Thursday, March 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Great coverage of crack crimes and punishments via Al Jazeera America

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"Drug Dealers Aren't to Blame for the Heroin Boom. Doctors Are."

The title of this post is the provocative headline of this interesting new article from The New Republic. Here is a portion of how the piece gets started:

Heroin epidemics don’t come and go randomly, like the McRib. They have clearly identifiable causes — and in this case, by far the largest cause is doctor -prescribed pills. Every year since 2007, doctors have written more than 200 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers. (Consider that there are 240 million adults in the country.)  And about four in five new heroin addicts report that they got addicted to prescription pills before they ever took heroin....

Most people who try opiates don’t get addicted.  But enough do. Since 2002, the total number of monthly heroin abusers has doubled to 335,000 nationwide.  Some of the addicts get the pills through a well-meaning doctor or dentist, and many others swipe leftover pills from their friends or family members.  The result for an addict is the same: Once the pills or money run out, heroin is still available — and cheap.  At about $10 per hit, it can be half the street cost of pills.

“We seeded the population with opiates,” says Robert DuPont, an addiction doctor who served as drug czar under Presidents Nixon and Ford and who is now a harsh critic of opiate over-prescription.  The supply shock from easy access to prescription drugs has pushed heroin use out of cities and into rural and suburban and middle-class areas. Massachusetts reported a staggering 185 heroin deaths outside its major cities since November, and Peter Shumlin, the governor of Vermont, spent his entire “state-of-the-state” address talking about the nearly eightfold increase in people seeking opiate treatment there since 2000.  “What started as an OxyContin and prescription-drug addiction problem in Vermont has now grown into a full-blown heroin crisis,” he said.

In addition to providing an important reminder about the dynamic (and sometimes unpredictable) intersection of medical care, drug abuse and the "war on drugs," this piece also suggests a reason why we might not want to readily assume (or trust) that the medical profession will be an effective and healthy intermediary when debating how best to reform marijuana laws and regulate the use of cannabis-based products as a pain relievers.

March 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Monday, March 17, 2014

DC Circuit gives disconcertingly short-shrift to Antwuan Ball's many significant sentencing claims

Very long time readers with very good memories may recall the array of notable post-Booker issues that surround the sentencing of Antwuan Ball following his conviction for crack distribution in Washington DC. As first noted in this prior post (from June 2008!), Ball put the government to its burden of proof concerning allegations of a massive drug conspiracy and murders; a very lengthy jury trial led to Ball being acquitted in November 2007 on every count of a massive racketeering, drug conspiracy and murder indictment save for one crack distribution count related to a $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001.

Fast forward to 2011 and, as reported here, the feds are urging the district judge to rely heavily on all sorts of alleged/claimed wrongdoing by Ball to impose a max statutory sentence of 40 years on the crack charge. (Significant side note: in light of the passage of the FSA and Supreme Court's subsequent Dorsey ruling, I am not sure 40 years was in fact the proper stat-max for Ball, but more on that point later.)

Relying on the prosecution's allegations that Ball was the leader of a huge crack consipracy (claims which the jury rejected), the district judge apparently calculated Ball's guideline sentence range to be 292 to 365 months (though again, due to the FSA, I am not sure that was the right guideline range circa March 2011).   This NACDL amicus brief filed in January 2013 indicates that Ball's guideline range would have been only 51 to 71 months absent consideration of acquitted conduct.

As reported here, District Judge Richard Roberts at sentencing declared that he "saw clear evidence of a drug conspiracy [and imposed on Ball a 225-month prison sentence] for his conviction of the 2001 hand-to-hand drug transaction."  At the time of Ball's 2011 sentencing, I noted here that I was quite pleased the acquitted conduct issues preserved in this notable case, and I suggested "some circuit has to question at least the substantive reasonableness of a sentence that is greatly elevated on the basis of acquitted conduct."  

Now fast forward exactly three more years, and I find myself quite disturbed and troubled by how the acquitted conduct issues (and other issues) were given seemingly quite short shrift by a panel of the DC Circuit in its ruling late last week in US v. Jones, No. 08-3033 (DC Cir. Mar. 14, 2014) (available here).  

For starters, as I read the panel opinion in Jones, I find myself persistently wondering whether and how the district court at Ball's 2011 sentencing may have been influenced by the pre-FSA crack statutes and guidelines before the Supreme Court in Dorsey subsequently made clear that post-FSA rules should apply to all post-FSA sentencings.  This issue is not discussed in the Jones opinion (and perhaps it was not raised/preserved), but uncertainty about the application of the FSA at the time of sentencing might arguably alone be reason enough to require resentencing for Ball.

More fundamentally, to reject Ball's acquitted conduct claims, the DC Circuit opinion in Jones only cites to (now dated) post-Booker precedents from all the circuits via this discussion (my emphasis added):

Although we understand why appellants find sentencing based on acquitted conduct unfair, binding precedent of this court establishes that the practice does not violate the Sixth Amendment when the conduct is established by a preponderance of the evidence and the sentence does not exceed the statutory maximum for the crime.  See United States v. Settles, 530 F.3d 920, 923-24 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (citing United States v. Watts, 519 U.S. 148, 156-57 (1997) (per curiam)); Dorcely, 454 F.3d at 371 [D.C. Cir. 2006] (“[A] sentencing court may base a sentence on acquitted conduct without offending the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury.”).  This is true even when consideration of the acquitted conduct multiplies a defendant’s sentence severalfold.  See Dorcely, 454 F.3d at 370-71.  Appellants, in effect, ask us to reconsider Settles and Dorcely. But not only do those decisions bind us, no subsequent decision by the Supreme Court or another circuit calls their validity into question. Cf. FED. R. APP. P. 35(b)(1) (suggesting contrary decisions by the Supreme Court or by another court of appeals as grounds for en banc review).  Indeed, since the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory federal sentencing guidelines and freed judges “to exercise broad discretion in imposing a sentence within a statutory range,” United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 233, 243-44 (2005), every numbered circuit has addressed the constitutionality of sentencing based on acquitted conduct, and each one has reached the same conclusion reached by this court. See United States v. White, 551 F.3d 381, 384-86 (6th Cir. 2008) (en banc); United States v. Mercado, 474 F.3d 654, 656-58 (9th Cir. 2007) (collecting cases from every numbered circuit but the Sixth).  

I have emphasized a phrase from the middle of this paragraph because I actually believe there are at least two SCOTUS rulings since the DC Circuit addressed this issue in Settles and Dorcely that arguably "calls their validity into question."  Specifically, just from 2013, the Supreme Court's Peugh decision (basics here) and especially its Alleyne decision (basics here and here) provide a reasonable basis to question the continued validity of severe acquitted conduct guideline enhancements.  A fair reading of Alleyne suggests that judicial fact-finding as to facts which "alter the prescribed range of sentences to which a defendant is exposed and do so in a manner that aggravates the punishment" can be constitutional problematic even if these facts do not raise the applicable statutory maximum sentence.

Critically, I am not asserting that the 2013 SCOTUS rulings Peugh and/or Alleyne now require reversal of old circuit precedents upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  But I do strongly believe that 2013 SCOTUS rulings Peugh and/or Alleyne raise significant new questions about old circuit precedents upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  Consequently, I find this cursory treatment of what strikes me as a significant sentencing issue in a significant case to be disconcerting.

That all said, perhaps the "optimistic" way to read this opinion is as an invitation to Ball and others to see en banc review of old circuit precedent upholding major acquitted conduct enhancements.  At the very least, given that Ball still likely has a decade in federal prison left for his $600, half-ounce, hand-to-hand crack-cocaine deal in 2001, I hope he seriously considers pursuing further appeals of his sentence.

Some old posts on the Ball case and acquitted conduct sentencing enhancements:

March 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Previewing what AG Holder will say about drug sentencing to US Sentencing Commission

As noted in this prior post, Attorney General Eric Holder is, according to this official agenda, the first scheduled witness at the US Sentencing Commission's important public hearing today on proposed amendments to reduce drug sentencing terms in the federal sentencing guidelines. The full text of what AG Holder says will likely be available on line later today, but this new Washington Post article, headlined "Holder will call for reduced sentences for low-level drug offenders," provides a preview of what he plans to say (which my emphasis below on an especially notable development) and some context for his latest sentencing reform advocacy:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Thursday will urge reduced sentences for defendants in most of the nation’s drug cases, part of his effort to cut the burgeoning U.S. prison population and reserve stiff penalties for the most violent traffickers.

Holder’s proposal, which is expected to be approved by the independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal judges, would affect 70 percent of drug offenders in the criminal justice system, according to figures provided by Justice Department officials. It would reduce sentences by an average of nearly a year.

“Certain types of cases result in too many Americans going to prison for far too long, and at times for no truly good public safety reason,” Holder plans to tell the U.S. Sentencing Commission, according to excerpts of his testimony provided to The Washington Post. “Although the United States comprises just five percent of the world’s population, we incarcerate almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

Like Holder’s previous criminal justice reforms, the move is likely to be hailed by civil liberties groups and assailed by some lawmakers who think the administration is chipping away at federal policies designed to deter criminals and improve public safety.

The seven-member sentencing panel has proposed an amendment to federal sentencing guidelines and will vote on it as soon as April. Until then, federal judges must refer to current sentencing guidelines. Holder, however, will instruct his prosecutors in a memo Thursday not to press judges to impose the longer sentences in the current guidelines if attorneys for drug offenders seek shorter sentences for their clients that would be permissible under the new policy.

Under current mandatory minimum guidelines, a drug offender convicted of possessing 500 grams of cocaine or 28 grams of crack would face a term of 63 to 78 months. Holder is proposing that the time in such a case be reduced to 51 to 63 months. “By reserving the most severe penalties for dangerous and violent drug traffickers, we can better protect public safety, deterrence and rehabilitation while saving billions of dollars and strengthening communities,” Holder plans to say. The lower sentencing ranges would result in a 17 percent decrease in the average length of time imposed on a drug offender, Justice Department officials said.

Holder’s new sentencing proposal is the latest step in his agenda to revise the criminal justice system. In August, he announced that low-level nonviolent drug offenders with no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations would not automatically be charged with offenses that call for severe mandatory sentences. That measure, however, didn’t address the sentencing ranges defendants could face under federal guidelines.

Holder’s latest policy change would reduce the Bureau of Prison population by 6,550 people within five years, according to the Justice Department. Of the more than 216,000 federal inmates, nearly half are serving time for drug-related crimes. At the same time it is seeking to reduce sentences for nonviolent offenders, the Justice Department is putting greater focus on violent traffickers who bring heroin and other drugs into the United States....

Holder’s efforts to reduce the prison population have drawn criticism from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and other lawmakers who say the administration is undermining policies that were set up to deter would-be criminals.

But many of Holder’s criminal justice policies have been praised by civil liberties groups and have bipartisan support in Congress. A bill that Holder and the Obama administration support to reform prison sentences includes both Republican and Democratic sponsors, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Last week, at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor, Md., Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that prison reform is one issue on which he agrees with Holder. “There aren’t many things that the president and the attorney general and I agree about. Know what I mean?” said Perry, who ran for president in 2012.

As noted in this post, I will be off-line most of today in order to travel to and participate in a Sixth Circuit oral argument. But I should be able to provide additional coverage and review of all the sentencing reform action taking place today at the USSC's public hearing before the end of the day.

Some old and newer related posts about AG Holder and the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 13, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Attorney General to testify about drug guideline reform before US Sentencing Commission

I am pleased and very intrigued to now see from this agenda that the first scheduled witness at the US Sentencing Commission's public hearing scheduled to be held tomorrow morning to receive testimony on proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines is none other than the Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General of the United States. I was already excited about what would develop as the USSC heard from folks about its proposal to cut the drug sentencing guidelines across the board (discussed here), but I now think this hearing could end up being historic as well as interesting. 

I cannot recall the US Attorney General ever testifying directly before the US Sentencing Commission, even in the wake of Blakely and Booker and all the uncertainty and reform that was being robustly discussed by all the branches during the transformation of the federal sentencing system and the guidelines as a result of major SCOTUS ruling. And though I am not an expert on USSC history, I think this may be the first time that a sitting Attorney General has testified directly at a USSC hearing.

This development confirms my view that AG Holder wants federal drug war reform to be a big part of his legacy, and I think any and everyone interested in the federal sentencing system and the broader national war on drugs ought to pay very close attention to what takes place tomorrow morning in the Mecham Conference Center in the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, One Columbus Circle, N.E., Washington, DC.

March 12, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Monday, March 10, 2014

Should the feds reallocate all drug war resources away from marijuana to heroin now?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought in reaction to this notable news release from the US Department of Justice headlined "Attorney General Holder, Calling Rise in Heroin Overdoses ‘Urgent Public Health Crisis,’ Vows Mix of Enforcement, Treatment. Here are excerpts from the press release:

Calling the rise in overdose deaths from heroin and other prescription pain-killers an “urgent public health crisis,” Attorney General Eric Holder vowed Monday that the Justice Department would combat the epidemic through a mix of enforcement and treatment efforts. As an added step, the Attorney General is also encouraging law enforcement agencies to train and equip their personnel with the life-saving, overdose-reversal drug known as naloxone.

Speaking in a video message posted on the Justice Department’s website, Holder noted that between 2006 and 2010, heroin overdose deaths increased by 45 percent. “When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs. And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin,” Holder said....

The complete text of the Attorney General’s video message [includes these passages]:

“When confronting the problem of substance abuse, it makes sense to focus attention on the most dangerous types of drugs. And right now, few substances are more lethal than prescription opiates and heroin.

“Addiction to heroin and other opiates – including certain prescription pain-killers – is impacting the lives of Americans in every state, in every region, and from every background and walk of life – and all too often, with deadly results. Between 2006 and 2010, heroin overdose deaths increased by 45 percent. Scientific studies, federal, state and local investigations, addiction treatment providers, and victims reveal that the cycle of heroin abuse commonly begins with prescription opiate abuse. The transition to — and increase in — heroin abuse is a sad but not unpredictable symptom of the significant increase in prescription drug abuse we’ve seen over the past decade....

“Confronting this crisis will require a combination of enforcement and treatment. The Justice Department is committed to both.

“On the enforcement side, we’re doing more than ever to keep illicit drugs off the streets – and to bring violent traffickers to justice. With DEA as our lead agency, we have adopted a strategy to attack all levels of the supply chain to prevent pharmaceutical controlled substances from getting into the hands of non-medical users. DEA proactively investigates the diversion of controlled substances at all levels of the supply chain. This includes practitioners that illegally dispense prescriptions, pharmacists that fill those prescriptions, and distributors that send controlled substances downstream without due diligence efforts. DEA also uses its regulatory authority to review and investigate new pharmacy applications in targeted areas to identify and prevent storefront drug traffickers from obtaining DEA registrations. And they’re also going after “pill mills.”...

“Of course, enforcement alone won’t solve the problem. That’s why we are enlisting a variety of partners – including doctors, educators, community leaders, and police officials – to increase our support for education, prevention, and treatment. DEA engages in widespread education of pharmacists, doctors, and other health practitioners in the identification and prevention of controlled substance diversion during the healthcare delivery process. In the Northern District of Ohio, for example, the U.S. Attorney convened a summit at the Cleveland Clinic, bringing together health and law enforcement professionals to address that area’s 400-percent rise in heroin-related deaths. And nationwide, the Justice Department is supporting more than 2,600 specialty courts that connect over 120,000 people convicted of drug-related offenses with the services they need to avoid future drug use and rejoin their communities.

March 10, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Monday, March 03, 2014

Detailing the impact and import of Burrage on the federal drug war

The Supreme Court a few weeks ago in Burrage v. United States, No. 12-7515 (S. Ct. Jan. 27, 2014) (available here), rejected federal prosecutors' arguments to expand the reach and application of a mandatory minimum sentencing provision for a drug defendant.  Now, via this notable ABC News report headlined "U.S. Drug Cases Getting Rehabbed After Supreme Court Decision," we learn about some of the early impact of this ruling:

A week before actor Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed on a mix of heroin, cocaine and other drugs, the Supreme Court restrained what one top prosecutor called "the strongest tool" federal authorities have to go after dealers in such cases, and now some U.S. drug prosecutions are getting sent to rehab. "We may not be able to meet the standard of proof in those cases," the U.S. Attorney in Vermont, Tris Coffin, said of overdose cases involving a cocktail of drugs. "It will have some impact."

In fact, a federal judge in Kentucky has already vacated the most severe charge against 53-year-old Harold Salyers, a father who was certain to spend decades in prison after being convicted last year of selling heroin to a man who then died. In Alaska and Ohio, defense attorneys are separately hoping their clients can similarly benefit from the high court's recent decision.

On average, drug traffickers in federal cases are sentenced to less than seven years behind bars.  But "when death or serious bodily injury results," the dealer can face a mandatory minimum of 20 years and as long as life in prison, according to federal law. Federal authorities have long sought the stiffer charge when a dealer's drugs contributed in some way to an overdose.

In January, though, the Supreme Court ruled the dealer's drugs need to do more than just contribute, they need to be "the straw that broke the camel's back," as one Justice Department official put it. That's "problematic," especially in overdose cases where an accused dealer's drugs are not the only drugs involved, according to the official. Nearly half of all overdoses involve multiple drugs, federal statistics indicate. "Now we need to [prove] not that just drugs killed them, but which drugs killed them," said the Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity....

The Supreme Court decision in Burrage v. United States initially received scant news coverage and only moderate notice since actor Hoffman's overdose -- a case being handled by local authorities in New York that highlights some of the obstacles to bringing federal charges.  Still, top federal prosecutors said they don't believe the high court's decision is "a significant setback" or "a real game-changer for us."

Medical experts will just have to dig deeper to determine a drug's exact role in death, and federal prosecutors rarely seek the stiffer charge anyway, even when an overdose occurs, according to both Coffin and Harvey, the U.S. attorneys. "We're going to be fine" and will bring "most of the cases we want to bring," Harvey said.

But the Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said finding medical experts who can determine a drug's exact role is not so easy and "is a big burden on the government." Plus, the official said, the Supreme Court decision could be "a blow" to investigative efforts. "The 20-year mandatory minimum has been tremendously efficient in scaring the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain," the official said. "It's been a really good negotiating tool."

There are so many interesting aspects to this Burrage follow-up story, and it highlights for me that it might be very interesting and very valuable for some researchers to assemble and analyze data on how the mandatory minimum sentencing provision at issue in Burrage has been applied in the years before this SCOTUS ruling and how it gets applied in the coming years.

But I especially like and find helpful the candid and astute quotes from the unnamed Justice Department official reprinted at the end of this excerpt. The quote so efficiently and effectively captures the real work and importance of all modern mandatory minimum sentencing terms in the federal system: they mostly exist to reduce "a big burden on the government" by providing a ready and "tremendously efficient" to scare "the dickens out of people so they cooperate up the chain" and thus serve as a "really good negotiating tool."

As I have said before and will say again, for those who favor a big federal criminal justice system having lots of power with limited burdens on a "tremendously efficient" means scare "the dickens out of people so they cooperate" with government officials, the current operating structure and modern application of federal mandatory minimums are still working pretty well despite the setback that Burrage may represent for one of these potent prosecutorial weapons in the drug war. But for those who are suspicious of a big federal criminal justice system having lots of power concentrated in executive branch official not subject to the rule of law or really any regulation or review of how its power gets used (persons that include Senator Rand Paul and yours truly), reform of all federal mandatory minimums seems to be essential to restore fully the vision of limited federal government power and individual rights that inform and infuse the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

March 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Notable new federal front in drug war being tried in South Carolina

I was intrigued to see this lengthy article at the Huffington Post headlined "Federal Prosecutor Tries A Radical Tactic In The Drug War: Not Throwing People In Prison." The piece merits a read in full, and here is a taste:

Conway is a small city, with a population of about 16,000. Many residents work in tourism-related jobs in nearby Myrtle Beach. The drugs and gangs have made them feel unsafe at home. Dianne Davis, 56, said she tries "not to let the dark catch me" and described other Conway residents as barricading their doors with two-by-fours. "I want to be able to stand on my porch," Davis said. "I have a beautiful garden."

"There are a lot of gangsters running around in that area," Jimmy Richardson said of the neighborhood where Huckabee Heights is located. Richardson is the chief state prosecutor for Horry County, which includes Conway, and a resident of the city himself.

To South Carolina's top federal prosecutor, however, the troubles in Conway present an opportunity. U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles is testing out a novel approach to dealing with drug-related crime, one that aims to clean up the streets by looking beyond mass arrests and incarceration. Conway is the third city in South Carolina to implement a version of the plan, and federal prosecutors in other states and the Justice Department are watching closely. If the program's success continues in South Carolina, it could become a model for law enforcement across the country.

"What I want to do is to make the people's lives who are law-abiding citizens in this community better," Nettles said on the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Conway from his office in Columbia last month. "Incarceration is no longer the goal, but is one of many tools available to allow you to effect your goal of improving their lives. It represents a fundamental shift, a seismic shift in terms of how you're viewing what you're doing."

"When you declare a 'war on drugs,' the community sees the cops as the occupiers, and the cops see the people in the community as enemy combatants," Nettles said. "Well, that's not the way it's supposed to be."

Nettles' plan is surprisingly straightforward. First, federal and local prosecutors identify local drug dealers with the help of the police, probation officers and community members. Next, they build criminal cases against them by reviewing records for outstanding warrants and conducting undercover drug buys. In most cases, arresting all the dealers would be the next order of business, but Nettles has a different idea.

While high-level dealers are still arrested and prosecuted, some low-level offenders are given another option. For them, Nettles stages something of an intervention. Together with the police, family members, religious leaders and other members of the community, prosecutors present the dealers with the evidence against them and give them a choice: Face the prospect of prison or participate in the pilot project.

The program, officially known as the Drug Market Intervention Initiative, helps the dealers find legitimate jobs and offers them help with drug treatment, education and transportation. The hope is that it provides them with the support and the motivation they need to turn their lives around.

The ones who are chosen know that not everybody gets this chance. The initiative in each city does not have endless resources. So only certain low-level offenders, those with limited criminal histories and no violent crimes in their past, are given the opportunity to avoid prison.

For a period of time, typically more than a year, they are monitored to make sure they remain law-abiding citizens. If they do, they will remain free of the criminal justice system. Until they complete the program, however, the threat of arrest based on the evidence already collected continues to hang over their heads. If officials receive complaints about anyone involved in the program, a judge can sign off on an already prepared arrest warrant....

"These people are being regularly drug tested, they are in a stringent program, and if they fail out or don't show up or quit doing their stuff for work, I'm going to arrest them," Nettles explained. "That is what some people call a motivated employee." Part of their motivation also comes from the fact that a steady paycheck can actually be more lucrative than the drug business. Contrary to the popular image of drug lords rolling in cash, many street-level dealers are barely getting by.

March 1, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Federal judge rejects as too lenient plea deal for Illinois state judge guilty of drug and gun charges

This local sentencing story from Illinois is notable both for its participants and as a rare example of a federal judge rejecting a plea deal in a drug case for calling for a sentence deemed too low.  The article is headlined "Judge rejects plea deal for former St. Clair County judge in drug case," and here are just some of the interesting particulars:

A federal judge refused Wednesday to accept terms of a plea agreement that would have sent former St. Clair County judge Michael N. Cook to prison for 18 months on drug-related charges.  U.S. District Judge Joe Billy McDade called the sentence “not sufficient” and said the facts of the case supported a longer sentence.  But McDade also said that he would not “throw the book at him” just because Cook was a judge.  He did not suggest what an appropriate sentence would be.

McDade gave Cook and prosecutors until March 19 to try to strike a new deal.  On March 28, Cook is again scheduled to be in court — either to be sentenced on a new agreement or have a date set for trial....

Cook’s plea deal Nov. 8 to a misdemeanor charge of heroin possession and a felony charge of being a drug user in possession of a firearm was made under an unusual provision.  It carried an agreed-upon penalty that took the sentencing discretion away from McDade.  His only option was to accept or reject the deal.  In January, McDade filed an order warning both sides that he disagreed with a pre-sentence report that said there were no reasons to go above sentencing guidelines, which called for six months or less behind bars.

McDade wrote that Cook’s status as a judge, his longtime drug use and the disruption of governmental functions were reasons to go higher.  He also ordered a supplemental report on how Cook’s actions may have affected cases in front of him, and whether it had affected public confidence in the judicial system.

Cook resigned after exposure of a drug scandal that cost the life of Associate Judge Joseph Christ, who died of a cocaine overdose March 10 in the Cook family hunting lodge in Pike County, Ill., about 65 miles northwest of St. Louis.  The scandal also ensnared former probation worker James K. Fogarty and others.  Cook, of Belleville, admitted at his guilty plea that he was a heroin addict.  After his arrest in May outside of the house of his heroin dealer, Sean McGilvery, he entered an intensive in-patient treatment facility.

But authorities were investigating rumors of Cook’s drug use long before Christ’s death. Search warrant affidavits released since the guilty pleas accuse Cook of abusing a variety of illegal and prescription drugs.  One confidential informer claimed in 2012 that Cook had used drugs for a decade.  The affidavits also show frequent and familiar contact between McGilvery and both Cook and Christ....

Cook and McGilvery were arrested May 22.  Fogarty was charged May 24.  McGilvery is serving a 10-year prison term on charges of conspiracy to distribute, and possession with intent to distribute, more than a kilogram of heroin.  Fogarty is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday and faces a five-year term on charges of intent to distribute cocaine and being a drug user in possession of a firearm. He admitted selling drugs to both Cook and Christ.  His sentence could be affected if he can be explicitly linked to Christ’s death.

Cook is the son of Bruce Cook, of Belleville, a well-known personal injury lawyer and major behind-the-scenes player in local and national Democratic Party politics.  Cook was an assistant public defender and former member of his father’s practice.  He was selected as an associate judge in 2007, appointed to a vacancy to be a circuit judge in 2010 and elected to a six-year term, as a Democrat, later that year.

Two men convicted in front of Cook of murder have won retrials after raising concerns about the judge’s drug connections, and some other criminal defendants who appeared before him have been allowed to withdraw guilty pleas.

February 27, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Seeking a (much?) broader perspective on the modern marijuana reform movement

Today's New York Times has this notable new front-page article headlined "Pivotal Point Is Seen as More States Consider Legalizing Marijuana."  Here are some excerpts:

A little over a year after Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana, more than half the states, including some in the conservative South, are considering decriminalizing the drug or legalizing it for medical or recreational use. That has set up a watershed year in the battle over whether marijuana should be as available as alcohol.

Demonstrating how marijuana is no longer a strictly partisan issue, the two states considered likeliest this year to follow Colorado and Washington in outright legalization of the drug are Oregon, dominated by liberal Democrats, and Alaska, where libertarian Republicans hold sway.

Advocates of more lenient marijuana laws say they intend to maintain the momentum from their successes, heartened by national and statewide polls showing greater public acceptance of legalizing marijuana, President Obama’s recent musings on the discriminatory effect of marijuana prosecutions and the release of guidelines by his Treasury Department intended to make it easier for banks to do business with legal marijuana businesses.

Their opponents, though, who also see this as a crucial year, are just as keen to slow the legalization drives. They are aided by a wait-and-see attitude among many governors and legislators, who seem wary of pushing ahead too quickly without seeing how the rollout of legal marijuana works in Colorado and Washington. “We feel that if Oregon or Alaska could be stopped, it would disrupt the whole narrative these groups have that legalization is inevitable,” said Kevin A. Sabet, executive director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which is spearheading much of the effort to stop these initiatives. “We could stop that momentum.”...

At least 14 states — including Florida, where an initiative has already qualified for the ballot — are considering new medical marijuana laws this year, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalization, and 12 states and the District of Columbia are contemplating decriminalization, in which the drug remains illegal, but the penalties are softened or reduced to fines. Medical marijuana use is already legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

An even larger number of states, at least 17, have seen bills introduced or initiatives begun to legalize the drug for adult use along the lines of alcohol, the same approach used in Colorado and Washington, but most of those efforts are considered unlikely of success this year.

The allure of tax revenues is also becoming a powerful selling point in some states, particularly after Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said last week that taxes from legal marijuana sales would be $134 million in the coming fiscal year, much higher than had been predicted when the measure was passed in 2012....

Opponents of legalization, meanwhile, are mobilizing across the country to slow the momentum, keeping a sharp eye on Colorado for any problems in the rollout of the new law there. “Legalization almost had to happen in order for people to wake up and realize they don’t want it,” Mr. Sabet said. “In a strange way, we feel legalization in a few states could be a blessing.”...

While much of the recent attention has focused on these legalization efforts, medical marijuana may also cross what its backers consider an important threshold this year — most notably in the South where Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina are among the states considering such laws....

Election data, compiled by Just Say Now, a pro-marijuana group, showed that the percentage of the vote that came from people under 30 increased significantly from 2008 to 2012 in states that had marijuana initiatives. This youth vote, predominantly Democratic, rose to 20 percent from 14 percent in Colorado, and to 22 percent from 10 percent in Washington, both far above the 1 percent rise in the national youth vote....

A narrow majority of Americans — 51 percent — believe marijuana should be legal, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last week, matching the result in a CBS News poll the previous month. In 1979, when The Times and CBS first asked the question, only 27 percent wanted cannabis legalized. There were stark differences in the new poll, though. While 72 percent of people under 30 favored legalization, only 29 percent of those over 65 agreed.  And while about a third of Republicans now favored legalization, this was far below the 60 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of independents who did so....

Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, a leading advocate for legalizing marijuana, said campaigns were already underway to stage aggressive legalization drives in several states over the next couple of years, including Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, and possibly Montana. “It is certainly important to maintain the momentum,” Mr. Tvert said,  “But I don’t think we can look at any one election cycle and see what the future holds. This is going to be a multiyear effort.”

I do not disagree with the general view that 2014 is a "watershed year" concerning discussion and debate over marijuana reform (and this was one big reason I developed a taught a seminar on the topic at my law school last Fall). But, as the title of this post highlights, I have come to believe that a much broader set of social and political forces help account for modern marijuana reform movement. The forces include, inter alia, a growing distrust of all government among both left-leaning and right-leaning opinion leaders over the last 15 years, growing evidence that the many aspects of the drug war may do more harm than some drugs, the failure of Big Pharma to provide effective pain relief (without too many side effects) to many who suffer from a range of serious medial problems, and changing labor and economic realities that change to cost/benefit realities of pot prohibition versus pot regulation.

I am happy to see the front-page of the NY Times discuss the various 2014 short-term realities that may impact marijuana reform over the next few years. But I would be especially eager to hear from readers concerning what they think are broader social and political forces that will shape these stories over the next few decades.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

February 27, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Preparing for pot professing | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Two notable new commentaries via HuffPost

Though they both both likely merit their own posts, I will have to be content on this busy hump-day afternoon to just provide links to, and recommend folks read in full, these two new commentary pieces at The Huffington Post:

February 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Is arrest of Mexican drug lord "a monumental moment in the world's war on drugs"?

The question in the title of this post is drawn from the first sentence of this CNN report headlined "3 reasons why 'El Chapo' arrest matters." Here are excerpts:

The arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is a monumental moment in the world's war on drugs....  Here are three reasons why the arrest of Guzman — now being held by Mexican authorities and sought for extradition by U.S. authorities — matters so much.

1. His legend

Chicago declared him and his use of the city as a drug-dealing hub as Public Enemy No. 1, joining bygone gangster Al Capone in that distinction.  Perhaps most importantly, El Chapo is synonymous with narco culture and its lurid glorification.  Guzman, 56, is the drug kingpin extraordinaire.

El Chapo, which means "Shorty" in Spanish, inspires American rap songs and a genre of Mexican ballads called narcocorridos.  "All I wanna be is El Chapo, Three billion dollars in pesos" is part of the chorus to a 2012 rap by Gucci Mane.

Maybe the most potent message of El Chapo's arrest is how it undermines his most audacious myth -- that he could never be caught again, unfindable in Mexico's back country.  Guzman had been caught once before by Mexican authorities, in 2001, but he escaped from a high-security Mexican prison. Lore holds that he slipped out of the prison by hiding in a laundry basket....

2. One of the world's most wanted

Guzman's drug operation is believed to have penetrated not just all of the Americas, but Europe, Australia and west Africa as well, according to the West Point report. "The United States remains the most important demand market for Sinaloa Federation products —marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamines.  The European Union and Australia, however, have proven attractive due to the economics of price elasticity and their distance from the supply source," according to the report.

But authorities have been mounting pressure on Guzman's Sinaloa cartel in recent months. His lieutenants have been killed or captured by Mexican authorities.  Earlier police operations yielded a trove of intelligence, including cell phone and other data, a U.S. law enforcement official said. That helped Mexican authorities and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents hunting Guzman gain confidence in recent weeks that they could arrest him.

"Although it's a ridiculous phrase, the world's most wanted drug lord is accurate," said Malcom Beith, author of "The Last Narco," which is about Mexico's drug war.  "There's tons of other drug lords around, but I think the Sinaloa cartel, given its growth, given its influence hemispheric and otherwise, I think that puts him on the top."

Phil Jordan, who spent three decades with the DEA and headed the agency's El Paso Intelligence Center, also characterized Guzman in superlatives.  "When you arrest the most powerful man in the Americas and in Mexico, if you talk to any cartel member, they'll say that he's more powerful than Mexican President Pena Nieto," Jordan said.  "This would be a significant blow to the overall operations not only in the Americas, but Chapo Guzman had expanded to Europe.  He was all over the place."...

3. U.S. indictments

Guzman's arrest has re-energized Mexican and U.S. lawmen who spent years tracking his cartel and yet unable to capture him — until now. The United States doesn't want to see Guzman escape again. That's why they are eager to see him extradited to the United States as soon as possible, where he is named in multiple federal drug indictments and has been on the DEA's most-wanted list.

"It is a significant arrest, provided he gets extradited immediately to the United States," Jordan told CNN.  "If he does not get extradited, then he will be allowed to escape within a period of time."  Added one U.S. official: "Now comes the hard part."  That official was referring to Guzman's extradition to the United States.

This CNN story helps me better understand why the arrest of drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is a very big news story and a significant law enforcement achievement. But I doubt many folks look back at the arrest(s) and prosecution(s) of Al Capone as a monumental moment in alcohol Prohibition, and I likewise would be surprised if this recent take-down of El Chapo is deemed monumental in the years to come as a variety of drug lords battle to take over his domain and become the next "world's most wanted drug lord."

I ask the question in the title of this post not to diminish the importance of this recent arrest nor to belittle to considerable efforts of the considerable and important law enforcement effort to capture this very bad guy.  But, like the war on crime or the war on poverty or even the war on terror, I worry that there is never a single "general" (on either side of these wars) whose arrest or death is very likely to significantly alter the enduring battles that seem destined to continue on.

February 23, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Another weekend review of news and notes from the modern marijuana movement

I have not done a round up for posts from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform in a few weeks, so here goes:

UPDATE: This new lengthy Washington Post piece provides some historical perspective on all the modern developments discussed above. The piece is headlined "Marijuana’s rising acceptance comes after many failures. Is it now legalization’s time?," and here are its final two paragraphs:

As the rhetorical battle continues and politicians remain cautious about speaking out on marijuana, the facts on the ground are changing fast. The Cannabis Cup, an open-air marketplace the size of two football fields in the San Bernardino Valley, featured open consumption of pot-infused sodas, candies and cookies and displays of whole marijuana plants — staged with virtually no controversy.

“Generations coming up now don’t see what the big deal is,” says Brian Wansolich, 39, wearing a white coat emblazoned with the logo of his online cannabis ratings service, Leafly. “My parents still have moral problems with it, but now they see we can tax this and get states out of trouble. It’s the American way.”

February 22, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Are we "headed for a crime-riddled future" without mandatory minimums?

The question in the title of this post is drawn from a notable quote toward the end of this notable new article from The Economist. The article is headlined "Sentencing reform: Kinder, gentler; Less time inside for less-serious crimes." Here are excerpts:

Last August Eric Holder, America’s attorney-general, issued a memo to federal prosecutors. It directed them not to charge certain low-level, non-violent, non-recidivist drug defendants without ties to cartels with crimes serious enough to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.  The direct effects of this policy shift seem small: Paul Hofer, a lawyer who specialises in sentencing matters, found that just over 500 of the roughly 25,000 defendants sentenced under federal drug laws in 2012 might have got a smaller rap if Mr Holder’s policy had been in place then.  But it appears to have given sentencing reform a strong shot in the arm.

In early January the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), the agency that sets sentencing policies for federal courts, published proposed changes to sentencing guidelines, one of which would reduce penalties for some drugs charges....

Congress also seems to be shedding its usual lethargy on the subject. On January 30th the Senate Judiciary Committee sent the Smarter Sentencing Act to the full Senate for a vote. This bill would, first, reduce mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders and direct the USSC to lower sentencing guidelines accordingly.  Second, it would make the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive, so that anyone imprisoned under the old law could apply to have his sentence reduced....

Not everyone is happy with these changes.  The National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys (NAAUSA), which represents a minority of federal prosecutors, urged senators not to “weaken the benefits of mandatory minimum sentencing” — ie, the fact that harsh sentences terrify defendants into co-operating with prosecutors.  One member of the NAAUSA frets that without mandatory minimums, “we are headed for a crime-riddled future.”

Yet reform continues. Barack Obama has yet to commute many long federal sentences, but the Justice Department wants to find more candidates for presidential clemency.  On February 11th Mr Holder urged states to repeal laws that bar ex-convicts from voting. Anecdotal evidence from federal courts in Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia shows that some judges are already shifting position because they expect the Smarter Sentencing Act to pass.  Advocates for ever-harsher sentences appear to be losing the whip hand.

February 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

"Institutionalizing Bias: The Death Penalty, Federal Drug Prosecutions, and Mechanisms of Disparate Punishment

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper by Mona Lynch now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

The empirical study of capital punishment in the “modern” era has been largely decoupled from scholarship addressing the corollary late-20th century noncapital punitive developments, such as the rise of mass incarceration. Consequently, research that has examined the problem of racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty and research on the proportional growth of minorities in American correctional populations have advanced on parallel tracks, rarely intersecting.

In light of this symposium’s effort to strengthen the linkages between the death penalty and mass incarceration, this article examines two seemingly distinct cases of racially disparate criminal justice practices — the trial courts’ processing of contemporary capital cases and federal drug trafficking cases — to illustrate the institutionalized mechanisms that produce racial inequalities in both mass incarceration and capital punishment. I advance a meso-level, social-psychological theory on the production of institutional racism that also aims to integrate contested lines of thought about the mechanisms of bias and discrimination.

To accomplish these ends, I specifically focus on three problem areas in the structure and operation of contemporary American criminal justice: 1) the codification of inequality in how crimes and criminal culpability are defined and how sentencing rules are structured; 2) the distribution, by both stage and actor, of discretionary decision-making power; and 3) the mechanisms for relief from the harshest potential punishments.

February 20, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, February 17, 2014

Federal judge urges passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act because of "Prisoners I Lose Sleep Over"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline given to this recent commentary piece in the Wall Street Journal authored by senior US District Judge Michael Ponsor. Here are excerpts:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the "Smarter Sentencing Act" by a bipartisan vote of 13-5 on Jan. 30, sending it to the Senate floor.  The legislation is excellent and its passage would mean a long overdue correction of a misguided sentencing regime that Americans — including federal judges like me — have struggled with for more than two decades.

I've been on the federal bench for 30 years, having served 10 years as a magistrate judge and 20 as a U.S. district judge.  My pride in our constitutional system runs bone deep: No system of law has ever existed that tries so hard to be truly fair.  I can take scant pride, however, in the dark epoch our criminal sentencing laws have passed through during my decades handling felony cases....

For years, I could recite the mandatory terms for crack in my sleep: five years for five grams, 10 years for 50 grams, 20 years for 50 grams with one prior conviction, life without parole for 50 grams with two priors — no discretion, no consideration of specific circumstances.  These mandatory terms (unless the defendant cooperated by implicating others) were the same for low-level couriers, called mules, as for high-echelon drug lords.

By passing the Fair Sentencing Act, Congress recognized that this system of mandatory sentences, in addition to being unjust, was to some extent racially skewed since black drug users tend to favor crack, while whites prefer much less harshly penalized powder cocaine. Yet defendants sentenced before the act was passed still languish today, serving out sentences that virtually all members of Congress now recognize as excessive.  And there is not a darn thing anyone can do about it. If you're the one doing the sentencing, this reality will keep you awake at night, believe me.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce 20-year mandatory sentences to 10, 10-year sentences to five, and five-year sentences to two years.  Increased numbers of offenders with very modest criminal records would not face mandatory sentences at all.  If adopted, the law would also permit thousands of prisoners to seek reduction of their prison terms to bring them in line with the Fair Sentencing Act.  None of these changes would reduce the power of judges to slam the really bad actors. But they would permit judges to do what they are paid to do: use their judgment.

Our vast prison apparatus is too costly, but more important, it is unworthy of us as a free people.  This new statute is well named — now is the time for smarter sentencing.

Some recent related posts concerning Smarter Sentencing Act:

February 17, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"Healthcare Not Handcuffs": Will ACA help end the drug war?

JUS13-Web-HCNHC-Header-REL2The title and question of this post is my take on this notable recent report from the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance titled "Healthcare Not Handcuffs: Putting the Affordable Care Act to Work for Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Reform." Here is an excerpt from the report's introduction:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is the most significant expansion of healthcare coverage in generations, and there is almost no area of the U.S. healthcare system that is not impacted by the reform in some way.  Even as debate about the ACA continues, it is now the law of the land, and implementation is fully under way.  For criminal justice reform and drug policy reform advocates, the ACA represents a remarkable opportunity to advance efforts to end both mass incarceration and the criminalization-based approach to drug policy often known as the War on Drugs.

Under the ACA, tens of millions of people in the United States will gain healthcare coverage for a broad array of health services and conditions, including, for the first time, substance use and mental health disorders.  Of course, there are also problems with the ACA and its implementation, not the least of which is that millions of people will remain uninsured even after the law is fully operational.  Yet even with these challenges, the ACA sets the stage for a new health-oriented policy framework to address substance use and mental health disorders -- health problems that have been largely relegated to the criminal justice system for more than 40 years.

This is an enormous paradigm shift that has yet to fully register with criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates, let alone with health policy advocates and the general public. The financial benefits of providing substance use disorder treatment instead of incarceration are well established. But by fully incorporating substance use and mental health disorders into healthcare -- by truly treating them as health issues and requiring public and private insurance plans to cover their treatment -- the ACA creates an opening and financial incentives to shift drug policy into a public health framework, undermining the rationale for a criminal justice approach....

The passage and implementation of the ACA coincides with the growing momentum across the political spectrum to end the War on Drugs, reverse the incarceration boom, and abandon criminal justice policies that have resulted in the criminalization of whole communities.  But the paradigmatic shift from criminalization to health will not occur unless criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates seize the moment and leverage the ACA to realize its full transformative potential.

To assist advocates in navigating this new terrain, this paper outlines some of the major provisions of the ACA immediately relevant to criminal justice and drug policy reform (Part One), and then explores specific applications of those provisions, including program and policy examples and suggested action steps (Part Two)....

This is a unique, perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime scenario for criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates: with the ACA, we can start to build true alternatives to the criminal justice response to substance use, the enforcement of which has fundamentally undermined community health and safety.  Addressing substance use as a health condition has the potential to lower health costs, dramatically reduce the number of people involved in the criminal justice system, and improve health outcomes and overall wellbeing for millions of people.

February 15, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Drug sentencing reform talk already impacting federal sentences in Tennessee (and elsewhere?)

Two recent local sentencing stories from Tennessee reporting on two different federal judges imposing reduced sentences in drug cases suggest that all the on-going talk about significant drug sentencing reform coming from the US Sentencing Commission and the US Senate is already impacting the work of federal judges.  Here are the headlines, links and basics:

Federal Judge Varies Downward On Drug Sentence; Says "War On Drugs" A "Dismal Failure"

Federal Judge Sandy Mattice, calling the "War on Drugs" a "dismal failure," on Monday morning varied downward on a sentence for a drug "smurf."

Larry Gertsman had been facing a minimum 121 months in federal prison for his role in obtaining pseudoephedrine pills for a meth cook and for the fact a gun was found at the trailer where the meth was being cooked.

Judge Mattice noted the 121 months was one month more time than he gave to the meth cook, George Alder Jr. He sentenced Gertsman to 90 months in prison.

Judge Mattice said, "When a conspiracy is charged like this, addicts are being prosecuted the same way as the manufacturer." He said some of the sentencing schemes have "outrageous results." He added, "These cases seem increasingly arbitrary."

Judge, Noting That Federal Drug Sentences Are Likely To Be Cut, Gives 3 Whitwell Defendants A Break

Federal Judge Curtis Collier, saying that he expects Congress to lower sentences for drug defendants, on Thursday gave reduced time to three Whitwell residents involved in a major marijuana operation.

Judge Collier, focusing on "sentencing disparity," said Congress seems headed for passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act. He said it has the endorsement of the Department of Justice and support from senators from different political backgrounds. He also said the federal Sentencing Commission has issued guidelines for reduced drug sentences. The act would shift the focus to putting away hardcore and violent defendants in federal prisons.

Judge Collier said sponsors of the bill say that under current sentencing all of the Department of Justice budget is going to be eaten up by the cost to operate federal prisons. The act would basically cut drug sentences in half and also increase the use of the "safety valve" to cut time on mandatory sentences. There was also discussion at the sentencing for Jackie Morrison, Sammy Nance and Ollie Frizzell about some states, including Colorado, legalizing marijuana.

The sentencing range for the ringleader, Morrison, was 121-151 months. He got 72 months. Nance faced 37-46 months and was given 24 months. Ms. Frizzell had a sentencing range of 27-33 months and got 30 months. However, she had already gotten a break for cooperating with the government.

In addition to wondering if there is some special reason that these two notable stories emerge from two different Tennessee federal courts over the last few days, I am especially curious to know if similar trends may be emerging in other federal district courts around the nation.

I have previously noted that early statistics from the US Sentencing Commission suggested that the number of judge-sponsored below-guideline sentences may be increasing ever since AG Eric Holder gave his big ABA speech last August about excessive use of incarceration for low-level offenders.  And now that the USSC has called for an across-the-board reduction of all the drug guidelines and the Senate Judiciary Committee has moved the Smarter Sentencing Act, I could readily imagine that what these two Tennessee federal judges have done is more the norm than the exception in the thousands of low-level drug cases being prosecuted now in federal courts.

February 12, 2014 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (17) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 08, 2014

"On drug sentencing, a growing number of Republicans are ready to shed the party’s law-and-order image in favor of reform"

Jeff FlakeThe title of this post is part of the headline of this notable new Slate piece.  Among other astute points, this piece highlights the generational differences between the members of the GOP who continue to embrace tough (and big) federal criminal justice approaches and other GOP members now embracing reform efforts. Here are excerpts:

“As Christians, we believe in forgiveness,” said [Senator Rand] Paul [in his keynote at the annual American Principles Project conference]. “I think the criminal justice system should have some element of forgiveness.”  There are, sure, human terrors who need to be locked up. “But there are also people who make youthful mistakes who I believe deserve a second chance. In my state, you never vote again if you’re convicted of a felony. But a felony could be growing marijuana plants in college. Friend of mine’s brother did 30 years ago. He has an MBA. But he can’t vote, can’t own a gun, and he’s a house-painter with an MBA, because he has to check a box saying he’s a convicted felon.”

Paul’s audience, consisting of social conservatives, congressional candidates, and radio hosts, listened or nodded along. “These are ideas not many Republicans have talked about before,” Paul said. “I think if we talk about these ideas, we take them to the minority community, often the African-American and sometimes the Hispanic community — 3 out of 4 people in prison are black and brown! But if you look at surveys on who uses drugs, whites and blacks and Hispanic use at about the same rate.  You don’t have as good an attorney if you don’t have money.  Some of the prosecution has tended to go where it’s easier to prosecute people.”

The crowd stayed with him. “I think these are things we should look at. I’m not talking about legalization. I’m talking about making the criminal justice system fair and giving people a second chance if they served their time,” Paul said.

That line earned a long burst of applause.  Paul was in no danger of losing this crowd. Conservatives were ready to talk about lighter sentences for some criminals and for the restoration of felons’ rights.  Just one week earlier, the Senate Judiciary Committee had approved the Smarter Sentencing Act, co-sponsored by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Utah Sen. Mike Lee.  If signed by the president, it would slash the 30-year-old mandatory minimums for drug crimes.  Ten-year sentences would become five-year sentences.  Five-year sentences would shrink to two years.

Every Democrat had voted “aye” — as had three of the committee’s eight Republicans. The bill isn’t as far-reaching as Paul’s own Justice Safety Valve bill, but it’s moving, and there’s already companion legislation waiting in the House.  The most partisan Congress in anybody’s memory may actually come together to go easier on nonviolent drug offenders....  The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is being heavily lobbied to change standards, now consists mostly of Obama appointees.  Even the conservative appointees like William H. Pryor Jr., whose judicial nomination was filibustered by Democrats for two years, are advocates for reform.

This is more than a trend. This is a reversal of a trend that helped create the modern Republican Party. After bottoming out in the 1964 election, Republicans surged back in 1966 and won the presidency in 1968.  They cracked the old Democratic coalition, in part because rising crime rates and visions of urban riots sent voters sprinting away from liberalism....

For three more decades, Republicans could win tight elections by capitalizing on the fear of crime.  Democrats met them where they could, to neutralize the issue, because to be called “soft on crime” was to be exiled with Michael Dukakis.  As recently as 2012, a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC could dunk on Rick Santorum by warning voters that the senator “voted to let convicted felons vote.”...

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, one of the Judiciary Committee members who voted for the sentencing reform bill, acknowledged that the GOP had long been the “law and order” party.  “But we’ve also been the rational party,” he said. “We’ve been the party of fiscal discipline.  It’s tough to justify some of these incarcerations and the cost.  I understand the argument that it gives law enforcement another card to play, plea bargains — I understand that.  But we’ve gone too far.”

In the Judiciary Committee, the average age of the Republicans who voted for reform —Sens. Ted Cruz, Jeff Flake, and Mike Lee — was 45.  The average age of the Republicans who voted no — Sens. John Cornyn, Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Jeff Sessions — was 69.  The elder Republicans didn’t want to patronize the new class and didn’t doubt that, in Sessions’s words, “there are some areas where we could reduce the length of incarceration without adversely impacting crime rates.”  But they remembered the bad old days, and the young guys didn’t....

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador, age 46, sponsored the House companion to the Durbin-Lee reform bill.  He was an immigration lawyer before he entered politics.  “I spent 15 years working in the criminal defense business and seeing people, nonviolent offenders, going to prison,” he explained.  “Then, when I was in the state legislature, I was seeing these budgets continue to grow.  In federal court, you can know a drug dealer, and just the fact that you knew he was about to make a deal, you’d be charged with the entire conspiracy. You’d have a person who was a low-level offender who really had no participation in the conspiracy, and he’d be charged with everything the top trafficker was charged with.  And I don’t think that’s right.  Our Founding Fathers wanted to make it difficult for people to be prosecuted.”

And here’s one of the paradoxes of the new Republican divide. The older class, hewing to law and order, points to the nightmares of the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t a theoretical discussion. It’s about undoing minimums and social norms that have, sure, generated some awful stories but have played at least some role in plunging crime rates.  “I think the president made a big mistake when he spoke cavalierly about drug use,” said Sessions. “There’s a national effort that saw drug use by high school seniors go from over 50 percent to under 25 percent.  The more we talk about it, the more it goes on television, the more it goes on jokesters’ programs, you’re going to see young people use drugs more.”

The new Republicans, people like Paul, have their own anecdotes, about people their own age — about themselves. Then they skip past the law-and-order era, 200 years back, to the intent of the founders.  Here is a cause whose time should have come many, many years ago.

Some recent and older related posts:

February 8, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (61) | TrackBack