police seized 467 marijuana plants and 18 pounds of processed marijuana.

Defense attorney Joshua Covert said his client, a father of four daughters, was "very nervous" after reviewing advisory sentencing guidelines that called for 151 to 188 months in prison.  He said that Walsh has been a good, caring father and a hard worker and has led a productive life.  "Mr. Walsh and his life partner, Ms. Jenkins, lived a comfortable but certainly not lavish or extravagant life that was financed by rental income from property Ms. Jenkins obtained through her divorce," the attorney wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

"The endeavor of manufacturing marijuana was not particularly successful for Mr. Walsh from a financial standpoint because it proved to be difficult and expensive to manufacture marijuana," he wrote....  He said his client "is not seeking sympathy or pity" but asked for leniency "given the relaxed attitude toward marijuana nationwide and specifically Michigan in regards to marijuana."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Courtade said Walsh and Jenkins began manufacturing marijuana on Forest Hill Avenue SE in 2010.  Walsh hired a man to help with the grow operation before both were convicted for their roles.  The other man quit, "but Walsh and Jenkins carried on, unfazed," Courtade said.

"Defendant Walsh developed the 'marketing scheme' that ensnared many of the codefendants in this case," the prosecutor wrote....  He said that Walsh tried to insulate himself by staying he was only "'building grow rooms' ... his real motivation was far more nefarious."

He said Walsh grew marijuana for profit, with some sold in Ohio, some in Rhode Island. Courtade also said that Walsh could not document wages he earned — he reported remodeling and roofing homes — but he managed to hired his own attorneys, pay for a co-defendant's expert witnesses and build numerous manufacturing operations. He recommended a sentence within guidelines.

This story of a lengthy federal prison sentence for major marijuana dealing in a medical marijuana state itself highlights the challenges of coming up with a satisfactory answer to the question in the title of this post.  The defendants here were apparently quick to claim that they were acting in accord with Michigan state medical marijuana laws, but the facts reported suggest little basis for this defense claim of state-law compliance.

That said, I know there are at least a handful (and perhaps more than a handful) of the roughly 5000 federal prosecutions for marijuana trafficking sentenced in federal courts each year involving defendants who truly have a plausible claim to being in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  A low "guestimate" that an average of 10 federal marijuana defendants in each of the last 10 years have been been sentenced to an average of 10 years in federal prison for medical marijuana activities would, in turn, suggest that 1000 years in federal prison are being served by defendants who plausibly claimed compliance with state medical marijuana regimes.  

That is a lot of federal prison time (which would be costing federal taxpayers roughly $30 million because each prison year costs roughly $30,000).  And I have an inkling the number could be higher.

May 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Could new DEA chief significantly change realities of federal war on drugs?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Huffington Post article, headlined "Lawmakers Encourage Obama To Select A Progressive New DEA Chief," reporting on this recent letter sent by a group of Representatives to Prez Obama. Here are the details: 

In a letter sent Friday, a group of lawmakers are urging President Barack Obama to select a more progressive head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, following the Department of Justice's announcement that the embattled current chief will resign in May. "We encourage you to use this as an opportunity to reshape the DEA's direction to reflect your administration's enforcement priorities," the letter reads.  The letter was signed by Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Democratic California Reps. Barbara Lee, Sam Farr, Zoe Lofgren and Eric Swalwell.

While the lawmakers say they appreciate the Obama administration's efforts to allow states to forge their own marijuana policies, they said that current DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart "leaves behind a legacy of strident opposition to efforts to reform our nation's drug policy."  The letter urges the president to nominate a new DEA chief who will be willing to work with state and federal officials to craft more flexible marijuana policies....

With just a little more than two weeks before Leonhart steps down, it remains unclear who the Obama administration could nominate who would both be approved by a Republican-controlled Senate and be a good fit for the DEA.

Leonhart came to head the DEA as acting administrator in 2007, under President George W. Bush.  She was made administrator in 2010 during Obama's first term, but has long seemed out of step on drug policy, clashing with the administration over the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington and with efforts to lower the mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted of federal drug crimes.

In their letter, the lawmakers argue that under Leonhart the DEA placed "far too great an emphasis on prosecuting state-legal marijuana activity, as opposed to prioritizing more dangerous drug-related activity," adding that her "misplaced priorities" exacerbated problems with the criminal justice system and put a strain on "legitimate marijuana businesses operating under state law."

May 5, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, May 01, 2015

Iowa faith leaders urge Senator Grassley to move forward with drug sentencing reforms

2015-SKO-Website-Flyer-3_12_151Last week, US Senator Charles Grassley spoke at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition Forum, and the Faith & Freedom Coalition asserts here that its beliefs are rooted in the view "that the greatness of America lies not in the federal government but in the character of our people — the simple virtues of faith, hard work, marriage, family, personal responsibility, and helping the least among us." If Senator Grassley really shares this view, I would expect him to be significantly moved by this new Des Moines Register op-ed authored by clergy members headlined "Bishops call on Grassley to reform sentencing." Here are excerpts:

As bishops and as Christians, we are called to love and serve all people, share compassion and aid God's most vulnerable children. That is why we were among 130 of Iowa's faith leaders who last week signed a letter [available here] delivered to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the leader of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The letter advocates for sentencing reforms that affect men and women in federal prison for non-violent drug offenses.

We abhor the damage and death caused by addictive drugs. Too many Iowa families are in pain because of drug addiction, particularly from heroin. We seek to aid these families and the addicted, by supporting broader access to drug treatment, counseling and medical care. Incarceration is not an appropriate treatment for curing drug addiction.

We believe in accountability for the men and women responsible for selling illegal drugs. Those who are addicted themselves and sell drugs to support their habit should also have access to rehabilitative services. Punishment for distributing drugs is necessary; however, where we seek to influence our elected leaders is in how much punishment is justified.

Under federal law, people convicted of drug offenses are subject to strict mandatory minimum sentences based largely on the quantity of drugs possessed by the defendant. Judges have limited discretion to sentence below a mandatory sentence, even when evidence supports doing so.

For example, Mason City native Mandy Martinson received a mandatory 10-year drug sentence in 2004 for her affiliation with a boyfriend who sold marijuana and methamphetamine. She received an additional five years because two firearms were found in their home. At her sentencing hearing, the judge stated that "the evidence demonstrated that [Martinson] was involved due to her drug dependency and her relationship with [her boyfriend] and that she was largely subject to his direction and control. ... Upon obtaining reasonable drug treatment and counseling and in the wake of what she is facing now, the Court does not have any particular concern that Ms. Martinson will commit crimes in the future." Despite the judge's assessment, he had no choice but to sentence her to 15 years in federal prison.

Martinson remains in prison today, but we believe she has been in prison long enough. She is joined by nearly 100,000 people — most of whom are non-violent — serving excessive sentences in federal prisons for drug offenses. We recognize no simple solutions exist when it comes to protecting liberty and public safety, and crime demands accountability. However, a "lock em' up and throw away the key" philosophy actually undermines both of these values. Mandatory minimum sentences do not allow for consideration of an individual's experiences that led them to crime, nor to consider their age, mental capacity, or ability to learn their lesson and redeem themselves....

As many of chaplains and prison ministry volunteers know, prison overcrowding makes it difficult to operate effective faith-based and other rehabilitation programs that are proven to reduce recidivism and make our communities safer. Finally, there is an intangible expense paid by family members, particularly children, who must cope with the pain and burden of having a loved one incarcerated for far too long. Among the saddest of statistics is that some 10 million young people have had a mother or father — or both — spend time behind bars at some point in their lives.

As Iowans, we are privileged to have Senator Grassley hold unique influence in the trajectory of America's sentencing policy. We hope he will use this authority to enact drug sentencing reforms that are more appropriate, will reduce the prison population and take into account the complicated factors that lead people to sell drugs.

In the meantime, we pray for the thousands of Iowans still behind bars, their families and the many thousands more who will be subject to extreme sentencing policies in years to come if lawmakers choose not to act. Those prayers and our advocacy efforts are the best things we can do for them. Now it is time for our elected leaders to do their part.

I strongly share the view that "the greatness of America lies not in the federal government but in the ... people" and that the "virtues of faith, hard work, marriage, family, personal responsibility, and helping the least among us" should inspire the work of all government officials. To that end, if Senator Grassley is truly committed to these virtues, I hope he takes to heart the advice given by these faith leaders to move forward ASAP on "drug sentencing reforms that are more appropriate, will reduce the prison population and take into account the complicated factors that lead people to sell drugs."

Notably, as highlighted in this recent post about recent criminal justice reform essays from GOP leaders, a large number of leading GOP candidates seeking to become president seem to share the view that federal drug sentencing needs to be reformed ASAP.  Senator Ted Cruz, for example, has said this is simply a matter of common sense.  If that is true, I am not sure what Senator Cruz would call Senator Grassley's seemingly steadfast opposition to various drug sentencing reforms proposals that have garner lots of support from lots of different quarters.

Some recent related posts:

May 1, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Religion, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

David Simon connects Baltimore's woes to the drug war

The Marshall Project has this interesting new feature interview with David Simon, under the headline "David Simon on Baltimore’s Anguish: Freddie Gray, the drug war, and the decline of 'real policing.'" The full piece merits a full read, and here is how it gets stated: 

David Simon is Baltimore’s best-known chronicler of life on the hard streets. He worked for The Baltimore Sun city desk for a dozen years, wrote “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” (1991) and with former homicide detective Ed Burns co-wrote “THE CORNER: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF AN INNER-CITY NEIGHBORHOOD” (1997), which Simon adapted into an HBO miniseries. He is the creator, executive producer and head writer of the HBO television series “The Wire” (2002–2008). Simon is a member of The Marshall Project’s advisory board. He spoke with Bill Keller on Tuesday.

BK: What do people outside the city need to understand about what’s going on there — the death of Freddie Gray and the response to it?

DS: I guess there's an awful lot to understand and I’m not sure I understand all of it. The part that seems systemic and connected is that the drug war — which Baltimore waged as aggressively as any American city — was transforming in terms of police/community relations, in terms of trust, particularly between the black community and the police department.  Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war.  It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized.  It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did.

Probable cause from a Baltimore police officer has always been a tenuous thing. It’s a tenuous thing anywhere, but in Baltimore, in these high crime, heavily policed areas, it was even worse.  When I came on, there were jokes about, “You know what probable cause is on Edmondson Avenue? You roll by in your radio car and the guy looks at you for two seconds too long.”  Probable cause was whatever you thought you could safely lie about when you got into district court.

Then at some point when cocaine hit and the city lost control of a lot of corners and the violence was ratcheted up, there was a real panic on the part of the government.  And they basically decided that even that loose idea of what the Fourth Amendment was supposed to mean on a street level, even that was too much. Now all bets were off. Now you didn't even need probable cause. The city council actually passed an ordinance that declared a certain amount of real estate to be drug-free zones. They literally declared maybe a quarter to a third of inner city Baltimore off-limits to its residents, and said that if you were loitering in those areas you were subject to arrest and search. Think about that for a moment: It was a permission for the police to become truly random and arbitrary and to clear streets any way they damn well wanted.

April 29, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Candidate Hillary Clinton to call for criminal justice reforms that would “end the era of mass incarceration”

Images (3)As reported in this Los Angeles Times article, all the media chasing around a notable presidential candidate are about to have a meaty and timely criminal justice reform story.  The headline of the LA Times piece is "Hillary Clinton to call for end to 'mass incarceration'," and here are excerpts:

Hillary Rodham Clinton will call Wednesday morning for far-reaching reforms in the criminal justice system that would “end the era of mass incarceration,” according to a campaign aide.

In a speech at Columbia University in New York City, Clinton will address the violence in Baltimore with plans for a new approach to punishing criminals, according to the aide, who requested anonymity because the proposal is not yet public.

The speech will mark the unveiling of Clinton’s first major policy proposal as a presidential hopeful, coming as candidates are under pressure to confront the unrest in Baltimore. The city erupted in rioting Monday night, following the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American man who was mortally injured while in police custody.

The plan also appears to stem from the “listening tour” Clinton has been on since launching her campaign this month. In roundtable meetings with voters in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the drug issue played prominently. Clinton said at the meetings that she was alarmed by the stories people relayed to her about how drugs are infecting rural communities.

She began talking about her proposal at a campaign fundraiser in New York City on Tuesday night, a gathering of about 150 supporters who donated $2,700 each. “It’s heartbreaking,” Clinton said of Baltimore. “The tragic death of another young African American man. The injuries to police officers. The burning of people’s homes and small businesses. We have to restore order and security. But then we have to take a hard look as to what we need to do to reform our system.”

Clinton said the nation must “reform our criminal justice system.” As she called to end mass

incarceration for nonviolent offenders, donors erupted in applause. In Wednesday’s address, Clinton will also join the chorus of politicians demanding that police officers everywhere be equipped with body cameras. Clinton will argue they are necessary “to improve transparency and accountability in order to protect those on both sides of the lens,” according to the aide.

The sentencing reforms Clinton plans to champion focus on nonviolent offenders. They would include shifting those found guilty of drug crimes from lockups to drug treatment and rehabilitation programs. Other alternative punishments would also be explored for low-level offenders, particularly minors. Mental health programs would get a boost in funding.

“She will also discuss the hard truth and fundamental unfairness in our country that, today, African American men are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms,” the aide wrote in an email.

I am going to be off-line for most of the rest of today, but I am going to be very eager to learn about (and blog about) late tonight the specifics of what Candidate Clinton is going to be advocating in order to end the era of mass incarceration.  I am hoping that the full Clinton plan will be somewhere on this Clinton campaign official website, though it is right now hard to find anything substantive on that website.

Based on this press report, it sounds as though she is not going to be advocating too much more than what nearly all the other presidential candidates, including all the Republican candidates, have been talking about for some time.   Moreover, a genuine understanding of how best to "end the era of mass incarceration" has to include some account for how the policies of President William Clinton contributed significantly to that era.  But perhaps, rather than already expect to be disappointed, the new Clinton plan will have something at least as bold as what GOP candidate Rand Paul has been proposing already for a number of years.

April 29, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Notable developments in prelude to federal sentencing for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

This new Forbes article, headlined "Ulbricht's Defense Calls For Delayed Sentencing After Feds Reveal Six Alleged Silk Road Drug Overdose Deaths," reports on a notable new development in the lead up to the sentencing of a notable federal defendant.  Here are the details:

The twists and turns in the Silk Road case aren’t slowing down as Ross Ulbricht’s sentencing approaches. According to a letter filed Friday, the government claims that six people allegedly died of overdosing on drugs bought on the Silk Road. Two of their parents will be speaking at Ulbricht’s sentencing, which is currently scheduled for May 15, 2015.

Because of this, Ulbricht’s defense is asking for his sentencing to be postponed for at least one month. In a letter on Friday, Joshua Dratel requested an adjournment of the sentencing, which is currently less than three weeks away. By Dratel’s logic, it shouldn’t matter to the prosecution, since Ulbricht is in jail already awaiting sentencing, but it would give the defense time to prepare.

The defense wants preparation time to respond to the government’s revelation on April 16 that there were “six alleged overdose deaths supposedly attributable to drugs purchased from vendors on the Silk Roads.” The parents of two of the alleged overdose victims will be speaking from 10-15 minutes each at the sentencing, according to a document filed by the prosecution on April 17. The government intends to use these deaths as part of the context for the sentencing and the victim impact assessment.

Dratel says the information the defense has received about the six deaths is “woefully incomplete.” According to the letter, the defense hasn’t seen evidence that the drugs were purchased on the Silk Road or certain autopsy, toxicology, and psychiatric information for the six individuals. Additionally, Dratel asked for the identities and statements of the two parents who will be speaking at the sentencing in order to avoid being “blindsided.”

While the government seems to [be] planning to hammer home its argument that the Silk Road was a dangerous and illegal operation with Ulbricht at the helm with these parents’ testimonies, the defense plans to argue the opposite–that the Silk Road actually made drug use safer. In the letter, Dratel states that the Silk Road “reduced the dangers of substance abuse, and consciously and deliberately incorporated ‘harm reduction’ strategies.” The defense has been working with experts, according to the letter, and needs more time to bring those witnesses to testify in person in response to the government....

After being arrested in a San Francisco library in October 2013 for allegedly running the Silk Road, Ulbricht faced trial in January 2015. After three weeks of trial and 3.5 hours of jury deliberation, he was found guilty of seven charges connected to his role as the Dread Pirate Roberts. Since then, he’s been in jail awaiting sentencing while his lawyers fought first for re-trial and now for delayed sentencing.

Prior related post:

April 28, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is resignation of current DEA head a very big moment for federal marijuana policy?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a number of stories I have seen in the wake of yesterday's news that Michele Leonhart is resigning as Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.  Here are links to some of these stories:

The last story linked here highlights what will really determine the answer to the question in the title of this post: if President Obama nominates somebody for this position who expresses openness to federal marijuana reforms and a serious commitment to a more public-health oriented approach to all drug enforcement issues (e.g., Dr. Sanjay Gupta?), the transition at the top of DEA could end up being a very big deal.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

April 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

By 6-3 vote, SCOTUS finds Fourth Amendment violation from stop at start of federal drug prosecution

The US Supreme Court handed down a notable Fourth Amendment ruling this morning in Rodriguez v. US, No. 13-9972 (S. Ct. April 21, 2015) (available here).  Though not a sentencing case, I cannot help but wonder if some votes on the case were somewhat influenced by the federal drug war setting that raised the import and stakes for the Fourth Amendment issue brought to the Justices.  Here, for starters, is the start of this Court's opinion per Justice Ginsburg:

In Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U. S. 405 (2005), this Court held that a dog sniff conducted during a lawful traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s proscription of unreasonable seizures. This case presents the question whether the Fourth Amendment tolerates a dog sniff conducted after completion of a traffic stop. We hold that a police stop exceeding the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made violates the Constitu­tion’s shield against unreasonable seizures.  A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation, there­ fore, “become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission” of issuing a ticket for the violation. Id., at 407.  The Court so recog­nized in Caballes, and we adhere to the line drawn in that decision.

Notably, this federal criminal case started with a seemingly routine traffic stop based on a Nebraska driver veering to avoid a pothole and ended with a federal drug prosecution requiring the defendant to serve a mandatory minimum 5-year federal prison term for possessing 50 or more grams of meth with intent to distribute. I cannot help but think these contextual realities played some (perhaps unconscious) role in a majority of the Justices concluding that the extension of the traffic stop was unconstitutional with this kind of statement: "Highway and officer safety are interests different in kind from the Government’s endeavor to de­tect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular."

Here is how the primary dissent by Justice Thomas in Rodriguez gets started:

Ten years ago, we explained that “conducting a dog sniff [does] not change the character of a traffic stop that is lawful at its inception and otherwise executed in a reason- able manner.” Illinois v. Caballes, 543 U. S. 405, 408 (2005).  The only question here is whether an officer executed a stop in a reasonable manner when he waited to conduct a dog sniff until after he had given the driver a written warning and a backup unit had arrived, bringing the overall duration of the stop to 29 minutes.  Because the stop was reasonably executed, no Fourth Amendment violation occurred.  The Court’s holding to the contrary cannot be reconciled with our decision in Caballes or a number of common police practices.  It was also unnecessary, as the officer possessed reasonable suspicion to continue to hold the driver to conduct the dog sniff.  I respectfully dissent.

Here is how a distinct dissent by Justice Alito in Rodriguez gets started:

This is an unnecessary, impractical, and arbitrary decision.  It addresses a purely hypothetical question: whether the traffic stop in this case would be unreasonable if the police officer, prior to leading a drug-sniffing dog around the exterior of petitioner’s car, did not already have reasonable suspicion that the car contained drugs.  In fact, however, the police officer did have reasonable suspicion, and, as a result, the officer was justified in detaining the occupants for the short period of time (seven or eight minutes) that is at issue.

April 21, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Local Cook County Prosecutors To Focus On Treatment Over Prison For Small-Time Drug Cases"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable local news story emerging today from Chicago.  Here are the details:

Cook County prosecutors were set to announce major changes in how they prosecute low-level drug cases, including sending more nonviolent drug offenders to treatment, rather than prison.

State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was scheduled to announce reforms to how her office handles minor drug cases, including dismissal of all future misdemeanor marijuana cases. The move also is expected to cover how prosecutors handle cases involving small amounts of other drugs; including ecstasy, cocaine, and heroin. The program would be focused on defendants with less than three arrests or citations for misdemeanor drug charges.

The announcement comes on April 20, also known as “4-20” day, in reference to a term used by marijuana smokers as slang for “lighting up,” but officials said the timing of the announcement and the date were only coincidental.

Alvarez was expected to detail the new drug prosecution strategy Monday morning, as part of an effort to keep nonviolent repeat drug offenders out of jail, and instead treat such cases as a public health issue. A spokeswoman for Alvarez’s office said, defendants currently facing a Class 4 felony drug possession charge could be sentenced to up to 3 years in prison, and a $25,000 fine. Her proposed changes to drug prosecutions would mean those same defendants would be sent to treatment programs instead of prison.

The move could free up prosecutor and law enforcement resources. In Cook County, such Class 4 felony drug cases made up 25 percent of all felony prosecutions last year. It was not immediately clear when the reforms would go into effect, but the changes would not affect pending cases already in the system.

April 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Intricate federal criminal law statutory questions on SCOTUS docket this week

Most casual Supreme Court fans are surely looking ahead to next week's oral arguments in the same-sex-marriage and lethal injection cases.  But this week brings two other exciting and intricate cases before SCOTUS for federal criminal justice fans, as these SCOTUSblog brief summarizes reveal: 

Johnson v. US, No. 13-7120: Whether mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act [and whether ACCA's residual clause is unconstitutionally vague].

McFadden v. US, No. 14-378: Whether, to convict a defendant of distribution of a controlled substance analogue -- a substance with a chemical structure that is “substantially similar" to a schedule I or II drug and has a “substantially similar” effect on the user (or is believed or represented by the defendant to have such a similar effect) -- the government must prove that the defendant knew that the substance constituted a controlled substance analogue, as held by the Second, Seventh, and Eighth Circuits, but rejected by the Fourth and Fifth Circuits.

Regular readers know that the Johnson case is getting a second argument this week after SCOTUS asked the parties to brief the constitutional issue it raised on its own after the first oral argument. And helpful Rory Little via SCOTUSblog provides these informative new posts with more on what can be expected in this week's arguments:

In addition, Garrett Epps has this extended new Atlantic piece discussing both Johnson and McFadden headlined "Too Vague to Be Constitutional: Two indecipherable criminal laws passed in the 1980s now face scrutiny at the Supreme Court."

April 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

More reflections on Prez Obama's recent commutations

Writing in Forbes, Jacob Sullum has this new commentary about last week's notable clemency news headlined "Obama Steps Up Commutations, Feeding Drug War Prisoners' Hopes."  Here are excerpts: 

Obama’s latest batch of commutations, which doubled his total in a single day, suggests that the president, whose clemency record during his first term was remarkably stingy, is beginning to make up for lost time. Last year the Justice Department signaled a new openness to clemency petitions, laying out criteria for the sort of applications the president wanted to see. An unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the new guidelines could result in commutations for “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of federal prisoners by the end of Obama’s second term. The president will have to pick up the pace to reach that goal. But his avowed interest in ameliorating the egregious injustices inflicted by federal drug laws seems to be more than rhetorical.

Most of the drug offenders whose sentences Obama has shortened so far, including 13 of the 22 prisoners whose petitions he granted on Tuesday, were convicted of crack cocaine offenses. There is a good reason for that: Crack sentences are especially harsh, and although Congress reduced them in 2010, it did not make the changes retroactive. That means thousands of crack offenders are still serving terms that almost everyone now agrees are too long.

The Smarter Sentencing Act, which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but never got a floor vote, would address that problem by making the 2010 changes retroactive. The bill was reintroduced in February, but its prospects are uncertain. In the meantime, Obama has the power to bring crack sentences in line with what the law currently deems appropriate.

With an estimated 8,800 prisoners who could benefit from retroactive application of shorter crack sentences, there is plenty of room for more acts of mercy like these. But the conventional wisdom is that commutations cannot help more than a tiny percentage of those prisoners. “While Mr. Obama has pledged to make greater use of his clemency power,” The New York Times reported on Tuesday, “the White House is unlikely to make a sizable dent in the prison population. Thousands of prisoners are serving time for drug sentences under the old, stricter rules.”

It’s true that commuting thousands of sentences, as that anonymous administration official quoted by Yahoo News envisioned, would be historically unprecedented. Yet it is clearly within the president’s constitutional authority, and there is less need for a careful, case-by-case weighing of each applicant’s merits when there is already a consensus that the mandatory minimums imposed on crack offenders between 1986 and 2010 were inappropriately harsh.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Despite the concerns he expressed about our excessively punitive criminal justice system while running for president, Obama issued a grand total of one commutation during his first four years in office and finished his first term with a good shot at leaving behind one of the worst clemency records in U.S. history.

Prior related posts:

April 7, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, April 06, 2015

What would it mean for DEA and DOJ to "defeat the Washington machine and unleash the American dream”?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article about the notable slogan to be used by a notable new presidential candidate.  The piece is headlined "Rand Paul unveils populist, anti-establishment slogan," and here are excerpts:

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) gave POLITICO a sneak peek at the slogan he will unveil at his presidential campaign announcement on Tuesday: “Defeat the Washington machine. Unleash the American dream.” The slogan, beneath the RANDPAC logo of a torch flame, will set the tone as the senator kicks off a five-day, five-state announcement tour — starting in Kentucky and then going to New Hampshire, South Carolina, Iowa and Nevada (plus a Friday night fundraiser in Newport Beach, Calif.).

The slogan is designed to evoke populist, anti-establishment themes that would work in both the primaries and the general election. A Paul adviser said of the slogan: “You could say that is a hat tip to Hillary — a subtle contrast to Hillary. But why wouldn’t that also apply to Jeb? Or someone who has never had a [recent] job outside elected office — Scott Walker?”

Advisers say Paul’s top issues will include a flat tax, IRS reform, term limits, privacy and justice reform.

As regular readers know, Senator Rand Paul has been a leading and potent voice for federal drug war and federal sentencing reform for a number of years. The US Department of Justice is a big part of the "Washington machine," and many folks interested in marijuana legalization are looking to live the American dream of working in this new industry without fear that the Drug Enforcement Agency will come after them. Though I doubt Senator Paul will be making these federal criminal justice issues his first talking point in his coming stump speeches, I am confident and excited that he is likely to be talking more about these important federal criminal justice issues than any other presidential candidate ever has in recent decades.

April 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Prez Obama starts to "walk the walk" on clemency by granting 22 new drug offense commutations

Long-time readers know I have long complained about Prez Obama's failure to make regular use of his clemency power, and I have been especially critical over the last year when we have heard the President and his agents "talk the talk" a lot about a new clemency initiative, but not actually "walk the walk" by granting relief in a significant number of cases.  But today, as reported in this USA Today article, may finally mark the start of a truly new clemency era:

President Obama commuted the sentences of 22 convicted federal prisoners Tuesday, shortening their sentences for drug-related crimes. Eight of the prisoners who will have their sentences reduced were serving life sentences. All but one of the 22 will be released on July 28.

The White House said Obama made the move in order to grant to older prisoners the same leniency that would be given to people convicted of the same crimes today. "Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," White House Counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. "Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years—in some cases more than a decade—longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime."

In issuing the commutations Tuesday, Obama has more than doubled the number he's granted in his presidency. Before Tuesday, he had issued just 21 and denied 782 commutations in his more than six years. It was the most commutations issued by a president in a single day since President Clinton issued 150 pardons and 40 commutations on his last day in office.

And it could represent the crest of a new wave of commutations that could come in Obama's last two years in office. Last year, the Justice Department announced a new clemency initiative to try to encourage more low-level drug offenders to apply to have their sentences reduced. That resulted in a record 6,561 applications in the last fiscal year, at least two of which were granted commutations Tuesday, according to the Justice Department....

Obama wrote each of the 22 Tuesday, saying they had demonstrated the potential to turn their lives around. "Now it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity. It will not be easy, and you will encounter many who doubt people with criminal records can change," Obama wrote. "I believe in your ability to prove the doubters wrong."

Of the 22 commutations granted Tuesday, 17 were for possession or trafficking in cocaine. The others were for methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana. One was also convicted of a gun charge in addition to cocaine possession. Their convictions cover a 14-year span from 1992 to 2006.

A list of the 22 individuals receiving commutations today is available via this official White House press release, and the White House blog has this new entry by Neil Eggleston titled "Upholding the Principle of Fairness in Our Criminal Justice System Through Clemency." Here is an excerpt from that entry:

Building on his commitment to address instances of unfairness in sentencing, President Obama granted 22 commutations today to individuals serving time in federal prison. Had they been sentenced under current laws and policies, many of these individuals would have already served their time and paid their debt to society. Because many were convicted under an outdated sentencing regime, they served years — in some cases more than a decade — longer than individuals convicted today of the same crime.

In total, the 22 commutations granted today underscore the President’s commitment to using all the tools at his disposal to bring greater fairness and equity to our justice system. Further, they demonstrate how exercising this important authority can remedy imbalances and rectify errors in sentencing. Added to his prior 21 commutations, the President has now granted 43 commutations total. To put President Obama’s actions in context, President George W. Bush commuted 11 sentences in his eight years in office....

While today’s announcement represents important progress, there’s more work ahead. The Administration will continue to work to review thoroughly all petitions for clemency. And, while commutation is an important tool for those seeking justice and fairness in our penal system, it is nearly always an option of last resort, coming after a lengthy court process and many years behind bars. That is why President Obama is committed to working with Democrats and Republicans on sensible reforms to our criminal justice system that aim to give judges more discretion over mandatory minimum sentencing. As the Department of Justice has noted, mandatory minimum sentences have at times resulted in harsher penalties for non-violent drug offenders than many violent offenders and are not necessary for prosecutions at this level.

Already, one significant reform has become law. In 2010, the President signed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in the amounts of powder cocaine and crack cocaine required for the imposition of mandatory minimum penalties. The President is encouraged by the bipartisan support for improving our criminal justice system, including promising legislation that would implement front-end changes in sentencing. In addition, he supports bipartisan efforts to provide back-end support through better education and job training for those currently incarcerated and to reform of our juvenile justice system to build on the significant reductions in the number of youth being held in secure facilities.

March 31, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack