Monday, May 05, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 01, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download McDade opinion

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gov Chris Christie talking up drug sentencing reform as a pro-life commitment

As reported via this entry at Mediate, last week New Jersey Governor Chris Christie connected drug sentencing reform to another social issue frequently stressed by Republican officials and politicians. Here are the interesting details:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivered a message to his fellow members of the Republican Party on Thursday: being pro-life means reforming America’s drug laws and criminal sentencing procedures.  Christie has long advocated for drug treatment programs as a means of reforming the country’s prison system, but Christie took a new tactic on Thursday when he framed that advocacy as a pro-life argument.  

“I’m pro-life, and I believe strongly in the sanctity of life,” Christie told an audience in Jersey City on Thursday.  Addressing his fellow Republican governors, Christie said that “it’s great to be pro-life, but you need to be pro-life after they get out of the womb, too.”

“If we believe in the sanctity of life, then we need to believe in how life is precious for every moment that God gives us,” the governor continued. “If, in fact, that we believe life is precious — and I do — then the life of the drug-addicted teenager who has been arrested for the sixth time is just as precious as the life of any one of my children.”

Christie said that conservatives don’t want violent people on the street, and there is a “class of people” who deserves to be incarcerated, but there is another “class of people” who will benefit more from “help” than punishment.  “I don’t believe this is a conservative, or moderate, or liberal issue,” Christie concluded. “I don’t believe this is a Republican or Democrat issue. Because, let me tell you, I know as many drug-addicted Republicans as I know drug-addicted Democrats.”

Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

April 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Prez Obama commutes 15-year sentence for marijuana offender down to 11.5 years

Build-itIf NYU Law builds it, the President's counsel will come ... and, it seems, the President will act!  

With apologies for the bad "Field of Dreams" reference, I am not sure how else to react to the news I have got via this press release while I am sitting in the audience excited to be at this amazing on-going NYU conference on "Mercy in the Criminal Justice System: Clemency and Post-Conviction Strategies" with the keynote speaker White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler.   I was hoping and expecting the White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler would be making news via her afternoon keynote, but her boss beat her to the punch as the full text of the press release reveals:

Today, President Barack Obama granted clemency to the following individual:

• Ceasar Huerta Cantu, also known as Cesar Huerta Cantu – Katy, Texas

Offenses: Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana; money laundering (Western District of Virginia)

Sentence: 180 months’ imprisonment (as amended), five years’ supervised release (May 11, 2006)

Commutation Grant: Prison sentence commuted to 138 months’ imprisonment

Thanks to the wonderful internet, I found this 2255 dismissal order concerning the Cantu case which suggests that Cantu received an erroneous initial sentence that he was unable to get changed via traditional legal means. But it is unclear from this order alone whether this sentence calculation error provides the basis and reason for this notable commutation.  A quick read of the order does suggest that the reduction from 180 to 138 appears to reflect precisely the sentence Cesar Huerta Cantu would have and should have gotten (after getting substantial assistane credit) had his initial sentence been calculated properly. 

Live-blogging UPDATE:  In her keynote speech at this NYU conference, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler is talking up this grant and says that it shows that clemency can serve as a "fail-safe" for correcting errors that cannot be corrected by other means.

WH Counsel Ruemmler has announced that DOJ via BOP is going to alert federal prisonsers about the on-going clemency initiative previously announced by Deputy AG Cole.

MSM UPDATE:  Lots of press reports are now providing context for this grant such as this AP article headlined "Obama commutes sentence made longer by typo."

April 15, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, April 14, 2014

House Judiciary Chair suggests Smarter Sentencing Act still facing uphill battle on the Hill

DownloadCQ News has this important new article on federal sentencing reform developments in Congress under the headline "Goodlatte: Don't 'Jump to Conclusions' on Mandatory Minimums." Here are excerpts:

House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is not convinced that Congress should scale back mandatory minimum drug sentences, even as the Obama administration and a bipartisan coalition in the Senate step up their efforts to do so.  Goodlatte, speaking to reporters from CQ Roll Call and Politico during a pre-taped interview that aired Sunday on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, said the severity of drug sentences “is a legitimate issue for us to be examining.”

He noted that his committee has set up a task force to review mandatory minimum sentences and many other aspects of the federal criminal code, and he did not rule out taking up a bipartisan, administration-backed Senate proposal (S 1410) that would reduce some minimum drug penalties by as much as 60 percent.  The Senate could take up the proposal in the coming weeks after the Judiciary Committee approved it 13-5 in March.

Despite signaling his willingness to consider sentencing changes, Goodlatte said, “I want to caution that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what is right and what is wrong with the law yet.” Asked whether he believes that some federal prisoners are facing dramatically long sentences for relatively minor drug crimes — a claim frequently made by supporters of an overhaul — Goodlatte expressed skepticism.

“If you’re talking about 25- or 30-year sentences, you’re talking about something that the judge and the jury found appropriate to do above mandatory minimum sentences, because those are five-year and 10-year sentences,” he said.  Regarding the mandatory minimum sentences themselves, he said, “you’ll find that the quantities of drugs that have to be involved are very, very large.”

In the case of marijuana possession, for example, it takes “hundreds” of pounds of the drug to trigger a five-year mandatory minimum penalty and “thousands” of pounds to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum penalty, Goodlatte said.  “With other drugs that are very potent in much, much smaller doses, those quantities are much, much lower,” he said. “But if you look at it from the standpoint of what someone has to be engaged in dealing, you’re talking about large quantities before you get those minimums.”

The Senate bill, which is supported by conservatives including Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., would reduce 10-year minimum sentences for certain drug crimes to five years, while reducing five-year minimum sentences for other drug crimes to two years.  If those drug crimes result in “death or serious bodily injury,” mandatory minimum penalties would be slashed from their current 20 years to 10 years.  In all of the penalties being reconsidered, mandatory sentences are triggered based on the quantity of drugs involved in a particular crime....

Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said in an e-mail that the quantity of drugs involved in a crime is “bad proxy for culpability” and suggested that it should not be used as the basis to defeat proposed changes to fixed drug sentences....

She noted that the independent U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets advisory sentencing guidelines for the federal judiciary, found in a 2011 study that “the quantity of drugs involved in an offense is not closely related to the offender’s function in the offense.” So-called “drug mules,” for example, physically transport large quantities of narcotics for others but are not themselves major traffickers or kingpins, Gill said.

Even as Goodlatte showed skepticism about lowering mandatory drug sentences, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. kept up his call for Congress to take action on the Senate proposal, known as the Smarter Sentencing Act.

After the Sentencing Commission approved its own changes in drug sentencing guidelines last week — a move that is expected to reduce some drug offenders’ penalties by an estimated 11 months — Holder urged Congress to follow up with more sweeping, statutory changes. “It is now time for Congress to pick up the baton and advance legislation that would take further steps to reduce our overburdened prison system,” he said in a statement.  “Proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act would enhance the fairness of our criminal justice system while empowering law enforcement to focus limited resources on the most serious threats to public safety.”

The full video of the interview with Rep. Goodlatte is available at this C-Span archive, and sentencing fans will want to cue the video up to a little after the 10 minute mark. Not long after that point, there is a discussion of federal marijuana policies and then the interview turn to drug sentencing generally. A review of the whole segment makes me a bit less pessimistic about the possibilities of federal sentencing reform making it through the House of Representatives. But being a bit less pessimistic is hardly being optimistic.

Some prior posts about federal prosecutorial perspectives on sentencing reform:

April 14, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, April 11, 2014

Was it "disrespectful" to the judiciary (or, in fact, quite helpful) for AG Holder to order prosecutors not to oppose application of pending drug sentencing guideline reduction?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this National Review article, headlined "Judge: Holder ‘Disrespected’ Judicial Branch In Sentencing Change," about a verbal skirmish that emerged during yesterday's US Sentencing Commission meeting to approve formally a small reduction in all federal drug guideline sentences (basics here).  Here are excerpts:

The United States Sentencing Commission Thursday unanimously approved an amendment to revise sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders, but not before one commissioner accused Attorney General Eric Holder of having “disrespected” the judicial branch’s role in sentencing reform.

“I regret that, before we voted on the amendment, the Attorney General instructed Assistant United States Attorneys across the Nation not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed amendment in sentencing proceedings going forward,” Judge William Pryor, Jr. said at a public hearing in Washington. “That unprecedented instruction disrespected our statutory role, ‘as an independent commission in the judicial branch,’ to establish sentencing policies and practices under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984.”...

In August, Holder revealed his “Smart on Crime” initiative, which includes recommendations for reduced sentencing, without consulting with the Sentencing Commission — an independent agency within the judicial branch tasked with setting such policies.  Although the sentencing reforms themselves were not controversial, Holder’s cavalier approach to separation of powers, including a March memo in which he “instructed the Assistant United States Attorneys across the Nation not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed amendment in sentencing proceedings going forward,” irritated commissioners and alarmed supporters of constitutional separation of powers.

The amendment approved Thursday, aims to reduce federal prison overcrowding by reducing non-violent drug trafficking offenders’ sentences by 17 percent. Holder did not attend the meeting. Instead, Commissioner Jonathan Wroblewski responded to what he called Pryor’s “very, very, very serious charge.” Wroblewski insisted that what the Attorney General did was “not only lawful, but in the greatest respect of the Justice Department,”

Chief Judge Ricardo Hinojosa stated that he was “surprised” by Wroblewski’s statement. He concurred with Pryor that Holder is setting a “dangerous precedent,” noting that two years ago, the Justice Department testified that it was not ready for reductions in sentencing, but that “all of a sudden, because the Attorney General says so” the DOJ has changed its course.

The meeting concluded with Chief Judge Patti Saris applauding the commission for its unanimous vote. But observers joined Pryor and Hinojosa in condemning Holder’s high-handed approach to constitutional boundaries.  “For those committed to the rule of law, the question now goes beyond whether reducing sentences for dealers in dangerous drugs is wise.  It’s whether the Attorney General, the chief law enforcement officer in the United States, is committed to following the law as it exists, or, instead, as he wants and speculates it might become,” William G. Otis a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said in a statement.

My first reaction to this piece was to be intrigued and pleasantly surprised that Bill Otis was quoted criticizing the nation's top prosecutor for how he seeks to exercise his lawful prosecutorial discretion. (Notably, the author of this NRO piece seems to suggest that the AG should have felt some need to "consult" with a judicial branch agency before announcing a major prosecutorial initiative; I am pretty sure, based on prior debates over the potential problems with unreviewable prosecutorial discretion, that Bill does not believe it would be wise or even constitutional to expect federal prosecutors to have their charging policies reviewed by the judicial branch.)

My second reaction to this piece was to wonder if most federal judges agreed with Judges Pryor and Hinojosa that it was disrespectful and dangerous for the AG to instruct his prosecutors not to object to defense requests to apply the proposed reduced drug guidelines ASAP.  This issue is dynamic and challenging in part because if AG Holder had instructed prosecutors to object to application of these new guidelines until they formally became law in November, then defendants would likely start requesting sentencing delays in all federal drug cases throughout the bulk of 2014.  Because there are about 500 federal drug sentencings every week, this in turn would mean federal district judges nationwide would be receiving motions for sentencing postponements nearly every day for the next seven months.

Notably, just because AG Holder instructs his prosecutors not to object to the application of the proposed new drug guidelines, no judge is in turn obligated to follow the proposed drug guidelines.  Rather, judges now just have an easier time applying this new guidelines, if they so desire, without having to put all their drug cases on hold until November.  That is the context for the DOJ ex-officio representantive on the Commission, Jonathan Wroblewski, suggesting that AG Holder is actually seeking to help and show respect for the judiciary via his instructions to federal prosecutors.

That all said, if the substance of the drug guideline reform proposals now adopted by the Commission were very controversial (i.e., if the Commission itself was split) or if there was reason to believe that Congress and the President might formally reject the drug guideline reform proposal (i.e., if there was wide and vocal expressed opposition), then I think the concerns expressed by Judges Pryor and Hinojosa might be more compelling.  But since these judges themselves both voted with the unanimous Commission to lower the drug guidelines, and since there is momentum in Congress for even more drug sentencing reform, I do not really find AG Holder's exercise of his lawful discretion in this setting all that disrespectful or dangerous.

Some recent related posts:

April 11, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Thursday, April 10, 2014

US Sentencing Commission to vote on reducing drug sentencing guidelines

As detailed in this official notice, "a public meeting of the [US Sentencing] Commission is scheduled for Thursday, April 10, 2014, at 2:30 p.m."  On the official agenda is "Vote to Promulgate Proposed Amendments," and as reported in this prior post, in January the USSC voted to publish proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines that include an across-the-board reduction in the sentences recommended for all drug offenses.  

I expect there will be some press reports about the USSC vote on the drug guidelines later today.  In the meantime, this effective new PBS Frontline article headlined "Feds to Reconsider Harsh Prison Terms for Drug Offenders," provides some background and context:

The federal prison population has expanded by nearly 800 percent in the past 30 years, spurred in part by the increasing use of tougher sentences applied to nonviolent drug crimes. Now there’s a growing movement to scale it back. On Thursday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency, plans to vote on an amendment to sentencing guidelines that could ultimately begin to winnow the federal prison population, nearly half of whom are people convicted of drug offenses.

The amendment is part of a bipartisan push away from America’s addiction to incarceration, which prison reform experts say costs far too much, not only in dollars — $80 billion a year in 2010 — but also in the devastation primarily of African-American communities, who have been disproportionately caught up in the system.

The commission’s proposal would lower the sentencing guideline levels for drug-trafficking offenses, allowing judges to impose reduced sentences by about 11 months, on average, for these crimes. The guidelines are the range between which a judge can sentence an offender. Currently, those guidelines are set higher even than mandatory minimum sentences — the lowest possible sentence a judge could impose — to give prosecutors bargaining power. The amendment would set the upper and lower guideline limits around the mandatory minimums, leading to lower sentences for nearly 70 percent of drug-trafficking offenders, the commission said....

Prison reform advocates say the commission’s proposal is an incremental step, but an important one. “When you’re serving 10 years, six months can make a difference,” said Jesselyn McCurdy, an attorney with the ACLU’s Washington legislative office. “It’s incremental, but it’s all important because it sends the larger message that we have to do something about the harsh sentencing in the federal system.”

Should the Sentencing Commission’s amendment pass, it will be sent to Congress, which will have 180 days to make any changes. If it does nothing — which is the likely outcome given bipartisan Congressional support for the proposal — the resolution will take effect on Nov. 1.

For years, states, which carry the bulk of U.S. prisoners, have taken the lead on sentencing reform — largely out of necessity. Struggling with stretched budgets and overflowing prisons, 40 states have passed laws that ease sentencing guidelines for drug crimes from 2009 to 2013, according to a comprehensive analysis by the Pew Research Center. Seventeen states have invested in reforms like drug treatment and supervision that will save about $4.6 billion over 10 years, according to the Justice Department.

Such reforms also have gained popular public support. According to Pew’s own polling, 63 percent of Americans say that states moving away from mandatory minimum sentencing is a “good thing,” up from 41 percent in 2001. Even more — 67 percent — said that states should focus on treatment, rather than punishment, for people struggling with addiction to illegal drugs....

The Sentencing Commission itself notes that substantial reform requires action by Congress. “Our proposed approach is modest,” said Patti Saris, the commission’s chairwoman. “The real solution rests with Congress, and we continue to support efforts there to reduce mandatory minimum penalties, consistent with our recent report finding that mandatory minimum penalties are often too severe and sweep too broadly in the drug context, often capturing lower-level players.”...

The Senate is currently considering a bill called the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in July 2013 by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). It wouldn’t abolish mandatory minimums, but it would allow judges to impose more lenient sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses. “Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said when introducing the bill, adding that the act “takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing policies.”...

But the bill, which even the senators acknowledged as “studied and modest” on their website, doesn’t have great odds of passing. According to govtrack.us, a nonpartisan website that tracks congressional legislation, the Smarter Sentencing Act has only a 39 percent chance of being enacted.

Some recent related posts:

UPDATE:  This press release reports that, as expected, the USSC voted today to reduce the federal guidelines for all drug offenses.  Here is an excerpts from the press release:

The Commission voted unanimously to amend the guidelines to lower the base offense levels in the Drug Quantity Table across drug types. The drug guidelines under the amendment would remain linked to statutory mandatory minimum penalties. The Commission estimates that approximately 70 percent of federal drug trafficking defendants would qualify for the change, with their sentences decreasing an average of 11 months, or 17 percent, from 62 to 51 months on average.

The Commission this year has prioritized addressing federal prison costs and capacity with a continued commitment to public safety. The Commission estimates that the amendment reducing drug guidelines would reduce the federal prison population by more than 6,500 over five years, with a significantly greater long-term impact.

“This modest reduction in drug penalties is an important step toward reducing the problem of prison overcrowding at the federal level in a proportionate and fair manner,” said Judge Patti B. Saris, chair of the Commission. “Reducing the federal prison population has become urgent, with that population almost three times where it was in 1991.”

In addition, the Chair of the USSC made a statement in conjunction with today's vote, which is now available here via the USSC's website.  The interesting three-page statement concludes with this interesting paragraph concerning possible retroactive application of the proposed new guidelines: 

Over the next few months, the Commission will be studying the issue of whether the drug amendment should apply retroactively, which we are statutorily required to do. This is a complex and difficult issue, and requires a different analysis than the decision we have made today about reducing drug sentences prospectively. The Commission will take into account, as it always does when considering retroactivity, the purposes of the amendment, the magnitude of the change, and the difficulty of applying the change retroactively, among other factors. I know the Commission will carefully consider this issue, and many stakeholders will have strong views. I do not know how it will come out, but we will carefully review data and the retroactivity impact analysis we have directed staff to conduct as well as public comment in order to ensure that we weigh all perspectives.

April 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Lots of notable sentencing activity via the Sixth Circuit on this hump day

I have long found that Wednesday seems to be a popular day for circuit sentencing decisions, and today the Sixth Circuit was involved in two notable sentencing actions. 

One action involves the decision, noted in this order, to grant en banc review in US v. Mateen, a statutory interpretation case concerning "whether a state sexual offense that does not necessarily involve a minor or ward can trigger the sentencing enhancement under 18 U.S.C. § 2252(b)(2)."  The (split) Mateen panel held that the sentence enhancement was not applicable, and the en banc grant suggest a majority of the Sixth circuit judges may not agree.

The other action involves a lengthy decision in a MDMA sentencing appeal, US v. Kamper, No. 12-5167 (6th Cir. April 9, 2014) (available here), which gets started this way:

Defendants-appellants Glenn Kamper and Joe Head appeal their respective 144-month sentences imposed for their roles in a conspiracy to manufacture and distribute MDMA (also known as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or “ecstasy”) in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Head and Kamper both appeal their sentences as procedurally and substantively unreasonable. Kamper argues that the MDMA-to-marijuana equivalency ratio underlying his Guidelines sentencing range is based on faulty science, and that the district court erred when it justified its refusal to reject the Guidelines ratio with institutional concerns. We conclude that the district court misunderstood its authority to reject and replace a Guidelines equivalency ratio based on policy disagreements, but conclude that the district court’s error was harmless. We reject Kamper’s other arguments regarding the reasonableness of his sentence as without merit. Head argues that the district court erred in applying sentencing enhancements for his aggravating role in the criminal conspiracy and for obstruction of justice. We conclude that Head’s sentence must be vacated because the district court erred in applying a sentencing enhancement for obstruction of justice. Accordingly, we AFFIRM the judgment of the district court with respect to Kamper, but REVERSE the judgment of the district court with respect to Head and REMAND for resentencing.

April 9, 2014 in Booker in the Circuits, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

AG Eric Holder advocates for Smarter Sentencing Act in testimony to House Judiciary Committee

As reported via this DOJ press release, Attorney General Eric Holder testified this morning before the US House Committee on the Judiciary.  Here are parts of the AG's prepared remarks that should be of interest to sentencing fans:

Across the board, the Department’s comprehensive efforts reflect our commitment to integrity and equal justice — in every case and circumstance.  And nowhere is this commitment stronger than in our work to strengthen America’s federal criminal justice system. Through the Smart on Crime initiative I announced last August, my colleagues and I are taking action on a number of evidence-based reforms — including modifications to the Department’s charging policies with regard to mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent, low-level drug crimes.  This commonsense change will ensure that the toughest penalties are reserved for the most dangerous or violent drug traffickers.  And I’m pleased to note that Members of this Committee have shown tremendous leadership in the effort to codify this approach into law.

I’ve been proud to join many of you in supporting the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced by Representatives Scott and Labrador and cosponsored by Ranking Member Conyers — which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.  And I pledge to keep working with leaders like you — and like Senator Rand Paul and others — to address the collateral consequences of certain convictions, including felony disenfranchisement policies that permanently deny formerly incarcerated people their right to vote.

We will never be able to simply arrest and incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation. That’s why we need to be both tough and smart in our fight against crime and the conditions and behaviors that breed it.  And this struggle must extend beyond our fight to combat gun-, gang-, and drug-fueled violence — to include civil rights violations and financial and health care fraud crimes that harm people and endanger the livelihoods of hardworking Americans from coast to coast.

UPDATE: As highlighted in this Politico report, headlined "Eric Holder at center of marijuana debate," following AG Holder's prepared testimony there was some heated discussion of the topic of federal marijuana policy.  Here is how the Politico piece starts:

Attorney General Eric Holder found himself caught Tuesday in a vast congressional divide over how the federal government should respond to moves states have made to legalize marijuana.

During a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Republicans repeatedly bashed Holder for going too far to accommodate the state actions, while a Democrat pounded the attorney general for refusing to call for a study of whether the federal drug classification system exaggerates the dangers posed by cannabis.

April 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, April 07, 2014

If it clearly cost thousands of innocent lives through heroin abuse, would most everyone oppose modern marijuana reforms?

I engendered an intriguing debate over research data, criminal drug reform and public safety concerns in my post here last week titled "If it clearly saved thousands of innocent lives on roadways, would most everyone support medical marijuana reforms?".  I am hoping to engender a similar debate with the question in the title of this new post, which is my sincere inquiry, directed particularly to those most supportive of modern marijuana reform movements, as a follow-up to this notable new Washington Post article headlined "Tracing the U.S. heroin surge back south of the border as Mexican cannabis output falls."  Here are excerpts:

The surge of cheap heroin spreading in $4 hits across rural America can be traced back to the remote valleys of the northern Sierra Madre. With the wholesale price of marijuana falling — driven in part by decriminalization in sections of the United States — Mexican drug farmers are turning away from cannabis and filling their fields with opium poppies.

Mexican heroin is flooding north as U.S. authorities trying to contain an epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse have tightened controls on synthetic opiates such as hydrocodone and OxyContin. As the pills become more costly and difficult to obtain, Mexican trafficking organizations have found new markets for heroin in places such as Winchester, Va., and Brattleboro, Vt., where, until recently, needle use for narcotics was rare or unknown.

Farmers in the storied “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, which has produced the country’s most notorious gangsters and biggest marijuana harvests, say they are no longer planting the crop. Its wholesale price has collapsed in the past five years, from $100 per kilogram to less than $25. “It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

Growers from this area and as far afield as Central America are sowing their plots with opium poppies, and large-scale operations are turning up in places where authorities have never seen them....

The needle habit in the United States has made a strong comeback as heroin rushes into the country. Use of the drug in the United States increased 79 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to federal data, triggering a wave of overdose deaths and an “urgent and growing public health crisis,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. warned last month.

Although prescription painkillers remain more widely abused and account for far more fatal overdoses, heroin has been “moving all over the country and popping up in areas you didn’t see before,” said Carl Pike, a senior official in the Special Operations Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

With its low price and easy portability, heroin has reached beyond New York, Chicago and other places where it has long been available. Rural areas of New England, Appalachia and the Midwest are being hit especially hard, with cities such as Portland, Maine; St. Louis; and Oklahoma City struggling to cope with a new generation of addicts. Pike and other DEA officials say the spread is the result of a shrewd marketing strategy developed by Mexican traffickers. They have targeted areas with the worst prescription pill abuse, sending heroin pushers to “set up right outside the methadone clinics,” one DEA agent said.

Some new heroin users begin by snorting the drug. But like addicts of synthetic painkillers who go from swallowing the pills to crushing and snorting them, they eventually turn to intravenous injection of heroin for a more powerful high. By then, experts say, they have crossed a psychological threshold — overcoming the stigma of needle use. At the same time, they face diminishing satisfaction from prescription pills that can cost $80 each on the street and whose effects wear off after four to six hours. Those addicts are especially susceptible to high-grade heroin offered for as little as $4 a dose but with a narcotic payload that can top anything from a pharmacy.

Unlike marijuana, which cartel peons usually carry across the border in backpacks, heroin (like cocaine) is typically smuggled inside fake vehicle panels or concealed in shipments of legitimate commercial goods and is more difficult to detect. By the time it reaches northern U.S. cities, a kilo may be worth $60,000 to $80,000, prior to being diluted or “cut” with fillers such as lactose and powdered milk. The increased demand for heroin in the United States appears to be keeping wholesale prices high, even with abundant supply.

The Mexican mountain folk in hamlets such as this one do not think of themselves as drug producers. They also plant corn, beans and other subsistence crops but say they could never earn a living from their small food plots. And, increasingly, they’re unable to compete with U.S. marijuana growers. With cannabis legalized or allowed for medical use in 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, more and more of the American market is supplied with highly potent marijuana grown in American garages and converted warehouses — some licensed, others not.  Mexican trafficking groups have also set up vast outdoor plantations on public land, especially in California, contributing to the fall in marijuana prices.

“When you have a product losing value, you diversify, and that’s true of any farmer,” said David Shirk, a Mexico researcher at the University of California at San Diego. “The wave of opium poppies we’re seeing is at least partially driven by changes we’re making in marijuana drug policy.”

I find this article fascinating in part because it highlight one (or surely many dozen) serious unintended consequences of modern marijuana reforms in the United States. I also find it fascinating because, just as my prior post explored some possible public safety benefits of consumers switching from alcohol use to marijuana use, this article spotlights some possible public safety harms of producers switching from marijuana farming to opium farming.

Some recent related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

April 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

"Billion Dollar Divide: Virginia's Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge"

JPI reportThe title of this post is the title of a new report by the Justice Policy Institute, which was released last week, is available here, and is summarized via this press release.  Here are excerpts from the press release:

As Virginia lawmakers consider a budget that would see corrections spending surpass a billion dollars in general funds, a new report points to racial disparities, skewed fiscal priorities, and missed opportunities for improvements through proposed legislation, and calls for reforms to the commonwealth’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system.

According to Billion Dollar Divide Virginia’s Sentencing, Corrections and Criminal Justice Challenge, ... while other states are successfully reforming their sentencing laws, parole policies and drug laws, Virginia is lagging behind and spending significant funds that could be used more effectively to benefit public safety in the commonwealth....

According to the report, approximately 80 percent of the corrections budget is being spent on incarcerating people in secure facilities, while only about 10 percent of the budget is spent on supervising people in the community. Put another way, in 2010 for every dollar the Commonwealth of Virginia spent on community supervision, it spent approximately $13 on costs for those incarcerated. Other states have a better balance between prison spending, and supporting individuals in the community.

"Taxpayers' wallets – and more important, people's lives – are in jeopardy," said Marc Schindler, executive director of JPI. "Instead of planning to spend more than $1 billion on an ineffective corrections system, Virginia should be looking to policies that are being implemented successfully in other states to make wiser use of precious resources and get better public safety outcomes.”...

The report describes challenges facing Virginia’s sentencing, corrections and criminal justice system, including:

  • Worrisome racial and ethnic disparities in how the state deals with drugs and drug crimes: African Americans make up approximately 20 percent of the Virginia population, but comprise 60 percent of the prison population, and 72 percent of all people incarcerated for a drug arrest.  JPI has compiled information for the largest Virginia cities and counties that show the disparities in drug enforcement, and the latest data show Virginia’s drug arrest rates on the rise;
  • More people serving longer sentences and rising length-of-stay: The changes to Truth-in-Sentencing enacted in the 1990s eliminated parole, and reduced access to earned-time and good-time credits.  The commonwealth has added more mandatory minimums that have lengthened prison terms, and about one quarter of all of Virginia’s mandatory minimum sentences involve drug offenses.  Between 1992 and 2007, there has been a 72 percent increase in individuals serving time for drug offenses.  There has also been a substantial and very expensive increase in the number of elderly individuals incarcerated in Virginia, despite strong evidence that these individuals pose little threat to public safety....

April 7, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

"Law Enforcement Lobby Quietly Tries To Kill Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Huffington Post piece.  Here are excerpts:

Several organizations representing state and local law enforcement are quietly trying to kill a bipartisan bill that would roll back tough mandatory sentences for people convicted of federal drug offenses under legislation passed during the height of America’s drug war three decades ago.

These groups include the National Sheriffs' Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Association of Police Organizations and the Major County Sheriffs' Association, The Huffington Post has learned.

They hope to weaken congressional support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reform the nation's mandatory minimum statutes, authorizing federal judges to sentence drug defendants to less time behind bars than what current law requires. The legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, when, in a rare instance of bipartisan collaboration these days, Republicans Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Jeff Flake of Arizona joined the committee’s Democrats in supporting the measure. Its House counterpart is still sitting in committee....

Major drug dealers “need to be locked up somewhere,” [Bob] Bushman [president of the National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, one of the groups fighting the bill] told HuffPost. “Some of these folks have worked hard to get to prison."...

A number of law enforcement agencies have already joined advocacy groups like the ACLU in endorsing the bill. They include the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the International Union of Police Associations, the American Correctional Association, the International Community Corrections Association and the American Probation and Parole Association. Attorney General Eric Holder backs the measure as well.

Bushman and his allies, however, aren’t the first law enforcement advocates to speak out against the bill. The Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys have also come out against federal sentencing reform in recent months. Unlike Bushman’s cohorts, both of these groups represent officials who work for the federal government, and both have stated their positions in public.

The National Narcotic Officers' Associations' Coalition, the National Sheriffs' Association and the other state and local groups have been working behind the scenes. Several of them had previously lined up against Debo Adegbile, the president's nominee to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and helped block his confirmation last month.

Lobbyists with the National Association of Police Organizations and other groups met with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and John Walsh (D-Mont.) to discuss their opposition to the reform package. A spokeswoman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police confirmed that the organization was lobbying against changes on Capitol Hill, but said it wasn't prepared to speak publicly on the topic.

Fred Wilson, an official with the National Sheriffs' Association, said his group isn't formally opposed to the legislation in principle but believes the bill needs more study -- even though it has already passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It may be [late], but our legislative folks seem to think not all is lost," Wilson said.

A letter from Bushman and his group to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) -- just one of several letters written by the Smarter Sentencing Act opponents that Bushman said are floating around Capitol Hill -- argues that federal policy should not be driven by "second-order effects of America’s drug problem" like incarceration costs....

Bushman said it was "a little early" to talk about whether law enforcement groups could be won over with a compromise bill this time, but said members of Congress first need to look at the "broader implications" of rolling back mandatory minimums. Democratic congressional aides acknowledged that they have been speaking with a number of law enforcement groups about the bill and said they hoped some of the concerns raised would be addressed, but likewise noted it was still relatively early in the legislative process.

April 2, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 30, 2014

As heroin concerns grow, so do proposals to increase sentences

Everyone who follows sentencing reform developments knows that it is common for legislative proposals calling for longer prison terms to follow reports of a new or increased crime problem.  The biggest crime problem being discussed these days seems to be heroin use and abuse, and here are two stories from Louisiana and Ohio reporting on proposals to increase drug sentences:

The sentencing reform debate developing around heroin in Louisiana is especially interesting, and here are excerpt from the article linked above:

Heroin-related deaths soared last year from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and the drug has shown no signs of loosening its grip as the epidemic spills into more and more parishes. On the verge of panic, authorities are warning of a public health crisis that demands new methods of deterrence. “When we’re getting to people, they’re dead,” said Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent. “When we’re getting to people, the needle is still hanging out of their skin.”

Against this backdrop, law enforcement officials are supporting legislation to drastically increase prison time for heroin dealers and users, including a bill backed by the influential Louisiana Sheriffs’ Association that would impose a mandatory minimum of two years behind bars — without parole — for anyone caught possessing even a small amount of heroin. House Bill 332 sailed through the House Criminal Justice Committee last week and is attracting bipartisan support, even among lawmakers otherwise skeptical of the “tough-on-crime” policies that have been blamed for Louisiana’s nation-leading incarceration rate.

“I think everybody understands the danger of heroin,” said Rep. Joseph Lopinto, R-Metairie, the committee’s chairman and the author of the bill. “I don’t want to put them away for the rest of their lives, but from the other standpoint, I want to make it enough of a deterrent that when they do get out of prison they say, ‘I’m staying away from that stuff.’ That’s the purpose.”

The proposal, which also would double the mandatory minimum sentence for heroin distribution from five to 10 years, stands in sharp contrast to a package of other legislative measures that aim to reduce the state’s teeming prison population, in part by shortening jail time for nonviolent offenders. And it comes at a time of growing recognition among conservatives and liberals alike that mandatory minimums for drug offenses have strained state coffers while doing little, if anything, to curb crime.

“Louisiana already has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and part of the reason for that is their history with mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses,” said Lauren Galik, a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, who has studied the state’s sentencing laws. “It clearly hasn’t served as a deterrent effect if people are still using drugs.” 

March 30, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack

Friday, March 28, 2014

Federal judge robustly defends drug guidelines ... after robustly varying from them

Thanks to this post by Paul Cassell over at The Volokh Conspiracy, titled "Are the federal sentencing guidelines for drug dealing unduly harsh?", I have had a chance to see and read a remarkable 70+-page opinion by US District Judge James Browning in US v. Reyes, CR 12-1695 (D.N.M. March 2014) (available here).   For any and everyone concerned about federal (or even state) sentencing for drug offenses, this opinion is a must-read.  Reyes also provides a remarkable case-specific window into the modern drug trade and the persons who get caught up within it.  And the validity and role of various uses of judicial discretion after Booker also is front-and-center in this opinion.

I am going to make all my sentencing students read this opinion, and this openning to the opinion helps highlight why it covers so many important issues:

THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant Kayla Marie Reyes’ Sentencing Memorandum and Motion for a Downward Variance, filed March 21, 2013 (Doc. 45)(“Sentencing Memorandum”).  The Court held a sentencing hearing on January 6, 2014. The primary issues are: (i) whether the Court will vary downward to a sentence of 15 months to reflect Defendant Kayla Marie Reyes’ comparatively minimal involvement in an overall drug conspiracy; (ii) whether the Court should vary from the advisory guideline range because of a substantive disagreement, under Kimbrough v. United States, 552 U.S. 85 (2007), with the United States Sentencing Commission’s Guideline ranges for drug trafficking violations, as did the Honorable John Gleeson, District Judge for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in United States v. Diaz, No. 11-CR-00821-2, 2013 WL 322243 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2013); and (iii) whether the Court should consider the costs of incarceration and supervised release in sentencing.  

The Court will vary downward, but not as much as Reyes requests: it will vary to a sentence of 30 months, which the Court concludes best reflects the factors that Congress laid out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a).

The Court concludes that Judge Gleeson’s criticisms of the Commission’s Guideline ranges for drug trafficking lack a sound basis.  Accordingly, the Court will not adopt his substantive disagreement under Kimbrough v. United States with the Commission’s Guideline for drug trafficking offenses. The Court varies for reasons tied to the factors in § 3553(a) and to Reyes’ individual circumstances, and not because of a substantive disagreement with the Commission’s ranges for drug trafficking. Finally, the Court will not consider the costs of incarceration and supervised release in sentencing, because the factors in § 3553(a) do not clearly permit the Court to consider costs, and because those concerned about the fiscal implications of criminal justice policy should petition the other branches of government and should not ask the Court to consider such implications in sentencing an individual defendant. 

As this introduction hints, I could readily write a few dozen blog posts about this Reyes opinion (and might do a few more in the weeks ahead). But my most fundamental insight about the opinion appears in the title to this post: Judge Browning makes a very forceful argument in support of the federal drug sentencing guidelines, but he is doing so in a case in which he concludes that they should not be followed. If Judge Browning really thinks these guidelines are so sound, I do not quite understand why he feels it necessary (or even legally appropriate) to vary from them.

March 28, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 27, 2014

USSC Chair talks up "A Generational Shift for Drug Sentences"

I just noticed via the US Sentencing Commission's official website that Chief Judge Patti Saris, Chair of United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judge, gave this lengthy speech at the Georgetown University Law Center titled “A Generational Shift For Drug Sentences.” The speech as reprinted runs eight-single-spaced pages, and here is one of many notable snippets:

So what have we learned then about drug sentencing policy in the generation since these federal sentences and guidelines were put into place?  At the state level, we have seen that many states have been able to reduce their prison populations and save money without seeing an increase in crime rates.  Michigan, New York, and Rhode Island all significantly decreased drug sentences, with Michigan and Rhode Island rolling back mandatory minimum penalties for drug offenses.  Each state saw reductions in prison population, accompanied by decreases in crime rates.  South Carolina eliminated mandatory minimum penalties for drug possession and some drug trafficking offenses and increased available alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses.  It too has seen reductions in its prison population and a drop in crime rates.  Other traditionally conservative states like Texas, Georgia, and South Dakota have shifted their emphasis from harsh punishment of drug offenses to a greater focus on alternative approaches, without seeing an increase in crime rates.  Respected organizations like the Vera Institute and the Pew Charitable Trust have studied these state reforms and found positive results.

This real-life experience in the states, together with new academic research, has begun to indicate that drug sentences may now be longer than needed to advance the purposes for which we have prison sentences, including public safety, justice, and deterrence.  Some prominent scholars have written that lengthy periods of incarceration are unlikely to have a deterrent effect and that even the incapacitation effect — keeping dangerous people off the streets — becomes less significant as prisoners get older.

March 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Great coverage of crack crimes and punishments via Al Jazeera America

I am pleased (and a bit overwhelmed) by this huge new series of stories, infographics, pictures, personal stories concerning crack crimes and punishment put together by Al Jazeera America.  Here are links to just some parts of the series:

Waiting on a fix: Legal legacy of the crack epidemic: In the 1980s, the US went to war on crack. Thirty years on, judiciary is still hooked on unfair and unequal sentencing

Documenting the ravages of the 1980s crack epidemic: Renowned documentary photographer Eugene Richards recorded the brutal realities facing communities affected by crack

'Life without parole is a walking death': Andre Badley, imprisoned in 1997 for dealing crack, could spend his life behind bars while bigger dealers go free.

A rush to judgment: In 1986, lawmakers wrote new mandatory crack cocaine penalties in a few short days, using the advice of a perjurer.

March 25, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack