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 think

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

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Elderly coke dealer, on his 90th birthday, gets 3-year prison sentence

As reported in this local piece, headlined "90-Year-Old Drug Mule Sentenced To 3 Years For Part In Major Drug Scheme," a unique drug dealer got a pretty standard drug sentence in federal court in Michigan today. Here are the details:

Leo Sharp learned that he would spend three years in federal prison for his role in a major drug operation in which prosecutors say Sharp transported more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine to across the country before being caught in Michigan.  Sharp was running bricks of cocaine from Tucson, Arizona, to Detroit when he was pulled over near Chelsea, 60 miles west of Detroit, after making a bad lane change in 2011.

Outside the courthouse Sharp cried that he was “heartbroken” and didn’t feel that his age had anything to do with the length of his prison sentence. When a state trooper approached, Sharp was upset and declared, “Just kill me and let me leave this planet.”...

Prosecutors were recommending a five-year prison sentence — urging the judge to look beyond Sharp’s age and health issues and lock him up for delivering more than a ton of cocaine.  Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Graveline, noted that there’s video of Sharp  — known as “grandpa” and “old man” — joking and laughing with others charged in the drug conspiracy.

Graveline said Sharp received at least $1.25 million from his handlers for hauling more than 2,750 pounds of cocaine to Michigan from the Southwest in 2010 and 2011.  He’s one of 19 people under indictment in a case connected to Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel. Graveline said the cartel “literally flooded the streets of southeast Michigan and Fort Wayne, Indiana, with kilograms of cocaine.”

Sharp, of Michigan City, Indiana, had hoped to stay out of prison.  Defense attorney Darryl Goldberg said Sharp has dementia and other issues, and would be a burden for the prison system. “Of course I respectfully disagree with the judge’s sentence but she is a very experienced jurist and I hope that Leo can survive the sentence,” said Goldberg....

During sentencing Judge Nancy Edmunds said Sharp was in the middle of a huge operation and transported cocaine six different times and was paid more than a million dollars.

Recent related post:

May 7, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, May 05, 2014

New York Times op-ed spotlights enduring flaw with modern drug sentencing

Today's New York Times has this notable new op-ed authored by Mark Osler under the headline "We Need Al Capone Drug Laws."  Here are highights:

After a ruinous 30-year experiment in harsh sentences for narcotics trafficking resulting in mass incarceration, policy makers are having second thoughts.  Many states, including Texas, have reformed their laws to shorten sentences.  Congress is giving serious consideration to the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would do the same. The United States Sentencing Commission has just adopted a proposal to revise federal guidelines.

And most recently, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced that President Obama intends to use his executive pardon power to release hundreds or even thousands of federal prisoners with narcotics convictions (I am on a committee to train lawyers for the project).  Something like that hasn’t happened since President John F. Kennedy granted clemency to more than 200 prisoners convicted of drug crimes.

Unfortunately, none of this addresses a very basic underlying problem: We continue to use the weight of narcotics as a proxy for the culpability of an individual defendant, despite this policy’s utter failure.  If a kingpin imports 15 kilograms of cocaine into the country and pays a trucker $400 to carry it, they both face the same potential sentence.  That’s because the laws peg minimum and maximum sentences to the weight of the drugs at issue rather than to the actual role and responsibility of the defendant.  It’s a lousy system, and one that has produced unjust sentences for too many low-level offenders, created racial disparities and crowded our prisons....

Some laws create remarkably low thresholds for the highest penalties.  For example, my home state of Minnesota categorizes someone who sells just 10 grams of powder cocaine (the equivalent of 10 sugar packets) as guilty of a first-degree controlled-substance crime — the most serious of five felony categories.  There is no real differentiation between the most culpable wholesaler and an occasional street dealer.  

The problem with recent legal reforms is that they don’t dispose of this rotten infrastructure.  In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which changed the ratio between crack and powder cocaine for sentencing purposes from 100-to-1 (meaning the same sentence applied to 100 grams of powder cocaine and to 1 gram of crack) to 18-to-1.  

What the Fair Sentencing Act didn’t do is change the basic weight-centric centric focus that has filled our prisons with narcotics convicts. There were 4,749 such prisoners serving federal time in 1980, before the harshest weight-based standards were implemented. As of 2013, that number was 100,026. As for the drugs themselves, they’re still here....

A better measure of culpability would be the amount of profit that any individual took from the operation of a narcotics ring. Because narcotics conspiracies are nothing more or less than a business, they operate like any other business. The people who have the most important skills, capital at risk or entrepreneurial abilities take the most money. Statutes and guidelines should be rewritten so that profit thresholds replace narcotic weight thresholds. Only then will mules and street sellers properly face much shorter sentences than real kingpins.

This would, of course, create a new challenge for prosecutors and investigators, who would have to prove the amount of profit made by an individual defendant. It wouldn’t be as easy as snatching up mules and street dealers. But then “easy” and “justice” rarely rest comfortably with each other.

May 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, May 01, 2014

You be the federal sentencing judge: what prison term for massive drug courier ... who is a 90-year-old WWII vet?

Old guyThis remarkable Detroit Free-Press article reports on a remarkable drug criminal facing a remarkable federal sentencing next week.  The piece is headlined "Convicted drug mule to spend 90th birthday in court facing sentencing," and here are the details:

An Indiana senior citizen will celebrate his 90th birthday in bizarre fashion Wednesday: getting sentenced in federal court for hauling cocaine across the country for a Mexican drug cartel. Convicted drug mule Leo Earl Sharp, though, is hoping to stay out of prison....

Sharp’s lawyer says prison is no place for his client: a frail, decorated World War II veteran who suffers from dementia.  “Labeling a war hero like Mr. Sharp a federal felon and forever tarnishing his reputation is sufficient punishment in itself; a sentence of imprisonment would be greater than necessary,” defense attorney Darryl Goldberg wrote in court documents....

The U.S. Attorney’s office has not yet filed a sentencing recommendation, but is expected to do so before Sharp’s sentencing before U.S. District Judge Nancy Edmunds. In a previous court document — Sharpe’s plea agreement — prosecutors recommended a five year prison sentence.

Sharp, of Michigan City, Ind., was arrested in 2011 during a traffic stop near Ann Arbor, where he was busted with nearly $3 million worth of cocaine in his pickup. Authorities eventually learned that the elderly pickup driver was a courier for a massive drug ring that ran a cocaine pipeline between Mexico and Detroit for several years, according to an indictment that charged 18 defendants total....

In October 2013, Sharp pleaded guilty to conspiracy to posses with intent to possess and deliver cocaine.  Under the terms of his plea agreement, the sentencing guidelines call for a 168-210 month prison sentence, although prosecutors said they would recommend five years. Sharpe’s lawyer has requested home confinement.

“When you are living on Social Security for your entire income, you are really in need of money and that’s why I did what I did at first. I didn’t think about the consequences of my actions and I made a tremendous mistake.  I should not have gotten involved and I feared for my life and my family’s lives and felt I had no choice,” Sharp explained in a report to a U.S. probation officer. Sharp also explained that he “agreed to transport money in exchange for a fee … and was later asked to carry drugs.” When he told his cohorts that he “wasn’t going to do that anymore, they put a gun to (his) head and threatened (him) and said they would kill (his family.)”...

According to the indictment, Sharp was a drug courier for two years, delivering roughly 670 kilograms of cocaine to conspirators in Michigan between 2009 and 2011. Shipments of cocaine would be received at the Arizona-Mexico border, and then driven to Michigan, where members would meet at a warehouse in Wyandotte and unload the drugs for distribution. The drug organization, records show, is a part of an international drug cartel based in Sinaloa, Mexico, and helped distribute between 100 and 300 kilograms of cocaine per month in metro Detroit from 2008 through 2011.

May 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

DEA head tells Senate DEA supports "scientific research efforts" concerning marijuana

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "DEA chief says marijuana-trafficking spiking in states near Colorado," the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency testified in Congress yesterday and expressed concerns about marijuana legalization and expressed support for mandatory minimum drug sentences:

Administrator Michele Leonhart said the DEA is troubled by the increase in marijuana trafficking in states surrounding Colorado and worries that the same phenomenon could be repeated around Washington state, where recreational marijuana is expected to be sold legally soon. In Kansas, she said, there has been a 61 percent increase in seizures of marijuana from Colorado.

Speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leonhart said the softening of attitudes nationwide about the risk of marijuana has confirmed some of the agency’s fears. “The trends are what us in law enforcement had expected would happen,” she said. “In 2012, 438,000 Americans were addicted to heroin. And 10 times that number were dependent on marijuana.”...

DEA officials have expressed frustration privately about the legalization of marijuana by Colorado and Washington state, where local officials consider the change an opportunity to generate tax revenue and boost tourism. But in January, James. L. Capra, the DEA’s chief of operations, called marijuana legalization at the state level “reckless and irresponsible,” and warned that the decriminalization movement would have dire consequences. “It scares us,” he said during a Senate hearing. “Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.”...

On Wednesday, Leonhart spoke about why she thinks marijuana is dangerous. She said that marijuana-related emergency-room visits increased by 28 percent between 2007 and 2011 and that one in 15 high school seniors is a near-daily marijuana user. Since 2009, she said, more high school seniors have been smoking pot than smoking cigarettes....

Leonhart also spoke out in support of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes, an issue Holder has highlighted recently as part of his initiative to reduce prison crowding and foster equity in criminal sentencing. Holder has instructed his 93 U.S. attorneys to use their discretion in charging low-level, nonviolent criminals with offenses that impose severe mandatory sentences.

Leonhart, in response to a question from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), said: “Having been in law enforcement as an agent for 33 years [and] a Baltimore City police officer before that, I can tell you that for me and for the agents that work at the DEA, mandatory minimums have been very important to our investigations. We depend on those as a way to ensure that the right sentences equate the level of violator we are going after.”

Though the press coverage of the DEA chief's remarks suggest she is continuing the standard drug war posture of all modern administrations, her prepared testimony (available here) included thes three notable sentences about the DEA's support for medical marijuana research:

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and other components of the National Institutes of Health are conducting research to determine the possible role that active chemicals in marijuana, like tetrahydrocannabinol, cannabidiol, or other cannabinoids may play in treating autoimmune diseases, cancer, inflammation, pain, seizures, substance use disorders, and other psychiatric disorders.  DEA supports these, scientific research efforts by providing Schedule I research registrations to qualified researchers.  In fact, DEA has never denied a marijuana-related research application to anyone whose research protocol had been determined by the Department of Health and Human Services to be scientifically meritorious.

Perhaps these kinds of statements from DEA in support of "scientifically meritorious" medical marijuana research are not uncommon.  Still, these sentences struck me as notable and telling in the context of the DEA chief's many other anti-marijuana-legalization comments.

May 1, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Judge Paul Friedman identifies drug defendant who should benefit from Clemency Project 2014

I am intrigued and pleased to have learned that this afternoon District Court Judge Paul Friedman issued an opinion in US v. McDade, No. 13-1066 (D.D.C. Apr. 29, 2014) (available for download below), which in part responds to the Justice Department's recent announcements about its new clemency initiative.  I urge all those wondering about the types of defendants and cases that the new clemency initiative might help to read Judge Friedman's new McDade opinion in full; here is a snippet that provides a sense for why:

On February 25, 2002, after a ten-day trial, a jury found defendant Byron Lamont McDade guilty of conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine. Most of the witnesses at trial were his former co-defendants or others involved in the conspiracy who had negotiated pleas with the government involving cooperation and testimony. In fact, McDade was the only one of those charged in this multi-defendant case to have proceeded to trial.  Regrettably, pursuant to the then-mandatory pre-Booker sentencing guidelines, the Court was required to sentence McDade to 324 months in prison, a sentence which the Court described at the time as “much more than sufficiently punitive.”...

At the time the Court sentenced Mr. McDade nearly twelve years ago, on May 31, 2002, he was a 34-year old married man with two young children, one of whom is disabled.  He was a high school graduate who had been employed more or less steadily as a loader for United Parcel Service, as an apprentice for a plumbing company, as a self-employed operator of a company that provided transportation to the handicapped, and as a sanitation truck driver.  He was described by his wife, a hair stylist who suffers from a heart murmur, as a good father to their children and to her son by a prior relationship.   Before his current conviction, Mr. McDade had one prior misdemeanor conviction for which he was ordered to pay a ten-dollar fine. Id. at 10-11. For the instant offense, he faced a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence and, at Offense Level 41, Criminal History Category I, a pre-Booker guideline sentence of 324 months to life.....

In denying Mr. McDade’s first motion to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, the Court [noted that] ... had Mr. McDade not exercised his constitutional right to a jury trial and instead pled guilty, the likely sentence under even a mandatory Guideline regime would have been approximately 168 months, approximately half the sentence the Court was required to impose after Mr. McDade was found guilty at trial.  [This Court also then noted that] had the Sentencing Guidelines been advisory in 2002, or if Booker were retroactive now, the Court would vary substantially from the Guideline sentence of 324 months....

Earlier this year, Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole previewed a new effort on the part of the Department of Justice to identify individuals who are potential candidates for executive clemency and sentence commutations and whom he hoped, with the help of volunteer lawyers and bar associations, would be encouraged to prepare clemency petitions to the Department of Justice.  He said at the time: “For our criminal justice system to be effective, it needs to not only be fair; but it also must be perceived as being fair. These older, stringent punishments, that are out of line with sentences imposed under today’s laws, erode people’s confidence in our criminal justice system.”  Then, just last week, Deputy Attorney General Cole formally announced a new initiative to encourage qualified federal inmates to petition to have their sentences commuted or reduced by the President, an initiative that will have the assistance of numerous volunteer attorneys and groups under the umbrella Clemency Project 2014.  He noted that the initiative is not limited to crack offenders, but to “worthy candidates” who meet six specific criteria.  He stated that this clemency initiative “will go far to promote the most fundamental of American ideals – equal justice under law.” 

The Court continues to believe that Byron McDade is a prime candidate for executive clemency.  The sentence this Court was required to impose on Mr. McDade was unjust at the time and is “out of line” with and disproportionate to those that would be imposed under similar facts today.  While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the President is not.  The Court urges Mr. McDade’s appointed counsel to pursue executive clemency on Mr. McDade’s behalf so that justice may be done in this case.

Download McDade opinion

April 29, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Short federal sentence for cocaine offense when "'Breaking Bad' meets 'Walter Mitty'"

32-waltermittyA remarkable federal drug sentencing case culminated in a short prison sentence as reported in this local article headlined "'Breaking Bad' meets 'Walter Mitty' in Alachua County contractor's cocaine sentencing."  Here are the details:

The judge said the criminal case seemed to be more like a movie than an actual court proceeding. But on Monday the strange saga of an Alachua County man who went to Puerto Rico to try and dig up 11 pounds of cocaine ended in a short prison sentence and a pledge to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan sentenced Rodney Hyden, 56, to 60 days in prison, one year of home detention and five years of supervised release.  In imposing the sentence, Corrigan said it was one of the most difficult decisions he’d had to reach in a long time.  He said he’s struggled with what the proper sentence should be.

Hyden, who owns his own construction company, will also be required to volunteer an average of 20 hours a week at Habitat for Humanity during his home detention and supervised release and will also be expected to build a Splash Park for the city of Newberry, where he lives.

Hyden could have faced 10 years in prison, but prosecutors waived the minimum mandatory laws and said the crime didn’t mandate a sentence that long.  The head of Habitat and the mayor of Newberry also wrote letters to Corrigan saying they were comfortable with Hyden providing his services.

Defense Attorney Mark Rosenblum argued that his client should be let off without jail time and required to do the community service with Habitat for Humanity and Newberry. Federal prosecutor Tysen Duva asked for 30 months of prison.  “Rodney Hyden is a good man who made a bad mistake,” Rosenblum said. “Luckily for him, the government was represented by an honest prosecutor and the case was presided over by an extremely fair judge.”

A neighbor of Hyden’s in Newberry told him that when he lived in Puerto Rico he found cocaine washed up on the beach and buried it near the trailer where he lived at the time. Hyden talked to several people about getting the cocaine, but he didn’t know that one of those people, Daniel Jimenez, was working as an informer for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.

Two undercover agents posing as narcotics traffickers met with Hyden and offered to help him get the drugs to Northeast Florida.  Hyden went to Puerto Rico twice seeking the drugs, but couldn’t find them.  He ended up giving a treasure map of where he thought the drugs might be to the undercover agents.  Police found the drugs, which had degraded to the point of being worthless, and arrested Hyden.

During the trial, Rosenblum argued that his client had been entrapped by the government and never would have gone after the drugs if people working for the government hadn’t encouraged it.  Jurors rejected that argument.

Hyden was convicted of a serious crime, but at the same time there was no real victim in the case, and even if he’d managed to retrieve the drugs he could not have sold them because they had degraded so much, Corrigan said.  Corrigan said the seriousness of the drug crime mandated some prison time, but not a lot.

The judge also dropped some pop culture references. “If this case wasn’t so serious it would make a great movie,” Corrigan said.  “It’s a combination of ‘Breaking Bad’ and the ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty.’”

April 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 20, 2014

"WWJD? Reform Alabama's horrible criminal sentencing laws"

Jesus_in_prisonThe title of this post is the headline given to this provocative commentary authored by Sue Bell Cobb, a retired Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice. Here are excerpts:

As the former Chief Justice of Alabama, I am proud to have devoted my career to the cause of justice in our state. But as a lifelong United Methodist, it shames me to know that if Jesus came to our state today, he would chastise me and every other Alabama Christian for our nearly complete silence on a terrible injustice taking place under our noses and in our names every day: ineffective, absurdly harsh sentencing laws that lead to overcrowded, dangerous prisons that breed more crime.  What would Jesus do? Fix our criminal sentencing laws.

Our shame should be all the greater because we cannot pretend that we do not know the truth. In poll after poll, we say that we understand that there are cheaper and more effective ways to punish non-violent, drug-addicted offenders than by locking them up in prison.  Virtually every Alabama newspaper has reported on our state's horrendously overcrowded prisons.

It is undisputed that no state in the nation has prisons as over-crowded and underfunded as ours.  Alabama prisons have almost twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold and far too few correctional officers guarding them.  They are terrible, deadly violent places that truly decent people would not tolerate in our midst.

The Alabama Legislature recently completed another legislative session and did nothing to remedy this deplorable situation. Why did the legislature fail to act?  A lack of leadership is an easy answer, but it is also a tremendous cop out.  As Christians, do we need politicians to show us the way? No.  In Alabama today and everywhere, except for Senator Cam Ward of Shelby County, politicians are followers, not leaders.  It falls to us, as people who profess to be passionate about true, meaningful justice to be visible and vocal on this issue.  We must lead our politicians onto the path of justice.  Thus far, we have failed to do so....

Every dollar we misspend and waste on inappropriately locking up a non-violent offender, is a dollar that is desperately needed for prevention of child abuse and neglect, mental health services, education, parks, libraries healthcare and our deteriorating infrastructure.  Prevention programs are much more cost-effective with lasting benefits that improve the quality of life for everyone.

By locking up low risk, nonviolent offenders with higher risk offenders, we are making ourselves less safe.  There are less expensive, more effective community alternative punishment programs which appropriately punish an offender without sending them off to prison.  Model drug courts, the replication of which was a major priority of mine during my tenure as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, HOPE courts, mental health courts, expanded community corrections and work release, intensive probation services, and evening juvenile reporting centers are examples of ways to hold offenders accountable, yet also try to fix the issues that initially lead them to a life of crime.

It is the Easter season, and Christians like me will fill our churches to hear the story of a prisoner who suffered a terrible and unjust punishment.  Our hearts will swell with shame over the sacrifice that Our Lord made for us -- "while we were yet sinners."  We will rededicate ourselves to serve Him.

And then we will go home and say and do nothing about the thousands of injustices in Alabama courts and prisons carried out in our name every day.

As I contemplate what that "prisoner" from 2,000 years ago would say about those prisons, I am inspired to act.  And I tremble in fear about how He will judge me if I do not.

April 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack