Thursday, February 26, 2015
US Sentencing Commission releases report on LWOP sentences in federal system
I am intrigued and pleased to see that today the US Sentencing Commission has released this effective (reader-friendly) new report titled "Life Sentences in the Federal System." The entire 20-page report is a must read for anyone (like me) who fears we pay too much attention to much attention to a handful of death sentences and too little attention to hundreds of LWOP sentences. Here is how this new report gets started:
Life imprisonment sentences are rare in the federal criminal justice system. Virtually all offenders convicted of a federal crime are released from prison eventually and return to society or, in the case of illegal aliens, are deported to their country of origin. Yet in fiscal year 2013 federal judges imposed a sentence of life imprisonment without parole on 153 offenders. Another 168 offenders received a sentence of a specific term of years that was so long it had the practical effect of being a life sentence. Although together these offenders represent only 0.4 percent of all offenders sentenced that year, this type of sentence sets them apart from the rest of the offender population. This report examines life sentences in the federal system and the offenders on whom this punishment is imposed.
There are numerous federal criminal statutes that authorize a life imprisonment sentence to be imposed as the maximum sentence. The most commonly used of these statutes involve drug trafficking, racketeering, and firearms crimes. Additionally, there are at least 45 statutes that require a life sentence to be imposed as the minimum penalty. These mandatory minimum penalties generally are required in cases involving the killing of a federal official or other government employee, piracy, or repeat offenses involving drug trafficking or weapons. In fiscal year 2013, 64 of the 153 offenders who received a sentence of life imprisonment were subject to a mandatory minimum penalty requiring the court to impose that sentence.
February 26, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Passage of Smarter Sentencing Act is reportedly "very important" to Prez Obama
This notable new USA Today piece, headlined "Bipartisan sentencing bill gets White House support," reports that President Obama indicated at a meeting yesterday with congressional leaders that he was interested and eager to have the Smarter Sentencing Act become law. Here are the details:
President Obama is throwing his support behind a bipartisan proposal to change the nation's sentencing laws by cutting many mandatory minimum sentences in half. That commitment came out of a meeting with 16 members of Congress at the White House Tuesday night, called by the president to gather their ideas on how to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Members of Congress who attended said the main topic of conversation was the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill sponsored by Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, that would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders.
Obama supported a similar bill in the last Congress, but the current proposal goes even further. Mandatory life sentences would be reduced to 20 years — effectively cutting life sentences in half because the current life sentence averages 40 years.
Another change: Those convicted of importing drugs into the United States would not be eligible for the reduced sentences unless they were merely couriers whose role was limited to transporting or storing drugs or money.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, said Obama "focused specifically" on the Smarter Sentencing Act "and his desire to have it passed."
"It was showing us that this is very important to him, and he has the resources of his administration that he's been willing to put out there," Lee told KSL Radio in Salt Lake City Wednesday.
White House spokesman Frank Benenati said Wednesday that the White House is still reviewing the text of the legislation, but that "it certainly appears" that the Labrador proposal meshes with the president's aims to "make our communities safer, treat individuals more justly and allow more efficient use of enforcement resources."
Obama has signaled his support for sentencing changes as recently as Monday, when he praised governors who had signed similar bills at a White House dinner. "Last year was the first time in 40 years that the federal incarceration rate and the crime rate went down at the same time," Obama said. "Let's keep that progress going, and reform our criminal justice system in ways that protect our citizens and serves us all."
Labrador said that's an important point for Obama to make. "The main obstacle is the perception that sentencing reform will lead to more crime. And I think the opposite is true," he said. "The concern is that we want to continue to be tough on crime, but we want to be smart on crime."...
House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who also attended the meeting with Obama, would not comment on the meeting. He's been cool to sentencing changes in the past, but Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said he thought Goodlatte seemed "remarkably open" to the issue.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Two notable and timely new reform reports from The Sentencing Project
Via an e-mail from The Sentencing Project (reprinted in part below), I received this summary (with links) to two notable new reports from the group:
[Here are] two new reports from The Sentencing Project documenting changes in criminal justice policy in 2014 and successful advocacy campaign strategies in conservative state environments. The reforms highlighted in these reports represent approaches that lawmakers and advocates can consider to address sentencing policy and collateral consequences at the state level.
The State of Sentencing 2014 highlights policy changes in 30 states and the District of Columbia in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, including:
Scaling back sentences for low-level drug offenses
Reducing barriers to reentry, including employment restrictions and bans on public assistance
Eliminating juvenile life without parole
State Criminal Justice Advocacy in a Conservative Environment documents successful advocacy strategies employed in campaigns in Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. In these states, advocates achieved the following reforms:
- Reduced enhanced penalties in drug-free zones in Indiana by shrinking the limit of zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, and eliminating all zones except those around schools and parks
- Modified Missouri’s federal lifetime ban on food stamp benefits for persons with felony drug convictions
- Closed two Texas prison facilities: the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility
February 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
Sunday, February 22, 2015
Early report on the early impact of Proposition 47 in California
This new Los Angeles Times article provides an assessment of what we know and do not know so far about the impact of the big criminal justice reform passed by California voters back in November. The lengthy piece is headlined "Prop. 47's effect on jail time, drug rehabilitation is mixed so far," and here are excerpts:
In the months since Proposition 47 became law on Nov. 5, California's criminal justice system is already undergoing dramatic changes — and not always in expected ways. The idea was to reduce incarceration times for nonviolent offenders and focus on rehabilitation while easing jail overcrowding.
On the streets, some people who are committing Proposition 47 crimes are not being arrested, avoiding jail but also the drug treatment that could turn their lives around. Narcotics arrests have dropped by 30% in the city of Los Angeles and 48% in areas patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, as busy police officers decide that the time needed to process a case is not worth it.
Even when arrested, drug offenders are often issued a citation to appear in court and face little to no jail time if convicted. Law enforcement officials say they have lost an important tool to deal with those offenders, who remain free to get high again or steal to support their habits. Some drug addicts and their relatives agree, saying the new law allows troubled individuals to hurt themselves and steal with little consequence.
Property crimes, which include burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft, have risen in much of Los Angeles County since Proposition 47 passed, according to a Times analysis of crime data. Through the end of January, property crimes were up 10% in sheriff's territory and up 7% in the city of Los Angeles, compared with the same period a year ago.
Some criminal justice experts caution against drawing conclusions, warning that it is too soon to gauge the new law's effect and that other factors could be responsible for the increase. But to Asst. Sheriff Michael Rothans, who oversees patrol operations for the Sheriff's Department, the connection is obvious: More petty criminals on the streets mean more crimes.
"Why is property crime up? It's because of this," said Rothans, who has urged deputies to continue making drug arrests. "The same people are arrested for narcotics and property crimes. We know the cycle is continuing because we know they should have been in jail."
The new law specifies that the financial savings on the incarceration side be reinvested in truancy, drug treatment and mental health programs. But that provision does not take effect until mid-2016. Without the threat of jail time, fewer defendants are opting for the drug treatment programs that judges sometimes offer as an alternative.
Proposition 47 is at the forefront of a national trend to reduce harsh criminal penalties that led to an explosion in prison and jail populations beginning in the 1980s. It follows a revision to California's three strikes law that limits the maximum penalty to those whose last offense is serious or violent. Along with the shift of nonviolent inmates from state prison to county jails approved by the state Legislature in 2011, Proposition 47 is expected to further transform California's criminal justice landscape.
Already, the new law has had a profound effect on the Los Angeles County jails. With fewer people awaiting trial or serving time for offenses that had previously been felonies, overcrowding has subsided. As a result, jailers are keeping county-sentenced inmates for nearly all their time instead of releasing them early.
Thomas Hoffman, a former police official who was a senior advisor for the Proposition 47 campaign, said law enforcement tends to view locking up criminals as the answer, when many have reoffended after spending time in jail. Theorizing about crime increases and the proposition is premature, he said. "The arrest and rearrest of these minor offenses only postpones crime. It doesn't eliminate it. It's a momentary speed bump in these people's lives," said Hoffman, a former director of the state prison system's parole division as well as a former top official in the Inglewood and West Sacramento police departments.
Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, which coordinated the Proposition 47 campaign, said it will take time for the state's criminal justice system to adjust to the changes and figure out "how to hold people accountable and stop crime."
The key to the new law's success will be whether the cost savings are indeed spent on drug treatment, said Elliott Currie, a professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine. "If it is not going to do that, then we are not going to see any change for the better, and we'll see people out there floundering more than they already are," Currie said.
Friday, February 20, 2015
More from ACSBlog's "symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system"
Last week in this post I noted that the ACSBlog kicked off a "two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system" via this post titled "Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System." This week brought these additional published posts in this series, al of which should be of special interest to sentencing law and policy fans:
Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?
Long-time readers and most federal sentencing policy gurus know about the long-time discussion of the Smarter Sentencing Act. The SSA seemingly had lots of bi-partisan support when got through the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last Congress, but the drug warriors helped ensure it did not get any further.
Now we have a new Congress with new leadership in the Senate and, as reported here, a new introduction of a new version of the SSA, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015. In part because new Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has been a vocal opponent of any significant statutory drug sentencing reform, I am not especially optimistic that the new SSA has a much better chance of passage than the old SSA. But, as the question in the title of this post highlights, the new SSA appears to have an especially prominent new advocate, as demonstrated by this press release from the office of Senator Ted Cruz tited "Sen. Cruz: Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense." Here is an excerpt from Senator Cruz's remarks last week during the introduction of the new SSA:
The issue that brings us together today is fairness. What brings us together is justice. What brings us together is common sense. This is as diverse and bipartisan array of members of Congress as you will see on any topic and yet we are all unified in saying commonsense reforms need to be enacted to our criminal justice system. Right now today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system, find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions. We’ve seen the impact of these kind of reforms in the states, the states are laboratories of democracy. My home state of Texas implemented similar reforms and from 2005 the state of Texas has seen a 22 percent decrease in crime and a 12 percent decrease in expenditures on criminal justice....
All of us agree, if you have violent criminals, if you have criminals who are using guns, who are using violence, who are dealing drugs to children, the criminal justice system should come down on them like a ton of bricks. But at the same time we need to recognize that young people make mistakes, and we should not live in a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.
There surely are issues about which Senator Cruz and I might not always agree (even though were educated around the same time at the same two higher-education institutions). But I completely agree with his view that the Smarter Sentencing Act is a common sense reform seeking to address the real problem that "today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system [and] find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions."
Notably, Senator Cruz in the past has not let GOP establishment figures stop him from being an aggressive and persistent voice for legal reforms he considers important. I am hopeful that Senator Cruz will fight the good fight on the SSA and other sentencing reform measures so as not to let old establishment folks like Senator Grassley keep the SSA and other proposals from coming up for a vote in the Senate.
A few recent and older posts on the "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:
- A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress
- Is major federal sentencing reform possible now that Republicans have full control of Congress?
- Bill Otis provides important (though incomplete) review of the real state of debate over sentencing reform
- Shouldn't true fiscal conservatives question a federal program with 600% recent spending growth?
- "Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives"
- Spotlighting that nearly all GOP Prez hopefuls are talking up sentencing reform
- Rep. Ryan's new anti-poverty proposal calls for federal sentencing and prison reforms
- Senator Rand Paul and Governor Chris Christine continue to make the case for criminal justice reforms
February 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
"How to Talk About Sentencing Policy — and Not Disparity"
The title of this post is the title of this terrific new piece by Nancy Gertner just published by the Loyola University Chicago Law Journal. I consider most everything Prof (and former Judge) Gertner writes about sentencing to be a must-read, and these passages from the start of the piece reinforce my sense that this new commentary is especially timely and important:
I want to talk about why I don’t want to discuss sentencing disparity, why this is an issue far, far less important than issues of sentencing fairness, of proportionality, of what works to address crime. Disparity-speak has sucked the air out of all interesting and meaningful discussion of criminal justice reform for the past several decades....
The mythology of rampant sentencing disparity without guidelines has driven American sentencing for decades. The problem is that you cannot build a rational sentencing regime if the only important question is this one: Am I doing the same thing in my courtroom that you are doing in yours, even if neither of us is imposing sentences that make sense, namely, that work to reduce crime? You cannot talk about disparity unless you understand the context—disparity in sentencing with respect to what? What purposes? What characteristics? Similarly situated with respect to what? The offense? The chances of deterrence? Amenability to treatment?...
To eliminate sentencing disparity, the United States Sentencing Commission and Congress chose to treat drug quantity the same across contexts, contexts that were very different. I want to talk about those contexts and the content of a just sentence. How do we deal with drug addiction? What is the punishment that makes sense? When is drug treatment appropriate in lieu of imprisonment? I want to talk about problem solving courts, reentry programs, and meaningful diversions. How can neuroscience help us craft treatment? What evidence based practices should we implement? What works?
And, above all, I want to talk about how to meaningfully undo the catastrophe of mass incarceration in this country, the catastrophe that we have created with our dual emphasis on eliminating disparity, and imprisonment as a cure all. It is a “one size fits all” approach, and that “size” has been ever more imprisonment. I want to talk about our uniformity-focused, criminal-record emphasis, incarceration-obsessed criminal justice policy.
February 17, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Friday, February 13, 2015
Is a federal judge about to declare unconstitutional federal marijuana law? And then what?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this Reuters report on an on-going federal criminal trial in California. Here is why:
A federal judge hearing the case of nine men accused of illegally growing marijuana in California said Wednesday she was taking very seriously arguments by their attorneys that the federal government has improperly classified the drug as among the most dangerous, and should throw the charges out.
Judge Kimberly J. Mueller said she would rule within 30 days on the request, which comes amid looser enforcement of U.S. marijuana laws, including moves to legalize its recreational use in Washington state, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska.
"If I were persuaded by the defense's argument, if I bought their argument, what would you lose here?" she asked prosecutors during closing arguments on the motion to dismiss the cases against the men.
The men were charged in 2011 with growing marijuana on private and federal land in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in Northern California near the city of Redding. If convicted, they face up to life imprisonment and a $10 million fine, plus forfeiture of property and weapons.
In their case before Mueller in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, defense lawyers have argued that U.S. law classifying pot as a Schedule One drug, which means it has no medical use and is among the most dangerous, is unconstitutional, given that 23 states have legalized the drug for medical use.
Lawyer Zenia Gilg, who represented defense attorneys for all of the men during closing arguments, pointed to Congress' recent decision to ban the Department of Justice from interfering in states' implementation of their medical marijuana laws as evidence of her contention that the drug's classification as Schedule One should be overturned. "It's impossible to say that there is no accepted medical use," said Gilg, who has argued that her client was growing pot for medical use.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Broderick said that it was up to Congress to change the law, not the court. He said that too few doctors believed that marijuana had medical uses for the drug's definition to change under the law. "We're not saying that this is the most dangerous drug in the world," Broderick said. "All we're saying is that the evidence is such that reasonable people could disagree."
Notably, this new Bloomberg article, headlined "Grower’s Case Rivets Investors Seeking Pot of Gold," suggests that those interested in investing in the marijuana industry think that merely "the fact that the judge has agreed to consider the issue is an enormously significant event.” Obviously, this event becomes even more significant if (when?) a federal judge declares unconstitutional the placement of marijuana on Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act.
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
Sunday, February 08, 2015
Highlighting the role of prosecutorial activity in modern mass incarceration
I am pleased to see this new Slate piece giving attention to Professor John Pfaff's important and effective analysis of the reasons for modern mass incarceration. The piece is headlined "Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?: A provocative new theory," and here is how the piece sets up a Q&A with John, along with a key portion of the Q&A explaining the heart of John's statistical insights:
Criminal justice reform is a contentious political issue, but there’s one point on which pretty much everyone agrees: America’s prison population is way too high. It’s possible that a decline has already begun, with the number of state and federal inmates dropping for three years straight starting in 2010, from an all-time high of 1.62 million in 2009 to about 1.57 million in 2012. But change has been slow: Even if the downward trend continues, which is far from guaranteed, it could take almost 90 years for the country’s prison population to get down to where it was in 1980 unless the rate of decline speeds up significantly.
What can be done to make the population drop faster? Many reformers, operating under the assumption that mass incarceration is first and foremost the result of the war on drugs, have focused on making drug laws less punitive and getting rid of draconian sentencing laws that require judges to impose impossibly harsh punishments on people who have committed relatively minor crimes. But according to John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School, neither of those efforts will make a significant dent in the problem, because they are based on a false understanding of why the prison boom happened in the first place. Having analyzed statistics on who goes to prison, why, and for how long, Pfaff has emerged with a new and provocative account of how the problem of mass incarceration came to be. If he’s right, the implications for the prison reform movement are huge and suggest the work needed to achieve real progress will be much harder than most people realize.
In a conversation with Slate, Pfaff explains his theory....
Q: So why did the prison population keep on rising after 1991, when the crime wave ended? It seems like if your theory is right, that the increase in violent crime and property crime caused the prison boom, the end of the crime wave should have been accompanied by decreasing incarceration rates.
A: Three things could have happened. One, police just got much more efficient—they’re just arresting more and more people, with new policing technologies, new policing approaches—maybe they’re just arresting a bigger share of offenders. But we don’t actually see that. Arrests tend to drop with the crime rate. So the total number of people being arrested has fallen. The other thing it could be is we’re just locking people up for longer—but like I said, it’s not that. So clearly what’s happening is we’re just admitting more people to prison. Though we have a smaller pool of people being arrested, we’re sending a larger and larger number of them to prison.
Q: Why would that be?
What appears to happen during this time — the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available — is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies. I can’t tell you why they’re doing that. No one’s really got an answer to that yet. But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down.
As regular readers likely know, I am a big fan of John Pfaff's research. Anyone concerned about mass incarceration, especially at the state level, need to look at his research, and I think John is very right to focus on the importance of state prosecutorial activities and the relatively limited direct impact of the modern federal drug war on state incarceration realities. (I must note, though, that John's analysis here is not now really "new and provocative": as this 2009 post notes, John himself highlighted this statistical story in a Slate commentary six years ago and most informed folks know prosecutorial activities have played a huge role in modern mass incarceration.)
That said, in part because John's analysis is especially focused on state data, I fear he misses how the modern drug war, fueled especially by the growth of the federal criminal system, provides one big explanation for why and how "over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges." In the 1980s and before, the feds generally prosecuted significantly less than 10,000 drug cases each year. But thanks largely to the tough new drug penalties (and added prosecutorial resources) that the Congress put in place by the end of the 1980s, the feds started prosecuting tens of thousands more drug offenders each year and averaged more than 25,000 yearly drug prosecutions through the 2000s. These additional federal prosecution of drug offenders surely freed up state prosecutors to focus more time and attention on other cases/offenders and allowed them to get "much more aggressive in how they filed charges."
In other words, in the 1980s and before, the feds prosecuted far less than 100,000 drug offenders each decade, and all the other folks arrested by states were not as aggressively prosecuted because state prosecutors saw limited value in cycling lots of lower-level drug offenders through their system. But throughout the ’90s and 2000s, the feds prosecuted well over 500,000 drug offenders; that freed up space, time, energy for other folks arrested by states to be aggressively prosecuted. (These forces also had a synergistic impact as new tough three-strikes laws in states and at the federal level extended greatly the terms of those repeatedly cycling through criminal justice systems.)
My point here is not to assert that John's data analysis is misguided or inaccurate in any way. But I do think it important --- indeed, essential --- to see how the drug war and other toughness effort at both the federal and state level fed off each other in order to change state prosecutorial behaviors in the way John highlights. And, perhaps most importantly, all of this needs to be studied closely to fully understand how we got into our modern costly mass incarceration mess and how we might best find out way out.
Prior posts about Prof. John Pfaff's important research:
- A systematic examination of prison growth (from 2007)
- Assessing the reality of modern prison growth (from 2009)
- A data-based exploration of prison growth and the drug war (from 2013)
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of mass incarceration analysis: John Pfaff tears apart NRC report (from 2014)
- "The War on Drugs and Prison Growth: Limited Importance, Limited Legislative Options" (from 2014)
February 8, 2015 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack
Thursday, February 05, 2015
"Could 2015 be the year Congress finally gets serious about criminal-justice reform?"
The title of this post is the subheading of this new Mother Jones piece which carries this main headline: "On These 5 Things, Republicans Actually Might Work With Dems to Do Something Worthwhile." Here are highlights (mostly) from the start and end of the piece:
Recently, bipartisan momentum has been building behind an issue that has historically languished in Congress: criminal-justice reform. Recent Capitol Hill briefings have drawn lawmakers and activists from across the political spectrum—from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to Koch Industries general counsel Mark Holden, whose boss, conservative megadonor Charles Koch, has made reform a key philanthropic priority.
The emergence of this unlikely coalition has been building for some time: Liberals have long been critical of the criminal-justice status quo, and many "tough on crime" conservatives — growing concerned by the staggering costs of mass incarceration and the system's impingement on liberty — are beginning to join their liberal and libertarian-minded colleagues. In the past, bills aimed at overhauling the criminal-justice system have stagnated on Capitol Hill, but the bipartisan players who are coming together to push for change means that there are some reforms that could realistically gain traction, even in this divided Congress....
Easing up mandatory minimums....
Sealing and expunging records....
Despite the bipartisan efforts, many experts still believe that there are plenty of issues that could pose serious obstacles to compromise. Beyond the disagreement on mandatory minimums, there's potential conflict on the role of for-profit prisons, which conservatives praise and Democrats like Booker loathe. Additionally, support for loosening drug penalties — particularly for marijuana — is growing broadly popular, but powerful Republicans remain vocal opponents....
There is one especially powerful force pushing along reform: The federal government is expected to spend nearly $7 billion on prisons this year, and conservatives in charge of Congress will be under pressure to bring down costs. "With every Congress, I'm hopeful for reform," Hurst says. "But this Congress' argument is based on money, not humanity, which is why it's more realistic that it'd happen."
February 5, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
You be the judge: what federal sentence for Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht?
This Wired article provides the basic story on a notable modern federal defendant who, thanks to a jury verdict yesterday, is now a high-profile convicted felon awaiting sentencing:
A jury has spoken, and the mask is off: Ross Ulbricht has been convicted of being the Dread Pirate Roberts, secret mastermind of the Silk Road online narcotics empire.
On Wednesday, less than a month after his trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, 30-year-old Ulbricht was convicted of all seven crimes he was charged with, including narcotics and money laundering conspiracies and a “kingpin” charge usually reserved for mafia dons and drug cartel leaders. It took the jury only 3.5 hours to return a verdict. Ulbricht faces a minimum of 30 years in prison; the maximum is life. But Ulbricht’s legal team has said it will appeal the decision, and cited its frequent calls for a mistrial and protests against the judge’s decisions throughout the case.
As the verdict was read, Ulbricht stared straight ahead. His mother Lyn Ulbricht slowly shook her head, and his father Kirk put a hand to his temple. After the verdict, Ulbricht turned around to give his family a stoic smile. “This is not the end,” Ulbricht’s mother said loudly as he was led out of the courtroom. “Ross is a hero!” shouted a supporter.
From his first pre-trial hearings in New York, the government’s evidence that Ulbricht ran the Silk Road’s billion-dollar marketplace under the pseudonym the Dread Pirate Roberts was practically overwhelming. When the FBI arrested Ulbricht in the science fiction section of a San Francisco public library in October of 2013, his fingers were literally on the keyboard of his laptop, logged into the Silk Road’s “mastermind” account. On his seized laptop’s hard drive, investigators quickly found a journal, daily logbook, and thousands of pages of private chat logs that chronicled his years of planning, creating and day-to-day running of the Silk Road. That red-handed evidence was bolstered by a college friend of Ulbricht’s who testified at trial that the young Texan had confessed creating the Silk Road to him. On top of that, notes found crumpled in his bedroom’s trashcan connected to the Silk Road’s code. Ulbricht’s guilty verdict was even further locked down by a former FBI agent’s analysis that traced $13.4 million worth of the black market’s bitcoins from the Silk Road’s servers in Iceland and Pennsylvania to the bitcoin wallet on Ulbricht laptop.
Ulbricht’s defense team quickly admitted at trial that Ulbricht had created the Silk Road. But his attorneys argued that it had been merely an “economic experiment,” one that he quickly gave up to other individuals who grew the site into the massive drug empire the Silk Road represented at its peak in late 2013. Those purported operators of the site, including the “real” Dread Pirate Roberts, they argued, had framed Ulbricht as the “perfect fall guy.”...
But that dramatic alternative theory was never backed up with a credible explanation of the damning evidence found on Ulbricht’s personal computer. The defense was left to argue that Ulbricht’s laptop had been hacked, and voluminous incriminating files injected into the computer — perhaps via a Bittorrent connection he was using to download an episode of the Colbert Report at the time of his arrest. In their closing arguments, prosecutors called that story a “wild conspiracy theory” and a “desperate attempt to create a smokescreen.” It seems the jury agreed.
Despite the case’s grim outcome for Ulbricht, his defense team seemed throughout the trial to be laying the grounds for an appeal. His lead attorney Joshua Dratel called for a mistrial no less than five times, and was rejected by the judge each time. Dratel’s protests began with pre-trial motions to preclude a large portion of the prosecution’s evidence based on what he described as an illegal, warrantless hack of the Silk Road’s Icelandic server by FBI investigators seeking to locate the computer despite its use of the Tor anonymity software. As the trial began, Dratel butted heads with the prosecution and judge again on the issue of cross-examining a Department of Homeland Security witness on the agency’s alternative suspects in the case, including bitcoin mogul and Mt. Gox CEO Mark Karpeles. And in the last days of the trial, Dratel strongly objected again to a decision by the judge to disallow two of the defense’s expert witnesses based on a lack of qualifications....
Ulbricht will nonetheless be remembered not just for his conviction, but also for ushering in a new age of online black markets. Today’s leading dark web drug sites like Agora and Evolution offer more narcotics listings than the Silk Road ever did, and have outlived law enforcement’s crackdown on their competitors. Tracking down and prosecuting those new sites’ operators, like prosecuting Ulbricht, will likely require the same intense, multi-year investigations by three-letter agencies.
Though I am not familiar with all the likely sentencing particulars, I would expect a guidelines calculation in this case to be life and that prosecutors will urge a guideline-recommended LWOP sentence. The defense surely will seek the minimum sentence, which in this case is the not-so-minimum 30 years in the federal greybar hotel.
In addition to pursuing their appeal, Ulbricht's defense team might reach out to Brian Doherty at Reason, who has this provocative commentary headlined "Silk Road: Ross Ulbricht's Loss is a Loss for Justice, Liberty, Safety, and Peace: The operation Ulbricht was found guilty of managing was one guaranteed to save lives, reduce real crime, and preserve liberty." Here are excerpts:
[T]he government's multi-year, incredibly expensive attempt to take down the site and prosecute Ulbricht were bad for liberty, bad for markets, bad for the safety of those who choose to use substances the government has declared forbidden, and bad for America....
Ulbricht, if he's guilty of what they tried him for, is guilty of nothing but trying, and for a while succeeding, in doing a good thing for his fellow citizens, the world, and the future. His case will be remembered not as one of stalwart cops saving the world from dangerous crime, but of a visionary martyr punished for the good he did.
The combination of cryptography and Bitcoin are out of the bottle, and what it ultimately means is that the war on drugs is even more hopeless than it always was. But the government seems to never run out of candidates to be the last person to be a victim of that war, a victim of that mistake. May Ulbricht be among the last.
Wednesday, February 04, 2015
Sign of the drug war times: risk-management review of state drug-law reforms
There are many diverse signs, and many diverse consequences, of our modern (retrenching?) drug war, especially with respect to state-level reform of marijuana prohibitions. One such interesting sign and consequences arrived in my e-mail this morning via this link to this post by a risk management firm titled "Recap of Drug-Related State Legislation Passed in 2014." This helpful resource is introduced this way:
One trend that hiring managers should take note of in 2015 is the increased fragmentation of state drug test regulations. Exactly half of all states passed legislation in 2014 that touches upon or completely regulates drug testing in some way or another.
With more and more attention being given to developments in medical and recreational marijuana laws, it may be hard to imagine that the United States is not trending away from drug testing in the workplace. It is true that public opinion about certain controlled substances is shifting, but legislation is still being passed that creates provisions for drug testing employees, banning synthetic substances, and penalizing intoxicated motorists.
The diversity of laws and court decisions produced in 2014 is proof that the line between pro-employer and pro-employee is vague and becoming more difficult to draw-out. As laws in some states provide new “rights” to individuals to consume intoxicating substances, other laws in those states as well as other places reinforce the rights of employers and citizens seeking to ensure safe workplaces and communities.
I am not, of course, an expert on labor and employment law. But this posting provides perhaps more evidence that labor and employment lawyers need to be experts on modern drug law reforms in order to serves their clients effective.
