Thursday, March 26, 2015

New report documents huge drop in Colorado marijuana arrests since legalization

Download (7)While the impact, both good or bad, of marijuana law reform is now widely discussed and debated, there is still relatively little hard reliable data about the public health and economic consequences of these reforms.  But this new report  from the Drug Policy Alliance, headlined "Marijuana Arrests in Colorado After the Passage of Amendment 64," highlights that legalization in one state has had a profound impact on arrest data.  This DPA press release provides an overview and summary of the report, and here are excerpts:  

The report compiles and analyzes data from the county judicial districts, as well as various law enforcement agencies via the National Incident Based Reporting System (NIBRS). The report’s key findings include:

  • Since 2010, marijuana possession charges are down by more than 90%, marijuana cultivation charges are down by 96%, and marijuana distribution charges are down by 99%.
  • The number of marijuana possession charges in Colorado courts has decreased by more than 25,000 since 2010 – from 30,428 in 2010 to just 1,922 in 2014.
  • According to raw data from the NIBRS, drug-related incidents are down 23% since 2010, based on a 53% drop in marijuana-related incidents....
  • Marijuana distribution charges for young men of color did not increase, to the relief of racial justice advocates wary of a ‘net-widening’ effect following legalization. The black rate for distribution incidents dropped from 87 per 100,000 in 2012 to 25 per 100,000 in 2014.
  • Racial disparities for still-illegal and mostly petty charges persist for black people when compared to white people, primarily due to the specific increase of charges for public use combined with the disproportionate rates of police contact in communities of color. The marijuana arrest rate for black people in 2014 was 2.4 times higher than the arrest rates for white people, just as it was in 2010.
  • The report also reveals a decline in synthetic marijuana arrests, presumably because people are less likely to use synthetic marijuana when marijuana itself is no longer criminalized.

“It’s heartening to see that tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Coloradans have been spared the travesty of getting handcuffed or being charged for small amounts of marijuana,” said Art Way, Colorado State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “By focusing on public health rather than criminalization, Colorado is better positioned to address the potential harms of marijuana use, while diminishing many of the worst aspects of the war on drugs.”

“The overall decrease in arrests, charges and cases is enormously beneficial to communities of color who bore the brunt of marijuana prohibition prior to the passage of Amendment 64,” said Rosemary Harris Lytle, Regional Chair of the NAACP. “However, we are concerned with the rise in disparity for the charge of public consumption and challenge law enforcement to ensure this reality is not discriminatory in any manner.”

“What is often overlooked concerning marijuana legalization is that it is first and foremost a criminal justice reform,” said Denise Maes, Public Policy Director for the ACLU of Colorado. “This report reminds us of how law enforcement and our judiciary are now able to better allocate time and energy for more pressing concerns.”

Some prior related posts:

March 26, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Prez Obama promising to exercise "pardon power and clemency power more aggressively"

This new Huffington Post article reports on an interview with President Barack Obama in which his clemency efforts past and present were discussed. Here are highlights:

President Barack Obama plans to grant clemency to federal offenders "more aggressively" during the remainder of his presidency, he said in a sit-down interview with The Huffington Post on Friday.

Obama has faced criticism for rarely using his power to grant pardons and commutations. In December, he commuted the sentences of eight federal drug offenders, including four who had been sentenced to life. That brought his total number of commutations to 18.

Obama said he had granted clemency so infrequently because of problems in the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney. The former head of that office, who was appointed during the George W. Bush administration, resigned in April amid criticism from criminal justice advocates. "I noticed that what I was getting was mostly small-time crimes from very long ago," Obama said. "It'd be a 65-year-old who wanted a pardon to get his gun rights back. Most of them were legitimate, but they didn't address the broader issues that we face, particularly around nonviolent drug offenses. So we've revamped now the DOJ office. We're now getting much more representative applicants."

Many of those new applications came from what's known as the Clemency Project 2014, announced when the Office of the Pardon Attorney head resigned. That project, which operates independently of the government, is intended to help DOJ sort through a huge number of applicants to figure out who meets specific criteria laid out by the administration.  But the process has been slow, and some criminal justice advocates are growing frustrated. Since the project was announced, more than 35,000 inmates -- roughly 16 percent of the total federal prison population -- have submitted applications....

Obama said Friday that the public could see the results of the project soon. "I think what you'll see is not only me exercising that pardon power and clemency power more aggressively for people who meet the criteria -- nonviolent crimes, have served already a long period of time, have shown that they're rehabilitated -- but also we're working with Democrats and Republicans around criminal justice reform issues," Obama said.

The president said it was "encouraging" to see criminal justice reform and support for the elimination of some mandatory minimum sentences as a "rare area where we're actually seeing significant bipartisan interest," with some libertarians and conservatives concerned about costs joining with Democrats. "If we can get some action done at the federal level, that will make a difference in terms of how, I think, more and more states recognize it doesn't make sense for us to treat nonviolent drug offenses the way we do," Obama said.

As I have said many times before, the Obama Administration has generally be much better at talking the talk than at walking the walk on these sorts of sentencing matters. Nevertheless, I view these comments as additional reason to believe there will be many more clemency grants by President Obama in the coming year or two than in the previous five or six.

March 21, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"Law & Tactics for a Market-Reality Narcotics Policy"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article by Mark William Osler now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The War on Drugs seems to be ending, leading to a crucial question: What comes next? Legalization of narcotics (marijuana aside) is unlikely, and the pursuit of broad incarceration to create deterrence or incapacitation has been largely disavowed.  However, drug use continues to be a profound social problem that must be confronted.

This article argues for the aggressive use of asset forfeiture to capture cash flow to core sources in order to systemically disrupt narcotics networks.  Importantly, such a project would steer police efforts away from capturing people, drugs, or the profits retained by drug dealers and instead target the lifeblood of the narcotics business, which is proceeds flowing back to mass producers, importers, and major wholesalers of drugs.

This tactic would address the continuing narcotics problem without mass incarceration or the problems associated with seizing small amounts of profit through forfeitures. Fortunately, the necessary tools are already embedded in existing federal statutes; all that is left to do is to use them wisely in a new and more effective way.

March 18, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Prisons Are Making America's Drug Problem Worse"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Politico piece.  Here are excerpts that reinforce my fear that one of the biggest problems with the modern drug war is that we are fighting it so very poorly:

After two decades of rapidly rising incarceration rates — rates that continued to rise even as crime sat at record historic lows — America today has nearly 2.2 million adult inmates in local, state and federal jails and prisons, including about 300,000 who have a history of heroin addiction.  The BOP spends $110 million annually on drug treatment programs for approximately 80,000 inmates identified as dependent on narcotics.  But for the 10,000 or so federal inmates dependent on heroin or other opioids, millions of those dollars are currently spent on outdated, ineffective approaches that wrongly prohibit medication-assisted therapies — approaches that, in other words, fail to help prisoners addicted to opioids during their sentence and ultimately return them afterwards to society as addicted as they were when they went into jail.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A recent study of opioid-dependent inmates leaving Rikers Island jail in New York City showed that nearly nine out of ten inmates who were not medicated relapsed within a month, as opposed to just 2 out of 5 inmates who were on medication-assisted treatment.  The difference to society between those two numbers — in terms of health outcomes, reduced crime, and improved employment stability — is huge.

Science notwithstanding, the U.S. criminal justice system has resisted medication-assisted therapy, with only a few large urban jails (e.g. New York City, San Francisco, Albuquerque) and a handful of state prisons such as those in Rhode Island and Vermont opting to use it.  Yet most major correctional experts, including the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the National Re-Entry Resource Center and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, all recommend increasing the availability of medication-assisted therapy for opioid dependence in the country’s jails and prisons.  The U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) recently concluded that the effects of MAT are “many times greater” than behavioral therapies without medications.

Beyond the correctional world, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the United Nations Office on Drug Policy, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) all agree that people dependent on heroin and other opioids should have access to medication-assisted therapy.  In a recent publication, NIDA stated, “Taking these medications as prescribed allows patients to hold jobs, avoid street crime and violence, and reduce exposure to HIV.” The White House Office of Drug Control Policy calls MAT combined with behavioral therapy the “standard of care” for opioid dependence and recently announced that drug courts, which offer treatment as an alternative to prison for some criminal offenders, will be required to offer MAT in order to continue to receive federal dollars.

Nevertheless, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Federal Bureau of Prisons prohibits such treatments entirely for “routine” (non-detox) purposes.  Corrections officials frequently cite security concerns to justify denying buprenorphine and methadone therapy to inmates, fearing the medicine will be diverted to other prisoners — despite the fact that these issues can be resolved with tighter security measures and closer staff supervision (the prison systems of Western Europe, Scotland, Canada and even Iran can attest to that).

March 12, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, March 09, 2015

Bipartisan federal medical marijuana bill to be introduced Tuesday

As reported in this new Washington Post entry, headlined "In a first, senators plan to introduce federal medical marijuana bill," a trio of notable Senators have interesting plans for mid-day Tuesday:

In what advocates describe as an historic first, a trio of senators plan to unveil a federal medical marijuana bill Tuesday. The bill, to be introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), would end the federal ban on medical marijuana.

The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States (CARERS) Act would “allow patients, doctors and businesses in states that have already passed medical marijuana laws to participate in those programs without fear of federal prosecution,” according to a joint statement from the senators’ offices. The bill will also “make overdue reforms to ensure patients – including veterans receiving care from VA facilities in states with medical marijuana programs – access the care they need.” The proposal will be unveiled at a 12:30 p.m. press conference on Tuesday, which will be streamed live here. Patients, their families and advocates will join the senators at the press conference.

The announcement was met with praise by advocates. “This is a significant step forward when it comes to reforming marijuana laws at the federal level,” Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a statement. “It’s long past time to end the federal ban,” said Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. Both describe the introduction of the bill as a first for the Senate....

In December, Congress for the first time in roughly a decade of trying approved an amendment that bars the Justice Department from using its funds to prevent states from implementing their medical marijuana laws — a significant victory for proponents of the practice.

Potential Republican presidential candidates Rand, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) have all said they support states’ rights to legalize pot, though they themselves disagree with the policy.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 9, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Right on Crime poll reports most Texans want to "spend more money on effective treatment programs [rather than] on our prison system"

Last week, Bill Otis over at Crime & Consequences in this post wondered what the general public thinks about Attorney General Eric Holder's advocacy for "smart on crime" reforms. Bill there asks:

What is the electorate's view of the current state of crime and punishment in America? Does the public agree with the Attorney General that we have too many people in prison for too long, or does it think we aren't doing enough to keep people who commit crime off the street?  To my knowledge, this question has never been polled by any respected organization.

I am unsure if Bill would consider the Texas Public Policy Foundation or Right on Crime to be a "respected organization," but today brings the release of a new poll from these sources that suggests that Texans strongly support the state's own "smart on crime" reforms that have served as something of a model for AG Holder's own advocacy for sentencing reform. This press release, titled "New Poll Shows Voters Strongly Support New Justice Reforms in Texas," provides the details, and here are excerpts from it:

A new poll released today by Right on Crime, the nation’s leading conservative public policy campaign for criminal justice reform, shows voters strongly support criminal justice reforms in Texas.  The poll conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research for the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that the vast majority of likely Texas voters want to hold more nonviolent offenders accountable in communities, make penalties proportionate to the crime, and ensure those leaving prison spend part of their sentence-under community supervision....

The poll was conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen Opinion Research from February 24-26, 2015. The study has a sample size of 1000 likely voters, with a margin of error of ±3.1%. Some significant findings from the survey, include:

• 73% of voters in Texas strongly support reforms that would allow non-violent drug offenders found guilty of possession to be sent to a drug treatment program instead of jail.

• Voters agree that we should spend more money on effective treatment programs (61%) rather than spending more money on our prison system (26%)....

“Texans are clearly demanding a different solution to the state’s criminal justice problems, especially when it comes to nonviolent offenders,” said Right on Crime Policy Director Marc Levin.  “The primary reason to adopt these policies is that they are the most cost-effective way to fight crime, but it is reassuring to see that average Texans recognize this as well.”

March 9, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Three of "Kettle Falls Five" convicted on least serious federal marijuana charges in Washington

This AP story reports on the notable mixed verdict in a high-profile federal prosecution of a group of defendants in Washington state who claimed they were growing marijuana only for medical purposes.  Here are the details:

Three people were found guilty Tuesday of growing marijuana, but they also were exonerated of more serious charges in a widely-watched federal drug case in a state where medical and recreational marijuana is legal.

The three remaining defendants of the so-called Kettle Falls Five were all found guilty of growing marijuana. But a jury found them not guilty of distributing marijuana, conspiracy to distribute and firearms charges that carried long prison sentences.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice set sentencing for June 10.

The defendants were Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, her son Rolland Gregg and his wife, Michelle Gregg. Firestack-Harvey wiped away tears as she declared victory in the case. "The truth comes out," she said, noting that the defendants were growing marijuana for medical purposes and had cards permitting that use. "We would have loved to be exonerated of all charges."

However, there was no doubt that federal drug agents found marijuana plants growing on their property near Kettle Falls, she said.

Federal prosecutors did not speak with reporters after the verdict, which followed a full day of deliberations by the jury. Prosecutors asked that the three be taken into custody until sentencing, but Rice declined.

"It's a victory, but it's bittersweet," said Jeff Niesen, an attorney for Firestack-Harvey. "They've been convicted of a federal crime." But while the tougher charges carried sentences of a decade in prison, growing marijuana should bring a much lower sentence, Niesen said.

On Monday, attorneys for the defendants asked jurors to throw out what he described as an overzealous and overreaching case. Attorney Phil Tefleyan criticized the government's prosecution of the three, who contend they were growing medical marijuana for personal use in a case that has drawn wide attention over the government's willingness to prosecute marijuana growers. "They roped in this innocent family," Tefleyan told jurors.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Earl Hicks told jurors Monday that Washington state's stance on marijuana doesn't matter. He says the question for the jury is, "Is it legal under federal law?"

The defendants contend they didn't distribute the marijuana. But they were barred from telling jurors their claim that they grew the marijuana only for personal medical use. That issue can be raised during sentencing. Tefleyan said the government could not point to a single sale of the drug by the family. He said the evidence seized by drug enforcement agents during a raid in August 2012 — 4 pounds of marijuana and about $700 in cash — didn't support the conclusion the family was dealing.

The government has argued the family grew the plants in violation of federal law. "I don't believe there's any question in this case that we're talking about the manufacture of marijuana," Hicks told the jury.

Tefleyan placed blame for those plants on Jason Zucker, a former defendant who cut a plea deal last week, just before the trial started. Zucker, 39, testified Friday that he fronted $10,000 in costs to get the operation up and running. Zucker's plea deal called for a 16-month sentence....

Larry Harvey, 71, was recently dismissed from the case after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in December.

I believe that these defendants' acquittal on gun charges means that that they are not subject to any mandatory minimum sentencing terms, and the judge's decision to allow them to be free awaiting sentencing suggests to me that they will likely not receive significant (or perhaps any) prison time for these offenses. In addition, these defendants might have various grounds for appealing to the Ninth Circuit (although they many not want to bother if they get relatively lenient sentencing terms).

Prior related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 4, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, March 02, 2015

"A Slow Motion Lynching? The War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration, Doing Kimbrough Justice, and a Response to Two Third Circuit Judges"

The provocative title of this post is the provocative title of this new article authored by US District Judge Mark Bennett now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

A federal district court judge who has sentenced more than 4000 defendants reflects on federal sentencing and its role in mass incarceration.  The focus of the article is on federal sentencing in crack cocaine cases and policy disagreements with the United States Sentencing Guidelines (Guidelines) in drug trafficking cases.  The article explores the U.S. Supreme Court cases in Kimbrough v. United States, United States v. Spears, and Pepper v. United States, the only U.S. Supreme Court cases that address sentencing judges’ policy disagreements with the guidelines.  Ironically, or perhaps serendipitously, the author was the sentencing judge in both Spears and Pepper, where he was reversed a whopping 5 times by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (twice by an en banc court) before both defendants’ sentencing positions were vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The article takes exception to two Third Circuit judges who have argued in law review articles that federal sentencing judges should be concerned about "legislative backlash" if they sentence outside the now advisory guidelines.  In the arc of the history of federal sentencing and its impact on mass incarceration, we are perched at a cresting point where the gravity of reason and our Nation’s experience with mass incarceration hopefully will pull towards greater justice in sentencing.

March 2, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

AG Holder provides Congress a sentencing reform to-do list

This new Politico story indicates that a confirmation vote for Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as Attorney General may still be week away. But AG Holder is still in the midst of some parting shots as he prepares to leave his position, and this Washington Post commentary finds the AG making a full-throated pitch for more congressional sentencing reforms.  Here are excerpts from a piece headlined "Time to tackle unfinished business in criminal justice reform":

Today, a rare consensus has emerged in favor of reforming our federal drug sentencing laws.  This presents a historic opportunity to improve the fairness of our criminal justice system.  But unless we act quickly, we risk letting the moment pass.

The Justice Department has sought to be an early innovator on this front.  A year and a half ago, I launched the Smart on Crime initiative — a comprehensive effort to reorient the federal government’s approach to criminal justice....  Preliminary results from this effort are extremely encouraging....

Last year also witnessed the first overall reduction in the federal prison population in 32 years.  Most impressive of all, we achieved this drop in incarceration at the same time we cut the crime rate, marking the first simultaneous reduction in both crime and incarceration rates in more than four decades.

But while it is indisputable that we are moving in the right direction, there is a limit to what the Justice Department can accomplish on its own.  Moving forward, we need to build upon, and make permanent, these gains through action in Congress.... [A] few specific items of unfinished business should command our immediate attention.

First, although Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate a discriminatory 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, thousands of individuals who committed crimes before 2010 are still serving sentences based on the old ratio. This is unfair.  Congress should pass legislation to apply that statute retroactively so that no one is sitting in prison serving a sentence that Congress, the president and the attorney general have all declared unjust.

Second, while the Justice Department has declined to seek harsh mandatory minimum sentences in cases where they are not warranted, we need to codify this approach. Congress should pass one of the multiple bipartisan bills aimed at restricting and refining those crimes to which mandatory minimums apply.

Third, in individual states, legislatures should eliminate statutes that prevent an estimated 5.8 million U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote because of felony convictions.  These unfair restrictions only serve to impede the work of transitioning formerly incarcerated people back into society.

Finally, we should seek to expand the use of federal drug courts throughout the country for low-level drug offenses.  These programs provide proven alternatives to incarceration for men and women who are willing to do the hard work of recovery, and it is my hope that, in the next five years, there will be an operational drug court in every federal district — with individual states following suit.

While I will depart the Obama administration in the coming weeks — and my own formal career in law enforcement will soon draw to a close — I intend to continue this work, to promote this mission and to advance this cause.  And I hope that, in the days ahead, leaders in Congress and around the country will come together to help build the fairer, more efficient and more effective criminal justice system that all Americans deserve.

In this post over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "The President doesn’t need Congress’s help to fix unjust sentences," Will Baude properly notes that Prez Obama could take care of the first item on the AG's action list without any action by Congress.  As Will notes, the "Constitution gives the President 'Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States.' If the President indeed shares the Attorney General’s views, he can eliminate the thousands of unfair sentences at a few strokes of a pen."  Will speculates that "the President is unwilling to exercise his constitutional pardon power [this way] because he wants political cover if somebody who is pardoned later goes on to do something wrong." 

I am glad Will highlights the president could through commutations (or pardons) readily fix on his own problems and unfairness presented by the non-retroactivity of the Fair Sentencing Act.  Those problems persist because of President Obama's failure of resolve, not a failure of power, on this front.  In addition, I think the President could (and should) be using a lot more of his political time and energy trying to move Congress forward on other fronts as well (e.g., he could have, but failed to, talk at lengthy about these issues during his State of the Union address not long ago).

March 2, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Collateral consequences, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 26, 2015

US Sentencing Commission releases report on LWOP sentences in federal system

I am intrigued and pleased to see that today the US Sentencing Commission has released this effective (reader-friendly) new report titled "Life Sentences in the Federal System." The entire 20-page report is a must read for anyone (like me) who fears we pay too much attention to much attention to a handful of death sentences and too little attention to hundreds of LWOP sentences. Here is how this new report gets started:

Life imprisonment sentences are rare in the federal criminal justice system. Virtually all offenders convicted of a federal crime are released from prison eventually and return to society or, in the case of illegal aliens, are deported to their country of origin. Yet in fiscal year 2013 federal judges imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on 153 offenders. Another 168 offenders received a sentence of a specific term of years that was so long it had the practical effect of being a life sentence. Although together these offenders represent only 0.4 percent of all offenders sentenced that year, this type of sentence sets them apart from the rest of the offender population. This report examines life sentences in the federal system and the offenders on whom this punishment is imposed.

There are numerous federal criminal statutes that authorize a life imprisonment sentence to be imposed as the maximum sentence. The most commonly used of these statutes involve drug trafficking, racketeering, and firearms crimes. Additionally, there are at least 45 statutes that require a life sentence to be imposed as the minimum penalty. These mandatory minimum penalties generally are required in cases involving the killing of a federal official or other government employee, piracy, or repeat offenses involving drug trafficking or weapons. In fiscal year 2013, 64 of the 153 offenders who received a sentence of life imprisonment were subject to a mandatory minimum penalty requiring the court to impose that sentence.

February 26, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Passage of Smarter Sentencing Act is reportedly "very important" to Prez Obama

This notable new USA Today piece, headlined "Bipartisan sentencing bill gets White House support," reports that President Obama indicated at a meeting yesterday with congressional leaders that he was interested and eager to have the Smarter Sentencing Act become law. Here are the details:

President Obama is throwing his support behind a bipartisan proposal to change the nation's sentencing laws by cutting many mandatory minimum sentences in half. That commitment came out of a meeting with 16 members of Congress at the White House Tuesday night, called by the president to gather their ideas on how to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Members of Congress who attended said the main topic of conversation was the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.

Obama supported a similar bill in the last Congress, but the current proposal goes even further. Mandatory life sentences would be reduced to 20 years — effectively cutting life sentences in half because the current life sentence averages 40 years.

Another change: Those convicted of importing drugs into the United States would not be eligible for the reduced sentences unless they were merely couriers whose role was limited to transporting or storing drugs or money.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, said Obama "focused specifically" on the Smarter Sentencing Act "and his desire to have it passed."

"It was showing us that this is very important to him, and he has the resources of his administration that he's been willing to put out there," Lee told KSL Radio in Salt Lake City Wednesday.

White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that "it certainly appears" that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president's aims to "make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources."

Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner. "Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time," Obama said. "Let's keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all."

Labrador said that's an important point for Obama to make. "The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true," he said. "The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime."...

House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who also attended the meeting with Obama, would not comment on the meeting. He's been cool to sentencing changes in the past, but Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he thought Goodlatte seemed "remarkably open" to the issue.

February 25, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Two notable and timely new reform reports from The Sentencing Project

Via an e-mail from The Sentencing Project (reprinted in part below), I received this summary (with links) to two notable new reports from the group:

[Here are] two new reports from The Sentencing Project documenting changes in criminal justice policy in 2014 and successful advocacy campaign strategies in conservative state environments. The reforms highlighted in these reports represent approaches that lawmakers and advocates can consider to address sentencing policy and collateral consequences at the state level.

The State of Sentencing 2014 highlights policy changes in 30 states and the District of Columbia in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, including:

  • Scaling back sentences for low-level drug offenses

  • Reducing barriers to reentry, including employment restrictions and bans on public assistance

  • Eliminating juvenile life without parole

State Criminal Justice Advocacy in a Conservative Environment documents successful advocacy strategies employed in campaigns in Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. In these states, advocates achieved the following reforms:

  • Reduced enhanced penalties in drug-free zones in Indiana by shrinking the limit of zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, and eliminating all zones except those around schools and parks
  • Modified Missouri’s federal lifetime ban on food stamp benefits for persons with felony drug convictions
  • Closed two Texas prison facilities: the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility

February 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Early report on the early impact of Proposition 47 in California

La-me-g-prop47-crimeThis new Los Angeles Times article provides an assessment of what we know and do not know so far about the impact of the big criminal justice reform passed by California voters back in November.  The lengthy piece is headlined "Prop. 47's effect on jail time, drug rehabilitation is mixed so far," and here are excerpts:

In the months since Proposition 47 became law on Nov. 5, California's criminal justice system is already undergoing dramatic changes — and not always in expected ways. The idea was to reduce incarceration times for nonviolent offenders and focus on rehabilitation while easing jail overcrowding.

On the streets, some people who are committing Proposition 47 crimes are not being arrested, avoiding jail but also the drug treatment that could turn their lives around. Narcotics arrests have dropped by 30% in the city of Los Angeles and 48% in areas patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, as busy police officers decide that the time needed to process a case is not worth it.

Even when arrested, drug offenders are often issued a citation to appear in court and face little to no jail time if convicted. Law enforcement officials say they have lost an important tool to deal with those offenders, who remain free to get high again or steal to support their habits. Some drug addicts and their relatives agree, saying the new law allows troubled individuals to hurt themselves and steal with little consequence.

Property crimes, which include burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, have risen in much of Los Angeles County since Proposition 47 passed, according to a Times analysis of crime data. Through the end of January, property crimes were up 10% in sheriff's territory and up 7% in the city of Los Angeles, compared with the same period a year ago.

Some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions, warning that it is too soon to gauge the new law's effect and that other factors could be responsible for the increase. But to Asst. Sheriff Michael Rothans, who oversees patrol operations for the Sheriff's Department, the connection is obvious: More petty criminals on the streets mean more crimes.

"Why is property crime up? It's because of this," said Rothans, who has urged deputies to continue making drug arrests. "The same people are arrested for narcotics and property crimes. We know the cycle is continuing because we know they should have been in jail."

The new law specifies that the financial savings on the incarceration side be reinvested in truancy, drug treatment and mental health programs. But that provision does not take effect until mid-2016. Without the threat of jail time, fewer defendants are opting for the drug treatment programs that judges sometimes offer as an alternative.

Proposition 47 is at the forefront of a national trend to reduce harsh criminal penalties that led to an explosion in prison and jail populations beginning in the 1980s. It follows a revision to California's three strikes law that limits the maximum penalty to those whose last offense is serious or violent. Along with the shift of nonviolent inmates from state prison to county jails approved by the state Legislature in 2011, Proposition 47 is expected to further transform California's criminal justice landscape.

Already, the new law has had a profound effect on the Los Angeles County jails. With fewer people awaiting trial or serving time for offenses that had previously been felonies, overcrowding has subsided. As a result, jailers are keeping county-sentenced inmates for nearly all their time instead of releasing them early.

Thomas Hoffman, a former police official who was a senior advisor for the Proposition 47 campaign, said law enforcement tends to view locking up criminals as the answer, when many have reoffended after spending time in jail. Theorizing about crime increases and the proposition is premature, he said. "The arrest and rearrest of these minor offenses only postpones crime. It doesn't eliminate it. It's a momentary speed bump in these people's lives," said Hoffman, a former director of the state prison system's parole division as well as a former top official in the Inglewood and West Sacramento police departments.

Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which coordinated the Proposition 47 campaign, said it will take time for the state's criminal justice system to adjust to the changes and figure out "how to hold people accountable and stop crime."

The key to the new law's success will be whether the cost savings are indeed spent on drug treatment, said Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. "If it is not going to do that, then we are not going to see any change for the better, and we'll see people out there floundering more than they already are," Currie said.

February 22, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

More from ACSBlog's "symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system"

Last week in this post I noted that the ACSBlog  kicked off a "two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system" via this post titled "Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System."   This week brought these additional published posts in this series, al of which should be of special interest to sentencing law and policy fans:

February 20, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?

Long-time readers and most federal sentencing policy gurus know about the long-time discussion of the Smarter Sentencing Act.  The SSA seemingly had lots of bi-partisan support when got through the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last Congress, but the drug warriors helped ensure it did not get any further.

Now we have a new Congress with new leadership in the Senate and, as reported here, a new introduction of a new version of the SSA, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015.  In part because new Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has been a vocal opponent of any significant statutory drug sentencing reform, I am not especially optimistic that the new SSA has a much better chance of passage than the old SSA.  But, as the question in the title of this post highlights, the new SSA appears to have an especially prominent new advocate, as demonstrated by this press release from the office of Senator Ted Cruz tited "Sen. Cruz: Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense." Here is an excerpt from Senator Cruz's remarks last week during the introduction of the new SSA:

The issue that brings us together today is fairness. What brings us together is justice. What brings us together is common sense. This is as diverse and bipartisan array of members of Congress as you will see on any topic and yet we are all unified in saying commonsense reforms need to be enacted to our criminal justice system. Right now today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system, find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions. We’ve seen the impact of these kind of reforms in the states, the states are laboratories of democracy. My home state of Texas implemented similar reforms and from 2005 the state of Texas has seen a 22 percent decrease in crime and a 12 percent decrease in expenditures on criminal justice....

All of us agree, if you have violent criminals, if you have criminals who are using guns, who are using violence, who are dealing drugs to children, the criminal justice system should come down on them like a ton of bricks. But at the same time we need to recognize that young people make mistakes, and we should not live in a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.

There surely are issues about which Senator Cruz and I might not always agree (even though were educated around the same time at the same two higher-education institutions). But I completely agree with his view that the Smarter Sentencing Act is a common sense reform seeking to address the real problem that "today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system [and] find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions."

Notably, Senator Cruz in the past has not let GOP establishment figures stop him from being an aggressive and persistent voice for legal reforms he considers important. I am hopeful that Senator Cruz will fight the good fight on the SSA and other sentencing reform measures so as not to let old establishment folks like Senator Grassley keep the SSA and other proposals from coming up for a vote in the Senate.

A few recent and older posts on the "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:

February 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How to Talk About Sentencing Policy — and Not Disparity"

The title of this post is the title of this terrific new piece by Nancy Gertner just published by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal.  I consider most everything Prof (and former Judge) Gertner writes about sentencing to be a must-read, and these passages from the start of the piece reinforce my sense that this new commentary is especially timely and important:

I want to talk about why I don’t want to discuss sentencing disparity, why this is an issue far, far less important than issues of sentencing fairness, of proportionality, of what works to address crime. Disparity-speak has sucked the air out of all interesting and meaningful discussion of criminal justice reform for the past several decades....

The mythology of rampant sentencing disparity without guidelines has driven American sentencing for decades. The problem is that you cannot build a rational sentencing regime if the only important question is this one: Am I doing the same thing in my courtroom that you are doing in yours, even if neither of us is imposing sentences that make sense, namely, that work to reduce crime? You cannot talk about disparity unless you understand the context—disparity in sentencing with respect to what? What purposes? What characteristics? Similarly situated with respect to what? The offense? The chances of deterrence? Amenability to treatment?...

To eliminate sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission and Congress chose to treat drug quantity the same across contexts, contexts that were very different. I want to talk about those contexts and the content of a just sentence. How do we deal with drug addiction? What is the punishment that makes sense? When is drug treatment appropriate in lieu of imprisonment? I want to talk about problem solving courts, reentry programs, and meaningful diversions. How can neuroscience help us craft treatment? What evidence based practices should we implement? What works?

And, above all, I want to talk about how to meaningfully undo the catastrophe of mass incarceration in this country, the catastrophe that we have created with our dual emphasis on eliminating disparity, and imprisonment as a cure all. It is a “one size fits all” approach, and that “size” has been ever more imprisonment. I want to talk about our uniformity-focused, criminal-record emphasis, incarceration-obsessed criminal justice policy.

February 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, February 13, 2015

Is a federal judge about to declare unconstitutional federal marijuana law? And then what?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters report on an on-going federal criminal trial in California. Here is why:

A federal judge hearing the case of nine men accused of illegally growing marijuana in California said Wednesday she was taking very seriously arguments by their attorneys that the federal government has improperly classified the drug as among the most dangerous, and should throw the charges out.

Judge Kimberly J. Mueller said she would rule within 30 days on the request, which comes amid looser enforcement of U.S. marijuana laws, including moves to legalize its recreational use in Washington state, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska.

"If I were persuaded by the defense's argument, if I bought their argument, what would you lose here?" she asked prosecutors during closing arguments on the motion to dismiss the cases against the men.

The men were charged in 2011 with growing marijuana on private and federal land in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California near the city of Redding. If convicted, they face up to life imprisonment and a $10 million fine, plus forfeiture of property and weapons.

In their case before Mueller in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, defense lawyers have argued that U.S. law classifying pot as a Schedule One drug, which means it has no medical use and is among the most dangerous, is unconstitutional, given that 23 states have legalized the drug for medical use.

Lawyer Zenia Gilg, who represented defense attorneys for all of the men during closing arguments, pointed to Congress' recent decision to ban the Department of Justice from interfering in states' implementation of their medical marijuana laws as evidence of her contention that the drug's classification as Schedule One should be overturned. "It's impossible to say that there is no accepted medical use," said Gilg, who has argued that her client was growing pot for medical use.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Broderick said that it was up to Congress to change the law, not the court. He said that too few doctors believed that marijuana had medical uses for the drug's definition to change under the law. "We're not saying that this is the most dangerous drug in the world," Broderick said. "All we're saying is that the evidence is such that reasonable people could disagree."

Notably, this new Bloomberg article, headlined "Grower’s Case Rivets Investors Seeking Pot of Gold," suggests that those interested in investing in the marijuana industry think that merely "the fact that the judge has agreed to consider the issue is an enormously significant event.” Obviously, this event becomes even more significant if (when?) a federal judge declares unconstitutional the placement of marijuana on Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 13, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Highlighting the role of prosecutorial activity in modern mass incarceration

Images (3)I am pleased to see this new Slate piece giving attention to Professor John Pfaff's important and effective analysis of the reasons for modern mass incarceration.  The piece is headlined "Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?: A provocative new theory," and here is how the piece sets up a Q&A with John, along with a key portion of the Q&A explaining the heart of John's statistical insights:

Criminal justice reform is a contentious political issue, but there’s one point on which pretty much everyone agrees: America’s prison population is way too high.  It’s possible that a decline has already begun, with the number of state and federal inmates dropping for three years straight starting in 2010, from an all-time high of 1.62 million in 2009 to about 1.57 million in 2012.  But change has been slow: Even if the downward trend continues, which is far from guaranteed, it could take almost 90 years for the country’s prison population to get down to where it was in 1980 unless the rate of decline speeds up significantly.

What can be done to make the population drop faster? Many reformers, operating under the assumption that mass incarceration is first and foremost the result of the war on drugs, have focused on making drug laws less punitive and getting rid of draconian sentencing laws that require judges to impose impossibly harsh punishments on people who have committed relatively minor crimes. But according to John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, neither of those efforts will make a significant dent in the problem, because they are based on a false understanding of why the prison boom happened in the first place.  Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be.  If he’s right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.

In a conversation with Slate, Pfaff explains his theory....

Q: So why did the prison population keep on rising after 1991, when the crime wave ended? It seems like if your theory is right, that the increase in violent crime and property crime caused the prison boom, the end of the crime wave should have been accompanied by decreasing incarceration rates.

A: Three things could have happened. One, police just got much more efficient—they’re just arresting more and more people, with new policing technologies, new policing approaches—maybe they’re just arresting a bigger share of offenders. But we don’t actually see that. Arrests tend to drop with the crime rate. So the total number of people being arrested has fallen. The other thing it could be is we’re just locking people up for longer—but like I said, it’s not that. So clearly what’s happening is we’re just admitting more people to prison. Though we have a smaller pool of people being arrested, we’re sending a larger and larger number of them to prison.

Q: Why would that be?

What appears to happen during this time — the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available — is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3.  So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies.  I can’t tell you why they’re doing that.  No one’s really got an answer to that yet.  But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.

As regular readers likely know, I am a big fan of John Pfaff's research.  Anyone concerned about mass incarceration, especially at the state level, need to look at his research, and I think John is very right to focus on the importance of state prosecutorial activities and the relatively limited direct impact of the modern federal drug war on state incarceration realities.  (I must note, though, that John's analysis here is not now really "new and provocative": as this 2009 post notes, John himself highlighted this statistical story in a Slate commentary six years ago and most informed folks know prosecutorial activities have played a huge role in modern mass incarceration.)

That said, in part because John's analysis  is especially focused on state data, I fear he misses how the modern drug war, fueled especially by the growth of the federal criminal system, provides one big explanation for why and how "over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges."   In the 1980s and before, the feds generally prosecuted significantly less than 10,000 drug cases each year.  But thanks largely to the tough new drug penalties (and added prosecutorial resources) that the Congress put in place by the end of the 1980s, the feds started prosecuting tens of thousands more drug offenders each year and averaged more than 25,000 yearly drug prosecutions through the 2000s.  These additional federal prosecution of drug offenders surely freed up state prosecutors to focus more time and attention on other cases/offenders and allowed them to get "much more aggressive in how they filed charges."

In other words, in the 1980s and before, the feds prosecuted far less than 100,000 drug offenders each decade, and all the other folks arrested by states were not as aggressively prosecuted because state prosecutors saw limited value in cycling lots of lower-level drug offenders through their system.  But throughout the ’90s and 2000s, the feds prosecuted well over 500,000 drug offenders; that freed up space, time, energy for other folks arrested by states to be aggressively prosecuted.  (These forces also had a synergistic impact as new tough three-strikes laws in states and at the federal level extended greatly the terms of those repeatedly cycling through criminal justice systems.)

My point here is not to assert that John's data analysis is misguided or inaccurate in any way.  But I do think it important --- indeed, essential --- to see how the drug war and other toughness effort at both the federal and state level fed off each other in order to change state prosecutorial behaviors in the way John highlights.  And, perhaps most importantly, all of this needs to be studied closely to fully understand how we got into our modern costly mass incarceration mess and how we might best find out way out.

Prior posts about Prof. John Pfaff's important research:

February 8, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 05, 2015

"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"

The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:

Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.

The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....

Earned-time credits....

Easing up mandatory minimums....

Juvenile-justice reform....

Reducing recidivism....

Sealing and expunging records....

Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....

There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?

Ross-ulbricht-600x450This Wired article provides the basic story on a notable modern federal defendant who, thanks to a jury verdict yesterday, is now a high-profile convicted felon awaiting sentencing:

A jury has spoken, and the mask is off: Ross Ulbricht has been convicted of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, secret mastermind of the Silk Road online narcotics empire.

On Wednesday, less than a month after his trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, 30-year-old Ulbricht was convicted of all seven crimes he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders.  It took the jury only 3.5 hours to return a verdict.  Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison; the maximum is life.  But Ulbricht’s legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judge’s decisions throughout the case.

As the verdict was read, Ulbricht stared straight ahead. His mother Lyn Ulbricht slowly shook her head, and his father Kirk put a hand to his temple. After the verdict, Ulbricht turned around to give his family a stoic smile.  “This is not the end,” Ulbricht’s mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. “Ross is a hero!” shouted a supporter.

From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the government’s evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Road’s billion-dollar marketplace under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts was practically overwhelming.  When the FBI arrested Ulbricht in the science fiction section of a San Francisco public library in October of 2013, his fingers were literally on the keyboard of his laptop, logged into the Silk Road’s “mastermind” account.  On his seized laptop’s hard drive, investigators quickly found a journal, daily logbook, and thousands of pages of private chat logs that chronicled his years of planning, creating and day-to-day running of the Silk Road. That red-handed evidence was bolstered by a college friend of Ulbricht’s who testified at trial that the young Texan had confessed creating the Silk Road to him. On top of that, notes found crumpled in his bedroom’s trashcan connected to the Silk Road’s code.  Ulbricht’s guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agent’s analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black market’s bitcoins from the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.

Ulbricht’s defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an “economic experiment,” one that he quickly gave up to other individuals who grew the site into the massive drug empire the Silk Road represented at its peak in late 2013.  Those purported operators of the site, including the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the “perfect fall guy.”...

But that dramatic alternative theory was never backed up with a credible explanation of the damning evidence found on Ulbricht’s personal computer.  The defense was left to argue that Ulbricht’s laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computer — perhaps via a Bittorrent connection he was using to download an episode of the Colbert Report at the time of his arrest.  In their closing arguments, prosecutors called that story a “wild conspiracy theory” and a “desperate attempt to create a smokescreen.” It seems the jury agreed.

Despite the case’s grim outcome for Ulbricht, his defense team seemed throughout the trial to be laying the grounds for an appeal.  His lead attorney Joshua Dratel called for a mistrial no less than five times, and was rejected by the judge each time. Dratel’s protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecution’s evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Road’s Icelandic server by FBI investigators seeking to locate the computer despite its use of the Tor anonymity software. As the trial began, Dratel butted heads with the prosecution and judge again on the issue of cross-examining a Department of Homeland Security witness on the agency’s alternative suspects in the case, including bitcoin mogul and Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles. And in the last days of the trial, Dratel strongly objected again to a decision by the judge to disallow two of the defense’s expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications....

Ulbricht will nonetheless be remembered not just for his conviction, but also for ushering in a new age of online black markets.  Today’s leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcement’s crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sites’ operators, like prosecuting Ulbricht, will likely require the same intense, multi-year investigations by three-letter agencies.

Though I am not familiar with all the likely sentencing particulars, I would expect a guidelines calculation in this case to be life and that prosecutors will urge a guideline-recommended LWOP sentence. The defense surely will seek the minimum sentence, which in this case is the not-so-minimum 30 years in the federal greybar hotel.

In addition to pursuing their appeal, Ulbricht's defense team might reach out to Brian Doherty at Reason, who has this provocative commentary headlined "Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace: The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty." Here are excerpts:

[T]he government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America....

Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did.

The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.

February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Sign of the drug war times: risk-management review of state drug-law reforms

There are many diverse signs, and many diverse consequences, of our modern (retrenching?) drug war, especially with respect to state-level reform of marijuana prohibitions.  One such interesting sign and consequences arrived in my e-mail this morning via this link to this post by a risk management firm titled "Recap of Drug-Related State Legislation Passed in 2014." This helpful resource is introduced this way:

One trend that hiring managers should take note of in 2015 is the increased fragmentation of state drug test regulations.  Exactly half of all states passed legislation in 2014 that touches upon or completely regulates drug testing in some way or another.

With more and more attention being given to developments in medical and recreational marijuana laws, it may be hard to imagine that the United States is not trending away from drug testing in the workplace.  It is true that public opinion about certain controlled substances is shifting, but legislation is still being passed that creates provisions for drug testing employees, banning synthetic substances, and penalizing intoxicated motorists.

The diversity of laws and court decisions produced in 2014 is proof that the line between pro-employer and pro-employee is vague and becoming more difficult to draw-out.  As laws in some states provide new “rights” to individuals to consume intoxicating substances, other laws in those states as well as other places reinforce the rights of employers and citizens seeking to ensure safe workplaces and communities.

I am not, of course, an expert on labor and employment law. But this posting provides perhaps more evidence that labor and employment lawyers need to be experts on modern drug law reforms in order to serves their clients effective.

February 4, 2015 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, January 30, 2015

Aggressive litigation prompts federal prosecutor in Chicago to drop stash house sting

As reported in this lengthy front-page Chicago Tribune article, aggressive litigation by the federal defense bar concerning aggressive federal drug-war tactics have now resulted in federal prosecutors backing off the most aggressive federal criminal charges these tactics have generated.  The article is headlined "Chicago prosecutors quietly drop charges tied to drug stash house stings," and here is how it begins:

Federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly dropped narcotics conspiracy charges against more than two dozen defendants accused of ripping off drug stash houses as part of controversial undercover stings that have sparked allegations across the country of entrapment and racial profiling.

The decade-old strategy is also under fire because federal authorities, as part of a ruse, led targets to think large quantities of cocaine were often stashed in the hideouts, ensuring long prison terms upon conviction because of how federal sentencing guidelines work. Experts said the move by Chicago prosecutors marked the first step back by a U.S. attorney's office anywhere in the country in connection with the controversial law enforcement tactic.

In the court filings seeking the dismissals, prosecutors gave no clue for the unusual reversal, and a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to comment. But the move comes two months after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke to the policy, ordering a new trial for a Naperville man who alleged he was goaded into conspiring to rob a phony drug stash house by overzealous federal agents.

The stings, led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been highly criticized for targeting mostly minority suspects, many of whom were drawn into the bogus rip-offs by informants who promised easy money at vulnerable points in their lives.

The cases are built on an elaborate ruse concocted by the ATF. Everything about the stash house is fictitious and follows a familiar script, from supposedly armed guards that need to be dealt with to the quantity of drugs purportedly stashed there. By pretending the house contains a large amount of narcotics, authorities can vastly escalate the potential prison time defendants face, including up to life sentences. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought to drop drug conspiracy charges in seven of the nine pending stash-house cases, leading some of the judges to quickly approve the move without a hearing.

In each case, the defendants — 27 in all — still face weapons and other charges for the alleged scheme and potentially long prison sentences upon conviction. But without the drug conspiracy charges, the mandatory minimum sentences for most of the defendants would drop to just five years in prison from as much as 25 years, according to Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

The ATF investigations have also faced legal backlash around the country, including in California, where last year two federal judges ruled the stings amounted to entrapment.

Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said hundreds of people nationally have been charged as part of the drug house ruse. The ATF has been using this sting for at least a decade, she said. Tinto said she believes the decision to drop the cases in Chicago is an acknowledgment of the fact that federal agents involved in the sting set the quantity of the phony drugs, a critical factor in driving the sentencing.

The dismissal of the seven cases likely "signals that the government is starting to take a critical look both at these tactics and the immense sentencing these tactics can bring," Tinto said.  "In this tactic the drugs are imaginary, and the amount of the drugs is set by the government."

I have been preaching in recent years that I have come to believe that aggressive litigation taking on some of the worst extremes of the federal drug war and excesses of mass incarceration was more likely to "move the sentencing reform needle" as much, if not more, than legislative advocacy directed and a gridlocked Congress. This story reinforces my sense that more and more federal judges are growing more and more willing to criticize and seek to rein in what they more and more are seeing as federal prosecutorial overreach in the drug war and elsewhere.

January 30, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Did feds just win the drug war?: kingpin twin drug dealers get kingly sentencing break thanks to cooperation

ImagesAs detailed in this AP story, headlined "Trafficking Twins Get Sharply Reduced Sentences," the sentencing benefits of cooperating with the government was on full display yesterday in a Chicago federal courtroom. Here are the details:

Identical twin brothers who ran a drug-trafficking ring that spanned much of North America were sentenced Tuesday to 14 years in prison after a judge agreed to sharply reduce their penalty as a reward for becoming government informants and secretly recording Mexico's most notorious drug lord.

In a rare courtroom display, it was a federal prosecutor who poured praise on Pedro and Margarito Flores, portraying them as among the most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history and describing the courage they displayed in gathering evidence against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other leaders in Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.

With credit for time served awaiting sentencing and for good behavior in prison, the brothers, now 33, could be out in as little as six years.

Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo likened Americans' sense of security to walls and scolded the brothers for introducing drugs that fueled violence and despair. "You devastated those walls. You knocked them down," he said.  The twins' cooperation was the only thing that spared them from an actual life sentence, Castillo told the brothers. But, he added, they would still serve a life sentence of sorts — having to look over their shoulders the rest of their lives in constant fear of a deadly attack by an assassin working for the cartel they betrayed.

Castillo said the twins were the most significant traffickers ever in his court.  But he said he had also never seen traffickers at the height of their power and wealth come forward to offer to become government witnesses, as the siblings had.

The twins appeared in court with the same olive-green clothes and the same closely cropped haircuts. Both kept tapping one foot nervously throughout the hourlong hearing. Just before the judge imposed a sentence, each walked to a podium separately to speak, appearing uneasy. "I'm ashamed. I'm embarrassed. I'm regretful," Margarito Flores said. "There is no excuse."

So successful was their criminal enterprise that the jewelry-loving, Maserati-driving twins smuggled $1.8 billion — wrapped in plastic and duct tape — into Mexico, according to prosecutors....

Prosecutor Mike Ferrara had asked for a sentence of around 10 years. He noted the twins' cooperation led to indictments of Guzman and more than 50 others. The twins began cooperating with agents in 2008 and engaged cartel leaders for months, sometimes switching on recorders and shoving them in their pockets. They continually risked death, Ferrara said.

The 5-foot-4 twins' trafficking careers soared after they left Chicago to live in Mexico around 2004. In mid-2005, they met with Guzman in his secret mountain compound to cut major drug deals, government filings said. The brothers ran their operation from a Mexican ranch. Their network stretched from its Chicago hub to New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and to Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia....

Later Tuesday, Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announced new charges against several Sinaloa figures stemming from the twins' cooperation. Asked about their lenient sentences and the message it sent to other would-be cartel traffickers, Fardon said it should demonstrate, "You can right some of what you did wrong ... by helping the government."

So does this all mean that the federal drug war can be declared officially over, and that we can claim the good guys officially won this 50-year costly war?  After all, this was a sentencing of two of the most significant drug traffickers, and they have become the "most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history."  Surely this must scare off and deter all other current and would-be drug dealers and all the trillions in taxpayer dollars spent on the drug war has now been vindicated as money well spent.  

Of course, I am asking the question above and in the title of this post with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek.  A key problem with the drug war, as I see it, is that even a huge drug war "victory" in catching and prosecuting some drug dealers typically will make it that much more valuable and enticing for other drug dealers to seek to replace the captured criminals.  I fear that , unless and until illegal drug demand is reduced,  illegal drug suppliers will be plentiful in part because the drug war makes their activities potentially much more lucrative.  

January 28, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the The Vera Institute of Justice.  Here is a description of the report I received today via an e-mail from The Vera Institute of Justice:

Enacted in 1973, New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug offenses.  This heralded a wave of mandatory sentencing statutes that swept the nation, contributing to dramatic increases in state prison populations and fueling the racial disparities that have come to characterize the U.S. criminal justice system.  In 2009, however, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were essentially dismantled by the latest in a series of reforms that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for the possession, use, or small-scale sale of illegal drugs and increased eligibility for diversion treatment.

In End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University examine the impact of reform soon after implementation and suggest mid-course corrections.  The research team compared cases pre and post-reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, recidivism, and cost. Researchers also interviewed 35 criminal justice stakeholders to assess their perceptions of the impact of drug law reform.  The National Institute of Justice-funded study, which focused on New York City where the majority of the state’s prison population is from, found that drug law reform, as it functioned in the city soon after the laws were passed, led to a 35 percent rise in the rate of diversion among eligible defendants. Although the use of diversion varied significantly among the city’s five boroughs, it was associated with reduced recidivism rates, and cut racial disparities in half.

January 20, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, January 16, 2015

AG Holder announces notable new limits on civil forfeitures to fund local police

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the out-going Attorney General today announce a notable new policy that ought to take some of the economic incentives out of some drug war enforcement activities. Here are the basics:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred. Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.

Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.

“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement. Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.

While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund. A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”

Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

January 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014

Josh Gerstein has this notable new piece up at Politico headlined "Grassley questions Obama commutation drive," about a notable new inquiry directed to Attorney General Holder concerning the Obama Administration's (quirky?) efforts to ramp up its clemency activities. Here are excerpts:

New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley is questioning the arrangements surrounding President Barack Obama's drive to shorten the sentences of some drug convicts.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican asks for information about the relationship between the Justice Department and "Clemency Project 2014" — a consortium of outside groups formed in response to calls from administration officials to help federal prisoners prepare applications for the clemency effort.

"I am unaware of any time in history in which the Department of Justice has delegated any of these core attributes of presidential power to private parties beholden to no one, and who have their own agendas that may not coincide with the President's," Grassley wrote in the letter (posted here). "When private parties are wrongly given the ability to exercise any role in that public trust, then both the fairness of the pardon process and the appearance of its fairness are jeopardized."

Grassley's letter draws in large part on a POLITICO story last week which said that the new effort is struggling with more than 25,000 requests from inmates and that lawyers involved in the project have suggested applicants which route their clemency petitions through the project will stand a better or faster chance of favorable action than those who submit applications independently. The project—run by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers— is also screening applications and weeding out those it considers unmeritorious under criteria the Justice Department set forth last April.

"Please tell me what formal arrangements exist between the Department and the Clemency Project 2014 to coordinate the processing of pardon applications, including what direction Clemency Project lawyers are given, what actions they take for the Department, and, how, if at all, Department of Justice lawyers consider the work product provided by these organizations or follow their recommendations," Grassley wrote. The senator also asks if anyone in the Justice Department is aware of statements suggesting those who submit applications through the project will have "superior access to the Department's pardon process."...

Grassley's letter refers to "pardon applicants," but the petitions prisoners are submitting are actually requests for commutations — a form of executive clemency that serves to shorten a prisoner's sentence.

The president can grant a commutation to anyone for virtually any reason. However, such applications are traditionally routed through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which prepares recommendations and sends them to the department's No. 2 official, who forwards them to the White House.

The new commutation drive the Justice Department announced last year is aimed largely at paring back the sentences of convicts sent to prison for long terms relating to trafficking in crack cocaine. Those prisoners tend to be disproportionately minority as compared to those convicted of handling powdered cocaine. A law Obama signed in 2010 reduced that disparity for defendants sentenced after that time, but it was not retroactive.

The full Grassley letter is quite interesting, and not just because it gives some grief to Obama Administration about how it appears to be approaching its latest clemency push.  The letter asked a host of hard questions about what exactly DOJ and Clemency Project 2014 are up to, while also asserting in a final paragraph that "[j]ustice in the award of presidential pardons requires a transparent, fair process." And, unsurprisingly, the letter does not mention the sad reality that presidential clemency actions of the last two presidents have involved nothing resembling a "transparent, fair process."    

Among other notable aspects of this letter, Senator Grassley's obvious interest in these matter suggests that clemency issues are likely to be raised in some way during the upcoming confirmation hearings for AG Holder's replacement.  

January 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"

Meme1The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:

Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term.  Safely re­elected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective.  As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years.  Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:

Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting state­licensed growers and retailers.  Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...

Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.

Sentencing Reform.  Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums.  Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....

Clemency.  After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions.  Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations.  Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....

A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration.  The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.

If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence.  He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress.  And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....

If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization.  Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.

This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.

On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.

On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.

January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 03, 2015

"How did a law to regulate heroin traffic turn into the costly, futile War on Drugs?"

150102_schneider_heroin_wikimedia1The title of this post is the subtitle of this lengthy Politico magazine feature carrying the headline "A Hundred Years’ Failure." These titles highlight the basic themes of an article that reviews lots of interesting parts of the modern drug war's back-story, giving special emphasis to opiates and heroin along the way.  Here are a few excerpts from a piece that merits a read in full:

Twenty-five years ago, the stated goal of the United States’ anti-narcotic efforts according to the Department of Justice was to “disrupt, destroy and dismantle drug trafficking enterprises.” That same year, the U.S. government pumped almost $8 billion into anti-drug efforts, including $600 million in prison construction alone. It was just a typical fiscal year during the height of the drug war. But two and a half decades later, despite this dizzying spending, we don’t need a drug czar to tell us—even though one of them has—the war on drugs, by its own measures, has been a century-long failure.

A hundred years ago this month, the U.S. government started this fight to rid us of the scourge of opiates. Today, not only have we failed to control drug demand, an entirely new breed of opiate epidemic has flourished in the face of the most draconian drug laws in the world. Aided by aggressive Big Pharma marketing and enthusiastic “pain specialists,” opiate abuse has simply taken on a new shape, moving from urban enclaves and overrunning pockets of New England and the South, from rural Vermont to the suburbs of Dallas, that have little history of widespread drug abuse. Heroin today is cheaper and purer than it was 50 years ago. That’s to say nothing of the 700 percent increase in incarceration of American citizens in the past four decades, the distribution of nearly $450 million worth of military equipment that is used by local and state law enforcement agencies (that “militarization of the police” you’ve been reading so much about lately), and the creation of a wasteful, labyrinthine bureaucracy dedicated to what has proven a perhaps impossible goal: The eradication of drugs....

At the beginning of the 20th century, everyone’s medicine cabinet contained opium in some form. Patent medicines mixed alcohol and opium, and women used them for menstrual cramps, coughs and other minor symptoms, as well as for infants’ teething pains. Aging Civil War veterans self-injected morphine to soothe old wounds, and physicians dosed patients liberally with opium pills and morphine. Opium smokers, usually Chinese, but also habitués of the urban underworld and the occasional slumming college student, were the most common recreational users....

During the Progressive Era, a culture war was raging over sexuality, alcohol and modern life—as seen in efforts to censure pornography and eliminate “red light” districts—and prohibition offered the best hope of legislating moral certainty. While alcohol prohibition had the largest domestic constituency, drug prohibition fit with foreign policy interests. Years of lobbying by religious groups in both the United States and Britain, who were appalled at opium smoking in China and places to which the Chinese emigrated, culminated in the 1912 Hague Convention, where a dozen countries agreed to regulate the international narcotics traffic and signatories promised to limit opiate use in their own countries....

After a century of aggressive policing, mandatory minimums and enforcement that disproportionately targeted the most marginalized of American citizens, the failure of the war on drugs is ultimately a cautionary tale about pursuing an agenda at any cost—financial or human. From the founding of a vast bureaucratic infrastructure to support the new war, to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on military police equipment, to the $50 billion spent annually on incarceration, the story of fighting addiction in America has brought out its mirror image: An irrational dependence, despite all logic to the contrary, on a steady flow of government cash and brute enforcement.

We should have just said no.

January 3, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, December 26, 2014

South Dakota legislator suggests using drug war proceeds to fund public defenders

This local article, headlined "Hickey: Use seized drug money for public defender," reports on some notable public advocacy by a public official concerning public defenders in South Dakota.  Here are the details:

A Sioux Falls lawmaker wants to use seized drug money to help pay the legal defense bills of those who can't afford a lawyer, but the state's attorney general says counties should look elsewhere to save money on court-appointed attorney costs.

Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, says the money in the state's Drug Control Fund is correctly used to tackle the problem of drug use, but he says he worries about the legal costs counties bear after the arrest. The fund is made up of money seized during drug investigations and money from the sale of seized property, such as vehicles.

"My thought is that we should put some of that money not just into catching more bad guys, but put some of it into the cost of defending them we're stuck with afterward," Hickey said. "We get excited about sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, but after those tickets get written, someone has to pick up the tab."

Hickey's bill would ask for a more thorough accounting of the money seized by law enforcement from suspected drug dealers and direct between 25 percent and 50 percent of it toward the legal fees amassed by counties. The fund is administered by Attorney General Marty Jackley's Office, which decides where the seized money is spent. "It seems to me that there's very little oversight," Hickey said....

Counties are legally obligated to offer court-appointed lawyers to the indigent. Local governments can ask that legal fees be repaid, but many bills go unpaid, either because defendants don't earn enough or own enough to pay or because they go to prison or jail.

Hickey's proposal comes alongside growing concerns over court-appointed attorney fees in Minnehaha County. Commissioners want judges to consider income guidelines when deciding whether to appoint a public defender, and they've offered a county employee to check defendants' income statements.

The state's largest county has spent $3.8 million on indigent defense this year, but reimbursements from defendants stand at $824,000. The county also has more than $26 million in liens on defendants who haven't paid their bill.

Commissioner Cindy Heiberger hasn't seen Hickey's proposal, but says any discussion about helping the counties that shoulder the burden of legal defense is welcome. "It sounds really good on the surface. Anything we can use to pay for court-appointed attorneys or court costs is something we should talk about," Heiberger said. But, she cautioned, "when we're taking money from one pot and moving it to another, we need to make sure the logistics make sense for everyone."

The notion of using seized drug money to pay for criminal defense doesn't sit well with Attorney General Marty Jackley. The drug control fund consists of money seized from suspected drug sales and other cash collected from auctioning off seized vehicles and other property. "I do not support using the profits of criminals to defend their activities," Jackley said.

The money pays the drug testing bills for cities and counties, Jackley said, and the remaining money is used to buy vehicles, camera systems and other items for local police and sheriff's departments. Giving some of the money to counties for indigent defense could force local agencies to bear the cost of drug testing and reduce the availability of funds for equipment upgrades and replacements.

In 2013, $70,514 was awarded from the drug control fund for law enforcement and prosecution costs in Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County. Overall in 2013, $643,722 was awarded from the drug control fund to local agencies. Drug control money pays an average of $60,000 per month to local law enforcement for drug testing, according to DCI records.

December 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Nebraska and Oklahoma sue Colorado in US Supreme Court over marijuana legalization

As reported in this local article, "Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning filed a lawsuit Thursday with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that Colorado’s legalization of marijuana violates the U.S. Constitution."  Here is more on the latest fascinating development in the world of marijuana reform law and policy:

At a press conference Thursday, Bruning said he was being joined in the case by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. "Federal law undisputedly prohibits the production and sale of marijuana," Bruning said. "Colorado has undermined the United States Constitution, and I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold our constitutional principles."

Bruning said he placed a courtesy call to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers before filing the lawsuit. Suthers said in a news release he was not “entirely surprised” to learn of the lawsuit. “We believe this suit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it in the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

Some Nebraska law enforcement officers undoubtedly will welcome Thursday’s action. Anticipating that the attorney general planned to announce a lawsuit, Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said Thursday he supports the move. "This stuff is illegal here, it’s coming here and it’s had an adverse effect on our citizens and way of life," Overman said. "Nebraska, from highest elected officials on down, should do something about it."...

He blamed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for not enforcing federal drug laws in Colorado. "I am adamantly against the spread of marijuana across our country," Bruning said. He said he talked recently with a father who said marijuana was a "gateway drug" for his teen.

Colorado’s legalization of pot use has had a significant impact on Nebraska law enforcement agencies. Many departments, particularly in western Nebraska counties along Interstate 80, have seen spikes in their marijuana-related arrests tied to legally purchased pot that transforms into contraband once it crosses the border. At the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle, authorities regularly apprehend travelers coming from southeast Colorado with marijuana.

During a September hearing on the issue in Ogallala, Nebraska, a panel of lawmakers heard law enforcement authorities express concern about the flow of high-potency pot into Nebraska and increasing numbers of impaired drivers and possession by teens as young as 14. "Nebraska taxpayers have to bear the cost," Bruning said Thursday. "We can’t afford to divert resources to deal with Colorado’s problem."

Via the Denver Post, the 83-page SCOTUS filing can be found at this link.

Wowsa (and cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform)!

December 18, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

President Obama (aka clemency grinch) grants a few holiday pardons and commutations

GrinchFollowing the holiday script he first wrote with a few clemency grants last year the week before Christmas (as reported in this prior post), President Obama this afternoon granted 20 clemencies in the form of 8 commutations and 12 pardons.  This AP story provides the basics and some background:

President Barack Obama on Wednesday cut short prison time for eight drug convicts as part of his new initiative to reduce harsh sentences under outdated guidelines, a step that could lead to a vast expansion of presidential clemency in his final two years in office.

The president also is pardoning 12 convicts for a variety of offenses.  But the commutations are particularly significant because they are the first issued under new guidelines announced earlier this year designed to cut costs by reducing the nation's bulging prison population and grant leniency to nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to double-digit terms....

The White House said the eight new commutations Obama granted were for prisoners who likely would receive a substantially lower sentence today and would have already served their time.  For example, they include Barbara Scrivner, who was sentenced to 30 years in 1995 when she was 27 years old for a minor role in her husband's meth ring. Obama ordered her sentence to expire June 12, while others will expire April 15.

Administration officials say they expect Obama to grant more clemency petitions in his final two years in office under the changed policy he ordered from the Justice Department. The White House said 6,561 people already have applied in the past year, compared to 2,370 the year before. "I think there is an awareness out there that this president is interested in granting clemency on these kinds of matters," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in an interview.

The clemency policy changes aren't limited to drug offenders, who comprise about half of the roughly 216,000 federal prisoners, but the criteria makes it clear they are the main target. To be eligible, inmates must have already been behind bars for at least 10 years, have a nonviolent history, have no major criminal convictions, have a good behavior record in prison, and be serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter than what they were given at the time....

In his first term, Obama commuted just one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people, causing prisoner advocates to accuse him of being too stingy with his power. Obama aides said it was because he wasn't receiving more positive recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney so he directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who in April announced the clemency policy changes, said the sentence commutations reflect a "commitment to bring fairness to our criminal justice system."

"While all eight were properly held accountable for their criminal actions, their punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for low-level offenders," he said in a statement....

The White House noted Obama now has commuted 18 sentences, compared to 11 under President George W. Bush and three in the first six years of the Clinton presidency. Clinton eventually commuted 61, most in a controversial action on his last day in office.

The full list of the lucky receipients of this act of presidential grace can be found here via the White House.  And this link provide the full text of Deputy AG Cole's statement about these clemency grants.  I expect the folks who follow the ins-and-outs of clemency even more closely than I do will have a lot to say in the days ahead about what might be special about the folks on this clemency list.

Though I do not want to criticize the President too much on a day in which he finally saw fit to make some minor use of his constitutional clemency authority, I will still think of him as a clemency grinch until he begins more regularly granting commutations to a whole lot more offenders still stuck serving severe (and now repealed) crack sentences.  There are, I believe, thousands of federal prisoners still serving time for crack offenses based on the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio, and there are surely many thousands more low-level drug offenders arguably just as deserving of clemency consideration.  President Obama would have to grant eight commutations every single day over the two years remaining in his presidency to even start to make a serious dent in federal prison population.

December 17, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Should ALL federal marijuana sentencings be postponed now that Cromnibus precludes DOJ from interfering with state medical marijuana laws?

Images (6)As reported in this post yesterday, an astute lawyer in California sought (and, I now know, obtained) a significant postponement of his client's scheduled federal marijuana sentencing based on a provision in H.R. 83, the 1700-page Cromnibus spending bill, which directs the US Department of Justice not to use any funds to interfere with state-legalized medical marijuana regimes.  Specifically, Section 538 of the Cromnibus states, in relevant part:

None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used ... to prevent such States [with current medical marijuana laws] from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.

Though this provision (which was officially signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday) is rightly being hailed as historic, what exactly Section 538 of the Cromnibus means formally and functionally for the Department of Justice and federal marijuana prohibition is anything but obvious or clear.  For starters, this provision is a funding directive to DOJ, not a formal restriction on DOJ activities, and it is unclear how such a provision is to be administered or enforced.  Moreover, this provision plainly does not provide a formal right or even permission for individuals under federal law to be involved in the "use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana."  Indeed, given that federal law currently has marijuana listed as a Schedule I drug, the very use of the term "medical marijuana" in this Section 538 of the Cromnibus is somewhat oxymoronic as a new phrase in the federal legal nomenclature.

That all said, the enactment of formal federal law ordering that DOJ not use funds to prevent the implementation of state medical marijuana laws clearly means something significant not only in states that have medical marijuana laws but throughout the nation.  In particular, as the question in the title of this post is meant to connote, I think this congressional approval (of sorts) of state medical marijuana laws should have a tangible (and perhaps significant) impact on any and all federal marijuana sentencings scheduled for the weeks and months ahead.

The specific instructions of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) tells federal judges that they must consider at sentencing, inter alia, "the nature and circumstances of the offense" as well as the "need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense."  Even before the passage of Section 538 of the Cromnibus, I thought it was appropriate for a judge at a federal marijuana sentencing to consider based on these provisions a defendant's claim that he was in compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  But DOJ in the past could respond by reasonably asserting that Congress would not want a federal judge for federal sentencing purposes to inquire into any claims of state-law compliance.  

Now that Section 538 of the Cromnibus is official federal law, I believe every federal judge at any future federal marijuana sentencings should feel duty-bound to examine the particulars of a defense claim of compliance with state medical marijuana laws.  In light of what Congress enacted, consideration of claimed compliance with state medical marijuana laws seems essential to "promote respect for the law" as well as to stake proper stock of "the nature and circumstances of the offense" and "just punishment for the offense."

Moreover, I think some viable sentencing arguments might now be made based on Section 538 on behalf of some federal marijuana defendants even in the 18 states that have not yet enacted medical marijuana reforms.  If a federal defendant can reasonably assert, even in a non-reform state, that he was (mostly? somewhat? a little?) involved in distribution of marijuana for medical purposes, he might point to 3553(a)(6) and claim that sentencing him hard for medical marijuana distribution in a non-reform state would create (unwarranted?) sentencing disparity when compared to sentences likely to be imposed for the same offense in reform-state jurisdictions.

Critically, I am not contending (yet) that Section 538 of the Cromnibus must or even should have a direct and substantial impact on federal marijuana sentencings in reform or non-reform states.  But I am contending that, thanks to Section 538 of the Cromnibus, there are now a lot more federal sentencing issues that need to be subject to a lot more thought before federal judges move ahead with the roughly 100 federal marijuana sentencings that take place throughout the US every week.

In sum, to answer my own question in the title of this post, I would say simple YES.

Some previous related posts:

December 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Defense moves to postpone federal marijuana sentencing based new law ordering DOJ not to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws

California Attorney Ronald Richards today sent me a copy of a fascinating emergency motion he filed this week that seeks a postponement of his client's scheduled federal marijuana sentencing today. Here are excerpts from the four-page memorandum in support of the motion (which can be downloaded below) which highlights why I find it fascinating:

Rarely in any counsel’s career has he or she had to file an emergency motion.  However, in the world of marijuana laws, the landscape keeps changing; this time, on a historic level. On Saturday night, the United States Senate voted to approve H.R. 83.  This is a 1696 page spending bill.  In the bill, section 538 forbids the use of money by the Department of Justice for interfering with State laws that allow cultivation of marijuana....

In this case, if the Department of Justice is mandated to not spend any money on interfering with lawful marijuana cultivations implementing state law, the raids, the seizures, and the federal prosecution will come to a halt in California.  In addition, if the scheduling is attacked by the litigation in the Eastern District and changed, there are just too many signals that the 77 years of marijuana prohibition may be coming to an end.  At least, there is not a direct policy mandate from Congress.  It is no different than a highway withholding funding to keep speeds under 80 MPH or at 55 MPH during the energy crisis....

If this bill is signed by the President, which all indications are that he will sign it or the government will shut down, it will become law and policy.  The Department of Justice could not in either the spirit or the letter of the law allocate any further staff, investigation, or budget to continue to prosecute this case.  Furthermore, all future prosecutions of legal California cultivators would cease to exist....

Based upon the historic passage by the House and the Senate of H.R. 83, the defendant requests a 90 day adjournment of his sentence.  If the bill becomes law, he will move to withdraw his plea or file a stipulation to that effect with the government.  It would be unfair for him to be burdened with a felony conviction and incarceration when in just two weeks, all the current cultivators in this State would enjoy the new found relief provided by the Congressional mandate.

Download Motion to postpone federal MJ sentencing in California

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Survey: Teen marijuana use declines even as states legalize"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new USA Today article reporting on new data that seems likely to be trumpted by those advocating for continued reform of marijuana laws.  Here are the basics:

Marijuana use among teens declined this year even as two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized the drug for recreational use, a national survey released Tuesday found. University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study, now in its 40th year, surveys 40,000 to 50,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grade in schools nationwide about their use of alcohol, legal and illegal drugs and cigarettes.

"There is a lot of good news in this year's results, bu the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away," Lloyd Johnston, the study's principal investigator, said.

After five years of increases, marijuana use in the past year by students in all three grades declined slightly, from 26% in 2013 to 24% in 2014. Students in the two lower grades reported that marijuana is less available than it once was, the survey found. Among high school seniors, one in 17, or 5.8%, say they use marijuana almost daily this year, down from 6.5% in 2013.

Synthetic marijuana, chemical concoctions meant to simulate a marijuana high and sold at convenience stores and gas stations, have also fallen out of favor. In 2011, when the survey first asked about the drugs, known as K2 and Spice, 11% of 12th graders said they had used the drugs in the past year. In 2014, that number had dropped to 6%. "Efforts at the federal and state levels to close down the sale of these substances may be having an effect," Johnston said.

Abuse of all prescription drugs, including narcotic painkillers, sedatives and amphetamines, declined from 16% in 2013 to 14% in 2014 among 12th graders, the survey found. Narcotic painkiller use, in decline since 2009, dropped again from 7% in 2013 to 6% in 2014. Heroin use, which has grown among adult populations, remained stable for teens.

Teens considered narcotic pain relievers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, safer than illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine, because they are prescribed by doctors, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said. "There's a very strong and aggressive campaign about educating the public on the risk of opioid medications as it relates to overdoses and deaths," Volkow said. "That has made teenagers aware that they are not so safe as they thought they were."

Teen use of both alcohol and cigarettes dropped this year to their lowest points since the study began in 1975, the survey found. Teens may be trading conventional cigarettes for e-cigarettes. In 2014, more teens used e-cigarettes than traditional tobacco cigarettes or any other tobacco product, the study found. "E-cigarettes have made rapid inroads into the lives of American adolescents," Richard Miech, a senior investigator of the study, said....

Alcohol use and binge drinking peaked in 1997, when 61% of the students surveyed said they had drunk alcohol in the previous 12 months. In 2014, 41% reported alcohol use in the previous year, a drop from 43% in 2013, the survey found. Since the 1997 peak, "there has been a fairly steady downward march in alcohol use among adolescents," Johnston said....

"Even though the indicators are very good news, at the same time we cannot become complacent," Volkow said. "This is a stage where their brains are most vulnerable. We need to continue our prevention efforts."

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, National and State Crime Data, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Notable NPR coverage of the "Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing"

Download (3)I am pleased and intrigued to see that National Public Radio seems to be starting a deep dive into some of the personal stories surrounding the debate over federal mandatory minimum.  This introduction, headlined "From Judges To Inmates, Finding The Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing," sets up the discussion this way:

This year, everyone from Attorney General Eric Holder to Tea Party Republicans in Congress has argued those stiff mandatory minimum prison sentences do more harm than good for thousands of drug offenders. Legislation to cut the tough-on-crime penalties has stalled on Capitol Hill, but it's likely to be reintroduced in 2015. Meanwhile, the White House and the Justice Department have taken the unprecedented step of asking for candidates who might win early release from prison through presidential pardons or commutations in the final years of the Obama presidency. That effort, known as Clemency Project 2014, is moving slowly.

Amid the backdrop of debate inside Washington and across the country, NPR decided to focus on the human toll of these mandatory prison sentences. We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly-released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.

The series' first lengthy piece here is titled "Judge Regrets Harsh Human Toll Of Mandatory Minimum Sentences," has lots of good content and quotes from Judge John Gleeson and Professors Rachel Barkow and Bill Otis.

December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Fourth Circuit find LWOP + 60 month sentence (!?!) for drug offenses substantively unreasonable

Thanks to a few helpful readers, I was alerted to a notable opinion from a Fourth Circuit panel today in US v. Howard, No. 13-4296 (4th Cir. Dec. 4, 2014) (available here).  Here are excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengthy opinion:

In appeal No. 13-4296, a jury convicted Dennis Ray Howard on one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, phencyclidine (“PCP”), nine counts of distribution of PCP, and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense.  The district court sentenced Howard to a term of life imprisonment plus 60 months....  For the reasons set forth within, we affirm the convictions, vacate the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and remand for resentencing....

The district court reached its life imprisonment sentence by making an upward departure based on Howard’s de facto career offender status, and by reasoning that the § 3553(a) factors supported a sentence at the top of the Guidelines range determined after the departure.  Because we are persuaded that the extent of the upward departure is unwarranted and amounts to an abuse of discretion, and because, in any event, a sentence of life in prison on this record is not justified by consideration of the § 3553(a) factors as articulated by the district court, we conclude that the sentence imposed is substantively unreasonable....

By declaring Howard a serial recidivist dedicated to dispensing “poison” with no hope of redemption, and by basing this judgment on stale criminal history, the bulk of which was non-violent and committed when Howard was a juvenile, the district court failed in its effort to comply with the aims of sentencing prescribed by § 3553(a)(2)....

The district court plainly sought to intone all of the principles underlying § 3553(a)(2) when it announced its sentence.  It stated the need for individual and general deterrence, incapacitation, and just punishment.   There is no doubt that the sentence sent a “message” of deterrence to the people of Wilson and the Eastern District of North Carolina.  The district court made those intentions clear. But we simply fail to see, on the whole record, how the life-plus-60-months sentence reasonably reflects the seriousness of the offense or just punishment.  Manifestly, it is a sentence “greater than necessary,” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to achieve the purposes of § 3553(a)(2).

December 4, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Is Big Pharma already a bigger threat to kids than Big Marijuana would be?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting new piece up at The Crime Report headlined "The RX Alliance That Drugs Our Kids."  Here is how the piece starts:

Olivia Hernandez always trusted the doctors who scribbled out prescription after prescription for the heavy-duty psychiatric drugs that clouded her teenage years in foster care. Now, she feels “betrayed.”

Three of her former doctors are among a chosen group of California foster care prescribers who received gifts and payments for meals, travel, speaking and industry-sponsored research from the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.

A three-part investigation by the San Jose Mercury News has found that drugmakers, anxious to expand the market for some of their most profitable products, spent more than $14 million from 2010 to 2013 to woo the California doctors who treat this captive and fragile audience of patients at taxpayers’ expense.

Drugmakers distribute their cash to all manner of doctors, but the investigation found that they paid the state’s foster care prescribers on average more than double what they gave to the typical California physician. The connection raises concerns that Hernandez and many other unsuspecting youth have been caught in the middle of a big-money alliance that could be helping to drive the rampant use of psychiatric medications in the state’s foster care system.

I am sympathetic to those advocates concerned that a legalized marijuana industry will end up being eager to market pot products to young users. But, as this article highlights, Big Pharma not only markets drug products to kids, but it has a huge group of licensed drug dealers (doctors) helping them peddle drug products.

November 29, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war

Regular readers know I am always interested in Senator Rand Paul's distinctive perspective on criminal justice issues.  This new Time op-ed, headlined "The Politicians Are To Blame in Ferguson," has Senator Paul touching on broader themes as he connects recent events in Ferguson with his belief in the need for systemic reforms to the US criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:

We are witnessing a tragedy in Ferguson. This city in Missouri has become a focal point for so much. The President and the late Michael Brown’s family have called for peace. I join their calls for peaceful protest, but also reiterate their call to action — “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change.”

In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians. Michael Brown’s death and the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate something is wrong with criminal justice in America.  The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.

In Ferguson, the precipitating crime was not drugs, but theft.  But the War on Drugs has created a tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy.  One need only witness the baby in Georgia, who had a concussive grenade explode in her face during a late-night, no-knock drug raid (in which no drugs were found) to understand the feelings of many minorities — the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.

Three out of four people in jail for drugs are people of color.  In the African American community, folks rightly ask why are our sons disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and maimed?

African Americans perceive as true that their kids are more likely to be killed.  ProPublica examined 33 years of FBI data on police shootings, accounted for the racial make-up of the country, and determined that: “Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts — 21 times greater.”

Can some of the disparity be blamed on a higher rate of crime in the black community? Yes, but there is a gnawing feeling that simply being black in a high-crime area increases your risk for a deadly altercation with police.

Does bad behavior account for some of the interactions with law enforcement?  Yes, but surely there must be ways that we can work to prevent the violence from escalating....

Reforming criminal justice to make it racially blind is imperative, but that won’t lift up these young men from poverty.  In fact, I don’t believe any law will.  For too long, we’ve attached some mythic notion to government solutions and yet, 40 years after we began the War on Poverty, poverty still abounds.,,,

This message is not a racial one.  The link between poverty, lack of education, and children outside of marriage is staggering and cuts across all racial groups.  Statistics uniformly show that waiting to have children in marriage and obtaining an education are an invaluable part of escaping poverty....

I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing.  I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion.  I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences.  But my hope is that out of tragedy, a preacher or teacher will arise — one who motivates and inspires all of us to discover traits, ambitions, and moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair.

I will continue the fight to reform our nation’s criminal justice system, but in the meantime, the call should go out for a charismatic leader, not a politician, to preach a gospel of hope and prosperity.  I have said often America is in need of a revival.  Part of that is spiritual.  Part of that is in civics, in our leaders, in our institutions. We must look at policies, ideas, and attitudes that have failed us and we must demand better.

November 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, November 24, 2014

USSC Chair's discussion of "A Generational Shift for Drug Sentences" now in print

I noticed via the US Sentencing Commission's official website that Chief Judge Patti Saris, Chair of United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judge, has now in print this law review article titled “A Generational Shift For Drug Sentences.” The article is based on a like-titled speech given by Judge Saris noted here earlier this year, and here is a snippet from the article's introduction:

It has been a generation since the laws governing federal drug sentences were put into place. Since the 1980s, our society, our attitudes, and our criminal justice system have evolved.  The Supreme Court case law, the statutes and United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”), and the realities on the ground have changed significantly. With the benefit of experience and new thought, many are considering whether a change — a generational shift — in our approach to federal drug sentences is appropriate....

This article focuses on policies regarding drug offenders and drug penalties as one means to effect change in the federal prison populations and costs.  Drug offenders make up about a third of the offenders sentenced federally every year and a majority of the prisoners serving in the federal Bureau of Prisons, so they are in many ways the key to the size and nature of the federal prison population.  This article has four parts: Part I explores the history of the current mandatory minimum drug penalties, the Sentencing Commission, and the federal drug sentencing guidelines; Part II examines criminal justice system shifts over the past thirty years; Part III identifies what changes can be made by Congress and elsewhere to address the burgeoning federal prison population; and Part IV explains the Commission’s significant amendments in 2014 to reduce drug guideline sentences.

November 24, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

It has been a few weeks since I have done a round up of notable new posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, so here goes: 

November 19, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Marshall Project gets AG Holder to talk about his criminal justice reform work

I am pleased to see that The Marshall Project is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. Though I am concerned that this notable criminal justice media project, like some others, may end up focusing too much attention on the death penalty, it seems clear that The Marshall Project is going to have lots of material that sentencing fans will want to follow regularly.

Most notably today, The Marhsall Project has posted this exclusive interview with outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. The piece is headlined "Eric Holder on His Legacy, His Regrets, and His Feelings About the Death Penalty," though I consider the discussion about drug sentencing reform to be most interesting. The piece is a must-read, and here is how it gets started:

The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?

Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.

And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.

[MP]: And the biggest disappointment?

Holder: I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.

[MP]: Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?

Holder: That is something that I know the president believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a drug court in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the president, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term.

November 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, November 14, 2014

Over lengthy dissents, en banc Eleventh Circuit shuts 2255 door to claims based on advisory guideline misapplication

The Eleventh Circuit has today provided some special weekend reading for hard-core federal sentencing fans with a special interest in finality issues (which, I realize, might be a small group).  Specifically, the en banc ruling together with dissents in Spencer v. US, No. 10-10676 (11th Cir. Nov. 14, 2014) (available here), runs more than 100 pages. More than three-quarters of those pages come from the dissents to a majority opinion (per Judge William Pryor) that begins this way:

This appeal concerns whether a federal prisoner may relitigate an alleged misapplication of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines in a collateral attack on a final sentence.  After he pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and we affirmed the judgment against him, Kevin Spencer moved to vacate his sentence of imprisonment, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, for an alleged error in the application of the advisory guidelines. Spencer argues that an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008), makes clear that the district court and this Court erroneously classified him as a “career offender” based on a prior conviction for felony child abuse, which he argues is not a “crime of violence.”  United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1 (Nov. 2006).  Spencer maintains that this alleged error represents a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice,” Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S. Ct. 468, 471 (1962), that can be revisited on collateral review.  We disagree.

Spencer cannot collaterally attack his sentence based on a misapplication of the advisory guidelines.  Spencer’s sentence falls below the statutory maximum, and his prior conviction for felony child abuse has not been vacated. Spencer’s sentence was and remains lawful.  We affirm the denial of Spencer’s motion to vacate his sentence.

At the very end of a very long week, I cannot do justice to the majority opinios or the dissents in this space, so I will close by quoting from the start of one of the dissents (per Judge Jordan) to highlight the human story at the center of the legal debate in Spencer:

At the end of the day, what constitutes a fundamental defect resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice comes down to a matter of considered judgment.  In my judgment, having an individual serve an additional 81 months in prison due to an erroneous career offender designation under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines constitutes such a miscarriage of justice, and for that reason I respectfully dissent.

Kevin Spencer is serving more than 12 years in prison (151 months to be exact) for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine.  The panel found, see Spencer v. United States, 727 F.3d 1076, 1100 (11th Cir. 2013), the government now concedes, see En Banc Brief for the United States at 57-58, and the majority does not dispute, that Mr. Spencer’s mistaken career offender designation more than doubled his advisory sentencing range from 70-87 months to 151-188 months.  For those of us familiar with — and sometimes numbed by — the ranges produced by application of the Sentencing Guidelines, it may be easy to overlook the dramatic increase resulting from the error.  To put it in perspective, the 81-month increase is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school.

Mr. Spencer timely and consistently objected to the career offender designation, only to be told he was wrong.  As it turns out, he was right.  Unfortunately, the majority now rules that Mr. Spencer cannot use 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to correct the error.

November 14, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Federal judge wonders if marijuana sentencing should be impacted by state reforms

As reported in this Oregonian article, a "federal judge in Portland last week delayed the sentencing of a convicted bulk marijuana runner from Texas, saying he needed to get a better read on the U.S. Department of Justice's position on the drug before imposing a sentence." Here are more details:

U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman, presiding on Thursday in the case of U.S. v. Bounlith "Bong" Bouasykeo, asked lawyers if the vote in Oregon and a similar vote in Washington, D.C., signal "a shift in the attitude of people generally towards marijuana."

"I guess I'm curious whether I ought to slow this down a little bit," he asked lawyers, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Oregonian. Under federal law, marijuana in any form or amount remains illegal.

Mosman wondered aloud if there was any move afoot to take a different position on marijuana enforcement in Oregon. This was not to suggest – he hastened to add – that he agreed on marijuana legalization. The judge wondered whether his position on sentencing ought to move a notch in the defendant's favor because of the nation's evolving view of pot.

"I'm not suggesting that what's on the table is that the whole case ought to go away or anything like that," the judge said. "But would something like that at the margins have some sort of impact on my sentencing considerations? I think I ought to take into account any evolving or shifting views of the executive branch in determining the seriousness of the crime?

"Should I delay this, in your view, or go ahead today (with sentencing)?" After hearing arguments from the lawyers, Mosman decided to delay Bouasykeo's punishment.

November 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 06, 2014

"After the Cheering Stopped: Decriminalization and Legalism's Limits"

The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely paper by Wayne Logan which I just saw on SSRN. Here is the abstract:

To the great relief of many, American criminal law, long known for its harshness and expansive prohibitory reach, is now showing signs of softening. A prime example of this shift is seen in the proliferation of laws decriminalizing the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana: today, almost twenty states and dozens of localities have embraced decriminalization in some shape or form, with more laws very likely coming to fruition soon.

Despite enjoying broad political support, the decriminalization movement has however failed to curb a core feature of criminalization: police authority to arrest individuals suspected of possessing marijuana. Arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed in number in recent years, including within decriminalization jurisdictions. This essay examines the chief reasons behind this disconnect, centering on powerful institutional incentives among police to continue to make arrests, enabled by judicial doctrine that predates the recent shift toward decriminalization. The essay also identifies ways to help ensure that laws decriminalizing simple marijuana possession, as well as other low-level offenses, better achieve decriminalization’s goal of limiting the arrest authority of police and the many negative personal consequences of arrest.

November 6, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

California sentencing reform initiative Prop 47 wins big getting almost 60% support

As repoted in this Huffinton Post piece, "California approved a major shift against mass incarceration on Tuesday in a vote that could lead to the release of thousands of state prisoners."  Here are the basics from a piece headlined "California Voters Deal Blow To Prisons, Drug War":

Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession will be downgraded to misdemeanors under the ballot measure, Proposition 47.  As many as 10,000 people could be eligible for early release from state prisons, and it's expected that courts will annually dispense around 40,000 fewer felony convictions.

The state Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the new measure will save hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons.  That money is to be redirected to education, mental health and addiction services -- a novel approach that reformers hope will serve as a model in the larger push against mass incarceration.

This official webpage with California ballot measure voting results reports that Prop 47 received 58.5% of votes in support. This big margin of victory strikes me as big news that can and should further propel the political narrative that, at least in some places, significant numbers of voters are significantly interested in significant sentencing reform.

November 5, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

US District Judge Kopf reports on retroactive implementation of new reduced federal drug guidelines in Nebraska

As noted in this post from last week, the start of November2014  marked the official start for the new reduced federal guidelines for drug offenses put in place by guideline Amendment 782.  At his great blog, US District Judge Richard Kopf has this lengthy new post on the practicalities of implementing the Amendment's retroactivity in his district.   I recommend the whole post, from which these excerpts are drawn:

I will take a moment to describe the implementation of Amendment 782 in the District of Nebraska.  We are a small district with a large criminal case load, especially including drug cases.  As of June 30, 2014, on a per-judge basis, we ranked seventh in the nation and first in the Eighth Circuit for criminal cases. Indeed, Amendment 782 may impact over 700 offenders previously sentenced in our court.  Behind the scenes, the implementation of Amendment 782 has had a huge impact on us as we try to fully and fairly implement this important retroactive change to the Guidelines.

With 700 offenders potentially eligible for a sentencing reduction, our district decided that every potentially eligible offender would have his or her case individually scrutinized whether or not a motion had been filed and that every such offender would have a lawyer.  After conferring with the United States Attorney, the Federal Public Defender and our probation office, we issued general (standing) orders....

Four people are responsible for superintending the implementation of Amendment 782: two very senior United States Probation officers who are experts in the Guidelines; the head of the drug prosecution unit of the US Attorney’s office; and the Federal Public Defender.  They have cooperated nicely, and have established internal operating protocols between them.  After the Clerk’s office tracked down the whereabouts of each of the 700 or so offenders through the Bureau of Prisons (a huge task), the group of four sensibly decided upon a “triage” plan.  Offenders who are eligible for release on the earliest possible date (November 1, 2015), get attention first.  Offenders who are eligible later receive attention later.

Ultimately, the Federal Public Defender, or one of his assistants or a Criminal Justice Act panel lawyer, will file a motion for relief when the group of four decide that the time is right.  A probation officer will submit and file as a restricted document a worksheet that includes a calculation under Amendment 782 and the Guidelines.  That worksheet will also include a report on the offender’s institutional adjustment and the probation officer’s recommendation about whether relief should be granted....

After the motion is filed, and the worksheet is submitted, the prosecutor and defense lawyer will confer and in most cases a stipulation will be reached.  Assuming a stipulation is reached, it will be filed.  After that, and without a hearing, relief will normally be granted.  If no stipulation can be reached, then in my cases a hearing will be held.

It is possible that a judge might tentatively conclude not to follow a stipulation. While I cannot speak for the other judges, in my cases, I will hold a hearing to give the parties an opportunity to be heard.  Whether or not the defendant will be present at such a hearing has yet to be determined by me.  In the past, if a dispute of fact arose and the offender could be expected to have unique knowledge of the facts, I have not hesitated to give the offender an opportunity to appear and testify.  It is probable that I will follow the same approach for Amendment 782 factual disputes where the testimony of the offender is critical to the fair resolution of the matter.  However, in the huge majority of cases, this will not be necessary.

In summary, the equitable and effective implementation of Amendment 782 requires a lot of “behind the scenes” work.  We are fortunate to have the cooperative, but always zealous, assistance of prosecutors and defense lawyers, aided by a probation office that is second to none.

November 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Will Election 2014 speed up or slow down the marijuana reform movement?

This new Quartz piece, headlined "However the US votes on marijuana today, it’s 2016 that really matters," highlights that the marijuana reform movement will march on even if voters this election cycle reject various reform initiatives now on the ballot: 

There are three marijuana ballot initiatives in today’s midterm elections — in Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC — where voters will decide on outright legalization of recreational marijuana.  In a fourth ballot, in Florida, voters will vote on a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution, which would legalize medical marijuana.  Initiative 71 in the nation’s capital is the only ballot that looks certain to pass. The remaining three are expected to go down to the wire.

While passage of these ballots could potentially signal growing momentum for the pro-marijuana legalization movement nationally, marijuana advocates are looking to the 2016 general elections as a more accurate barometer of where they stand within the American cultural and political mainstream.  The reason being is that more younger and minority voters — groups who polls show support marijuana legalization in higher numbers — vote during quadrennial general elections, while the electorate tends to be older and more conservative in the midterms.

At least five US states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — will hold ballot initiatives in 2016.  And the diverse political makeup of those states, from the conservative battleground of Arizona to the liberal hotbed of Massachusetts, means that success at the ballot box would show that legalization spans the political and ideological spectrum, says Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project.  “Whatever happens Tuesday, we don’t see a step backwards for the movement going into 2016,” Tvert tells Quartz.  “Public opinion is on our side, it is only going in one direction, and that is toward an end to marijuana prohibition in this country.”

Though it is a near certainty that marijuana reform issues will be an even bigger part of the political conversation in 2016 than in 2014, I expect the final voting results in Alaska, Florida, Oregon and Washington DC will have a huge impact on the tenor and tenacity of those advocate pushing for and resisting reform. If most of the reform initiatives pass in this year, advocates for reform will be able to continue a narrative of legalization's inevitability it will become every harder for serious candidates for state and federal offices to avoid discussing this issue. But if all of these initiatives fail, opponents of reform can and will assert that the voters are already starting to turn away from supporting legalization now that they are seeing what it really means in a few states.

Over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, I have completed this series of posts on the dynamics in play in the three states with big reform initiative on the ballot:

November 4, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, November 03, 2014

Arguing for releasing all drug prisoners and reparations to "right the drug war’s wrongs"

Lucy Steigerwald has this provocative new Washington Post blog/commentary piece headlined "Sentencing reform and how to right the drug war’s wrongs." Here are excerpts:

On November 1, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s plan to reform sentencing for certain drug crimes went into effect. The details were hammered out back in April and July, and they could have been challenged by Congress. Thankfully, Congress declined to do so, and now the commission has a chance at helping nearly half of the 100,000 inmates in federal prison come home earlier than they otherwise would have.

For decades, the war on drugs rolled onward, leaving a pulpy mass of casualties in its wake. But since at least 2012, when Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use of marijuana, there has been some serious strides against this dangerous domestic policy. Generally, however, any progress made on drugs has been confined to changing the legality of substances....

Even the tentative, good-but-not-good-enough Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine in 2010, was initially not retroactive until the USSC voted to make it so.... The USSC is doing something more substantial still with their new guidelines, which allow for retroactive petitioning for reduced time in prison starting in November 2015. Prisoners may begin petitioning for these reductions now, however. Unfortunately, those sentences cannot fall below the mandatory minimums, which can only be changed by Congress. Ideally, the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory minimums, will be eventually signed into law, allowing for some of the damages wrought by these mandatory sentences to be mitigated.

In addition, even though the sentencing reforms help the federal prison population, we are very far from instituting anything as optimistic on a statewide level. Most of the some-400,000 state prisoners in jail on drug-related crimes are out of luck unless they get individual commuting of their sentences.

As the war on drugs loses popularity, the question of what to do about the lives ruined and interrupted is going to come up again and again. One of the more fascinating, though politically unrealistic suggestions for what to do about this mess is one offered by a Green Party candidate for governor of New York: Howie Hawkins suggests releasing all drug prisoners, and putting together a “panel on reconciliation” between them and their communities and governments. They want voting rights restored, school grants restored, help for children of the former cons, and prevention of would-be employers asking about criminal histories. They even suggest full-on reparations for “the communities affected.”

This won’t pass muster, probably not even in the most liberal states. The slow reforms being offered by the USSC, and criminal justice advocates like Sen. Paul might be all we get. But the reparations idea does present a question of what society should do after the madness of a moral panic dims, and the end result turns out to be 2.3 million people in prison or jail. Most people wouldn’t object to a payment to any of the 147 people freed from death row, especially those who turned out to be unequivocally innocent. What happens when we realize that neither possessing nor selling drugs is a real criminal act? Doesn’t that suggest that we have a lot of innocent people in prison who will need a lot of help in restarting their lives?

November 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

"Narcotics Prosecutors as Problem Solvers"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing little new piece by Mark Osler now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

When deciding whether and how to pursue narcotics cases, federal prosecutors should focus not on number of convictions or quantity of drugs intercepted, but rather on whether they are solving problems through the cases they choose.  He first examines federal prosecutors' extremely broad discretion in selecting narcotics defendants and charges, as well as some of the negative effects of the failure to employ a "problem solving" rubric in the war on drugs to date.  He then suggests a number of changes that such a rubric would bring to the way narcotics cases are pursued, including a change in the proxy that prosecutors use for defendant culpability from drug quantity to drug profits.

November 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, October 31, 2014

New reduced federal drug sentencing guidelines about to become official

Hard core federal sentencing nerds know that November 1 is a special day because it is the official date on which any proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines proposed by the US Sentencing Commission become official in the absence of congressional rejection thereof.  Tomorrow, November 1, 2014, is especially notable because it will make official the most significant and consequential reduction in guideline sentencing ranges in history.  This USSC press release, which includes a statement from the chair of the USSC, provides background context for why this is such a big deal: 

[Background:] The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch charged with setting federal sentencing guidelines, voted unanimously in April to reduce sentencing guidelines levels for most drug trafficking offenses and voted unanimously again in July to make that change retroactive.  Because Congress has not acted to disapprove the Commission’s actions, the amendment becomes effective tomorrow.  Offenders sentenced after tomorrow will be sentenced under the new, reduced guidelines, and current prisoners may begin petitioning courts for sentence reductions based on retroactive application of the reduced guidelines. Prisoners can have their sentences reduced if courts determine that they are eligible and a reduction is appropriate, and they may not be released pursuant to such reductions before November 1, 2015.

[Comment by USSC Chair Patti Saris:] “The reduction in drug guidelines that becomes effective tomorrow represents a significant step toward the goal the Commission has prioritized of reducing federal prison costs and overcrowding without endangering public safety.  Commissioners worked together to develop an approach that advances the causes of fairness, justice, fiscal responsibility, and public safety, and I am very pleased that we were able to agree unanimously on this reasonable solution.  I am also gratified that Congress permitted this important reform to go forward.

This amendment is an important start toward addressing the problem of over-incarceration at the federal level. Commission researchers estimate that applying the amendment going forward may reduce the prison population by 6,500 in five years and far more over time, while more than 46,000 current prisoners could be eligible to have their sentences reduced by retroactive application of the amendment.  Still, only Congress can act to fully solve the crisis in federal prison budgets and populations and address the many systemic problems the Commission has found resulting from mandatory minimum penalties.  I hope that Congress will act promptly to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation.”

October 31, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack