Thursday, June 19, 2014

Notable AG Holder speech on modern approach to modern drug war

Attorney General Holder delivered this speech today at a government summit on heroin and prescription drugs use and abuse, and criminal justice fans might be especially interested in these excerpts:

Between 2006 and 2010 -- across America -- heroin deaths increased by 45 percent. That’s a shocking statistic, but it’s only one of many clear indications that we’re up against an urgent public safety and public health crisis -- one that affects Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life.  We’ve learned from scientific studies, treatment providers, victims, and investigations that the cycle of heroin abuse commonly begins with prescription opioid abuse.  And this can make the problem exceedingly difficult to track and to overcome....

Since the beginning of this Administration, with DEA as our lead agency, the Justice Department has adopted a sweeping strategy to prevent pharmaceutical controlled substances from getting into the hands of non-medical users....

We also have stepped up our investigatory efforts, opening more than 4,500 heroin-related investigations since 2011, and increasing the amount of heroin seized along America’s southwest border between 2008 and 2013 by 320 percent.  Of course, like you, I recognize that we cannot solve this problem through enforcement alone.  And we will never be able to arrest or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.

This is why education, prevention, and treatment -- along with vigorous enforcement -- must all be significant components of any comprehensive solution.  Over the past few years, the DEA and others within the Department of Justice have stepped forward to help educate pharmacists, doctors, and other health practitioners in the identification and prevention of controlled substance diversion during the healthcare delivery process....

On the national level, we’re moving even more broadly -- under the Smart on Crime initiative I announced last August -- to put in place a range of targeted, systemic reforms to ensure that 21st century challenges can be met with 21st century solutions.

This groundbreaking new effort relies upon proven, evidence-based strategies to achieve better outcomes throughout the federal criminal justice system -- and particularly with regard to nonviolent, drug-related crimes.  These policy changes are predicated on the notion that our work must be informed, and our criminal justice system continually strengthened, by the most effective and efficient strategies available.

We’re also strengthening diversion programs like drug courts, veterans courts, and community service initiatives -- so we can provide alternatives to incarceration for some people and offer treatment and rehabilitation to those who need it.  Nationwide, the Justice Department is supporting more than 2,600 specialty courts that connect over 120,000 people convicted of drug-related offenses with the services they need to avoid future drug use.

And we’re striving to improve and reinforce reentry programs and initiatives from coast to coast – so we can enable formerly incarcerated individuals to return to their communities better prepared to contribute, and to lead, as full and productive members of society.

Let me be clear: we will never waver in our commitment to act aggressively to keep America’s streets safe and our children free from drug addiction and abuse.  And we will never stop being tough on crime and the choices that breed it.  But, like you, we also recognize that we must be smart, efficient, and effective as we strive to disrupt and diminish the scourge of addiction -- along with the underlying conditions that trap too many individuals in a vicious cycle of drugs, criminality, and incarceration....

At the end of the day, the most important work we do is invariably the work that takes place within our own communities – not simply as professionals, but as mentors, advocates, and counselors; as parents, neighbors, and friends.  We need to make sure our kids live in neighborhoods where adults can reach out to them -- where moms and dads, teachers and faith leaders, little league coaches and Scoutmasters can be trusted and positive influences in young lives.  And this work must be embraced by whole communities – because it is only by standing together, through collective action and comprehensive effort, that we’ll be able to make the difference we seek.

June 19, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"Lawmakers should be parsimonious — not sanctimonious — on drug sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary at The Hill authored by Jamie Fellner.  Here are excerpts:

Hopes are high that the U.S. Congress will do the right thing this year and reform notoriously harsh federal drug sentencing laws that have crammed U.S. prisons with small-time offenders.

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, approved by the Senate judiciary committee and now awaiting debate in the full Senate, would reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offenders, increase the number who can avoid them altogether, and permit prisoners serving time under outdated crack-cocaine sentencing laws to seek lower sentences. Passage would begin to reverse a decades-long trend that's seen "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason," as Attorney General Eric Holder put it earlier this year.

Although legislators may not realize it, reduction of unduly severe sentences for drug offenders will help bring federal sentencing back in line with the long-overlooked principle of "parsimony." In the criminal justice context, parsimony dictates that sentences should be no greater than necessary to serve the legitimate goals of punishment, namely, retribution for past crimes, deterrence of future ones, and rehabilitation of the offender.

Congress once recognized the importance of parsimony. In the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, it instructed federal judges to impose sentences that were “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” to advance the purposes of punishment. But starting in 1986, against a backdrop of social and economic turmoil, racial tension, and the advent of crack cocaine, Congress enacted mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws with stunning disregard for whether they would yield needlessly harsh sentences -- which they invariably did for the low-level offenders who made up the bulk of those receiving them....

Opponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act, including some current and retired federal prosecutors, insist — without evidence – that the mandatory drug sentences are necessary to protect public safety. They also claim — and here the evidence is on their side — that the threat of high mandatory sentences helps convince defendants to plead guilty and cooperate with the government in exchange for lesser punishments. Because judges have no choice but to impose the mandatory minimums triggered by the charges prosecutors file, prosecutors can make good on the threat of higher sentences for those defendants who insist on going to trial: their sentences are on average three times longer than for those who plead. Not surprisingly, ninety-seven percent of drug defendants choose to plead guilty. Opponents of drug law reform seem to forget — or don't care — that the purposes of punishment do not include bludgeoning defendants into pleading.

Each year, hopes for federal drug sentencing reform are dashed by legislative inertia and a few powerful legislators who cling to outdated “tough on crime” notions. Perhaps this year will be different. A growing number of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, realize that lengthy mandatory minimum drug sentences are ineffective, wasteful, and expensive. And though few may use the term parsimony, many have come to understand that unnecessarily harsh sentences make a mockery of justice.

June 15, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Notable indication that "smart on crime" sentencing reform in West Virginia is paying dividends

StsealAs highlighted by this local article, headlined "Governor: Justice Reinvestment Act drops W.Va. jail population by 5%," it appears that another state is having significant success with data-driven "smart-on-crime" sentencing and corrections reforms. Here are the encouraging details:

Although in effect for slightly more than a year, legislation to reduce prison overcrowding by reducing recidivism and substance abuse is having a positive impact, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said during an event Thursday in Washington, D.C.

“Since I signed West Virginia’s Justice Reinvestment Act, we have had a 5 percent reduction in our prison population,” Tomblin said. “In April 2013, we had nearly 7,100 prisoners in our state. Last Thursday, that figure was down to 6,743. We have reduced overcrowding at our regional jail facilities by nearly 50 percent.”

The legislation was enacted in May 2013, after a yearlong study coordinated by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center, which recommended reducing prison overcrowding with accelerated probation and parole for nonviolent offenders, and better community-based resources for parolees, including substance-abuse treatment programs.

Tomblin told the Washington CSG event that, in April 2013, West Virginia’s corrections system was 1,746 inmates over capacity, a figure that has now dropped to 885. “Today, we have more than 1,000 fewer people in our prisons than what was projected just a few years ago,” Tomblin said. “Without these changes, we expected to have more than 7,800 inmates in West Virginia prisons, compared to today’s total of 6,743.”

Since the passage of the legislation, Tomblin said, the state has continued efforts to reduce re-offense rates with new workforce training programs, assistance in helping parolees find appropriate housing and efforts to ensure access to community-based substance-abuse treatment for those released from prison, funded through Medicaid expansion....

The West Virginia Democrat was joined at the event by Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, who has overseen similar successes with prison-reform programs in the Keystone State. Corbett noted that, in the 1990s, Pennsylvania was building a new prison nearly every year, as mandatory sentencing laws were causing the state’s inmate population to soar.

Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center, noted that the national dialogue has changed from a partisan debate over which party could be tougher on crime to a bipartisan effort to be smart on crime, a theme echoed by Tomblin. “I hope other states will consider the justice reinvestment model to take a “smart on crime” approach to prison overcrowding and public safety,” he said.

June 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Two thoughtful criticisms of DOJ's request for only limited retroactivity of proposed lower drug guidelines

As reported here on Tuesday, the Justice Department this week advocated to the US Sentencing Commission that it make its new reduced drug guidelines retroactive only for the lowest-level offenders now serving prison sentences under the old drug guidelines. No doubt because many are eager to see the new drug guidelines made fully retroactive and because I suggested the DOJ half-a-loaf approach was politically and practically astute, I have received two lengthy and thoughtful e-mails from informed advocates which are critical of the DOJ retroactivity position and my reaction to it. With permission, I am posting the comments here.

Federal public defender Sarah Gannett had this to say:

I was the Federal Defender witness at yesterday's USSC hearing on drugs-minus-two retroactivity, and I read your post about the DOJ proposal.  Although I can see how the DOJ proposal might have some facial appeal, I urge you to take a closer look at it.

There is little evidence that the exclusions the Department is proposing are tied in any meaningful way to public safety.  At best, they are overbroad, and will result in deserving inmates being excluded from relief (for example, drug addicts who are in high CHCs because of multiple minor prior convictions related to their addictions).  Indeed, the Commission has acknowledged that criminal history is an imperfect proxy for seriousness of criminal history and risk of recidivism, which is why the Guidelines include a departure provision for over-representation.  Unfortunately, because of the way 1B1.10 is currently written, those who received over-representation departures will be ineligible for relief if the Commission adopts the DOJ proposal.  Similar arguments can be made about the enhancements the DOJ proposes as limiting.

Both David Debold, on behalf of PAG, and Mary Price, for FAMM, focused on the DOJ's proposal in their testimony yesterday.  You may wish to speak to either or both of them. I also encourage you to read the Defender testimony, which is available on the Commission's website.  Although we did not know what the Department's proposal would be until it was announced yesterday, we anticipated and addressed many of the points the DOJ proposal raises (see especially pp. 5-6).

Full retroactivity is the just result, which the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference recognized.  In fact, in her oral testimony, Judge Keeley indicated that the CLC considered a proposal like the DOJ's, but rejected it out of fairness concerns.  The CLC recommended a different compromise -- which delays implementation just until the institutional players can adequately prepare to address the volume of cases.  This approach is more principled than the limitations suggested by the Department.  It is discussed in the CLC's statement, which also was posted.  (Defenders took the position that, based on experience gained in the crack retroactivity process and other factors, the players could find a way to manage the caseload.  See our statement at pp. 9-13, 14-15.)

Those who are concerned about community safety should remember that the retroactivity statute and policy statement require the sentencing judge to review and consider the appropriateness of early release in every individual case, an obligation that courts took seriously following the 2007 and 2011 retroactive crack amendments.

Former US Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love had this to say:

I am genuinely puzzled by the Department's proposed "compromise" on the retroactivity issue, and surprised and disappointed by your response to it.  I suggest that you compare the Department's proposal for guidelines retroactivity with the President's eight commutations last December.

Only one or possibly two of the eight individuals whose sentences were commuted -- all presumably pursuant to a favorable Department recommendation -- would qualify for relief under the DOJ proposed "compromise".  Clarence Aaron was enhanced for obstruction, Gray and Wintersmith had guns, and Gilbert, Wheeler and Patterson and probably George were either career offenders or CHC III or above.  Of the eight, only Jason Hernandez (a gang member charged with massive amounts of drug, with juvie gun priors) would appear to be a candidate for relief under the DOJ proposed compromise, a curious result to say the least.

It certainly raises a question why the Department thinks it is appropriate to ask the President to make these tough case-by-case calls but does not trust district judges to make them.  Somehow that does not seem "politically and practically astute" (your words), or respectful of institutional roles and competencies.  Moreover, if DOJ really wanted to lighten the burden imposed on its own staff by its unprecedented and possibly ill-advised invitation to all federal prisoners to apply for clemency, and to the private bar to represent them, one would think it should be asking the courts to do more of this work, not less.

Perhaps this means that DOJ will interpret and apply its six new clemency criteria narrowly, and recommend only those prisoners who fit in this minor-record-no-gun-no-obstruction category -- those few who would not benefit from the guidelines reduction because of a mandatory minimum.  It is not at all clear to me that such a crabbed interpretation of the clemency initiative would be responsive to the President's clear signal in the December 8 grants about what he wants from his Justice Department.

If the only ones recommended for clemency are those who satisfy the criteria commended to the Commission by the Department, this will be a cruel hoax on federal prisoners, who are expecting a lot more.  It will also be deeply unfair to the hundreds of private lawyers who have agreed to donate their time to learn a new skill in preparation for telling a prisoner's story, in what may turn out to be a false hope that one of their clients will win the clemency lottery.

I commend Judge Irene Keeley for saying that full retroactivity is a "moral issue" and the courts’ “burden to bear.”  Good for the POs too, whose professionalism is encouraging. I agree with Judge Keeley that it would be fundamentally unfair to categorically deny full retroactivity to prisoners, just as it would be fundamentally unfair to categorically exclude certain prisoners from clemency consideration.

I hope the Department -- and the President -- will come to see that the apparatus already exists to achieve sentencing fairness, and it is in the courts not the executive.  I hope also that this President does not turn out to be the third in a row to be embarrassed by his Justice Department's clemency program.

Some recent related posts:

June 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Some new posts highlighting the "tough-on-crime" take on federal drugs sentencing reform

Long-time readers know that we used to be able to get Bill Otis's tough-on-crime perspective on sentencing reform via the comments to posts here, but now we all need to head over to Crime & Consequences to see his take on current sentencing events.  Not surprisingly, the discussion by US Sentencing Commission about whether to make its new lower drug guidelines retroactive has Bill going strong, and here are a sampling of him recent post from C&C:

The titles of all these posts provide a flavor of their contents, but I urge all folks following closely the debates over recent federal sentencing reform to click through and read all Bill has to say on these topics.  Notably, the first post listed above highlights how perspectives on broader reform debates will necessarily inform views on particular positions taken on smaller issues.  Bill assails DOJ for advocating for "large scale retroactivity" when it decided to yesterday to "support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment."  In notable contrast, I have received a number of e-mails from advocates of federal sentencing reform today (some of which I hope to soon reprint in this space) that assail DOJ for not advocating for complete retroactivity.

June 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

DOJ advocates for "limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment"

As detailed in this prior post, today the US Sentencing Commission is conducting a public hearing to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive its new proposed guideline that reduces most drug sentences across the board.  And though that hearing is on-going, the hearing agenda available here now has links to most of the witnesses' submitted written testimony, including the position advocated by the Department of Justice.  

As detailed in this official DOJ press release and this written testimony via US Attorney Sally Yates, the Justice Department is urging the Commission to make the new reduced drug guidelines retroactive for some, but not all, prisoners now serving sentences under the old drug guidelines.  Here are the basics of the compromise advocated by DOJ via its submitted testimony:

After extensive discussions and consideration of the various policy interests at stake in this matter – including public safety, individual justice for offenders, and public trust and confidence in the federal criminal justice system – we support limited retroactivity of the pending drug guideline amendment. As I will discuss further, we think such an approach strikes the right balance of policy interests and can be rigorously and effectively implemented across the federal criminal justice system within existing resource constraints....

Assessing whether the amendment should be applied retroactively requires balancing several factors.  The primary factor driving our position to support retroactive application of the amendment, albeit limited retroactivity, is that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders.  While we believe finality in sentencing should remain the general rule, and with public safety our foremost goal, we also recognize that the sentences imposed for some drug defendants under the current sentencing guidelines are longer than necessary, and this creates a negative impact upon both the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system and our prison resources....

Because of public safety concerns that arise from the release of dangerous drug offenders and from the diversion of resources necessary to process over 50,000 inmates, we believe retroactivity of the drug amendment should be limited to lower level, nonviolent drug offenders without significant criminal histories. Limited retroactivity will ensure that release decisions for eligible offenders are fully considered on a case-by-case basis as required, that sufficient supervision and monitoring of released offenders will be accomplished by probation officers, and that the public safety risks to the community are minimized. Release dates should not be pushed up for those offenders who pose a significant danger to the community; indeed, we believe certain dangerous offenders should be categorically prohibited from receiving the benefits of retroactivity....

Balancing all of these factors, the Department supports limited retroactive application of the 2014 drug guideline amendment. We urge the Commission to act consistently with public safety and limit the reach of retroactive application of the amendment only to those offenders who do not pose a significant public safety risk. The Commission has the authority to direct limited retroactivity under both 18 U.S.C. § 994(u) and Dillon, which provide authority to the Commission to prescribe the “circumstances” under which an amended guideline is applied retroactively. We believe the Commission should limit retroactive application to offenders in Criminal History Categories I and II who did not receive: (1) a mandatory minimum sentence for a firearms offense pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 924(c); (2) an enhancement for possession of a dangerous weapon pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(1); (3) an enhancement for using, threatening, or directing the use of violence pursuant to §2D1.1(b)(2); (4) an enhancement for playing an aggravating role in the offense pursuant to §3B1.1; or (5) an enhancement for obstruction of justice or attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to §3C1.1.

With these limitations, all of which should have been determined in prior court action and should be documented in the court file in most cases, courts will be able to determine eligibility for retroactivity based solely on the existing record and without the need for transporting a defendant to court or holding any extensive fact finding. Retroactivity would be available to a class of non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history, did not possess or use a weapon, and thus will apply only to the category of drug offender who warrants a less severe sentence and who also poses the least risk of reoffending. While the factors we suggest are not a perfect proxy for dangerousness, they are a reasonable proxy based on the Commission’s own research, and identifying them will not require new hearings.

Though I suspect the intriguing middle-ground position embraced here by DOJ will disappoint the usual suspects advocating fully against or fully for retroactivity, I view this DOJ proposal to be both politically and practically astute. In part because SO very many current federal prisoners may be eligible for a sentence reduction based on the new guidelines, I think it make sense (and is consistent with congressional policies and goals) for any retroactivity rule to seek to bring some equities into the application of the new law in an effort to ensure the most deserving of previously sentenced defendants get the benefit of the new guidelines. The DOJ position here seems thoughtfully designed to try to achieve that balance.

Some recent related posts:

June 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Monday, June 09, 2014

Big US Sentencing Commission hearing Tuesday on reduced drug guideline retroactivity

As reported in this official notice, a public hearing of the United States Sentencing Commission is scheduled for Tuesday, June 10, 2014, and the "purpose of the public hearing is for the Commission to gather testimony from invited witnesses concerning whether the Commission should designate as retroactive Amendment 782."  That Amendment, in short form, reduces the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses by two levels in most settings.  And, as set forth in this detailed USSC staff analysis, as many as "51,141 offenders sentenced between October 1, 1991 and October 31, 2014, would be eligible to seek a reduction in their current sentence if the Commission were to make the 2014 drug guidelines amendment retroactive.

The hearing agenda and the list of the 16 witnesses scheduled now to testify at this hearing is available here. I am pretty confident that most of these witnesses will advocate that the new drug guidelines be made retroactive, but I am not entirely certain about what positions will be advocated by the Department of Justice and some of the law enforcement witnesses. In addition, advocates on both sides likely will articulate in different ways with distinct emphasis why they think retroactivity for these new reduced drug guidelines would be a good or bad idea.

I am hopeful that by this time tomorrow the written testimony to be submitted by the witnesses with be linked on the USSC's website.  In the meantime, I will be re-reading  this detailed USSC staff analysis in order to have a better understanding of the 50,000+ federal prisoners whose fates could be impacted by the retroactivity decision.

June 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Over 1000 faith leaders sign letter in support of Smarter Sentencing Act

As highlighted by this article, over "1,100 clergy and faith leaders urged Congress to pass legislation reducing federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses in a June 3 letter to party leaders in the House and Senate."  Here is more about the prominent voices joining the chorus advocating for federal sentencing reform:

A total of 1,129 signers asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to support the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan measure that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January. The faith leaders said tough sentencing laws passed in the 1980s “war on drugs” disproportionately affect minorities....

“For too long, Congress has ignored the consequences of the harsh sentencing policies it approved during the 1980s and the disproportionate harm it has caused people of color and those convicted of low-level offenses,” the letter said. “The Smarter Sentencing Act is a step towards addressing racial injustice as well as reducing mass incarceration that characterizes our current justice system.”

Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, was a lead signer for the letter coordinated by the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group, a coalition of 43 faith organizations chaired by the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society.

June 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Commentary on drug guideline retroactivity asks "Who's Afraid of Too Much Justice?"

This notable new commentary in The Huffington Post by Megan Quattlebaum makes the case for the US Sentencing Commission to make fully retroactive its new guidelines amendment reducing most federal drug sentencing recommendations. Here are excerpts:

In a landmark decision, the United States Sentencing Commission voted last month to lower the recommended penalty for federal drug crimes by about 17 percent.  As of now, the change will apply only to defendants who are sentenced after November 1, 2014.  But the Commission is also exploring whether the reduction should be made retroactive, and it issued two reports two reports two reports (available here and here) analyzing that question last week.

Four things struck me as I read the reports. First, the Commission estimates that, if the changes were made retroactive, 51,141 individuals who are currently in prison (an incredible 23 percent of the total population) would be eligible to seek a reduction in their sentences.  That a large number of people will be affected is not surprising -- almost half of all federal prisoners (48 percent) are incarcerated for drug crimes.  But what is surprising is that even if all 51,141 were to get reduced sentences, we would have barely begun to bring the federal prison population down to pre-drug war levels.  We incarcerated approximately 25,000 people in federal prisons in 1980.  By 2013, that number had risen to over 219,000.  As a result, the federal prison system is operating at 36 percent over capacity, costing taxpayers $6.4 billion per year and climbing....

Second, a significant percentage (about 25 percent) of the 51,141 potentially eligible for earlier release are non-citizens who may be subject to deportation.  Many rightly question the wisdom of incarcerating large numbers of ultimately deportable non-citizens at taxpayer expense....

Third, the average age of an inmate who will be eligible for a sentence reduction is 38 years.  In the universe of criminal justice, 38 is old.  Researchers have consistently found that involvement in street crimes, like drug offenses, generally begins in the early teenage years, peaks in young adulthood, and dissipates before the individual turns 30. Explanations for this phenomenon are varied, but "[a] large body of research shows that desistance from crime... is... tied to the acquisition of meaningful bonds to conventional adult individuals and institutions, such as work, marriage and family..."  These older offenders should have a low risk of recidivism generally.  And the more that we can do to foster their re-engagement with their families and communities, the lower that risk will be.

Fourth, 20 percent of the individuals who may be eligible for earlier release come from one state: Texas.  True, Texas is big and populous, but it's also punitive.  The more heavily populated state of California only accounts for five percent of potential sentence reductions, while New York accounts for about four percent.  Reading the charts that accompany the Sentencing Commission report is a statistical window into the American drug war, in which hang 'em high southern states feature prominently, if not proudly.

The Sentencing Commission is accepting public comments until July 7, 2014 on whether to make these changes to drug sentences retroactive. Some will no doubt argue against retroactivity, either out of fear that releasing individuals earlier will permit them re-offend sooner or out of concern for the serious workload that federal courts will have to take onin order to process so many applications for sentence reduction.  But if we have revised our view of what constitutes a just sentence for a drug offense, then we cannot and should not justify continuing to incarcerate 51,141 people under an old, rejected understanding. We should never be afraid of too much justice.

I am grateful to see this thoughtful effort to dig into the US Sentencing Commission data concerning who could benefit from the new drug guidelines being made retroactive. And I think this commentary rightly highlights that the nationality status and the age profile of federal drug prisoners provide some important extra reasons for being comfortable with the new guidelines being made retroactive.

That said, the commentary about Texas justice and the state-by-state analysis strikes me a potentially a bit misguided. I suspect and fear that federal prosecution of drug crimes in Texas is higher than in other states not only because of the likely international dimensions to many drug crimes around the Mexican border but also because state drug laws in other states may be uniquely harsh. This commentary compares data from California and New York, but these two states have had a history of some notorious tough state sentencing laws (i.e., the Three Strikes Law in California, the Rockefeller Laws in NY). There may be so many federal drug prisoners from Texas not because state sentencing policies and practices are so tough, but because federal policies and practices relative to state norms are so much tougher and because local drug crimes are not really local along the border.

My point here is to highlight that state-by-state examination of federal drug sentencing patterns may reflect lots of distinct and dynamic factors.  Notably, the Commission data indicate that about the same number of federal drug prisoners from Iowa will be impacted by retroactivity of the new drug guidelines as from Arkansas and Mississippi combined.  These data alone hardly reveal the corn belt is the real "hang-em-high" center for the national drug war.  Ultimaely, ever-changing local, state and national drug use and trafficking patterns along with dynamic prosecutorial policies and priorities likely better explain state-by-state federal prisoner data than any social or political conventional wisdom.

Some various somewhat recent related posts:

June 3, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, June 02, 2014

"After 5 Months of Sales, Colorado Sees the Downside of a Legal High"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy recent article appearing in the New York Times.  As the headline suggests, the article documents glass-half-empty data and perspectives on Colorado's on-going experiment with marijuana legalization.  Here are excerpts:

Five months after Colorado became the first state to allow recreational marijuana sales, the battle over legalization is still raging. Law enforcement officers in Colorado and neighboring states, emergency room doctors and legalization opponents increasingly are highlighting a series of recent problems as cautionary lessons for other states flirting with loosening marijuana laws.

There is the Denver man who, hours after buying a package of marijuana-infused Karma Kandy from one of Colorado’s new recreational marijuana shops, began raving about the end of the world and then pulled a handgun from the family safe and killed his wife, the authorities say.  Some hospital officials say they are treating growing numbers of children and adults sickened by potent doses of edible marijuana.  Sheriffs in neighboring states complain about stoned drivers streaming out of Colorado and through their towns.

“I think, by any measure, the experience of Colorado has not been a good one unless you’re in the marijuana business,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes legalization.  “We’ve seen lives damaged. We’ve seen deaths directly attributed to marijuana legalization. We’ve seen marijuana slipping through Colorado’s borders. We’ve seen marijuana getting into the hands of kids.”

Despite such anecdotes, there is scant hard data.  Because of the lag in reporting many health statistics, it may take years to know legal marijuana’s effect — if any — on teenage drug use, school expulsions or the number of fatal car crashes. It was only in January, for example, that the Colorado State Patrol began tracking the number of people pulled over for driving while stoned. Since then, marijuana-impaired drivers have made up about 1.5 percent of all citations for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Proponents of legalization argue that the critics s are cherry-picking anecdotes to tarnish a young industry that has been flourishing under intense scrutiny.  The vast majority of the state’s medical and recreational marijuana stores are living up to stringent state rules, they say.  The stores have sold marijuana to hundreds of thousands of customers without incident.  The industry has generated $12.6 million in taxes and fees so far, though the revenues have not matched some early projections.

Marijuana supporters note that violent crimes in Denver — where the bulk of Colorado’s pot retailers are — are down so far this year. The number of robberies from January through April fell by 4.8 percent from the same time in 2013, and assaults were down by 3.7 percent. Over all, crime in Denver is down by about 10 percent, though it is impossible to say whether changes to marijuana laws played any role in that decline....

The argument is being waged with fervor because both sides say Colorado’s successes and failures with regulating marijuana will shape perceptions of legalization for voters considering similar measures in other states and for leery federal law enforcement officials.  After the 2012 legalization votes in Colorado and Washington State — where recreational sales are expected to begin this summer — Justice Department officials gave the states a cautious green light. But they warned that they might intervene if marijuana ended up fueling violence or drug trafficking, or flowing across state lines or into the hands of children.

Marijuana opponents like Thomas J. Gorman of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which helps law enforcement, say Colorado is already falling short of those standards.  “In any other state if they were making as much money and growing as much dope, they’d be taken out by the feds,” Mr. Gorman said.

Few agree on how much legally purchased marijuana is being secreted out of Colorado.  Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a Senate panel in April that officials in Kansas had tallied a 61 percent increase in Michele Leonhart, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told a Senate panel in April that officials in Kansas had tallied a 61 percent increase inseizures of marijuana that could be traced to Colorado. But according to the Kansas Highway Patrol, total marijuana seizures fell to 1,090 pounds from 2,790 pounds during the first four months of the year, a 61 percent decline.

Some sheriffs and police chiefs along Colorado’s borders say they have noticed little change. But in Colby, Kan., which sits along an interstate highway running west to Colorado, Police Chief Ron Alexander said charges for sale, distribution or possession related to marijuana were rising fast.  This year, he tallied 20 such cases through May 23. Two years ago, there were six during that same time period.  Sheriff Adam Hayward of Deuel County, Neb., said he was locking up more people for marijuana-related offenses. “It’s kind of a free-for-all,” he said. “The state or the federal government needs to step up and do something.”...

Police and fire officials across the state have been contending with a sharp rise in home explosions, as people use flammable butane to make hashish oil.. And despite a galaxy of legal, regulated marijuana stores across the state, prosecutors say a dangerous illicit market persists....

Many of Colorado’s starkest problems with legal marijuana stem from pot-infused cookies, chocolates and other surprisingly potent edible treats that are especially popular with tourists and casual marijuana users. On Colorado’s northern plains, for example, a fourth grader showed up on the playground one day in April and sold some of his grandmother’s marijuana to three classmates.  The next day, one of those students returned the favor by bringing in a marijuana edible he had swiped from his own grandmother.  “This was kind of an unintended consequence of Colorado’s new law,” said John Gates, the district’s director of school safety and security. “For crying out loud, secure your weed. If you can legally possess it, that’s fine. But it has no place in an elementary school.”

So far this year, nine children have ended up at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora after consuming marijuana, six of whom got critically sick.  In all of 2013, the hospital treated only eight such cases.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

June 2, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, May 30, 2014

A "true political game changer" as House votes to preclude feds from going after state-legal medical marijuana?!?!?

The question and/or statement in the title of this post is my reaction to Alex Kreit's reaction here at MLP&R to the notable vote late last night in the US House of Representatives concerning an amendment to an appropriation bill.  This MSNBC story provides the context and head-count:

It had all the markings of a measure that would no one notice: an obscure amendment to a low-profile bill, receiving a vote after midnight, the same week as a national holiday. It’s hardly a recipe for generating national headlines.

But the U.S. House of Representatives nevertheless did something overnight that Congress has never done. The House passed an amendment late Thursday night to restrict the Drug Enforcement Administration from targeting medical marijuana operations in states where it is legal.

The 219-189 decision came on a bipartisan appropriations amendment spearheaded by California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and California Democrat Sam Farr. The amendment still faces several procedural hurdles before it is ratified, but this is the first time such an amendment has succeeded in the House.

The roll call on the vote is here. Note that it passed largely with Democratic support – the vast majority of Dems voted for it; a clear majority of Republicans voted against it – but the measure was backed by a bipartisan group of co-sponsors.

At issue is a routine spending bill: providing federal funding for a variety of agencies, including the Justice Department, which occasionally enforces federal drug laws by raiding marijuana facilities in states where medical pot sales are legal.  The amendment intends to block federal law enforcement from doing so in the future.

In the process, as German Lopez reported, the House acted without precedent: “The bill is the first time in history that any chamber of Congress has acted to protect medical marijuana businesses and users.”  As Lopez’s report makes clear, the practical effect of the amendment means the House now believes that if states want to implement their own medical marijuana laws, they shouldn’t have to fear interference from the FBI.

“Congress is officially pulling out of the war on medical marijuana patients and providers. Federal tax dollars will no longer be wasted arresting seriously ill medical marijuana patients and those who provide to them,” Dan Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “This is a historic vote, and it’s yet another sign that our federal government is shifting toward a more sensible marijuana policy.”

Looking ahead, it’s not yet a done deal. The same spending bill has not yet been taken up by the Senate, and we don’t yet know how the upper chamber will feel about the DEA amendment. The measure would also need President Obama’s signature.

I share Dan Riffle's perspective that this is a historic vote, but I am not sure it really is a "game changer" as much a sign of the modern drug-war times. Whatever labels are used for the vote, though, it is certainly interesting and exciting for those eager to see a move away from the status quo with respect to federal pot prohibition and the broader federal drug war.

May 30, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 29, 2014

AG Holder urges fellow prosecutors to back his sentencing reform advocacy

This new NPR piece reports that "Attorney General Eric Holder took his case for overhauling the criminal justice system to an unlikely location on Wednesday — a closed-door conference of prosecutors, who were meeting at their national training center in Columbia, South Carolina." Here is more:

According to a person familiar with Holder's unpublicized remarks, Holder urged an audience of criminal division chiefs from U.S. Attorney's offices to support Smart on Crime initiatives that would reduce some drug sentences and to open up the clemency process to hundreds of inmates with clean records in prison.

Earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would cut some mandatory minimum penalties for non-violent drug offenders.  But in recent weeks at least three prominent groups have attacked the legislation, including nearly 30 former Justice Department officials who served under Republican administrations; longtime Sens. John Cornyn, R-TX, Charles Grassley, R-IA, and Jeff Sessions, R-AL; and even Holder's own DEA administrator.

The attorney general addressed those concerns by pointing out that the bill, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act, would leave in place tough mandatory minimum sentences for most drug traffickers, with add-ons for people who possess weapons, are repeat offenders, or those who are considered leaders of an ongoing criminal racket.

"These changes represent anything but a softening of our stance against crime and those who perpetrate it, or a relaxing of our unwavering commitment to combat the drug-fueled violence that plagues far too many communities," Holder said, according to a law enforcement source in the audience.  "On the contrary: in all our activities, we remain committed to the robust enforcement of federal anti-drug laws, and to focusing federal resources on the most significant threats to our communities," he said, according to the source.

May 29, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Effective Sentencing Project and HRW responses to Senators' letter opposing the Smarter Sentencing Act

SSAI was very pleased to learn from helpful readers that Antonio Ginatta, the US Program Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, and Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy officer for The Sentencing Project, have now both authored effective and distinct responses to the May 12th letter sent by Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn to their Senate colleagues voicing opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act (reported here).  Haile's response appears here at The Hill under the headline "Last stand for the drug warriors." Here are excerpts:

In a letter to colleagues, Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) wrote that the legislation “would benefit some of the most serious and dangerous offenders in the federal system.” The xenators raised the specter of a violent crime wave if minimum penalties for nonviolent drug offenses are reduced.

Describing the Smarter Sentencing Act as a sort of “get out of jail free card” for dangerous criminals is highly misleading. The bill would not eliminate a single mandatory minimum, nor would it reduce any maximum penalties. Instead, it would allow judges greater discretion in low-level cases, while preserving long sentences for the most serious offenders....

Unfortunately, some longtime drug warriors seem intent on throwing cold water on the sentencing reform movement just as it is heating up. Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Agency, recently testified that rather than unwinding the drug war, “we should be redoubling our efforts.” A number of former federal law enforcement officials have argued that current drug sentencing penalties should be preserved.

But we have tried incarcerating our way to a drug-free America, and that approach has failed. Three decades later, evidence is mounting that federal drug laws have led to skyrocketing prison populations without making communities safer. Meanwhile, illegal narcotics are as pure and as readily available as ever.

Rather than caving in to the “tough on crime” rhetoric of another era, Congress should seize a rare opportunity for reform. State after state has reduced drug sentencing penalties without jeopardizing public safety. Polls show that Americans, Republican and Democrat, favor treatment over prison for nonviolent offenders.

The old playbook on crime and punishment is worn out. It’s time to take a new approach to nonviolent drug sentencing.

Ginatta's response appears in an open letter available here to Senators Grassley, Sessions, and Cornyn detailing with hard data why so many of their claims are misguided.  I urge ervery to read the HRW reponse in full, and here is an excerpt:

Your letter states that drug-related mandatory minimums “are used almost exclusively for high-level drug traffickers.” Data from the United States Sentencing Commission tells a much different story. According to the Commission, 40 percent of federal drug defendants were couriers or street dealers.  In fact, nine out of ten federal drug defendants come from the lower or middle tiers of the drug business.  Because mandatory minimums are triggered by the quantity of drug involved, a street-level dealer can face the same minimum sentence as the head of a large drug trafficking organization. A typical federal drug offender is someone like Jamel Dossie, a 20-year-old, small-time street-level drug dealer’s assistant who received a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for working as a go-between in four hand-to-hand sales totaling 88.1 grams or 3.1 ounces of crack (the weight of an average bar of soap)....

You next cite in your letter that “those who would benefit from these reduced sentences are not ‘non-violent’ — they would include repeat drug traffickers and criminals with a history of violence.”  This is only part of the story.  Almost half (49.6 percent) of all federal drug offenders imprisoned in Fiscal Year 2013 fell under the lowest criminal history category (zero or one criminal history point under the federal sentencing guidelines).  And 83.8 percent of federal drug offenders during the same period were found to not have a weapon involved in their crime.  A small percentage of drug offenders may have used a weapon in their offense, but the mandatory minimums you defend are wilfully blind to the vast numbers of those who didn’t.  To brand all drug offenders as violent is too broad a sweep — no sane sentencing policy should make that assumption.

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

US Sentencing Commission releases two significant research reports concerning drug sentencing reform and retroactivity

I just received a notice from the US Sentencing Commission which highlights that the USSC has some new research that can and should help inform the on-going discussion of whether and how the new reduced drug guidelines ought to be made retroactive. Here is the text of this notice I got via e-mail, which includes links to two important new research documents:

As previously noted, the Commission is seeking public comment on the issue of whether to apply its recent amendment to the drug quantity table retroactively.  The Commission will receive public comment on this issue through July 7, 2014.  Public comment can be emailed to  public_comment@ussc.gov.  To facilitate public comment on this issue, the Commission is making available the following materials:
 
In April, Commissioners directed staff to analyze the impact of retroactivity should the Commission vote to authorize retroactive application of the 2014 drug guidelines amendment.
 
The Commission also released an updated recidivism analysis of crack cocaine offenders who were released early after implementation of a 2007 guidelines amendment which retroactively reduced by two levels the base offense levels assigned by the Drug Quantity Table for crack cocaine.  In this five-year study, these offenders were compared with similarly situated offenders who served their original sentences.

May 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Texas teen facing 5-to-life for selling pot brownies(!) highlights prosecutorial sentencing powers

A drug war and severe sentencing story making the media rounds today emerged via this recent local report headlined "Texas man facing possible life sentence for pot brownies." Here are the basics (which have already been sensationalized a bit in some media accounts I have seen):

A Texas man accused of making and selling marijuana brownies is facing up to life in prison if convicted.  That’s because officials in Round Rock have charged him with a first-degree felony.

It’s a move that the man’s family and attorney outraged. “It’s outrageous. It’s crazy. I don’t understand it,” Joe Lavoro, the man’s father said. Like many familiar with the case, Joe does not understand why his son is in so much legal trouble....

The 19-year-old is accused of making and selling pot brownies.  He’s charged with a first degree felony.  “Five years to life? I’m sorry.  I’m a law abiding citizen.  I’m a conservative. I love my country.  I’m a Vietnam veteran, but I’ll be ****ed.  This is wrong. This is ***n wrong!” the father said.

Lavoro’s lawyer agrees. “I was outraged. I’ve been doing this 22 years as a lawyer and I’ve got 10 years as a police officer and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Jack Holmes, Lavoro’s attorney said.

The former high school football player has a clean record.  The charge is so severe because the recipe includes hash oil.  That allows the state to use the sugar, cocoa, butter and other ingredients to determine the weight of the drugs.  “They’ve weighed baked goods in this case. It ought to be a misdemeanor,” Holmes said.

KEYE reached out to the district attorney to ask how they’re going to prosecute the case.  Our call has not yet been returned....

Jacob’s father wants what’s right. “If he did something wrong, he should be punished but to the extent that makes sense. This is illogical. I’m really upset, and I’m frightened, I’m frightened for my son,” Joe said.

Jacob Lavoro's father is right to be frightened, in large part because it would seem that his son's fate is now almost entirely in the hands of local prosecutors. Though I do not know all the ins and outs of Texas drug laws, I assume that the local prosecutors can (and probably will) ultimately allow Lavoro to plead to some less charge rather than go to trial on a first-degree felony charge carrying a 5 to life sentence. But the fact that such a severe charge with a big-time sentence is even on the table all but ensures that the local prosecutor can extract a plea on whatever terms strikes his fancy.

May 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Friday, May 16, 2014

New commentary highlights why DOJ's new clemency initiative is not enough of a good thing

Megan Quattlebaum has this notable new commentary up at Huffington Post under the headline "2,785 Petitioners for Clemency Need All of the Mercy Obama Can Give."  It highlights one of many cases not formally covered by the new DOJ clemency guidelines but still subject to what seems like an unfair federal drug sentencing system. Here are excerpts:

Shortly after high school, Michael Keating fell in with a bad crowd in his rural hometown in Missouri, and began experimenting with meth. By the age of 20, he was hooked and using the drug on a daily basis.  He met a man who said that if Michael allowed him to use the woods behind his house to produce drugs, he would give the young addict some of what he made.

Soon thereafter, police officers received information that meth was being made at Michael's home. They searched his property and found a bucket of waste water in the backyard. Although the waste water contained less than a gram of methamphetamine, pursuant to the Eastern District of Missouri's practice (which has been rejected by the majority of federal circuit courts and the U.S. Sentencing Commission) Michael, the sole defendant in the case, was charged as though the entire weight of the water in the bucket -- more than 2,700 grams -- was a marketable drug. He was sentenced to serve more than 11 years in federal prison.

Late last month, the Department of Justice announced a laudable initiative to seek out nonviolent drug offenders with long prison sentences whom it will consider for clemency. The initiative is open to federal prisoners who meet six criteria, including that they have served at least ten years of their sentence and likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense today. The goal, according to President Obama, is to help "restor[e] fundamental ideals of justice and fairness" to our penal system by releasing those who "would have already served their time and paid their debt to society" had they been sentenced under current law.

This is a tremendous step forward, but it won't help Michael Keating. He has only served seven and a half years in prison, not ten, as the initiative requires. And the law under which he was sentenced hasn't changed -- in Missouri, possession of the un-ingestible by-product of drug production is still punished just as harshly as possession of the same amount of marketable drugs. Michael's case is emblematic of our need to go even further to right the wrongs of failed sentencing policies.

Still, some who have commented on the initiative seem to view it as too much justice. One group of critics fears the "early" release of convicted felons into our communities. But, as Michael's story demonstrates, we need to take a hard look at individual cases before we assume that those with past convictions pose a present danger....

[W]hile President Obama is right to search out new candidates for sentence mitigation, he shouldn't neglect those meritorious individuals whose cases are already before him. Michael Keating's application has been pending for over two years; it is one of the 2,785 sentence commutation petitions on which the Pardon Attorney has not yet acted. In addition to seeking out new submissions, the President should take a close look at those he has in hand. On the path to saner sentencing policy, we will need all of the mercy that he can give.

May 16, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

How do we reconcile Senator Jeff Sessions' vocal support for the FSA and strong opposition to the SSA?

SessionsThere are many interesting claims and notable contentions in the letter sent by Senators Grassley, Cornyn and Sessions to their colleagues explaining their opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act (first reported here).  Most notable, I think, are the essential ideas set out at the start and end of the letter: despite a decades-long federal drug war that has grown the size of the federal government and has long included severe mandatory minimums prison terms, we still find ourselves in the midst of a "historic heroin epidemic" which apparently calls for "redoubling our efforts." I believe that the sensible response to ineffective federal government drug policies and practices would be to consider changing some of these policies and practices, not "redoubling our efforts" (and thereby redoubling the size of an apparently ineffective federal government bureaucracy).

But, as the question in the title of this post suggests, I am now especially wondering how Senator Jeff Sessions, who was a vocal supporter of Congress's decision in 2010 to reduce crack mandatory minimum sentences through the Fair Sentencing Act, has now signed on to a letter forcefully opposing a proposal to reduce other drug mandatory minimum sentences through the Smarter Sentencing Act.   Notably, in this March 2010 statement, Senator Sessions stated that he has "long believed that we need to bring greater balance and fairness to our drug sentencing laws" and that the FSA's change to crack mandatory minimums will "achieve needed fairness without impeding our ability to combat drug violence and protect victims." In his words, the FSA's reforms to crack mandatory minimums "strengthen our justice system."

But now, four years later, Senator Sessions has signed on to a letter opposing the Smarter Sentencing Act which claims that this proposal to "reduce sentences for drug traffickers would not only put more dangerous criminals back on the streets sooner, but it would send the message that the United States government lacks the will or is not serious about combatting drug crimes." This letter also asserts that "lower mandatory minimum sentences mean increased crime and more victims."

Critically, the SSA changes federal drugs sentencing laws significantly more than the FSA: the SSA cuts the minimum prison terms for all drug offenses rather than just increasing the amount of one drug needed to trigger existing mandatory prison terms as did the FSA.  Consequently, one can have a principled basis to have supported the FSA's reduction of crack sentences (as did nearly every member of Congress when the FSA passed) and to now oppose the SSA's proposed reduction of all federal drug sentences.  However, back in  2010, Senator Sessions recognized and vocally stated that reducing some federal drug sentences would actually "strengthen our justice system" by helping to "achieve needed fairness without impeding our ability to combat drug violence and protect victims."  I believe (like a majority of the Senate Judiciary Committee) that the SSA would likewise "strengthen our justice system," but Senator Sessions now seem to think it will "mean increased crime and more victims."

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

May 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Another notable letter expressing opposition to SSA ... on US Senate letterhead

As noted here in this prior post, Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences broke the news yesterday that a significant number of significant former federal prosecutors signed on to a public letter to Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to express publicly their opposition to any reform of federal drug mandatory minimums.   This morning I discovered that late yesterday Bill Otis put up here at C&C more notable news about opposition to drug sentencng form:  apparently this week, Senators "Chuck Grassley, John Cornyn and Jeff Sessions [have written] an all-colleagues letter explaining why the Smarter Sentencing Act should be defeated." 

(Side note: I use the term "apparently" concerning the report from Bill Otis regarding this letter because his reprinting of the letter at C&C here includes only the contents of the letter without any date or reprinted signatures.  In addition, Bill provide no link to the actual letter in any form, nor can I find any public resource or news media reporting on this letter.  Also, and a check/search of the official websites of the US Senate and of Senators Grassley and Cornyn and Sessions so far has produced no copy of the letter.   I assume this letter really exists, and I hope to be able to provide a link to an official public release of this letter shortly.  But I am finding it now more than a bit peculiar and troublesome that Bill Otis and Crime & Consequences has seemingly become the (un)official reporter of official opposition to the Smarter Sentencing Act.   These developments reinforce my fear that Bill Otis and perhaps some other unnamed lobbyists and partisans are playing a very significant and cloistered role in seeking to derail any new federal sentencing reforms in Congress.)

Notably, the substance of the letter reprinted at C&C echoes a lot of the themes that have been stressed by opponents of any federal sentencing reform, and it restates some of the points forcefully stated by Senator Grassley in this Senate floor speech last month.  But the letter is now the strongest collection of many of the strongest arguments against some (but not all) of the provisions of the Smarter Sentencing Act.  I recommend everyone read the letter, and I hope to be able to provide a link to a copy of the actual document from an official source before too long.

Some prior posts about the SSA and debates over federal sentencing reform:

UPDATE:  I am pleased and grateful that I was able to receive from a helpful reader a pdf copy of the original letter sent by the Senators referenced in this post and reprinted originally at C&C.   Minus the footnotes, here are the first two paragraphs of the letter followed by a downloadable copy:

The nation is in the midst of an historic heroin epidemic that is wreaking havoc in cities and towns from New England to the Pacific Northwest. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the amount of heroin seized at the southwest border has increased nearly 300% from 2008 to 2013, while heroin-overdose deaths have increased by 45%. At the same time, approximately 4.3 million people abuse or are dependent on marijuana. In 2012, almost 32 million people ages 12 and older reported using marijuana within the past year and, in 2013, one out of every 15 high school seniors reported being a near daily user. According to the 2013 National Survey Results on Drug Use, 50% of high school seniors reported having used illegal drugs at some point in their lives.

It is against this grim backdrop that we write to express our concerns with S. 1410, the "Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014," which would benefit some of the most serious and dangerous offenders in the federal system by cutting in half (or more) mandatory minimum sentences for high-level drug trafficking offenses. The proponents of S. 1410 claim that it will reduce sentences for so-called "low-level, non-violent" drug offenders. These terms, as well as the bill's claimed effect, are highly misleading. In fact, nothing in this bill will affect the lowest level federal drug offenders at all.

Download Senators letter to Colleagues on SSA

May 13, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Monday, May 12, 2014

Significant collection of significant former federal prosecutors write to Senators to oppose SSA

Thanks to this new post by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, titled "Former Top DOJ Leaders Oppose the SSA," I have learned that a significant number of significant former federal prosecutors — including former US Attorneys General William Barr and Michael Mukasey — have signed on to a public letter to Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to express publicly their opposition to any reform of federal drug mandatory minimums. The full text of the letter is available at C&C, and here are excerpts:

Because the Senate is now considering revisiting the subject of mandatory minimum penalties for federal drug trafficking offenses, we take this opportunity to express our personal concerns over pending legislative proposals.  We are concerned specifically by proposals that would slash current mandatory minimum penalties over federal drug trafficking offenses — by as much as fifty percent.  We are deeply concerned about the impact of sentencing reductions ofthis magnitude on public safety.  We believe the American people will be ill-served by the significant reduction of sentences for federal drug trafficking crimes that involve the sale and distribution of dangerous drugs like heroin, methamphetamines and PCP.  We are aware of little public support for lowering the minimum required sentences for these extremely dangerous and sometimes lethal drugs. In addition, we fear that lowering the minimums will make it harder for prosecutors to build cases against the leaders of narcotics organizations and gangs — leaders who often direct violent and socially destructive organizations that harm people throughout the United States.

Many of us once served on the front lines of justice. We have witnessed the focus of federal law enforcement upon drug trafficking — not drug possession offenses — and the value of mandatory minimum sentences aimed at drug trafficking offenses.

Existing law already provides escape hatches for deserving defendants facing a mandatory minimum sentence.  Often, they can plea bargain their way to a lesser charge; such bargaining is overwhelmingly the way federal cases are resolved.  Even if convicted under a mandatory minimum charge, however, the judge on his own can sidestep the sentence if the defendant has a minor criminal history, has not engaged in violence, was not a big-time player,and cooperates with federal authorities.  This "safety valve," as it's known, has been in the law for almost 20 years. Prosecutors correctly regard this as an essential tool in encouraging cooperation and, thus, breaking down drug conspiracies, large criminal organizations and violent gangs.

We believe our current sentencing regimen strikes the right balance between Congressional direction in the establishment of sentencing levels, due regard for appropriate judicial direction, and the preservation of public safety.  We have made great gains in reducing crime.  Our current sentencing framework has kept us safe and should be preserved.

In addition to thinking this letter is a pretty big deal, I am now wondering if it represents the final nail in the Smarter Sentencing Act's coffin or instead reveals that the SSA might still have some legs. Based on the lack of action on the SSA over the last few months, I have been assuming this effort at federal sentencing reform was dying a slow death, and this letter from a lot of prominent former prosecutors provides yet another reason and basis for member of Congress to express additional concerns about the sentencing reforms in the SSA. And yet, if the SSA was already in its death throes, I doubt there would have been so much obvious energy devoted to getting all these prominent former prosecutors speaking out against the reforms in the SSA.

All that said, I continue to find the discussion and debate over the SSA an intriguing (and valuable?) distraction from all the other arguably much-more-consequential federal sentencing developments that are afoot. The fact that prominent Tea-party leaders in the GOP like Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz all support significant federal sentencing reform, the fact that state marijuana reforms seem to be continuing apace, the fact that the US Sentencing Commission has voted to lower most of the drug guidelines, the fact that most federal sentences are now outside the guidelines, and the fact that DOJ and Prez Obama are working hard on clemency reform all will be likely impacting federal sentencing realities more than whether or not the SSA is passed by Congress. (This is not to say that the SSA is not important or potentially consequential, but it is to say that a whole host of much broader forces are changing the dynamics of modern federal sentencing policies and practices.)

Some prior posts about the SSA federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

May 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, May 09, 2014

Applying strict scrutiny, Louisiana Supreme Court upholds facial constitutionality of criminalizing gun possession with illegal drug possession

Thanks to this post by Eugene Volokh, I see that the Louisiana Supreme Court issued an interesting and important unanimous decision earlier this week upholding a state gun crime statute against a facial state constitutional challenge.  Here is how this opinion in Louisiana v. Webb, No. 2013-KK-1681 (La. May 7, 2014) (available here), starts and ends:

We granted a writ to determine whether a recent constitutional amendment involving a fundamental right to bear arms found in La. Const. art. I, § 11 renders a criminal statute related to the possession of a firearm while possessing illegal drugs, facially unconstitutional.

According to the defendant, because the right to bear arms has been recently enshrined as a fundamental constitutional right, notwithstanding the fact the defendant was allegedly carrying illegal drugs while in possession of a firearm, La. R.S. 14:95(E) is facially unconstitutional.  Essentially, the defendant argues that, even assuming he possessed illegal drugs, because La. R.S. 14:95(E) deals not only with illegal drugs but with firearms, the firearm aspect of the statute cannot survive strict judicial scrutiny, and the entire statute must be declared unconstitutional.

We disagree.  Nothing in the recent constitutional amendment regarding firearms requires dismissal of the criminal charges against the defendant for carrying a firearm while in possession of illegal drugs.....

To promote public safety by curtailing drug trafficking, the state of Louisiana has a compelling interest in enhancing the penalty for illegal drug possession when a person engages in that illegal conduct with the simultaneous while in possession of a firearm. Undeniably, the right to keep and bear a firearm is a fundamental right in Louisiana. However, when a person is engaged in the unlawful conduct of possessing illegal drugs, the person’s own unlawful actions have “qualified his right” to engage in what would otherwise be the exercise of that fundamental right. See Helms, 452 U.S. at 420 (indicating “appellee’s own misconduct [in abandoning his child] had qualified his right to travel interstate.”).

Earlier, we observed that in amending Article I, § 11 of the constitution, the electorate tasked this court with applying a very technical legal test to answer a very practical question. From all aspects, we have found the technical points of the law constitutionally allow the state to make it a crime to possess an illegal drug with a firearm. We can now, therefore, answer this practical question: Is the act of possessing a firearm and illegal drugs so essential to the liberties citizens ought to be able to enjoy in an orderly society that a law to the contrary is unconstitutional? “We have held that the function of the court in construing constitutional provisions is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the people who adopted it. It is the understanding that can reasonably be ascribed to the voting population as a whole that controls.” Caddo-Shreveport Sales and Use Tax Com'n v. Office of Motor Vehicles, Dept. of Public Safety and Corrections of State, 97-2233 (La. 4/14/98), 710 So.2d 776, 780. Nothing in Article I, § 11 of the constitution informs us that the electorate, whose intent is ultimately the intent that governs, believed that possessing firearms with illegal drugs meets the electorate’s expectations of a society whose hallmark is ordered liberty.

We, therefore, affirm the ruling of the district court, finding La. R.S. 14:95(E) is not unconstitutional, and that nothing in Article I, § 11 of the constitution requires the charges against the defendant to be quashed. This case is remanded to the district court for further proceedings.

May 9, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack