Thursday, October 08, 2015

What major federal criminal justice reform now gets 90% support in key swing states?

In this post and others at Crime & Consequences, Bill Otis rightly notes that relatively little objective polling has focused on the array of federal sentencing and correction reforms that are being actively proposed and promoted now by many leaders in the US Senate and House.  Like Bill, I would like to see the media and other independent groups conduct polling on some key aspects of federal drug sentencing and broader rehabilitation-oriented prison reform proposals now being considered on Capitol Hill.

Critically, though, thanks largely to voter-initiated, state-level reforms over the last few years, we are starting to see a lot more media and other independent groups conduct polling on one particular aspect of the federal criminal justice system: blanket marijuana prohibition and criminalization.  The latest polling numbers in this space come from the independent Quinnipiac University Poll, and it finds remarkably high public support for ending marijuana prohibition in swing states in order to allow adults "to legally use marijuana for medical purposes if their doctor prescribes it."  This Quinnipiac press release about its poll places emphasis on closely-divided (and gender/age-distinctive) views on recreational marijuana reform, but I find the medical marijuana poll numbers most remarkable and important. Here are excerpts from the press release (with my emphasis added):

"If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then the Red Planet might be the more spacey place. That's because men are more likely than women to support legalization of marijuana for recreational use," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. "Not surprisingly support for the change is linked to age, with younger voters more likely to see personal use of pot as a good thing."

"But despite the support for legalization, a majority of voters in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania say they would not use the drug if it were legal," Brown added. "Only about one in 10 voters opposes legalizing marijuana for medical purposes." ...

Florida voters support legalizing personal marijuana use 51 - 45 percent.... Voters support legalizing medical marijuana 87 - 12 percent....

Ohio voters support legalizing personal marijuana use 53 - 44 percent.... Voters support legalized medical marijuana use 90 - 9 percent.

Pennsylvania voters are divided on legalizing personal marijuana use, with 47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed.... Voters support legalizing medical marijuana 90 - 9 percent.

Among other stories, these latest poll numbers reinforce my concern that federal laws and our federal political leaders (including, it seems, most of the candidates running to be our next President) are badly out of touch with public views on marijuana reform. Even in these purple swing states, roughly 90% (!) of those polled say, in essence, that they do not support blanket marijuana prohibition and criminalization, and yet blanket marijuana prohibition persists in federal law and precious few elected federal office holders (or those seeking to be elected office holders) are willing even to talk about seeking to change these laws in the short term.

That all said, I am getting a growing sense that, over time, more and more promiment establishment politicians are coming to understand just how talking seriously (and modestly) about marijuana reform can be a winning political issue (especially among younger voters).  Still, as evidenced by some recent posts at my Marijuana blog, the politics, policies and practicalities of marijuana reform are so dynamic, I find myself unwilling ever to make bold predictions about what might happen next in this reform space.

Some recent posts from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform:

October 8, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Early prisoner release following reduced drug guideline retroactivity about to be reality

It seems like a real long time ago that the US Sentencing Commission suggested it might reduced the severity of its drug sentencing guidelines across the board. (In fact, it was way back in early January 2014, as reported in this post.)  That USSC proposal a few month later became a formal guideline amendment known as drugs -2 (as reported here in April 2014); some months after that, the USSC formally voted to make this reduced guideline fully retroactive to those already serving long federal drug prison sentences (as reported here in July 2014).  

But when making its reduced drug guidelines retroactive, the USSC also provided that no federal drug prisoner should be released until fall 2015 in order to give courts and prisons time to process all thousands of folks who would not be eligible to seek early release.  Now, as this new Washington Post piece reports, all this USSC reform is finally going to mean thousands of prisoners actually securing early releases:

The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 inmates early from prison — the largest one-time release of federal prisoners — in an effort to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders who received harsh sentences over the past three decades.

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the department’s Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. Most of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release.

The early release follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes — which reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive....

The panel estimated that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is the first tranche in that process.

“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform. The Sentencing Commission estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016....

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction last year after holding two public hearings in which members heard testimony from former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates. The panel also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, with the overwhelming majority favoring the change.

Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge release of inmates.

The policy change is referred to as “Drugs Minus Two.” Federal sentencing guidelines rely on a numeric system based on different factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the type of crime, whether a gun was involved and whether the defendant was a leader in a drug group. The sentencing panel’s change decreased the value attached to most drug-trafficking offenses by two levels, regardless of the type of drug or the amount.

An average of about two years is being shaved off eligible prisoners’ sentences under the change. Although some of the inmates who will be released have served decades, on average they will have served 8 1/2 years instead of 10 1/2 , according to a Justice Department official.

“Even with the Sentencing Commission’s reductions, drug offenders will have served substantial prison sentences,” Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates said. “Moreover, these reductions are not automatic. Under the commission’s directive, federal judges are required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to reduce an inmate’s sentence.”

In each case, inmates must petition a judge, who decides whether to grant the sentencing reduction. Judges nationwide are granting about 70 sentence reductions per week, Justice officials said. Some of the inmates already have been sent to halfway houses.

In some cases, federal judges have denied inmates’ requests for early release. For example, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth recently denied requests from two top associates of Rayful Edmond III, one of the District’s most notorious drug kingpins. Federal prosecutors did not oppose a request by defense lawyers to have the associates, Melvin D. Butler and James Antonio Jones, released early in November.  But last month Lamberth denied the request, which would have cut about two years from each man’s projected 28 1/2 -year sentence....

Critics, including some federal prosecutors, judges and police officials, have raised concerns that allowing so many inmates to be released at the same time could cause crime to increase.

But Justice officials said that about one-third of the inmates who will be released in a few weeks are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported.  They also pointed to a study last year that found that the recidivism rate for offenders who were released early after changes in crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines in 2007 was not significantly different from the rate for offenders who completed their sentences.

October 6, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Strong crime and punishment coverage of drugs, guns and more via Vox

I remain a bit unsure of what Vox is and who is behind all of Vox Media, but I am sure that Vox has recently done a lot of good and important work on a lot of topics that should be of great interest to criminal justice fans.  Here are headlines and links:

October 4, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Second Amendment issues | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Is the "don't blame the drug war for mass incarceration" counter-narrative problematically incomplete?

As more serious folks have started to take the problem of modern mass incarceration more seriously, I see a couple key narratives about the problem and potential solutions emerging.  The predominant narrative, espoused by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow and by long-time critics of the so-called "war on drugs," is that mass incarceration is principally a product of the drug war and its associated severe sentencing laws.  This narrative always struck me as a bit too simplistic and incomplete. 

Lately an important counter-narrative has taken hold: fueled by prison population data and prosecutorial practices stressed by John Pfaff and a few others, more folks are asserting that the drug war and its severe sentencing laws are not central to mass incarceration and that their reversal is not really a solution to the problems of mass incarceration.  This counter-narrative is today well-explained in this New York Times column by David Brooks.  Here are highlights:  

Pretty much everybody from Barack Obama to Carly Fiorina seems to agree that far too many Americans are stuck behind bars.  And pretty much everybody seems to have the same explanation for how this destructive era of mass incarceration came about.

First, the war on drugs got out of control, meaning that many nonviolent people wound up in prison. Second, mandatory­minimum sentencing laws led to a throw­-away-­the-­key culture, with long, cruel and pointlessly destructive prison terms....

The popular explanation for how we got here, however, seems to be largely wrong, and most of the policy responses flowing from it may therefore be inappropriate.  The drug war is not even close to being the primary driver behind the sharp rise in incarceration. About 90 percent of America’s prisoners are held in state institutions.  Only 17 percent of these inmates are in for a drug­-related offense, or less than one in five.

Moreover, the share of people imprisoned for drug offenses is dropping sharply, down by 22 percent between 2006 and 2011.  Writing in Slate, Leon Neyfakh emphasized that if you released every drug offender from state prison today, you’d reduce the population only to 1.2 million from 1.5 million.

The war on drugs does not explain the rocketing rates of incarceration, and ending that war, wise or not, will not solve this problem.  The mandatory-­minimum theory is also problematic.  Experts differ on this, but some of the most sophisticated work with the best data sets has been done by John Pfaff of Fordham Law School....

His research suggests that while it’s true that lawmakers passed a lot of measures calling for long prison sentences, if you look at how much time inmates actually served, not much has changed over the past few decades.  Roughly half of all prisoners have prison terms in the range of two to three years, and only 10 percent serve more than seven years.  The laws look punitive, but the time served hasn’t increased, and so harsh laws are not the main driver behind mass incarceration, either.

So what does explain it?  Pfaff’s theory is that it’s the prosecutors.  District attorneys and their assistants have gotten a lot more aggressive in bringing felony charges.  Twenty years ago they brought felony charges against about one in three arrestees.  Now it’s something like two in three.  That produces a lot more plea bargains and a lot more prison terms.

I asked Pfaff why prosecutors are more aggressive.  He’s heard theories.  Maybe they are more political and they want to show toughness to raise their profile to impress voters if they run for future office.  Maybe the police are bringing stronger cases.  Additionally, prosecutors are usually paid by the county but prisons by the state, so prosecutors tend not to have to worry about the financial costs of what they do.

Pfaff says there’s little evidence so far to prove any of these theories, since the prosecutorial world is largely a black box.  He also points out that we have a radically decentralized array of prosecutors, with some elected and some appointed. Changing their behavior cannot be done with one quick fix.

Some politicians and activists suggest that solving this problem will be easy — just release the pot smokers and the low­-level dealers.  In reality, reducing mass incarceration means releasing a lot of once-­violent offenders.  That may be the right thing to do in individual cases, but it’s a knotty problem.

Generally speaking, the "don't blame the drug war for mass incarceration" counter-narrative makes important points and is an essential consideration for serious researchers and reform advocates. Pfaff's data highlights critical factual realities that fully justify the essential message that modern mass incarceration is, in Brooks' phrase, a "knotty problem."

But I fear that the counter-narrative is also too simplistic and incomplete as it fails to consider sufficiently how the the drug war and associated sentencing laws remain at the beating heart of the mass incarceration knot.  In my view, federal and state prosecutors were only able to become "more aggressive" in recent decades because the drug war and associated severe sentencing laws made their jobs much, much easier in various ways.  The relative simplicity of securing drug convictions (and of threatening severe sanctions for those who fail to plea and cooperate) has made it much, much easier for prosecutors to turn more arrests for drugs and many other crimes into many more charges and convictions.   (Tempered constitutional limitations on police, prosecutors and severe sentences through the Rehnquist Supreme Court era is also a part of this story, which I also think can and should be linked directly to the drug war.)

This chart has charging data for the federal system from 1982 to 2010, and it shows federal the number criminal cases commenced (i.e., when federal prosecutors brough charges) doubling from under 33,000 in 1982 to 67,000 in 2002.  During those two decades, the number of drug cases commenced jumped from 4,200 in 1982 to over 19,000 in 2002.  In my view, the drug war and severe federal sentences not only significantly accounted for why federal prosecutors had the ability/resources to bring 15,000 more drug cases in 2002 than in 1982, but it also significantly contributed to why federal prosecutors had the ability/resources to bring 15,000 more other federal criminal cases in 2002 compared to 1982.  I think we would see somewhat similar dynamics playing out in many states during this period, and the federal data further shows that once prosecutors got really good at bringing lots of charges thanks to the help of the drug war, they became consistently adept at bringing lots more of other charges even as the number of drug prosecutions started to level off.

I make these points not to contend that "ending the drug war" (whatever that means) and/or repealing all mandatory minimums will alone "solve" the problem of mass incarceration.  The counter-narrative remains very important in highlighting that modern incarceration levels in the US are a complicated matter requiring complicated solutions.  But I am now growing concerned that, especially as the counter-narrative grows in significance, serious researchers and reform advocates may sometimes under-appreciate how critical the drug war and associated sentencing laws have been as the source of many troublesome elements in the growth of criminal justice expenditures and significance over the last four decades.

September 29, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8)

"Heroin, Murder, and the New Front in the War on Drugs"

DownloadThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy and effective new Vice article.  Here are excerpts:

It can be tough to find a true villain among the legions using and selling opioids, two groups that often overlap. This is especially true given that for many, heroin use was preceded by the abuse of widely-prescribed opioids like OxyContin, which as of 2013, was responsible for more deaths than heroin....

But prosecutors across America are dusting off old statutes to pursue full-fledged murder charges against dealers and even fellow users and friends who pass or sell heroin to a person who then dies of an overdose. Possible sentences include life without parole. The law-and-order crackdown is taking place at a moment when prominent figures in both major parties are, for the first time in decades, seriously considering reducing a jail and prison population that has grown to well more than 2 million — and curbing a war on drugs that has persistently failed to dampen the appetite for the stuff....

So far, the number of such charges that have been filed, and the criteria by which prosecutors are deciding to use them, remain murky. The phenomenon has received little attention from legal scholars and activists, and the charges have surprised defense lawyers who end up handling the cases....

So far, it seems like plenty of smalltime hook-ups are getting caught in the fray. In September 2013, Joseph L. Robinson, an Illinois man living near near St. Louis, was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for selling a man who later died two-tenths of a gram of heroin — for $30. Jim Porter, a spokesperson for Southern District of Illinois US Attorney Stephen Wigginton, says there was nothing else that made the crime particularly heinous. If there had been, he says, the sentence could have been even longer.

The prosecutions also run counter to the widespread adoption of harm-reduction policies like equipping first responders with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, as well as "good Samaritan" laws, which offer limited legal protection to people who call 9-1-1 to report a drug-related medical emergency. But those laws typically offer immunity from low-level possession charges and not for drug dealing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — let alone for drug-related murder charges. Prosecutors hope that harsh charges will deter dealers and keep drugs away from users, but they could also convince drug addicts to flee the scene and leave someone dying on the floor.

The charges could even encourage violence on the part of dealers determined to silence informants. "To bring punitive criminal justice responses to these situations will not prevent the underlying concern and will likely only exacerbate the situation due to those involved not speaking to police or emergency personnel, or even becoming violent to avoid such charges," Art Way, Colorado director for the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization critical of the drug war, writes in an email. "Much of the violence involved in and around the drug trade involves the intimidating or killing of informants or those considered to be informants."...

In the Cleveland and Toledo area, Steven Dettelbach, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, is charging dealers under a federal law that potentially carries a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for a drug-dealing offense resulting in death or serious injury—and mandatory life for someone with a prior felony drug conviction. In Cuyahoga County, there were 198 heroin-related deaths in 2014, according to the Northeast Ohio Media Group. "Federal penalties are extremely serious, and the people who are out there dealing what amounts to poison need to get the message that this is going to be treated like a homicide," Dettelbach tells VICE in an interview.

Though former Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to pursue harsh mandatory minimums more judiciously in 2013, that doesn't mean they won't seek long sentences for drug crimes, according to Dettelbach. Rather, he says his office is focusing such charges on the most serious of offenders, particularly those dealing heroin mixed with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has been linked to many overdose deaths. "The fentanyl issue is actually now becoming more acute than the straight heroin issue," Dettelbach says. "In my mind, I will just tell you it's hard to be a dealer in fentanyl and claim that you don't know its going to kill some people."

Federal prosecutors in states around the country, including Oregon, Texas, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, are filing these kinds of charges in response to opioid deaths. In Southern Illinois, Porter says that their office began to file such charges after Wigginton's 2010 appointment, and that he has so far won 11 convictions. In July, a federal judge in Kentucky sentenced a man to life without parole for dealing oxycodone to a user who died; that district's US Attorney's Office said it was "the first time in Kentucky that a life sentence was imposed in an overdose death case involving prescription drugs."...

State prosecutors also appear to be pursuing harsh charges with growing frequency. In Wisconsin, prosecutors charged 71 people with first-degree reckless homicide by drug delivery in 2013, an increase from 47 in 2012, according to USA Today.

In New Jersey, Ocean County Prosecutor Joseph Coronato has made these sorts of charges a focus, and his office is training police around the state on how to investigate heroin-related deaths. "We kind of call it our checkmate charge," says Al Della Fave, a spokesperson....

State and federal laws don't limit these charges to major dealers, or to those who act with malicious intent. In New Orleans, Chelcie Schleben and her reported ex-boyfriend Joshua Lore currently face life without parole for the February 2014 fatal overdose "murder" of 23-year-old Kody Woods. The charges are severe "even by extreme Louisiana standards," says Stephen Singer, a professor at Loyola Law School and Schleben's lawyer.

