Wednesday, December 11, 2013

So many notable marijuana stories and so little time to blog 'em all

As my my Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform seminar winds down with students working on final papers, local, state, national and international stories concerning modern marijuana reform efforts is really starting to heat up.  Here are headlines and links from just today's latest news of note:

I would be interested in reader perspectives on which of these stories seems the most notable and/or consequential for sentencing law and policy in particular or for American criminal justice more generally.

Cross posted in part at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

December 11, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Are cool secret compartments another casualty of the drug war?

The somewhat silly question in the title of this post is my response to this somewhat silly Slate piece sent my way by a helpful former student.  The piece by Justin Peters, Slate's crime correspondent, is headlined "We Are Now Criminalizing Awesome Secret Compartments. What Is Wrong With This Country?" and here are excerpts (with links included):

I have been obsessed with hidden compartments since I was a kid.  As a child, I was delighted to learn that it was possible to conceal your valuables inside a hollowed-out book. (For more on this topic, consult the valuable Wikipedia article “Concealing objects in a book.”)...

If we can agree that there’s nothing lamer than an inept secret compartment, let’s also stipulate that there’s nothing more impressive than a good one.  These days, the best secret compartments are usually found in vehicles, where they are often used by criminals to conceal drugs, weapons, or other contraband.  The most sophisticated of these “traps” look like the sort of thing you’d see in spy movies.  Earlier this year in Wired, sometime Slate contributor Brendan I. Koerner wrote about Alfred Anaya, a California man who was among the best trap-car builders in the land.  Anaya built intricate, almost undetectable secret compartments that could only be opened by hitting various buttons and switches in succession. Koerner mentions one trap installed behind the back seat of a truck, “which Anaya had rigged with a set of hydraulic cylinders linked to the vehicle’s electrical system. The only way to make the seat slide forward and reveal its secret was by pressing and holding four switches simultaneously: two for the power door locks and two for the windows.” The man was some sort of genius.

He was also, allegedly, a criminal, at least in the eyes of the Drug Enforcement Administration.  According to the DEA, much of Anaya’s business came from drug traffickers who used his “trap cars” to smuggle illegal narcotics cross-country.  Though Anaya was not involved in the drug business himself, and took pains to avoid asking his clients about why they needed his compartments, the feds claimed he was an active conspirator all the same.  A jury agreed, and Anaya is now serving a more-than-20-year sentence in federal prison.

While, as Koerner notes, it’s not a federal crime to build a hidden vehicular compartment, some states are passing laws that effectively make it a crime to have one installed.  In 2012 Ohio passed a law making it a felony to knowingly build or install a trap “with the intent to facilitate the unlawful concealment or transportation of a controlled substance.” Intent is a malleable concept, though, and it can be troublesome from a civil-liberties standpoint. A week before Thanksgiving, Ohio state troopers arrested a man named Norman Gurley for having a secret compartment in his car.  Though the compartment was completely empty, troopers still claimed that Gurley had intended to use it to smuggle illegal drugs. “Without the hidden compartment law, we would not have had any charges on the suspect,” a Highway Patrol lieutenant said after Gurley’s arrest.

Other people have already weighed in on why exactly that’s so problematic, and I won’t belabor the points that they have so capably made. All I’m going to say is that it strikes me as a damn shame, and somewhat un-American, to criminalize the sort of ingenuity you need to build a good trap-car.  I have no problem with cops arresting people who build pathetic hidden compartments; those artless people deserve their fates. And if you’re caught concealing substantial quantities of illegal drugs, well, the fact that you may have violated a hidden-compartment law is probably the least of your worries.  But merely conceiving of and installing a good one ought to be celebrated, not criminalized. Who says America doesn’t build things anymore?

December 10, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Remarkable new HRW report details massive "trial penalty" due to mandatory minimums in federal system

2013-US-plea-graphicAs highlighted in this press release discussing a new important report, in federal courts "drug offenders convicted after trial receive sentences on average three times as long as those who accept a plea bargain, according to new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch."  Here is more from the press release about the report and its findings:

The 126-page report, “An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty,” details how prosecutors throughout the United States extract guilty pleas from federal drug defendants by charging or threatening to charge them with offenses carrying harsh mandatory sentences and by seeking additional mandatory increases to those sentences.  Prosecutors offer defendants a much lower sentence in exchange for pleading guilty.  Since drug defendants rarely prevail at trial, it is not surprising that 97 percent of them decide to plead guilty.

“Prosecutors give drug defendants a so-called choice -- in the most egregious cases, the choice can be to plead guilty to 10 years, or risk life without parole by going to trial,” said Jamie Fellnew, senior advisor to the US Program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.  “Prosecutors make offers few drug defendants can refuse.  This is coercion pure and simple.”...

In one of hundreds of cases Human Rights Watch reviewed, Sandra Avery, a small-time drug dealer, rejected a plea of 10 years for possessing 50 grams of crack cocaine with intent to deliver. The prosecutor triggered a sentencing enhancement based on her prior convictions for simple drug possession, and she was sentenced to life without parole.

In addition to case reviews, the report is also based on numerous interviews with federal prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges.  It also includes new statistics developed by Human Rights Watch that provide the most recent and detailed measure of what the report calls the “trial penalty” -- the difference in sentences for drug defendants who pled guilty compared with those for defendants convicted after trial.  The trial penalty is, essentially, the price prosecutors make defendants pay for exercising their right to trial. “Going to trial is a right, not a crime,” Fellner said. “But defendants are punished with longer sentences for exercising that right.”

Prosecutors are able to impose the trial penalty because judges have been reduced to virtual bystanders in cases involving mandatory sentences.  When prosecutors choose to pursue mandatory penalties and the defendant is convicted, judges must impose the sentences.  They cannot exercise their traditional role of tailoring sentences to each defendant’s conduct and culpability and of making sentences no longer than necessary to serve the purposes of punishment....

The new statistics Human Rights Watch developed for the report, based on raw federal sentencing data for 2012, include the following:

• The average sentence for federal drug offenders who pled guilty was five years, four months; for those convicted after trial the average sentence was sixteen years.

• For drug defendants convicted of offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences, those who pled guilty had an average sentence of 82.5 months compared with 215 months for those convicted after trial, a difference of 11 years.

• Among drug defendants with prior felony convictions, the odds of receiving a sentencing enhancement based on those convictions was 8.4 times greater for those who went to trial than for those who pled guilty.

• Among drug defendants with a gun involved in their offense, the odds of receiving the statutory gun sentencing enhancement were 2.5 times greater for those who went to trial than for those who pled guilty.

December 5, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (49) | TrackBack

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

"The wrong people decide who goes to prison"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new CNN commentary authored by US DIstrict Judge Mark Bennett and Prof. Mark Osler.  Here are some of the on-the-mark views coming today from these Marks:

Nearly 30 years ago, Congress embarked on a remarkable and ultimately tragic transformation of criminal law.  Through the establishment of mandatory sentences and sentencing guidelines, discretion in sentencing was shifted from judges to prosecutors. After the changes, prosecutors largely controlled sentencing because things like mandatory sentences and guideline ranges were determined by decisions they made.

This change ignored the fact that federal judges are chosen from the ranks of experienced members of the bar precisely because their long legal careers have shown the ability to exercise discretion.  It also ignored the contrasting truth that many federal prosecutors are young lawyers in their 20s and 30s who have little experience making decisions as weighty as determining who will be imprisoned and for how long.

The primary reason for the changes was well-intended, though: Members of Congress wanted more uniformity in sentencing. That is, they wanted a term of imprisonment to derive from the crime and the history of the criminal rather than the personality of the person wielding discretion.

After nearly 30 years, we know how Congress' experiment turned out, and the results are not good.  Federal judges have been relatively lenient on low-level drug offenders when they have the discretion to go that way.  Turning discretion over to prosecutors via mandatory sentences and guidelines not only resulted in a remarkable surge in incarceration, it does not seem to solve the problem of disparities....

Let's look at just one way that prosecutors exercise this discretion: the enhancement of narcotics sentences under 21 U.S.C. 851, or proceedings to establish prior convictions. These enhancements, at a minimum, double a drug defendant's mandatory minimum sentence and may raise the maximum possible sentence....   [O]ur analysis of the way these enhancements have been used reveals a deeply disturbing dirty little secret of federal sentencing: the stunningly arbitrary application of these enhancements by prosecutors within the Department of Justice.

The numbers tell the story. Our home states are fairly typical in their wild disparities: A federal defendant in Iowa is more than 1,056% likely to receive a 851 enhancement than one in Minnesota. Nor are these Midwestern neighbors an anomaly. In the Northern District of Florida, prosecutors apply the enhancement 87% of the time, but in the bordering Middle District of Georgia, they are used in just 2% of relevant cases.

There is also breathtaking disparity within federal district within the same state (PDF). For example, in Florida, prosecutors in the Northern District apply the enhancement 87% of the time, but in the Southern District, it is used only 14% of the time.  In the Eastern District of Tennessee, offenders are 3,994% more likely to receive an enhancement than in the Western District of Tennessee.  In the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a defendant is 2,257% more likely to receive the enhancement than in the Middle District of Pennsylvania. The disparities are startling.

In August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced steps to establish more discipline within the Department of Justice in how this discretion is used.  It is a promising step but only that: a step. It is unclear how firm the attorney general is willing to be in tracking and constraining the use of this kind of discretion by prosecutors in different areas.

The larger lesson, and the more important one, is that after nearly 30 years, we still have gross and tragic disparities in federal sentencing, with the added burden of too many people put in prison, caused by mandatory sentencing and harsh sentencing guidelines. Tentative steps at reform will not be enough.  It is time for a radical rethinking of the project as a whole and a recognition that this grand experiment in shifting discretion to prosecutors has failed.

December 4, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Doesn't the Sixth Circuit Blewett majority opinion contradict SCOTUS precedent that the Eighth Amendment evolves?

Though lacking time to fully consume all the opinions in today's lengthy Sixth Circuit en banc ruling in Blewett (basics here), I did this morning find time to read the discussions of Eighth Amendment issues because they are relatively brief and cursory.  And, as the the title of this post reveals, I  believe that the majority's treatment of the Eighth Amendment is wrong and contradicts clear Supreme Court precedent concerning the evolving nature of the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments.

Here are the key passages from the majority's (far too brief) discussion of Eighth Amendment issues that have me all worked up (with cites left out but emphasis in the original):

Even if the Fair Sentencing Act applies only to individuals sentenced after its effective date and even if § 3582(c)(2) does not convert the Act into a retroactive change to these mandatory minimums, the Blewetts claim that the Constitution’s equal-protection and cruel-and-unusual-punishment principles give them relief.  Long before the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, our court and others repeatedly rejected similar constitutional challenges to the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities....

Congress’s mitigation of the crack and powder disparities does not weaken these precedents; it strengthens them.  Besides, the Blewetts cite no cases that call these conclusions into question....

Turning to another part of the Constitution, the Blewetts and Judge Merritt (with support from Judge Moore’s opinion) contend that the Eighth Amendment prohibits the continued imprisonment of a defendant sentenced under the old mandatory minimum laws.  Yet they cannot contend that their 10-year sentences were cruel and unusual when imposed.  After all, the Supreme Court has upheld a mandatory minimum of life without parole for possession of 672 grams of cocaine without intent to distributeHarmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957 (1991).  The Blewetts’ crimes are less serious in one respect (they possessed less cocaine), but more serious in two others (they possessed with intent to distribute and they had prior felony drug convictions).  Harmelin precludes the conclusion that the Blewetts’ much shorter mandatory minimum sentences were cruel and unusual.

The Blewetts persist that their sentences became cruel and unusual when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act.  But the Eighth Amendment is not a ratchet that makes a harsher system of penalties unconstitutional the moment a more lenient one is (prospectively) adopted, a theory that would have the perverse effect of discouraging lawmakers from ever lowering criminal sentences.  Withholding the benefits of a change from previously sentenced defendants at a any rate is not “unusual”; it is the general practice in federal sentencing, as Dorsey and § 109 confirm.

With all due respect to the Sixth Circuit and the author of this opinion (whom I know well and respect greatly), these passages seem deeply misguided in light of the evolving nature of the Eighth Amendment and the importance of objective factors in assessing the Amendment's evolution that have been repeatedly stressed by the Supreme Court.

To begin, it is just flat out wrong that Congress's decision to repeal the Blewetts sentences makes stronger prior rejections of their Eighth Amendment claims. The Supreme Court's Eighth Amendment ruling in Atkins stressed that legislative decisions by states to repeal the death penalty for mentally retarded defendants showed that society's view had evolved so that in 2002 it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded even though the Court had held in 1989 in Penry that the Eighth Amendment did not preclude such executions. In other words, there is clear Supreme Court precedent demonstrating legislative repeal(s) of a punishment makes a defendant's Eighth Amendment claims stronger, not weaker.

In addition, the question here (as it was in Atkins and all other Eighth Amendment cases) is not just "when" a sentence might have become unconstitutional, but rather whether an extreme punishment is cruel and unusual now. Thus, it is misguided to assert that the Blewetts claim "that their sentences became cruel and unusual when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act" back in 2010.  Rather, the issue needing to be resolved under the Eighth Amendment is whether now, in December 2013, after Congress passed the FSA in 2010 repealing the sentences being served by the Blewetts, AND after the US Sentencing Commission made lower guidelines retroactively available to tens of thousands of more serious crack offenders (and Congress approved that decision), AND after thousands of judges have lowered the sentences of thousands of more serious crack offenders by an average of more than two years, AND after the US Attorney General has given major speeches and issued new policies assailing the application of mandatory minimums in these kinds of cases, whether it is now cruel and unusual that only less serious crack offenders like the Blewetts do not even get a chance to ask a judge to have their sentences lowered.

My view on these issues is, of course, deeply biased by my involvement in this case in which I authored a brief for NACDL explaining why I think the Blewetts' sentences are unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment.  The reason I come to this view is because I take very seriously the Supreme Court's frequent and repeated admonition that Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments evolves.  I fully understand those who disagree with this jurisprudential approach to the Eighth Amendment and who advocate that the Supreme Court no longer analyze and apply the Amendment this way.  But, as an inferior court, the Sixth Circuit has to follow even parts of SCOTUS precedent it does not like.  In this case, however, it seems the Sixth Circuit was content just to ignore that precedent rather than consider it honestly and seriously.

December 3, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

In lengthy split opinions, en banc Sixth Circuit rejects all efforts to give any relief to pre-FSA crack defendants still serving mandatory minimums

The Sixth Circuit this morning has handed down a lengthy set of opinion in the closely-watched Blewett litigation. All the opinions, which can be accessed here, run a full 79 pages.  It appears the vote to reject providing any relief to pre-FSA defendants still serving now-repealed mandatory minimums was 10-7, and here is the complicated accounting of the votes and opinions:

SUTTON, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which BATCHELDER, C. J., BOGGS, GILMAN, GIBBONS, COOK, McKEAGUE, GRIFFIN and KETHLEGE, JJ., joined, and MOORE, J., join ed in the result. MOORE, J. (pp. 21–33), delivered a separate opinion concurring in the judgment. MERRITT, J. (pp. 34–37), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which DONALD J., joined. COLE, J. (pp. 38–43), delivered a separate dissenting opinion. CLAY, J. (pp. 44–58), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which DONALD, J., joined. ROGERS, J. (pp. 59–67), delivered a separate dissenting opinion, in which WHITE and STRANCH, JJ., joined, MERRITT, J., joined in part, and COLE, J., joined except for the last paragraph. WHITE, J. (pp. 68–79), delivered a separate dissenting opinion.

I am not at all surpsised by the line-up here, which notably seems to go down party lines save for Clinton appointees Judges Gilam and Moore with the Republican-appointee-heavy marjority, and Bush appointees Judges Rogers and White voting with the Democratic-heavy dissenting minority.  Here is how the opinion of the Sixth Circuit majority ends:

At the end of the day, this is a case about who, not what — about who has authority to lower the Blewetts’ sentences, not what should be done with that authority. In holding that the courts lack authority to give the Blewetts a sentence reduction, we do not mean to discount the policy arguments for granting that reduction.  Although the various opinions in this case draw different conclusions about the law, they all agree that Congress should think seriously about making the new minimums retroactive.  Indeed, the Fair Sentencing Act, prospective though it is, dignifies much of what the Blewetts are saying as a matter of legislative reform and may well be a powerful ground for seeking relief from Congress. Yet the language of the relevant statutes (the Fair Sentencing Act, § 109 and § 3582(c)(2)) and the language of the relevant decisions (Dorsey, Davis and Harmelin) leave us no room to grant that relief here. Any request for a sentence reduction must be addressed to a higher tribunal (the Supreme Court) or to a different forum altogether (the Congress and the President).

Especially because I have a very busy teaching week, I am unlikely to find the time to read and assess these opinions in full for a little while.  Moreover, because I have a much more robust view of the limits of the Eighth Amendment than most members of the federal judiciary, I suspect I will not be moved by how the majority disposed of this matter with reference to Harmelin and other cases which do not involve the sui generis reality of sustaining lengthy federal prison terms that have been resoundly and repeatedly rejected and disavowed by all other branches of the federal government and by all the states in the Union as well. 

December 3, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Calling out DOJ for talking the talk, but not walking the walk, on mandatory minimums

Andrew Cohen has this lengthy and effective new piece via The Atlantic highlighting a case in the SCOTUS cert pool that highlights the ways federal prosecutors are able to use mandatory minimums to force judges to impose lengthy prison terms for drug offenders. The piece's headline and sub-head highlight its themes: "Attorney General Mean What He Says About Sentencing Reform?: Eric Holder has spent a great deal of time and energy lately advocating for reforms to mandatory minimum sentences. So why is the federal government trying to stiff Clarvee Gomez in court?".  And here is how piece starts and concludes:

When the justices of the United States Supreme Court confer Friday morning to consider new cases they will have the opportunity to accept for review a dispute that tests not just the meaning of their own recent Sixth Amendment precedent but the viability of a major new policy initiative implemented this summer by the Justice Department to bring more fairness to federal sentencing while reducing the terrible costs of prison overcrowding.

In Gomez v. United States, a Massachusetts case, the justices have been asked to determine whether they meant what they wrote about juries and drug sentences in Alleyne v. United States, decided just this past June, and at the same time whether Attorney General Eric Holder meant what he said, in August, when he promised to curb the ways in which his federal prosecutors abuse "mandatory minimum" sentences in drug cases to obtain guilty pleas (or higher sentences).

The justices should accept this case for review. And the Court should affirm the just principle that a man cannot constitutionally be sentenced based upon charges that are not brought or upon facts a jury does not even hear. But even if the justices aren't willing to muster up that level of indignation, they ought to at least take the opportunity to call out federal prosecutors for saying one thing in front of the microphones and another in court papers....

The government's positions in this case — both the tactics employed by Gomez's prosecutors and the arguments made now by federal attorneys — are utterly inconsistent with the much-publicized policies the Attorney General himself promulgated this summer....

Even after the Court's mandate in Alleyne, even after the Attorney General's pointed memorandum, even after all the public speeches about sentencing reform, federal attorneys still are trying to argue that the result in the Gomez case is both fair and constitutional. It is neither and the Supreme Court ought to say so — or at least expose the incoherence and hypocrisy of the government's position. If true sentencing reform is going to come it's going to come one case at a time — and this is as good a case as any to start.

December 3, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, November 29, 2013

Louisiana Supreme Court at crosshairs of strong gun rights and tough drug laws

Cross-hairAs reported in this effective local article, headlined "Court considering second major gun law: La. drug-gun statute latest to face review," the top court in the Pelican State has a lot of interesting legal issues to sort out in the wake of state voters having last year approved by a gun-rights constitutional amendment backed by the National Rifle Association.  Here are the particulars:

Amid the growing confusion over whether Louisiana’s litany of gun crimes violates its residents’ turbocharged right to bear arms, the state Supreme Court has decided it will try to settle one of the most consequential questions: Does it remain constitutional to charge a person with a high-grade felony for having a gun at the same time as illegal drugs, no matter what kind of drugs or how much?

Rico Webb, a 22-year-old caught in a car with one marijuana cigar and a gun, points to a state constitutional amendment passed last year, applauded by conservatives and the National Rifle Association, that for the first time in American history declared gun ownership a fundamental right in Louisiana, subject to the same level of judicial scrutiny as free speech and voter equality.

The amendment provoked an avalanche of legal challenges to the state’s major gun-crime laws. At least three judges have declared various criminal statutes unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court is tasked with sorting out the mess.

The high court already is considering the statute that forbids certain felons from possessing firearms. It heard oral arguments last month, and its decision is pending.  In the meantime, the court agreed on Friday to take up Webb’s challenge to the law that punishes the possession of guns and drugs with five to 10 years in prison without the possibility of parole....

The constitutional amendment sailed through the Legislature last year and received overwhelming support from voters at the ballot box. Its proponents, both inside and outside the Legislature, defended the measure as a guarantee of freedom if federal gun protections were to somehow fall.

But critics described it as an unnecessary law that solved no problem.  Louisiana already had among the most liberal gun laws in the nation. All the amendment has accomplished, they say, is widespread constitutional chaos that could endanger public safety and waste hundreds of courthouse hours on the taxpayers’ dime.

The measure was pitched by conservative legislators as a state equivalent to the Second Amendment.  But in practice, it goes far past the protections offered by the U.S. Constitution.  The amendment erased language in the law that allowed the Legislature to prohibit carrying a concealed weapon and specified that, for the first time anywhere in the nation, gun laws would be subject to a “strict scrutiny” test, the highest level of judicial review.

“What the Legislature did is it took discretion away from itself,” said Raymond Diamond, a LSU law professor and Second Amendment scholar.  “This pro-gun Legislature voted to bind itself, and future Legislatures that might not be so pro-gun, from undertaking gun control. It has similarly binded local communities in ways that right now we really don’t understand.”  He has described the amendment as “a can of worms.”

It pushed the Louisiana Supreme Court to become the first in America to analyze criminal gun statutes using a strict scrutiny test.  That test presumes that every person has the right to be armed. Any law that seeks to infringe that right must pass a grueling legal test that kills more than two-third of the laws that come up against it.  The state must show that the law serves a compelling government interest, and that it is so narrowly defined that there is no less restrictive way of achieving that interest.

The arguments against the current statutes are similar, in that they equally dole out “heavy-handed penalties” to vast groups of people.  The drug statute treats people caught with small amounts of marijuana the same as those with large amounts of more serious drugs.  The felon-with-a-gun statute equates burglars with murderers. It includes a list of 150 felony offenses, characterized as drug or violence crimes, and says that anyone convicted of any of them is barred from possessing a firearm for 10 years after being released from prison.

The state supports that law by arguing that those with a demonstrated capacity to break the law are more dangerous when armed. Its position on the drugs-and-gun statute is the same: Drugs beget violence and guns make volatile situations deadly.

But Webb’s attorney, New Orleans public defender Colin Reingold, argues that the state cannot prove, under a strict-scrutiny test, that a single marijuana blunt makes him more dangerous when armed than anyone else, particularly since the possession of alcohol and guns is not equally restricted.  “The true danger of a firearm comes not from the manner in which its owner keeps or bears it, but rather from how the citizen uses the weapon,” Reingold wrote in his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Webb, who has no criminal record, was arrested on Sept. 10, 2012, when police pulled over his girlfriend for having a broken taillight.  He confessed to police that he had the blunt in his backpack and said the gun on the floorboard was his, too.  The gun was legal and the marijuana alone would have amounted to a misdemeanor, prosecuted in Municipal Court and typically punished with a fine and probation.  But combined, the gun and pot became a felony with a minimum sentence of five years and a maximum of 10 years, without the possibility of parole.

Webb appealed his charge to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which announced on Friday it would hear the case.  Over the years, the courts will have to sort out which of the 80 other gun crimes on Louisiana law books remain constitutional under the new amendment.

The state has become an experiment. “This is an exciting time because there is some risk that some of the laws will be declared unconstitutional,” Diamond said.  “Everybody’s very interested to see what the court’s going to do with it.”

Various prior Second Amendment and gun policy posts:

November 29, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Gun policy and sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, November 24, 2013

"'Cocaine congressman' received the right sentence"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Clarence Page appearing in the Chicago Tribune. Here are excerpts:

"Cocaine Congressman" Trey Radel, as headline writers have rebranded him, voted to allow states to drug test all food stamp recipients. Congress, it turns out, should have drug-tested Radel....

Radel became the first sitting congressman in 31 years, according to The Associated Press, to plead guilty to a misdemeanor drug-possession charge.

FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents swooped in to arrest him after he bought 3.5 grams of cocaine for $250 in a late October sting operation in Washington's fashionable DuPont Circle neighborhood. Charging documents described Radel as having a frequent-buyer reputation in the neighborhood. After Radel pleaded guilty in District of Columbia Superior Court, he was sentenced to a year of probation and will undergo substance abuse treatment in Florida.

House Republicans did not rush to escort Radel out the door, even though he reportedly waited three weeks before telling them about his bust. Speaker John Boehner said before Radel's sentencing that the matter should be left up to the courts, Radel, his family and his constituents.

Indeed, it would hardly be the first time that a politician continued to serve and potentially be re-elected after a misdemeanor conviction. Voters can be very forgiving of lawbreaking politicians.

"Today, I checked myself into a facility to seek treatment and counseling," Radel said in a statement last week. "It is my hope, through this process, I will come out a better man." I wish him luck. Unlike his more outraged critics, I don't think Radel should have been sent to jail. Quite the opposite, I think his case offers a good example of why a lot of nonviolent, first-arrest drug offenders shouldn't be in jail.

Contrast his case, for example, with another high-profile District of Columbia case, the arrest of then-Mayor Marion Barry for taking a hit of crack cocaine during an FBI hotel room sting in 1990. He was sentenced to six months in a federal prison. His sentence could have been worse if the video had not provided so much evidence to back the mayor's argument that he was a victim of FBI entrapment.

The fact that Barry is black and Radel is white doesn't mean that racism played a role in either case. But the differences in their sentences illustrate a persistent problem: Despite recent reforms, a racial disparity persists between the minimum sentences for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine. The Fair Sentencing Act that Congress passed in August of 2010 reduced the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine that was created during the anti-crack uproar of the 1980s. But it still remains way too huge at about 18-to-1. Fairness should never end at the color line.

Radel is fortunate to have been sentenced in D.C., where enlightened attitudes led to a special "drug court" in 1993 that is designed to funnel low-level addicts into rehab instead of long-term jail time. With prison costs skyrocketing — even after overall crime rates declined in the mid-1990s — even states with reputations for tough justice are turning to alternatives to prison for nonviolent drug offenders. Drug addiction should be handled as a disease, not a crime. Trey Radel knows.

Recent related post:

November 24, 2013 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Congressman pleads guilty and gets quick resolution to local DC cocaine charge

As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Rep. Trey Radel pleads guilty on charges of cocaine possession," a new member of Congress discovered how quick and efficient (and humane?) government in the form of the criminal justice system can sometime be.  Here are the notable details:

Freshman Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) pleaded guilty in D.C. Superior Court on Wednesday to a misdemeanor charge of possession of cocaine, after buying the illegal drug outside a restaurant in Dupont Circle late last month.

According to court documents, the first-term congressman “unlawfully, knowingly and intentionally possessed” a quantity of cocaine. Radel was charged Tuesday, following an indictment by a Superior Court grand jury.

Radel and a friend of his met an undercover agent at a restaurant in Dupont Circle at 10 p.m. on Oct. 29, prosecutors said in court. Radel asked the friend and the agent to go with him to his home. The agent declined. Radel then purchased 3.5 grams of cocaine, estimated to be worth $250, from the agent in his car.

After the transaction was made, officers stormed the vehicle, and Radel dropped the drugs. He allegedly invited the officers back to his apartment to discuss the incident. When officers went to the home, they found a vial containing cocaine.

Judge Robert S. Tignor sentenced Radel to one year on probation while he undergoes treatment in Florida. Radel said he is also seeking counseling in the District. Tignor said he took into account that this was Radel’s first offense. If Radel violates the probation, he will have to serve 180 days in jail. He also had to pay a $260 fee. His attorney had sought six months probation at the court hearing.

“Your honor, I apologize for what I’ve done,” Radel told the judge. “I hit a bottom and I realize I need help.”

“I am so sorry to be here,” he said. “I have let my constituents, my country and my family down. I want to come out of this stronger and I intend to do that, to be a better man, a better husband and continuing serving this country.”

If Radel completes probation, he won’t have a conviction on his record, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Radel, 37, was elected last November with 63 percent of the vote. He represents Florida’s 19th Congressional District, which includes Fort Myers, Naples, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs and Marco Island. In a statement issued after he was charged Tuesday, Radel expressed profound regret for his actions and said they stemmed in part from an addiction to alcohol. “I struggle with the disease of alcoholism, and this led to an extremely irresponsible choice,” he said. “As the father of a young son and a husband to a loving wife, I need to get help so I can be a better man for both of them . . . I know I have a problem and will do whatever is necessary to overcome it.”

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said the matter will be dealt with outside the halls of Congress. “Members of Congress should be held to the highest standards, and the alleged crime will be handled by the courts,” Steel said. “Beyond that, this is between Representative Radel, his family and his constituents.”

But Radel’s case will also be examined by the House Ethics Committee. House rules require the panel to launch a preliminary investigation any time a member is indicted or charged with criminal conduct.

Radel did not participate in House votes Monday evening. But he has been casting votes in recent weeks, including on the day of and the day after the alleged cocaine purchase. He recently co-sponsored a bipartisan bill to reform the nation’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenses.

November 20, 2013 in Celebrity sentencings, Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Is pot already really legal for middle-aged white folks?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this recent New York Times commentary by Jim Dwyer headlined "A Marijuana Stash That Carried Little Risk."  The piece is, I think, designed to complain about the impact and import of NYC stop-and-frisk policies, but my take-away is a bit distinct.  Here are excerpts from the piece:

Walking down Eighth Avenue a few weeks ago, I made sure my backpack was fully zipped shut.  Inside was a modest stash of pot, bought just an hour or so earlier.  A friend knew someone in that world, and after an introduction, then a quiet, discreet meeting, I was on my way to the subway.  Never before had I walked through Midtown Manhattan with it on my person.  There were four cookies in vacuum-sealed pouches — “edibles” is the technical term — and then a few pinches of what was described as “herb.”

The innovations of Michael R. Bloomberg as mayor are legion, but his enforcement of marijuana laws has broken all records.  More people have been arrested for marijuana possession than any other crime on the books.  From 2002 through 2012, 442,000 people were charged with misdemeanors for openly displaying or burning 25 grams or less of pot.

I wasn’t sure about the weight of my stash — although a digital scale was used in the transaction, I didn’t see the display — but it didn’t feel too heavy.  Still, I wasn’t about to openly display or burn it.

It turns out that there was little to fret over.  While scores of people are arrested on these charges every day in New York, the laws apparently don’t apply to middle-aged white guys. Or at least they aren’t enforced against us.

“It is your age that would make you most unusual for an arrest,” said Professor Harry Levine, a Queens College sociologist who has documented marijuana arrests in New York and across the country.  “If you were a 56-year-old white woman, you might get to be the first such weed bust ever in New York City — except, possibly, for a mentally ill person.”

About 87 percent of the marijuana arrests in the Bloomberg era have been of blacks and Latinos, most of them men, and generally under the age of 25 — although surveys consistently show that whites are more likely to use it.

These drug busts were the No. 1 harvest of the city’s stop, question and frisk policing from 2009 through 2012, according to a report released Thursday by the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman.  Marijuana possession was the most common charge of those arrested during those stops.  The few whites and Asians arrested on these charges were 50 percent more likely than blacks to have the case “adjourned in contemplation of dismissal,” the report showed.

Now, having a little bit of pot, like a joint, is not a crime as long as you don’t burn or openly display it.  Having it in my backpack was a violation of law, meaning that it is an offense that is lower than a misdemeanor.  Pot in the backpack is approximately the same as making an illegal turn in a car.  Taking it out and waving it in the face of a police officer or lighting up a joint on the street would drive it up to the lowest-level misdemeanor.

How was it that all the black and Latino males were displaying or burning pot where it could be seen by the police?  The answer is that many of them were asked during the stops to empty their pockets.  What had been a concealed joint and the merest violation of the law was transformed into a misdemeanor by being “openly displayed.” If these were illegal searches — and they very well could have been — good luck trying to prove it....

Michael A. Cardozo, the chief lawyer for the city, is eager to get an appeals court to throw out the findings of fact by a judge who ruled against the city in a lawsuit over the stop-and-frisk tactics. Mr. Cardozo appears to believe, mistakenly, that losing a lawsuit is going to damage the legacy of his patron, Mayor Bloomberg.  Undoing a lawsuit will not unstain this history.

As for me, the pot got to a couple of people who might need it to get through some medical storms.  It’s too risky for me to use: I already have a hard enough time keeping my backpack zipped.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 16, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offender Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 09, 2013

"Drug policy: Moral crusade or business problem?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Detroit News op-ed by law prof Mark Osler.  Here is how it gets started:

Slowly, Americans are beginning to realize what a mess our “War on Drugs” has been. We have spent billions of dollars and prosecuted millions of people, all to little real effect. Michigan has been front and center in this sad drama.

At the root of this failure is a simple error: We have treated narcotics as an issue of morality rather than business.  Our efforts have been focused on punishing relatively minor actors through mass incarceration rather than on the very different goal of shutting down drug businesses.  A starting point as we reconsider our efforts should be the simple recognition that narcotics trafficking is first and foremost a business.

That means that we need to put business experts in charge of the effort to close down narcotics businesses. This change might make all the difference.

A business expert, for example, would know enough to identify a proper measure of success or failure.  The only real way to know if narcotics interdiction is working isn’t how much cocaine is piled up in a bust, or how many people we lock up.  Rather, the best measure is an economic one: the price of narcotics on the street.  If we are successful at restricting supply, the price should go up (given a rough consistency of demand). Hiking the price is important.  We have learned from cigarettes that raising the price of something addictive reduces usage rates.  Still, governments continue to measure success by narcotics seized, arrests made, and sentences imposed rather than the street value of illegal drugs.

Similarly, no knowledgeable businessperson would use an analytical device like the system we have in place to rank-order the importance of narcotics defendants, where the weight of drugs those defendants possess is usually used as a proxy for culpability.  If you have a lot of drugs on you, you get a high sentence.  In reality, important figures in narcotics organizations don’t possess drugs at all — that is left to mules, street dealers, and low-level managers.  Given this false proxy, it shouldn’t be surprising that our prisons are stuffed full of mules, street dealers and low-level managers.  Who keeps the profit is a better gauge of responsibility and culpability.  That’s how a business works.

A businessperson would also realize the futility of sweeping up low-wage labor in an effort to close down a business. Or, for that matter, grabbing inventory periodically (which we do via drug seizures) or occasionally seizing profits (which we do when we forfeit drug dealer’s homes or cars).  In real life, the way to shut down a business is to curtail cash flow, because without that there can be no labor hired, no inventory produced, and no profit generated.  Conversely, so long as cash flow exists (or credit, which drug dealers generally can’t obtain), labor, inventory, and profit can be replaced.  Yet, the one thing we do not focus on is cash flow, which we could capture through forfeitures.  We keep the money, the business fails, and drug dealers are out of work rather than in prison.

November 9, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Is it "misleading to compare marijuana to beer"?

Beer potThe question in the title of this post is drawn from a quote by someone from the Beer Institute appearing in this notable new National Journal item headlined "Alcohol Is Really Pissed Off at Marijuana Right Now; The marijuana industry is convincing Americans its substance is safer than alcohol, and booze lobbyists don't like it." Here are excerpts from the new National Journal piece:

Marijuana has been giving alcohol a bad name. So contend booze lobbyists, who are getting sick of an ad campaign that makes the claim that pot is safer than their beloved beverages.

"We're not against legalization of marijuana, we just don't want to be vilified in the process," said one alcohol industry representative who didn't want to be quoted harshing his colleagues mellow. "We don't want alcohol to be thrown under the bus, and we're going to fight to defend our industry when we are demonized."

The marijuana industry has had a good couple of years: a recent poll found that 58 percent of the country thinks the product should be legal, recreational use has been legalized in two states already, and this past election saw the city of Portland, Maine, legalize 2.5 ounces of pot. Ahead of the vote in Portland — which received 70 percent support — the Marijuana Policy Project put up signs around the city with messages like "I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it doesn't make me rowdy or reckless," and "I prefer marijuana over alcohol because it's less harmful to my body."

Alcohol lobbyists believe it's a "red herring" to compare the two. "We believe it's misleading to compare marijuana to beer," said Chris Thorne of the Beer Institute. "Beer is distinctly different both as a product and an industry."

Thorne notes that the alcohol industry is regulated, studied extensively, and perhaps more importantly already an accepted part of the culture. "Factually speaking beer has been a welcome part of American life for a long time," he said. "The vast majority drink responsibly, so having caricatures won't really influence people."

But MPP takes issue with the idea they are painting a false picture. In a recent Op-Ed for CNN, Dan Riffle, the group's director of federal policies, notes that according to the Centers for Disease Control excessive alcohol use is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death. Booze also "plays a role in a third of all emergency room visits," he says....

"That's like saying we shouldn't talk about relative harms of sushi to fried chicken," said Mason Tvert, who in addition to working at MPP wrote a book called Marijuana is Safer: So Why are We Driving People to Drink? "It's important that people know the relative harms of all substances, so there's no reason not to talk about the two most popular substances in the world." 

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 7, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, November 04, 2013

Sentencing judge explains his view on how nationwide reforms should impact federal marijuana sentencing

I noted in prior recent posts here and here, U.S. District Judge James Bredar last month conducted a hearing to explore marijuana legal reforms and developments at the state and federal level now called for imposing below-guideline sentences for federal marijuana offenses.  This past Friday, Judge Bredar handed down a 12-page opinion in US v. Dayi, No. JKB-13-0013 (D. Md. Nov. 1, 2013) (available here), explaining his views and thinking on this front.  Here is an excerpt from the final sections of the fascinating (and perhaps very important?) Dayi opinion:

The evolving landscape of state law and federal enforcement policy regarding marijuana is particularly relevant to two of these [statutory sentencing] factors, namely (1) the need for any sentence imposed “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense,” § 3553(a)(2)(A), and (2) the “need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct,” § 3553(a)(6).....

The Court’s role is not to question, criticize, or laud the Justice Department’s new enforcement priorities or the recent enactments of state voters and legislators.  These policy choices reflect an on-going effort to address a complex, difficult, and highly controversial issue.  Rather, the Court’s role is simply to take note of these developments and consider them as part ofits assessment of the seriousness of these offenses. Ultimately, the Court finds that, in 2013, strict Guidelines sentences would overstate the seriousness of the underlying offenses and therefore fail “to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense.” § 3553(a)(2)(A)....

The Court also finds that Guidelines sentences in these cases would fail to address the “need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendant s with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct.” § 3553(a)(6). The Court construes this factor broadly, interpreting it as a command to ensure that sentences comport with the notion of equal justice under the law.  The Justice Department has decided it will not prosecute certain marijuana traffickers, including large-scale commercial distributors who, in compliance with state laws and regulations, establish retail outlets that cater to recreational marijuana users in Colorado and Washington.  Although the illegal enterprise in these cases is not identical to these commercial distributors — i.e., it did not comply with the laws or regulations of any state and implicated several federal enforcement priorities — it nonetheless bears some similarity to those marijuana distribution operations in Colorado and Washington that will not be subject to federal prosecution. The Court therefore finds it should use its sentencing discretion to dampen the disparate effects of prosecutorial priorities.  As a result, the Court finds this factor too justifies a downward variance from the sentence the Guidelines would otherwise recommend....

Of course, these two factors are not the only ones the Court must consider under § 3553(a). Others, particularly “the nature and circumstances of the offense,” § 3553(a)(1), and“the need for the sentence imposed to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct” § 3553(2)(B), militate more strongly in favor of a Guidelines sentence. Indeed, the conspiracy at issue in these cases was a large, elaborate, and profitable illegal operation involving well in excess of 1,000 kilograms of marijuana.  The Court therefore believes that a two-level variance from the Guidelines, which would reduce each defendant’s sentence by roughly 20 to 25%, is appropriate.  Such a variance reflects national trends in the enforcement of marijuana-related offenses, while recognizing the undeniable illegality of defendants’ conduct.  As it determines the sentence of each defendant in these cases, the Court will adopt this analysis, and accordingly it will grant each defendant the benefit of a two-level downward variance.

Recent related posts:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

November 4, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Baltimore Sun praises federal sentencing judge for his part in a "national conversation about pot"

I am intrigued and pleased to see this new Baltimore Sun editorial noting and praising the recent work by a Maryland federal district judge when sentencing a set of marijuana traffickers (first noted here).  The editorial carries the headline "A national conversation about pot; Our view: Court's ruling in drug-smuggling case reflects the federal government's changing role in enforcing marijuana laws." Here is an excerpt:
A ruling handed down by a federal court this week strongly suggests that recent changes in state laws governing marijuana are now being reflected in how federal drug laws are enforced and will further change the conversation about marijuana use in America.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar acknowledged that new reality when he sentenced Scott Russell Segal this week to nearly five years in prison for his role in smuggling hundreds of kilograms of marijuana to Howard and Anne Arundel counties from California and New Jersey. Under federal sentencing guidelines Mr. Segal could have received eight to 11 years behind bars.

But the judge used his discretion to cut that penalty nearly in half, saying the federal government's response to the legalization of marijuana in some states had raised concerns of "equal justice" if federal law mandated significantly harsher punishments than state laws for the same crime. In doing so he clearly had in mind the Justice Department's recent announcement that it would not seek to block state laws legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use....

Judge Bredar briefly wondered aloud whether underground sales of marijuana were comparable to the black market in untaxed cigarettes in terms of the seriousness of the threat posed to society. But the truth is that, unlike black market cigarettes, the gangs that deal in illegal marijuana have gotten a lot more violent in recent decades, a function of the widespread continuing limited supply and high demand for pot as well as of the easy availability of guns. That's a direct consequence of the drug's prohibition, just as the gang wars of the 1920s and '30s were a result of attempts to ban legal sales of alcohol. Part of the wisdom of Judge Bredar's ruling lies in the recognition that we don't want to repeat the same mistake again.

Overall, the court's decision was a reasoned attempt to take into account all these factors in order to balance the strict requirements of the law against changing public perceptions of marijuana's impact on public health and safety. Ultimately some new consensus about the benefits and dangers of legal marijuana will emerge and be codified in a coherent body of law. But we are not there yet, and until that happens cases like this will provide the forums through which our national conversation on the subject is conducted.

Recent related post:

October 30, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Do nationwide reforms now call for federal judges to sentence below the guidelines in all marijuana cases?

The question in the title of this post is one that I have been thinking about for quite some time, but it has now taking on some real-world salience in the wake of a couple hearings and sentencing decisions by a federal district judge in Baltimore.  Two recent reports from the Baltimore Sun, headlined "Federal judge weighs shift on marijuana sentences," and U.S. judge says government view on marijuana raises 'equal justice' issue" (available here and here, respectively), suggests that at least one federal district judge believes the answer to the question in the title of this post is yes. Here are details drawn from both press reports:

A federal judge said Friday he would consider lighter-than-normal sentences for members of a major suburban marijuana smuggling organization — the latest fallout of the drug's legalization in several U.S. states.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar noted that federal authorities announced this summer they would not pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others legally handling marijuana in states where the drug has been legalized.

Bredar, who called the hearing to discuss the issue, said it might be more appropriate to compare the defendants in the Maryland marijuana case to smugglers of improperly taxed cigarettes rather than treat them as hardened drug traffickers. "It's a serious thing," Bredar said of the group's operation, "but it's not the same as dealing heroin."...

Friday's hearing involved defendants convicted of running a smuggling operation that imported large quantities of marijuana to Howard and Anne Arundel counties from California and New Jersey and laundering the proceeds through an eBay business located in a Jessup warehouse. Twenty-two of the 23 people charged in the case have been convicted; charges against one were dismissed.

Earlier this month, Bredar canceled all of the scheduled sentencings in the case and announced his plan to hold a hearing on changes in Justice Department policy that allow marijuana handlers such as dispensaries and cultivation centers to operate openly in states where marijuana is legal....

At issue in the Maryland case, Bredar said, is whether that shift means the government has decided the drug is less serious now than when federal sentencing guidelines were formulated. "Has the federal government changed its enforcement policy?" Bredar asked.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrea L. Smith said the topic was an appropriate one to discuss, but argued that marijuana remained a serious drug and noted that the case involved guns and violence. She suggested it might be more appropriate to compare marijuana dealing to trafficking in illegally obtained prescription pain pills rather than to cigarette smuggling....

And on a sliding scale of regulated substances, Bredar said, he thought marijuana had moved away from hard drugs and toward tobacco.

Sentences in federal cases are based on guidelines that take into account drug quantities and other circumstances in advising judges on the appropriate prison time. Those rules already recognize that dealing heroin is much more serious than dealing marijuana.

For example, all else being equal, a defendant convicted of dealing between one and three kilograms of heroin would face between nine and 11 years in prison, as would someone who sold between 1,000 and 3,000 kilograms of marijuana. At the same time, a cigarette trafficker would have to evade $100 million in taxes to face that length of prison sentence — a vastly greater weight in tobacco.

The guidelines are advisory and judges can take other factors into account when deciding a sentence. Bredar said he would take particular note of two of those factors when sentencing the defendants: He wants to make sure that defendants around the country are being treated equally and that the sentences reflect the seriousness of the offense....

A federal judge in Maryland handed down lighter prison sentences Monday to defendants in a huge marijuana distribution case, saying that such offenses are "not regarded with the same seriousness" as they were just a few decades ago.

U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar said the federal government's response to marijuana legalization in some states — notably the decision not to pursue criminal cases against dispensaries and others handling the drug in accordance with those states' laws — raises concerns of "equal justice."

In handing down a nearly five-year sentence, Bredar said he felt Scott Russell Segal had committed a significant crime for his role moving hundreds of kilograms of marijuana and laundering the proceeds.

But the judge used his discretion to ignore federal guidelines, which equate marijuana with harder drugs like heroin and called for Segal to receive eight to 11 years in prison. A second defendant also got a shorter sentence than called for in the guidelines. "It's indisputable that the offense is not regarded with the same seriousness it was 20 or 30 years ago when the sentencing guidelines … which are still in use, were promulgated," Bredar said.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

October 29, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Terrific (though incomplete) analysis of the state and future of modern pot politics

Rs and potThis very interesting new piece in The New Republic authored by Nate Cohn and headlined "Marijuana is America's Next Political Wedge Issue: Pot politics, in 2016 and beyond," sets forth what strikes me as an astute (but incomplete) political analysis of modern marijuana reform realities circa fall 2013.   Here are excerpts:

We’ve reached the point where there should be no surprise if a major national politician embraces marijuana legalization. Without any large-scale campaign on its behalf, surveys show that approximately half of Americans now support marijuana legalization, including 58 percent in a recent, but potentially outlying, Gallup poll. Regardless of the exact support today, marijuana is all but assured to emerge as an issue in national elections — it's only a question of how and when.

So far, neither party wants to touch the issue. The Democratic governors of Washington and Colorado didn’t even support initiatives to legalize the possession, distribution, and consumption of marijuana, even though the initiatives ultimately prevailed by clear margins. It took the administration ten months to announce — in the middle of the Syria debate — that the Department of Justice wouldn’t pursue legal action against Washington and Colorado. And on the other hand, Republicans weren't exactly screaming about hippies and gateway drugs, either.

Despite their apparent reservation to engage the issue, it’s hard to imagine Democrats staying on the sidelines for too many more election cycles. The party’s base is already on board, with polls showing a clear majority of self-described Democrats in support....

To date, Democrats haven’t had many incentives to take a risk on the issue. Democrats are already winning the winnable culture war skirmishes, at least from a national electoral perspective, and they have a winning demographic hand. And let’s get perspective: Marijuana legalization may be increasingly popular, but it’s not clearly an electoral bonanza. Support for legalization isn’t very far above 50 percent, if it is in fact, and there are potential downsides. National surveys show that a third of Democrats still oppose marijuana legalization. Seniors, who turnout in high numbers in off year elections, are also opposed. Altogether, it’s very conceivable that there are more votes to be lost than won by supporting marijuana. After all, marijuana legalization underperformed President Obama in Washington State.

Even so, Democratic voters will eventually prevail over cautious politicians, most likely through the primary process. Any liberal rival to Hillary Clinton in 2016 will have every incentive to support marijuana legalization. Whether Clinton will follow suit is harder to say, given that frontrunners (and Clintons) are generally pretty cautious. It’s probably more likely that Clinton would endorse steps toward liberalization, like weaker criminal penalties and support for the legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado.

Republicans, meanwhile, are less likely to support legalization or liberalization. To be sure, some Republicans will. They can take a states’ rights position and the party has a growing libertarian bent, perhaps best exemplified by Rand Paul’s willingness to support more liberal marijuana laws. Republicans also have electoral incentives to lead on issues where they can earn a few votes among millennials, who pose a serious threat to the continued viability of the national Republican coalition. If the Republicans can't adjust their existing positions to compensate for demographic and generational change, which (for now) it appears they cannot, then perhaps taking a stance on a new issue, like marijuana, is the best they can do.

Of course, the problem is that a majority of Republicans are opposed to legalization. Two thirds of Republicans voted against legalization in Colorado and Washington, where one might expect Republicans be somewhat more amenable than the nation as a whole. It probably doesn’t help that marijuana is closely aligned with the liberal counterculture. It's also possible that many pro-legalization conservatives don't identify as Republicans at all, but instead might be independents....

With Republicans likely to remain opposed, marijuana could emerge as a big cultural issue in the 2016 election. In particular, Clinton would be well-positioned to deploy the issue. Her strength among older voters and women mitigates the risk that she would lose very much support, while legalization could help Clinton with the young, independent, and male voters who could clinch her primary or general election victory.

But realistically, Clinton or another Democrat won't campaign on marijuana legalization. For one, it’s most likely that the Democratic nominee will support incremental measures....

It’s easier to imagine marijuana playing a role in the 2016 primaries. Many candidates will have incentives to use the issue, whether it’s a cultural conservative using marijuana to hurt Rand Paul among evangelicals in Iowa, or a liberal trying to stoke a progressive revolt against Clinton’s candidacy. And once one party begins to debate the issue, the other will almost certainly be confronted by the same question. Marijuana won’t be decisive in a primary, but 2016’s primary battles will shape the two party’s initial positions on the issue.

Yet marijuana’s big moment will probably come later, perhaps in 2024. Legalization might eventually be popular enough for Democrats to use the issue in general elections, first at the state level and then nationally. As with gay marriage, the GOP’s obvious but difficult solution is to take their own creed on states’ rights seriously, and devolve the issue — and the politics — to the states. Compared to gay marriage, which strikes at the heart of the evangelical wing of the party, it should be easier for the Republicans to make an adjustment on marijuana. But if they cannot, the GOP will again find itself on the losing side of the culture wars.

I see lots and lots of merit to this analysis, and I find especially intriguing the cogent observation that a older female politician like Hillary Clinton might be especially well positioned to experiences far more political benefits than costs from pro-marijuana reform positions. (Indeed, I have been thinking for some time that the marijuana reform movement needs a prominent female (and motherly) face and voice comparable to Pauline Sabin, the first woman to sit on the Republican National Committee, who was a vocal advocate from repealing alcohol prohibition 80 years ago.)

But I think this commentary may be missing one key reality that I am certain will impact dramatically the politics of pot over the next few election cycles: the reality and perceptions of what ends up happening, good or bad, in Colorado and Washington as recreational pot goes mainstream in these two distinct states.  If legalization is seen as a huge success inside and outside these states over the next 12 months, especially in swing-state Colorado, we should expect marijuana reform supporters to see positive political possibilities as early as 2014 and I suspect it will become especially difficult for either party to be vocal opponents of marijuana liberalization and legalization realities.  But if things go poorly in these states, the modern reform politics neccesarily will take on a much different character. 

Labaoratories of democracy, here we come: buckle up politicians, we are likely in for a bumpy and unpredictable politicial ride.

October 26, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Hippies, step aside please. Marijuana's Marlboro Man is about to take the stage."

The title of this post comes from the final lines of this notable new commentary by Kevin Sabet of Project SAM at The Huffington Post headlined "Marijuana Opinion Polling: Be Cautious Amidst the Hype." Here are excerpts from the start and finish of the piece:

The special interest marijuana lobby -- who, like the tobacco industry, intend to make millions off of marijuana products by advertising and promoting their substance of choice -- can't stop talking about a recent Gallup poll finding that 58 percent of Americans support marijuana legalization.  Media outlets are already calling "game over" on the debate, expressing that, like gay marriage, marijuana is an issue whose time has come.

Not so fast.  Though marijuana lobbyists, like other special interest groups, are masters at manipulating and overplaying findings favorable to their crusade -- and ignoring findings that are unfavorable (like the link between marijuana and IQ loss or mental illness), the rest of us should see through the smoke and mirrors.  There are at least three major problems with using Gallup as a reliable marker for marijuana attitudes in the U.S....

Earlier this year, former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy and I founded Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), along with a slew of public health researchers and physicians -- from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Society of Addiction Medicine, and other prominent medical organizations -- to raise awareness about what the likely real result of legalization will be: this century's version of Big Tobacco.  That's because millionaire ex-Microsoft executives are already launching, in their words, the "Starbucks of Marijuana."  And multimillion-dollar private holding groups continue to raise money from investors eager to cash in on the "green rush."

People's image of marijuana legalization, however, is not consistent with this new corporate reality.  Folks are still stuck in the 1970s -- they think of peace loving, drum playing, harmless pot smokers who just want to light up without the hassle of the law.  And thanks to a marijuana industry casting doubt on any shred of scientific evidence (indeed mounds of it) that puts the drug in a bad light, confusion persists.

Hippies, step aside please.  Marijuana's Marlboro Man is about to take the stage.

Recent related post:

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

October 24, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Federal sentencing reform: an unlikely Senatorial love story and a Booker double-dose?

O-PAUL-BOOKER-facebookThe silly title of this post is my first reaction to seeing this new report in the Wall Street Journal about the plans and priorities of US Senator-elect from New Jersey Cory Booker.  The piece is headlined "On Booker's To-Do List: Revamp Drug Laws; New Jersey's Senator-Elect Face Challenges Once He Takes Office," and here are the excerpts that caught my special attention:

Senator-elect Cory Booker sees revamping drug policies as one of the principal issues he can champion once he takes office in Washington, D.C., and he believes he can draw bipartisan support on the issue—even among those who supported his Republican challenger in the special-election race.

Mr. Booker said he has had initial conversations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about his opinions on the issue—such as eliminating mandatory minimum-sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders and reducing incarceration rates as a way to help save tax dollars.

In the special-election race that wrapped up last week, Mr. Booker campaigned on working across the aisle despite the bitter partisan divide in Washington. Drug policy could be one area where he finds some success, according to those who work in the field. He singled out Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian, as someone who sees eye-to-eye with him on the issue.

"I want to work with him," said Mr. Booker, about Mr. Paul, during an interview Tuesday at his campaign office in the city he led as mayor for seven years. "I take everybody in the Senate as sincere people who want to make a difference."

Mr. Paul — a tea-party leader seen as a possible 2016 Republican presidential contender — endorsed Mr. Booker's challenger, Steve Lonegan, in the Oct. 16 Senate election. But a spokeswoman for Mr. Paul on Tuesday welcomed Mr. Booker's gesture.

"Senator Paul would be pleased to work with any member who believes that mandatory minimum sentencing is unnecessary," the spokeswoman said. "He looks forward to Senator Booker's assistance on this important issue."

I am very pleased to see Booker talking up federal sentencing reform as he heads inside the Beltway, and I am especially excited to see him calling for a partnership with Senator Rand. Indeed, if the two of them truly seek to make sentencing reform a priority in the weeks and months ahead, the momentum toward reform may really become unstoppable.

And, of course, the notable irony of another person with the surname Booker shaking up federal sentencing perhaps mertis some special attention by clever wanna-be-headline-writing commentators.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 23, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Latest Gallup poll shows considerable spike upward in support for legalizing marijuana

Pot pollAs reported in this new Gallup page, headlined "For First Time, Americans Favor Legalizing Marijuana: Support surged 10 percentage points in past year, to 58%," the latest polling data suggests that marijuana reform developments over the last year in a variety of state have had a pretty dramatic impact on public opinion concerning marijuana laws and policies.  Here are the basic details via the folks at Gallup:

For marijuana advocates, the last 12 months have been a period of unprecedented success as Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational use of marijuana. And now for the first time, a clear majority of Americans (58%) say the drug should be legalized. This is in sharp contrast to the time Gallup first asked the question in 1969, when only 12% favored legalization.

Public support for legalization more than doubled in the 1970s, growing to 28%. It then plateaued during the 1980s and 1990s before inching steadily higher since 2000, reaching 50% in 2011. A sizable percentage of Americans (38%) this year admitted to having tried the drug, which may be a contributing factor to greater acceptance.

Success at the ballot box in the past year in Colorado and Washington may have increased Americans' tolerance for marijuana legalization. Support for legalization has jumped 10 percentage points since last November and the legal momentum shows no sign of abating. Last week, California's second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said that pot should be legal in the Golden State, and advocates of legalization are poised to introduce a statewide referendum in 2014 to legalize the drug....

Independents' growing support for legalization has mostly driven the jump in Americans' overall support. Sixty-two percent of independents now favor legalization, up 12 points from November 2012. Support for legalization among Democrats and Republicans saw little change. Yet there is a marked divide between Republicans, who still oppose legalizing marijuana, and Democrats and independents.

Americans 65 and older are the only age group that still opposes legalizing marijuana. Still, support among this group has jumped 14 percentage points since 2011. In contrast, 67% of Americans aged 18 to 29 back legalization. Clear majorities of Americans aged 30 to 64 also favor legalization....

Whatever the reasons for Americans' greater acceptance of marijuana, it is likely that this momentum will spur further legalization efforts across the United States. Advocates of legalizing marijuana say taxing and regulating the drug could be financially beneficial to states and municipalities nationwide. But detractors such as law enforcement and substance abuse professionals have cited health risks including an increased heart rate, and respiratory and memory problems.

With Americans' support for legalization quadrupling since 1969, and localities on the East Coast such as Portland, Maine, considering a symbolic referendum to legalize marijuana, it is clear that interest in this drug and these issues will remain elevated in the foreseeable future.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

October 22, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack