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.

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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 (4) | 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