Thursday, February 26, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases report on LWOP sentences in federal system

I am intrigued and pleased to see that today the US Sentencing Commission has released this effective (reader-friendly) new report titled "Life Sentences in the Federal System." The entire 20-page report is a must read for anyone (like me) who fears we pay too much attention to much attention to a handful of death sentences and too little attention to hundreds of LWOP sentences. Here is how this new report gets started:

Life imprisonment sentences are rare in the federal criminal justice system. Virtually all offenders convicted of a federal crime are released from prison eventually and return to society or, in the case of illegal aliens, are deported to their country of origin. Yet in fiscal year 2013 federal judges imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on 153 offenders. Another 168 offenders received a sentence of a specific term of years that was so long it had the practical effect of being a life sentence. Although together these offenders represent only 0.4 percent of all offenders sentenced that year, this type of sentence sets them apart from the rest of the offender population. This report examines life sentences in the federal system and the offenders on whom this punishment is imposed.

There are numerous federal criminal statutes that authorize a life imprisonment sentence to be imposed as the maximum sentence. The most commonly used of these statutes involve drug trafficking, racketeering, and firearms crimes. Additionally, there are at least 45 statutes that require a life sentence to be imposed as the minimum penalty. These mandatory minimum penalties generally are required in cases involving the killing of a federal official or other government employee, piracy, or repeat offenses involving drug trafficking or weapons. In fiscal year 2013, 64 of the 153 offenders who received a sentence of life imprisonment were subject to a mandatory minimum penalty requiring the court to impose that sentence.

February 26, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Passage of Smarter Sentencing Act is reportedly "very important" to Prez Obama

This notable new USA Today piece, headlined "Bipartisan sentencing bill gets White House support," reports that President Obama indicated at a meeting yesterday with congressional leaders that he was interested and eager to have the Smarter Sentencing Act become law. Here are the details:

President Obama is throwing his support behind a bipartisan proposal to change the nation's sentencing laws by cutting many mandatory minimum sentences in half. That commitment came out of a meeting with 16 members of Congress at the White House Tuesday night, called by the president to gather their ideas on how to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Members of Congress who attended said the main topic of conversation was the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

Obama supported a similar bill in the last Congress, but the current proposal goes even further. Mandatory life sentences would be reduced to 20 years — effectively cutting life sentences in half because the current life sentence averages 40 years.

Another change: Those convicted of importing drugs into the United States would not be eligible for the reduced sentences unless they were merely couriers whose role was limited to transporting or storing drugs or money.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, said Obama "focused specifically" on the Smarter Sentencing Act "and his desire to have it passed."

"It was showing us that this is very important to him, and he has the resources of his administration that he's been willing to put out there," Lee told KSL Radio in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that "it certainly appears" that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president's aims to "make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources."

Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner. "Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time," Obama said. "Let's keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all."

Labrador said that's an important point for Obama to make. "The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true," he said. "The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime."...

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who also attended the meeting with Obama, would not comment on the meeting. He's been cool to sentencing changes in the past, but Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he thought Goodlatte seemed "remarkably open" to the issue.

February 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Two notable and timely new reform reports from The Sentencing Project

Via an e-mail from The Sentencing Project (reprinted in part below), I received this summary (with links) to two notable new reports from the group:

[Here are] two new reports from The Sentencing Project documenting changes in criminal justice policy in 2014 and successful advocacy campaign strategies in conservative state environments. The reforms highlighted in these reports represent approaches that lawmakers and advocates can consider to address sentencing policy and collateral consequences at the state level.

The State of Sentencing 2014 highlights policy changes in 30 states and the District of Columbia in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, including:

  • Scaling back sentences for low-level drug offenses

  • Reducing barriers to reentry, including employment restrictions and bans on public assistance

  • Eliminating juvenile life without parole

State Criminal Justice Advocacy in a Conservative Environment documents successful advocacy strategies employed in campaigns in Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. In these states, advocates achieved the following reforms:

  • Reduced enhanced penalties in drug-free zones in Indiana by shrinking the limit of zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, and eliminating all zones except those around schools and parks
  • Modified Missouri’s federal lifetime ban on food stamp benefits for persons with felony drug convictions
  • Closed two Texas prison facilities: the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility

February 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Early report on the early impact of Proposition 47 in California

La-me-g-prop47-crimeThis new Los Angeles Times article provides an assessment of what we know and do not know so far about the impact of the big criminal justice reform passed by California voters back in November.  The lengthy piece is headlined "Prop. 47's effect on jail time, drug rehabilitation is mixed so far," and here are excerpts:

In the months since Proposition 47 became law on Nov. 5, California's criminal justice system is already undergoing dramatic changes — and not always in expected ways. The idea was to reduce incarceration times for nonviolent offenders and focus on rehabilitation while easing jail overcrowding.

On the streets, some people who are committing Proposition 47 crimes are not being arrested, avoiding jail but also the drug treatment that could turn their lives around. Narcotics arrests have dropped by 30% in the city of Los Angeles and 48% in areas patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, as busy police officers decide that the time needed to process a case is not worth it.

Even when arrested, drug offenders are often issued a citation to appear in court and face little to no jail time if convicted. Law enforcement officials say they have lost an important tool to deal with those offenders, who remain free to get high again or steal to support their habits. Some drug addicts and their relatives agree, saying the new law allows troubled individuals to hurt themselves and steal with little consequence.

Property crimes, which include burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, have risen in much of Los Angeles County since Proposition 47 passed, according to a Times analysis of crime data. Through the end of January, property crimes were up 10% in sheriff's territory and up 7% in the city of Los Angeles, compared with the same period a year ago.

Some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions, warning that it is too soon to gauge the new law's effect and that other factors could be responsible for the increase. But to Asst. Sheriff Michael Rothans, who oversees patrol operations for the Sheriff's Department, the connection is obvious: More petty criminals on the streets mean more crimes.

"Why is property crime up? It's because of this," said Rothans, who has urged deputies to continue making drug arrests. "The same people are arrested for narcotics and property crimes. We know the cycle is continuing because we know they should have been in jail."

The new law specifies that the financial savings on the incarceration side be reinvested in truancy, drug treatment and mental health programs. But that provision does not take effect until mid-2016. Without the threat of jail time, fewer defendants are opting for the drug treatment programs that judges sometimes offer as an alternative.

Proposition 47 is at the forefront of a national trend to reduce harsh criminal penalties that led to an explosion in prison and jail populations beginning in the 1980s. It follows a revision to California's three strikes law that limits the maximum penalty to those whose last offense is serious or violent. Along with the shift of nonviolent inmates from state prison to county jails approved by the state Legislature in 2011, Proposition 47 is expected to further transform California's criminal justice landscape.

Already, the new law has had a profound effect on the Los Angeles County jails. With fewer people awaiting trial or serving time for offenses that had previously been felonies, overcrowding has subsided. As a result, jailers are keeping county-sentenced inmates for nearly all their time instead of releasing them early.

Thomas Hoffman, a former police official who was a senior advisor for the Proposition 47 campaign, said law enforcement tends to view locking up criminals as the answer, when many have reoffended after spending time in jail. Theorizing about crime increases and the proposition is premature, he said. "The arrest and rearrest of these minor offenses only postpones crime. It doesn't eliminate it. It's a momentary speed bump in these people's lives," said Hoffman, a former director of the state prison system's parole division as well as a former top official in the Inglewood and West Sacramento police departments.

Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which coordinated the Proposition 47 campaign, said it will take time for the state's criminal justice system to adjust to the changes and figure out "how to hold people accountable and stop crime."

The key to the new law's success will be whether the cost savings are indeed spent on drug treatment, said Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. "If it is not going to do that, then we are not going to see any change for the better, and we'll see people out there floundering more than they already are," Currie said.

February 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

More from ACSBlog's "symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system"

Last week in this post I noted that the ACSBlog  kicked off a "two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system" via this post titled "Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System."   This week brought these additional published posts in this series, al of which should be of special interest to sentencing law and policy fans:

February 20, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?

Long-time readers and most federal sentencing policy gurus know about the long-time discussion of the Smarter Sentencing Act.  The SSA seemingly had lots of bi-partisan support when got through the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last Congress, but the drug warriors helped ensure it did not get any further.

Now we have a new Congress with new leadership in the Senate and, as reported here, a new introduction of a new version of the SSA, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015.  In part because new Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has been a vocal opponent of any significant statutory drug sentencing reform, I am not especially optimistic that the new SSA has a much better chance of passage than the old SSA.  But, as the question in the title of this post highlights, the new SSA appears to have an especially prominent new advocate, as demonstrated by this press release from the office of Senator Ted Cruz tited "Sen. Cruz: Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense." Here is an excerpt from Senator Cruz's remarks last week during the introduction of the new SSA:

The issue that brings us together today is fairness. What brings us together is justice. What brings us together is common sense. This is as diverse and bipartisan array of members of Congress as you will see on any topic and yet we are all unified in saying commonsense reforms need to be enacted to our criminal justice system. Right now today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system, find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions. We’ve seen the impact of these kind of reforms in the states, the states are laboratories of democracy. My home state of Texas implemented similar reforms and from 2005 the state of Texas has seen a 22 percent decrease in crime and a 12 percent decrease in expenditures on criminal justice....

All of us agree, if you have violent criminals, if you have criminals who are using guns, who are using violence, who are dealing drugs to children, the criminal justice system should come down on them like a ton of bricks. But at the same time we need to recognize that young people make mistakes, and we should not live in a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.

There surely are issues about which Senator Cruz and I might not always agree (even though were educated around the same time at the same two higher-education institutions). But I completely agree with his view that the Smarter Sentencing Act is a common sense reform seeking to address the real problem that "today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system [and] find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions."

Notably, Senator Cruz in the past has not let GOP establishment figures stop him from being an aggressive and persistent voice for legal reforms he considers important. I am hopeful that Senator Cruz will fight the good fight on the SSA and other sentencing reform measures so as not to let old establishment folks like Senator Grassley keep the SSA and other proposals from coming up for a vote in the Senate.

A few recent and older posts on the "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:

February 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How to Talk About Sentencing Policy — and Not Disparity"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new piece by Nancy Gertner just published by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.  I consider most everything Prof (and former Judge) Gertner writes about sentencing to be a must-read, and these passages from the start of the piece reinforce my sense that this new commentary is especially timely and important:

I want to talk about why I don’t want to discuss sentencing disparity, why this is an issue far, far less important than issues of sentencing fairness, of proportionality, of what works to address crime. Disparity-speak has sucked the air out of all interesting and meaningful discussion of criminal justice reform for the past several decades....

The mythology of rampant sentencing disparity without guidelines has driven American sentencing for decades. The problem is that you cannot build a rational sentencing regime if the only important question is this one: Am I doing the same thing in my courtroom that you are doing in yours, even if neither of us is imposing sentences that make sense, namely, that work to reduce crime? You cannot talk about disparity unless you understand the context—disparity in sentencing with respect to what? What purposes? What characteristics? Similarly situated with respect to what? The offense? The chances of deterrence? Amenability to treatment?...

To eliminate sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission and Congress chose to treat drug quantity the same across contexts, contexts that were very different. I want to talk about those contexts and the content of a just sentence. How do we deal with drug addiction? What is the punishment that makes sense? When is drug treatment appropriate in lieu of imprisonment? I want to talk about problem solving courts, reentry programs, and meaningful diversions. How can neuroscience help us craft treatment? What evidence based practices should we implement? What works?

And, above all, I want to talk about how to meaningfully undo the catastrophe of mass incarceration in this country, the catastrophe that we have created with our dual emphasis on eliminating disparity, and imprisonment as a cure all. It is a “one size fits all” approach, and that “size” has been ever more imprisonment. I want to talk about our uniformity-focused, criminal-record emphasis, incarceration-obsessed criminal justice policy.

February 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 13, 2015

Is a federal judge about to declare unconstitutional federal marijuana law? And then what?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters report on an on-going federal criminal trial in California. Here is why:

A federal judge hearing the case of nine men accused of illegally growing marijuana in California said Wednesday she was taking very seriously arguments by their attorneys that the federal government has improperly classified the drug as among the most dangerous, and should throw the charges out.

Judge Kimberly J. Mueller said she would rule within 30 days on the request, which comes amid looser enforcement of U.S. marijuana laws, including moves to legalize its recreational use in Washington state, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska.

"If I were persuaded by the defense's argument, if I bought their argument, what would you lose here?" she asked prosecutors during closing arguments on the motion to dismiss the cases against the men.

The men were charged in 2011 with growing marijuana on private and federal land in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California near the city of Redding. If convicted, they face up to life imprisonment and a $10 million fine, plus forfeiture of property and weapons.

In their case before Mueller in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, defense lawyers have argued that U.S. law classifying pot as a Schedule One drug, which means it has no medical use and is among the most dangerous, is unconstitutional, given that 23 states have legalized the drug for medical use.

Lawyer Zenia Gilg, who represented defense attorneys for all of the men during closing arguments, pointed to Congress' recent decision to ban the Department of Justice from interfering in states' implementation of their medical marijuana laws as evidence of her contention that the drug's classification as Schedule One should be overturned. "It's impossible to say that there is no accepted medical use," said Gilg, who has argued that her client was growing pot for medical use.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Broderick said that it was up to Congress to change the law, not the court. He said that too few doctors believed that marijuana had medical uses for the drug's definition to change under the law. "We're not saying that this is the most dangerous drug in the world," Broderick said. "All we're saying is that the evidence is such that reasonable people could disagree."

Notably, this new Bloomberg article, headlined "Grower’s Case Rivets Investors Seeking Pot of Gold," suggests that those interested in investing in the marijuana industry think that merely "the fact that the judge has agreed to consider the issue is an enormously significant event.” Obviously, this event becomes even more significant if (when?) a federal judge declares unconstitutional the placement of marijuana on Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 13, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Highlighting the role of prosecutorial activity in modern mass incarceration

Images (3)I am pleased to see this new Slate piece giving attention to Professor John Pfaff's important and effective analysis of the reasons for modern mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?: A provocative new theory," and here is how the piece sets up a Q&A with John, along with a key portion of the Q&A explaining the heart of John's statistical insights:

Criminal justice reform is a contentious political issue, but there’s one point on which pretty much everyone agrees: America’s prison population is way too high.  It’s possible that a decline has already begun, with the number of state and federal inmates dropping for three years straight starting in 2010, from an all-time high of 1.62 million in 2009 to about 1.57 million in 2012.  But change has been slow: Even if the downward trend continues, which is far from guaranteed, it could take almost 90 years for the country’s prison population to get down to where it was in 1980 unless the rate of decline speeds up significantly.

What can be done to make the population drop faster? Many reformers, operating under the assumption that mass incarceration is first and foremost the result of the war on drugs, have focused on making drug laws less punitive and getting rid of draconian sentencing laws that require judges to impose impossibly harsh punishments on people who have committed relatively minor crimes. But according to John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, neither of those efforts will make a significant dent in the problem, because they are based on a false understanding of why the prison boom happened in the first place.  Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be.  If he’s right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.

In a conversation with Slate, Pfaff explains his theory....

Q: So why did the prison population keep on rising after 1991, when the crime wave ended? It seems like if your theory is right, that the increase in violent crime and property crime caused the prison boom, the end of the crime wave should have been accompanied by decreasing incarceration rates.

A: Three things could have happened. One, police just got much more efficient—they’re just arresting more and more people, with new policing technologies, new policing approaches—maybe they’re just arresting a bigger share of offenders. But we don’t actually see that. Arrests tend to drop with the crime rate. So the total number of people being arrested has fallen. The other thing it could be is we’re just locking people up for longer—but like I said, it’s not that. So clearly what’s happening is we’re just admitting more people to prison. Though we have a smaller pool of people being arrested, we’re sending a larger and larger number of them to prison.

Q: Why would that be?

What appears to happen during this time — the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available — is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3.  So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies.  I can’t tell you why they’re doing that.  No one’s really got an answer to that yet.  But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.

As regular readers likely know, I am a big fan of John Pfaff's research.  Anyone concerned about mass incarceration, especially at the state level, need to look at his research, and I think John is very right to focus on the importance of state prosecutorial activities and the relatively limited direct impact of the modern federal drug war on state incarceration realities.  (I must note, though, that John's analysis here is not now really "new and provocative": as this 2009 post notes, John himself highlighted this statistical story in a Slate commentary six years ago and most informed folks know prosecutorial activities have played a huge role in modern mass incarceration.)

That said, in part because John's analysis  is especially focused on state data, I fear he misses how the modern drug war, fueled especially by the growth of the federal criminal system, provides one big explanation for why and how "over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges."   In the 1980s and before, the feds generally prosecuted significantly less than 10,000 drug cases each year.  But thanks largely to the tough new drug penalties (and added prosecutorial resources) that the Congress put in place by the end of the 1980s, the feds started prosecuting tens of thousands more drug offenders each year and averaged more than 25,000 yearly drug prosecutions through the 2000s.  These additional federal prosecution of drug offenders surely freed up state prosecutors to focus more time and attention on other cases/offenders and allowed them to get "much more aggressive in how they filed charges."

In other words, in the 1980s and before, the feds prosecuted far less than 100,000 drug offenders each decade, and all the other folks arrested by states were not as aggressively prosecuted because state prosecutors saw limited value in cycling lots of lower-level drug offenders through their system.  But throughout the ’90s and 2000s, the feds prosecuted well over 500,000 drug offenders; that freed up space, time, energy for other folks arrested by states to be aggressively prosecuted.  (These forces also had a synergistic impact as new tough three-strikes laws in states and at the federal level extended greatly the terms of those repeatedly cycling through criminal justice systems.)

My point here is not to assert that John's data analysis is misguided or inaccurate in any way.  But I do think it important --- indeed, essential --- to see how the drug war and other toughness effort at both the federal and state level fed off each other in order to change state prosecutorial behaviors in the way John highlights.  And, perhaps most importantly, all of this needs to be studied closely to fully understand how we got into our modern costly mass incarceration mess and how we might best find out way out.

Prior posts about Prof. John Pfaff's important research:

February 8, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 05, 2015

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?

Ross-ulbricht-600x450This Wired article provides the basic story on a notable modern federal defendant who, thanks to a jury verdict yesterday, is now a high-profile convicted felon awaiting sentencing:

A jury has spoken, and the mask is off: Ross Ulbricht has been convicted of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, secret mastermind of the Silk Road online narcotics empire.

On Wednesday, less than a month after his trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, 30-year-old Ulbricht was convicted of all seven crimes he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders.  It took the jury only 3.5 hours to return a verdict.  Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison; the maximum is life.  But Ulbricht’s legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judge’s decisions throughout the case.

As the verdict was read, Ulbricht stared straight ahead. His mother Lyn Ulbricht slowly shook her head, and his father Kirk put a hand to his temple. After the verdict, Ulbricht turned around to give his family a stoic smile.  “This is not the end,” Ulbricht’s mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. “Ross is a hero!” shouted a supporter.

From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the government’s evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Road’s billion-dollar marketplace under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts was practically overwhelming.  When the FBI arrested Ulbricht in the science fiction section of a San Francisco public library in October of 2013, his fingers were literally on the keyboard of his laptop, logged into the Silk Road’s “mastermind” account.  On his seized laptop’s hard drive, investigators quickly found a journal, daily logbook, and thousands of pages of private chat logs that chronicled his years of planning, creating and day-to-day running of the Silk Road. That red-handed evidence was bolstered by a college friend of Ulbricht’s who testified at trial that the young Texan had confessed creating the Silk Road to him. On top of that, notes found crumpled in his bedroom’s trashcan connected to the Silk Road’s code.  Ulbricht’s guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agent’s analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black market’s bitcoins from the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.

Ulbricht’s defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an “economic experiment,” one that he quickly gave up to other individuals who grew the site into the massive drug empire the Silk Road represented at its peak in late 2013.  Those purported operators of the site, including the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the “perfect fall guy.”...

But that dramatic alternative theory was never backed up with a credible explanation of the damning evidence found on Ulbricht’s personal computer.  The defense was left to argue that Ulbricht’s laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computer — perhaps via a Bittorrent connection he was using to download an episode of the Colbert Report at the time of his arrest.  In their closing arguments, prosecutors called that story a “wild conspiracy theory” and a “desperate attempt to create a smokescreen.” It seems the jury agreed.

Despite the case’s grim outcome for Ulbricht, his defense team seemed throughout the trial to be laying the grounds for an appeal.  His lead attorney Joshua Dratel called for a mistrial no less than five times, and was rejected by the judge each time. Dratel’s protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecution’s evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Road’s Icelandic server by FBI investigators seeking to locate the computer despite its use of the Tor anonymity software. As the trial began, Dratel butted heads with the prosecution and judge again on the issue of cross-examining a Department of Homeland Security witness on the agency’s alternative suspects in the case, including bitcoin mogul and Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles. And in the last days of the trial, Dratel strongly objected again to a decision by the judge to disallow two of the defense’s expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications....

Ulbricht will nonetheless be remembered not just for his conviction, but also for ushering in a new age of online black markets.  Today’s leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcement’s crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sites’ operators, like prosecuting Ulbricht, will likely require the same intense, multi-year investigations by three-letter agencies.

Though I am not familiar with all the likely sentencing particulars, I would expect a guidelines calculation in this case to be life and that prosecutors will urge a guideline-recommended LWOP sentence. The defense surely will seek the minimum sentence, which in this case is the not-so-minimum 30 years in the federal greybar hotel.

In addition to pursuing their appeal, Ulbricht's defense team might reach out to Brian Doherty at Reason, who has this provocative commentary headlined "Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace: The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty." Here are excerpts:

[T]he government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America....

Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did.

The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Sign of the drug war times: risk-management review of state drug-law reforms

There are many diverse signs, and many diverse consequences, of our modern (retrenching?) drug war, especially with respect to state-level reform of marijuana prohibitions.  One such interesting sign and consequences arrived in my e-mail this morning via this link to this post by a risk management firm titled "Recap of Drug-Related State Legislation Passed in 2014." This helpful resource is introduced this way:

One trend that hiring managers should take note of in 2015 is the increased fragmentation of state drug test regulations.  Exactly half of all states passed legislation in 2014 that touches upon or completely regulates drug testing in some way or another.

With more and more attention being given to developments in medical and recreational marijuana laws, it may be hard to imagine that the United States is not trending away from drug testing in the workplace.  It is true that public opinion about certain controlled substances is shifting, but legislation is still being passed that creates provisions for drug testing employees, banning synthetic substances, and penalizing intoxicated motorists.

The diversity of laws and court decisions produced in 2014 is proof that the line between pro-employer and pro-employee is vague and becoming more difficult to draw-out.  As laws in some states provide new “rights” to individuals to consume intoxicating substances, other laws in those states as well as other places reinforce the rights of employers and citizens seeking to ensure safe workplaces and communities.

I am not, of course, an expert on labor and employment law. But this posting provides perhaps more evidence that labor and employment lawyers need to be experts on modern drug law reforms in order to serves their clients effective.

February 4, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, January 30, 2015

Aggressive litigation prompts federal prosecutor in Chicago to drop stash house sting

As reported in this lengthy front-page Chicago Tribune article, aggressive litigation by the federal defense bar concerning aggressive federal drug-war tactics have now resulted in federal prosecutors backing off the most aggressive federal criminal charges these tactics have generated.  The article is headlined "Chicago prosecutors quietly drop charges tied to drug stash house stings," and here is how it begins:

Federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly dropped narcotics conspiracy charges against more than two dozen defendants accused of ripping off drug stash houses as part of controversial undercover stings that have sparked allegations across the country of entrapment and racial profiling.

The decade-old strategy is also under fire because federal authorities, as part of a ruse, led targets to think large quantities of cocaine were often stashed in the hideouts, ensuring long prison terms upon conviction because of how federal sentencing guidelines work. Experts said the move by Chicago prosecutors marked the first step back by a U.S. attorney's office anywhere in the country in connection with the controversial law enforcement tactic.

In the court filings seeking the dismissals, prosecutors gave no clue for the unusual reversal, and a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to comment. But the move comes two months after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke to the policy, ordering a new trial for a Naperville man who alleged he was goaded into conspiring to rob a phony drug stash house by overzealous federal agents.

The stings, led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been highly criticized for targeting mostly minority suspects, many of whom were drawn into the bogus rip-offs by informants who promised easy money at vulnerable points in their lives.

The cases are built on an elaborate ruse concocted by the ATF. Everything about the stash house is fictitious and follows a familiar script, from supposedly armed guards that need to be dealt with to the quantity of drugs purportedly stashed there. By pretending the house contains a large amount of narcotics, authorities can vastly escalate the potential prison time defendants face, including up to life sentences. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought to drop drug conspiracy charges in seven of the nine pending stash-house cases, leading some of the judges to quickly approve the move without a hearing.

In each case, the defendants — 27 in all — still face weapons and other charges for the alleged scheme and potentially long prison sentences upon conviction. But without the drug conspiracy charges, the mandatory minimum sentences for most of the defendants would drop to just five years in prison from as much as 25 years, according to Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

The ATF investigations have also faced legal backlash around the country, including in California, where last year two federal judges ruled the stings amounted to entrapment.

Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said hundreds of people nationally have been charged as part of the drug house ruse. The ATF has been using this sting for at least a decade, she said. Tinto said she believes the decision to drop the cases in Chicago is an acknowledgment of the fact that federal agents involved in the sting set the quantity of the phony drugs, a critical factor in driving the sentencing.

The dismissal of the seven cases likely "signals that the government is starting to take a critical look both at these tactics and the immense sentencing these tactics can bring," Tinto said.  "In this tactic the drugs are imaginary, and the amount of the drugs is set by the government."

I have been preaching in recent years that I have come to believe that aggressive litigation taking on some of the worst extremes of the federal drug war and excesses of mass incarceration was more likely to "move the sentencing reform needle" as much, if not more, than legislative advocacy directed and a gridlocked Congress. This story reinforces my sense that more and more federal judges are growing more and more willing to criticize and seek to rein in what they more and more are seeing as federal prosecutorial overreach in the drug war and elsewhere.

January 30, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Did feds just win the drug war?: kingpin twin drug dealers get kingly sentencing break thanks to cooperation

ImagesAs detailed in this AP story, headlined "Trafficking Twins Get Sharply Reduced Sentences," the sentencing benefits of cooperating with the government was on full display yesterday in a Chicago federal courtroom. Here are the details:

Identical twin brothers who ran a drug-trafficking ring that spanned much of North America were sentenced Tuesday to 14 years in prison after a judge agreed to sharply reduce their penalty as a reward for becoming government informants and secretly recording Mexico's most notorious drug lord.

In a rare courtroom display, it was a federal prosecutor who poured praise on Pedro and Margarito Flores, portraying them as among the most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history and describing the courage they displayed in gathering evidence against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other leaders in Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.

With credit for time served awaiting sentencing and for good behavior in prison, the brothers, now 33, could be out in as little as six years.

Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo likened Americans' sense of security to walls and scolded the brothers for introducing drugs that fueled violence and despair. "You devastated those walls. You knocked them down," he said.  The twins' cooperation was the only thing that spared them from an actual life sentence, Castillo told the brothers. But, he added, they would still serve a life sentence of sorts — having to look over their shoulders the rest of their lives in constant fear of a deadly attack by an assassin working for the cartel they betrayed.

Castillo said the twins were the most significant traffickers ever in his court.  But he said he had also never seen traffickers at the height of their power and wealth come forward to offer to become government witnesses, as the siblings had.

The twins appeared in court with the same olive-green clothes and the same closely cropped haircuts. Both kept tapping one foot nervously throughout the hourlong hearing. Just before the judge imposed a sentence, each walked to a podium separately to speak, appearing uneasy. "I'm ashamed. I'm embarrassed. I'm regretful," Margarito Flores said. "There is no excuse."

So successful was their criminal enterprise that the jewelry-loving, Maserati-driving twins smuggled $1.8 billion — wrapped in plastic and duct tape — into Mexico, according to prosecutors....

Prosecutor Mike Ferrara had asked for a sentence of around 10 years. He noted the twins' cooperation led to indictments of Guzman and more than 50 others. The twins began cooperating with agents in 2008 and engaged cartel leaders for months, sometimes switching on recorders and shoving them in their pockets. They continually risked death, Ferrara said.

The 5-foot-4 twins' trafficking careers soared after they left Chicago to live in Mexico around 2004. In mid-2005, they met with Guzman in his secret mountain compound to cut major drug deals, government filings said. The brothers ran their operation from a Mexican ranch. Their network stretched from its Chicago hub to New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and to Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia....

Later Tuesday, Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announced new charges against several Sinaloa figures stemming from the twins' cooperation. Asked about their lenient sentences and the message it sent to other would-be cartel traffickers, Fardon said it should demonstrate, "You can right some of what you did wrong ... by helping the government."

So does this all mean that the federal drug war can be declared officially over, and that we can claim the good guys officially won this 50-year costly war?  After all, this was a sentencing of two of the most significant drug traffickers, and they have become the "most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history."  Surely this must scare off and deter all other current and would-be drug dealers and all the trillions in taxpayer dollars spent on the drug war has now been vindicated as money well spent.  

Of course, I am asking the question above and in the title of this post with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek.  A key problem with the drug war, as I see it, is that even a huge drug war "victory" in catching and prosecuting some drug dealers typically will make it that much more valuable and enticing for other drug dealers to seek to replace the captured criminals.  I fear that , unless and until illegal drug demand is reduced,  illegal drug suppliers will be plentiful in part because the drug war makes their activities potentially much more lucrative.  

January 28, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the The Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is a description of the report I received today via an e-mail from The Vera Institute of Justice:

Enacted in 1973, New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug offenses.  This heralded a wave of mandatory sentencing statutes that swept the nation, contributing to dramatic increases in state prison populations and fueling the racial disparities that have come to characterize the U.S. criminal justice system.  In 2009, however, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were essentially dismantled by the latest in a series of reforms that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for the possession, use, or small-scale sale of illegal drugs and increased eligibility for diversion treatment.

In End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University examine the impact of reform soon after implementation and suggest mid-course corrections.  The research team compared cases pre and post-reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, recidivism, and cost. Researchers also interviewed 35 criminal justice stakeholders to assess their perceptions of the impact of drug law reform.  The National Institute of Justice-funded study, which focused on New York City where the majority of the state’s prison population is from, found that drug law reform, as it functioned in the city soon after the laws were passed, led to a 35 percent rise in the rate of diversion among eligible defendants. Although the use of diversion varied significantly among the city’s five boroughs, it was associated with reduced recidivism rates, and cut racial disparities in half.

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, January 16, 2015

AG Holder announces notable new limits on civil forfeitures to fund local police

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the out-going Attorney General today announce a notable new policy that ought to take some of the economic incentives out of some drug war enforcement activities. Here are the basics:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred. Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement. Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.

While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund. A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”

Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

January 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014

Josh Gerstein has this notable new piece up at Politico headlined "Grassley questions Obama commutation drive," about a notable new inquiry directed to Attorney General Holder concerning the Obama Administration's (quirky?) efforts to ramp up its clemency activities. Here are excerpts:

New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley is questioning the arrangements surrounding President Barack Obama's drive to shorten the sentences of some drug convicts.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican asks for information about the relationship between the Justice Department and "Clemency Project 2014" — a consortium of outside groups formed in response to calls from administration officials to help federal prisoners prepare applications for the clemency effort.

"I am unaware of any time in history in which the Department of Justice has delegated any of these core attributes of presidential power to private parties beholden to no one, and who have their own agendas that may not coincide with the President's," Grassley wrote in the letter (posted here). "When private parties are wrongly given the ability to exercise any role in that public trust, then both the fairness of the pardon process and the appearance of its fairness are jeopardized."

Grassley's letter draws in large part on a POLITICO story last week which said that the new effort is struggling with more than 25,000 requests from inmates and that lawyers involved in the project have suggested applicants which route their clemency petitions through the project will stand a better or faster chance of favorable action than those who submit applications independently. The project—run by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers— is also screening applications and weeding out those it considers unmeritorious under criteria the Justice Department set forth last April.

"Please tell me what formal arrangements exist between the Department and the Clemency Project 2014 to coordinate the processing of pardon applications, including what direction Clemency Project lawyers are given, what actions they take for the Department, and, how, if at all, Department of Justice lawyers consider the work product provided by these organizations or follow their recommendations," Grassley wrote. The senator also asks if anyone in the Justice Department is aware of statements suggesting those who submit applications through the project will have "superior access to the Department's pardon process."...

Grassley's letter refers to "pardon applicants," but the petitions prisoners are submitting are actually requests for commutations — a form of executive clemency that serves to shorten a prisoner's sentence.

The president can grant a commutation to anyone for virtually any reason. However, such applications are traditionally routed through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which prepares recommendations and sends them to the department's No. 2 official, who forwards them to the White House.

The new commutation drive the Justice Department announced last year is aimed largely at paring back the sentences of convicts sent to prison for long terms relating to trafficking in crack cocaine. Those prisoners tend to be disproportionately minority as compared to those convicted of handling powdered cocaine. A law Obama signed in 2010 reduced that disparity for defendants sentenced after that time, but it was not retroactive.

The full Grassley letter is quite interesting, and not just because it gives some grief to Obama Administration about how it appears to be approaching its latest clemency push.  The letter asked a host of hard questions about what exactly DOJ and Clemency Project 2014 are up to, while also asserting in a final paragraph that "[j]ustice in the award of presidential pardons requires a transparent, fair process." And, unsurprisingly, the letter does not mention the sad reality that presidential clemency actions of the last two presidents have involved nothing resembling a "transparent, fair process."    

Among other notable aspects of this letter, Senator Grassley's obvious interest in these matter suggests that clemency issues are likely to be raised in some way during the upcoming confirmation hearings for AG Holder's replacement.  

January 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"

Meme1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term.  Safely re­elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective.  As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years.  Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state­licensed growers and retailers.  Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...

Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform.  Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums.  Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....

Clemency.  After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions.  Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.  Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration.  The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence.  He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress.  And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....

If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization.  Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.

This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.

On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.

On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 03, 2015

"How did a law to regulate heroin traffic turn into the costly, futile War on Drugs?"

150102_schneider_heroin_wikimedia1The title of this post is the subtitle of this lengthy Politico magazine feature carrying the headline "A Hundred Years’ Failure." These titles highlight the basic themes of an article that reviews lots of interesting parts of the modern drug war's back-story, giving special emphasis to opiates and heroin along the way.  Here are a few excerpts from a piece that merits a read in full:

Twenty-five years ago, the stated goal of the United States’ anti-narcotic efforts according to the Department of Justice was to “disrupt, destroy and dismantle drug trafficking enterprises.” That same year, the U.S. government pumped almost $8 billion into anti-drug efforts, including $600 million in prison construction alone. It was just a typical fiscal year during the height of the drug war. But two and a half decades later, despite this dizzying spending, we don’t need a drug czar to tell us—even though one of them has—the war on drugs, by its own measures, has been a century-long failure.

A hundred years ago this month, the U.S. government started this fight to rid us of the scourge of opiates. Today, not only have we failed to control drug demand, an entirely new breed of opiate epidemic has flourished in the face of the most draconian drug laws in the world. Aided by aggressive Big Pharma marketing and enthusiastic “pain specialists,” opiate abuse has simply taken on a new shape, moving from urban enclaves and overrunning pockets of New England and the South, from rural Vermont to the suburbs of Dallas, that have little history of widespread drug abuse. Heroin today is cheaper and purer than it was 50 years ago. That’s to say nothing of the 700 percent increase in incarceration of American citizens in the past four decades, the distribution of nearly $450 million worth of military equipment that is used by local and state law enforcement agencies (that “militarization of the police” you’ve been reading so much about lately), and the creation of a wasteful, labyrinthine bureaucracy dedicated to what has proven a perhaps impossible goal: The eradication of drugs....

At the beginning of the 20th century, everyone’s medicine cabinet contained opium in some form. Patent medicines mixed alcohol and opium, and women used them for menstrual cramps, coughs and other minor symptoms, as well as for infants’ teething pains. Aging Civil War veterans self-injected morphine to soothe old wounds, and physicians dosed patients liberally with opium pills and morphine. Opium smokers, usually Chinese, but also habitués of the urban underworld and the occasional slumming college student, were the most common recreational users....

During the Progressive Era, a culture war was raging over sexuality, alcohol and modern life—as seen in efforts to censure pornography and eliminate “red light” districts—and prohibition offered the best hope of legislating moral certainty. While alcohol prohibition had the largest domestic constituency, drug prohibition fit with foreign policy interests. Years of lobbying by religious groups in both the United States and Britain, who were appalled at opium smoking in China and places to which the Chinese emigrated, culminated in the 1912 Hague Convention, where a dozen countries agreed to regulate the international narcotics traffic and signatories promised to limit opiate use in their own countries....

After a century of aggressive policing, mandatory minimums and enforcement that disproportionately targeted the most marginalized of American citizens, the failure of the war on drugs is ultimately a cautionary tale about pursuing an agenda at any cost—financial or human. From the founding of a vast bureaucratic infrastructure to support the new war, to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on military police equipment, to the $50 billion spent annually on incarceration, the story of fighting addiction in America has brought out its mirror image: An irrational dependence, despite all logic to the contrary, on a steady flow of government cash and brute enforcement.

We should have just said no.

January 3, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, December 26, 2014

South Dakota legislator suggests using drug war proceeds to fund public defenders

This local article, headlined "Hickey: Use seized drug money for public defender," reports on some notable public advocacy by a public official concerning public defenders in South Dakota.  Here are the details:

A Sioux Falls lawmaker wants to use seized drug money to help pay the legal defense bills of those who can't afford a lawyer, but the state's attorney general says counties should look elsewhere to save money on court-appointed attorney costs.

Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, says the money in the state's Drug Control Fund is correctly used to tackle the problem of drug use, but he says he worries about the legal costs counties bear after the arrest. The fund is made up of money seized during drug investigations and money from the sale of seized property, such as vehicles.

"My thought is that we should put some of that money not just into catching more bad guys, but put some of it into the cost of defending them we're stuck with afterward," Hickey said. "We get excited about sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, but after those tickets get written, someone has to pick up the tab."

Hickey's bill would ask for a more thorough accounting of the money seized by law enforcement from suspected drug dealers and direct between 25 percent and 50 percent of it toward the legal fees amassed by counties. The fund is administered by Attorney General Marty Jackley's Office, which decides where the seized money is spent. "It seems to me that there's very little oversight," Hickey said....

Counties are legally obligated to offer court-appointed lawyers to the indigent. Local governments can ask that legal fees be repaid, but many bills go unpaid, either because defendants don't earn enough or own enough to pay or because they go to prison or jail.

Hickey's proposal comes alongside growing concerns over court-appointed attorney fees in Minnehaha County. Commissioners want judges to consider income guidelines when deciding whether to appoint a public defender, and they've offered a county employee to check defendants' income statements.

The state's largest county has spent $3.8 million on indigent defense this year, but reimbursements from defendants stand at $824,000. The county also has more than $26 million in liens on defendants who haven't paid their bill.

Commissioner Cindy Heiberger hasn't seen Hickey's proposal, but says any discussion about helping the counties that shoulder the burden of legal defense is welcome. "It sounds really good on the surface. Anything we can use to pay for court-appointed attorneys or court costs is something we should talk about," Heiberger said. But, she cautioned, "when we're taking money from one pot and moving it to another, we need to make sure the logistics make sense for everyone."

The notion of using seized drug money to pay for criminal defense doesn't sit well with Attorney General Marty Jackley. The drug control fund consists of money seized from suspected drug sales and other cash collected from auctioning off seized vehicles and other property. "I do not support using the profits of criminals to defend their activities," Jackley said.

The money pays the drug testing bills for cities and counties, Jackley said, and the remaining money is used to buy vehicles, camera systems and other items for local police and sheriff's departments. Giving some of the money to counties for indigent defense could force local agencies to bear the cost of drug testing and reduce the availability of funds for equipment upgrades and replacements.

In 2013, $70,514 was awarded from the drug control fund for law enforcement and prosecution costs in Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County. Overall in 2013, $643,722 was awarded from the drug control fund to local agencies. Drug control money pays an average of $60,000 per month to local law enforcement for drug testing, according to DCI records.

December 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack