Thursday, June 22, 2017

"Jeff Sessions wants a new war on drugs. It won't work."

The title of this post is the headline of this new Washington Post commentary authored by David Cole, who is the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Marc Mauer, who is executive director of the Sentencing Project. Here are excerpts:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is right to be concerned about recent increases in violent crime in some of our nation’s largest cities, as well as a tragic rise in drug overdoses nationwide [“Lax drug enforcement means more violence,” op-ed, June 18].  But there is little reason to believe that his response — reviving the failed “war on drugs” and imposing more mandatory minimums on nonviolent drug offenders — will do anything to solve the problem.  His prescription contravenes a growing bipartisan consensus that the war on drugs has not worked. And it would exacerbate mass incarceration, the most pressing civil rights problem of the day.

Sessions’s first mistake is to conflate correlation and causation. He argues that the rise in murder rates in 2015 was somehow related to his predecessor Eric Holder’s August 2013 directive scaling back federal prosecutions in lower-level drug cases.  That policy urged prosecutors to reserve the most serious charges for high-level offenses.  Holder directed them to avoid unnecessarily harsh mandatory minimum sentences for defendants whose conduct involved no actual or threatened violence, and who had no leadership role in criminal enterprises or gangs, no substantial ties to drug trafficking organizations and no significant criminal history....  Sessions offers no evidence that this policy caused the recent spikes in violent crime or drug overdoses. There are three reasons to doubt that there is any significant connection between the two.

First, federal prosecutors handle fewer than 10 percent of all criminal cases, so a modest change in their charging policy with respect to a subset of drug cases is unlikely to have a nationwide impact on crime.  The other 90 percent of criminal prosecution is conducted by state prosecutors, who were not affected by Holder’s policy.  Second, the few individuals who benefited from Holder’s policy by definition lacked a sustained history of crime or violence or any connections to major drug traffickers.  Third, the increases in violent crime that Sessions cites are not nationally uniform, which one would expect if they were attributable to federal policy.  In 2015, murder rates rose in Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore, to be sure.  But they declined in Boston and El Paso, and stayed relatively steady in New York, Las Vegas, Detroit and Atlanta.  If federal drug policy were responsible for the changes, we would not see such dramatic variances from city to city.

Nor is there any evidence that increases in drug overdoses have anything to do with shorter sentences for a small subset of nonviolent drug offenders in federal courts.  Again, the vast majority of drug prosecutions are in state court under state law and are unaffected by the attorney general’s policies.  And the rise in drug overdoses is a direct result of the opioid and related heroin epidemics, which have been caused principally by increased access to prescription painkillers from doctors and pill mills.  That tragic development calls for treatment of addicts and closer regulation of doctors, not mandatory minimums imposed on street-level drug sellers, who are easily replaced in communities that have few lawful job opportunities.

Most disturbing, Sessions seems to have no concern for the fact that the United States leads the world in incarceration; that its prison population is disproportionately black, Hispanic and poor; or that incarceration inflicts deep and long-lasting costs on the very communities most vulnerable to crime in the first place.... Advocates as diverse as the Koch brothers and George Soros, the Center for American Progress and Americans for Tax Reform, the American Civil Liberties Union and Right on Crime agree that we need to scale back the harshness of our criminal justice system.

Rather than expanding the drug war, Sessions would be smarter to examine local conditions that influence crime and violence, including policing strategies, availability of guns, community engagement and concentrated poverty.  Responding to those underlying problems, and restoring trust through consent decrees that reduce police abuse, hold considerably more promise of producing public safety. Sessions’s revival of the failed policies of the past, by contrast, has little hope of reducing violent crime or drug overdoses. 

Prior recent related posts:

June 22, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Notable look at notably tough sentencing patterns in one rural county in Minnesota

Sentencing, like politics, is ultimately always a local story, and this lengthy new MinnPost article takes a deep dive into the notable local sentencing stories of Polk County, Minnesota.  The lengthy article is headlined "Why tiny Polk County sends so many people to prison," and here are excerpts:

If you’re planning to commit a crime in Minnesota, you might want to steer clear of Polk County. This county of 32,000, which hugs the Red River on the North Dakota border, is sparsely populated and largely agricultural, save for East Grand Forks, Crookston and a handful of other small cities set between soybean, wheat and sugar beet fields.

Yet in 2014 it sent more people to prison, per capita, than any other county in Minnesota, a county-by-county analysis of National Corrections Reporting Program data by the New York Times and Fordham University found. That year, the most recent for which data are available, prison admission rates in northwestern Minnesota’s Polk County stick out across the upper Midwest, more closely resembling some of the counties that form a prison belt across the U.S., from Indiana to Kentucky, Missouri Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas, than it does most of its neighbors.

For every 10,000 Polk County residents, 50 people were admitted to prison in 2014, an increase from 22 per 10,000 residents in 2006 and 39 per 10,000 residents in 2013, among the highest in Minnesota both years. The high prison admissions rate in Polk stands in sharp contrast to lower rates in nearby counties and the Twin Cities: In 2014, 12 per 10,000 residents in Hennepin County went to prison and 19 per 10,000 residents in Ramsey did. Neither rate increased by more than 3 per 10,000 people from 2006.

Why is Polk County sending so many people to prison? Ask Polk County officials what’s behind the high rate of imprisonment, and they’ll likely have an answer for you: drugs.

To some extent, the data bear that out. While for the most part crime and arrest rates were stable between 2006 and 2014 in Polk County, drug crimes are a big exception. Drug crimes went from a rate of 38.6 per 10,000 residents in 2006 to 61.9 per 10,000 residents in 2014. Drug-related arrest rates, likewise, more than doubled, from 25 per 10,000 residents in 2006 to 55 per 10,000 people in 2014....

In Minnesota, how felony offenders are punished depends on where they fall on the Sentencing Guideline Commission’s grid.... In theory, the sentencing guidelines bring uniformity to criminal sentencing in Minnesota’s 87 counties and 10 judicial districts. But there’s some room for discretion on the part of prosecutors and judges built into the system, too. While sentencing guidelines are followed in the vast majority of cases, courts are allowed to impose a softer or harsher sentences “when substantial and compelling aggravating or mitigating factors are present.” In some counties, departures are used more frequently than others.

In Polk County, 14 percent of felony drug offenders between 2006 and 2015 received “aggravated dispositional departures” — usually prison instead of the probation called for in the sentencing guidelines. In Beltrami County and Clay counties, 6 percent and 8 percent did, respectively. Statewide, less than 9 percent of felony drug offenders for whom the sentencing guidelines prescribe probation receive prison....

Kip Fontaine, assistant public defender ... noticed what seems to be a disproportionate number of third-degree charges for drug possession in a school zone or park. A person, say, found to be driving through one of these areas with drugs on them would, in most counties, be charged with this crime in the fifth-degree, a lesser charge, Fontaine said. Not necessarily in Polk. According to the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission, of 83 people with criminal history scores of zero through three sentenced with third-degree possession in a school zone or park in Minnesota between 2011 and 2015, 36 — nearly half — were in Polk County....

Andrew Larson, the executive director of Tri-County Community Corrections, the government agency that provides probation and detention services in Polk, Red Lake and Norman counties, said he senses a difference in philosophy in Polk County, too. “The Polk County Attorney’s Office is just more aggressive in their prosecution than perhaps what the other counties are, and it’s literally that simple. It’s not a matter of one being right or the other being wrong, it’s just a difference,” he said.

UPDATE: In the comments, federalist astutely suggests noting a similar article about case-processing toughness in a rural mid-west county.  So: New York Times highlights modern rural incarceration realities 

June 21, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Fascinating new OIG report examines implementation of former AG Holder's "Smart on Crime" initiative

I just came across this fascinating new report from the US Justice Department's Office of the Inspector General. The title of the lengthy report itself spotlights why the report is both fascinating and timely: "Review of the Department’s Implementation of Prosecution and Sentencing Reform Principles under the Smart on Crime Initiative." The full report runs 70 dense pages and even the executive summary is too lengthy and detailed to reproduce fully here. But these excerpts should whet the appetite of all sentencing nerds:

In August 2013, the U.S. Department of Justice (Department) and then Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., announced the Smart on Crime initiative, which highlighted five principles to reform the federal criminal justice system. Smart on Crime encouraged federal prosecutors to focus on the most serious cases that implicate clear, substantial federal interests. In the first principle, the Department required, for the first time, the development of district-specific prosecution guidelines for determining when federal prosecutions should be brought, with the intent of focusing resources on fewer but the most significant cases. The second principle of Smart on Crime announced a change in Department charging policies so that certain defendants who prosecutors determined had committed low-level, non-violent drug offenses, and who had no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels, generally would not be charged with offenses that imposed a mandatory minimum prison sentence.

The Office of the Inspector General (OIG) initiated this review to evaluate the Department’s implementation of the first two principles of Smart on Crime, as well as the impact of those changes to federal charging policies and practices. We assessed the 94 U.S. Attorney’s Office districts’ implementation and the impact of the Smart on Crime policy on not charging drug quantities implicating mandatory minimum sentences in circumstances where the defendants were low-level, non-violent offenders with limited criminal histories. We also assessed the implementation and impact of the policy that required prosecutors to consider certain factors before filing a recidivist enhancement that would increase the sentence of a drug defendant with a felony record pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 851.

On May 10, 2017, the Attorney General issued a new charging and sentencing policy to all federal prosecutors that effectively rescinds the specific charging policies and practices outlined by Smart on Crime. We did not review this new policy as part of this review, which examined the implementation of the prosecution and sentencing reform principles under the Smart on Crime initiative....

We found that the Department made progress implementing the first two Smart on Crime principles, but we also identified several shortcomings in its efforts, including some failures to update national and local policies and guidelines and a lack of communication with local law enforcement partners regarding changes to these polices and guidelines in some instances.

We found that, while the Department issued policy memoranda and guidance to reflect its Smart on Crime policies, the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual (USAM), a primary guidance document for federal prosecutors, was not revised until January 2017, more than 3 years after Smart on Crime was launched, even though Department officials established a deadline of the end of 2014 to do so. Further, we determined that 74 of 94 districts had developed or updated their local policies to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes regarding mandatory minimum charging decisions. Of the remaining 20 districts, some provided incomplete information to the OIG as to whether they had updated their prosecution guidelines or policy memoranda to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes regarding mandatory minimum charging decisions in drug cases; in others, the district policies provided appeared to be inconsistent with the Smart on Crime policies in whole or in part; and some told us that they relied on the Holder memoranda for direction but did not develop or update any of their district policies or guidance documents to reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes.

We also found that 70 of 94 districts had incorporated Smart on Crime recidivist enhancement policy changes into their districts’ prosecution guidelines or policy memoranda. However, of the remaining 24 districts, 20 provided information to the OIG with respect to recidivist enhancements that appeared to be inconsistent with the 2013 Holder memoranda in whole or in part, or reported to the OIG that they followed the Holder memorandum but did not specifically revise their district policies to reflect Smart on Crime policy changes. The four remaining districts provided information that did not reflect the Smart on Crime policy changes on filing recidivist enhancements. Finally, we found that 10 districts failed to update their policies to reflect Smart on Crime policy changes with regard to both mandatory minimum charging decisions and recidivist enhancements....

We further found that the Department’s ability to measure the impact of the first two Smart on Crime principles is limited because it does not consistently collect data on charging decisions. For example, while the Legal Information Office Network System (LIONS), the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices’ case management system, allows federal prosecutors generally to track information about their cases, data fields relevant to Smart on Crime were not always present or updated.

Due to these limitations, the Department has relied on U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) data to assess the impact of the first two Smart on Crime principles. However, using USSC data to measure the impact of Smart on Crime’s charging policies is challenging because the USSC collects data from courts on sentencing decisions by judges and does not receive data from prosecutors about their charging decisions. In that regard, the USSC data does not allow assessments regarding charges that prosecutors could have brought but chose not to bring.

Nevertheless, based on our own analysis of USSC sentencing data over the period from 2010 through 2015, we found that sentencing outcomes in drug cases had shifted in a manner that was consistent with the first two principles of Smart on Crime. This was reflected by significantly fewer mandatory minimum sentences being imposed in drug cases nationwide, as well as a decrease in mandatory minimum sentences for those defendants who might otherwise have received such a sentence in the absence of the 2013 Holder memoranda....

We also found that some regions in the country diverged from these overall national trends. For example, while drug convictions decreased nationally by 19 percent, the decrease was far larger in the Southwest Border region. Further, the West, Pacific Northwest, and Hawaii and Island Territories regions actually showed increases in the number of drug convictions. As a result, we determined that national trends should not be interpreted in such a way as to conclude that Smart on Crime had a uniform impact across all the nation’s districts.

June 20, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Intricate disputation of AG Sessions' recent defense of his new tougher federal charging/sentencing policy

As noted in this weekend post, the US Attorney General today took the the editorial pages of the Washington Post to make the case for his new tough charging and sentencing guidance for federal prosecutors via this opinion piece.  Today, the Washington Post has this new opinion piece by Radley Balko under the the headline "Here are all the ways Jeff Sessions is wrong about drug sentencing."  

The headline of the Balko piece serves as something of a summary of its contents, which involves an intricate "a line-by-line review" of all the key points made by AG Sessions in his piece.  Rather than try to capture all the particulars of the Balko piece here, I will just quote some of his closing commentary: 

Certainly, drug trafficking lowers the quality of life in a community.  Turf wars between drug gangs can make those communities more dangerous.  But again, Sessions himself concedes that prohibition itself creates these problems.  It’s pretty rare that liquor store employees erupt in gun fights over turf.  And if prohibition begets violence, the only way the solution to an increase in violence can be more prohibition is if the new prohibition wipes out drug trafficking entirely.  Otherwise, more prohibition usually just means more violence.  Knock out one major dealer, and new dealers will emerge and go to war to take his place.

We all know that rescinding the Holder memo isn’t going to end drug trafficking.  It isn’t going to affect the opioid crisis.  It isn’t going to move the needle either way on the violence in Chicago or Baltimore.  The most likely outcome is that a few hundred more nonviolent offenders spend a lot more time in federal prison than they otherwise would have.  I suppose it will also give Sessions the satisfaction of having rolled back one of the few substantive criminal-justice reforms of the Obama administration.  But the crime rate and the violence in America’s cities will rise or fall independent of the Holder memo.

The one thing we can all depend on — the one sure thing: Illicit drugs will continue to be available to pretty much anyone who wants to use them.

Prior recent related post:

AG Jeff Sessions makes the case for his new tougher federal charging/sentencing policy

June 20, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Pew analysis finds no relationship between drug imprisonment and drug problems

The Public Safety Performance Project of The Pew Charitable Trusts has this notable new posting concerning a notable new letter and analysis it completed. The posting is headlined "Pew Analysis Finds No Relationship Between Drug Imprisonment and Drug Problems: Letter provides new 50-state data to the federal opioid commission," and here is what it has to say:

On June 19, 2017, The Pew Charitable Trusts submitted a letter to the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, outlining an analysis of whether state drug imprisonment rates are linked to the nature and extent of state drug problems—a key question as the nation faces an escalating opioid epidemic. Pew compared publicly available data from law enforcement, corrections, and health agencies from all 50 states.

Pew’s analysis found no statistically significant relationship between states’ drug offender imprisonment rates and three measures of drug problems: rates of illicit use, overdose deaths, and arrests. The findings reinforce previous research that cast doubt on the theory that stiffer prison terms deter drug use and related crime.

Although the federal courts receive the lion’s share of public attention, most of the nation’s criminal justice system is administered by states. State laws determine criminal penalties for most drug offenses, and the states have made different policy choices regarding those punishments, resulting in widely varied imprisonment rates.

For example, Louisiana had the country’s highest drug-offender imprisonment rate in 2014, with 226.4 drug offenders in prison per 100,000 residents. In contrast, Massachusetts’s rate was the lowest, 30.2 per 100,000 residents, less than one-seventh Louisiana’s rate.

As Pew’s letter explained, higher rates of drug imprisonment do not translate into lower rates of drug use, fewer drug arrests, or fewer overdose deaths. And the findings hold even when controlling for standard demographic variables, such as education level, employment, race, and median household income.

The full 13-page Pew letter is available at this link.

June 20, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 19, 2017

History examining at length "America’s War on Drugs"

The-history-channel-History is in the midst of running a four-part documentary titled simply "America’s War on Drugs."  Here is how the channel describes the lengthy doc:

“America’s War on Drugs” is an immersive trip through the last five decades, uncovering how the CIA, obsessed with keeping America safe in the fight against communism, allied itself with the mafia and foreign drug traffickers.  In exchange for support against foreign enemies, the groups were allowed to grow their drug trade in the United States. The series explores the unintended consequences of when gangsters, war lords, spies, outlaw entrepreneurs, street gangs and politicians vie for power and control of the global black market for narcotics -- all told through the firsthand accounts of former CIA and DEA officers, major drug traffickers, gang members, noted experts and insiders.

Night one of “America’s War on Drugs” divulges covert Cold War operations that empowered a generation of drug traffickers and reveals the peculiar details of secret CIA LSD experiments which helped fuel the counter-culture movement, leading to President Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of a war on drugs.  The documentary series then delves into the rise of the cocaine cowboys, a secret island “cocaine base,” the CIA’s connection to the crack epidemic, the history of the cartels and their murderous tactics, the era of “Just Say No,” the negative effect of NAFTA, and the unlikely career of an almost famous Midwest meth queen.

The final chapter of the series examines how the attacks on September 11th intertwined the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, transforming Afghanistan into a narco-state teeming with corruption.  It also explores how American intervention in Mexico helped give rise to El Chapo and the Super Cartels, bringing unprecedented levels of violence and sending even more drugs across America’s borders.  Five decades into the War on Drugs, a move to legalize marijuana gains momentum, mega-corporations have become richer and more powerful than any nation’s drug cartel, and continuing to rise is the demand for heroin and other illegal drugs.

June 19, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Could jail be "the answer" for drug addicts?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this New York Times opinion piece headlined "Addicts Need Help. Jails Could Have the Answer." This piece is authored by Sam Quinones, the journalist and author of the widely praised "Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic." Here is how the lengthy piece gets started and its final line:

Not long ago, I visited a Narcotics Anonymous meeting where men with tattoos and short-cropped hair sat in a circle and talked out their errors. One had lived under an overpass, pimping his girlfriend’s daughter for cash to buy heroin. As the thought brought him to tears, his neighbor patted his shoulder. Others owned to stealing from grandparents, to losing jobs and children. Soon, most in the room — men with years of street addiction behind them — were wiping their eyes.

What made the meeting remarkable, however, was not the stories, but where it was taking place. Unit 104 is a 70-man pod in Kenton County Detention Center in northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. The unit, and an equivalent one for women, is part of a new approach to jail made necessary by our nationwide epidemic of opiate addiction. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.

As the country has awakened to that epidemic, a new mantra has emerged: “We can’t arrest our way out of this,” accompanied by calls for more drug-addiction treatment. Yet the opiate epidemic has swamped our treatment-center infrastructure. Only one in 10 addicts get the treatment they need, according to a 2016 surgeon general’s report. New centers are costly to build, politically difficult to find real estate for and beyond the means of most uninsured street addicts, anyway.

So where can we quickly find cheap new capacity for drug treatment accessible to the street addict? Jail is one place few have thought to look.

Jails typically house inmates awaiting trial or serving up to a year for a misdemeanor crime. Many inmates are drug addicts. They vegetate for months, trading crime stories in an atmosphere of boredom and brutality. Any attempt at treatment is usually limited to a weekly visit by a pastor or an Alcoholics Anonymous volunteer. When inmates are released, they’re in the clothes they came in with, regardless of the weather, and have no assistance to re-enter the real world. This kind of jail has always been accepted as an unavoidable fixed cost of government.

But the sheer dimensions of the opiate-addiction epidemic are forcing new ideas. One of them, now being tried in Kentucky, is jail not as a cost but as an investment in recovery. Jails as full-time rehab centers — from lights on to lights out. Jailing addicts is anathema to treatment advocates. However, as as any parent of an addict can tell you, opiates are mind-controlling beasts. A kid who complained about the least little household chore while sober will, as an addict, walk through five miles of snow, endure any hardship or humiliation, to get his dope.

Waiting for an addict to reach rock bottom and make a rational choice to seek treatment sounds nice in theory. But it ignores the nature of the drugs in question, while also assuming a private treatment bed is miraculously available at the moment the addict, who is usually without insurance, is willing and financially able to occupy it. The reality is that, unlike with other drugs, with opiates rock bottom is often death. (Drug overdose deaths last year most likely exceeded 59,000, the most ever in the United States, The Times found in an analysis of preliminary data this month, up about 19 percent over 2015.)

Jail can be a necessary, maybe the only, lever with which to encourage or force an addict who has been locked up to seek treatment before it’s too late. “People don’t go to treatment because they see the light,” said Kevin Pangburn, director of Substance Abuse Services for the Kentucky Department of Corrections. “They go to treatment because they feel the heat.”

Jail may in fact be the best place to initiate addict recovery. It’s in jail where addicts first come face-to-face with the criminal-justice system, long before they commit crimes that warrant a prison sentence. Once in custody and detoxed of the dope that has controlled their decisions, it’s in jail where addicts more clearly behold the wreckage of their lives. And it is at that moment of clarity and contrition when they are typically plunged into a jailhouse of extortion, violence and tedium....

Amid this national epidemic of opiate addiction, rethinking jail, as Kentucky has, as a place of sanctuary and recovery for a population that has lost hope, might not just be advisable; it may be indispensable.

June 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

AG Jeff Sessions makes the case for his new tougher federal charging/sentencing policy

The US Attorney General today took the the editorial pages of the Washington Post to make the case for his new tough charging and sentencing guidance for federal prosecutors.  This opinion piece carries this headline: "Jeff Sessions: Being soft on sentencing means more violent crime. It’s time to get tough again."  And here are excerpts (with on particular line emphasized by me):

[I]n 2013, subject to limited exceptions, the Justice Department ordered federal prosecutors not to include in charging documents the amount of drugs being dealt when the actual amount was large enough to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Prosecutors were required to leave out objective facts in order to achieve sentences lighter than required by law. This was billed as an effort to curb mass incarceration of low-level offenders, but in reality it covered offenders apprehended with large quantities of dangerous drugs.  The result was that federal drug prosecutions went down dramatically — from 2011 to 2016, federal prosecutions fell by 23 percent.  Meanwhile, the average sentence length for a convicted federal drug offender decreased 18 percent from 2009 to 2016.

Before that policy change, the violent crime rate in the United States had fallen steadily for two decades, reaching half of what it was in 1991.  Within one year after the Justice Department softened its approach to drug offenders, the trend of decreasing violent crime reversed. In 2015, the United States suffered the largest single-year increase in the overall violent crime rate since 1991.

And while defenders of the 2013 policy change point out that crime rates remain low compared with where they were 30 years ago, they neglect to recognize a disturbing trend that could reverse decades of progress: Violent crime is rising across the country. According to data from the FBI, there were more than 15,000 murders in the United States in 2015, representing a single-year increase of nearly 11 percent across the country. That was the largest increase since 1971. The increase in murders continued in 2016. Preliminary data from the first half of 2016 shows that large cities in the United States suffered an average increase in murders of nearly 22 percent compared with the same period from a year earlier.

As U.S. attorney general, I have a duty to protect all Americans and fulfill the president’s promise to make America safe again. Last month, after weeks of study and discussion with a host of criminal-justice participants, I issued a memorandum to all federal prosecutors regarding charging and sentencing policy that once again authorizes prosecutors to charge offenses as Congress intended. This two-page guidance instructs prosecutors to apply the laws on the books to the facts of the case in most cases, and allows them to exercise discretion where a strict application of the law would result in an injustice. Instead of barring prosecutors from faithfully enforcing the law, this policy empowers trusted professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate. That is the way good law enforcement has always worked.

Defenders of the status quo perpetuate the false story that federal prisons are filled with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The truth is less than 3 percent of federal offenders sentenced to imprisonment in 2016 were convicted of simple possession, and in most of those cases the defendants were drug dealers who accepted plea bargains in return for reduced sentences. Federal drug offenders include major drug traffickers, gang members, importers, manufacturers and international drug cartel members. To be subject to a five-year mandatory sentence, a criminal would have to be arrested with 100 grams or more of heroin with the intent to distribute it — that is 1,000 doses of heroin.

The truth is that while the federal government softened its approach to drug enforcement, drug abuse and violent crime surged. The availability of dangerous drugs is up, the price has dropped and the purity is at dangerously high levels. Overdose deaths from opioids have nearly tripled since 2002. Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose an astonishing 73 percent in 2015. My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend — one that puts at risk the hard-won gains that have made our country a safer place.

Some skeptics prefer to sit on the sidelines and criticize federal efforts to combat crime. But it’s not our privileged communities that suffer the most from crime and violence. Minority communities are disproportionately impacted by violent drug trafficking. Poor neighborhoods are too often ignored in these conversations. Regardless of wealth or race, every American has the right to demand a safe neighborhood.  Those of us who are responsible for promoting public safety cannot sit back while any American communities are ravaged by crime and violence.

There are those who are concerned about the fate of drug traffickers, but the law demands I protect the lives of victims that are ruined by drug trafficking and violent crime infecting their communities. Our new, time-tested policy empowers police and prosecutors to save lives.

There are lots of reasons and lots of ways to question any efforts to directly link the recent uptick in violent crime over the last few years to changes in federal prosecutorial policies.  But I have emphasized one particular line in the opinion piece in order to help enhance understanding of the thinking behind the new Sessions Memo. The Attorney General reasonably thinks he must  "do something" in response to recent increases in violent crime, and the most obvious and easy thing for him to do is to rescind Holder-era policy guidance and return to the federal prosecutorial policies of earlier era. (Of course, the prosecutorial policies of earlier era helped swell the federal prison population dramatically and, as noted here, the Department of Justice is already predicting that federal prison populations will start growing again after notable recent declines.)  

Prior recent related posts: 

June 17, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"Support Grows for Civil Commitment of Opioid Users"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Stateline article.  Here is how it gets started:

Amid an opioid addiction epidemic that is killing more than 90 Americans every day, there is a growing movement to make it easier for relatives and health care providers to quickly secure court orders to forcibly confine and treat people who are addicted to drugs.  Most states have civil commitment laws primarily designed to protect people with mental illness from themselves and others.  Many of the laws include drug addiction and alcoholism as a justification for temporary confinement, or at least don’t preclude it.

But in practice, most commitment laws have been ineffective when it comes to people who use heroin and other opioids, in part because some judges have been leery of taking away a person’s civil liberties for what society has long perceived as a moral failing.  Unlike people with severe mental illness, people who are addicted to drugs typically retain the mental capacity to take care of their basic needs, even though the chronic disease alters the brain, making the person eventually value drug use above all else.

New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington are considering new civil commitment laws specifically designed for opioid use.  Kentucky has gone back to the drawing board after failing to enact a commitment law for opioid addiction last year.

And in Massachusetts, the one state where civil commitment has been used extensively for opioid addiction, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker wants to make it even more common....

Historically, confining people against their will has been fraught with moral and legal ambiguities and haunted by reports of abuse.  But the parents of young adults who use opioids are pushing state lawmakers and governors to make intervention easier, even as physicians and state health officials search for ways to break the cycle of repeated overdoses.

Addiction professionals generally agree that civil commitment can save lives. But they argue that without effective treatment, confining people with an addiction may do more harm than good.  “People who use substances and have addictions still have civil rights,” said Dr. Alex Walley, director of an addiction medicine fellowship at Boston Medical Center.  “The real question is whether effective treatment is available, which in the case of opioids, is going to be medication. And it’s not OK to limit it to just one medicine,” Walley said.  Another concern is whether the state can ensure that continued treatment will be available once the person is released, he said.

June 15, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 08, 2017

"Neither Justice Nor Treatment: Drug Courts in the United States"

PhrThe title of this post is the title of this notable new report issued by the group Physicians for Human Rights. Here is an excerpts from the report's executive summary:

U.S. drug courts [are] specialized courts within the criminal justice system set up to provide alternative sentencing options — treatment instead of jail or prison time — for people charged with criminal behavior linked to drug possession, sale, or addiction.  The first courts were opened in 1989 to ease dockets and jails that were overflowing as a result of strict federal and state laws passed in the 1980s in an attempt to reduce drug supply and consumption.

Almost three decades later, there are more than 3,100 drug courts operating in the United States.  But while the courts’ proponents say they reduce recidivism for people with substance use disorders, critics say the system abuses due process, often mandates treatment for people who don’t actually need it — people without drug dependence — and fails to provide quality care to many who do.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) assessed the availability and quality of substance use disorder treatment through drug courts in three states — Florida, New Hampshire, and New York, chosen for the diversity of their drug court and health system approaches — and found major obstacles to quality evidence-based treatment for drug court participants in all three states.  Overall, PHR found that drug courts largely failed at providing treatment to those who truly needed it, and filled up limited treatment spaces with courtmandated patients who didn’t always need the care.  In many cases, court officials with no medical background mandated inappropriate treatment not rooted in the evidence base, or mandated treatment for people who didn’t need it.  In all cases, the functioning and mandate of the drug courts posed significant human rights concerns.

At the most basic level, PHR found that access to quality treatment was hampered by the inherent tension between a punitive criminal justice logic and therapeutic concern for drug court participants as patients.  In fact, despite the stated intention of drug courts to treat people who use drugs as ill rather Executive Summary than deviant, drug court participants were often punished for relapsing, missing therapy appointments, or otherwise failing to follow court rules.

One key concern motivating this research was whether drug courts were able to appropriately diagnose and facilitate treatment for people with substance use disorders who are in conflict with the law.  We found that, in many cases, they were not.  Diagnosis and initial treatment plans for drug court participants were often developed by people with no medical training or oversight, at times resulting in mandated treatment that was directly at odds with medical knowledge and recommendations.  The most egregious example of this was the refusal, delay, or curbing of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) (also known as substitution or replacement therapy) to people with opioid use disorders, despite evidence that treatment for such disorders in many cases requires long-term — sometimes permanent — medication.  Some drug courts also prevented participants from accessing or staying on medically prescribed treatment for anxiety, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and other chronic health problems.

Human rights concerns are thus particularly relevant for drug courts, as these courts blur the line between voluntary and coerced treatment, and compel participants to waive the right to confidentiality.  Furthermore, most drug courts operate with regulations that subject medical expertise and advice regarding treatment to prosecutorial oversight and potential veto, raising questions about a person’s ability to access impartial evidencebased care.  Even where courts did not actively violate human rights protections of their participants, the regulatory set-up constantly threatened such violations.

June 8, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (6)

More interesting new "Quick Facts" publications from the US Sentencing Commission

The US Sentencing Commission has released two notable new Quick Facts covering "Drug Trafficking Offenses" and "Federal Offenders in Prison" as of February 2017. (As the USSC explains, "Quick Facts" are publications that "give readers basic facts about a single area of federal crime in an easy-to-read, two-page format.")  Here are a few of the many intriguing data details from these two small data-filled publications:

June 8, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Senators Grassley and Feinstein working on enhanced federal penalties for synthetic opioid offenses

This slightly confusing new NPR story, headlined "Lawmakers Consider Tough New Penalties For Opioid Crimes, Bucking Trend," suggests that the only kind of sentencing reform being now discussed in Congress involves increasing rather than decreasing drug offense sentences.  Here are the still opaque details as reported by NPR (with my emphasis added, for subsequent comment):

For nearly four years now, an unusual coalition of Republicans and Democrats has worked to reduce mandatory prison terms for many federal drug crimes.  But that bipartisan movement may be shallower than it appears. Indeed, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who both supported a cut-back on some drug punishments, are preparing a bill that would create tough new penalties for people caught with synthetic opioid drugs.  Grassley chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Feinstein is the panel's ranking member.

A draft of the legislation reviewed by NPR suggests the plan would give the attorney general a lot more power to ban all kinds of synthetic drugs, since criminals often change the recipe to evade law enforcement.  It would impose a 10-year maximum sentence on people caught selling them as a first offense. That would double if they do it again.

Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for lighter punishments for drug offenders, has seen language in the proposal. He said he thinks it's a bad idea. "These synthetic drugs are added to heroin often outside the U.S., but the bill takes such a broad approach that it's penalizing individuals who sell drugs at a low level inside the U.S., and so it's going to do nothing to deter and stop the supply of drugs," Collins said.

Collins said drug addiction is a public health challenge. He said sending more people to prison won't help, just as it didn't help in the crack cocaine era a few decades ago. "The problem is really we've been here before with this approach in terms of the war on drugs and ramping up sentences, and we know that escalating sentences ... does nothing to help the opioid epidemic," Collins said. "In fact, it only serves to increase the prison population."

Many people inside the Justice Department disagree. Just last week, federal prosecutors in Utah announced charges against a half-dozen people in suburban Salt Lake City.  Authorities say two of them quit their jobs at eBay to embark on a new enterprise. They allegedly ordered a version of the synthetic opioid fentanyl by mail from China, then pressed the drug into counterfeit pills and sold them online to customers across the country.

U.S. Attorney John Huber brought the case. "Like much of the country, we are not escaping the heroin and opioid epidemic and this latest version or brand of it with the fentanyl danger just makes it that much more pressing of a concern for us," Huber said.  The alleged ringleader — 27-year-old Aaron Michael Shamo — could spend the rest of his life in prison if he's convicted under the current drug laws.  "Mr. Shamo faces a mandatory life minimum sentence if he's convicted and that shows how serious this is, when you're dealing in such large quantities of such a dangerous substance," Huber said. "This is as serious as it gets."

As this NPR story already indirectly indicates, severe federal sentences are already on the books for serious drug dealers who traffic in fentanyl, and I am pretty sure a first offense of even a small amount of fentanyl dealing already carries a mandatory maximum sentence of decades. Thus, I think the highlighted line from the article here meant to report that Senators Grassley and Feinstein are working on a bill that would have a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for even low-lever, first-time dealing of fentanyl.

I am not yet going to criticize a bill I have not yet seen, nor am I going to criticize the instinct of many legislators and law enforcement officials that drastic action needs to be taken in response to the still growing opioid epidemic.  But I am certainly prepared to express disappointment that leaders like Senators Grassley and Feinstein still apparently think that new mandatory minimum sentencing provisions serve as a wise and appropriate response to a national drug problem.

June 6, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Federal District Judge Mark "Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust"

The quote in the title of this post's headline is just one of a number of notable lines from this extended CNN article headlined "The judge who says he's part of the gravest injustice in America." Here is some of the context and particulars from the article:

[U.S. District Court Judge Mark] Bennett seems exasperated, exhausted almost, as he explains he must sentence [Susan] Rice to a full five years -- the mandatory minimum required by law. It is a sentence he deems unjust, too much for a low-level addict, just for being caught with a certain weight of drugs.  

Bennett makes sure the record reflects he felt strongly enough to request that Iowa's US Attorney consider waiving the mandatory minimum. He accepts the defense mitigation that Rice had never been in trouble before she was in her 50s, when she began drinking heavily after a bad divorce and was introduced to meth. She met a mid-level dealer who offered her a mattress in his basement and free meth if she would drive him around. A willing drug mule to feed her addiction? Yes. But not the drug trafficker or conspirator whom the charges and mandatory minimum sentences were designed to target, the judge believed.

His plea fell on deaf ears.  He was told there was no option for Rice to be treated as an exception to the law. "I strongly disagree with that decision," the judge says firmly from the bench.  It is not the first time he has felt this way. Bennett says 80% of the mandatory sentences he hands down are unjust -- but that he is handcuffed by the law, which leaves no room for judicial discretion to consider a sentence based on individual circumstances of the defendant. 

Too often, Bennett says, low-level nonviolent drug addicts dealing to feed their habit end up being sentenced like drug kingpins.  Bennett says if he had the power, he would jail Rice for perhaps a year, or 18 months.  Across the street in a state courthouse, she would have been put on probation, he says.  "I think it's a miscarriage of justice," Bennett says. "But you know people are entitled to their own sense of what justice is."

Bennett hoped the tide was turning after members of both parties began pushing for sentencing reform on both state and federal levels, arguing it had been a huge mistake.  Now Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's attorney general, has instructed that the law governing mandatory minimums be enforced with renewed vigor. "If you are a drug trafficker," Sessions said after issuing his memo to prosecutors, "we will not look the other way. We will not be willfully blind to your misconduct."

Bennett thinks this approach is unjust. "I basically couldn't live with myself if I didn't speak out," he says, standing in the center of his courtroom only hours after sentencing Rice. "I'm compelled to talk about it because I think it's one of the gravest injustices in the history of America."  Year after year, giving out those sentences, is wearing on him.  "The burden of having given so many unjust sentences is a very heavy thing for me to carry around," Bennett says beginning to choke up. "I do not consider myself soft on crime, but I consider myself opposed to mandatory minimums for low level non-violent drug dealers who are basically addicts," he says....

The National Association of Assistant US Attorneys, made up of those who prosecute federal cases, supports Sessions' push to charge the most serious crime that is provable.  "It's an effective way of protecting the public and it has served us well for an awful long time," the group's president Larry Leiser says.  "People who were eligible for mandatory minimums are truly people who are involved in significant quantities of these very dangerous substances."  He rejects recent efforts to relax sentencing laws.  And he rejects the view the law unfairly catches non-violent addicts who are simply feeding their addiction by selling drugs.  And he hails the provision that lets offenders help themselves to lower sentences if they in turn help the authorities take serious criminals off the streets.

June 4, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, June 02, 2017

Tracking state work on criminal justice and drug policy through Stateline

The Pew Charitable Trusts Stateline site does a great job tracking state-level developments on an array of criminal justice and drug policy issues. Here are some examples from recent weeks that caught my eye:

 

June 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Is the Ninth Circuit right in holding a federal sentencing judge cannot reject a jury special verdict finding on drug quantity?

The question in the title of this post is one that has been simmering in the Ninth Circuit and resulted in today's release of an amended opinion and a dissent from the denial of en banc review in US v. Pimentel-Lopez, No. 14-30210 (9th Cir. June 1, 2017) (available here). Here is the heart of the amended opinion:    

[T]he record is clear that the jury didn’t merely acquit defendant of possessing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine; it made an affirmative finding “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the amount attributable to defendant was “[l]ess than 50 grams.” Our own caselaw, and simple logic, precludes us from vouchsafing sentencing judges the power to make contradictory findings under these circumstances....

In our case, the government proposed the verdict form that set both a lower and an upper boundary for the amount of drugs involved.  Having proposed the language, the government now urges us to read the verdict form as “acquitt[ing] [Pimentel-Lopez] on the 500-gram amount,” with which he was initially charged.  But none of the choices offered by the verdict form were capable of capturing that view.  That may have been a blunder, but the jury answered the questions it was asked and so the die is cast: The government cannot disavow the finding that the jury makes as a result....

Nothing prevented the government from proffering [a different special verdict] form.  But, having proposed a form that required the jury to find that the drug quantity was less than 50 grams, the government locked itself out of the possibility of proving more than 50 grams at sentencing. It can easily avoid this pitfall in future cases....

Because the district court may not contradict an affirmative finding by the jury, we must vacate the sentence and remand with instructions that defendant be resentenced on the premise that his crimes involved less than 50 grams of drugs.

The dissent from the denial of en banc authored by Judge Graber (and joined by five other judges) gets started this way:

I respectfully dissent from the denial of rehearing en banc. The panel held that when a jury finds that the amount of drugs the government has proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, is attributable to a defendant falls within a specified range, the sentencing judge may not find by a preponderance of the evidence that the amount of drugs attributable to the defendant is higher than that range.  United States v. Pimentel-Lopez, 828 F.3d 1173, 1176–77 (9th Cir. 2016). That holding is wrong both as a matter of logic and as a matter of Supreme Court law, it has far-reaching consequences for the prosecution of drug crimes in our circuit, and it conflicts with holdings in other circuits.  For all those reasons, we should have reheard this case en banc.

As long as the Supreme Court's 1999 Watts ruling is still good law, I think the dissent here has the better of the legal argument (though post-Watts SCOTUS Sixth Amendment jurisprudence arguably undermines Watts).  But I also think Watts is a rotten decision that ought to be formally overruled.  For that reason, I would love to see the US Solicitor General seek Supreme Court review and then see the defendant suggest a reconsideration of Watts if the Justices care to take up the case.

June 1, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Second Circuit affirms convictions and LWOP sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht

The Second Circuit today released a 139-page panel opinion in US v. Ulbricht, No. 15-1815 (2d Cir. May 31, 2017) (available here), which starts this way:

Defendant Ross William Ulbricht appeals from a judgment of conviction and sentence to life imprisonment entered in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Katherine B. Forrest, J.).  A jury convicted Ulbricht of drug trafficking and other crimes associated with his creation and operation of Silk Road, an online marketplace whose users primarily purchased and sold illegal goods and services.  He challenges several aspects of his conviction and sentence, arguing that (1) the district court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence assertedly obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment; (2) the district court committed numerous errors that deprived him of his right to a fair trial, and incorrectly denied his motion for a new trial; and (3) his life sentence is both procedurally and substantively unreasonable.  Because we identify no reversible error, we AFFIRM Ulbricht’s conviction and sentence in all respects.

The sentencing discussion covers roughly the last 25 pages of this lengthy unanimous panel opinion, and it includes a number of notable passages while covering a lot of notable ground. Here are just a few highlights of an opinion that sentencing fans and drug policy folks should read in full:

Ulbricht’s only claim of procedural error is that it was improper for the district court to consider six drug-related deaths as relevant to his sentence because there was insufficient information connecting them with drugs purchased on Silk Road.  In terms of our sentencing jurisprudence, Ulbricht claims that the district court relied on clearly erroneous facts in imposing sentence.  We are not persuaded....

[I]t was certainly appropriate for the district court to consider the risk of death from use of drugs in assessing the seriousness of the offense conduct, one of the factors that a judge must consider in imposing sentence.  See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)(2)(A).  That appears to be the only way the judge in this case used the evidence of the drug-related deaths. Emotionally wrenching as the statements of the decedents’ parents were, we cannot and do not assume that federal judges are unable to put their sympathies for particular victims to one side and assess the evidence for its rational relationship to the sentencing decision. And here, the record makes clear that the district court did not use the evidence of the drug-related deaths to enhance Ulbricht’s sentence, either as a formal matter under the Guidelines or otherwise....

[W]hile a life sentence for selling drugs alone would give pause, we would be hard put to find such a sentence beyond the bounds of reason for drug crimes of this magnitude. But the facts of this case involve much more than simply facilitating the sale of narcotics. The district court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Ulbricht commissioned at least five murders in the course of protecting Silk Road’s anonymity, a finding that Ulbricht does not challenge in this appeal.  Ulbricht discussed those anticipated murders callously and casually in his journal and in his communications with the purported assassin Redandwhite....

Ulbricht and amici point out that life sentences are rare in the federal system, typically reserved for egregious violent crimes, thus rendering Ulbricht’s sentence substantively unreasonable.  Moreover, according to amici, life sentences are normally imposed in cases where that is the district judge’s only sentencing option.  Thus, they claim that Ulbricht’s life sentence is substantively unreasonable in the context of the federal system, where life sentences are particularly rare for those with no criminal history who are convicted of drug crimes.

We agree with Ulbricht that life sentences are extraordinary and infrequent, which is as it should be.  But the rarity of life sentences does not mean that the imposition of such a sentence in this case is substantively unreasonable under our law.  Each case must be considered on its own facts and in light of all of the circumstances of a particular offense as well as other relevant conduct, which, in this case, includes five attempted murders for hire.  As we have described, the district court carefully considered Ulbricht’s offense, his personal characteristics, and the context for his crimes, recognizing that only exceptional cases justify such a severe sentence. Although we might not have imposed the same sentence ourselves in the first instance, on the facts of this case a life sentence was “within the range of permissible decisions” that the district court could have reached. 

A few prior related posts:

May 31, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (6)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Ambition and Fruition in Federal Criminal Law: A Case Study"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting and timely new paper by Lauren Ouziel now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This Article explores a recurrent puzzle in federal criminal law: why do the outcomes of a law — who ultimately gets prosecuted, and for what conduct — diverge, sometimes markedly, from lawmakers’ and enforcers’ aims?  This disconnect between law’s ambition and fruition is particularly salient in federal drug enforcement, which has focused on capturing the most high-value offenders — large scale traffickers, violent dealers, and the worst recidivists — yet has imprisoned large numbers of offenders outside these categories.  In this respect, federal drug enforcement is a case study in the ambition/fruition divide.

Among the divide’s contributing factors, I focus here on organizational dynamics in enforcement: the pressures and incentives among and within the organizations that collectively comprise the federal drug enforcement enterprise.  These pressures and incentives operate along three vectors: between the enforcers and the enforced; across and within federal enforcement institutions; and between federal and local enforcers.  Together, they create a system that stymies focus on the most culpable even as it makes apprehending them a principal aim.  This insight carries important implications for reform, both within drug enforcement and outside it.  Changing who, and how many, we prosecute requires attention not only to laws, but also the lower-visibility spaces in which enforcement patterns take root.  In the new political landscape, these lower-visibility spaces are federal criminal justice reform’s next frontier.

May 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 22, 2017

"Sentencing Synthetic Cannabinoid Offenders: 'No Cognizable Basis'"

The title of this post is the title of this short notable piece by Brad Gershel now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

Application of the United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines (“Guidelines”) to smokable synthetic cannabinoids (“SSC”) produces distinct but familiar inequities in the criminal justice system.  Calling to mind the crack-to-cocaine disparity that belied the rights of countless defendants, the federal government has yet to rectify a Guidelines rule that was promulgated without scientific basis or empirical support.  As prosecutions for SSC accelerate — and in the absence of swift and meaningful reform — federal courts will continue to sentence defendants via a base-offense range that was never justified.

May 22, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Highlighting sentencing reform's momentum in the states despite prosecutorial change of course by US Attorney General

The New York Times has this extended new article detailing recent state sentencing reform realities that stand in contrast to the decision last week by Attorney General Sessions to promulgate tougher charging and sentencing guidelines.  The article is headlined "States Trim Penalties and Prison Rolls, Even as Sessions Gets Tough," and here are excerpts:

Louisiana has the nation’s highest incarceration rate.  But this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards struck a deal to reduce sentences and the prison population, saving millions annually. If lawmakers approve the changes, Louisiana will be following more than 30 states, including Georgia, Texas and South Carolina, that have already limited sentences, expanded alternatives to incarceration such as drug treatment, or otherwise reduced the reach and cost of the criminal justice system.  Many of those states say they have saved money while crime rates have stayed low.

In Washington, though, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has charted the opposite course.  He announced last week that federal prosecutors should aim to put more people in prison for longer periods, adopting the sort of mass-incarceration strategy that helped flood prisons during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.  His move — which he said would promote consistency and respect for the law — alarmed critics who feared that the Trump administration was embracing failed, even racist, policies.

Even more, Mr. Sessions’s approach conflicted with one of the few major points of bipartisan national agreement over the past decade, that criminal justice could be more effective by becoming less punitive to low-level offenders, treating root causes of crime like drug addiction, and reserving more resources to go after serious, violent criminals.

But if Mr. Sessions’s appointment has dampened the hopes of those wishing for congressional action to reduce incarceration, advocates say it has had little effect on state efforts. “There was a lot of speculation that with the rhetoric from the presidential campaign, there would be a drop in momentum, but we haven’t seen that,” said Marc A. Levin, the policy director for Right on Crime, a group at the fore of conservative efforts to reduce incarceration rates.  “There have been so many successes in the last several years, particularly in conservative states, that it continues to fuel other states to act,” Mr. Levin said.

The consensus began with a cold, objective judgment that taxpayers were not getting a good return on investment for money spent on prisons.  Bloated corrections budgets took money that could be spent on schools, roads or tax breaks, while many of those who went through the prison system went on to offend again.  Among Republicans and Democrats alike, concern also grew that too many nonviolent criminals who were no threat to society were being imprisoned and given little chance to reform and re-enter mainstream society....

It has not hurt that early adopters included tough-on-crime red states like Texas, which began passing major criminal justice revisions in 2003.  “It was a Nixon-goes-to-China thing, and was really helpful in letting other states know, ‘The water is warm; you can do this,’” Mr. Ring said.  In contrast, he added, Mr. Sessions’s directive flies in the face of state-level successes. “We’re going to double down on an approach everybody else has walked away from,” is how Mr. Ring characterized it.

So far this year, Michigan and Georgia, which previously rewrote their criminal justice laws, have already approved a new round of changes.  In Oklahoma, where Mr. Trump handily carried every county in November, another vote was also popular: Residents approved by a 16 percentage point margin a ballot proposal calling on legislators to curb prison rolls and downgrade numerous drug and property crimes to misdemeanors from felonies.

“Basically, in Oklahoma we’re just warehousing people in prison, and we’re not trying to rehabilitate anybody because of budget constraints,” said Bobby Cleveland, a Republican state representative who is chairman of the Public Safety Committee. Oklahoma has the nation’s No. 2 incarceration rate. The state is now considering how to heed the voters’ advice, including debating major criminal justice changes. The effort faces opposition from district attorneys who have slowed some pieces of legislation, but the proposals have the firm backing of Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican. Supporters acknowledge that it may take a few tries to succeed. “Texas didn’t do it in one year, either,” Representative Cleveland said.

Louisiana is also moving toward change. On Tuesday, Governor Edwards, a Democrat who has made reducing the prison population a centerpiece of his administration, announced that he had reached an agreement with the state’s politically powerful district attorneys to revise criminal justice laws. The deal, which still faces a vote in the Legislature, would reduce penalties for minor drug possession, give judges more power to sentence people to probation instead of prison, limit how many theft crimes qualify as felonies, and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a number of crimes.

Last year, it also seemed there was a fair chance that even Congress would get in on the action with a bipartisan bill to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. The bill never got a vote on the floor, and some feared that the appointment of Mr. Sessions, who opposed the legislation as a senator, was a sign that President Trump would never support it. But in March, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met with pro-reform senators, including Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, signaling he considered the issue a priority....

While Mr. Sessions has warned of what he says is a coming surge in crime, advocates for reducing incarceration say they are frustrated by how their goals are often cast as adverse to public safety. “The states that have most significantly reduced their prison population have also seen the biggest drops in their crime and recidivism rates,” said Holly Harris, a former general counsel of the Kentucky Republican Party who is now executive director of the U.S. Justice Action Network. “Reform makes us safer,” Ms. Harris said. “There’s a misperception with prosecutors that somehow reform is anti-law enforcement, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Highlighting how the Sessions Memo may have particular impact for drug trafficking cases in certain districts

News2-2-Graph-SentencingWith thanks to commenter Daniel for the tip, I just saw this notable local article from New Mexico providing a notable local perspective on the potential impact of the new Sessions federal charging/sentencing memo.  The article is headlined "Two Steps Back: How Jeff Sessions’ memo on federal prosecutions could take New Mexico back to a harsher era," and here are excerpts:

A directive from newly appointed US Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructing prosecutors to seek the most severe charges available threatens to stunt recent progress toward less federal prison time for low-level drug offenders in New Mexico, defense lawyers and drug policy reform advocates tell SFR.

“Drug mule” cases make up many of the drug crimes prosecuted in federal court in New Mexico, federal public defender John Butcher says. Some low-level drug runners who get caught mid-shipment are apprehended in Albuquerque, the first overnight stop on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief train from Los Angeles to Chicago. Others are picked up throughout the federally designated “High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area,” which runs east from Farmington down to Santa Fe and into Albuquerque before blanketing most of the southern border from Roswell on. The vast majority of federal drug charges in the state are for trafficking. Possession and brokering drug deals comprise a smaller percentage of crimes.

Drug mule cases, most often involving nonviolent and low-level drug offenders, were among those singled out in a memo issued by former attorney general Eric Holder in August 2013. It encouraged prosecutors not to charge such people with crimes that could trigger stiffer mandatory minimum sentences, which prevent judges from sentencing defendants to prison for fewer than a predetermined number of years. For example, since 1986, federal law has mandated that a person convicted of holding five kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years in prison for a first offense.

Holder asked prosecutors to back off. If somebody was arrested with five kilograms of cocaine, but was not an organizer, did not have deep ties to criminal groups and wasn’t carrying a gun or another indicator of violent intent, prosecutors were asked not to charge that person with the quantity that would have triggered the 10 years. Data from the US Sentencing Commission suggests that some federal prosecutors in New Mexico may have heeded Holder’s directive. It shows that the percentage of sentenced federal drug offenders who received mandatory minimums immediately dropped from 42 percent in 2013 to 25 percent in 2014, and even fell to 20 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which information is available. That’s about half the figure from 2006, the first year the commission began tracking this data. The decrease came even as the number of people prosecuted for trafficking rose from an average of 586 between 2010 and 2012—before the Holder directive—and 646 between 2014 and 2016.

But Sessions has now directed prosecutors to reverse course. The new attorney general wants federal prosecutors to seek the most serious and readily provable charge against all defendants—regardless of circumstance. “This is going to go after the low-level minimum participants with minor records, because they’re the ones who were getting breaks [under Holder],” Butcher tells SFR. “Breaks” didn’t mean that low-level runners weren’t being charged or sentenced to prison after 2013, he says. But in some cases, they weren’t getting the book thrown at them. Butcher suggests the new policy will have an outsized effect in New Mexico, with its relatively higher number of trafficking cases involving nonviolent offenders....

Since 2013, Santa Fe’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, wherein police work with case managers and the local district attorney to enroll low-level offenders in treatment programs, has served as a national example for non-punitive approaches to drug use.  District Attorney Marco Serna doesn’t think there’s much overlap between those who would qualify for LEAD and those who could be charged with a federal drug crime, but he acknowledges that the city’s approach stands in contrast to Sessions’ hardline.  “For nonviolent crimes, we have our own state and local statutes, and luckily I get to influence how we handle it in the first district,” Serna says. “And we won’t be taking that approach.”

Prior recent related posts: 

UPDATE: I just saw this notable new New York Times article which drills even deeper into the impact of the Holder Memo by identifying a number of low-level federal drug offenders who seemingly benefited from more lenient charging practices.  The piece is headlined "5 Years, or 20? How Sessions’ Get-Tough Order Would Extend Prison Stays." and it is interesting to see the cases profiled in the article and even more interesting to consider whether the offenders in the article might have been able, even if charged with more serious offenses, been able to avoid the application of a mandatory minimum sentence through the statutory safety valve or through providing cooperation.

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ninth Circuit dodges federal marijuana offender's claim his imprisonment contravenes appropriations rider

As everyone involved in or following marijuana reform knows, Congress in recent years has included in its omnibus appropriations bills a rider that prevents the US Department of Justice (DOJ) from using any funds to prevent states "from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."  Yesterday, a Ninth Circuit panel considered in Davies v. Benov, No. 15-17256 (9th Cir. May 17, 2017) (available here), a notable contention concerning this rider from a federal prisoner.  Here are the basics from the opinion:

Davies owned and operated medical marijuana dispensaries in Stockton and Sacramento, California, which he contends complied with state and local medical marijuana laws. Davies, however, was charged with violating federal drug laws ... [and] entered into a plea agreement, agreeing to a five-year prison term and pleading guilty to the ten counts filed against him....

Davies filed a habeas corpus petition under 28 U.S.C. § 2241 in the Eastern District of California, contending that the BOP’s use of federal funds to incarcerate individuals, such as himself, who engaged in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws violates the appropriations rider.

I recall talking to some lawyers back when Congress first enacted the medical marijuana appropriations rider that, if the text were interpreted very broadly, it could arguably preclude the federal Bureau of Prisons (which is part of DOJ) from spending any of its budget on those incarcerated for state-compliant medical marijuana activities. So I am not shocked that this argument made it to the Ninth Circuit. But, as this concluding passage from Davies highlights, this argument still has not yet been addressed on the merits:

The collateral-attack waiver provision in Davies’s plea agreement bars him from this particular challenge to the BOP’s use of federal funds to incarcerate him for conduct he contends complied with California’s medical marijuana laws. Because of this waiver, we need not reach and save for another day the issue of whether the expenditure of federal funds to incarcerate individuals who fully complied with state medical marijuana laws violates the appropriations rider. Cf. McIntosh, 833 F.3d at 1177–78 (holding that the appropriations rider prohibits the Department of Justice from using appropriated funds to prosecute individuals for engaging in conduct permitted by state medical marijuana laws). “We will enforce a valid waiver even if the claims that could have been made [through a collateral attack] absent that waiver appear meritorious, because the whole point of a waiver is the relinquishment of claims regardless of their merit.” United States v. Medina-Carrasco, 815 F.3d 457, 462–63 (9th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks, alterations, and emphasis omitted).

I would be shocked to see the Ninth Circuit or any other court ultimately interpret the DOJ appropriations rider to require the release of any federal prisoners, but the argument has enough technical textual legitimacy to surely justify its pursuit by persons federally imprisoned for state-legal medical marijuana activity. And, for various updates on state activities, I continue to try to keep up with major legal developments and other notable stories at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform as evidenced by some of these recent posts:

May 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Terrific effort to sort out "How Many Drug Offenders Benefited From the Holder Memo That Sessions Rescinded?"

In this post earlier this week, I talked through the challenge of figuring out the import and impact of the new Sessions Memo on federal charging/sentencing by stressing  uncertainty concerning the impact of various charging memos released by former Attorney General Eric Holder.   Jacob Sullum is carrying forward this effort quite effectively this morning in this terrific new Reason posting asking "How Many Drug Offenders Benefited From the Holder Memo That Sessions Rescinded?".   Here are highlights:

For critics of the war on drugs and supporters of sentencing reform, the policy shift that Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last Friday is definitely a change for the worse. But it's not clear exactly how bad the consequences will be, partly because the impact of the policy he reversed, which was aimed at shielding low-level, nonviolent drug offenders from mandatory minimum sentences, is hard to pin down.

Sessions rescinded a 2013 memo in which Attorney General Eric Holder encouraged federal prosecutors to refrain from specifying the amount of drugs in cases involving nonviolent defendants without leadership roles, significant criminal histories, or significant ties to large-scale drug trafficking organizations. Since mandatory minimums are tied to drug weight, omitting that detail avoids triggering them.

Numbers that the Justice Department cited last year suggest Holder's directive, which was the heart of his Smart on Crime Initiative, had a substantial effect on the percentage of federal drug offenders facing mandatory minimums. According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), the share of federal drug offenders subject to mandatory minimums has fallen steadily since Holder's memo, from 62 percent in fiscal year 2013 to less than 45 percent in fiscal year 2016. If the percentage had remained the same, more than 10,000 additional drug offenders would have fallen into that category during this period.

"The promise of Smart on Crime is showing impressive results," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said last year, citing the USSC numbers through fiscal year 2015. "Federal prosecutors are consistently using their discretion to focus our federal resources on the most serious cases and to ensure that we reserve harsh mandatory minimum sentence for the most dangerous offenders."

Counterintuitively, however, the defendants whom the USSC describes as "drug offenders receiving mandatory minimums" include drug offenders who did not actually receive mandatory minimums. Many of them were convicted under provisions that call for mandatory minimums yet escaped those penalties because they offered "substantial assistance" or qualified for the statutory "safety valve."

Paul Hofer, a policy analyst at Federal Public and Community Defenders, took those other forms of relief into account in a 2013 estimate of the Holder memo's possible impact.... Hofer's analysis suggests that the vast majority of drug offenders who seem to have benefited from the 2013 memo—thousands each year—did not actually receive shorter sentences as a result of the policy change.

Then again, the benefits of Holder's memo may extend beyond the federal defendants who avoided mandatory minimums. By encouraging prosecutors to focus their efforts on the most serious drug offenders, Holder may have indirectly reduced punishment by allowing some people to avoid federal charges altogether. That instruction may help explain why the total number of federal drug cases fell from 25,000 in fiscal year 2013 to 21,387 in fiscal year 2016, a 14 percent drop.

As Molly Gill, director of federal legislative affairs at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, points out, there is some evidence that federal prosecutors did try to focus on the most serious cases: During the same period, the share of defendants benefiting from the safety valve (which excludes high-level and violent offenders) fell from 24 percent to 13 percent. "With the directive not to slam low-level drug defendants," says University of California at Irvine criminologist Mona Lynch, "there was likely some shift toward bringing more serious cases and simply passing on smaller, street-dealing type of cases."

Sessions is now telling federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious provable charges against drug offenders (and other federal defendants) unless they believe an exception to that policy is warranted, in which case they have to seek permission from their supervisors and justify the decision in writing. Although Sessions argues that the new default rule will produce more uniform results, Lynch thinks it could have the opposite effect.

"The big question is whether he has the power to roll back time and change the prevailing legal culture that has tempered the 'drug war' mentality of the 1990s in many federal jurisdictions," says Lynch, who studied the behavior of federal prosecutors for her 2016 book Hard Bargains: The Coercive Power of Drug Laws in Federal Court. "Even under a more stringent set of charging policies…U.S. attorneys have considerable discretion as to what cases to bring….This policy may only increase the divide between jurisdictions that collectively eschew aggressive federal drug prosecutions and those that dive back into the harsh practices of an older era. This would result in even more geographic disparity in federal justice outcomes, a longstanding concern of Congress and of the U.S. Sentencing Commission."

Prior recent related posts: 

May 17, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reviewing some historical data on the federal prison population, total sentences imposed, and drug cases

Some of the copious commentary critical of the new Sessions Memo complains that he is "bringing back" the War on Drugs.  See, for example, Salon here, "Jeff Sessions is bringing back the drug war — and making it worse"; New York here, "Sessions Takes First Big Step Toward Bringing Back the War on Drugs."  I find this charge a bit curious because I do not think the drug war or its footprint on human lives ever really went away notwithstanding some recent efforts at the federal and state level to temper a bit its reach and impact. 

In an effort to try to see if the federal drug war at some point went away, and also driven by a desire to try to gauge the impact of federal charging policies before the Sessions Memo (as discussed here), I decided it might be useful to take a dive into US Sentencing Commission data over the past two decades to see what we could see.  The USSC has great yearly data assembled here going back to 1996, and basic federal prison population numbers are accessible here going back all the way to 1980.  Though my weak empirical skills and this imperfect blogging space will surely limit my ability to tell detailed data stories here effectively, I hope a few posts reviewing federal case processing and sentencing basics might be of some use and interest.  Here I will start with just the most basic of basics, historical data on the federal prison population, total sentences imposed, and drug cases:

Year        Federal Prison Population         Federal Sentences Imposed         Drug Sentences Imposed

1996                105,443                                        42,436                                    17,267

1998                122,316                                        50,754                                    20,368

2000                145,125                                        59,846                                    23,542

2002                163,436                                        64,366                                    25,920        

2004                179,895                                        70,068                                    24,532

2006                192,584                                        72,585                                    26,122

2008                201,668                                        76,478                                    25,500

2010                210,227                                        83,946                                    24,713

2012                218,687                                        84,173                                    25,712

2014                214,149                                        75,836                                    22,193

2016                192,170                                        67,742                                    19,945

May 15, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Notable comments from AG Sessions about the opioid crisis and combatting drug problems

This press release from the Department of Justice provides the text of remarks delivered today by Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the "DEA360 Heroin and Opioid Response Summit" in Charleston, WV. I recommend the speech in full, even though some comments are familiar, and here are a few excerpts that caught my attention:

People in Washington, D.C., use the word "crisis" to describe all kinds of problems.  But this epidemic of opioid and prescription drug abuse is a true crisis.  It is ravaging our communities, bringing crime and violence to our streets, and destroying the lives of too many Americans....

Let’s start by looking at the scope of the problem.  In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans died from a drug overdose.  That means our country is losing the equivalent of a major league baseball stadium full of people every year to overdoses.  That is simply unacceptable. 

Nearly two-thirds of those deaths were from opioids — that includes heroin as well as prescription drugs such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine.   Every day, 91 Americans die from an opioid overdose.  And each year, more Americans are dying from drug overdoses than from car crashes.  

What’s terrifying is that these numbers may well understate the current problem, due to the recent rise of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is vastly more potent than heroin.  Drug traffickers are now mixing fentanyl with other drugs, resulting in a truly deadly concoction. In just one year, largely as a result of fentanyl, overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose an astonishing 73 percent.  Let me repeat that, 73 percent more overdose deaths.

But this plague not only brings death, but a whole parade of horribles. The number of American babies born with a drug withdrawal symptom has quadrupled over the past 15 years.  Here in West Virginia, the situation is so bad that in some hospitals, one out of every 10 babies is born dependent on opioids....

This wave of opioid and heroin abuse also represents a crisis for law enforcement.   We know drugs and crime go hand-in-hand.   Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business.  If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t, and don’t, file a lawsuit in court.  You collect it by the barrel of a gun.

The opioid and heroin epidemic is a contributor to the recent surge of violent crime in America.   Transnational drug cartels are working with street gangs to traffic heroin that is both cheaper and stronger than ever.  As the market for this heroin expands, these gangs fight for territory and new customers — and innocent people get caught in the crossfire.     

Drug abusers miss work, and when they do work, they don’t work well.  According to one estimate, American employers are losing $10 billion dollars a year from absenteeism and lost productivity due to opioid abuse.

Any way you look at it, this drug abuse epidemic is a multi-faced and massive crisis.  It demands an all-hands-on-deck response — from government, law enforcement, health care providers, teachers, community leaders and parents.  All of us must do our part to fight the scourge of drugs.   

As I mentioned before, we have three essential tools in this fight:  enforcement, treatment and prevention.  At the Department of Justice, our principal concern is law enforcement.  Strong enforcement is crucial to effective drug abuse prevention and treatment.

Many people say, "We can’t arrest our way out of this problem."  But no one denies we need good prevention and treatment programs.  What we must recognize is that strong law enforcement efforts are also essential.   Criminal enforcement is crucial to stopping the violent transnational cartels that smuggle drugs across our borders, and the thugs and gangs who bring this poison into our communities....

The DEA has developed what they call their 360 Strategy, and deployed it to six pilot cities, including here in Charleston.  One part of the 360 Strategy is coordinated law enforcement actions against drug cartels and traffickers.   DEA’s field divisions work closely with task force partners in federal, state, and local law enforcement to identify, target and prosecute the biggest drug traffickers.  

We are also targeting links between the cartels and drug trafficking networks across our country, including violent street gangs. Another part of DEA’s 360 Strategy is diversion control.  A lot of drug abuse happens because legitimate controlled substances are diverted from their lawful purposes.... 

We are also targeting and prosecuting dishonest medical providers who violate their oaths by running "pill mills" or otherwise diverting prescription drugs from legitimate uses.  The DEA’s Tactical Diversion Squads, including one here in Charleston, do outstanding work on this front....

The goal of all our enforcement efforts is to take back our neighborhoods from drug traffickers and criminals, and give these communities breathing room.   That allows us to deploy the other tools we have to fight drug abuse:  treatment and prevention....

The best thing we can do is to keep people from ever abusing drugs in the first place.  Our nation must once again send a clear message:  illegal drug use is dangerous and deadly.  We know for a fact it destroys lives — just look around you.

Education does work.  We won’t end this epidemic in a week, or a month, or a year.  This will be a huge undertaking, both here in West Virginia and across our great country.  We must use all the tools we have: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention programs.  

May 11, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

New buzz about AG Sessions considering new tougher charging guidance for federal prosecutors

I had the great honor and privilege tp speak earlier today to a terrific group of judges, along with a terrific lawyer from the US Sentencing Commissions, about federal sentencing trends and developments.  We started the discussion with a particular focus on drug cases, and I mentioned that I was expecting to see new, probably tougher, charging guidelines emerging from the Department of Justice under its new leadership.  This new Washington Post article, headlined "Sessions weighs return to harsher punishments for low-level drug crimes," suggests my informed speculation here may quite soon be reality. Here are excerpts from the piece:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing policy changes set in place by the Obama administration that eliminated harsh punishments for low-level drug crimes and could direct federal prosecutors to again charge drug offenders with crimes carrying the most severe penalties, according to U.S. officials.

The change, if adopted, would overturn a memo by then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. that instructed prosecutors to avoid charging low-level defendants with drug offenses that would trigger severe mandatory minimum sentences. Only defendants who met certain criteria, such as not belonging to a large-scale drug trafficking organization, a gang or a cartel, qualified for the lesser charges under Holder’s instructions.

If new charging instructions are implemented, it would mark the first significant move by the Trump administration to bring back the drug war’s toughest practices — methods that had fallen out of favor in recent years as critics pointed to damaging effects of mass incarceration.

“As the Attorney General has consistently said, we are reviewing all Department of Justice policies to focus on keeping Americans safe and will be issuing further guidance and support to our prosecutors executing this priority — including an updated memorandum on charging for all criminal cases,” Ian Prior, a department spokesman, in a statement to The Washington Post.

Sessions has recently peppered his speeches to law enforcement groups throughout the country with tough-on-crime rhetoric and urged Justice Department lawyers to prosecute more drug and gun cases.

The attorney general is considering having his prosecutors bring the most severe charges against drug traffickers, whether they are low-level defendants or not, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Sessions also may allow prosecutors to use more “enhancements” to make sentences even longer. Under what’s referred to as “Section 851” of the Controlled Substances Act, defendants charged with a federal drug, firearm or immigration crime may face enhancements if they have previously been convicted of a felony drug offense.

Holder told his prosecutors four years ago that they should stop using enhancements except in certain cases — such as when the defendant was involved in the use or threat of violence — in an effort, he said, to make punishments more fairly fit the crime.

Holder’s changes came in August 2013 during a growing push among lawmakers and civil rights groups to roll back the strict charging and sentencing policies created in the 1980s and 1990s at the height of the war on drugs. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was one of the sponsors of bipartisan criminal-justice legislation that would have reduced some of the mandatory minimum sentences for gun and drug crimes — a bill that Sessions opposed and helped derail....

The Holder memo was also supported by many of the U.S. attorneys in the Obama administration. But some prosecutors across the country fought Holder’s broad effort to eliminate mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenders, saying it damaged their ability to build cases from the ground up against major drug organizations.

As I noted in this post a few months ago, the new Attorney General has already issued directives that lead me to suspect that we would be seeing a formal new "Sessions Memo" that seeks to remove some of the "play in the joints" that former AG Eric Holder introduced through prior charging memorandum issued back in 2010 and 2013. Indeed, I have been a bit surprised we have not yet seen new directives from AG Sessions yet in this arena, and this new Post article leads me to suspect a Sessions Memo could be coming out any day now.

UPDATE:  This New York Times article, headlined "Sessions to Toughen Rules on Prosecuting Drug Crimes," suggests that new charging guidance from AG Sessions could be released any day now.  Here is a key paragraph from the article that provides additional context for this important coming federal criminal justice development:

Current and former government officials have said for weeks that Mr. Sessions’s new policy could come at any time. They said Tuesday that they expected to see it finalized shortly, and Mr. Sessions himself has foreshadowed the announcement this year, calling for a return to tougher federal charging policies in speeches and issuing memos telling prosecutors to anticipate policy shifts.

May 9, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, May 05, 2017

Might Prez Trump conduct something of a federal "drug war" retreat through major budget cuts?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this notable new CBS News article headlined "Trump administration proposes massive cuts to Drug Czar office."  Here are the details:

The Trump administration is looking to slash the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) budget by nearly 95 percent, according to a memo obtained by CBS News.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has proposed major ONDCP budget cuts for fiscal year 2018 that would cut 33 employees, nearly half the office staff, along with intelligence, research and budget functions at the agency, as well as the Model State Drug Laws and Drug Court grant programs....

The document also zeroes out funding to a number of grant programs including the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program and the Drug-free Communities Support Program.  These grants are "duplicative of other efforts across the Federal government and supplant State and local responsibilities," the memo states.

HIDTA serves as a catalyst for coordination among federal state and local enforcement entities, and funds task forces in 49 states across the country.  It is considered a vital tool used by law enforcement agencies to go after very high profile drug dealers and conduct in-depth interagency investigations.  The drug free communities support program is the nation's largest drug prevention program and funds 5,000 local anti-drug community coalitions across the country.  This program has also enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order last month to create a presidential commission to tackle the national opioid [crisis], chaired by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  The Order stated that the ONDCP would be providing support for the Commission.  "I have been encouraged by the Administration's commitment to addressing the opioid epidemic, and the President's personal engagement on the issue, both during the campaign and since he was sworn into office," the ONDCP's Acting Director, Richard Baum, wrote in an office-wide email. "However, since OMB's proposed cuts are also at odds with the fact that the President has tasked us with supporting his Commission on Combatting drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis."

"These drastic proposed cuts are frankly heartbreaking, and if carried out, would cause us to lose many good people who contribute greatly to ONDCP's mission and core activities," Baum wrote.

The staff was notified of the cuts Friday after Baum and top aides were notified of the draconian cuts last Thursday.  According to a source familiar with the discussions, Baum has been in close contact with Jared Kushner, who heads up the White House Office of American Innovation.  Baum had hoped to convince the Office of American Innovation that the ONDCP is an essential tool in combatting the opioid epidemic. The discussions did not go as planned.

"The budget process is a complex one with many moving parts," The White House said in a statement to CBS. "It would be premature for us to comment - or anyone to report - on any aspect of this ever-changing, internal discussion before the publication of the document. The President and his cabinet are working collaboratively to create a leaner, more efficient government that does more with less of tax payers' hard-earned dollars."

Due in part of some of the rhetoric used by both Prez Trump and Attorney General Sessions, there has been much talk and consternation about the prospect of the Trump Administration ramping up the federal drug war. But if these significant budget cuts become a reality, it is quite possible that the Trump Administration would be functionally doing a lot more to pull back on the drug war in his first Term than did President Obama during his first Term.

UPDATE: This new CBS News article, headlined "White House dismisses concerns over steep potential cuts to 'Drug Czar' office," includes new statements from White House officials suggesting any ONDCP cuts would not signal a drug war retreat as well as some informed reaction to the budget cutting talk:

A senior administration official suggested that if the White House decided to strip ONDCP of its agency mandate to coordinate collaboration between federal and local law enforcement and public health organizations, transitioning it into an office like the National Security Council or National Economic Council. The official said cuts would "by no means signal the commitment to winning the war on drugs is lessened." The senior administration official pointed to dozens of drug programs across many federal agencies as evidence that the White House is committed to anti-drug efforts, even if the ONDCP loses its ability to issue grants.

But Rafael Lemaitre, a former top spokesman for the ONDCP, countered that the reason the ONDCP was created in the first place was to coordinate these programs into one comprehensive strategy for the president. "Creating chaos at ONDCP or eliminating the agency will mean that each of the bureaucrats who run each those long list of programs and are spread out across government will have no single point of contact or direction to follow," Lemaitre said. "Efforts will be duplicated. Presidential priorities won't be followed. Ineffective programs will continue."...

Scores of former government officials, doctors, community based organizations, law enforcement officials and officials at drug treatment and prevention programs agree. In a letter to senior White House adviser Reed Cordish, dozens called on the White House to maintain ONDCP's funding and strong national influence.

"As we have written before, ONDCP brings essential expertise to the table on complex drug issues, expertise that would otherwise be missing or dispersed across multiple agencies," the letter states. "ONDCP holds all federal, state, and local agencies accountable for achieving specific goals to reduce drug trafficking, use, and other consequences."

Kevin Sabet, the head of Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a three-time ONDCP adviser who distributed the letter, did not mince words. "To slash anti-drug finding during this opiate and marijuana crisis is exactly the wrong move at the wrong time," he said. 

May 5, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16)

Stories of severe federal sentences and the judges forced to impose them

Two different news sources this morning have these two equally interesting pieces about federal sentencing practices and federal judges struggling with their sentencing responsibilities:

May 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Florida legislative debate provides interesting sign of the modern mandatory-minimum drug sentencing times

This new local article from Florida, headlined "Steube bill aimed at curbing overdoses sparks drug sentencing debate," highlights how legislators even in traditionally "tough" states are starting to have much more nuanced discussions about mandatory minimum sentencing proposals. Here are the interesting details:

Legislation aimed at tackling the opioid epidemic in Florida sparked a debate about mandatory minimum drug sentences in the state Senate Tuesday, prompting an amendment that put the measure sponsored by two Southwest Florida lawmakers in jeopardy.

Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, have been pushing a bill that would establish penalties for the possession of large amounts of fentanyl — a powerful synthetic opioid often laced with heroin — and its many derivatives.  Manatee and Sarasota counties were the top two communities in the state for fentanyl-related deaths per capita in 2015, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.  Fentanyl was responsible for 911 deaths across Florida in 2015, and continues to be a major health crisis across the state.

But mandatory minimum drug sentences have come under increasing scrutiny nationwide and there is bipartisan concern in the Florida Legislature about what many lawmakers view as overly harsh sentencing laws.  The fentanyl bill — with the mandatory minimums included — already has passed the House, but both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate took aim at the sentencing aspect of the bill Tuesday.

The Senate amended the bill — over Steube’s objections — to strip out the mandatory minimums, which included at least three years in jail for possession of between four and 14 grams, at least 15 years for possession of between 14 and 28 grams and at least 25 years for possession of more than 28 grams. That amendment may kill the bill. Boyd does not seem inclined to push for it now, saying in a text message: “I don’t believe the bill deals with this deadly opioid problem” as amended.

Boyd said if the House takes up the Senate bill he would seek to strip off the sentencing amendment. But that likely would keep it from clearing the Senate. Steube noted that the amended legislation still makes possession of large amounts of fentanyl a crime for the first time.  “We’re still taking — in my opinion — a good step in the right direction,” Steube said of the amended bill.

The Senate debate showed the appetite within the chamber for criminal justice reform, an issue that has been championed by Republican Senate President Joe Negron.

Some lawmakers argued that any reforms tackling mandatory minimum sentences should be done in a comprehensive way and that the fentanyl bill was not the right place to start the discussion. “I have some concerns about how we have these bills come along and we put minimum mandatories on them every year,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. But Bradley added that the Senate needs to have a “global discussion” about the issue and argued against the amendment.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, countered that “it’s the right conversation to have because minimum mandatories don’t work in my opinion.”  Judges need to have discretion over when to crack down and when to show leniency added Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. Tough drug sentencing laws can destroy lives, he said.

Steube said he is sympathetic to concerns about mandatory minimums but believes reform efforts should start with a drug such as marijuana that is not deadly.  “I certainly didn’t want this bill to be the bill that’s talked about,” he said.

The amendment was proposed by Sen. Randolph Bracy, one of the few Democrats in the chamber to chair a committee.  The Orlando lawmaker was not expecting the amendment to generate such a robust debate.  He hopes to address the issue of mandatory minimums in a broad way in his committee next year.

May 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Highlighting prosecutorial efforts to prevent rolling back of mandatory minimums

This new Slate article highlights the state of debate over mandatory minimums in various states.  The piece is headlined "Mandatory Minimums Don’t Make Us Safer: Many states are realizing this and changing the rules.  But district attorneys seem intent on blocking the progress." Here is how it gets started:

Mandatory minimum sentences are among the most lasting and damaging result of previous eras of draconian drug policy.  They include, for example, laws requiring at least two years in prison for all drug crimes within 1,000 feet of a school.  Enforcement can lead to irrational outcomes, locking people up for very minor crimes and stripping away discretion from judges.

Moreover, research has shown that tough-on-crime policies like mandatory minimums have not been effective at reducing crime.  Instead, mandatory minimum laws have been shown to cause expanded racial disparities in sentencing.  States that shifted away from minimums have seen lower prison populations and bigger cost savings. And all 17 states that decreased their prison populations over the last decade saw a reduction in crime rates.

Many states are leading the charge in doing away with mandatory minimum laws.  From Massachusetts to Iowa to Florida, momentum has grown in state legislatures this year to rewrite laws that guarantee long sentences for low-level offenders.  The reform has, in most places, won broad bipartisan support, from elected officials, judges, advocacy groups on the right and the left, and law enforcement officials.

One of the only major groups to consistently oppose reforming mandatory minimums is district attorneys.  In almost every state considering reform, local DAs and DA associations have lined up against it, arguing that reducing mandatory sentences would lead to an upswing in drug abuse.  No matter that this fearmongering is likely untrue.  The national scare over opioid use and overdose is fueling the district attorneys’ campaign for tougher drug laws.

The district attorneys claim they need the threat of a long, mandatory sentence as leverage to cajole defendants into pleading guilty to lower crimes and that mandatory minimums ensure a measure of consistency in sentencing.

Boil away this rhetoric and you get to the heart of the argument: “It’s all about power,” said Kevin Ring, the president of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  “Mandatory minimums have given DAs — who already had unreviewable charging authority — the ability to pick sentences and cut judges out of the picture.”

The article goes on the discuss developments and debates over mandatory minimums in Massachusetts, Iowa, Nebraska, Florida and Pennsylvania.  And, as regular readers know, this dynamic has also been on full display in the federal system in recent years where various current and former prosecutors (including the current Attorney General) have been the loudest voices opposing proposed federal statutory reforms seeking to reduce the severity of mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenses.

May 2, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 27, 2017

"Mandatory Minimum Policy Reform and the Sentencing of Crack Cocaine Defendants: An Analysis of the Fair Sentencing Act"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by David Bjerk just published by the Journal of Empirical Studies. Here is the abstract:

The Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) affected the U.S. federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine offenders, and represented the first congressional reform of sentencing laws in over 20 years.  A primary goal of this legislation was to lessen the harshness of sentences for crack cocaine offenders and decrease the sentencing gap between crack defendants and powder cocaine defendants.  While the mean sentence length for crack offenders fell following the implementation of the FSA, these changes appear to primarily reflect the continuation of ongoing sentencing trends that were initiated by a variety of noncongressional reforms to federal sentencing policy that commenced around 2007.  However, the FSA appears to have been helpful in allowing these trends to continue past 2010.

April 27, 2017 in Booker in district courts, Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Noting reasons for the recent drop in the federal prison population mitigating overcrowding at BOP facilities

The US Courts yesterday posted this notable short piece under the heading "Policy Shifts Reduce Federal Prison Population." The piece details the significant decline in the federal prison population in the last few years and also highlights reasons for it:

A decline in the number of federal prosecutions and in the severity of sentences for drug-related crime in recent years has resulted in a significant drop in the federal prison population, according to statistics from the Judiciary, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).

The federal prison population fell from a peak of nearly 219,300 inmates in 2013 to 188,800 in April 2017, a nearly 14 percent reduction, according to BOP statistics.  The decrease reflects a dramatic shift in federal policies away from stiff penalties for drug trafficking and other drug-related offenses in recent years.  It also has mitigated overcrowding at BOP facilities -- the inmate population, once at 37 percent overcapacity, is now at 13 percent overcapacity.

Changes in sentencing guidelines are a major contributor to the inmate population decline.  In 2011, the USSC implemented lower crack cocaine penalties in line with the Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress the year before.  The new guidelines were made retroactive, which resulted in the release of prisoners who had already served their time under the new guidelines.  Because drug crimes account for nearly a third of all criminal filings in federal courts, changes in drug sentences have a big impact on the federal prison population....  In 2014, the commission took the step of cutting the length of sentences for all drug trafficking offenses, not just crack cocaine.  Sentences were reduced by about 25 percent, and the changes were also made retroactive....

Other factors contributing to the decreasing prisoner population:

• Federal prosecutions for all crimes have declined over the past five years.  Criminal cases were brought against 77,357 defendants in fiscal year 2016, the lowest total since fiscal 1998, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.  Last year, 67,742 defendants were convicted and sentenced, compared to 86,201 in 2011, the USSC reports.  However, the trend could slow or reverse in the coming months as new Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration step up prosecutions of drug-related crime and immigration offenses.

• Two Supreme Court rulings since 2015 resulted in sentence reductions for about 1,200 inmates.  The court in Johnson v. United States found that one of the definitions of a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague.  A subsequent high court decision made the Johnson ruling retroactive, which prompted thousands of prisoners to petition for review of their cases.  Many of those cases are still under review by the lower courts.

April 26, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, April 23, 2017

"I used to support legalizing all drugs. Then the opioid epidemic happened."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Vox commentary authored by German Lopez.  I recommend the piece in full even though I take issue with some of its particulars.  Here are some extended excerpts:

In terms of overdoses, the opioid epidemic is deadlier than any other drug crisis in US history — more than crack, meth, and any other heroin epidemic. In total, more than 560,000 people in the US died to drug overdoses between 1999 and 2015 (the latest year of data available) — a death toll larger than the entire population of Atlanta. And while many of these deaths are now linked to illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl, the source of the epidemic — what got people started on a chain to harder drugs — was opioid painkillers, and legal painkillers are still linked to most opioid overdose deaths.

This was exactly what anti-legalization activists have warned about: Companies got a hold of a dangerous, addictive product, marketed it irresponsibly, and lobbied for lax rules. The government’s regulatory response floundered. The government even worked with the drug companies in some cases — under the influence of lobbying, campaign donations, and drugmaker-funded advocacy groups. And people got addicted and died.

Looking at this crisis, it slowly but surely dawned on me: Maybe full legalization isn’t the right answer to the war on drugs. Maybe the US just can’t handle regulating these potentially deadly substances in a legal environment. Maybe some form of prohibition — albeit a less stringent kind than what we have today — is the way to go.

I should be clear: I am talking about the legalization of harder drugs, so none of this applies to marijuana legalization. While there are real concerns with pot dependence and people doing stupid things on weed, my perspective is that it’s such a relatively harmless drug, according to the best scientific evidence, that the government can afford to screw it up. Especially since the alternative is a prohibition regime that leads to hundreds of thousands of needless arrests in the US each year and fosters violence as traffickers fight over turf or settle other beefs related to the drug trade.

But with the harder drugs, there’s a lot of room to mess up — as the opioid epidemic demonstrates....

Consider the US statistics: In 2015, drug overdoses killed more than 52,000 people, and more than 33,000 of those deaths were linked to opioids. That’s much more than the number of people who died to homicides: nearly 18,000 in 2015, only some of which were linked to violence in the war on drugs. Based on these figures, the legal drug led to a crisis that is killing way more people than black market–related violence possibly could.

while it is true that there are other metrics for suffering under prohibition (such as arrests), the same also applies for the opioid epidemic: There are a lot of people suffering from addiction, along with their friends, family, and broader community, yet haven’t overdosed and may never die of an overdose.

So while it’s hard to draw a perfect comparison in terms of overall suffering, the opioid epidemic, at the very least, seems to be much deadlier than violence related to drug prohibition is in the US.

Still, it’s hard to deny that the current model of prohibition has serious costs. Just like lenient regulation through legalization is dangerous, so too is excessive regulation — via punishment — through prohibition. There’s really little argument that America has been excessive in its punishment: the harsh mandatory minimum sentences, the three-strikes laws that can get someone life for drugs, and the ridiculous probation and parole rules that can get someone thrown back into prison for little more than possession. Not only can these measures cause a lot of human misery, but they also seem to be totally ineffective for actually deterring drug use.

The research is clear on this point: Severity of punishment does little to nothing to deter crime. In particular, a 2014 study from Peter Reuter at the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack at the University of Chicago found there’s no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of driving down access to drugs and substance abuse than lighter penalties. So increasing the severity of the punishment doesn’t do much, if anything, to slow the flow of drugs.

As drug policy experts emphasized in a piece I reported out in 2016, there’s a lot of room for the US to relax its severity of punishment before legalization. One possibility is essentially the Portuguese model: Drugs are decriminalized for personal use, so you can’t be punished with prison time merely for possessing or using illegal substances like cocaine and heroin. But the drugs remain illegal for big companies to produce and sell for profit — effectively stopping the kind of commercialization that’s spurred the tobacco, alcohol, and opioid epidemics....

This milder form of prohibition isn’t a perfect solution. I don’t think there is a perfect solution. As with many policy debates, this is really about picking between a bunch of unsatisfactory options. Faced with an excessively harsh criminal justice system and a legal industry that carelessly causes drug epidemics, I have come down somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

As Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University, once told me, “There's always choices. There is no framework available in which there's not harm somehow. We’ve got freedom, pleasure, health, crime, and public safety. You can push on one and two of those — maybe even three with different drugs — but you can’t get rid of all of them. You have to pay the piper somewhere.” After witnessing the opioid epidemic firsthand, I have learned this lesson all too well — and I am genuinely scared of how America would pay for full legalization.;

April 23, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

US Sentencing Commission conducting public hearing with testimony on alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs

As detailed on this USSC webpage, the United States Sentencing Commission in now conducting a public hearing through early this afternoon. As the page details, "the purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to receive testimony on alternatives to incarceration programs in the federal court system. The Commission will also receive testimony from experts on synthetic drugs, including their chemical structure, pharmacological effects, trafficking patterns, and community impact."  The hearing is being streamed live here.

This webpage with the USSC hearing agenda has links to written testimony from all the scheduled witnesses, and this testimony provide a wealth of information and research about alternatives to incarceration and synthetic drugs.

April 18, 2017 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

"Four Decades and Counting: The Continued Failure of the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute authored by Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall. Here is the 28-page document's Executive Summary:

Private individuals and policymakers often utilize prohibition as a means of controlling the sale, manufacture, and consumption of particular goods.  While the Eighteenth Amendment, which was passed and subsequently repealed in the early 20th century, is often regarded as the first major prohibition in the United States, it certainly was not the last.  The War on Drugs, begun under President Richard Nixon, continues to utilize policies of prohibition to achieve a variety of objectives.

Proponents of drug prohibition claim that such policies reduce drug-related crime, decrease drug-related disease and overdose, and are an effective means of disrupting and dismantling organized criminal enterprises.

We analyze the theoretical underpinnings of these claims, using tools and insights from economics, and explore the economics of prohibition and the veracity of proponent claims by analyzing data on overdose deaths, crime, and cartels.  Moreover, we offer additional insights through an analysis of U.S. international drug policy utilizing data from U.S. drug policy in Afghanistan.  While others have examined the effect of prohibition on domestic outcomes, few have asked how these programs impact foreign policy outcomes.

We conclude that prohibition is not only ineffective, but counterproductive, at achieving the goals of policymakers both domestically and abroad.  Given the insights from economics and the available data, we find that the domestic War on Drugs has contributed to an increase in drug overdoses and fostered and sustained the creation of powerful drug cartels. Internationally, we find that prohibition not only fails in its own right, but also actively undermines the goals of the Global War on Terror.

April 13, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentencing around the world | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Reviewing the "tough-and-tougher" sentencing perspectives of those now leading the Justice Department

The Washington Post has this extended new article reviewing a lot of the old tough-on-crime comments by AG Jeff Sessions and his new right-hand man, Steve Cook.  The article is headlined "How Jeff Sessions wants to bring back the war on drugs," and here is how it gets started (with one important phrase emphasized at the end):

When the Obama administration launched a sweeping policy to reduce harsh prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, rave reviews came from across the political spectrum. Civil rights groups and the Koch brothers praised Obama for his efforts, saying he was making the criminal justice system more humane.

But there was one person who watched these developments with some horror. Steven H. Cook, a former street cop who became a federal prosecutor based in Knoxville, Tenn., saw nothing wrong with how the system worked — not the life sentences for drug charges, not the huge growth of the prison population.  And he went everywhere — Bill O’Reilly’s show on Fox News, congressional hearings, public panels — to spread a different gospel. “The federal criminal justice system simply is not broken. In fact, it’s working exactly as designed,” Cook said at a criminal justice panel at The Washington Post last year.

The Obama administration largely ignored Cook, who was then president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.  But he won’t be overlooked anymore. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has brought Cook into his inner circle at the Justice Department, appointing him to be one of his top lieutenants to help undo the criminal justice policies of Obama and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.  As Sessions has traveled to different cities to preach his tough-on-crime philosophy, Cook has been at his side.

Sessions has yet to announce specific policy changes, but Cook’s new perch speaks volumes about where the Justice Department is headed. Law enforcement officials say that Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ’90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.

Crime is near historic lows in the United States, but Sessions says that the spike in homicides in several cities, including Chicago, is a harbinger of a “dangerous new trend” in America that requires a tough response.  “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad,” Sessions said to law enforcement officials in a speech in Richmond last month. “It will destroy your life.”

Advocates of criminal justice reform argue that Sessions and Cook are going in the wrong direction — back to a strategy that tore apart families and sent low-level drug offenders, disproportionately minority citizens, to prison for long sentences.  “They are throwing decades of improved techniques and technologies out the window in favor of a failed approach,” said Kevin Ring, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

But Cook, whose views are supported by other federal prosecutors, sees himself as a dedicated assistant U.S. attorney who for years has tried to protect neighborhoods ravaged by crime.  He has called FAMM and organizations like it “anti-law enforcement groups.”  

The records of Cook and Sessions show that while others have grown eager in recent years to rework the criminal justice system, they have repeatedly fought to keep its toughest edges, including winning a battle in Congress last year to defeat a reform bill.  “If hard-line means that my focus is on protecting communities from violent felons and drug traffickers, then I’m guilty,” Cook said in a recent interview with The Post.  “I don’t think that’s hard-line. I think that’s exactly what the American people expect of their Department of Justice.”

The phrase I have stressed above is the phrase that ultimately matters most for the foreseeable future of the federal criminal justice system.  Though the Attorney General and others senior DOJ officials can and will define and shape the basic policies for federal charging and sentencing, it is local federal prosecutors around the nation who really determine how these policies get implemented and who, collectively, have the greatest impact on prosecutorial and punishment practices.  And I surmise that a whole lot of federal prosecutors — not all, but many and perhaps most — embrace the "tough-on-crime" philosophy that AG Sessions espouses more than the "smart-on-crime" mantra that former AG Holder eventually espoused. 

April 9, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

AG Sessions talks again about "the challenge of violent crime and drugs" and about support for law enforcement

Jeff-sessions-attorney-general-630x354The Department of Justice now has posted here an extended speech delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions today in Richmond, Virginia (which just happens to be where I am headed tomorrow for a faculty workshop).  Those who have been following what AG Sessions has been saying in recent months (and really throughout his whole career) will likely not find anything all that new or surprising in this latest speech.  Nevertheless, I still found the entire speech and especially the following passages worth flagging in this space.  And I have highlight two particular sentences in the discussion of drugs that I have not previously seen and that could and perhaps should capture a lot of attention:

First, we should keep in mind some context. Overall, crime rates in our country remain near historic lows. Murder rates are half of what they were in 1980.  The rate of violent crime has fallen by almost half from its peak....  In the past four decades, we have won great victories against crime in America. This happened under leadership from both political parties, and thanks above all to the work of prosecutors and good police using data-driven methods and professional training.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans are alive today as a result.

But in the last two years, we’ve seen warning signs that this progress is now at risk.  The latest FBI data tell us that from 2014 to 2015, the violent crime rate in the U.S. increased by more than 3 percent — the largest one-year increase since 1991. The murder rate increased 10 percent — the largest increase since 1968.  And all of this is taking place amid an unprecedented epidemic of heroin and opioid abuse....

My fear is that this surge in violent crime is not a “blip,” but the start of a dangerous new trend.  I worry that we risk losing the hard-won gains that have made America a safer and more prosperous place.  While we can hope for the best, we can’t afford to be complacent.  When crime rates move in the wrong direction, they can move quickly....

Last month the President gave us clear direction, issuing three executive orders that direct the federal government to reduce crime and restore public safety. This task will be a top priority of the Department of Justice during my time as Attorney General. I’d like to talk briefly about how we’re tackling this challenge.

First, we’re making sure the federal government focuses our resources and efforts on this surge in violent crime.  Two weeks ago, I announced the formation of a Department of Justice Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety. It includes crime reduction experts from throughout the Department of Justice, including the heads of the FBI, the ATF, the DEA and the U.S. Marshals Service.  The task force will evaluate everything we are doing at the federal level.

Second: We need to use every lawful tool we have to get the most violent offenders off our streets. In recent years, we have seen a significant shift in the priority given to prosecuting firearms offenders at the federal level.  This trend will end.  This Department of Justice will systematically prosecute criminals who use guns in committing crimes....

Third: To turn back this rising tide of violent crime, we need to confront the heroin and opioid crisis in our nation — and dismantle the transnational cartels that bring drugs and violence into our neighborhoods.

Our nation is in the throes of a heroin and opioid epidemic.  Overdose deaths more than tripled between 2010 and 2014.  According to the CDC, about 140 Americans on average now die from a drug overdose each day.  That means every three weeks, we are losing as many American lives to drug overdoses as we lost in the 9/11 attacks.  Illegal drugs are flooding across our southern border and into cities across our country, bringing violence, addiction, and misery.  We have also seen an increase in the trafficking of new, low-cost heroin by Mexican drug cartels working with local street gangs.  As the market for this heroin expands, gangs fight for territory and new customers and neighborhoods are caught in the crossfire.

There are three main ways to fight the scourge of drugs: criminal enforcement, treatment and prevention.  Criminal enforcement is essential to stop both the transnational cartels that ship drugs into our country, and the thugs and gangs who use violence and extortion to move their product.  One of the President’s executive orders directed the Justice Department to dismantle these organizations and gangs — and we will do just that.

Treatment programs are also vital. But treatment often comes too late to save people from addiction or death.  So we need to focus on the third way we can fight drug use: preventing people from ever taking drugs in the first place.

I realize this may be an unfashionable belief in a time of growing tolerance of drug use.  But too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable.  I reject the idea that America will be a better place if marijuana is sold in every corner store.  And I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana — so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful. Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life.

In the ’80s and ’90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction.  We can do this again. Educating people and telling them the terrible truth about drugs and addiction will result in better choices. We can reduce the use of drugs, save lives and turn back the surge in crime that inevitably follows in the wake of increased drug abuse.

Finally: The federal government alone cannot meet the challenge of violent crime and drugs — so we need to protect and support our brave men and women in law enforcement. About 85 percent of all law enforcement officers in our nation are not federal, but state and local. These are the men and women on the front lines — the ones doing most of the tough and often dangerous work that keeps our neighborhoods safe....

The new challenge of violent crime in our nation is real — and the task that lies before us is clear. We need to resist the temptation to ignore or downplay this crisis. Instead, we must tackle it head-on, to ensure justice and safety for all Americans. We will enforce our laws and put bad men behind bars. We will fight the scourge of drug abuse. And we will support the brave men and women of law enforcement, as they work day and night to protect us. Together, let us act to meet this challenge, so that our children will not look back and say that we let slip from our grasp all we had done to make America a safer place.

I find it quite interesting and significant that AG Sessions, in the first sentence highlighted above, has highlighted the severity of the current US drug problem in term of the number of deaths caused by the worst and deadliest terrorist attack in US history.  The decision to frame the problem in these terms reveals just how seriously the Attorney General sees the problem, and I am in some sense inclined to respect and applaud this framing in part because I fear a lot of people who have not been directly touched by the modern opioid epidemic do not fully appreciate how many lives are being lost to it.

Ironically, though, the kind of wise intensity I see reflected in the first sentence highlighted above is undercut but what strikes me as a misguided intensity reflected in the second sentence highlighted above.  Because tens of thousands of individuals are dying for opioid overdoses and nobody dies from a marijuana overdoes, it make a whole lot of sense to me that a whole lot of people would see a whole lot of value in encouraging people to trade an opioid dependency for a marijuana dependency.  (And this simple analysis, of course, leaves out the statistically reality that the vast majority of people who use marijuana do not become dependent on it.) 

March 15, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20)

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Deep dive into litigation over Chicago “Stash House Stings”

Because the President of the United States has often expressed concerning about crime in Chicago and has tweeted about sending in the feds, I hope the Prez and his advisers find time to check out this recent lengthy Chicago Tribune article about some of the work of the feds in this city in the recent past.  The article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," merits a full read, and here is an extended taste:

For four years, Mayfield had been struggling to turn his life around after more than a decade in prison. To escape the street life, he moved to Naperville with his fiancee's family and managed to find a full-time job at a suburban electronics facility that paid 12 bucks an hour. It was there that a co-worker lured him into the robbery after weeks of effort, promising a big score.

Now, inside the police vehicle, the sounds of flash-bang grenades still ringing in his ears, Mayfield started to piece it all together. There was no stash house, no cartel drugs or associates to rob. It was a crime dreamed up by federal authorities and carried out with the help of Mayfield's co-worker to reel him in when he was at his most vulnerable.

Eight years later, Mayfield, 48, and dozens of others are at the center of a brewing legal battle in Chicago's federal court over whether the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' signature sting operation used racial bias in finding its many targets.

A team of lawyers led by the University of Chicago Law School is seeking to dismiss charges against more than 40 defendants in Chicago. The undercover probes, a staple of the ATF since the mid-1990s, have ensnared hundreds of defendants across the country. A recently unsealed study by a nationally renowned expert concluded that ATF showed a clear pattern of racial bias in picking its targets for the drug stings. The disparity between minority and white defendants was so large that there was "a zero percent likelihood" it happened by chance, the study found.

The vast majority of those swept up in the stings in Chicago were minorities, and a close examination of the criminal backgrounds of some of those targeted raises questions about whether they were truly the most dangerous gun offenders whom ATF was aiming to remove from the street.

Some had trouble even coming up with guns to do the job — including one crew that after months of preparation managed to find only one World War I-era pistol with a broken handle that could barely fire a round. Others had no history of carrying out high-risk armed robberies — a key provision in the ATF playbook designed to make sure targets were legitimate, defense lawyers argued in recent court filings....

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors filed a lengthy motion vehemently disputing that minorities were unfairly targeted in the stash house cases, saying the expert report filed by the defense was "riddled with false assumptions that were designed to manufacture a racial disparity where none exists." The dispute sets up what could be an unprecedented hearing at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in the coming months involving a panel of district judges hearing the multiple criminal cases at once.

"It's almost like a criminal class action," said Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, which represents most of the defendants in the dozen cases they are seeking to be dismissed. "Judges are seeing this as a coordinated litigation. It's a very unusual situation."...

According to the ATF, stash house stings are a key part of the agency's national effort to target people who "show a propensity of doing harm to the public through violent behavior." Launched in Miami during the cocaine-war days of the early 1990s, the stings have been honed over the years and are run by experienced agents who use a tightly controlled playbook.

They typically begin when an informant provides the ATF information about a potential target who has expressed interest in taking part in a robbery. The informant then introduces the target to an undercover agent who poses as a disgruntled courier for a drug cartel and offers an opportunity to steal large quantities of drugs from a stash house guarded by men with guns.

In a series of conversations captured on undercover wire, the target is told if he is interested he must assemble an armed team to commit the robbery. The target and his crew are arrested after they show up on the day of the supposed crime. "At the time of arrest, the home invasion defendants are poised, at any moment, to invade a stash house, steal kilograms of cocaine guarded by armed cartel members, and in the process, kill or be killed," prosecutors wrote in their recent court filing.

In order to avoid arguments of entrapment in court, the stings are supposed to target only established robbery groups. ATF criteria also require that at least two of the participants have violent backgrounds and that all must be criminally active at the time the investigation is launched. Not only were the operations a boon for the ATF but the resulting prosecutions also netted eye-popping sentences — sometimes up to life in prison — in part because defendants were criminally liable for the amount of imaginary drugs they believed they were stealing. It didn't matter that the robbery was fake or that no drugs actually existed....

The lengthy sentences were just one pattern that raised red flags for the criminal defense bar. In case after case, the ATF stings seemed to be targeting only minorities. In early 2013, a handful of private attorneys and assistant federal defenders, all veterans at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, were so troubled by a stash house case they were defending that they asked the U.S. attorney's office for a complete list of all the defendants in similar cases sorted by race. Prosecutors rebuffed this admittedly unorthodox request. "ATF does not maintain statistics on the nature in question at either the local or national level," Assistant U.S. Attorney Philip Fluhr wrote in response, court records show.

The defense lawyers then asked the judge overseeing the case to order prosecutors to turn over detailed information on how the stash house stings are run and the race of the defendants who had been charged so far. They included their own research showing more minorities were targeted. Prosecutors strenuously objected. But a few months later, U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo allowed the discovery to go forward. "History has shown a continuing difficult intersection between the issue of race and the enforcement of our nation's criminal laws," wrote Castillo, concluding that the defense team had "made a strong showing of potential bias."

Similar motions in other stash house cases soon followed, but the effort to prove racial bias was being made case-by-case with no coordination. Then in 2014, the University of Chicago's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic agreed to focus all its efforts on the 12 stash house cases and their 43 defendants. This allowed the defense attorneys to address the alleged racial bias in a coordinated effort, a critical undertaking given the government's massive resources, the attorneys said....

As the movement to fight the stash house cases gathered steam among defense attorneys, the judiciary also weighed in with some key decisions. In November 2014, the full 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals granted Mayfield a new trial in a rare decision that concluded Potts had "targeted Mayfield at a moment of acute financial need and against a backdrop of prolonged difficulty finding permanent, family-supporting work."

In a 2012 dissenting opinion as the case was winding through the court, appellate Judge Richard Posner had put an even finer point on it, referring to the stings as a "disreputable tactic" that used government informants to target people at a vulnerable time in their lives. Meanwhile, another ruling in July 2015 by the appellate court in Chicago resulted in the government turning over more data on the stash house stings sought by the defense. The ruling allowed the defendants to move ahead with what is believed to be the most thorough analysis of the stings anywhere in the country....

The debate is now potentially headed for a court hearing involving all defendants. The outcome could set precedent for judges in other states. "Courts tend to give law enforcement a lot of leeway," said University of California-Irvine law professor Katharine Tinto, a criminal law expert who has written extensively about the stash house stings. "… The fact that an expert is saying a federal law enforcement agency is discriminating on the basis of race is something everybody should be watching."

March 5, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Disconcerting review of modern America highlighting impacts of opioid epidemic and mass criminal enforcement

March_2017_CoverA helpful reader highlighted to me this extended article from Commentary by Nicholas Eberstadt that covers a lot of (depressing) ground about modern realities in the United States.  The full title of the piece highlights its themes: "Our Miserable 21st Century: From work to income to health to social mobility, the year 2000 marked the beginning of what has become a distressing era for the United States." I recommend the full article for lots of reasons (especially for those still struggling to figure out why so many folks were inclined to vote for Prez Trump), and here snippets of passages that struck me as particularly interesting for those concerned with modern opioid problem and broader criminal justice realities:

The opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroin that has been ravaging and shortening lives from coast to coast is a new plague for our new century. The terrifying novelty of this particular drug epidemic, of course, is that it has gone (so to speak) “mainstream” this time, effecting breakout from disadvantaged minority communities to Main Street White America. By 2013, according to a 2015 report by the Drug Enforcement Administration, more Americans died from drug overdoses (largely but not wholly opioid abuse) than from either traffic fatalities or guns. The dimensions of the opioid epidemic in the real America are still not fully appreciated within the bubble, where drug use tends to be more carefully limited and recreational. In Dreamland, his harrowing and magisterial account of modern America’s opioid explosion, the journalist Sam Quinones notes in passing that “in one three-month period” just a few years ago, according to the Ohio Department of Health, “fully 11 percent of all Ohioans were prescribed opiates.” And of course many Americans self-medicate with licit or illicit painkillers without doctors’ orders.

In the fall of 2016, Alan Krueger, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, released a study that further refined the picture of the real existing opioid epidemic in America: According to his work, nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts — an army now totaling roughly 7 million men — currently take pain medication on a daily basis....

But how did so many millions of un-working men, whose incomes are limited, manage en masse to afford a constant supply of pain medication? Oxycontin is not cheap. As Dreamland carefully explains, one main mechanism today has been the welfare state: more specifically, Medicaid, Uncle Sam’s means-tested health-benefits program.... In 21st-century America, “dependence on government” has thus come to take on an entirely new meaning....

The drop in crime over the past generation has done great things for the general quality of life in much of America. There is one complication from this drama, however, that inhabitants of the bubble may not be aware of, even though it is all too well known to a great many residents of the real America. This is the extraordinary expansion of what some have termed America’s “criminal class” — the population sentenced to prison or convicted of felony offenses — in recent decades. This trend did not begin in our century, but it has taken on breathtaking enormity since the year 2000.

Most well-informed readers know that the U.S. currently has a higher share of its populace in jail or prison than almost any other country on earth, that Barack Obama and others talk of our criminal-justice process as “mass incarceration,” and know that well over 2 million men were in prison or jail in recent years. But only a tiny fraction of all living Americans ever convicted of a felony is actually incarcerated at this very moment. Quite the contrary: Maybe 90 percent of all sentenced felons today are out of confinement and living more or less among us. The reason: the basic arithmetic of sentencing and incarceration in America today. Correctional release and sentenced community supervision (probation and parole) guarantee a steady annual “flow” of convicted felons back into society to augment the very considerable “stock” of felons and ex-felons already there. And this “stock” is by now truly enormous.

One forthcoming demographic study by Sarah Shannon and five other researchers estimates that the cohort of current and former felons in America very nearly reached 20 million by the year 2010. If its estimates are roughly accurate, and if America’s felon population has continued to grow at more or less the same tempo traced out for the years leading up to 2010, we would expect it to surpass 23 million persons by the end of 2016 at the latest. Very rough calculations might therefore suggest that at this writing, America’s population of non-institutionalized adults with a felony conviction somewhere in their past has almost certainly broken the 20 million mark by the end of 2016. A little more rough arithmetic suggests that about 17 million men in our general population have a felony conviction somewhere in their CV. That works out to one of every eight adult males in America today.

We have to use rough estimates here, rather than precise official numbers, because the government does not collect any data at all on the size or socioeconomic circumstances of this population of 20 million, and never has. Amazing as this may sound and scandalous though it may be, America has, at least to date, effectively banished this huge group—a group roughly twice the total size of our illegal-immigrant population and an adult population larger than that in any state but California—to a near-total and seemingly unending statistical invisibility. Our ex-cons are, so to speak, statistical outcasts who live in a darkness our polity does not care enough to illuminate—beyond the scope or interest of public policy, unless and until they next run afoul of the law.

Thus we cannot describe with any precision or certainty what has become of those who make up our “criminal class” after their (latest) sentencing or release. In the most stylized terms, however, we might guess that their odds in the real America are not all that favorable. And when we consider some of the other trends we have already mentioned — employment, health, addiction, welfare dependence — we can see the emergence of a malign new nationwide undertow, pulling downward against social mobility.

February 25, 2017 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

US Sentencing Commission releases big new report on "Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders"

The US Sentencing Commission today released the second major report emerging from a huge assessment of federal offenders released from prison in 2005.  This USSC webpage provides this background and highlights from this 149-page data-rich report:

This report, Recidivism Among Federal Drug Trafficking Offenders examines a group of 10,888 federal drug trafficking offenders who were released in calendar year 2005. These 10,888 offenders, who were all U.S. citizens, represent 42.8 percent of the 25,431 federal offenders who were released in calendar year 2005 and analyzed in the Commission’s 2016 report, Recidivism Among Federal Offenders: A Comprehensive Overview. In the future, the Commission will release additional publications discussing specific topics concerning recidivism of federal offenders.

Chapter One summarizes the group studied in this report as well as its key findings. It also explains the methodology used in the report. Chapter Two provides an overview of the statutes and guidelines most often applicable to federal drug trafficking offenses, and reports the demographics and recidivist behavior of drug trafficking offenders as a whole. Chapters Three through Seven provide detailed information about offenders as classified by the drug types studied in this report: powder cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Chapter Eight concludes by reviewing the report’s findings.

Some highlights of the Commission’s study are that:

  • Over the eight-year follow-up period, one-half (50.0%) of federal drug trafficking offenders were rearrested (see bar chart). Of those drug trafficking offenders who recidivated, the median time to rearrest was 25 months.

  • In general, there were few clear distinctions among the five drug types studied. One exception is that crack cocaine offenders recidivated at the highest rate (60.8%) of any drug type. Recidivism rates for other drug types were between 43.8% and 50.0% (see table).

  • Nearly one-fourth (23.8%) of drug trafficking offenders who recidivated had assault as their most serious new charge followed by drug trafficking and public order offenses.

  • Federal drug trafficking offenders had a substantially lower recidivism rate compared to a cohort of state drug offenders released into the community in 2005 and tracked by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Over two-thirds (76.9%) of state drug offenders released from state prison were rearrested within five years, compared to 41.9% of federal drug trafficking offenders released from prison over the same five-year period.

  • A federal drug trafficking offender’s Criminal History Category was closely associated with the likelihood of recidivism. But note that career offenders and armed career criminals recidivated at a rate lower than drug trafficking offenders classified in Criminal History Categories IV, V, and VI. (Related data and policy recommendations are discussed in the Commission's 2016 Report to the Congress on Career Offender Sentencing Enhancements.)

  • A federal drug trafficking offender’s age at time of release into the community was also closely associated with likelihood of recidivism.

February 21, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, February 19, 2017

"I sentenced criminals to hundreds more years than I wanted to. I had no choice."

13FRISK-master675The title of this post is the headline of this recent Washington Post commentary authored by former federal judge Shira Scheindlin. Here are excerpts from a lengthy piece that merits a full read:

In my nearly 22 years as a U.S. district judge in New York, I sentenced roughly 1,000 defendants. Thankfully, not all were subject to “mandatory minimum” sentences — in which Congress has imposed a required statutory punishment for a particular crime. But many were; 145 federal crimes still require a minimum sentence, including distribution of narcotics, immigration violations and identity theft, just to name a few.

Every first-year law student learns that sentencing has four goals: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence and rehabilitation. Yet thanks mostly to the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, I was often prohibited from assessing a defendant’s history, personal characteristics or role in the offense. In sentencing, where judgment should matter most, I could not exercise my judgment. I felt more like a computer than a judge. And I was not alone. Over the years, many of my colleagues on the federal bench felt the same frustrations.

This problem upset me as soon as I was appointed in 1994. Mandatory minimums were almost always excessive, and they made me feel unethical, even dirty. After seven years, my patience had run thin and my conscience was troubled; I began to consider resigning. I sought the advice of a revered mentor, a federal judge with more than 30 years of experience. He pointed out that quitting would serve nobody, as another judge would be required to impose identical sentences anyway. He also said that if I left, the bench would lose a judge who could advocate for criminal justice reform through her decisions. So I remained. But to this day, I am pained by many of the sentences I was required by law to impose. While I bore the title “Honorable Judge,” I felt less than honorable and more like a complicit tool of an unjust system....

Judicial discretion in sentencing matters. Many judges, including me, routinely sentence below the guidelines, particularly for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. Indeed, in 2015 only 36.5 percent of all drug offenses nationwide resulted in a guideline-compliant sentences. Between 2005 and May 2016, when I retired from the bench, I sentenced more than 200 defendants convicted of narcotics offenses and imposed a lighter-than-advised sentence more than 80 percent of the time. Had I sentenced at the top of the guidelines’ range, these defendants would have served more than a millennium of additional prison time.

After I left the bench, Peter Dubrowski — my last law clerk — and I decided that we would review the sentencing protocols for each of those 200 defendants. As I expected, we found strikingly similar storylines. The overwhelming majority of the defendants were indigent. Seventy-two percent had children to support, and many of the defendants were under the age of 25 — barely adults themselves. More than half had not graduated from high school, most had not obtained a GED, and barely 5 percent had attended college. A majority battled alcohol addiction, drug addiction or both, and had begun abusing substances by age 14. Most were unemployed. Most came from single-parent homes, and most had at least one parent who was, or had been, incarcerated....

Does the length of the sentence deter people outside the courtroom from committing crimes? This is a popular idea in our country. Over time, I came to believe it is fiction. If this effect was real, my fellow judges and I would have seen narcotics arrests and prosecutions decline over the years. They never did. No young man on the street was ever deterred from criminal activity by the sentence given to a buddy. “Contrary to deterrence ideology and ‘get tough’ rhetoric,” says a report from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that studies criminal punishment, the evidence “fails to support” deterrence.

February 19, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Prez Trump talks crime and support for law enforcement with police chiefs . . . and says some interesting things

Prez Donald Trump gave this lengthy speech to a gathering of major city police chiefs, and he had a lot to say about crime and law enforcement toward its conclusion (after an extended Trumpian discussion of the litigation surrounding his travel executive order).  Here is some of what the Prez has to say on the crime front (with a few points of emphasis added based on what struck me as especially interesting):

Right now, many communities in America are facing a public safety crisis.  Murders in 2015 experienced their largest single-year increase in nearly half a century. In 2016, murders in large cities continued to climb by double digits. In many of our biggest cities, 2016 brought an increase in the number of homicides, rapes, assaults and shootings. In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone, and the rate so far this year has been even higher. What is going on in Chicago?

We cannot allow this to continue. We’ve allowed too many young lives to be claimed -- and you see that, you see that all over -- claimed by gangs, and too many neighborhoods to be crippled by violence and fear.  Sixty percent of murder victims under the age of 22 are African American. This is a national tragedy, and it requires national action. This violence must end, and we must all work together to end it.

Whether a child lives in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore, or anywhere in our country, he or she has the right to grow up in safety and in peace. No one in America should be punished because of the city where he or she is born. Every child in America should be able to play outside without fear, walk home without danger, and attend a school without being worried about drugs or gangs or violence.

So many lives and so many people have been cut short.  Their potential, their life has been cut short. So much potential has been sidelined. And so many dreams have been shattered and broken, totally broken. It’s time to stop the drugs from pouring into our country. And, by the way, we will do that. And I will say this: General, now Secretary, Kelly will be the man to do it, and we will give him a wall.  And it will be a real wall. (Applause.) And a lot of things will happen very positively for your cities, your states, believe me. The wall is getting designed right now....

It’s time to dismantle the gangs terrorizing our citizens, and it’s time to ensure that every young American can be raised in an environment of decency, dignity, love and support. You have asked for the resources, tools and support you need to get the job done. We will do whatever we can to help you meet those demands. That includes a zero tolerance policy for acts of violence against law enforcement. (Applause.)  We all see what happens. We all see what happens and what’s been happening to you. It’s not fair.

We must protect those who protect us. The number of officers shot and killed in the line of duty last year increased by 56 percent from the year before. Last year, in Dallas, police officers were targeted for execution –- think of this. Who ever heard of this? They were targeted for execution. Twelve were shot and five were killed. These heroic officers died as they lived -– protecting the innocent, rushing into danger, risking their lives for people they did not even know, but for people that they were determined to save. Hats off to you people....

[I]nstead of division and disunity -- and which is so much disunity -- we must build bridges of partnership and of trust. Those who demonize law enforcement or who use the actions of a few to discredit the service of many are hurting the very people they say that they want to help. When policing is reduced, crime is increased, and our poorest citizens suffer the most. And I see it all the time. When the number of police goes down, crime goes up.

To build needed trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve, it is not enough for us to merely talk to each other. We must listen to each other. All of us share the view that those in uniform must be held to the highest possible standard of conduct -- so important. ...

That is why our commitment to law and law enforcement also includes ensuring that we are giving departments the resources they need to train, recruit and retain talent. As part of our commitment to safe communities, we will also work to address the mental health crisis.  Prisons should not be a substitute for treatment. We will fight to increase access to life-saving treatment to battle the addiction to drugs, which is afflicting our nation like never ever before -- ever. (Applause.)

I've been here two weeks. I've met a lot of law enforcement officials. Yesterday, I brought them into the Oval Office. I asked a group, what impact do drugs have in terms of a percentage on crime? They said, 75 to 80 percent. That's pretty sad. We're going to stop the drugs from pouring in. We're going to stop those drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people. We're going to be ruthless in that fight. We have no choice. (Applause.)

And we're going to take that fight to the drug cartels and work to liberate our communities from their terrible grip of violence. You have the power and knowledge to tell General Kelly -- now Secretary Kelly -- who the illegal immigrant gang members are. Now, you have that power because you know them, you're there, you're local. You know the illegals, you know them by their first name, you know them by their nicknames. You have that power. The federal government can never be that precise. But you're in the neighborhoods -- you know the bad ones, you know the good ones.

I want you to turn in the bad ones. Call Secretary Kelly's representatives and we'll get them out of our country and bring them back where they came from, and we'll do it fast. You have to call up the federal government, Homeland Security, because so much of the problems -- you look at Chicago and you look at other places. So many of the problems are caused by gang members, many of whom are not even legally in our country.

I saw a few folks tweeting concerns this morning about Prez Trump's statement that we are "going to be ruthless in that fight" against "drugs from poisoning our youth, from poisoning our people."  And, with coming likely confirmation of AG Jeff Sessions, there is a very reasonable basis for fearing that the Trump Administration is going to seek to double-down on old tough-and-tougher approaches to the drug war.  But given some of the other Trump comments highlighted here (particular the comment that "prisons should not be a substitute for treatment"), I am holding out at least some hope that some nuance will be a part of the particulars of any new Trumpian drug war offensive.

February 8, 2017 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11)

Friday, February 03, 2017

Oklahoma Governor's task force urging significant sentencing reform to deal with surging prison population

As reported in this lengthy local article, "faced with a rapidly growing prison population in a state with the second-highest incarceration rate in the nation, a task force created by Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin issued a report Thursday calling for dramatic decreases in sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers." Here is more:

Without reform, Oklahoma is on pace to add 7,218 inmates over the next 10 years, requiring three new prisons and costing the state an additional $1.9 billion in capital expenditures and operating costs, the report said. But task members said those costs can be averted and the prison population can be reduced 7 percent over the next decade through a combination of sentence reductions and other reforms, including increased funding for alternative mental health and substance abuse treatment programs.

Oklahoma currently has 61,385 individuals in its overcrowded prison system. That includes 26,581 incarcerated in state facilities and private prisons, 1,643 awaiting transfer from county jails and 33,161 on some form of probation, parole, community sentencing or GPS monitoring, said Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections.

Oklahoma's prison population, which is at 109 percent of capacity, has grown 9 percent in the past five years and is now 78 percent higher than the national average. Only Louisiana has a higher rate, the report said.

Oklahoma's female incarceration rate remains the highest in the nation, a distinction the state has held for 25 years, task members said. The state's female population grew 30 percent between 2011 and 2016 and Oklahoma now incarcerates women at a rate more than 2 1/2 times the national average.

In a 38-page report that contains 27 recommendations, the governor's task force on justice reform recommends a number of dramatic changes to stave off a looming state financial crisis, including sharply reducing sentences for nonviolent drug dealers and manufacturers. The report also calls for sweeping changes in the parole system, including allowing many inmates to become eligible for parole after serving a fourth of their sentences. Currently, inmates typically serve about a third of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole for most nonviolent crimes.

Many of the task force's recommendations would require legislative action. The task force is recommending that the penalty for possession of methamphetamine, heroin or crack cocaine with intent to distribute be lowered to zero to five years for nonviolent first-time felony drug offenders, said Jennifer Chance, the governor's general counsel and a member of the task force. It is recommending that the penalty for manufacturing be lowered to zero to eight years.

Possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute currently carries a sentence of two years to life in prison for a first-time felony drug conviction, while possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute carries a term of five years to life and heroin seven years to life.

Oklahoma's criminal justice system has exacerbated the state's prison crowding crisis by repeatedly sentencing more nonviolent offenders — particularly drug offenders — to longer terms than neighboring states like Texas and Missouri, the report says. Many states have been far ahead of Oklahoma in reforming their justice systems, the task force found. "Since 2010, 31 states across the country have decreased imprisonment rates while reducing crime rates," the report states.

Reducing Oklahoma prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes is critical to reversing those trends because nearly a third of all Oklahoma prison admissions are for drug crimes and those prison sentences are often lengthy, the task force said.

Chance said most of the 21 task force members were in agreement with the group's findings, but acknowledged that the two district attorneys on the panel, David Prater and Mike Fields, have strong disagreements with some of the report's recommendations. Prater is the chief prosecutor for Oklahoma County, while Fields is the chief prosecutor for Canadian, Garfield, Blaine, Grant and Kingfisher counties and president of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association....

If the state cuts prison sentences for drug manufacturing, distributing and trafficking without dramatically increasing funding for drug addiction treatment programs, Prater predicted it will lead to more home and auto break-ins and other crimes. "This is such a dishonest report," Prater said. "It's going to make Oklahoma a much more dangerous place."

Prater said the report's backers like to point to Texas as a state that has simultaneously reduced its incarceration and crime rates through similar justice reforms, but he noted that Texas appropriated $241 million up front in 2007 to pay for a package of prison alternatives that included more intermediate sanctions and substance abuse treatment beds, drug courts and mental illness treatment slots. Unless Oklahoma dramatically increases upfront funding for substance abuse treatment and parole supervision programs, the state's experience is more likely to parallel that of Utah, Prater said.

That state drastically cut sentences without providing sufficient funding for community programs and police officers and judges there have complained about offenders repeatedly being released out on the street with little or no supervision, he said.  Critics of Utah's reform efforts have cited the January 2016 slaying of Unified police officer Doug Barney as a reason for re-evaluating changes that were made. Barney's shooter, Corey Henderson, went through the revolving door of prison and many have argued he shouldn't have been out of jail when Barney was killed....

The Oklahoma Attorney General's Office was noncommittal about the report.  “The Attorney General's Office was invited to take part in the Oklahoma Justice Reform Task Force, and members of our team were in attendance," Lincoln Ferguson, spokesman for Atty. Gen. Scott Pruitt, said in a prepared statement.  "The AG's office takes no position on the merits or demerits of the proposal.”

The full report is an interesting read and is available here at this link.

February 3, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, January 28, 2017

An object lesson in what not to do when you find a big bale of cocaine in the ocean

A helpful reader flagged this somewhat amusing though still very serious sentencing tale of a not-so-old man and the sea.   The headline of the article provides the essentials: "Fla. fisherman who hauled in $500,000 worth of cocaine faces life in prison."  And here are some of the particulars:

Cocaine, more so than any other narcotic, is the drug most frequently interdicted by the U.S. Coast Guard. In late 2016, the Coast Guard announced it had seized about $2 billion worth of cocaine during a 10-week operation that began in October. (At 26.5 tons, the weight of the seized stimulant rivaled the bulk of four African bull elephants.) Water is the route of choice for drug runners. Some 95 percent of cocaine smuggling operations, a Coast Guard rear admiral told the BBC in 2015, involves traveling via boat.

In the Gulf Coast, a container vessel or freighter may serve as a mother ship, which offloads the drug to sailboats, go-fast cigarette boats, fishing boats and other smaller boats. “Fishermen are great mules because they know the waters and they don’t draw attention,” wrote journalist Erik Vance at Slate in 2013. “And if you have to chuck your haul overboard to avoid the military, other fishermen can dive to retrieve it.” And if the divers sent after the contraband cannot find it, perhaps someone else will.

In 2016, that someone else was Thomas Zachary Breeding. Breeding, 32, was a longline fisherman from Panama City, Fla. The fisherman had accumulated a few run-ins with the law, including drug and gun convictions, the Panama City News Herald reported. In 2012, a federal grand jury indicted Breeding for giving false statements to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Prosecutors also alleged he obstructed the agency’s investigation into why the fisherman had entered grouper spawning grounds, closed to fishing; Breeding, they argued, deliberately sought to catch a valuable species of fish called gag grouper. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

But, until Breeding found the 45-pound cocaine bale, the fisherman said that he had kept a previously clean slate when it came to the narcotics trade. “I do not know where the drugs came from and haven’t ever been involved in the drug trade before. I was just a hard-working, young commercial fisherman,” Breeding wrote recently in a letter to the News Herald, penned from Florida’s Washington County Jail. “I was working as a long line boat captain out of Panama City when I found a package containing 20 kilos of cocaine.”

It was a what-if scenario of the type that fuels Florida crime potboilers: A fisherman finds a package of drugs valued at a huge street sum, and makes a decision. In Breeding’s case, he was 50 miles south of Panama City when he found between $500,000 and $650,000 of cocaine floating in the gulf. As impressive as the sum was, in the annals of washed-ashore cocaine — white lobster, as villagers along the Central American coast euphemize it — its street value was not a record. In 2013, five fishermen found $2.5 million of cocaine in the waters off north Florida. A metal tube filled with an estimated $5 million worth of cocaine washed up in Ireland last summer.

But it was an object lesson in what not to do. In December, Mark “The Shark” Quartiano, a celebrity Miami fisherman, found a kilogram brick of cocaine. He promptly alerted the authorities. Breeding did not. He instead handed over the 45-pound haul to four other people, on the condition they would sell the cocaine and pay a cut to Breeding. All five were caught in the summer — Breeding, a felon, had a firearm in his car when he was arrested — and faced conspiracy charges for the distribution of a controlled substance. Breeding pleaded guilty Wednesday, the News Herald reported, as did the other members of the network; they are awaiting a Feb. 16 sentencing. Breeding may be punished with up to life imprisonment and a fine in the millions of dollars.

January 28, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Split Colorado Supreme Court concludes federal law precludes state officers from returning marijuana to acquitted defendants

The Colorado Supreme Court yesterday issued an interesting ruling driven by the conflict between the state's marijuana reforms and federal prohibition. (SCOTUS fans might note the majority opinion was authored by Justice Allison Eid, who is on Prez Trump's (not-so-)short list.) Here are parts of how the majority opinion in Colorado v. Crouse, No. 2017 CO 5 (Colo. Jan 23, 2017) (available here), gets started:

The state’s medical marijuana amendment, article XVIII, section 14(2)(e) of the Colorado Constitution, requires law enforcement officers to return medical marijuana seized from an individual later acquitted of a state drug charge. The federal Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”) prohibits the distribution of marijuana, with limited exceptions. 21 U.S.C. §§ 801–971 (2012). The question in this case is whether the return provision of section 14(2)(e) is preempted by the federal CSA....

The CSA does not preempt state law on the same subject matter “unless there is a positive conflict between [a] provision of [the CSA] and that State law so that the two cannot consistently stand together.” 21 U.S.C. § 903 (2012). The return provision requires law enforcement officers to return, or distribute, marijuana. Distribution of marijuana, however, remains unlawful under federal law. Thus, compliance with the return provision necessarily requires law enforcement officers to violate federal law. This constitutes a “positive conflict” between the return provision and the CSA’s distribution prohibition such that “the two cannot consistently stand together.”

Moreover, the exemption relied upon by the court of appeals does not resolve this conflict. Section 885(d) of the CSA immunizes only those officers who are “lawfully engaged in the enforcement of any law . . . relating to controlled substances.” 21 U.S.C. § 885(d) (2012) (emphasis added). This court has held that an act is “lawful” only if it complies with both state and federal law. Coats v. Dish Network, LLC, 2015 CO 44, ¶ 4, 350 P.3d 849, 851. The officers here could not be “lawfully engaged” in law enforcement activities given that their conduct would violate federal law.

Here is part of the start of the dissent authored by Justice Gabriel:

Because I believe that the plain language of § 885(d) of the CSA, 21 U.S.C. § 885(d), immunizes federal and state officers from civil and criminal liability in the circumstances at issue here, I perceive no conflict between the CSA and section 14(2)(e) of article XVIII of the Colorado Constitution, nor do I believe that it is impossible to comply with both the CSA and the Colorado Constitution, as the majority implicitly and the People expressly contend.

Though not in any way related to this ruling, I cannot help but take this not-quite-perfect opportunity to share titles and links to some coverage of marijuana reform issues from my other major blog, Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform:

January 24, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Prez Obama wraps up his clemency work with 330 more commutations on his final full day in office

As reported here via USA Today, "President Obama commuted the sentences of 330 more federal inmates Thursday, capping an unprecedented clemency effort that has now released 1,715 prisoners — more than any other president in history."  Here is more:

The clemency grants announced on Obama's last full day in office set a one-day record. "Proud to make this one of my final actions as President.  America is a nation of second chances, and 1,715 people deserved that shot," Obama tweeted Thursday.

The clemency initiative, which began in 2014, was targeted at drug dealers who received mandatory-minimum sentences during the War on Drugs from the 1980s to the 2000s. But the effort ultimately fell far short of the 10,000 clemency grants former attorney general Eric Holder predicted when the initiative began. And while Obama set a record for granting commutations, he also set a record for denials.  As of the end of 2016, he had denied 14,485 petitions and closed another 4,242 without action — an overall grant rate of 5.9%, a couple of percentage points higher than many of his predecessors.

"The president set out to reinvigorate clemency, and he has done just that," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement.

It's unclear how big of a backlog in clemency cases President-elect Donald Trump will inherit.  But Justice Department officials had promised to give an up-or-down determination on every clemency initiative case it received by August.  “I’m proud to say we kept that promise," Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates said in a statement. "This undertaking was as enormous as it was unprecedented, and I am incredibly grateful to the teams of people who devoted their time and energy to the project since its inception."

Obama's final list of clemency grants included no more full pardons, meaning his final pardon tally will stand at 212 — fewer than any modern president except Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (It was the younger Bush who gave Obama this advice in the limo ride to the Capitol on his Inauguration Day eight years ago. "Announce a pardon policy early on, and stick to it.")

The grants on Thursday also did not include any of the more high-profile political cases, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and former congressman Chaka Fattah, all serving time on corruption charges.

With Thursday's action, the Clemency Project 2014 also closes its doors.  The coalition of defense attorneys who had agreed to help inmates with their cases says it completed work on all the applications it received. "Of course we'd be delighted to continue, but we have to wait to see whether the next president says whether he will or will not pursue this," he said.

This NBC News coverage of the final grants and the recent history of Obama's clemency initiative closes with a useful account of its ups and downs:

Obama's clemency grants came in large batches, hundreds at a time, accompanied by statements that framed his effort as a bid to become the most merciful president of all time. But his denials were even more voluminous. The effect on applicants and their lawyers was like an emotional roller coaster.

On Wednesday, sandwiched between Obama's two ballyhooed clemency announcements, the Justice Department quietly released the names of more than 2,000 applicants who'd been denied.

James Felman, a Florida defense lawyer who represents dozens of inmates who applied for clemency, celebrated Tuesday when he learned that four had received commutations. On Wednesday, he learned that a dozen others had been denied, and he mourned. On Thursday, Felman was elated again, this time for four more clients who were on Obama's list. A dozen of Felman's clients still have heard nothing. Three are serving life sentences.

And then there's the matter of reform. Advocates point out that clemency does nothing to change policies that led to mass incarceration. Efforts to ease those laws beyond the 2010 changes have stalled in Congress.

Felman, who won commutation for 44 total clients, called Obama's initiative "the single most gratifying professional experience I've ever undertaken." He added: "I have so much gratitude for the president for having the courage and fortitude for doing this. But we know this is not a substitute for reforming the laws that got us here, and we still haven't accomplished that."

January 19, 2017 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17)

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Top Massachusetts court adopts "new protocol for case-by-case adjudication" of over 20,000 drug convictions tainted by misconduct of lab chemist

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today issues a huge new ruling to try to resolve a huge old problem caused by drug lab misconduct. The start of the opinion in Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk District, No. SJC 12157 (Mass. Jan. 18, 2017)(available here), provides the back-story and the essential:

We once again confront the tragic legacy of the misconduct of Annie Dookhan when she was employed as a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute (Hinton lab). In Bridgeman v. District Attorney for the Suffolk Dist., 471 Mass. 465, 487 (2015) (Bridgeman I), the petitioners and the intervener, the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS), asked that we exercise our broad powers of superintendence to vacate the thousands of drug convictions affected by Dookhan's misconduct because the time and expense of case-by-case adjudication had become "untenable."  We declined at that time to adopt their proposed "global remedy."  However, the district attorneys have now provided the single justice with lists identifying more than 20,000 defendants who could be eligible for relief based on Dookhan's misconduct but who have not yet sought relief from their drug convictions.  As a result of the number of potentially aggrieved defendants, the single justice issued a reservation and report to the full court that essentially invites us to reconsider whether the time has come for a global remedy or whether further steps must be taken to realistically implement the remedy of case-by-case adjudication of potentially thousands of motions for a new trial.

After such reconsideration, we decline to adopt the district attorneys' argument that we should stay the course we had previously set and take no further action to protect the rights of the "relevant Dookhan defendants."  We also decline to adopt the petitioners' request for a global remedy in which we would either vacate the convictions of all relevant Dookhan defendants with prejudice, and thereby bar any reprosecution, or vacate the convictions without prejudice, and allow the Commonwealth one year to reprosecute, dismissing with prejudice all cases not reprosecuted within that time period.

We instead adopt a new protocol for case-by-case adjudication, which will occur in three phases, and order its implementation by the single justice in the form of a declaratory judgment.  In the first phase, the district attorneys shall exercise their prosecutorial discretion and reduce the number of relevant Dookhan defendants by moving to vacate and dismiss with prejudice all drug cases the district attorneys would not or could not reprosecute if a new trial were ordered.  In the second phase, new, adequate notice shall be approved by the single justice and provided to all relevant Dookhan defendants whose cases have not been dismissed in phase one.  In the third phase, CPCS shall assign counsel to all indigent relevant Dookhan defendants who wish to explore the possibility of moving to vacate their plea or for a new trial.  If the number seeking counsel is so large that counsel cannot be assigned despite CPCS's best efforts, the single justice will fashion an appropriate remedy under our general superintendence authority for the constitutional violation, which may include dismissing without prejudice the relevant drug convictions in cases where an indigent defendant is deprived of the right to counsel.

We recognize that the implementation of this protocol will substantially burden the district attorneys, CPCS, and the courts.  But we also recognize that Dookhan's misconduct at the Hinton lab has substantially burdened the due process rights of many thousands of defendants whose convictions rested on her tainted drug analysis and who, even if they have served their sentences, continue to suffer the collateral consequences arising from those convictions.  And we recognize as well that, more than four years after Dookhan's misconduct was revealed, more than 20,000 defendants who are entitled to a conclusive presumption that egregious government misconduct occurred in their case have yet to receive adequate notice that they may have been victimized by Dookhan's misconduct, that they may file a motion to vacate their drug conviction, and that they have a right to counsel to assist them in the preparation of such a motion.  The remedy we order, challenging as it is to implement, preserves the ability of these defendants to vindicate their rights through case-by-case adjudication, respects the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and maintains the fairness and integrity of our criminal justice system in the wake of a laboratory scandal of unprecedented magnitude.

January 18, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7)

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Interesting new report on impact of Prop 47 on drug arrests in California

Via email I received notice of this notable new research report, titled "Declinining Drug Enforcement After Proposition 47," coming from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and the Drug Policy Alliance. This executive summary provides the report's highlights:

In November 2014, California took a significant step toward reforming mass criminalization and over-incarceration by passing Proposition 47, a law that changed certain low-level crimes from potential felonies to misdemeanors, prioritizing drug treatment over punishment. Prop 47 reclassified three drug possession offenses (possession of a narcotic, concentrated cannabis, or a non-narcotic) and reinvested state savings in direct services. In 2015, the first full year after Prop 47, felony drug arrests fell by over 92,000 while misdemeanor drug arrests increased by only 70,000. Taken together, these shifts produced a 10 percent decline in total drug arrests.

In response to Prop 47’s reclassification statute, some law enforcement departments began redirecting drug enforcement resources to community policing or the enforcement of other, more serious, offenses. Critics of the policy, however, claim that it limits police authority and constrains the effectiveness of drug control, a contention that has led some law enforcement agencies to deemphasize the enforcement of Proposition 47-related offenses.

This report seeks to understand how enforcement and prosecution of drug possession offenses have changed after Prop 47 by analyzing arrests and citations made by Los Angeles and San Diego law enforcement, and charges filed by county prosecutors. Some of the findings include:

Prop 47 reduced inconsistencies in the classification of drug possession offenses as felonies or misdemeanors.  Prior to Prop 47, qualifying drug possession offenses could be prosecuted as misdemeanors, felonies, or “wobblers.” After the passage of Prop 47, these offenses are filed as misdemeanors, eliminating prosecutorial discretion and the presence of “justice-by-geography,” which can disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color.

Drug arrests and citations were increasing in the years immediately preceding Prop 47.  From 2010-2014, arrests and citations for Prop 47 drug possession offenses increased in 72 percent of law enforcement agencies in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Between 2014-2015, 58 percent of agencies reported declines.

Arrests and citations declined after Prop 47, but varied by county, city, and substance.  For example, while both San Diego and Los Angeles counties experienced declines in arrests and citations, Los Angles reported a decrease of 45 percent while San Diego reported 7 percent decline.

January 10, 2017 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Any astute thoughts about the sentencing year that was or the year that will be?

A variety of other (mostly non-work) engagements have prevented me from having the time to do any elaborate year-in-review or year-to-come posts about sentencing topics.  That said, as I take my 2016 calendars down and replace them with the 2017 versions, two matters come to mind that implicate both the year that was and the year to come:

1. SCOTUS transition: though representing only one vote, Justice Scalia's voice and impact on sentencing and criminal justice jurisprudence was far larger than his voting record.  The impact and import of his legacy and his absence, along with the coming character of his SCOTUS replacement, cannot be readily overstated.

2. Marijuana reform (but few other big sentencing reforms): with four more states voting for full recreational reform and nearly a dozen others enacting or enhancing medical regimes, in 2016 marijuana reform continued at a remarkable clip while broader drug war and other sentencing reform stalled (at least at the federal level). What the new GOP executive leaders in DC will now do on these fronts is among the most interesting and dynamic and uncertain story to watch in 2017.

As always, I welcome reader throughout on these topics and any others about the year that ended yesterday or the new one getting started today.

January 1, 2017 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5)

Thursday, December 29, 2016

"Clemency seeker to Obama: please don't forget us"

The title of this post is the headline of this new CNN commentary, authored by Alice Marie Johnson.  Here is how it gets started and concludes:

The week before Christmas, President Obama gave a second chance -- in the form of clemency -- to 231 people. I was not among them, but since many of them, like me, were incarcerated on drug-related charges, I feel I know their stories.  I am only one of thousands of first-time, non-violent offenders given a mandatory and lengthy prison terms after committing a crime under financial distress.

In 1996, I was given a death sentence without sitting on death row. I was convicted as a first-time nonviolent drug offender to life behind bars in federal prison.  Since I went to prison, the laws governing my wrong-doing have changed.  If I were convicted again today for the same crime, my life might look very different.

Last month, as I was preparing to put on a short play I wrote, entitled "The Strength To Be," a fellow inmate pulled me aside and gave me the news that the Obama Administration had just started announcing its next slate of clemencies.  My mind went racing. What if this could be my chance to be reunited with the outside world, to see my family or what is left of it?

For 20 years I have been incarcerated, and I won't lie, it's hard to keep the hope of freedom alive for that long.  But my faith in God has carried me this far.  Despite the impending announcement, I knew that the show had to go on. I channeled the uncertainty of my future into my play and danced a duet to Whitney Houston's song, "I Didn't Know My Own Strength."...

I want this part to be clear: I acknowledge that I have done wrong. I made the biggest mistake of my life to make ends meet and got involved with people selling drugs.  This was a road I never dreamed of venturing down.  I became what is called a telephone mule, passing messages between the distributors and sellers.  I participated in a drug conspiracy and I was wrong.

My trial took a toll on my family.  At the time of my conviction, I had two children in college and a senior in high school. Bryant, the senior, ended up dropping out of school because of the trial.  Tretessa had a good paying job with Motorola and was flying down to support me.  Members of the community were at my hearings encouraging me and hoping for the best.

But I was convicted on October 31, 1996 -- and sentenced to life in prison. The day after my oldest son Charles "celebrated" his 20th birthday.  It was his first birthday spent away from me. It's hard to imagine that I have now served 20 years of my life sentence for that one mistake.  The United States leads the world in incarceration rates, with five percent of the world's incarcerated population and one-quarter of the world's prisoners.  I am one of thousands of first-time, nonviolent offenders who were given mandatory lengthy prison terms.

During my two decades in here, I've become an ordained minister and a mentor to young women who are also in prison.  And if I get out -- I have a job secured, and plan to continue to help those in prison and work hard to change our justice system.  My daughter started a petition to President Obama asking him to grant me clemency, and more than 100,000 people have signed it.  It a source of strength and hope for me -- a chance to be free.

The President has made an incredible push at helping to right the wrongs of our criminal justice system.  I applaud him and hold out hope for me and thousands of others who face lifelong sentences for nonviolent crimes.  But with the historic Obama administration coming to an end, this could be a last chance at freedom for me and for many others -- so I also hope he moves quickly.  I hope his administration will process all the applications for clemency currently waiting for the President's review.

No matter what happens, I was not built to break. I will keep writing. I will continue to hold my head high and live a productive life either as a free woman or here behind bars.  God has shown me my strength.

December 29, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Fulsome (and incomplete) criticisms of Prez Obama's fulsome (and incomplete) clemency efforts

Liliana Segura has this lengthy new Intercept commentary headlined "Obama's Clemency Problem – And Ours."  I recommend the full piece and here are some excerpts:

President Obama broke his own remarkable clemency record [last week], granting an unprecedented 231 commutations and pardons in a single day. Headlines and tweets broadcast the historic tally; on the White House website, a bar graph tracks Obama’s record to date, which has dramatically outpaced that of his predecessors. With a total of 1,176 recipients, the White House boasted, Obama has granted clemency “more than the last 11 presidents combined.”

The president certainly deserves credit for making clemency a priority before leaving office....  Those who make the cut are, as the White House put it this week, “individuals deserving of a second chance.”  Many have been serving long mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, crimes for which they have shown remorse.  Applications list courses completed, prison jobs maintained, records untarnished by disciplinary write-ups. Last spring, Obama highlighted a handful of men and women who “have made the most of their second chances,” describing their ability to leave prison, get a job, and piece their lives back together as “extraordinary.”

With his legacy and the politics of crime in mind, it makes sense that Obama would be cautious with his commutations, while amplifying the success stories. Yet there’s something disingenuous in the now-familiar rhetoric peddled by the White House with every clemency announcement, which repeatedly tells us we are a “nation of second chances.” Even within the narrow scope of Obama’s clemency initiative — and putting aside his treatment of immigrants and whistleblowers — this is wishful thinking at best.  As Obama himself has written in his congratulatory letters to clemency recipients, “thousands of individuals have applied for commutation, and only a fraction of these applications are approved.” Before the latest round of pardons and commutations, Obama had rejected nearly 14,000 clemency applications....

[W]hen it comes to the president’s pardon power — the one place where Obama could directly address the problem — there are few signs of a transformation.

Instead, the White House has promoted a story about exceptionalism: The president has proven exceptionally merciful and the clemency recipients are uniquely deserving — even extraordinary.  If the former is true, it is only because we have set the bar so low. As for the latter, it is certainly no small thing to survive — even thrive — while serving some of the harshest prison sentences in the world. But praising such men and women as exceptional diminishes the vast human potential that exists behind bars.  As one clemency recipient told me last month, recalling an exchange with the former White House pardon attorney, “I have a list of names of people I would like to see come home. But there are even more people who I’ve never met.  To give a list of names would exclude too many people.”...

On the same day activists published their letter exhorting Obama to expand his clemency efforts, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report titled “False Hope: How Parole Systems Fail Youth Serving Extreme Sentences.” Documenting how states routinely deny release to those eligible for parole, the ACLU offers numerous profiles of men and women sent to grow up (and in many cases, to die) in prison, whose efforts to prove their value as adults have been repeatedly rebuffed.  The stories are all too familiar.  They show how poverty, neglect, trauma, and mental illness factor into the lives of young people arrested for violent crimes.  They also show how harshly we continue to punish such youth, first with decades in prison, and then with repeated refusals to grant parole, no matter how much they change in the years that follow — or how much evidence shows that older people “age out” of crime.  People of color are seen as even less amenable to rehabilitation. Today, despite the wide rejection of the “superpredator” myth, state parole boards show very little mercy to people serving sentences that grew out of such racist hysteria.

As with Obama’s clemency initiative, the problem is largely political: Nobody wants to be the person to free an individual who might go out and commit another crime, even if it has been decades since the original offense — and even if the sentence was disproportionate to begin with.  What’s more, the ACLU notes, by focusing on the original crime, “parole board members may never know about the success stories: people convicted of serious crimes who, once released, have become successful community leaders supporting themselves and their families, who grew up and moved beyond the worst thing they ever did.”

One bright spot of Obama’s clemency initiative has been in these very kinds of success stories — publicized in the press and by the White House itself. But in the absence of a deeper rethinking of what we consider a second chance, such anecdotes are no match for generations of fear mongering that has entrenched fear of violent criminals into our very psyche, even at times when crime has hit historic lows....

Just a few days after the ACLU report on parole, the Washington Post unveiled a front-page, four-part investigative series called Second Chance City, which examined a D.C. law called the Youth Rehabilitation Act.  Passed in 1985, the law aimed to give judges discretion in handling juvenile cases — including by circumventing mandatory minimums — to allow deserving young people to avoid harsh punishment and, ultimately, expunge their record.  The Post series raised alarm, finding dozens of cases where beneficiaries of the law had gone on to commit new, often violent offenses, and describing the crimes in dramatic detail....

Most counterproductive was the framing of the series, placed squarely as a counterpoint to efforts at prison reform on Capitol Hill. “At a time when the Obama administration and Congress are working to ease ‘mandatory minimum’ sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenses, in part because of concerns that such laws have unjustly imprisoned large numbers of African-Americans,” the authors write, “D.C. law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about the number of repeat violent offenders on the streets.”

The media should certainly scrutinize attempts at reform, pointing out where they fail. But the Post series was a reminder of how quickly we revert back to old narratives about crime, to convince ourselves that more imprisonment will keep us safe. With the real fights over prison reform happening at the state and local level — over things like the Youth Act — any efforts by the president were always going to be limited.  But if the pendulum is to swing back toward a more punitive era, as many fear it will under Trump, Obama must do as much as he can now to preserve the legacy he has carved out.

But beyond Obama — and if we are to make a dent in mass incarceration — Americans must also begin to think much bigger than his administration ever did. We should refuse to let the same government that gave us mandatory minimums define what counts as a “second chance.” We must stop letting our leaders — whether the president or a parole board — divest their responsibility to remedy draconian punishments by placing the burden on people who never should have received them in the first place. Ending mass incarceration will require mercy, but fundamentally it is about justice.  And the state has not even begun to account for its own mistakes.

I credit Segura for noting and lamenting that what's most remarkable about Prez Obama's clemency efforts are how non-transformative they are. Despite lots of advocacy from lots of advocates for the development of a new structure for clemency decision-making, Prez Obama has barely tweaked the status quo in order to better discover a few thousand prisoners with extreme prison sentences that could be shortened. Prez Obama merits praise and credit for doing something, but that something is largely a last-minute tweak rather than a timeless transformation.

The story of clemency here is a variation on the broader drug war reality throughout the Obama years. As of 2013, then-AG Eric Holder started talking up a new "Smart on Crime" initiative. But, despite this useful talk and some tweaked approaches to federal prosecutions, Prez Obama's Department of Justice for all eight years of his presidency continued to prosecute, on average, 20,000 new federal drug cases each year even though there is still little evidence that severe federal drug sentences for nonviolent drug offenders help reduce drug crime or violent crimes. (Of course, the prior decade saw on average 25,000 federal drug prosecutions, so the Obama DOJ can claim credit for being a lesser evil.) Running these numbers, if Prez Obama commuted 2000 federal drug sentences each and every year he was in the Oval Office, through the work of his DOJ, he still would be responsible for a net addition of 18,000 federal drug sentences each and every year.

Put simply, at the margins, Prez Obama left federal criminal justice matters somewhat better than he found them. But the federal criminal justice system continues to need a wide array of reforms that go, in my mind, far beyond the margins.

December 25, 2016 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1)