Louisiana already has the highest number of nonviolent offenders serving life without parole, according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union report, and state drug sentences tend to be extraordinarily harsh. Last year, Governor Bobby Jindal signed legislation lengthening the possible sentence for repeat heroin dealers to 99 years.

In Charleston, West Virginia, prosecutors have charged Steven Craig Coleman with murder in connection with a February heroin-related death. Rico Moore, Coleman's lawyer, is mystified by the charges. "He's a drug user," Moore says. "He's not as they allege—he's not a drug dealer... It makes absolutely no sense to punish someone who's an addict." According to Moore, Coleman's opioid addiction stems from his abuse of lawfully-prescribed drugs. Coleman is poor, he says, his mother died from drug use, and his father is an addict....

In Ohio, prosecutors don't yet have the ability to seek the harshest penalties available under state law for these deaths—but they want them. Last September, Hamilton County Prosecutor County prosecutor Joseph T. Deters announced involuntary manslaughter charges for involvement in a fatal intoxication, the first time, according to their office, such charges had been filed in county history. Deters took the opportunity to complain that the the law should "be strengthened to allow us to charge these kinds of cases as murder... If the law is changed, drug dealers would then be facing the possibility of life in prison for selling the drugs that take too many lives."

Last year, legislation to that effect passed the state house in Ohio with Attorney General Mike DeWine's enthusiastic support. Republican State Rep. Jim Butler, who introduced the legislation, plans to reintroduce a bill altered to better ensure that mere users are not the ones prosecuted for deaths. But he wants to tack on an increase in sentences for drug trafficking as well. "I think what we need to do is be tougher on drug traffickers and be more compassionate to drug users," he says.

September 29, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10)

Monday, September 28, 2015

"The Real Roots of ’70s Drug Laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this new notable New York York Times commentary by Michael Javen Fortner.  Here are excerpts:

The number of black males killed by police officers continues to rise: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Ezell Ford, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice.  But many more still die at the hands of black neighbors instead of the police.  Yet today we rarely ask politicians to speak their names or recognize their dignity and worth.

That’s because some consider talk of black­-on-­black violence a distraction.  This is a natural outgrowth of the view that the over­-policing of urban neighborhoods and the scourge of mass incarceration are all the result of a white­-supremacist social order, the “New Jim Crow,” born of white backlash against the civil rights movement.  But this is too convenient a narrative.  It erases the crucial role that African-­Americans themselves played in the development of the current criminal justice system.

Today’s disastrously punitive criminal justice system is actually rooted in the postwar social and economic demise of urban black communities.  It is, in part, the unintended consequence of African-­Americans’ own hard­fought battle against the crime and violence inside their own communities. To ignore that history is to disregard the agency of black people and minimize their grievances, and to risk making the same mistake again.

The draconian Rockefeller drug laws, for example, the model for much of our current drug policies, were promoted and supported by an African-American leadership trying to save black lives.  During the 1960s, concentrated poverty began to foster a host of social problems like drug addiction and crime that degraded the social and civic health of black neighborhoods.  After the Harlem riots of 1964 (which erupted following the shooting of a 15-­year-­old black male by a white cop), polls showed that many African­-Americans in New York City still considered crime a top problem facing blacks in the city, while few worried about civil rights and police brutality....

In 1969, the Manhattan branch of the N.A.A.C.P. issued an anti­crime report that railed against the “reign of criminal terror” in Harlem. It warned that the “decent people of Harlem” had become the prey of “marauding hoodlums” and proposed that criminals, including muggers, pushers, vagrants and murderers, be subjected to steep criminal sentences. The civil rights organization reaffirmed its battle against police brutality, but added, “We favor the use of whatever force is necessary to stop a crime or to apprehend a criminal.” Vincent Baker, the author of the report, testified that “the silent majority in Harlem would welcome a police order to get tough.” He even advocated for a “stop and frisk” policy.

Harlem business leaders supported stricter law enforcement and harsher punishments for criminals. In 1973, nearly three­-quarters of blacks and Puerto Ricans favored life sentences for drug pushers, and the Rev. Oberia Dempsey, a Harlem pastor, said: “Take the junkies off the streets and put ’em in camps,” and added, “we’ve got to end this terror and restore New York to decent people.  Instead of fighting all the time for civil rights we should be fighting civil wrongs.”...

Four decades later, the decline in violent crime has created the space for a new reform discourse — a Black Lives Matter movement that is fighting for much needed change.  But, as we rightly rethink punishment, it would be a mistake to ignore crime, both its origins and its effects.  Yes, we need robust government action, including economic development, job training programs and renewal of aging housing stock, to reverse a half­-century of social and economic decline.  But, as the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson notes, “Physical infrastructure and housing are crucial, but so, too, is the social infrastructure.” We need to bolster religious and civic organizations that cultivate stronger social ties, mitigate disorder and fight crime.

But long­term strategies can’t provide immediate relief from the daily horrors of urban crime.  In the short run, we need the police.  We need aggressive law enforcement methods that do not harass or brutalize the innocent.  Ultimately, though, we can’t eliminate the propensity to over­police and over­imprison unless we curb the disorder and chaos that threaten and destroy urban black lives.  As the history of the Rockefeller drug laws suggests, if crime rates climb to extraordinary levels, black citizens may once again value public safety more than civil liberty — and all the marching and shouting will have been for naught.

September 28, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 25, 2015

Former prosecutors' provocative pitch for preserving tough federal drug mandatory minimums

This new commentary authored by J. Douglas McCullough and Eric Evenson, two former North Carolina federal prosecutors, makes notable arguments against reform of federal drug sentencing statutes. The piece is headlined "Keep drug sentencing laws to keep communities safe," and here are excerpts:

The U.S. Senate is finalizing a criminal reform bill that will alter federal drug trafficking laws. Changes center on the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements which have been a key part of federal laws for more than 30 years. As former federal prosecutors, with more than 40 years combined experience, we have seen first-hand the benefits of mandatory minimum sentencing when properly used as a tool in the fight against drug traffickers. We urge Congress to leave this tool intact.

Many of our drug laws were passed by Congress in the 1980s, in response to a growing drug epidemic. These laws, which included mandatory sentences based on drug quantity and criminal history, were part of reform designed to rescue cities from the grip of drug traffickers and the danger it caused to our most vulnerable citizens. Congress correctly recognized that this goal could only be accomplished if sentences were tough for those controlling the distribution of drugs. Incentives were created for lower-level participants to provide evidence against higher-level traffickers in the form of a companion reward for testimony against other traffickers. Tough sentences were designed to remove the worst offenders from our communities; the opportunity to provide evidence in return for a lower sentence mitigated the effect of those sentences for those willing to help investigators get to the leaders of the drug organizations.

In our own district (which include cities, as well as rural areas) we saw crime rates decline, neighborhoods were revitalized, and violence was reduced. As we interviewed hundreds of drug traffickers who decided to provide testimony against higher-level traffickers, they revealed they were motivated to do so in large part by the significant sentences they faced.

Without tough sentencing standards for traffickers, we could not have obtained their testimony and obtained convictions against the large-scale traffickers. We saw our work as a “war on drug traffickers” with the goal of elimination of the traffickers from our communities. We sought cooperation and made appropriate recommendations for lower sentences for those who provided truthful testimony against major traffickers. We viewed the drug users as “victims” of drug traffickers. Drug trafficking produces two things: addicts, with ruined lives, and illegal profits for major drug traffickers.

The vast majority of drug traffickers — those we brought to federal court — were not drug users. They sold drugs because of greed. They were sentenced because of their large-scale distribution, and/or for the use of firearms as part of their activities. Those who argue that federal prisons are full of low-level drug users are simply wrong.

Drug trafficking spawns many other types of crime: gun violence, murder, theft, prostitution, and more. When a drug trafficker sets up his stronghold in a neighborhood, the whole community feels the effects. Many of the community’s most vulnerable citizens — those with limited means — can’t leave their crime-infested areas. They become trapped in the hellish world created by the drug traffickers....

Opponents of mandatory sentencing claim that these sentences are racist, unfair and expensive. That is not true. Mandatory sentencing has helped to rescue communities of color from drug traffickers; mandatory sentencing is equally applied to all drug traffickers, regardless of race, gender and economic status; and, the cost of long prison sentences is minor when compared to the lives saved and the communities rescued as the result of their imposition.

Instead of eliminating mandatory prison terms, why not institute meaningful reforms that will get to the root cause of drug trafficking? The majority of incarcerated drug traffickers we have interviewed were younger men who were the product of fatherless homes. The father is the first example of law and order for a young man. The breakdown of family has done more to lead to our drug epidemic than perhaps any other single cause.

Let’s focus on the causes of family breakdown, and the resulting failure to teach/instill good character in our young people. Public schools could offer character instruction. Religious institutions must be involved in teaching character and family/parental skills. For those serving long sentences, there should be an opportunity for rehabilitation, and to earn sentence reduction. Prisoners need to be taught work skills and character development that was largely overlooked in their earlier years.

Weakening our federal sentencing laws against drug trafficking, though frequently well intended, is naïve, counterproductive, and will adversely affect the communities to which drug traffickers will more quickly return.

Intriguingly, while making the case for preserving federal drug mandatory minimum statutes, these former prosecutors are also making the case for some of the back-end reforms currently being considered by Congress when they advocate for federal prisoners having an "opportunity for rehabilitation, and to earn sentence reduction." Also, I find it interesting that these authors assert that the breakdown of the family best accounts for drug problems and yet they do not acknowledge the role of the drug war in contributing to family disruptions.

September 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Thursday, September 24, 2015

First Circuit panel reverses stat max drug sentence based on co-defendant disparity

A panel of the First Circuit handed down a lengthy and significant sentncing opinion yesterday in US v. Reyes-Santiago, No. 12-2372 (1st Cir. Sept. 23, 2015) (available here). Here is how the majority opinion begins:

Appellant Jorge Reyes-Santiago ("Reyes") was among 110 defendants charged in a two-count indictment with drug and firearms offenses arising from a massive drug ring operating in public housing projects in Bayamón, Puerto Rico.  Most of the high-level members of the conspiracy, Reyes among them, pled guilty pursuant to plea agreements. Other than for Reyes, the sentences imposed on Count One, the drug count, ranged from 78 months to 324 months, the latter imposed on the chieftain of the enterprise.  Reyes received the stiffest Count One sentence: 360 months. In this appeal, he seeks resentencing on Count One on three grounds: the government's alleged breach of his plea agreement, the sentencing court's alleged inappropriate conduct in demanding witness testimony, and the disparity between his sentence and those of similarly situated co-defendants.  Reyes also claims the district court erred in ordering a 24-month consecutive sentence for his violation of supervised release conditions imposed in an earlier case.

We find merit in the disparity argument.  Ultimately, in sentencing the lead conspirators, the district court refused to accept stipulated drug amounts only for Reyes, listed as Defendant #9 in the indictment, and for the conspiracy's kingpin, Defendant #1.  Although sentencing courts have the discretion to reject recommendations made in plea agreements, and need not uniformly accept or reject such stipulations for co-defendants, they nonetheless must impose sentences along a spectrum that makes sense, given the co-defendants' criminal conduct and other individual circumstances.  In this case, after reviewing Presentence Investigation Reports ("PSRs") and sentencing transcripts for the leaders in the conspiracy, we conclude that the rationale offered by the district court for the substantial disparity between Reyes's sentence and the sentences of others above him in the conspiracy's hierarchy is unsupported by the record.  We therefore must remand this case to the district court for reconsideration of Reyes's sentence.

September 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

"Here’s why Obama should pardon hundreds more women"

The title of this post is part of the headline of this recent Fusion commentary authored by Amy Ralston Povah. Here are excerpts:

After the fifth year in prison, each additional year begins to eat into the layers of your soul.  Parents pass away, friends drift off, spouses find someone else.  Children grow up, graduate, get married, have children of their own; holidays come and go, and when that 7th, 15th or 22nd year rolls around, you feel like your heart is being crushed.

I shared those emotions with the women I served time with at FCI Dublin, a correctional facility in northern California.  I was serving 24 years on a drug conspiracy charge, arrested for collecting bail money for my husband, who manufactured MDMA.  He was the kingpin, but he only received three years probation because he cooperated with the prosecutors.  I refused a plea bargain, and I got stuck in jail.

So when President Clinton commuted my sentence on July 7, 2000 — after I’d served 9 years and 3 months — I felt like I had won the lottery.  The prison compound erupted into cheers and marched me across the yard to the gate on the day I left.  And yet, it was a bittersweet victory.  While I was elated for myself, it was hard to walk away, knowing I would not see these women the next day, or possibly ever again.

I felt that mix of bittersweet emotions again this summer when President Obama commuted the sentences of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, more than any sitting president in the last 50 years.  It was the result of Clemency Project 2014, a federal initiative that encouraged over 35,000 prisoners to apply for clemency.  On one day, 42 men and four women were the lucky lottery winners chosen from a massive number of candidates....

Having served time with over a thousand women, I believe they are the hardest hit victims in the war on drugs.  Many women are indicted because they are merely a girlfriend or wife of a drug dealer, yet are not part of the inner circle and have limited information to plea bargain with.  Mandatory minimums are reserved for those who do not cut a deal with prosecutors.

Women are being overlooked by the Department of Justice as candidates worthy of a seat on that coveted commutation list.  Over the last 30 years, the female prison population has grown by over 800% while the male prison population grew 416% during the same timeframe.  More than half of the mothers in prison were the primary financial supporters of their children before they were incarcerated.  And the vast majority of women in federal prison were put there due to conspiracy laws that hold them equally culpable for the criminal actions of other co-defendants, often a spouse or boyfriend. In other words, many women are guilty by association.

There are hundreds of women sitting in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges who deserve clemency — most of them first offenders serving life without parole.  Alice Johnson is an accomplished playwright who has served 18 years on a life sentence for cocaine conspiracy and has the support of three members of Congress.  Josephine Ledezma has already served over 23 years and is still waiting to have her petition filed.  Sharanda Jones has served 15 years; filed for clemency in 2013 and has over 270,000 supporters on  Michelle West has served 22 years of a double life sentence, plus fifty years, in a case where the key witness was given immunity and never served a day for a murder he admitted to.

Some days, sitting in prison, you think life can’t get any worse.  And then another blow comes when 46 people receive clemency and your name is not on that list.  Many of the same women I said goodbye to in 2000 are still in prison, serving 30 years to life, even though, like myself, they were minor participants in a nonviolent drug conspiracy case.... But with a stroke of his pen, President Obama can help right the wrongs of the past and give these deserving women a second chance at life.  He should get started right away.

September 15, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2)

Two very interesting (and very different) long reads about mass incarceration and drug dealing

I recently noticed two new (and very different) long-form commentary pieces that both ought to be of interest to deep thinkers about crime and punishment. Both defy easy summarization, so I will just provide links and the extended headline of the pieces and encourage readers in the comments to highlight important themes in either or both:

September 15, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Alabama Chief Justice laments mandatory LWOP drug sentence for 76-year-old offender

As reported in this AP article, "Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore says the case of a 76-year-man sentenced to life without parole for a drug offense shows the need to change sentencing laws."  Here is more about the notable separate opinion authored by the top jurist of the the Cotton State:

Moore issued a special writing Friday as the Supreme Court refused to overturn the case of Lee Carroll Brooker. "I believe Brooker's sentence is excessive and unjustified," Moore wrote.

Brooker lived with his son in Houston County, and court documents show police found a marijuana-growing operation there during a search in 2013. The elderly man was convicted of drug trafficking last year, and a judge sentenced him to life without parole because of past robbery convictions in Florida. His son was also convicted. Moore writes that the life-without-parole sentence for a non-violent drug offense shows "grave flaws" in Alabama's sentencing system.

"A trial court should have the discretion to impose a less severe sentence than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole," Moore added. "I urge the legislature to revisit that statutory sentencing scheme to determine whether it serves an appropriate purpose."

The full opinion by Chief Justice Moore is available at this link.

September 13, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Notable collective makes plans for "smart on crime" criminal code reform in Ohio

My local Columbus Dispatch has this new Ohio criminal justice reform story headlined, "Statehouse leaders push for shorter prison sentences, reducing prison population."  Here are the (still a bit fuzzy) details concerning what is afoot in the Buckeye state:

Ohio officials are undertaking a sweeping reform of the state’s criminal justice code, potentially resulting in shorter prison sentences and fewer people going to prison for non-violent drug crimes.

An unusual bipartisan coalition, including top legislative leaders, tax reformer Grover Norquist, an American Civil Liberties Union official, and Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, announced plans today to overhaul Ohio’s lengthy and cumbersome criminal code top-to-bottom.

“No one is here to say today that criminals should not be punished. We are here to say that not all crimes or criminals are created equal,” Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, said at a Statehouse press conference. “This is not about being hard or soft on crime. It’s about being smart on crime.”

No specifics were announced. Exactly how the criminal code will be overhauled will be up to the 24-member Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee appointed by the legislature. Faber said he told the committee to “swing for the fences” when it comes to big picture reform ideas. But he balked when asked about two specific areas: revising parole standards for current inmates and marijuana legalization.

The consensus of speakers was that the reform goals are reducing the prison population by incarcerating fewer non-violent drug offenders and people with mental health issues, eliminating mandatory, flat sentences, and removing barriers for ex-offenders to return to society....

Speaker after speaker criticized the burdensome incarceration rate in Ohio and the U.S., the highest in the world. “Locking people in cages is extreme and dehumanizing,” said Allison Holcomb, head of the ACLU’s national Smart Justice program. “This is the top priority for us.”

Norquist, president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, said he views reform from more of an economic standpoint. “We have too many people in prison and not the right people in prison,” he said. That is costing taxpayers far too much, he said.

Kerman, now living in Columbus, came to public attention as author of her real-life story that led to the Netflix series, Orange is the New Black. “I’m fairly confident I’m the only person up here with a felony,” Kerman said opening her remarks. Following her release from a Connecticut prison on a drug-related money laundering charge, she became an advocate for sentencing and parole reform. She is teaching writing to inmates at two Ohio prisons.

Faber said the recodification committee, which is chaired by Auglaize County Common Pleas Judge Fred Pepple, does not have a specific deadline for completing its work. The final recommendations must be passed by the General Assembly.

September 10, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 31, 2015

District Judge struggles with impact of reduced guidelines for (long-ago) kingpin crack dealer

NPR has this notable new story about a notable request by a notable federal crack offender seeking a reduced sentence based on the new reduced crack guidelines.  Ths piece is headlined "Notorious Cocaine Dealers' Release Requests Test New Sentencing Guidelines," and here are excerpts:

A longtime federal judge struggled Monday over what constitutes justice for members of one of Washington, D.C.'s most notorious drug rings. Senior U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth pressed a public defender about the fate of Melvin Butler, a man who helped flood the city with cocaine that contributed to waves of violence in the late 1980s.

"You're saying that I can't consider the fact that he was one of the biggest drug dealers in the history of our city?" the judge asked. "Congress has tied my hands and I can't consider that?"

The issue arrived in a spotless second-floor room in the federal courthouse on a request from Butler, now 52, for a sentence reduction that would allow him to leave prison in November, after spending half of his life behind bars.

Butler landed in federal custody on April 28, 1989 — so long ago that most of his court records are lost somewhere in storage. Butler, based in California, was a top associate of Rayful Edmond III, Washington's most infamous drug kingpin. The two men allegedly connected at a heavyweight boxing match in Las Vegas in 1987. Two years later, their trial riveted the country. Officials outfitted the courtroom with bulletproof glass and flew Edmond in each day from a lockup in Quantico, Va.

Butler had initially been sentenced to life in prison, Judge Lamberth pointed out, as "one of the two top ringleaders" of a gang that made more than $1 million a week. But the judge who presided over the case, and died in 1997, later reduced the sentence. Now, Butler and his lawyer are trying to shave off more time using a process the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved last year for drug offenders to secure early release from prison.

"I recognize this man's stature and what happened in the '80s," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Dani Jahn. "He's now 52 years old. He's not the person that he was. This is a very lengthy sentence." Jahn said that if Butler were sentenced under laws in place now, he'd face far less time. And, she said, if the judge refuses to grant the request, Butler will still win release in 2017, having served his full term. She pointed out that Butler will remain under supervised release, subject to sanctions if he breaks the law again. "These guys have everything to lose by screwing up when they get out," Jahn said, adding that appearing before Judge Lamberth under those circumstances "would not be a good experience."...

Another member of the Edmond drug gang, lower down on the ladder, James Jones, also is seeking a sentence reduction. Now 58, Jones is scheduled to leave prison in February 2018. But he too wants to take advantage of a change in the sentencing guidelines that would allow him to go free in November with the judge's permission. Thousands of prison inmates across the country already have won the ability to leave prison early under that mechanism.

But in his courtroom, across from the U.S. Capitol, Judge Lamberth expressed reservations. "It still gives me pause what Congress is doing," the judge said. "I would have thought the top drug kingpins in the country wouldn't be the beneficiaries of what we're trying to do here."

The questions of crime and punishment are particularly timely now as the Obama administration has prioritized sentencing reform and clemency initiatives that would deliver shorter sentences and other relief to nonviolent drug criminals. Lawmakers from both political parties are preparing to advance their own proposals for overhauling the criminal justice system in September....

But the question before Judge Lamberth, and others deliberating notorious cases across the country, is what standards to consider for criminals involved at higher levels in violent drug gangs. The judge said he recalled Edmond testifying that many of his lieutenants wielded firearms. Lamberth also asked about an apparently unresolved murder allegation involving Jones dating to the 1980s. But the prosecutor, the public defender and the probation officer couldn't remember back that far, so they asked for time to research the question.

Prosecutor Barry Wiegand said he didn't want to opine about changes in criminal justice policy. But he said he lived several blocks away from what used to be a drug market under Edmond's control. "I wouldn't presume as an assistant United States attorney to be privy to the wisdom of Congress," he said. "I observe that 31- and 32-year sentences are long. I observe that a lot of places aren't what they used to be. What we did in the 1980s and 1990s was the right thing to do, and we did it well."

August 31, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, August 28, 2015

Despite copious reform talk, big and tough federal drug sentencing system churns on

ChartAs regular readers know, talk of federal sentencing reform, especially drug sentencing reform, has been all the rage in recent years.  And yet, as this new report from the US Sentencing Commission details, in the last fiscal year, the federal criminal justice system still sentenced tens of thousands of drug offenders to hundreds of thousands of years of federal imprisonment.

The new report, titled excitingly "Overview of Federal Criminal Cases, Fiscal Year 2014," actually reports a decline in the overall number of federal criminal case sentences in the last fiscal year.  But this overall decline was driven mostly by a significant decline in immigration cases.  Here are some snippets from the report which highlight some of modern federal sentencing trends:

The number of individual offenders sentenced each year grew steadily after the Commission began reporting sentencing data in 1988, reaching a high of 86,201 individual offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2011.  Since then the number of cases has decreased each year.  In fiscal year 2014, the number of individual offender cases reported to the Commission fell by 4,199 (5.2%) cases from the previous year to 75,836.  Since fiscal year 2011, the number of these cases has declined by 12.0 percent....

Drug cases have traditionally been the most common federal cases.  However, beginning in fiscal year 2009, the number of immigration cases steadily increased, reaching a high of 29,717 such cases in fiscal year 2011.  That year immigration cases were the most common offense in the federal system....  In fiscal year 2014, 24,011 drug cases were reported to the Commission, accounting for 31.7 percent of all cases. Most of these cases involved drug trafficking offenses.  That year there were 22,238 immigration cases, accounting for 29.3 percent of the total federal caseload that year....

Several factors affect the average prison sentence for drug offenders, including statutory mandatory minimum punishments, the quantity of the drugs involved in the case, the prior criminal history of the offender, and whether the offender assisted the government in the investigation of his or her crime and other crimes.

For more than 20 years, crack cocaine offenders have been the most severely punished, however the length of imprisonment imposed in these cases has decreased steadily since 2007.  In fiscal year 2014, the average imprisonment for drug crimes involving crack cocaine was 93 months of imprisonment (with a median sentence of 72 months).  This compares to a high of 129 for these offenders in fiscal year 2007.  Methamphetamine offenders are the next most severely punished drug crimes, with an average length of imprisonment of 88 months (and a median sentence of 70 months).  Marijuana offenders have the lowest average imprisonment at 36 months (with a median sentence of 24 months)....

Mandatory minimum penalties enacted by Congress play a large part in determining the sentence for drug offenders, either outright or through the impact of these statutes on the structure of the guidelines.  In fiscal year 2014, half of all drug offenders were convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty, however, this proportion was the lowest it has been since the Commission began reporting data about mandatory minimum penalty application in 1993.  The portion of drug cases carrying a mandatory minimum penalty in fiscal year 2013 was 62.1 percent.  This significant reduction was due, in large part, to a change in the policy of the Department of Justice as to how to charge drug cases.

In fiscal year 2014, powder cocaine offenders and methamphetamine offenders were convicted of an offense that provided for the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence at the highest rates — 65.4 percent in powder cocaine cases and 61.8 percent in methamphetamine cases.  Mandatory minimum penalties were least common in drug cases involving “other” drugs (mostly prescription drugs) and marijuana, accounting for 4.3 percent and 33.2 percent, respectively, of those cases.

These data highlight that DOJ's new charging policies have a measurable impact of the operation of the federal sentencing system. But that change did not dramatically alter the modern annual pattern of more than 125,000 cumulative years of future federal prison time being imposed on all federal drug defendants. All those years, at a conservative average taxpayer cost of $30,000 per year, means just federal drug sentencing in 2014 served to commit nearly $4,000,000,000 in future federal taxpayer funds to incarcerating those drug defendants sentenced over the last USSC fiscal year.

August 28, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Notable talk of crimnal justice reform at GOPAC State Legislative Leaders Summit

My local Columbus Dispatch has this notable article about notable policy message that was delivered to top GOP state lawmakers at a notable conference this week.  The article is headlined "Packing prisons not the answer, lawmakers told," and here are excerpts:

Meeting in a state where more than 50,000 people live in prisons built to hold about 39,000, Republican state lawmakers from across the country were told Tuesday that “tough on crime” must be replaced by a smarter approach to criminal justice.

“Conservatives recognize we have too many criminal laws,” said Patrick Purtill Jr., director of legislative affairs for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told a room of GOP lawmakers attending the annual GOPAC State Legislative Leaders Summit, held this year in Columbus.

“We’re sending too many people to prison. We’re spending too much money to keep them there for far too long. And we’re doing too little to re-enter them into our communities. It’s becoming increasingly clear that over-criminalization and over-incarceration are making our communities less safe.”

Republicans are leading the country on criminal-justice reform, said David Avella, chairman of GOPAC, a national group that grooms Republican lawmakers and candidates and provides forums for the sharing of conservative policies. “If you want to look at how we heal some of the divisions our country faces right now, this is a winning issue for us,” he told the conference, which runs through Thursday.

The Faith and Freedom Coalition is one of seven organizations stretching across the ideological spectrum that is partnering with the U.S. Justice Action Network to implement laws that reduce prison populations, implement more rational criminal penalties, and do more to help inmates re-enter society.

Ohio, along with Pennsylvania and Michigan, currently are the Action Network’s three target states for criminal justice reform. The group is working with Ohio lawmakers such as Senate President Keith Faber, R-Celina, and Rep. Barbara Sears, R-Sylvania. “These reforms make us safer. They’re not just cost-saving measures,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, pointing to Pew Chartable Trusts data that shows states with the biggest drops in prison populations also are seeing some of the greatest decreases in crime rates....

Faber, an attorney and former probation officer, told the [Ohio legislature's] Recodification Committee in June to “ swing for the fences.” He told GOPAC attendees that he knows Republicans have traditionally approached criminal justice with a “tough on crime” attitude. “This isn’t about making sure the bad guys get out earlier,” he said. “But we need room for the really bad guys, and the question is what do we do about the people that aren’t so bad?”

Faber hopes the committee will have recommendations by next summer. “One of the things I hope we do is give judges discretion back,” Faber said. “Another thing we need to look at is making that finer line between what is a felony and what isn’t. I also hope they look at what we need to increase the penalties for to stop that recidivism cycle.”

August 26, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Why Europe Is Exploring Drug Decriminalization"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable article about international drug war developments.  Here is how the piece gets started:

Fourteen years ago, fed up with the losing fight against overdose deaths and the rising prevalence of HIV/AIDS, Portugal embarked on a bold experiment by decriminalizing all drugs and taking a public health approach to illegal drug use.  It now has the second-lowest number of drug-induced deaths in all of Europe and has seen a steady decrease in the number of newly diagnosed HIV and AIDS patients.  Now, other countries are looking to Portugal’s success.  Chief among them is Ireland, which is inching toward the notion that drug abuse should be handled as a public health rather than a criminal justice issue.

In late July, Minister of State for the National Drugs Strategy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin invited representatives from regional drug and alcohol task forces to a roundtable discussion in Dublin on a possible move toward Portugal-style drug policy.  The meeting produced wide consensus on the decriminalization of all drugs, according to The Irish Times.  Ó Ríordáin is particularly interested in diverting funding for the prosecution and incarceration of drug users to rehabilitation programs.

“[Decriminalization] can’t happen by itself,” Ó Ríordáin, who was appointed in May, told The Irish Times. “There has to be a continuum of care. There has to be an understanding around supports and resources and counseling and all those different things.”  One tangible outcome Ó Ríordáin would like to see is the introduction of “consumption rooms” staffed with public health workers, where intravenous drug users can safely use drugs such as heroin and access clean needles. Portugal first established a consumption room in a facility near a health center and a police department in Lisbon in 2014.

Ireland’s legislative Committee on Justice, Defense, and Equality sent some of its members to Lisbon in June to learn more about the 15-year experiment with decriminalization. The delegation found a dramatic drop in the number of HIV/AIDS cases, a decrease in drug-related crime, and no increase in drug use. Predictions that Portugal would become a destination for drug tourists, the committee members wrote in their report from the trip, haven’t come true. Since the report’s release, the committee has invited comments on decriminalization from the public and expects to issue recommendations in October for how Ireland should move forward.

August 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Spotlighting disparities in who gets drug treatment in prison

This notable new Pacific Standard article shines a spotlight on yet another arena in which race and other personal factors may impact the operation of our modern criminal justice system.  The piece is headlined "Who Does, and Who Doesn’t, Get Drug Treatment in Prison: New research finds a racial disparity," and here are excerpts (with a few key links preserved):

Research has consistently shown how important it is for inmates who come into prison with drug addictions to get treatment behind bars: Drug use in prison that involves needles can spread disease, and cold-turkey withdrawals can lead to overdoses when people get out. But new research also shows that, even when drug treatment is available to prison inmates, not everyone actually takes advantage of it.  In fact, the disparity between who does and does not seek treatment often falls among racial lines.

For her recent article in the journal Addictive Behaviors, University of Colorado–Boulder sociologist Kathryn Nowotny looked at survey information gathered in 2004 from state prisons across the country — over 5,000 inmates in 286 prisons.  She found that fewer than a half of the inmates who had drug dependency problems had received any kind of treatment at all in their time behind bars.  Of those who had, the most commonly referenced treatment was “self-help groups” (as opposed to, say, opioid replacement therapy).  And she also found that, when treatment was available, Hispanic inmates who had drug dependency were much less likely than either white or black inmates to utilize it. But why?

Nowotny wrote that she was motivated to examine the racial disparities in drug treatment program use in prisons because there was a dearth of research on this topic.  But many other researchers have previously found the same patterns in drug treatment programs out in the communities as well.  She notes that — in addition to the widely held consensus viewpoint that people of color have disproportionate contact with every stage of the criminal justice system in America — programs that divert first-time drug offenders out of prison and into alternative treatment have often been shown to favor those defendants “with economic and social resources.”  But the disparity she found in treatment during prison sentences was apparent, even when she accounted for all of the other possible factors, like age, gender, marital status, socioeconomic factors, mental health, and criminal history.

In looking for reasons for the disparity, she points to another finding — that white inmates with drug dependency issues are more likely than Hispanic ones to have in-prison drug treatment mandated as part of their sentences. There could also be a much simpler reason for the difference in drug treatment participation. “It is also possibly that language barriers and other indicators of acculturation account for this disparity especially considering that one in five Latinos in prison are foreign born,” she adds. “This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that no black-white disparities were found.”

A similar study, published in 2013 in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, looked not at state prison inmates but at people being held in county jails that offered drug treatment programs. But the researchers in that study did not find that the differences broke down on more personal lines. They did not find a disparity between jail inmates of different races or ethnicities; here, it was more an issue of age and individual outlook. Younger people were less likely to seek treatment. Men were less likely than women to accept this kind of help. So were people who said they doubted whether they had the discipline or the time to make it stick.

August 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Guns and Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Benjamin Levin now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article argues that the increasingly prevalent critiques of the War on Drugs apply to other areas of criminal law.  To highlight the broader relevance of these critiques, the Article uses as its test case the criminal regulation of gun possession.

The Article identifies and distills three lines of drug-war criticism, and argues that they apply to possessory gun crimes in much the same way that they apply to drug crimes. Specifically, the Article focuses on: (1) race- and class-based critiques; (2) concerns about police and prosecutorial power; and (3) worries about the social costs of mass incarceration.  Scholars have identified structural flaws in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing in the drug context; in the Article, I highlight the ways that the same issues persist in an area — possessory gun crime — that receives much less criticism.

Appreciating the broader applicability of the drug war’s critiques, I contend, should lead to an examination of the flaws in the criminal justice system that lessen its capacity for solving social problems.

August 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

"Bernie Sanders Announces Bill to Abolish Private Prisons, Hints at Marijuana Policy Platform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notableg piece via the Marijuana Politics website that reports on some recent statements by Senator Sanders on the campaign trail that should be of special interest to sentencing law and policy fans. Here are excerpts (with links from original):

Bernie Sanders isn’t done talking about criminal justice reform — in fact, he’s merely getting started.  The presidential contender continues to rise in the polls and sensible Drug War reforms will only increase his standing with the Democratic base.

Appearing at a campaign rally in Nevada on Tuesday, the Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate talked at length about the unfairly punitive policies that plague the American justice system and disproportionately affect people of color in the United States. Speaking to the crowd of 4,500 supporters gathered outside the University of Nevada, Sen. Sanders went beyond his previous speeches on the issue, announcing that, come September, he will be introducing federal legislation which would abolish for-profit private prisons.

“When Congress reconvenes in September,” Sanders said, “I will be introducing legislation, which takes corporations out of profiteering from running jails.”

Tackling the problem of for-profit prisons is a bold move for a federal legislator, as the prison industry is a hugely profitable part of the U.S. economy.  The top two private prison companies in the country, Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, have a combined annual revenue of over $3 billion, much of which is spent lobbying elected officials to protect their bottom line.  While some states, such as New York and Illinois, have enacted laws to ban the privatization of prisons, for-profit prisons have tragically remained a staple of the American criminal justice system, in large part due to the country’s skyrocketing incarceration rates made possible by the War on Drugs.

Bernie Sanders also indicated that the War on Drugs will be a focus of his campaign. “We want to deal with minimum sentencing,” Sanders said Tuesday,  “Too many lives have been destroyed for non-violent issues.  People that are sent to jail have police records. We have got to change that.  Our job is to keep people out of jail, not in jail.”  According to audience members, Bernie Sanders also said that his campaign will be addressing marijuana legalization in the weeks to come.

August 20, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Why Not Treat Drug Crimes as White-Collar Crimes?"

The question in the title of this post is the title of this notable new article available on SSRN authored by Thea Johnson and Mark Osler. Here is the abstract:

Drug dealing is a business enterprise.  At its core is the manufacture, transport, financing, and selling of illegal narcotics.  The most successful drug dealers are the ones who are skilled in the tools of business, and success is measured in the profit generated. Given these undeniable realities, shouldn’t we treat narcotics trafficking the way we do other business-based crimes like fraud or embezzlement?

One odd point of distinction between narcotics and other business crimes has been the frequent use of harsh sentencing measures to create deterrence in the former but not the latter.  This is odd because deterrence works where a potential violator both (1) is aware of possible sanctions, and (2) performs a rational cost-benefit analysis that incorporates those possible sanctions.  White collar defendants are a better target for deterrence measures by both of these metrics, yet we use those tough measures often in addressing drug crimes and almost never in tackling other business crimes.

To conflate the punishments for narcotics crime and other business crimes would be fairly simple.  They could fall under a single guideline in a guideline system, with sentences determined in proportion to the amount of profit taken. Statutes could be similarly constructed. Many sectors of society want to lower incarceration and bring new integrity to the criminal justice system. Treating drug crimes for what they are — crimes of commerce — would go a long way towards that goal.

August 19, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, August 17, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases new data on retroactive application of "drugs -2" guideline amendment

I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this notable new document titled "2014 Drug Guidelines Amendment Retroactivity Data Report." This part of the report's introduction provides the basic back-story for the data which follow:

On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress an amendment to the federal sentencing guidelines that revised the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by changing how the base offense levels in the drug or chemical quantity tables in sections 2D1.1 and 2D1.11 of the Guidelines Manual incorporate the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses (Amendment 782). Specifically, the amendment reduced by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities that trigger the statutory mandatory minimum penalties, resulting in corresponding guideline ranges that include the mandatory minimum penalties, and made conforming changes to section 2D1.1. Amendment 782 became effective on November 1, 2014.

On July 18, 2014, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782 beginning on the effective date of the amendment. The Commission also voted to require that courts not release any offender whose term of imprisonment was reduced pursuant to retroactive applications of Amendment 782 prior to November 1, 2015.  To effectuate these decisions, the Commission promulgated Amendment 788, which added Amendment 782 to the list of amendments in section 1B1.10 (Reduction in Term of Imprisonment as a Result of an Amended Guideline Range)(Policy Statement) that apply retroactively. Amendment 788 also added a new special instruction to section 1B1.10 requiring that the effective date of all orders reducing a term of imprisonment pursuant to retroactive application of Amendment 782 be November 1, 2015 or later.  Amendment 788 became effective on November 1, 2014.

The data in this report represents information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to the retroactive application of Amendment 782.  The data in this report reflects all motions decided through July 24, 2015 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by August 3, 2015.

The subsequent official data indicate that, thanks to the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive, approximately 13,000 federal prisoners have had their federal drug prison sentences reduced by an average of nearly two years.

So, given the (conservative) estimate of each extra year of imprisonment for federal drug offenders costing on average $35,000, the USSC's decision to make its "drugs -2" guideline amendment retroactive so far appears to be on track to save federal taxpayers close to one billion dollars.  Kudos to the US Sentencing Commission for providing at least some proof that at least some government bureaucrats inside the Beltway will sometimes vote to reduce the size and costs of the federal government.

August 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Split Ninth Circuit panel upholds federal conviction in "stash house" sting operation

The Ninth Circuit released a notable split panel decision today in US v. Pedrin, No. 11-10623 (9th Cir. Aug. 17, 2015) (available here), which rejects a notable challenge to a conviction emerging from ATF's "stash house sting" operations. This unofficial summary of the Pedrin ruling highlights why the two opinions in the case make for an interesting read:

Affirming a conviction and sentence for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, the panel held that the defendant’s prosecution did not result from “outrageous government conduct.”

The defendant was the target of a drug “stash house” sting, in which an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms suggested that he, the defendant, and a co-conspirator join forces, rob a fictitious stash house, and split the proceeds.  Following United States v. Black, 733 F.3d 294 (9th Cir. 2014), the panel held that this reverse sting operation was not outrageous government conduct warranting the dismissal of the indictment where the co-conspirator reached out to the government, and not vice versa; the defendant readily agreed to participate in the supposed stash-house robbery; and the defendant supplied plans and materials.  These circumstances provided a sufficient basis for the government to infer that the defendant had a predisposition to take part in the planned robbery.

Dissenting, Judge Noonan wrote that the defendant was not known to the government to be predisposed to raid a stash house at the time when an agent of the ATF proposed this action to him.  Accordingly, even though the defendant did not argue entrapment, the court should hold that he was entrapped because the ATF originated the criminal design, implanted it in the defendant’s mind, and induced him to commit the crime that the government then prosecuted.

August 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

What can and should voters know about the criminal justice impact of marijuana prohibition as they consider repeal?

I will be off-line for most of the rest of the day in order to have a meeting with a retired Ohio judge (and perhaps some others) to discuss the question that is the title of this post.  The question has become especially salient for Ohio voters today: as detailed in this post at MLP&R, as of yesterday it became official that, in less than 90 days,  Ohio voters will be deciding whether to legalize marijuana in the Buckeye State for recreational and medical use.

I have spent a fair bit of time trying to rigorously assess, for Ohio and other jurisdictions, just how to measure and describe the "criminal justice footprint" of modern marijuana prohibition and how that footprint can be impacted by marijuana reform.  But while I am off-line today, I would be grateful to hear from readers just what they would be eager to know, as a voter considering a reform proposal, about how the criminal justice might change (or not change) due to repeal of marijuana prohibition in a jurisdiction.

August 13, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Lots of great reads via The Marshall Project

I really enjoy all the work being done by The Marshall Project, and this collection of recent items from the site highlights why sentencing fans should be making regular visits there:

August 12, 2015 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Thanks to prior commutation, Missouri marijuana lifer now to get paroled

As reported in this Huffington Post piece, headlined "Man Who Was Serving Life In Prison For Marijuana To Be Set Free," there has been a notable development in a notable drug sentencing case in Missouri. Here are the details:

Jeff Mizanskey, a 61-year-old Missouri man who was serving life in prison for nonviolent marijuana offenses, will be set free in a matter of days, his attorney confirmed Monday to The Huffington Post. "We were notified today that he will be granted parole and be released within '10 to 25 days,'" lawyer Dan Viets said about the Missouri Department of Corrections' decision. Mizanskey had met with the parole board just last Thursday.

After two decades in prison, Mizanskey became eligible for parole in May when Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) commuted his life sentence, while granting pardons to five other nonviolent offenders who had already completed their punishments. Parole was an option that Mizanskey did not have previously because he had been sentenced as a "prior and persistent drug offender" under Missouri's three strikes law, which was repealed last year.

All three of Mizanskey's offenses involved marijuana. He was given a life sentence after a conviction for attempting to sell about six pounds of pot in a 1993 police sting operation.

A petition seeking clemency for Mizanskey had received nearly 400,000 signatures. "Great news everyone... Jeff is coming home this month!" said a post Monday on the Free Jeff Mizanskey Facebook page. "We want everyone to know how greatful [sic] we are for all the support received throughout this whole ordeal."

Marijuana offenses, mainly involving simple possession, account for roughly half of all drug-related crimes. According to a recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union, 88 percent of the more than 8 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 were for possession alone. There were more arrests in the U.S. for marijuana possession in 2011 than for all violent crimes combined, according to the FBI's uniform crime report. The ACLU report also found significant racial disparities in the arrest patterns. While black and white Americans use marijuana at about the same rates, blacks were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana during the years examined.

August 11, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Shouldn't front-runner Donald Trump be asked about drug war and federal marijuana policies at GOP debate?

Now that all the GOP polls show a significant number of Republican voters are taking Donald Trump's candidacy seriously, I think it would be especially valuable at tomorrow's big GOP debate for candidate Trump to be asked some seriously hard questions about federal laws and policies.  Back in June, I had this pose on my marijuana reform blog highlighting that Trump had once suggested full legalization would be the only way to "win" the drug war, and I wondered aloud "Just what is Donald Trump's position now on modern marijuana reforms (and the modern drug war)?".  Especially now that Trump is, according to the polls, the GOP front-runner, I think this would be an especially good issue to bring up with him.

Notably, a few media outlets have just recently picked up on Trump's not-so-clear and not-at-all-consistent statements about federal drug policy:

As I have explained in a few prior posts both here and at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform (some of which I have linked below), I think there are lots of good reasons to ask all the GOP candidates lots of good questions about lots of different criminal justice reform issues. But, especially in light of Trump's prior comments and what at times seems to be his libertarian-leaning, less-government-regulation, pro-jobs economic messaging, I would be especially interested now to hear what he thinks about some of the positive economic development news emerging from Colorado and other jurisdictions in conjunction libertarian-leaning, less-government-regulation marijuana and related drug war reforms.

A few recent related posts:

August 5, 2015 in Campaign 2016 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Latest tea leaves concerning Senator Grassley's coming sentencing reform bill

This new Wall Street Journal piece, headlined "Senator Holds Key to Sentencing Changes," provides a few more juicy details about what we might expect to emerge from the sentencing reform work of the critical chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley. Here are the excerpts that most caught my eye:

Now, as lawmakers in both parties and both chambers of Congress show greater interest in easing policies blamed for prison crowding, Mr. Grassley is presiding over final negotiations of a group he tasked with integrating assorted criminal justice proposals into a single package. Mr. Grassley, a four-decade veteran of Congress, said he plans to unveil a bill after Labor Day.

The most likely outcome of the talks, according to aides and lawmakers involved in the negotiations, is legislation that would combine programs to reduce recidivism and create more opportunities for early release with provisions giving judges some discretion to sentence below the mandatory minimum for certain drug defendants. “I think it’s fair to say there are going to be a lot less people that are going to have mandatory minimums apply, but it’s not going to be this across-the-board cut,” Mr. Grassley said, warning that drastic reductions in sentences would weaken penalties for serious offenders.

Mr. Grassley’s position — which fellow committee members say has evolved since March, when he warned of a “leniency industrial complex” — reflects a readjustment on criminal justice among many conservatives, who increasingly are joining Democrats in calling for legislation aimed at reducing mass incarceration....

Among Republicans, the party’s libertarian wing was first to back sentencing overhaul, and more mainstream Republicans have followed.... Mr. Grassley, once seen as a chief roadblock to change, is in a position to convert that momentum into a bill committee members say could clear the Senate this year with bipartisan support now rare in a deeply divided Congress.

But it isn’t clear whether committee members with fervent objections to mandatory minimum sentences will sign onto a proposal shorn of the more sweeping changes they envision. More substantial reductions were embraced in a bill that cleared the committee last year but never made it to the floor. Its sponsors, Sens. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) and Mike Lee (R., Utah), this year reintroduced the bill, which would halve mandatory minimum sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes and give judges more flexibility to hand down sentences below the mandatory minimum.

“He’s offering a different approach than we started with,” Mr. Durbin said of the agreement Mr. Grassley is brokering. “It’s a much different approach, and it’s a harder approach.” Still, he said, he is encouraged that Mr. Grassley would entertain any legislation revising sentencing law. “Let me tell you, he was not even at the table initially, and now he’s at the table,” Mr. Durbin said.

A compromise bill may still encounter conservative resistance. One of the committee’s more cautionary voices is that of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), who said tough criminal code has been at the heart of a reduction in violent crime.

On the other side of the Capitol, Mr. Boehner has endorsed a bill by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R., Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D., Va.) that would loosen some sentencing requirements, while also addressing probation and recidivism....

Some in Iowa have sought to hold Mr. Grassley to account for the ballooning prison population. A state report released last year estimated that Iowa’s prison population could swell 39% over the next decade. In May of this year, the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s largest newspaper, urged Mr. Grassley not to stand in the way of changes to federal sentencing laws. Home on a recent weekend, Mr. Grassley faced questions about criminal justice at two town meetings — a surprise, he said, as it marked the first time this year constituents had raised the topic. “They were happy that it looked like we were going to get a bill,” he said.

As I explained in recent prior posts here and here reporting on the latest Grassley reform forecast, I am fearful that politics and process may continue to impede any significant federal sentencing reform from getting done before the end of the year.  Because it would appear that Senator Grassley has now invested considerably in developing a reform bill to his liking and given that he is a critical player for any reform proposals moving forward, I sincerely hope that the bill he unveils in September is perceived to be "good enough" to garner the support needed from all quarters to have a real chance at becoming law.

Some prior related posts:

August 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 03, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Sentencing reform group propounds "The Dangerous Myths of NAAUSA"

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few prior recent related posts:

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"From a First Arrest to a Life Sentence"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Fascinating new drug guideline resentencing opinion from Judge Jack Weinstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some prior related posts:

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

Monday, July 06, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 20, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 18, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

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

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

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

Saturday, June 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Impact of Drug Policy on Women"

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

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

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

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

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