Friday, January 30, 2015
Aggressive litigation prompts federal prosecutor in Chicago to drop stash house sting
As reported in this lengthy front-page Chicago Tribune article, aggressive litigation by the federal defense bar concerning aggressive federal drug-war tactics have now resulted in federal prosecutors backing off the most aggressive federal criminal charges these tactics have generated. The article is headlined "Chicago prosecutors quietly drop charges tied to drug stash house stings," and here is how it begins:
Federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly dropped narcotics conspiracy charges against more than two dozen defendants accused of ripping off drug stash houses as part of controversial undercover stings that have sparked allegations across the country of entrapment and racial profiling.
The decade-old strategy is also under fire because federal authorities, as part of a ruse, led targets to think large quantities of cocaine were often stashed in the hideouts, ensuring long prison terms upon conviction because of how federal sentencing guidelines work. Experts said the move by Chicago prosecutors marked the first step back by a U.S. attorney's office anywhere in the country in connection with the controversial law enforcement tactic.
In the court filings seeking the dismissals, prosecutors gave no clue for the unusual reversal, and a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to comment. But the move comes two months after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke to the policy, ordering a new trial for a Naperville man who alleged he was goaded into conspiring to rob a phony drug stash house by overzealous federal agents.
The stings, led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been highly criticized for targeting mostly minority suspects, many of whom were drawn into the bogus rip-offs by informants who promised easy money at vulnerable points in their lives.
The cases are built on an elaborate ruse concocted by the ATF. Everything about the stash house is fictitious and follows a familiar script, from supposedly armed guards that need to be dealt with to the quantity of drugs purportedly stashed there. By pretending the house contains a large amount of narcotics, authorities can vastly escalate the potential prison time defendants face, including up to life sentences. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought to drop drug conspiracy charges in seven of the nine pending stash-house cases, leading some of the judges to quickly approve the move without a hearing.
In each case, the defendants — 27 in all — still face weapons and other charges for the alleged scheme and potentially long prison sentences upon conviction. But without the drug conspiracy charges, the mandatory minimum sentences for most of the defendants would drop to just five years in prison from as much as 25 years, according to Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
The ATF investigations have also faced legal backlash around the country, including in California, where last year two federal judges ruled the stings amounted to entrapment.
Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said hundreds of people nationally have been charged as part of the drug house ruse. The ATF has been using this sting for at least a decade, she said. Tinto said she believes the decision to drop the cases in Chicago is an acknowledgment of the fact that federal agents involved in the sting set the quantity of the phony drugs, a critical factor in driving the sentencing.
The dismissal of the seven cases likely "signals that the government is starting to take a critical look both at these tactics and the immense sentencing these tactics can bring," Tinto said. "In this tactic the drugs are imaginary, and the amount of the drugs is set by the government."
I have been preaching in recent years that I have come to believe that aggressive litigation taking on some of the worst extremes of the federal drug war and excesses of mass incarceration was more likely to "move the sentencing reform needle" as much, if not more, than legislative advocacy directed and a gridlocked Congress. This story reinforces my sense that more and more federal judges are growing more and more willing to criticize and seek to rein in what they more and more are seeing as federal prosecutorial overreach in the drug war and elsewhere.
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Did feds just win the drug war?: kingpin twin drug dealers get kingly sentencing break thanks to cooperation
As detailed in this AP story, headlined "Trafficking Twins Get Sharply Reduced Sentences," the sentencing benefits of cooperating with the government was on full display yesterday in a Chicago federal courtroom. Here are the details:
Identical twin brothers who ran a drug-trafficking ring that spanned much of North America were sentenced Tuesday to 14 years in prison after a judge agreed to sharply reduce their penalty as a reward for becoming government informants and secretly recording Mexico's most notorious drug lord.
In a rare courtroom display, it was a federal prosecutor who poured praise on Pedro and Margarito Flores, portraying them as among the most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history and describing the courage they displayed in gathering evidence against Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and other leaders in Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.
With credit for time served awaiting sentencing and for good behavior in prison, the brothers, now 33, could be out in as little as six years.
Chief U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo likened Americans' sense of security to walls and scolded the brothers for introducing drugs that fueled violence and despair. "You devastated those walls. You knocked them down," he said. The twins' cooperation was the only thing that spared them from an actual life sentence, Castillo told the brothers. But, he added, they would still serve a life sentence of sorts — having to look over their shoulders the rest of their lives in constant fear of a deadly attack by an assassin working for the cartel they betrayed.
Castillo said the twins were the most significant traffickers ever in his court. But he said he had also never seen traffickers at the height of their power and wealth come forward to offer to become government witnesses, as the siblings had.
The twins appeared in court with the same olive-green clothes and the same closely cropped haircuts. Both kept tapping one foot nervously throughout the hourlong hearing. Just before the judge imposed a sentence, each walked to a podium separately to speak, appearing uneasy. "I'm ashamed. I'm embarrassed. I'm regretful," Margarito Flores said. "There is no excuse."
So successful was their criminal enterprise that the jewelry-loving, Maserati-driving twins smuggled $1.8 billion — wrapped in plastic and duct tape — into Mexico, according to prosecutors....
Prosecutor Mike Ferrara had asked for a sentence of around 10 years. He noted the twins' cooperation led to indictments of Guzman and more than 50 others. The twins began cooperating with agents in 2008 and engaged cartel leaders for months, sometimes switching on recorders and shoving them in their pockets. They continually risked death, Ferrara said.
The 5-foot-4 twins' trafficking careers soared after they left Chicago to live in Mexico around 2004. In mid-2005, they met with Guzman in his secret mountain compound to cut major drug deals, government filings said. The brothers ran their operation from a Mexican ranch. Their network stretched from its Chicago hub to New York, Detroit and Washington, D.C., and to Los Angeles and Vancouver, British Columbia....
Later Tuesday, Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon announced new charges against several Sinaloa figures stemming from the twins' cooperation. Asked about their lenient sentences and the message it sent to other would-be cartel traffickers, Fardon said it should demonstrate, "You can right some of what you did wrong ... by helping the government."
So does this all mean that the federal drug war can be declared officially over, and that we can claim the good guys officially won this 50-year costly war? After all, this was a sentencing of two of the most significant drug traffickers, and they have become the "most valuable traffickers-turned-informants in U.S. history." Surely this must scare off and deter all other current and would-be drug dealers and all the trillions in taxpayer dollars spent on the drug war has now been vindicated as money well spent.
Of course, I am asking the question above and in the title of this post with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. A key problem with the drug war, as I see it, is that even a huge drug war "victory" in catching and prosecuting some drug dealers typically will make it that much more valuable and enticing for other drug dealers to seek to replace the captured criminals. I fear that , unless and until illegal drug demand is reduced, illegal drug suppliers will be plentiful in part because the drug war makes their activities potentially much more lucrative.
Tuesday, January 20, 2015
"End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the The Vera Institute of Justice. Here is a description of the report I received today via an e-mail from The Vera Institute of Justice:
Enacted in 1973, New York State’s Rockefeller Drug Laws mandated lengthy prison sentences for people convicted of a range of felony drug offenses. This heralded a wave of mandatory sentencing statutes that swept the nation, contributing to dramatic increases in state prison populations and fueling the racial disparities that have come to characterize the U.S. criminal justice system. In 2009, however, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were essentially dismantled by the latest in a series of reforms that eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for the possession, use, or small-scale sale of illegal drugs and increased eligibility for diversion treatment.
In End of an Era? The Impact of Drug Law Reform in New York City, researchers from the Vera Institute of Justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University examine the impact of reform soon after implementation and suggest mid-course corrections. The research team compared cases pre and post-reform to assess changes in the use of jail and prison, rates of diversion to treatment, recidivism, and cost. Researchers also interviewed 35 criminal justice stakeholders to assess their perceptions of the impact of drug law reform. The National Institute of Justice-funded study, which focused on New York City where the majority of the state’s prison population is from, found that drug law reform, as it functioned in the city soon after the laws were passed, led to a 35 percent rise in the rate of diversion among eligible defendants. Although the use of diversion varied significantly among the city’s five boroughs, it was associated with reduced recidivism rates, and cut racial disparities in half.
Friday, January 16, 2015
AG Holder announces notable new limits on civil forfeitures to fund local police
As reported in this Washington Post article, headlined "Holder limits seized-asset sharing process that split billions with local, state police," the out-going Attorney General today announce a notable new policy that ought to take some of the economic incentives out of some drug war enforcement activities. Here are the basics:
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without proving that a crime occurred. Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
Since 2008, thousands of local and state police agencies have made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property worth $3 billion under a civil asset forfeiture program at the Justice Department called Equitable Sharing. The program has enabled local and state police to make seizures and then have them “adopted” by federal agencies, which share in the proceeds. The program allowed police departments and drug task forces to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds of the adopted seizures, with the rest going to federal agencies.
“With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons,” Holder said in a statement. Holder’s decision allows some limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.
While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, the federal program was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police departments. Many states require seized proceeds to go into the general fund. A Justice official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the attorney general’s motivation, said Holder “also believes that the new policy will eliminate any possibility that the adoption process might unintentionally incentivize unnecessary stops and seizures.”
Holder’s decision follows a Washington Post investigation published in September that found that police have made cash seizures worth almost $2.5 billion from motorists and others without search warrants or indictments since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
January 16, 2015 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Senator Grassley queries DOJ concerning its work with Clemency Project 2014
Josh Gerstein has this notable new piece up at Politico headlined "Grassley questions Obama commutation drive," about a notable new inquiry directed to Attorney General Holder concerning the Obama Administration's (quirky?) efforts to ramp up its clemency activities. Here are excerpts:
New Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley is questioning the arrangements surrounding President Barack Obama's drive to shorten the sentences of some drug convicts.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Attorney General Eric Holder, the Iowa Republican asks for information about the relationship between the Justice Department and "Clemency Project 2014" — a consortium of outside groups formed in response to calls from administration officials to help federal prisoners prepare applications for the clemency effort.
"I am unaware of any time in history in which the Department of Justice has delegated any of these core attributes of presidential power to private parties beholden to no one, and who have their own agendas that may not coincide with the President's," Grassley wrote in the letter (posted here). "When private parties are wrongly given the ability to exercise any role in that public trust, then both the fairness of the pardon process and the appearance of its fairness are jeopardized."
Grassley's letter draws in large part on a POLITICO story last week which said that the new effort is struggling with more than 25,000 requests from inmates and that lawyers involved in the project have suggested applicants which route their clemency petitions through the project will stand a better or faster chance of favorable action than those who submit applications independently. The project—run by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association, Families Against Mandatory Minimums and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers— is also screening applications and weeding out those it considers unmeritorious under criteria the Justice Department set forth last April.
"Please tell me what formal arrangements exist between the Department and the Clemency Project 2014 to coordinate the processing of pardon applications, including what direction Clemency Project lawyers are given, what actions they take for the Department, and, how, if at all, Department of Justice lawyers consider the work product provided by these organizations or follow their recommendations," Grassley wrote. The senator also asks if anyone in the Justice Department is aware of statements suggesting those who submit applications through the project will have "superior access to the Department's pardon process."...
Grassley's letter refers to "pardon applicants," but the petitions prisoners are submitting are actually requests for commutations — a form of executive clemency that serves to shorten a prisoner's sentence.
The president can grant a commutation to anyone for virtually any reason. However, such applications are traditionally routed through the Justice Department's Office of the Pardon Attorney, which prepares recommendations and sends them to the department's No. 2 official, who forwards them to the White House.
The new commutation drive the Justice Department announced last year is aimed largely at paring back the sentences of convicts sent to prison for long terms relating to trafficking in crack cocaine. Those prisoners tend to be disproportionately minority as compared to those convicted of handling powdered cocaine. A law Obama signed in 2010 reduced that disparity for defendants sentenced after that time, but it was not retroactive.
The full Grassley letter is quite interesting, and not just because it gives some grief to Obama Administration about how it appears to be approaching its latest clemency push. The letter asked a host of hard questions about what exactly DOJ and Clemency Project 2014 are up to, while also asserting in a final paragraph that "[j]ustice in the award of presidential pardons requires a transparent, fair process." And, unsurprisingly, the letter does not mention the sad reality that presidential clemency actions of the last two presidents have involved nothing resembling a "transparent, fair process."
Among other notable aspects of this letter, Senator Grassley's obvious interest in these matter suggests that clemency issues are likely to be raised in some way during the upcoming confirmation hearings for AG Holder's replacement.
January 13, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Monday, January 05, 2015
"Is Obama Finally Ready To Dial Back The War On Drugs?"
The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy Forbes piece by Jacob Sullum, which provides preview of sorts of of some of the biggest federal criminal justice issues to keep an eye on in the year to come. The piece merits a full read, and here are excerpts:
Some critics of the war on drugs — a crusade that Obama had declared “an utter failure” in 2004 — predicted that he would improve in his second term. Safely reelected, he would not have to worry that looking soft on drugs would cost him votes, and he would finally act on his avowed belief that the war on drugs is unjust and ineffective. As Obama embarks on the third year of his second term, it looks like the optimists were partially right, although much hinges on what he does during the next two years. Here are some of the ways in which Obama has begun to deliver on his promises of a more rational, less punitive approach to psychoactive substances:
Marijuana Legalization. Although the federal government cannot stop states from legalizing marijuana, it can make trouble for the ones that do by targeting statelicensed growers and retailers. Under a policy announced in August 2013, the Justice Department has declined to do so, reserving its resources for cannabis operations that violate state law or implicate “federal law enforcement priorities.”...
Federal Marijuana Ban.... Contrary to the impression left by the president, the executive branch has the authority to reschedule marijuana without new legislation from Congress. In September, a few days before announcing that he planned to step down soon, Holder said whether marijuana belongs in the same category as heroin is “certainly a question that we need to ask ourselves.” Since the Controlled Substances Act empowers Holder to reclassify marijuana, it would have been nice if he had asked that question a little sooner. Still, Holder was willing to publicly question marijuana’s Schedule I status, something no sitting attorney general had done before.
Sentencing Reform. Obama supports the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would make the 2010 crack penalty changes retroactive, cut the mandatory minimums for certain drug offenses in half, and loosen the criteria for the “safety valve” that allows some defendants to escape mandatory minimums. Beginning last year, Holder has repeatedly criticized our criminal justice system as excessively harsh. Under a new charging policy he established last year, hundreds of drug offenders could avoid mandatory minimums each year....
Clemency. After a pitiful performance in his first term, Obama has signaled a new openness to clemency petitions. Last April an unnamed “senior administration official” told Yahoo News the administration’s new clemency guidelines could result in “hundreds, perhaps thousands,” of commutations. Obama’s total so far, counting eight commutations announced a few weeks ago, is just 18, but he still has two years to go....
A few months ago, Obama chose former ACLU attorney Vanita Gupta, a passionate critic of the war on drugs who emphasizes its disproportionate racial impact (a theme Obama and Holder also have taken up), to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. A year before her appointment, Gupta had criticized Holder’s moves on drug sentencing as an inadequate response to mass incarceration. The previous month, she had endorsed marijuana legalization. The next two years will show whether Gupta’s appointment is a sop to disappointed Obama supporters or a signal of bolder steps to come.
If Obama actually uses his clemency power to free thousands, or even hundreds, of drug war prisoners, that would be historically unprecedented, and it would go a long way toward making up for his initial reticence. He could help even more people by backing sentencing reform, which has attracted bipartisan support in Congress. And having announced that states should be free to experiment with marijuana legalization, he could declare the experiment a success....
If none of those things happens, Obama’s most significant drug policy accomplishment may be letting states go their own way on marijuana legalization. Even if our next president is a Republican drug warrior, he will have a hard time reversing that decision, especially given the GOP’s lip service to federalism.
This piece reviews some important basics, though hard-core sentencing fans know that there is a lot more the Obama Administration could be doing to radically reshape the battlefield in the modern federal drug war.
On the marijuana front, for example, DOJ could (and I think should) play an significant role defending Colorado as it gears up a response to the recent Supreme Court suit brought Nebraska and Oklahoma attacking its marijuana reform efforts. In addition, DOJ could (and I think should) be willing to interpret broadly the recent provisions enacted by Congress precluding it from using funds to interfere with state medical marijuana reform efforts.
On the broad drug war front, Prez Obama and DOJ could not only support the Smarter Sentencing Act but even try to give renewed life to the Justice Safety Valve Act. The JSVA, which Senator Rand Paul introduced and robustly promoted, would effectively reform the operation of all mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. Also Prez Obama and DOJ, especially in light of renewed concerns about racial biases in criminal justice systems, could (and I think should) return to the issue of crack sentencing reform. Specifically, given the apparent success of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which only reduced the crack-powder disparity from the ridiculous 100-1 ratio to a ghastly 18-1, the Prez ought to get behind what I would call the Fully Fair Sentencing Act to eliminate any and all crack-powder sentencing disparity completely.
January 5, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Saturday, January 03, 2015
"How did a law to regulate heroin traffic turn into the costly, futile War on Drugs?"
The title of this post is the subtitle of this lengthy Politico magazine feature carrying the headline "A Hundred Years’ Failure." These titles highlight the basic themes of an article that reviews lots of interesting parts of the modern drug war's back-story, giving special emphasis to opiates and heroin along the way. Here are a few excerpts from a piece that merits a read in full:
Twenty-five years ago, the stated goal of the United States’ anti-narcotic efforts according to the Department of Justice was to “disrupt, destroy and dismantle drug trafficking enterprises.” That same year, the U.S. government pumped almost $8 billion into anti-drug efforts, including $600 million in prison construction alone. It was just a typical fiscal year during the height of the drug war. But two and a half decades later, despite this dizzying spending, we don’t need a drug czar to tell us—even though one of them has—the war on drugs, by its own measures, has been a century-long failure.
A hundred years ago this month, the U.S. government started this fight to rid us of the scourge of opiates. Today, not only have we failed to control drug demand, an entirely new breed of opiate epidemic has flourished in the face of the most draconian drug laws in the world. Aided by aggressive Big Pharma marketing and enthusiastic “pain specialists,” opiate abuse has simply taken on a new shape, moving from urban enclaves and overrunning pockets of New England and the South, from rural Vermont to the suburbs of Dallas, that have little history of widespread drug abuse. Heroin today is cheaper and purer than it was 50 years ago. That’s to say nothing of the 700 percent increase in incarceration of American citizens in the past four decades, the distribution of nearly $450 million worth of military equipment that is used by local and state law enforcement agencies (that “militarization of the police” you’ve been reading so much about lately), and the creation of a wasteful, labyrinthine bureaucracy dedicated to what has proven a perhaps impossible goal: The eradication of drugs....At the beginning of the 20th century, everyone’s medicine cabinet contained opium in some form. Patent medicines mixed alcohol and opium, and women used them for menstrual cramps, coughs and other minor symptoms, as well as for infants’ teething pains. Aging Civil War veterans self-injected morphine to soothe old wounds, and physicians dosed patients liberally with opium pills and morphine. Opium smokers, usually Chinese, but also habitués of the urban underworld and the occasional slumming college student, were the most common recreational users....
During the Progressive Era, a culture war was raging over sexuality, alcohol and modern life—as seen in efforts to censure pornography and eliminate “red light” districts—and prohibition offered the best hope of legislating moral certainty. While alcohol prohibition had the largest domestic constituency, drug prohibition fit with foreign policy interests. Years of lobbying by religious groups in both the United States and Britain, who were appalled at opium smoking in China and places to which the Chinese emigrated, culminated in the 1912 Hague Convention, where a dozen countries agreed to regulate the international narcotics traffic and signatories promised to limit opiate use in their own countries....
After a century of aggressive policing, mandatory minimums and enforcement that disproportionately targeted the most marginalized of American citizens, the failure of the war on drugs is ultimately a cautionary tale about pursuing an agenda at any cost—financial or human. From the founding of a vast bureaucratic infrastructure to support the new war, to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on military police equipment, to the $50 billion spent annually on incarceration, the story of fighting addiction in America has brought out its mirror image: An irrational dependence, despite all logic to the contrary, on a steady flow of government cash and brute enforcement.
We should have just said no.
Friday, December 26, 2014
South Dakota legislator suggests using drug war proceeds to fund public defenders
This local article, headlined "Hickey: Use seized drug money for public defender," reports on some notable public advocacy by a public official concerning public defenders in South Dakota. Here are the details:
A Sioux Falls lawmaker wants to use seized drug money to help pay the legal defense bills of those who can't afford a lawyer, but the state's attorney general says counties should look elsewhere to save money on court-appointed attorney costs.
Rep. Steve Hickey, R-Sioux Falls, says the money in the state's Drug Control Fund is correctly used to tackle the problem of drug use, but he says he worries about the legal costs counties bear after the arrest. The fund is made up of money seized during drug investigations and money from the sale of seized property, such as vehicles.
"My thought is that we should put some of that money not just into catching more bad guys, but put some of it into the cost of defending them we're stuck with afterward," Hickey said. "We get excited about sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, but after those tickets get written, someone has to pick up the tab."
Hickey's bill would ask for a more thorough accounting of the money seized by law enforcement from suspected drug dealers and direct between 25 percent and 50 percent of it toward the legal fees amassed by counties. The fund is administered by Attorney General Marty Jackley's Office, which decides where the seized money is spent. "It seems to me that there's very little oversight," Hickey said....
Counties are legally obligated to offer court-appointed lawyers to the indigent. Local governments can ask that legal fees be repaid, but many bills go unpaid, either because defendants don't earn enough or own enough to pay or because they go to prison or jail.
Hickey's proposal comes alongside growing concerns over court-appointed attorney fees in Minnehaha County. Commissioners want judges to consider income guidelines when deciding whether to appoint a public defender, and they've offered a county employee to check defendants' income statements.
The state's largest county has spent $3.8 million on indigent defense this year, but reimbursements from defendants stand at $824,000. The county also has more than $26 million in liens on defendants who haven't paid their bill.
Commissioner Cindy Heiberger hasn't seen Hickey's proposal, but says any discussion about helping the counties that shoulder the burden of legal defense is welcome. "It sounds really good on the surface. Anything we can use to pay for court-appointed attorneys or court costs is something we should talk about," Heiberger said. But, she cautioned, "when we're taking money from one pot and moving it to another, we need to make sure the logistics make sense for everyone."
The notion of using seized drug money to pay for criminal defense doesn't sit well with Attorney General Marty Jackley. The drug control fund consists of money seized from suspected drug sales and other cash collected from auctioning off seized vehicles and other property. "I do not support using the profits of criminals to defend their activities," Jackley said.
The money pays the drug testing bills for cities and counties, Jackley said, and the remaining money is used to buy vehicles, camera systems and other items for local police and sheriff's departments. Giving some of the money to counties for indigent defense could force local agencies to bear the cost of drug testing and reduce the availability of funds for equipment upgrades and replacements.
In 2013, $70,514 was awarded from the drug control fund for law enforcement and prosecution costs in Sioux Falls and Minnehaha County. Overall in 2013, $643,722 was awarded from the drug control fund to local agencies. Drug control money pays an average of $60,000 per month to local law enforcement for drug testing, according to DCI records.
December 26, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack
Thursday, December 18, 2014
Nebraska and Oklahoma sue Colorado in US Supreme Court over marijuana legalization
As reported in this local article, "Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning filed a lawsuit Thursday with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking a declaration that Colorado’s legalization of marijuana violates the U.S. Constitution." Here is more on the latest fascinating development in the world of marijuana reform law and policy:
At a press conference Thursday, Bruning said he was being joined in the case by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. "Federal law undisputedly prohibits the production and sale of marijuana," Bruning said. "Colorado has undermined the United States Constitution, and I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold our constitutional principles."
Bruning said he placed a courtesy call to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers before filing the lawsuit. Suthers said in a news release he was not “entirely surprised” to learn of the lawsuit. “We believe this suit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it in the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.
Some Nebraska law enforcement officers undoubtedly will welcome Thursday’s action. Anticipating that the attorney general planned to announce a lawsuit, Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said Thursday he supports the move. "This stuff is illegal here, it’s coming here and it’s had an adverse effect on our citizens and way of life," Overman said. "Nebraska, from highest elected officials on down, should do something about it."...
He blamed U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder for not enforcing federal drug laws in Colorado. "I am adamantly against the spread of marijuana across our country," Bruning said. He said he talked recently with a father who said marijuana was a "gateway drug" for his teen.
Colorado’s legalization of pot use has had a significant impact on Nebraska law enforcement agencies. Many departments, particularly in western Nebraska counties along Interstate 80, have seen spikes in their marijuana-related arrests tied to legally purchased pot that transforms into contraband once it crosses the border. At the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle, authorities regularly apprehend travelers coming from southeast Colorado with marijuana.
During a September hearing on the issue in Ogallala, Nebraska, a panel of lawmakers heard law enforcement authorities express concern about the flow of high-potency pot into Nebraska and increasing numbers of impaired drivers and possession by teens as young as 14. "Nebraska taxpayers have to bear the cost," Bruning said Thursday. "We can’t afford to divert resources to deal with Colorado’s problem."
Via the Denver Post, the 83-page SCOTUS filing can be found at this link.
Wowsa (and cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform)!
Wednesday, December 17, 2014
President Obama (aka clemency grinch) grants a few holiday pardons and commutations
Following the holiday script he first wrote with a few clemency grants last year the week before Christmas (as reported in this prior post), President Obama this afternoon granted 20 clemencies in the form of 8 commutations and 12 pardons. This AP story provides the basics and some background:
President Barack Obama on Wednesday cut short prison time for eight drug convicts as part of his new initiative to reduce harsh sentences under outdated guidelines, a step that could lead to a vast expansion of presidential clemency in his final two years in office.
The president also is pardoning 12 convicts for a variety of offenses. But the commutations are particularly significant because they are the first issued under new guidelines announced earlier this year designed to cut costs by reducing the nation's bulging prison population and grant leniency to nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to double-digit terms....
The White House said the eight new commutations Obama granted were for prisoners who likely would receive a substantially lower sentence today and would have already served their time. For example, they include Barbara Scrivner, who was sentenced to 30 years in 1995 when she was 27 years old for a minor role in her husband's meth ring. Obama ordered her sentence to expire June 12, while others will expire April 15.
Administration officials say they expect Obama to grant more clemency petitions in his final two years in office under the changed policy he ordered from the Justice Department. The White House said 6,561 people already have applied in the past year, compared to 2,370 the year before. "I think there is an awareness out there that this president is interested in granting clemency on these kinds of matters," White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in an interview.
The clemency policy changes aren't limited to drug offenders, who comprise about half of the roughly 216,000 federal prisoners, but the criteria makes it clear they are the main target. To be eligible, inmates must have already been behind bars for at least 10 years, have a nonviolent history, have no major criminal convictions, have a good behavior record in prison, and be serving a sentence that, if imposed today, would be substantially shorter than what they were given at the time....
In his first term, Obama commuted just one drug sentence and pardoned 39 people, causing prisoner advocates to accuse him of being too stingy with his power. Obama aides said it was because he wasn't receiving more positive recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney so he directed the Justice Department to improve its clemency recommendation process and recruit more applications from convicts.
Deputy Attorney General James Cole, who in April announced the clemency policy changes, said the sentence commutations reflect a "commitment to bring fairness to our criminal justice system."
"While all eight were properly held accountable for their criminal actions, their punishments did not fit their crimes, and sentencing laws and policies have since been updated to ensure more fairness for low-level offenders," he said in a statement....
The White House noted Obama now has commuted 18 sentences, compared to 11 under President George W. Bush and three in the first six years of the Clinton presidency. Clinton eventually commuted 61, most in a controversial action on his last day in office.
The full list of the lucky receipients of this act of presidential grace can be found here via the White House. And this link provide the full text of Deputy AG Cole's statement about these clemency grants. I expect the folks who follow the ins-and-outs of clemency even more closely than I do will have a lot to say in the days ahead about what might be special about the folks on this clemency list.
Though I do not want to criticize the President too much on a day in which he finally saw fit to make some minor use of his constitutional clemency authority, I will still think of him as a clemency grinch until he begins more regularly granting commutations to a whole lot more offenders still stuck serving severe (and now repealed) crack sentences. There are, I believe, thousands of federal prisoners still serving time for crack offenses based on the old 100-1 crack/powder ratio, and there are surely many thousands more low-level drug offenders arguably just as deserving of clemency consideration. President Obama would have to grant eight commutations every single day over the two years remaining in his presidency to even start to make a serious dent in federal prison population.
Should ALL federal marijuana sentencings be postponed now that Cromnibus precludes DOJ from interfering with state medical marijuana laws?
As reported in this post yesterday, an astute lawyer in California sought (and, I now know, obtained) a significant postponement of his client's scheduled federal marijuana sentencing based on a provision in H.R. 83, the 1700-page Cromnibus spending bill, which directs the US Department of Justice not to use any funds to interfere with state-legalized medical marijuana regimes. Specifically, Section 538 of the Cromnibus states, in relevant part:
None of the funds made available in this Act to the Department of Justice may be used ... to prevent such States [with current medical marijuana laws] from implementing their own State laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana.
Though this provision (which was officially signed into law by President Obama on Tuesday) is rightly being hailed as historic, what exactly Section 538 of the Cromnibus means formally and functionally for the Department of Justice and federal marijuana prohibition is anything but obvious or clear. For starters, this provision is a funding directive to DOJ, not a formal restriction on DOJ activities, and it is unclear how such a provision is to be administered or enforced. Moreover, this provision plainly does not provide a formal right or even permission for individuals under federal law to be involved in the "use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana." Indeed, given that federal law currently has marijuana listed as a Schedule I drug, the very use of the term "medical marijuana" in this Section 538 of the Cromnibus is somewhat oxymoronic as a new phrase in the federal legal nomenclature.
That all said, the enactment of formal federal law ordering that DOJ not use funds to prevent the implementation of state medical marijuana laws clearly means something significant not only in states that have medical marijuana laws but throughout the nation. In particular, as the question in the title of this post is meant to connote, I think this congressional approval (of sorts) of state medical marijuana laws should have a tangible (and perhaps significant) impact on any and all federal marijuana sentencings scheduled for the weeks and months ahead.
The specific instructions of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) tells federal judges that they must consider at sentencing, inter alia, "the nature and circumstances of the offense" as well as the "need for the sentence imposed to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense." Even before the passage of Section 538 of the Cromnibus, I thought it was appropriate for a judge at a federal marijuana sentencing to consider based on these provisions a defendant's claim that he was in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. But DOJ in the past could respond by reasonably asserting that Congress would not want a federal judge for federal sentencing purposes to inquire into any claims of state-law compliance.
Now that Section 538 of the Cromnibus is official federal law, I believe every federal judge at any future federal marijuana sentencings should feel duty-bound to examine the particulars of a defense claim of compliance with state medical marijuana laws. In light of what Congress enacted, consideration of claimed compliance with state medical marijuana laws seems essential to "promote respect for the law" as well as to stake proper stock of "the nature and circumstances of the offense" and "just punishment for the offense."
Moreover, I think some viable sentencing arguments might now be made based on Section 538 on behalf of some federal marijuana defendants even in the 18 states that have not yet enacted medical marijuana reforms. If a federal defendant can reasonably assert, even in a non-reform state, that he was (mostly? somewhat? a little?) involved in distribution of marijuana for medical purposes, he might point to 3553(a)(6) and claim that sentencing him hard for medical marijuana distribution in a non-reform state would create (unwarranted?) sentencing disparity when compared to sentences likely to be imposed for the same offense in reform-state jurisdictions.
Critically, I am not contending (yet) that Section 538 of the Cromnibus must or even should have a direct and substantial impact on federal marijuana sentencings in reform or non-reform states. But I am contending that, thanks to Section 538 of the Cromnibus, there are now a lot more federal sentencing issues that need to be subject to a lot more thought before federal judges move ahead with the roughly 100 federal marijuana sentencings that take place throughout the US every week.
In sum, to answer my own question in the title of this post, I would say simple YES.
Some previous related posts:
- Defense moves to postpone federal marijuana sentencing based new law ordering DOJ not to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws
- Federal judge wonders if marijuana sentencing should be impacted by state reforms
- Do nationwide reforms now call for federal judges to sentence below the guidelines in all marijuana cases?
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
Defense moves to postpone federal marijuana sentencing based new law ordering DOJ not to prevent states from implementing medical marijuana laws
California Attorney Ronald Richards today sent me a copy of a fascinating emergency motion he filed this week that seeks a postponement of his client's scheduled federal marijuana sentencing today. Here are excerpts from the four-page memorandum in support of the motion (which can be downloaded below) which highlights why I find it fascinating:
Rarely in any counsel’s career has he or she had to file an emergency motion. However, in the world of marijuana laws, the landscape keeps changing; this time, on a historic level. On Saturday night, the United States Senate voted to approve H.R. 83. This is a 1696 page spending bill. In the bill, section 538 forbids the use of money by the Department of Justice for interfering with State laws that allow cultivation of marijuana....
In this case, if the Department of Justice is mandated to not spend any money on interfering with lawful marijuana cultivations implementing state law, the raids, the seizures, and the federal prosecution will come to a halt in California. In addition, if the scheduling is attacked by the litigation in the Eastern District and changed, there are just too many signals that the 77 years of marijuana prohibition may be coming to an end. At least, there is not a direct policy mandate from Congress. It is no different than a highway withholding funding to keep speeds under 80 MPH or at 55 MPH during the energy crisis....
If this bill is signed by the President, which all indications are that he will sign it or the government will shut down, it will become law and policy. The Department of Justice could not in either the spirit or the letter of the law allocate any further staff, investigation, or budget to continue to prosecute this case. Furthermore, all future prosecutions of legal California cultivators would cease to exist....
Based upon the historic passage by the House and the Senate of H.R. 83, the defendant requests a 90 day adjournment of his sentence. If the bill becomes law, he will move to withdraw his plea or file a stipulation to that effect with the government. It would be unfair for him to be burdened with a felony conviction and incarceration when in just two weeks, all the current cultivators in this State would enjoy the new found relief provided by the Congressional mandate.
December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
"Survey: Teen marijuana use declines even as states legalize"
The title of this post is the headline of this notable new USA Today article reporting on new data that seems likely to be trumpted by those advocating for continued reform of marijuana laws. Here are the basics:
Marijuana use among teens declined this year even as two states, Colorado and Washington, legalized the drug for recreational use, a national survey released Tuesday found. University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future study, now in its 40th year, surveys 40,000 to 50,000 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grade in schools nationwide about their use of alcohol, legal and illegal drugs and cigarettes.
"There is a lot of good news in this year's results, bu the problems of teen substance use and abuse are still far from going away," Lloyd Johnston, the study's principal investigator, said.
After five years of increases, marijuana use in the past year by students in all three grades declined slightly, from 26% in 2013 to 24% in 2014. Students in the two lower grades reported that marijuana is less available than it once was, the survey found. Among high school seniors, one in 17, or 5.8%, say they use marijuana almost daily this year, down from 6.5% in 2013.
Synthetic marijuana, chemical concoctions meant to simulate a marijuana high and sold at convenience stores and gas stations, have also fallen out of favor. In 2011, when the survey first asked about the drugs, known as K2 and Spice, 11% of 12th graders said they had used the drugs in the past year. In 2014, that number had dropped to 6%. "Efforts at the federal and state levels to close down the sale of these substances may be having an effect," Johnston said.
Abuse of all prescription drugs, including narcotic painkillers, sedatives and amphetamines, declined from 16% in 2013 to 14% in 2014 among 12th graders, the survey found. Narcotic painkiller use, in decline since 2009, dropped again from 7% in 2013 to 6% in 2014. Heroin use, which has grown among adult populations, remained stable for teens.
Teens considered narcotic pain relievers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, safer than illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine, because they are prescribed by doctors, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said. "There's a very strong and aggressive campaign about educating the public on the risk of opioid medications as it relates to overdoses and deaths," Volkow said. "That has made teenagers aware that they are not so safe as they thought they were."
Teen use of both alcohol and cigarettes dropped this year to their lowest points since the study began in 1975, the survey found. Teens may be trading conventional cigarettes for e-cigarettes. In 2014, more teens used e-cigarettes than traditional tobacco cigarettes or any other tobacco product, the study found. "E-cigarettes have made rapid inroads into the lives of American adolescents," Richard Miech, a senior investigator of the study, said....
Alcohol use and binge drinking peaked in 1997, when 61% of the students surveyed said they had drunk alcohol in the previous 12 months. In 2014, 41% reported alcohol use in the previous year, a drop from 43% in 2013, the survey found. Since the 1997 peak, "there has been a fairly steady downward march in alcohol use among adolescents," Johnston said....
"Even though the indicators are very good news, at the same time we cannot become complacent," Volkow said. "This is a stage where their brains are most vulnerable. We need to continue our prevention efforts."
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Notable NPR coverage of the "Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing"
I am pleased and intrigued to see that National Public Radio seems to be starting a deep dive into some of the personal stories surrounding the debate over federal mandatory minimum. This introduction, headlined "From Judges To Inmates, Finding The Human Casualties Of Mandatory Sentencing," sets up the discussion this way:
This year, everyone from Attorney General Eric Holder to Tea Party Republicans in Congress has argued those stiff mandatory minimum prison sentences do more harm than good for thousands of drug offenders. Legislation to cut the tough-on-crime penalties has stalled on Capitol Hill, but it's likely to be reintroduced in 2015. Meanwhile, the White House and the Justice Department have taken the unprecedented step of asking for candidates who might win early release from prison through presidential pardons or commutations in the final years of the Obama presidency. That effort, known as Clemency Project 2014, is moving slowly.
Amid the backdrop of debate inside Washington and across the country, NPR decided to focus on the human toll of these mandatory prison sentences. We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly-released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.
The series' first lengthy piece here is titled "Judge Regrets Harsh Human Toll Of Mandatory Minimum Sentences," has lots of good content and quotes from Judge John Gleeson and Professors Rachel Barkow and Bill Otis.
December 16, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack
Thursday, December 04, 2014
Fourth Circuit find LWOP + 60 month sentence (!?!) for drug offenses substantively unreasonable
Thanks to a few helpful readers, I was alerted to a notable opinion from a Fourth Circuit panel today in US v. Howard, No. 13-4296 (4th Cir. Dec. 4, 2014) (available here). Here are excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengthy opinion:
In appeal No. 13-4296, a jury convicted Dennis Ray Howard on one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, phencyclidine (“PCP”), nine counts of distribution of PCP, and one count of possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense. The district court sentenced Howard to a term of life imprisonment plus 60 months.... For the reasons set forth within, we affirm the convictions, vacate the sentence as substantively unreasonable, and remand for resentencing....
The district court reached its life imprisonment sentence by making an upward departure based on Howard’s de facto career offender status, and by reasoning that the § 3553(a) factors supported a sentence at the top of the Guidelines range determined after the departure. Because we are persuaded that the extent of the upward departure is unwarranted and amounts to an abuse of discretion, and because, in any event, a sentence of life in prison on this record is not justified by consideration of the § 3553(a) factors as articulated by the district court, we conclude that the sentence imposed is substantively unreasonable....
By declaring Howard a serial recidivist dedicated to dispensing “poison” with no hope of redemption, and by basing this judgment on stale criminal history, the bulk of which was non-violent and committed when Howard was a juvenile, the district court failed in its effort to comply with the aims of sentencing prescribed by § 3553(a)(2)....
The district court plainly sought to intone all of the principles underlying § 3553(a)(2) when it announced its sentence. It stated the need for individual and general deterrence, incapacitation, and just punishment. There is no doubt that the sentence sent a “message” of deterrence to the people of Wilson and the Eastern District of North Carolina. The district court made those intentions clear. But we simply fail to see, on the whole record, how the life-plus-60-months sentence reasonably reflects the seriousness of the offense or just punishment. Manifestly, it is a sentence “greater than necessary,” 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to achieve the purposes of § 3553(a)(2).
Saturday, November 29, 2014
Is Big Pharma already a bigger threat to kids than Big Marijuana would be?
The question in the title of this post is prompted by this interesting new piece up at The Crime Report headlined "The RX Alliance That Drugs Our Kids." Here is how the piece starts:
Olivia Hernandez always trusted the doctors who scribbled out prescription after prescription for the heavy-duty psychiatric drugs that clouded her teenage years in foster care. Now, she feels “betrayed.”
Three of her former doctors are among a chosen group of California foster care prescribers who received gifts and payments for meals, travel, speaking and industry-sponsored research from the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.
A three-part investigation by the San Jose Mercury News has found that drugmakers, anxious to expand the market for some of their most profitable products, spent more than $14 million from 2010 to 2013 to woo the California doctors who treat this captive and fragile audience of patients at taxpayers’ expense.
Drugmakers distribute their cash to all manner of doctors, but the investigation found that they paid the state’s foster care prescribers on average more than double what they gave to the typical California physician. The connection raises concerns that Hernandez and many other unsuspecting youth have been caught in the middle of a big-money alliance that could be helping to drive the rampant use of psychiatric medications in the state’s foster care system.
I am sympathetic to those advocates concerned that a legalized marijuana industry will end up being eager to market pot products to young users. But, as this article highlights, Big Pharma not only markets drug products to kids, but it has a huge group of licensed drug dealers (doctors) helping them peddle drug products.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war
Regular readers know I am always interested in Senator Rand Paul's distinctive perspective on criminal justice issues. This new Time op-ed, headlined "The Politicians Are To Blame in Ferguson," has Senator Paul touching on broader themes as he connects recent events in Ferguson with his belief in the need for systemic reforms to the US criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:
We are witnessing a tragedy in Ferguson. This city in Missouri has become a focal point for so much. The President and the late Michael Brown’s family have called for peace. I join their calls for peaceful protest, but also reiterate their call to action — “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change.”
In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians. Michael Brown’s death and the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate something is wrong with criminal justice in America. The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.
In Ferguson, the precipitating crime was not drugs, but theft. But the War on Drugs has created a tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy. One need only witness the baby in Georgia, who had a concussive grenade explode in her face during a late-night, no-knock drug raid (in which no drugs were found) to understand the feelings of many minorities — the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.
Three out of four people in jail for drugs are people of color. In the African American community, folks rightly ask why are our sons disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and maimed?
African Americans perceive as true that their kids are more likely to be killed. ProPublica examined 33 years of FBI data on police shootings, accounted for the racial make-up of the country, and determined that: “Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts — 21 times greater.”
Can some of the disparity be blamed on a higher rate of crime in the black community? Yes, but there is a gnawing feeling that simply being black in a high-crime area increases your risk for a deadly altercation with police.
Does bad behavior account for some of the interactions with law enforcement? Yes, but surely there must be ways that we can work to prevent the violence from escalating....
Reforming criminal justice to make it racially blind is imperative, but that won’t lift up these young men from poverty. In fact, I don’t believe any law will. For too long, we’ve attached some mythic notion to government solutions and yet, 40 years after we began the War on Poverty, poverty still abounds.,,,
This message is not a racial one. The link between poverty, lack of education, and children outside of marriage is staggering and cuts across all racial groups. Statistics uniformly show that waiting to have children in marriage and obtaining an education are an invaluable part of escaping poverty....
I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing. I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion. I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences. But my hope is that out of tragedy, a preacher or teacher will arise — one who motivates and inspires all of us to discover traits, ambitions, and moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair.
I will continue the fight to reform our nation’s criminal justice system, but in the meantime, the call should go out for a charismatic leader, not a politician, to preach a gospel of hope and prosperity. I have said often America is in need of a revival. Part of that is spiritual. Part of that is in civics, in our leaders, in our institutions. We must look at policies, ideas, and attitudes that have failed us and we must demand better.
Monday, November 24, 2014
USSC Chair's discussion of "A Generational Shift for Drug Sentences" now in print
I noticed via the US Sentencing Commission's official website that Chief Judge Patti Saris, Chair of United States Sentencing Commission and federal district judge, has now in print this law review article titled “A Generational Shift For Drug Sentences.” The article is based on a like-titled speech given by Judge Saris noted here earlier this year, and here is a snippet from the article's introduction:
It has been a generation since the laws governing federal drug sentences were put into place. Since the 1980s, our society, our attitudes, and our criminal justice system have evolved. The Supreme Court case law, the statutes and United States Sentencing Guidelines (“Guidelines”), and the realities on the ground have changed significantly. With the benefit of experience and new thought, many are considering whether a change — a generational shift — in our approach to federal drug sentences is appropriate....
This article focuses on policies regarding drug offenders and drug penalties as one means to effect change in the federal prison populations and costs. Drug offenders make up about a third of the offenders sentenced federally every year and a majority of the prisoners serving in the federal Bureau of Prisons, so they are in many ways the key to the size and nature of the federal prison population. This article has four parts: Part I explores the history of the current mandatory minimum drug penalties, the Sentencing Commission, and the federal drug sentencing guidelines; Part II examines criminal justice system shifts over the past thirty years; Part III identifies what changes can be made by Congress and elsewhere to address the burgeoning federal prison population; and Part IV explains the Commission’s significant amendments in 2014 to reduce drug guideline sentences.
Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Some recent highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
It has been a few weeks since I have done a round up of notable new posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform, so here goes:
Monday, November 17, 2014
The Marshall Project gets AG Holder to talk about his criminal justice reform work
I am pleased to see that The Marshall Project is now running full steam and has now lots of notable new content on its slick website. Though I am concerned that this notable criminal justice media project, like some others, may end up focusing too much attention on the death penalty, it seems clear that The Marshall Project is going to have lots of material that sentencing fans will want to follow regularly.
Most notably today, The Marhsall Project has posted this exclusive interview with outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder. The piece is headlined "Eric Holder on His Legacy, His Regrets, and His Feelings About the Death Penalty," though I consider the discussion about drug sentencing reform to be most interesting. The piece is a must-read, and here is how it gets started:
The Marshall Project: You’ve been pretty outspoken on criminal justice issues across the board – more outspoken than your boss, actually. What would you single out as your proudest accomplishment in the area of the criminal justice system, and what would you single out as your biggest disappointment?
Holder: In January 2013 I told the people in the Justice Department after the re-election that I wanted to focus on reforming the federal criminal justice system. I made an announcement in August of that year in San Francisco, when we rolled out the Smart on Crime initiative. It was a way of breaking some really entrenched thinking and asking prosecutors, investigators, the bureaucracy – to think about how we do our jobs in a different way – to ask the question of whether excessively long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders really served any good purpose, how we used enhancement papers, moving discretion to prosecutors and asking them to make individualized determinations about what they should do in cases, as opposed to have some big policy sent to them from Washington.
And I think that by and large – not without opposition, to be totally honest – the federal system has embraced that vision. And I think that we have started to see the kind of changes that I hoped we would see.
[MP]: And the biggest disappointment?
Holder: I’m proud of the fact that – in 2010, I guess – we reduced that ratio, the crack-powder, from 100-to-1 to about 17- or 18-to-1. I’m still disappointed that, given the lack of a pharmacological distinction between crack and cocaine, the ratio is not 1-to-1. You know, it was the product of a lot of hard work that the president was intimately involved in. But I think he would agree with me that that number should be at 1-to-1.
[MP]: Before the second term is over, could there be a push for a 1-to-1 ratio?
Holder: That is something that I know the president believes in, that I believe in. One of the things that I’d like to see happen before the end of this administration is that there would be a drug court in every district in this country. As I speak to my successor, the 83rd Attorney General, and as I speak to the president, I’m going to push them to make that a goal for this administration, to have a drug court in every district by the end of Barack Obama’s second term.
Friday, November 14, 2014
Over lengthy dissents, en banc Eleventh Circuit shuts 2255 door to claims based on advisory guideline misapplication
The Eleventh Circuit has today provided some special weekend reading for hard-core federal sentencing fans with a special interest in finality issues (which, I realize, might be a small group). Specifically, the en banc ruling together with dissents in Spencer v. US, No. 10-10676 (11th Cir. Nov. 14, 2014) (available here), runs more than 100 pages. More than three-quarters of those pages come from the dissents to a majority opinion (per Judge William Pryor) that begins this way:
This appeal concerns whether a federal prisoner may relitigate an alleged misapplication of the advisory United States Sentencing Guidelines in a collateral attack on a final sentence. After he pleaded guilty to distributing cocaine and we affirmed the judgment against him, Kevin Spencer moved to vacate his sentence of imprisonment, 28 U.S.C. § 2255, for an alleged error in the application of the advisory guidelines. Spencer argues that an intervening decision of the Supreme Court, Begay v. United States, 553 U.S. 137, 128 S. Ct. 1581 (2008), makes clear that the district court and this Court erroneously classified him as a “career offender” based on a prior conviction for felony child abuse, which he argues is not a “crime of violence.” United States Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1 (Nov. 2006). Spencer maintains that this alleged error represents a “fundamental defect which inherently results in a complete miscarriage of justice,” Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 428, 82 S. Ct. 468, 471 (1962), that can be revisited on collateral review. We disagree.
Spencer cannot collaterally attack his sentence based on a misapplication of the advisory guidelines. Spencer’s sentence falls below the statutory maximum, and his prior conviction for felony child abuse has not been vacated. Spencer’s sentence was and remains lawful. We affirm the denial of Spencer’s motion to vacate his sentence.
At the very end of a very long week, I cannot do justice to the majority opinios or the dissents in this space, so I will close by quoting from the start of one of the dissents (per Judge Jordan) to highlight the human story at the center of the legal debate in Spencer:
At the end of the day, what constitutes a fundamental defect resulting in a complete miscarriage of justice comes down to a matter of considered judgment. In my judgment, having an individual serve an additional 81 months in prison due to an erroneous career offender designation under the advisory Sentencing Guidelines constitutes such a miscarriage of justice, and for that reason I respectfully dissent.
Kevin Spencer is serving more than 12 years in prison (151 months to be exact) for selling $20 worth of crack cocaine. The panel found, see Spencer v. United States, 727 F.3d 1076, 1100 (11th Cir. 2013), the government now concedes, see En Banc Brief for the United States at 57-58, and the majority does not dispute, that Mr. Spencer’s mistaken career offender designation more than doubled his advisory sentencing range from 70-87 months to 151-188 months. For those of us familiar with — and sometimes numbed by — the ranges produced by application of the Sentencing Guidelines, it may be easy to overlook the dramatic increase resulting from the error. To put it in perspective, the 81-month increase is roughly the time needed to complete both college and law school.
Mr. Spencer timely and consistently objected to the career offender designation, only to be told he was wrong. As it turns out, he was right. Unfortunately, the majority now rules that Mr. Spencer cannot use 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to correct the error.
November 14, 2014 in Advisory Sentencing Guidelines, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Wednesday, November 12, 2014
Federal judge wonders if marijuana sentencing should be impacted by state reforms
As reported in this Oregonian article, a "federal judge in Portland last week delayed the sentencing of a convicted bulk marijuana runner from Texas, saying he needed to get a better read on the U.S. Department of Justice's position on the drug before imposing a sentence." Here are more details:
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman, presiding on Thursday in the case of U.S. v. Bounlith "Bong" Bouasykeo, asked lawyers if the vote in Oregon and a similar vote in Washington, D.C., signal "a shift in the attitude of people generally towards marijuana."
"I guess I'm curious whether I ought to slow this down a little bit," he asked lawyers, according to a transcript of the hearing obtained by The Oregonian. Under federal law, marijuana in any form or amount remains illegal.
Mosman wondered aloud if there was any move afoot to take a different position on marijuana enforcement in Oregon. This was not to suggest – he hastened to add – that he agreed on marijuana legalization. The judge wondered whether his position on sentencing ought to move a notch in the defendant's favor because of the nation's evolving view of pot.
"I'm not suggesting that what's on the table is that the whole case ought to go away or anything like that," the judge said. "But would something like that at the margins have some sort of impact on my sentencing considerations? I think I ought to take into account any evolving or shifting views of the executive branch in determining the seriousness of the crime?
"Should I delay this, in your view, or go ahead today (with sentencing)?" After hearing arguments from the lawyers, Mosman decided to delay Bouasykeo's punishment.
November 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack
Thursday, November 06, 2014
"After the Cheering Stopped: Decriminalization and Legalism's Limits"
The title of this post is the title of this notable and timely paper by Wayne Logan which I just saw on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
To the great relief of many, American criminal law, long known for its harshness and expansive prohibitory reach, is now showing signs of softening. A prime example of this shift is seen in the proliferation of laws decriminalizing the personal possession of small amounts of marijuana: today, almost twenty states and dozens of localities have embraced decriminalization in some shape or form, with more laws very likely coming to fruition soon.
Despite enjoying broad political support, the decriminalization movement has however failed to curb a core feature of criminalization: police authority to arrest individuals suspected of possessing marijuana. Arrests for marijuana possession have skyrocketed in number in recent years, including within decriminalization jurisdictions. This essay examines the chief reasons behind this disconnect, centering on powerful institutional incentives among police to continue to make arrests, enabled by judicial doctrine that predates the recent shift toward decriminalization. The essay also identifies ways to help ensure that laws decriminalizing simple marijuana possession, as well as other low-level offenses, better achieve decriminalization’s goal of limiting the arrest authority of police and the many negative personal consequences of arrest.
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
California sentencing reform initiative Prop 47 wins big getting almost 60% support
As repoted in this Huffinton Post piece, "California approved a major shift against mass incarceration on Tuesday in a vote that could lead to the release of thousands of state prisoners." Here are the basics from a piece headlined "California Voters Deal Blow To Prisons, Drug War":
Nonviolent felonies like shoplifting and drug possession will be downgraded to misdemeanors under the ballot measure, Proposition 47. As many as 10,000 people could be eligible for early release from state prisons, and it's expected that courts will annually dispense around 40,000 fewer felony convictions.
The state Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that the new measure will save hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons. That money is to be redirected to education, mental health and addiction services -- a novel approach that reformers hope will serve as a model in the larger push against mass incarceration.
This official webpage with California ballot measure voting results reports that Prop 47 received 58.5% of votes in support. This big margin of victory strikes me as big news that can and should further propel the political narrative that, at least in some places, significant numbers of voters are significantly interested in significant sentencing reform.
Tuesday, November 04, 2014
US District Judge Kopf reports on retroactive implementation of new reduced federal drug guidelines in Nebraska
As noted in this post from last week, the start of November2014 marked the official start for the new reduced federal guidelines for drug offenses put in place by guideline Amendment 782. At his great blog, US District Judge Richard Kopf has this lengthy new post on the practicalities of implementing the Amendment's retroactivity in his district. I recommend the whole post, from which these excerpts are drawn:
I will take a moment to describe the implementation of Amendment 782 in the District of Nebraska. We are a small district with a large criminal case load, especially including drug cases. As of June 30, 2014, on a per-judge basis, we ranked seventh in the nation and first in the Eighth Circuit for criminal cases. Indeed, Amendment 782 may impact over 700 offenders previously sentenced in our court. Behind the scenes, the implementation of Amendment 782 has had a huge impact on us as we try to fully and fairly implement this important retroactive change to the Guidelines.
With 700 offenders potentially eligible for a sentencing reduction, our district decided that every potentially eligible offender would have his or her case individually scrutinized whether or not a motion had been filed and that every such offender would have a lawyer. After conferring with the United States Attorney, the Federal Public Defender and our probation office, we issued general (standing) orders....
Four people are responsible for superintending the implementation of Amendment 782: two very senior United States Probation officers who are experts in the Guidelines; the head of the drug prosecution unit of the US Attorney’s office; and the Federal Public Defender. They have cooperated nicely, and have established internal operating protocols between them. After the Clerk’s office tracked down the whereabouts of each of the 700 or so offenders through the Bureau of Prisons (a huge task), the group of four sensibly decided upon a “triage” plan. Offenders who are eligible for release on the earliest possible date (November 1, 2015), get attention first. Offenders who are eligible later receive attention later.
Ultimately, the Federal Public Defender, or one of his assistants or a Criminal Justice Act panel lawyer, will file a motion for relief when the group of four decide that the time is right. A probation officer will submit and file as a restricted document a worksheet that includes a calculation under Amendment 782 and the Guidelines. That worksheet will also include a report on the offender’s institutional adjustment and the probation officer’s recommendation about whether relief should be granted....
After the motion is filed, and the worksheet is submitted, the prosecutor and defense lawyer will confer and in most cases a stipulation will be reached. Assuming a stipulation is reached, it will be filed. After that, and without a hearing, relief will normally be granted. If no stipulation can be reached, then in my cases a hearing will be held.
It is possible that a judge might tentatively conclude not to follow a stipulation. While I cannot speak for the other judges, in my cases, I will hold a hearing to give the parties an opportunity to be heard. Whether or not the defendant will be present at such a hearing has yet to be determined by me. In the past, if a dispute of fact arose and the offender could be expected to have unique knowledge of the facts, I have not hesitated to give the offender an opportunity to appear and testify. It is probable that I will follow the same approach for Amendment 782 factual disputes where the testimony of the offender is critical to the fair resolution of the matter. However, in the huge majority of cases, this will not be necessary.
In summary, the equitable and effective implementation of Amendment 782 requires a lot of “behind the scenes” work. We are fortunate to have the cooperative, but always zealous, assistance of prosecutors and defense lawyers, aided by a probation office that is second to none.
Will Election 2014 speed up or slow down the marijuana reform movement?
This new Quartz piece, headlined "However the US votes on marijuana today, it’s 2016 that really matters," highlights that the marijuana reform movement will march on even if voters this election cycle reject various reform initiatives now on the ballot:
There are three marijuana ballot initiatives in today’s midterm elections — in Alaska, Oregon and Washington DC — where voters will decide on outright legalization of recreational marijuana. In a fourth ballot, in Florida, voters will vote on a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution, which would legalize medical marijuana. Initiative 71 in the nation’s capital is the only ballot that looks certain to pass. The remaining three are expected to go down to the wire.
While passage of these ballots could potentially signal growing momentum for the pro-marijuana legalization movement nationally, marijuana advocates are looking to the 2016 general elections as a more accurate barometer of where they stand within the American cultural and political mainstream. The reason being is that more younger and minority voters — groups who polls show support marijuana legalization in higher numbers — vote during quadrennial general elections, while the electorate tends to be older and more conservative in the midterms.
At least five US states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — will hold ballot initiatives in 2016. And the diverse political makeup of those states, from the conservative battleground of Arizona to the liberal hotbed of Massachusetts, means that success at the ballot box would show that legalization spans the political and ideological spectrum, says Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Whatever happens Tuesday, we don’t see a step backwards for the movement going into 2016,” Tvert tells Quartz. “Public opinion is on our side, it is only going in one direction, and that is toward an end to marijuana prohibition in this country.”
Though it is a near certainty that marijuana reform issues will be an even bigger part of the political conversation in 2016 than in 2014, I expect the final voting results in Alaska, Florida, Oregon and Washington DC will have a huge impact on the tenor and tenacity of those advocate pushing for and resisting reform. If most of the reform initiatives pass in this year, advocates for reform will be able to continue a narrative of legalization's inevitability it will become every harder for serious candidates for state and federal offices to avoid discussing this issue. But if all of these initiatives fail, opponents of reform can and will assert that the voters are already starting to turn away from supporting legalization now that they are seeing what it really means in a few states.
Over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, I have completed this series of posts on the dynamics in play in the three states with big reform initiative on the ballot:
Monday, November 03, 2014
Arguing for releasing all drug prisoners and reparations to "right the drug war’s wrongs"
Lucy Steigerwald has this provocative new Washington Post blog/commentary piece headlined "Sentencing reform and how to right the drug war’s wrongs." Here are excerpts:
On November 1, the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s plan to reform sentencing for certain drug crimes went into effect. The details were hammered out back in April and July, and they could have been challenged by Congress. Thankfully, Congress declined to do so, and now the commission has a chance at helping nearly half of the 100,000 inmates in federal prison come home earlier than they otherwise would have.
For decades, the war on drugs rolled onward, leaving a pulpy mass of casualties in its wake. But since at least 2012, when Colorado and Washington state legalized recreational use of marijuana, there has been some serious strides against this dangerous domestic policy. Generally, however, any progress made on drugs has been confined to changing the legality of substances....
Even the tentative, good-but-not-good-enough Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine in 2010, was initially not retroactive until the USSC voted to make it so.... The USSC is doing something more substantial still with their new guidelines, which allow for retroactive petitioning for reduced time in prison starting in November 2015. Prisoners may begin petitioning for these reductions now, however. Unfortunately, those sentences cannot fall below the mandatory minimums, which can only be changed by Congress. Ideally, the Justice Safety Valve Act, introduced by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), which would give judges more flexibility to depart from mandatory minimums, will be eventually signed into law, allowing for some of the damages wrought by these mandatory sentences to be mitigated.
In addition, even though the sentencing reforms help the federal prison population, we are very far from instituting anything as optimistic on a statewide level. Most of the some-400,000 state prisoners in jail on drug-related crimes are out of luck unless they get individual commuting of their sentences.
As the war on drugs loses popularity, the question of what to do about the lives ruined and interrupted is going to come up again and again. One of the more fascinating, though politically unrealistic suggestions for what to do about this mess is one offered by a Green Party candidate for governor of New York: Howie Hawkins suggests releasing all drug prisoners, and putting together a “panel on reconciliation” between them and their communities and governments. They want voting rights restored, school grants restored, help for children of the former cons, and prevention of would-be employers asking about criminal histories. They even suggest full-on reparations for “the communities affected.”
This won’t pass muster, probably not even in the most liberal states. The slow reforms being offered by the USSC, and criminal justice advocates like Sen. Paul might be all we get. But the reparations idea does present a question of what society should do after the madness of a moral panic dims, and the end result turns out to be 2.3 million people in prison or jail. Most people wouldn’t object to a payment to any of the 147 people freed from death row, especially those who turned out to be unequivocally innocent. What happens when we realize that neither possessing nor selling drugs is a real criminal act? Doesn’t that suggest that we have a lot of innocent people in prison who will need a lot of help in restarting their lives?
"Narcotics Prosecutors as Problem Solvers"
The title of this post is the title of this intriguing little new piece by Mark Osler now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
When deciding whether and how to pursue narcotics cases, federal prosecutors should focus not on number of convictions or quantity of drugs intercepted, but rather on whether they are solving problems through the cases they choose. He first examines federal prosecutors' extremely broad discretion in selecting narcotics defendants and charges, as well as some of the negative effects of the failure to employ a "problem solving" rubric in the war on drugs to date. He then suggests a number of changes that such a rubric would bring to the way narcotics cases are pursued, including a change in the proxy that prosecutors use for defendant culpability from drug quantity to drug profits.
Friday, October 31, 2014
New reduced federal drug sentencing guidelines about to become official
Hard core federal sentencing nerds know that November 1 is a special day because it is the official date on which any proposed changes to the sentencing guidelines proposed by the US Sentencing Commission become official in the absence of congressional rejection thereof. Tomorrow, November 1, 2014, is especially notable because it will make official the most significant and consequential reduction in guideline sentencing ranges in history. This USSC press release, which includes a statement from the chair of the USSC, provides background context for why this is such a big deal:
[Background:] The United States Sentencing Commission, an independent agency in the judicial branch charged with setting federal sentencing guidelines, voted unanimously in April to reduce sentencing guidelines levels for most drug trafficking offenses and voted unanimously again in July to make that change retroactive. Because Congress has not acted to disapprove the Commission’s actions, the amendment becomes effective tomorrow. Offenders sentenced after tomorrow will be sentenced under the new, reduced guidelines, and current prisoners may begin petitioning courts for sentence reductions based on retroactive application of the reduced guidelines. Prisoners can have their sentences reduced if courts determine that they are eligible and a reduction is appropriate, and they may not be released pursuant to such reductions before November 1, 2015.
[Comment by USSC Chair Patti Saris:] “The reduction in drug guidelines that becomes effective tomorrow represents a significant step toward the goal the Commission has prioritized of reducing federal prison costs and overcrowding without endangering public safety. Commissioners worked together to develop an approach that advances the causes of fairness, justice, fiscal responsibility, and public safety, and I am very pleased that we were able to agree unanimously on this reasonable solution. I am also gratified that Congress permitted this important reform to go forward.
This amendment is an important start toward addressing the problem of over-incarceration at the federal level. Commission researchers estimate that applying the amendment going forward may reduce the prison population by 6,500 in five years and far more over time, while more than 46,000 current prisoners could be eligible to have their sentences reduced by retroactive application of the amendment. Still, only Congress can act to fully solve the crisis in federal prison budgets and populations and address the many systemic problems the Commission has found resulting from mandatory minimum penalties. I hope that Congress will act promptly to pass comprehensive sentencing reform legislation.”
Monday, October 27, 2014
Notable new Cato working paper examines "Marijuana Policy in Colorado"
Dr. Jeffrey Miron, who is director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, has just produced this significant new Cato working paper titled "Marijuana Policy in Colorado." The paper is relatively short, though it includes lots of data, and here is its Executive Summary and its closing paragraphs:
In November 2012, voters in the states of Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives that legalized marijuana for recreational purposes. Alaska, Oregon, and the District of Columbia are scheduled to consider similar measures in the fall of 2014, and other states may follow suit in the fall of 2016.
Supporters and opponents of such initiatives make numerous claims about state-level marijuana legalization. Advocates believe legalization reduces crime, raises revenue, lowers criminal justice expenditure, improves public health, improves traffic safety, and stimulates the economy. Critics believe legalization spurs marijuana use, increases crime, diminishes traffic safety, harms public health, and lowers teen educational achievement. Systematic evaluation of these claims, however, has been absent.
This paper provides a preliminary assessment of marijuana legalization and related policies in Colorado. It is the first part of a longer-term project that will monitor state marijuana legalizations in Colorado, Washington, and other states.
The conclusion from this initial evaluation is that changes in Colorado’s marijuana policy have had minimal impact on marijuana use and the outcomes sometimes associated with use. Colorado has collected non-trivial tax revenue from legal marijuana, but so far less than anticipated by legalization advocates....
The evidence provided here suggests that marijuana policy changes in Colorado have had minimal impact on marijuana use and the outcomes sometimes associated with use. This does not prove that other legalizing states will experience similar results, nor that the absence of major effects will continue. Such conclusions must await additional evidence from Colorado, Washington, and future legalizing states, as well as more statistically robust analyses that use non-legalizing states as controls.
But the evidence here indicates that strong claims about Colorado’s legalization, whether by advocates or opponents, are so far devoid of empirical support.
Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform
Friday, October 24, 2014
Election season round-up of posts on pot politics from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform
For various reasons and in various ways, I find the politics of modern marijuana reform even more interesting than its policies and practicalities. Consequently, a number of my recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform have focused on political developments and discourse in those states with significant reform proposals on the ballot in 2014. As this election season now kicks into its final stretch, I thought it useful to collect some of these posts in this space:
As time and energy permits, I am hoping soon to start a series of posts on pot politics circa 2014 over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform in order to explain why I think the results of this election season in a Alaska, Florida and Oregon are likely to have a huge impact on marijuana policy and national politics in the coming years.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Does new DOJ appointee want to decriminalize all drug possession ... and would that be so bad?
The questions posed by the title of this post are prompted by this recent commentary authored by Cully Stimson and titled "The New Civil Rights Division Head Wants to Decriminalize Possession of All Drugs." Here are excerpts:
So who supports decriminalizing cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine, ecstasy and all dangerous drugs, including marijuana? No, it’s not your teenage nephew. It’s President Obama’s new acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta. In 2012, Gupta wrote that “states should decriminalize simple possession of all drugs, particularly marijuana, and for small amounts of other drugs.” (Emphasis mine).
Last week, President Obama appointed Vanita Gupta to the position of acting head. According to the Washington Post, the administration plans to nominate her in the next few months to become the permanent assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. Her views on sentencing reform – a bi-partisan effort in recent years – have earned her qualified kudos from some conservatives. But her radical views on drug policy – including her opinion that states should decriminalize possession of all drugs (cocaine, heroin, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana etc.) should damper that support of those conservatives, and raise serious concerns on Capitol Hill....
To begin, she believes that the misnamed war on drugs “is an atrocity and that it must be stopped.” She has written that the war on drugs has been a “war on communities of color” and that the “racial disparities are staggering.” As the reliably-liberal Huffington Post proclaimed, she would be one of the most liberal nominees in the Obama administration.
Throughout her career, 39-year old Gupta has focused mainly on two things related to the criminal justice system: first, what she terms draconian “mass incarceration,” which has resulted in a “bloated prison population, and second, the war on drugs and what she believes are its perceived failures.
She is particularly open about her support for marijuana legalization, arguing in a recent CNN.com op-ed that the “solution is clear: …states could follow Colorado and Washington by taxing and regulating marijuana and investing saved enforcement dollars in education, substance abuse treatment, and prevention and other health care.”...
But Gupta does not stop with marijuana. In calling for all drugs to be decriminalized – essentially legalizing all dangerous drugs – Gupta displays a gross lack of understanding of the intrinsic dangers of these drugs when consumed in any quantity.
Heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and methanqualone are Schedule I drugs, which are defined as “the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence.” Cocaine, methamphetamine, Demerol and other drugs are Schedule II drugs, defined as “drugs with a high potential for abuse…with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence.”
Sound public policy must be based on facts, not radical unsafe, and dangerous theories.
I concur 100% with the statement at the end of this commentary that "sound public policy must be based on facts," and that it why I am more than a bit troubled that this commentary quite false asserts that Gupta's seemingly reasonable suggestion that persons should not be deemed criminals for possessing a small amount of a narcotic is tantamount to advocacy for "legalizing all dangerous drugs."
The term "decriminalize" in this context means to treat in a less-serious regulatory manner like we treat traffic offenses. Nobody would assert that we have "essentially legalized" all speeding and other traffic offenses because we only respond to the offense with fines and limited criminal sanctions. Likewise, advocacy for decriminalizing simple possession of small amounts of drugs is not the equivalent of endorsing a fully legalized marketplace for drugs comparable to what we are seeing in a few states now with marijuana.
That all said, I think Vanita Gupta's suggestion that states decriminalize simple possession of drugs as a way to de-escalate the drug war, as well as Cully Stimson's obvious concerns with such a suggestion, are very legitimate issues for engaged political and public policy debate. (For the record, I would generally support most state drug-decriminalization efforts, though I also would generally advocate that criminal sanctions kick in based on possession of larger dealer-size quantities of certain drugs.) I am pleased to see this commentary, even in a effort to assail a new DOJ nominee, start to bring overdue attention to these important modern drug-war issues. But I hope in the future Mr. Stimson and others will make and understand the important distinction between advocating for decriminalization and advocating for full legalization.
October 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack
Monday, October 20, 2014
New top Justice in Massachusetts urges repeal of mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders
I just came across this notable Boston Globe article discussing this notable speech delivered late last week by the new Chief Justice of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Here is how the Globe article starts:
The head of the state’s highest court called for an end to mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders on Thursday, saying they interfere with judges’ discretion, disproportionately affect minorities, and fail to rehabilitate offenders.
Citing the opioid-addiction crisis, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants said the state needs to find better ways to treat addicts than sending them to jail. In 2013, 674 people died of opioid overdoses, compared with 338 in 2000. “To those who favor the status quo in the so-called war on drugs, I ask: How well is the status quo working?” Gants said.
Gants, selected as chief justice by Governor Deval Patrick, called on the Legislature to pass laws to abolish mandatory sentencing. His remarks, in his first State of the Judiciary speech, were part of a call for broader changes in the court system. “We need our sentences not merely to punish and deter, but also to provide offenders with the supervision and the tools they will need to maximize the chance of success upon release and minimize the likelihood of recidivism,” he said.
Sworn in just 80 days ago, Gants said he will convene a group of judges, probation offices, prosecutors, and defense attorneys to study best practices to ensure what he called “individualized, evidence-based sentences.” That means considering mental health or substance abuse treatment as well as time in prison. Mandatory minimum sentences are automatic prison terms for those convicted of certain crimes, limiting judges’ discretion.
Gants’s proposal drew quick praise from members of the Massachusetts Bar Association, his audience at the association’s annual Bench-Bar Symposium in the John Adams Courthouse. Marsha V. Kazarosian, president of the bar association, called Gants’s call to action “a gutsy move.” She said there are “no cookie-cutter remedies” for drug defendants, and that an offender’s background should taken into consideration, and “that’s exactly what a judge is supposed to do.”
Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, the state’s public defender agency agreed. “So many people involved in the criminal justice system have substance abuse and mental health issues,” Benedetti said. “That’s the root of the problem, and this gets back to individual, evidence-based sentencing.”
The proposal was criticized by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, head of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, who argued that the laws are designed to target drug traffickers, not merely drug users. “The midst of an opiate overdose epidemic is not the time to make it easier for drug traffickers to avoid accountability and incarceration,” Blodgett said. “An experienced trial judge should know that the drug defendants sentenced to incarceration are the ones who carry and use firearms, who flood communities with poison, and who commit the same distribution offenses over and over again.”
Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Gants' full speech is worth reading, and here is a notable excerpt from the text:
Mandatory minimum sentencing in drug cases has had a disparate impact upon racial and ethnic minorities. In fiscal year 2013, 450 defendants were given mandatory minimum sentences on governing drug offenses. In that year, which is the most recent year for which data are available, racial and ethnic minorities comprised 32% of all convicted offenders, 55% of all those convicted of non-mandatory drug distribution offenses, and 75% of all those convicted of mandatory drug offenses. I do not suggest that there is intentional discrimination, but the numbers do not lie about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences.
The impact of mandatory minimum drug sentences is far greater than the number of defendants who are actually given mandatory sentences. Prosecutors often will dismiss a drug charge that carries a mandatory minimum sentence in return for a plea to a non-mandatory offense with an agreed-upon sentence recommendation, and defendants often have little choice but to accept a sentencing recommendation higher than they think appropriate because the alternative is an even higher and even less appropriate mandatory minimum sentence. For all practical purposes, when a defendant is charged with a drug offense with a mandatory minimum sentence, it is usually the prosecutor, not the judge, who sets the sentence.
I have great respect for the prosecutors in this Commonwealth, and for the exercise of prosecutorial discretion that comes with the job; I was a prosecutor myself for eight years. But where there is a mandatory minimum sentence, a prosecutor's discretion to charge a defendant with a crime effectively includes the discretion to sentence a defendant for that crime. And where drug sentences are effectively being set by prosecutors through mandatory minimum sentences, we cannot be confident that those sentences will be individualized, evidence-based sentences that will not only punish and deter, but also minimize the risk of recidivism by treating the root of the problem behind many drug offenses -- the problem of addiction.
Tuesday, October 07, 2014
Rolling Stone laments enduring casualties of drug war's mandatory minimums
Rolling Stone magazine has just published this extensive "special report" titled "The Nation's Shame: The Injustice of Mandatory Minimums." The piece details the stories of seven notable low-level drug defendants serving high-level prison sentences. The piece has this subheading: "For decades, lawyers, scholars, and judges have criticized mandatory drug sentencing as oppressive and ineffective. Yet tens of thousands of nonviolent offenders continue to languish behind bars." And here is a portion of the lead into the seven cases profiled:
Widely enacted in the Eighties and Nineties amid rising crime and racially coded political fearmongering, mandatory penalties — like minimum sentences triggered by drug weight, automatic sentencing enhancements, and three-strikes laws — have flooded state and federal prisons with nonviolent offenders. Intended to ensure uniform discipline, these policies simply shifted discretion to prosecutors. Judges lost latitude to tailor sanctions based on whether someone was a kingpin or courier, for example, while [Professor Mark] Osler says, prosecutors gained "a big hammer. The easy way of doing things is to threaten people with a lot of time, and then plead them out," he says. "But easy and justice don't go together very well."...
[T]he drug war is entrenched in decades of prison buildup. Between 1980 and 2010, state incarceration rates for drug crimes multiplied tenfold, while the federal drug prisoner population ballooned by a factor of 20. Every year, taxpayers shell out $51 billion for drug war spending. Meanwhile, 2.2 million people — or a quarter of the world's prisoners — crowd a system that exacts its harshest toll on the most vulnerable. Racism undermines the justice process from initial stop to sentence, and 60 percent of those incarcerated are people of color. Rates of illiteracy, addiction, and mental illness are disproportionately high.
Amid utter congressional deadlock, sentencing reform is the only issue that has cut across partisan bickering to unite such normally irreconcilable voices as Rand Paul, Dick Durbin, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Paul Ryan and John Conyers. Yet the proposed Smarter Sentencing Act, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, has since run aground. The bill would halve key mandatory minimums, make relief under the Fair Sentencing Act available to 8,800 federal crack defendants locked up before 2010 and save $4 billion in the process. More than 260,000 people have been imprisoned under federal drug mandatory minimums, and more will continue to cycle through the system — even as others are granted clemency — as long as reforms remain stalled. At the state level, reforms without retroactive application strand drug defendants in prison even after the laws that put them there are reassessed as unjust. The following seven cases epitomize the rigid regimes of the past, and the challenges involved in dismantling them.
Sunday, October 05, 2014
Concurrence laments "trend" of federal prosecutors seeking "significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of 'relevant conduct'"
An otherwise unremarkable federal drug sentence appeal in the US v. St. Hill, No. 13-2097 (1st Cir. Oct. 1, 2014) (available here) took on some blogworthy character because of a lengthy concurrence by Judge Torruella. Here is the start, heart and close of Judge Torruella's opinion in St. Hill:
I join the court's opinion but write separately to note a disturbing trend in criminal prosecutions. All too often, prosecutors charge individuals with relatively minor crimes, carrying correspondingly short sentences, but then use section 1B1.3(a) of the Sentencing Guidelines ("Guidelines") to argue for significantly enhanced terms of imprisonment under the guise of "relevant conduct" — other crimes that have not been charged (or, if charged, have led to an acquittal) and have not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt....
St. Hill was subject to an additional six to eight years in prison due to isolated drug sales not directly related to the twenty oxycodone pills which led to his conviction, all of which he was never arrested for, never charged with, never pleaded guilty to, and never convicted of by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a prime example of the tail wagging the dog. Even more disturbing: the government could, if it so chooses, still charge St. Hill for these uncharged crimes in a separate proceeding, and he could be convicted and sentenced again without protection from the Double Jeopardy Clause. See Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389, 406 (1995)....
[I]f the government intends to seek an increase in a criminal defendant's sentence for conduct that independently may be subject to criminal liability, the government should charge that conduct in the indictment. The Fifth Amendment requires that "[n]o person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," U.S. Const. amend. V, while the Sixth Amendment provides an accused with the right to a trial "by an impartial jury," id. amend. VI. The practice of arguing for higher sentences based on uncharged and untried "relevant conduct" for, at best, tangentially related narcotics transactions seems like an end-run around these basic constitutional guarantees afforded to all criminal defendants. Cf. Alleyne, 133 S. Ct. at 2162 ("When a finding of fact alters the legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury."). The government's role is to ensure justice, both to the accused and to the public at large; it is not to maximize conviction rates and argue for the greatest possible sentence. And, while it is unclear to me whether this trend is due to shaky police work resulting in cases that cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, prosecutorial laziness, or other less nefarious factors, it remains troubling regardless....
Nevertheless, as a judge, it is my responsibility to faithfully apply the law as articulated by both the Supreme Court and this court, and I do not dispute that both the Guidelines and our interpretation of them currently condone this questionable process. See Witte, 515 U.S. at 396, 406 (finding no constitutional violation where the sentence was based in part on a cocaine offense that defendant "clearly was neither prosecuted for nor convicted of"); United States v. Lombard, 102 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir. 1996) (finding no constitutional violation where the district court "choose[s] to give weight to the uncharged offenses in fixing the sentence within the statutory range if it finds by a preponderance of evidence that they occurred"). I nonetheless question whether this interpretation should be revisited — either by the courts or by revisions to the Guidelines.
Wednesday, October 01, 2014
This is your federal sentencing data on drugs (after the minus-2 amendment)
I could not help but think about the famous 1980s "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" campaign from Partnership for a Drug-Free America once I took a close look at the US Sentencing Commission's latest greatest data on federal sentencing appearing now in this Third Quarter FY 2014 Sentencing Update. The famous "egg" ad make clear that drugs could scramble your brain, and a "Note to Readers" appearing early in the latest USSC data report makes clear that a recent amendment to the drug sentencing guidelines has started to scrambling cumulative federal sentencing data.
Here is the USSC's "Note to Readers," which highlights why it will prove especially challenging to fully assess and analyze federal sentencing practices in FY14 because of mid-year drug sentencing reforms:
On April 30, 2014, the Commission submitted to Congress a proposed amendment to the sentencing guidelines that would revise the guidelines applicable to drug trafficking offenses. That amendment will become effective on November 1, 2014 and will be designated as Amendment 782 in the 2014 edition of Appendix C to the Guidelines Manual. Amendment 782 changes the manner in which the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking offenses are incorporated into the base offense levels in the drug quantity table in section 2D1.1 of the Guidelines Manual. Specifically, the amendment generally reduces by two levels the offense levels assigned to the quantities described in section 2D1.1 and makes corresponding changes to section 2D1.11. On July 18, the Commission voted to give retroactive effect to Amendment 782, beginning on November 1, 2014.
On March 12, 2014, the Department of Justice issued guidance to all United States Attorneys regarding the sentencing of drug trafficking offenders in anticipation of an amendment to the guidelines lowering the base offense levels for drug trafficking cases. In that guidance, the Attorney General authorized prosecutors to not object to a defense request for a two-level variance from the sentencing range calculated under the current version of the Guidelines Manual in drug trafficking offenses, provided that several other conditions were met. Judges and probation offices have informed the Commission that in some districts the prosecutors themselves are requesting that the court depart from the sentencing range calculated under the Guidelines Manual and impose a sentence that is two levels below that range.
The data the Commission is reporting in this Preliminary Quarterly Data Report appears to reflect those practices. On Table 1 of this report, the Commission reports the rate at which the sentence imposed in individual cases was within the applicable guideline range. The rate through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 was 47.2 percent. This compares with 51.2 percent in fiscal year 2013. However, as can be seen from Tables 1-A and 1-B, most of this decrease is attributable to sentences imposed in drug offenses. As shown on Table 1-A, the within range rate in cases not involving a drug offense was 53.3 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014, compared with 54.8 percent in fiscal year 2013.
Table 1-B presents data for drug cases only. As shown on that table, the within range rate for sentences imposed in drug cases through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 was 30.0 percent, a decrease of more than eight percentage points from the rate of 38.8 percent at the end of fiscal year 2014. This decrease in the within range rate resulted from an increase in the rate at which the government requested a below range sentence, from 39.4 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 45.7 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014, as well as an increase in the rate of non-government sponsored below range sentences, from 20.8 percent in fiscal year 2013 to 23.5 percent through the third quarter of fiscal year 2014.
Because this change in sentencing practices did not occur until more than five months into the fiscal year, the impact of this change is not fully reflected in the average data presented in this cumulative quarterly report. The Commission expects a further reduction in the within range rate for drug offenses to be reflected in the data for the completed fiscal year 2014.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Making the full case for Mitt Romney, drug czar
Regular readers may recall this post from a few months ago in which I highlighted the brilliant and provocative commentary by Mark Osler headlined "Mitt Romney for drug czar." Now I can post Mark's fuller explication of the ideas that lead to the notion of Drug Czar Romney as they appear in this article now available on SSRN headlined "1986: AIDS, Crack, and C. Everett Koop." Here is the abstract:
In 1986, Ronald Reagan’s America confronted twin public health crises: AIDS and crack. There were striking similarities between the two, in that both developed quietly before public alarms were raised; both were identified with traditionally oppressed groups; both spread in a similar pattern; and both created fear in the American public. Where they differed, though, was in the reaction. After initial missteps, AIDS was approached through problem-solving doctors and researchers rather than quarantine. In contrast, crack was confronted with a heavy retributive hand. AIDS was transformed to a chronic, treatable illness. In contrast, crack not only continued to plague communities, but the use of mass incarceration created new problems.
Four striking personalities shaped these differing outcomes. With AIDS, the chief strategist was the remarkable C. Everett Koop, and the public face was a young boy named Ryan White. For crack, a chief strategist was the vituperative William Bennett, and the public face was basketball player Len Bias. The latter pair drove the fight against crack towards disaster, while the former created a more humane world.
This article argues that it is not too late to learn the lessons of 1986 and take a better approach towards narcotics, and that this approach might best be led by someone who understands the driving force behind drugs (the profit motive) the way that Koop understood the driving force behind AIDS (a virus). In our present era, that person may be someone who straddles business and politics, such as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
"The War on Drugs and Prison Growth: Limited Importance, Limited Legislative Options"
The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by John Pfaff now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Many commentators argue that the War on Drugs has played a major role in the four-decade long explosion in US incarceration rates, but in this paper I demonstrate that these claims do not generally rest on sound empirical footing. The direct incarceration of drug offenders explains only about 20% of prison growth (compared to over 50% for violent offenders), and drug convictions do not appear to drive parole revocations nor act as prior felonies that trigger harsh repeat offender laws for subsequent non-drug offending. Furthermore, drug offenders also appear to comprise only about 20% of those flowing through prison, which could be a more accurate measure of the War on Drugs' impact, since drug offenders generally serve disproportionately short sentences and thus may be under-represented in the one-day prison counts that are standard metric of prison's scope.
That said, the War on Drugs could still matter, but in more indirect -- and much harder to measure -- ways. Drug enforcement could contribute to overall social instability in high-crime, high-enforcement communities, or at least to the perception of instability, in ways that may trigger more enforcement by police and prosecutors, even if crime rates are relatively low and falling. Furthermore, while prior drug offenses do not appear to trigger formal recidivist statutes, they may alter prosecutorial charging decisions for later non-drug offenses, but prosecutorial charging behavior is currently impossible to measure with existing data.
Finally, even though the War on Drugs has played only a secondary role in prison growth, there are over 200,000 people in state prison every day on drug charges, and states appear eager to reduce the scope of drug-related incarcerations. So I conclude by considering some of the options available to states. I point out that the leading contenders -- decriminalization and sentence reduction -- will likely have little effect, since few offenders are in prison on marijuana charges (the only drug for which decriminalization is currently feasible), and all drug offenders serve relatively short sentences, well below the statutory maximums. I then consider broader options, such as proposals that target the financial incentives prosecutors have to send offenders, including drug offenders, to prison. I also touch on the implications of adopting broader definitions of "drug offenders," such as those who commit violent or property crimes either to support drug habits or in the course of selling drugs.