Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Lynch to Cast Herself as Departure From Holder in Bid to Be Attorney General"

The title of this post is the headline of this New York Times article previewing the start today of hearings concerning President Obama's nomination for Eric Holder's replacement as Attorney General. Here is how the article starts:

Loretta E. Lynch on Wednesday will cast herself as an apolitical career prosecutor who is a departure from Eric H. Holder Jr. when she faces a new Republican-­controlled Judiciary Committee that includes some of the administration’s fiercest critics in Congress.

“I look forward to fostering a new and improved relationship with this committee, the United States Senate, and the entire United States Congress — a relationship based on mutual respect and constitutional balance,” Ms. Lynch said in testimony prepared for the confirmation hearing.  “Ultimately, I know we all share the same goal and commitment: to protect and serve the American people.”

If she is confirmed, Ms. Lynch would be the nation’s first African-American woman to serve as attorney general.  Her allies have sought to differentiate her from Mr. Holder, an outspoken liberal voice in the administration who clashed frequently with Republicans who accused him of politicizing the office.

In particular, Ms. Lynch is expected to face tough questioning about her opinion of the president’s decision to unilaterally ease the threat of deportation for millions of unauthorized immigrants.  Mr. Holder approved the legal justification for that action, enraging some Republicans.

In these hearings, I am expecting some Senators to ask some questions about sentencing reform and federal marijuana policy. I hope to be able to provide some coverage and commentary about what gets asked and what nominee-Lynch says in future posts.

Prior related posts:

January 28, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, January 26, 2015

Shouldn't true fiscal conservatives question a federal program with 600% recent spending growth?

PSPP_Fed_Growth_FS_fig1The question in the title of this post is part of my reaction to this new fact sheet released by the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. The Pew document is titled "Growth in Federal Prison System Exceeds States': Federal imprisonment rate, taxpayer costs soar as states curtail expansion, protect public safety," and here is how it starts (footnoted omitted):

Between 1980 and 2013, the federal imprisonment rate increased 518 percent, from 11 inmates for every 100,000 U.S. residents to 68.  During the same period, annual spending on the federal prison system rose 595 percent, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.  Prison expenditures grew from 14 percent of the Justice Department’s total outlays to 23 percent, increasingly competing for resources with law enforcement and national security programs.

States, like the federal government, recorded sharp increases in incarceration and corrections costs over the past three decades.  However, between 2007 and 2013, many states made research-driven policy changes to control prison growth, reduce recidivism, and contain costs. While the federal imprisonment rate continued to rise during that period, the state rate declined.

Folks like Bill Otis and some other defenders of the modern state of the modern federal criminal justice system are often suspect when I (and others like Senator Rand Paul and Grover Norquist) assert that a true commitment to conservative values should prompt serious questions about the size and operation of federal criminal justice system.  And I fully understand how folks committed to certain social conservative values, and who also believe the federal government should be actively promoting certain social values, can continue to support strongly the federal war on drugs and ever-increasing federal expenditures in service to promoting certain social values.

But, as the title of this post suggests, I do not understand how anyone who is truly committed to fiscal conservative values is not now compelled to examine whether it is wise to keep spending/borrowing more and more federal monies to keep growing the federal prison system.  As this Pew document and many others have highlighted, a significant number of states have been able to reduce its spending on incarceration over the last decade without any obvious harmful impact on public safety.  My advocacy for federal sentencing reform is based largely on the hope and belief that the feds can now do the same.

January 26, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Politics of Mercy: Is clemency still the third rail? We may find out."

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy piece by Ken Armstrong at The Marshall Project. Here are excerpts:

For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that clemency equals danger. Any governor who grants pardons or commutations to convicted felons invites political risk – with no potential benefit. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney signed not a single pardon, a record he later touted.

But when [Robert] Ehrlich was governor of Maryland from 2003 to 2007, he made clemency a priority, dedicating lawyers to screen requests and meeting monthly with senior aides to review applications.  In the end, Ehrlich granted clemency more than 200 times. And should he run for president, he plans to hold up that record as a signature achievement, arguing that it shows he is someone who leads instead of cowers.... The GOP field could also include other candidates who have resisted convention, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has commuted the death sentences of five condemned inmates since 2011.

Is it possible that a willingness to grant clemency might now offer some political benefit? “I would give it a qualified yes,” says P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor at Rock Valley College in Rockford, Ill., and editor of the Pardon Power blog. “I think increasingly there’s a sense that it’s a nebulous plus if you at least appear to be someone who takes the Constitution seriously and isn’t stuck in the 1980s, pushing the Willie Horton button.”...

Ehrlich says there has since been a cultural shift, with growing concern about harsh sentencing laws — for example, mandatory minimums — and a realization that “the drug epidemic is more appropriately viewed as a health issue than as a criminal justice issue.” The country’s booming prison population “is impacting so many people, so many families, so many careers, so many parents,” Ehrlich says.  “It crosses every line.”...

Margaret Love, who served as U.S. Pardon Attorney under presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush, says,  “This is a function of the justice system that should not be subject to these political whims.  I get sort of annoyed whenever I see it treated as a sort of holiday gift-giving. That’s not what it is. It’s part of the system, or at least ought to be.”

On Thursday, Love wrote a post on the website for the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, noting the symbolism of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s recent summoning of the media to watch him sign a conditional pardon for an autistic inmate.  “There may be no more telling sign that the ‘soft on crime’ label is losing its power over elected officials than McAuliffe’s decision to publicize this bedside act of mercy,” she wrote.

In the next campaign, no candidate would test the power of that label more than Mike Huckabee, who this month left his Fox News show to consider running.  In his decade as Arkansas governor, Huckabee granted clemency more than 1,000 times.  On Thursday, BuzzFeed published an unaired ad that Mitt Romney’s campaign had prepared during the 2008 race, tying Huckabee to the early release of a serial rapist who, once freed, committed murder.  Romney’s campaign ultimately balked at using the ad.

Since then, Huckabee has become an even more inviting target.  In 2009, in Washington state, a former Arkansas inmate named Maurice Clemmons shot and killed four police officers in a coffee shop.  Nine years before, Huckabee had commuted Clemmons’s prison sentence, making him eligible for parole.

It might seem that advocates for clemency would cringe at the prospect of a Huckabee candidacy in 2016, given his vulnerability to Willie Horton-type attacks.  But Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, says, “I’ve told people for the last few years that one of the best things for clemency would be for Huckabee to run.”

What Osler and others see in Huckabee is an opportunity for an open discussion of what clemency is – and is not. “It does not lead to perfection, in the same way the jury system does not lead to perfection,” Osler says.  “With clemency you have an independent moral actor who is unpredictable — and that’s the person receiving clemency.  You can never guarantee that that person will not commit another crime.”

Clemency advocates believe Huckabee, an ordained minister, can make a persuasive case for mercy, particularly given how he links clemency to his Christian faith and to his belief in what he calls “restorative justice.”...

Ehrlich, unlike Huckabee, has not had any grants of mercy come back to haunt. And when talking about his embrace of clemency, he’s found support among dramatically different audiences, from a dinner co-hosted by the Charles Koch Foundation to a forum sponsored by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations.  “So it’s hard right and hard left, but the audiences have generally the same view on this issue,” he says.  In a speech three years ago, Ehrlich boiled his motives for making clemency a priority down to this: “Because it's the right thing to do. It's really not that complicated.”...

The field of potential presidential candidates also includes governors at the opposite end of this spectrum.  Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, has refused to grant any pardons, portraying them as an undermining of the criminal justice system, rather than as a way to recognize someone’s rehabilitation or help check an unduly harsh law or ill-conceived prosecution.  To Ruckman, Walker is “on the wrong side of history. He’s a dinosaur on this one.”

January 25, 2015 in Clemency and Pardons, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Political scientist highlights how Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden helped produce modern mass incarcertation

Murakawa2014I first spotlighted in this prior post the fascinating new book by Princeton Professor Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America.  I now see that The Marshall Project has published this great piece by Dana Goldstein with a brief overview of the book and a potent Q&A with its author.  Here is how the piece starts and some of my favorite excerpts:

Are liberals as responsible for the prison boom as conservatives?

That’s the thesis of a new book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America.  It has begun to attract reviews and debate from across the political spectrum.  Princeton political scientist Naomi Murakawa seeks to upend assumptions about the politics of crime and punishment.  She argues that conservatives, playing the politics of racial animus, helped quadruple the incarceration rate, but they were not alone.  Rather, she points to “liberal law and order” ideas first expressed by Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and even the NAACP.  These liberals believed that federalizing crime policy would “professionalize” the justice system and prevent racial bias.  But in fact, federal funding and federal oversight of courts, sentencing, and policing helped build what Murakawa calls a “carceral state” that disproportionately punishes people of color.

Murakawa and I talked about her book and its implications for criminal justice reform today, especially the #BlackLivesMatter movement and the Obama administration’s policing reforms....

Q: Your book aims to expose the liberal roots of the prison boom.  But Democrats did not create the Willie Horton ad.  It was Richard Nixon who expanded the drug war by claiming that drug use was “the common denominator” that explained lawlessness among hippies, inner-city blacks, and antiwar protestors.  Is it important to distinguish between the different motives of conservatives and liberals?

A: I think it’s important to stay focused on outcomes in terms of how they affect people’s day-to-day lives. I do discount stated intentions quite a lot.  I do this in part because I have a feeling that for those being sentenced under punitive sentencing guidelines it doesn’t make a difference to them that Sen. Ted Kennedy was liberal and overall had a good voting record.  It doesn’t make the brutality of living in a cage any less violent.

Kennedy promulgated this idea of sentencing guidelines.  It was his baby.  He ushered it through the Senate at first as guidelines that were rigid but would have been somewhat anti-carceral.  They became guidelines that were rigid and more carceral.  And Reagan signed this legislation, in 1984. Kennedy had the rest of his life to say, “The sentencing guidelines have had a terrible impact. This is not what I meant.”  Not once did he introduce legislation to reform the guidelines.  Not once did he apologize or try to change it.  When I look at that kind of history, that’s where I feel like it’s fair to hold liberals responsible.

Q: Joe Biden played an interesting role in what you call Democrats “upping the ante” to outbid conservatives on being tough on crime.  Can you talk about Biden’s history?

A:  He was really pivotal in leading the Senate in worsening all of the provisions of Clinton's 1994 Omnibus Crime Act, which expanded the death penalty and created new mandatory minimum sentences.  Biden was truly a leader and worked very closely and very happily with conservative senators just to bid up and up and up.  There’s a tendency now to talk about Joe Biden as the sort of affable if inappropriate uncle, as loudmouth and silly.  But he’s actually done really deeply disturbing, dangerous reforms that have made the criminal justice system more lethal and just bigger.

That 1994 act is overwhelmingly, incredibly punitive.  One of the ways Biden brokered it was by making it such a huge bill that it had something for everyone.  It provided political coverage for everyone who wanted to vote for it.  There were certain liberal members who might have been opposed to mandatory minimums, but they were also getting the Violence Against Women Act.  The Congressional Black Caucus opposed the death penalty expansions, but the bill also did include some modest money for rehabilitation programs. Everyone got goodies through the criminal justice system.

Prior related post:

January 15, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

GOP apparently eager to have Eric Holder as AG for at least one more month

The (slightly) tongue-in-cheek title of this post is my reaction to the news reported in "this notable NPR report, titled "Senate Slow To Schedule Hearings For Attorney General Nominee."  In the piece, Carrie Johnson reports that Democrats have been pushing for confirmation hearings ASAP for Attorney General nominee Lorreta Lynch, but new GOP Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has indicated that these hearings will not take place before the last week in January  at the earliest.

I am very eager for the Lynch hearings because they should provide an important window into what both the GOP-controlled Congress and the Obama Administration are thinking about on federal criminal justice issues for the next two years.  But I suspect the GOP is feeling a bit forced to take a go slow approach on how to best approach (and attack) nominee Lynch and Prez Obama on these fronts, in part because the GOP has real internal divisions on these issues and in part because racial issues and divides are especially salient in criminal justice reform discussions these days.  

So, because AG Eric Holder remains in his position until his successor is confirmed, the GOP Senate is right now functionally extending his term as the nation's top prosecutor and lawyer. 

January 6, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, January 05, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

Federal task force on corrections getting geared up for (big?) work in 2015

Logo5As effectively reported in this Crime Report piece, earlier this week the members of a "congressionally mandated task force on the federal prison system" were announced.  Here is the context for this notable development:

[The task force is now] headed by a bipartisan duo of former House members, Republican J. C. Watts of Oklahoma and Democrat Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.  They are being be joined by seven other experts in a yearlong study that many analysts hope will result in agreement on ways to cut the prison population.

There were 212,438 federal inmates last week, a total that has jumped from about 136,000 since the turn of the century -- even though crime rates have steadily fallen. (The federal inmate total exceeded 218,000 two years ago; it has shrunk as the Obama administration has reduced the terms of some prisoners serving time for low-level drug offenses.)...

Last month, Justice's Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, said that the Bureau of Prisons budget totals $6.9 billion and accounts for about 25 percent of the department’s "discretionary" budget, which means that prison spending hampers the DOJ's "ability to make other public safety investments."

The new task force is named for the late Chuck Colson, the former aide to President Richard Nixon who served a 7-month prison term in 1974 for obstruction of justice in the Watergate scandal and then became a corrections reformer, founding the Prison Fellowship. Colson died in 2012.  Retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the committee that reviews Justice Department appropriations, successfully pushed for the task force in recent years while Congress was unable to agree on any major legal changes that would affect the federal inmate total.

Watts, who will chair the panel, served in the House from 1995 to 2003. When he was elected, he was one of only two African-American Republicans in the House.  He is a member of the conservative justice-reform group Right on Crime.  Last summer, in an article in the Tulsa World on prison reform in Oklahoma, Watts wrote that, "for nonviolent offenders, watching television and receiving 'three hots and a cot' in prison does far less to advance personal responsibility than paying restitution to the victim, performing community service, holding a job and paying child support."

Mollohan, who serve as vice chair, was Wolf's predecessor as the House's chief Justice Department appropriator when the Democrats controlled the House.  Mollohan has presided over many hearings on corrections issues.  In 2012, he co-authored an op-ed article with David Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, declaring that, "Instead of throwing good money after bad, Congress should follow the example of ... states and take steps to curb federal prison population growth."...

The task force will hold the first of five meetings on January 27 in Washington, D.C. Its official mandate is to "identify the drivers of federal prison population growth and increasing corrections costs; evaluate policy options to address the drivers and identify recommendations; and prepare and submit a final report in December 2015 with findings, conclusions, policy recommendations, and legislative changes for consideration by Congress, the Attorney General, and the President."

The Urban Institute and the Center for Effective Public Policy will provide "research, analysis, strategic guidance and logistical support" for the task force under an agreement with the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance.   A year ago, the Urban Institute published a study titled "Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System," that might be something of a blueprint for the Colson group....

Several members of Congress, notably Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), have introduced proposals that could lead to reductions in the federal prison population, but it is not clear that any will be enacted while the Colson task force is conducting its study.

In any case, the task force's final report is likely to include recommendations that will go beyond any bills that might be approved in the next year.  The group's eventual proposals may include some that require Congressional approval and others that the Obama administration could put into effect by executive order.

This new Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections rolled out this website, which I am hopeful over time might become a source of new research and data about the federal criminal justice system.  And though I tend to be somewhat cynical and pessimistic about what task forces can really achieve, I am hopeful and optimistic that this group will be an effective and important contributor to on-going federal sentencing reform efforts.

December 12, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Notable new reporting on "tough-on-sex-offenders" rhetoric in recent judicial campaigns

The Marshall Project has this interesting new review of the most recent election cycle headlined "Trial By Cash: Judicial elections have gotten ugly. That’s bad news for defendants." Here is how it gets started:

In this year’s battle for the governorship of Arkansas, criminal justice reform was front and center. The Republican victor, Asa Hutchinson, a former federal prosecutor and DEA administrator, promised to combat prison overcrowding and called out “over-aggressive prosecutors who do not use common sense.”  His Democratic challenger, Mike Ross, advocated lighter sentences for nonviolent offenders and more emphasis on rehabilitation. Neither candidate deployed the fear-mongering attack advertisements that have been a campaign-season staple for decades.

The race for an open seat on the Arkansas Supreme Court seat was another matter.  One outside group's campaign ad praised Judge Robin Wynne of the state court of appeals for “refusing to allow technicalities to overturn convictions.”  Another attacked his primary opponent, defense attorney Tim Cullen, by claiming he had called child pornography “a victimless crime.”  Over eerie black-and-white footage of an empty playground, a woman’s voice responded to the statement (a distortion of Cullen's defense brief for a single case), intoning: “Tell that to the thousands of victims robbed of their childhood.” Wynne won.

If there is a growing bipartisan consensus that America locks up too many people for too long, there is little indication that anyone spending money on judicial elections shares the concern.  The real scourge of American justice, these campaigns seem to suggest, is the rampant coddling of child molesters by judges up for re-election.  “WHY SO LENIENT?” one ad demanded, attacking an incumbent state justice in Illinois.  A similar commercial in North Carolina cut from an image of children pedaling tricycles to one of inmates pacing in their cells, and declared that a justice up for re-election “took the side of convicted molesters.”

Judicial races once were largely polite, low-budget affairs.  But in the 1990s, business and political groups began to focus on these elections as an important (and often cost-effective) path to influencing policy and regulation.  Since then, judicial campaigns have come to look more like any other political circus: rallies, political consultants, attack ads, and a flood of campaign cash.  As of Nov. 5, election watchers at the Brennan Center, a liberal think tank that tracks legal issues, estimated that at least $13.8 million had been spent on TV advertising for state supreme court elections nationwide in 2014 — up from $12.2 million in the last midterm election in 2010.  

The funders of these campaigns aren’t generally motivated by a desire to lock up criminals.  In fact, some of this year’s big donors to organizations running tough-on-crime campaigns — including the conservative philanthropists Charles and David Koch — have simultaneously backed so-called “smart-on-crime” reform efforts aimed at shortening mandatory sentences and reducing prison populations.  But fear works, election strategists believe.  Why run on what really matters to your funders — like tort reform or deregulation — when you can run against paroling pedophiles?

December 11, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sex Offender Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Monday, December 08, 2014

Bill Otis provides important (though incomplete) review of the real state of debate over sentencing reform

Today's must-read for all sentencing fans is this lengthy new post by Bill Otis, amusingly titled "Should I Feel Lonely?".  The piece is a fun read in part because Bill is an effective writer and advocate, but it is a must read because it highlights that (1) while many in the media now struggle to find pundits other than Bill to speak actively and vocally in support of severe sentencing laws and mass incarceration, (2) efforts in Congress to significantly reform federal sentencing laws and "on the ground" developments to reduce incarceration levels are still failing to gain much traction.

I cannot do the Bill's full post justice in a brief excerpt, but here is a taste of what one can find by clicking through here:

Not to worry -- this post is not psychobabble about my feelings.  It's about a question I was asked by two journalists with whom I spoke recently.

The two were Ms. Carrie Johnson of NPR and Mr. Mark Obbie, a writer for Slate. The subject of their interviews was sentencing reform.  Both Ms. Johnson and Mr. Obbie were cordial, well-informed, thoroughly pleasant, and -- most important for journalists -- curious.

Each asked me the same question: Whether, as an opponent of sentencing reform, I feel lonely? I told them I don't.

Their question was perfectly natural. Almost everything one sees nowadays about the subject of sentencing sings the same tune -- tough sentencing might have been needed at one point, but we've gone too far; momentum has swung toward "smart sentencing;" reducing the prison population (to cut back on costs if for no other reason) is the wave of both the present and the future; and that the newly-ascendant Republican Party will lead the way through such figures as Sens. Mike Lee and Rand Paul.

But the mantra leaves something out. That would be the part of the country outside the Beltway (and outside Boston, Berkeley, New York, Seattle and a few other cities). In other words, what it leaves out is the United States.

The omission of Main Street America from the assessment about where the country is going would seem odd to most people, but for those of us, like me, who live inside the Beltway and work in academia, it's no surprise.  The liberal bubble is big. It's also, for the most part, impenetrable.

And it's one more thing -- wrong.

If one wants to know the state of play with "smart sentencing," and the Smarter Sentencing Act in particular, there might be a couple of places to look outside the editorial pages of the Washington Post and Mother Jones.  One might look, for example, to what actually happened in the last Congress, what's likely to happen in the next one, and what imprisonment trends have been over the last several years....

[T]there are some prominent people in the Republican Party on board with "sentencing reform."  But the great majority of Republicans, and the center of the Party, are not being fooled.  The much lower crime that increased incarceration helped produce are both wise policy for the country and good politics for Republicans....

So to return to my first question: Although I am decidedly out-of-step with my learned colleagues inside the Beltway, and despite all the puff pieces in the press running in the other direction, I don't feel lonely in opposing the more-crime-faster proposals marketing themselves as "sentencing reform."  Both the most recent statistics, and the most recent election, show that the American people know better than to cash in a system we know works for one we know fails.

There is much to discuss in Bill's important assessment of the current state of sentencing reform. But I have emphasized the very last phrase because I think it lacks demographic nuance based on the mostly older (and not-too-diverse) "bubble" that I suspect Bill mostly travels in.

Bill surely seems correct that an older (and mostly white) population of voters and political leaders are reasonably content with the sentencing/incarceration status quo, and that these voters and leaders still have considerable control over the policies and practices of the Republican party (as well as, for that matter, the Democratic party).  Bill stresses in his post, for example, that we do not hear much talk of sentencing reform coming from "Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Chuck Grassley (the incoming Chairman of SJC), or Bob Goodlatte (the once-and-future Chairman of HJC) [or] Michael Mukasey."  Notably, everyone on that list is well over 60 years old, and they have all succeeded politically with "tough on crime" rhetoric and policies.

But as a new generation of GOP leaders emerge who are much younger (even though they are still mostly white), we are seeing growing concern for and focus on sentencing reform.  Leading GOP Governors from Chris Christie to Rick Perry, and leading GOP Senators from Rand Paul to Mike Lee, and leading GOP Reps from Paul Ryan to Jason Chaffetz, all have talked up sentencing reform in recent years.  And while Bill's list of older GOP leaders will control GOP policies and politics for the next few years, the younger leaders already on record supporting sentencing reform are likely to control GOP policies and politics for the subsequent few decades.

Turning from political leaders to voters, we see the same basic dynamics in play in recent election seasons.  According to polls and other sources, older and whiter voters seem much more wary about any significant changes to sentencing laws or drug laws.  But younger voters and people of color are much more open and eager to support significant sentencing and drug law reform as represented by the passage of Prop 47 and prior three-strikes reform in California and by initiatives for marijuana legalization in an array of states.

(Notably, these generational and demographic realities concerning sentencing reform are not only a  GOP story.  Older and whiter Democrats — from the Clintons to Joe Biden to Harry Reid to Nancy Pelosi to even Jerry Brown — have largely been stuck in political thinking of the 1990s and slow to warm to advocating for significant sentencing reform.  But if and when younger and more diverse voices continue to emerge on the Democratic side of the aisle, we should expect even more liberal advocacy for the kinds of criminal justice reforms championed by the Obama Administration rather than a return to the toughness championed throughout the Clinton Administration.)

Finally, and to give Bill still more credit for his analysis, despite generational and demographic shifts and divides on these matters, I agree that the future of significant sentencing reform is quite uncertain and will turn greatly on short-term and long-term assessments of "what really works."   Americans are a pragmatic people who will always move away from criminial justice policies shown or felt not to be really working.  That is why, I believe, alcohol Prohibition failed even though it had constitutional gravitas and also why we moved away from a purely rehabilitation model of sentencing and corrections through the 1970s and 1980s.  

Now we are seeing a push back on the modern drug war and mass incarceration mostly from younger folks and people of color have come to conclude that these policies are not working for their interests abd communties.  But there are still a whole lot of folks in power (particularly those who are older and whiter like Bill) who still see more a lot more good than bad from the sentencing and mass incarceration status quo.  Whether and how these competing groups views as to  "what really works" unfold and compete in the coming years will determine whether sentencing and incarceration policies in the US circa 2050 look more like they did in 2000 or in 1950. 

December 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives"

Thanks to this post by Bill Otis at Crime & Consequences, I see that the Federalist Society recent National Convention included a panel discussion on sentencing reform, which can now be watched in full via YouTube at this link.  Here is how the discussion is described along with its participants:

Although prison populations at the federal level have very recently declined for the first time in decades, prisoner population at the state level rose.  The cost of crime, some that can be measured and some that are impossible to measure, is undoubtedly high, but so too is the cost of incarceration.  Are we striking the right balance in length of sentences?  And what is the proper balance between latitude and sentencing guidelines for judges?  Do the answers to these questions differ for the state versus the federal criminal justice system?

The Federalist Society's Criminal Law & Procedure Practice Group presented this panel on "Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives" on Friday, November 14, during the 2014 National Lawyers Convention.

For a host of reasons, I am very pleased and impressed that the Federalist Society brought together a bunch of leading conservatives with various viewpoints to discuss these issues at their National Lawyers Convention. (It would have been nice to have had more than a single panelist who was not a former senior official with the Bush Administration's Justice Department, but I suspect it might be hard to find many conservatives who know a lot about sentencing who were not part of the Bush Administration's Justice Department.)

November 18, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Prez Obama selects Loretta Lynch to replace Eric Holder as US Attorney General

This brief press release from the White House Friday afternoon made official that it was President Obama's "intent to nominate U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch to be the Attorney General of the United States."  This lengthy Politico article, headlined "Lame duck looms over Lynch confirmation," highlights some politics dynamics surrounding this decision, and closes with a substantive point I care most about:

President Barack Obama will nominate Loretta Lynch to be the new attorney general on Saturday, setting up what could prove the first major post-midterms Senate showdown.

Obama will call for Lynch to be confirmed as soon as possible, but White House aides say he’ll defer to Senate leaders on whether to press ahead with a vote during the coming lame duck session, or to wait until next year, when the Republicans will officially be in the majority.

Senior Democratic aides, meanwhile, said no final decision on timing has been made, but they are strongly leaning towards moving in the lame duck.  A confirmation vote could be used as leverage in other deals the White House and leaders are seeking in the lame duck.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, made clear that he’s completely opposed, issuing a statement Friday evening promising “fair consideration,” but that Lynch’s “nomination should be considered in the new Congress through regular order.”

The question is a significant one — there’s precedent in President George W. Bush pushing through Michael Mukasey’s nomination in a lame duck.  But at the outset of what’s supposed to be a new effort toward cooperation, Obama and Senate Democrats would be doing the exact opposite by moving confirming such a senior Cabinet official in between the midterms and the Republican takeover of the majority.

That could give Republicans an easy excuse to point to for blame on future gridlock.  But by waiting until the new GOP members are sworn in, Obama would risk not getting his choice — or any choice — confirmed for the job.

Lynch, a United States attorney from New York, has kept a low profile, but has quietly been in top consideration for weeks at the White House. Lynch would be the second woman in the post, and the second African American, following Holder.  That could make opposition from the Republican Senate more politically difficult, especially as she’s been previously confirmed by acclimation twice previously.

A career prosecutor who’s been confirmed twice by the Senate to one of the most prominent U.S. attorney positions, Lynch has experience with many of the major issues that a new attorney general would confront — including terrorism and financial crimes. She does not have a deep personal relationships with Obama or his close aides, or a resonance with the Democratic base eager to see the president pick fights more post-midterms.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the outgoing Judiciary Committee chairman, issued a statement praising Lynch’s selection, but made no firm commitment on timing.  “I have spoken with the President about the need to confirm our next attorney general in a reasonable time period, and I look forward to beginning that process,” Leahy said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who’ll head the Judiciary Committee when Republicans take over, said he was generally supportive of Lynch’s nomination but said he was looking forward to learning more about her.  “As we move forward with the confirmation process, I have every confidence that Ms. Lynch will receive a very fair, but thorough, vetting by the Judiciary Committee. U.S. Attorneys are rarely elevated directly to this position, so I look forward to learning more about her, how she will interact with Congress, and how she proposes to lead the department,” Grassley said.  “I’m hopeful that her tenure, if confirmed, will restore confidence in the Attorney General as a politically independent voice for the American people.”...

And timing isn’t the only problem Lynch would face. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ office sent out a reminder to reporters Friday of recent comments by Sens. Sessions, McConnell, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul all saying that any nominee for attorney general would have to disavow Obama’s plan to provide amnesty to certain illegal immigrants through executive action. Obama has said repeatedly, including at his post-election press conference Wednesday, that he will go forward with the immigration reform executive actions before the year, unless Congress passes an immigration reform bill....

Obama, White House aides have said, sees the next attorney general as being a key figure in helping him complete several issues he sees as fundamental to the legal legacy he wants, including sentencing reform and figuring out a solution to closing the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

I am very pleased and excited by this news for many reasons, particularly because I think the selection of Lynch at least indirectly suggests that Prez Obama is more interested in moving forward with sentencing reform than in picking fights with the new Congress. Among the various names discussed as possible nominees, I view Lynch as probably the least controversial choice as well as the person most likely to be able, practically and politically, to keep up the sentencing reform momentum that outgoing AG Eric Holder made a signature concern of his final years in his position.

November 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Friday, November 07, 2014

ACLU to devote $50 million to political efforts to attack mass incerceration

Images (6)As reported in this New York Times article, headlined "A.C.L.U. in $50 Million Push to Reduce Jail Sentences," a leading advocacy group big new pot of money to be spent on attacking the problem of mass incarceration. Here are the details:

With a $50 million foundation grant, the largest in its history, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to mount an eight-year political campaign across the country to make a change of criminal justice policies a key issue in local, state and national elections. The goal of the campaign, financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is to slash an incarceration rate that has tripled since 1980. There are currently some 2.2 million prisoners in the United States.

The campaign aims to translate into state and federal policy a growing belief among many scholars, as well as of a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian political leaders, that the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades have become costly and counterproductive. In that view, widespread drug arrests and severe mandatory sentences are doing more to damage poor communities, especially African-American ones, than to prevent crime, and building ever more prisons that mostly turn out repeat offenders is a bad investment.

The campaign is likely to face strong opposition from some law enforcement officials, prosecutor groups and conservative experts who argue that tough sentencing policies have played an important role in driving down crime rates. The Republican electoral victories this week could also stiffen resistance to sweeping change.

The grant is going to the political arm of the A.C.L.U., which has far more leeway to lobby for laws, run ads on television and finance political action committees to promote candidates than the group’s larger, traditional branch, which relies more on litigation. As a result, the money is not tax-deductible.

While the A.C.L.U. has often been associated with liberal causes like ending the death penalty and promoting same-sex marriage, Anthony D. Romero, the group’s executive director, said the organization was building ties with conservative leaders promoting alternatives to incarceration and would not hesitate to aid Republican candidates who support needed steps. “I think criminal justice reform is one of the few issues where you can break through the partisan gridlock,” Mr. Romero said, adding that the group would seek out Republican lobbying firms to help reach legislators.

In the latest example of converging views, conservatives including Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a Christian philanthropist, joined the Soros-led foundation and the A.C.L.U. in support of Proposition 47, a California ballot measure to redefine many lower-level felonies, including possession for personal use of hard drugs, as misdemeanors. The change, which passed by a wide margin on Tuesday, is expected to keep tens of thousands of offenders out of prison and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The Koch brothers, major funders of conservative causes and candidates, have joined in. Koch Industries recently gave a grant “of significant six figures” to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to support the defense of indigents, said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries. “Whether the human cost or the societal cost, what we’re doing in the criminal justice system isn’t working,” Mr. Holden said. “We’re finding common ground with people with different political affiliations,” he said, praising the advocacy work of the A.C.L.U. in this field.

The A.C.L.U. campaign will be directed by Alison Holcomb, who led the effort in Washington State to legalize marijuana. The group plans to use ads to insert issues like drug policy, mandatory sentences and prison re-entry into early primary states in the presidential elections, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and then in key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Florida, Mr. Romero said.

It will also develop a state-by-state database describing who is in prison for what crimes and then target local politicians and prosecutors who promote what Mr. Romero called “overincarceration.” Mr. Romero said the goal of the campaign was to reduce incarceration by 50 percent in eight years.... Todd R. Clear, a criminologist and the provost of Rutgers University-Newark, said he agreed that the time was right for a major shift in justice policies.... But he cautioned that to achieve a decline anywhere near as steep as that proposed by the A.C.L.U., far more politically contentious changes would be necessary. “We’ll have to make sentencing reforms for violent crime, too,” he said, including major changes in drug laws and the multidecade sentences often imposed on violent or repeat offenders.

November 7, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 06, 2014

How might election results (and subsequent sparring) impact Prez Obama's clemency plans?

In this prior post, I wondered aloud "How might election results impact replacing Eric Holder as Attorney General?."  Since then, I have turned to thinking about, as the title of this post highlights, whether and how the Republican electorial success this election cycle might impact the President's thinking and plans about finally making some real use of his clemency powers.

As regular readers know, I consider President Obama's clemency record to date to be not merely disappointing, but truly disgraceful.  That said, earlier this year, Deputy AG Cole and others talked up a new DOJ effort to identify worthy clemency candidates so that the President might start to do better.  From the get-go, I have been concerned that all the talk of new clemency developments might prove to be just another example of the Obama Administration being real good at "talking the talk" and not nearly so good at really "walking the walk."  Indeed, until President Obama starts seriously and consistently using his clemency power, I remain deeply fearful that the so-called Clemency Project 2014 could prove to be much ado about nothing (or about very little relief for very few).

With these realities as backdrop, I have no sense at all whether the consequential political developments of the last few days will have little, some or much impact on whatever Prez Obama had in mind with respect to clemency.  Does anyone else have any insights or even wild speculations on this front?

A few of many recent and older posts concerning federal clemency practices:

November 6, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

What does Rep-elect Mia Love, the new most-interesting person in Congress, think about sentencing reform and the federal drug war?

Images (4)

Among the amazing and exciting stories emerging from this election season is the historic victory of Mia Love, the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress.  This new Washington Post article discusses the remarkable backstory of this remarkable woman, and why she is now already an especially important member of the new GOP-controlled Congress: 

For at least half a century, the party of Lincoln has battled charges that it is racist, sexist and anti-immigrant. Today, voters from a conservative state made those arguments a little bit harder to make. In Utah, Mia Love became the first black Republican woman — and first Haitian American — elected to Congress.

For the GOP — a house divided that faces significant demographic hurdles to winning the White House in 2016 even as it celebrates President Obama’s shellacking — this was huge. A party threatened with electoral extinction among African Americans and immigrants now has someone to brag about in Washington. In a wave election less about fresh Republican ideas than fervid disapproval of all things presidential, Love’s compelling personal story is an oasis. She’s not just a black face in what’s often described as a party full of angry old white men. She’s a path forward.

It’s hard to overstate how unlikely Love’s victory looked on paper. Utah is less than 1 percent black. Though more than 60 percent of the state’s people identify as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the church is just 3 percent black. Love, 38, is one of these few black Mormons — part of a church that, until 1978, didn’t let African Americans participate in all church activities and still hasn’t apologized for its racism.

Yet, a woman born in Brooklyn to Haitian immigrants is now a duly-elected representative of the Beehive State. What led to this? A speech at a national political convention about triumphing over adversity — just like another familiar politician facing long odds.

At the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama spun a tale of unrealistic dreams achieved by the power of a “larger American story.”...

Eight years later, Love turned her superficially similar biography — child of foreigner makes good — into a parable for gritty, individual wherewithal. This was Horatio Alger by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Her parents fled Haiti in 1976, one step ahead of the dreaded Tonton Macoutes, the secret police of dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. “My parents immigrated to the U.S. with ten dollars in their pocket, believing that the America they had heard about really did exist,” Love told the Republican National Convention, gathered in Tampa in 2012 to nominate Mitt Romney. “When times got tough they didn’t look to Washington, they looked within.”

Indeed, Love — a black woman who married a white man she met on a Mormon mission, left her Catholic Church and lit out to a white enclave by the Great Salt Lake — explicitly challenged what she described as a vision of America mired in demography. “President Obama’s version of America is a divided one — pitting us against each other based on our income level, gender, and social status,” she said. “His policies have failed!”...

A talented performing artist, she reportedly turned down a Broadway role in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” because it conflicted with her wedding in 1998 to Jason Love, who, by the way, took her to a firing range on their first date. She became a neighborhood activist in Saratoga Springs, Utah, leading the charge to get a developer to spray the area for flies — “The War of the Midges” it was called — ultimately winning a seat on the city council and then being elected mayor of the small town.

Even when she entered what would turn out to be a losing congressional run in 2012, the GOP knew what it had. Even the future Republican nominee for vice president said so. “Mia has a great opportunity to extend the message of liberty and economic freedom in ways that a lot of us can’t, and we’re excited about that,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) after hosting a fundraiser for Love.

Two years later, Ryan’s enthusiasm was borne out on Twitter after Love’s victory. She trailed Democrat Doug Owens most of the night as the results came in from Utah’s 4th District, but ultimately triumphed with 50 percent of the vote to Owens’s 47 percent. “Many people said Utah would never elect a black, Republican, LDS woman to Congress. And guess what … we were the first to do it,” she told cheering supporters, the Salt Lake Tribune reported....

Just as Obama’s policies didn’t matter as much as the fact that he existed in 2008, Love’s may not either. Judging by her Web site, she won’t upend conservative orthodoxy. She wants to repeal Obamacare. She wants to defend the Second Amendment. She’s pro-life. All-in-all, a typical Republican.

Except: Not at all. Though she may speak out against immigration or D.C. dysfunction, she is not a white-haired, pale-skinned Methuselah turning beet-red on Fox News while doing so. She is a black woman under 40.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I could not find any statements on Mia Love's campaign website concerning her views about sentencing law and policy or criminal justice issues more generally. But, as regular readers know, Utah's junior Senator, Mike Lee, is one of the co-sponsors of the Smarter Sentencing Act and Rep Paul Ryan (mentioned above) has recently become an advocate of federal sentencing reform. And Love's website on this page stresses the principles of "fiscal discipline, limited government ... [and] cutting waste and ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely." For these reasons, I am cautiously hopeful that Rep-elect Mia Love will soon become another prominent GOP member of Congress supporting federal sentencing and drug war reforms that can and should limit the most wasteful part of a big federal criminal justice system.

November 5, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Is major federal sentencing reform possible now that Republicans have full control of Congress?

As the polls had come to predict in the weeks leading up to Election Day 2014, voters have now decided to put Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.  Way back in this post in July 2013, I asked the question "Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?," and now we are on a path to find out.  

Of course, with respect to sentencing reform and so many other federal legislative issues, a whole lot will depend on whether and how a Republican-controlled Congress wants to work with or work against the lame-duck President Obama.  Ever the hopeful optimist, I believe that Republicans in the new Congress will be looking to pass some bills that President Obama will sign into law and that at least some sentencing reform bills will be in this mix.  

Some recent related posts:

November 5, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, November 03, 2014

Why I believe criminal justice reform is on the ballot this year ... and reflected in anti-Obama sentitments

The title of this post is designed as something of a retort to this interesting new Daily Beast commentary by Inimai Chettiar and Abigail Finkelman.  The piece is headlined "Why Isn’t Prison Justice on the Ballot This Tuesday?," and here are excerpts (with my emphasis added):

Whichever party wins control of the U.S. Senate, voters can wince at the prospect of continued polarization and gridlock.  But one issue, intriguingly, seems ripe for genuine bipartisan cooperation: criminal justice reform.  Yet, partly because it has become less controversial, discussions about criminal justice policy have been absent from the campaign trail.  This silence creates the risk that a moment of promise will become a missed opportunity for change.

The fact that criminal justice policy is not a campaign issue is, itself, noteworthy. Consider it Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark.  For decades, politicians vied to be the most punitive, from the 1977 New York City mayoral race, which improbably turned on the issue of the death penalty (over which a mayor has no power) to the 1994 referendum that passed “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” in California.  The 1988 presidential race is rightly remembered for its focus on demagogic and racially coded appeals....

But times have changed, and “tough on crime” has been replaced with “smart on crime.”  In the last decade, states as disparate as Texas, New York, Kentucky, and California have instituted reforms to reduce their prison populations and ease up their harsh sentencing laws.  The White House just launched a major initiative to implement a more modern, sensible drug policy.  Even Congress passed a law reducing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.  And Americans overwhelmingly support eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Yet, by and large, candidates have steered clear of criminal justice reform this election cycle.  Perhaps they’re fearful of being painted as soft on crime.  Or perhaps they simply don’t care enough about the issue to take a position.

Check out the issues pages of the websites of Senate candidates in the hottest races. Neither Michelle Nunn nor David Perdue, the two major Senate candidates in Georgia, talk about criminal justice reform.  Neither do Mark Udall and Cory Gardner in Colorado. Or Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley in Iowa.  In fact, you’d have to look far to find a candidate who makes even the most pro forma nod to the issue.

And that’s too bad, because not only is criminal justice important on its own, but because it impacts so many other important issues.  Voters consistently list the economy and inequality as top concerns.  The current system of mass incarceration costs governments around $260 billion annually; that’s about half the 2014 federal deficit.  In fact, it’s among the largest drivers of economic inequality in the United States.  Finding employment or housing can be nearly impossible with a criminal record.  Locking up the primary breadwinner can push a family from working-class to impoverished. And children growing up with incarcerated parents too often get pulled into the system themselves....

Politicians and candidates cannot be allowed to remain silent on one of the largest human rights issues on American soil.  But they also can’t be allowed to limit themselves to bromides about wanting reform without laying out next steps, and taking them.  After all, some officeholders still resist needed changes, even as others link arms for reform.

Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) may have drawn wide attention and praise for their REDEEM Act. But the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2014, which went further and was cosponsored by Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren, among others, was blocked by a bipartisan group of senators.  Similar battles are unfolding in state legislatures.  But, as always, there’s a way to get legislators to change their actions: threaten to kick them out.

We’ve missed the chance to make mass incarceration an issue in 2014.  But a few weeks ago, Bill Clinton predicted the issue would play prominently in the 2016 presidential election.  Let’s hope he’s right.  But such a drastic change in election politics won’t happen unless we demand to know where candidates stand on criminal justice.  We must ask why they’re holding up bills, and if they’re only paying lip service to reform.

We need to know what they will do — or why they’re not doing anything — so that the United States no longer wears the scarlet letter of being the largest jailor in the world.  And if they can’t answer, hold them accountable.

I have emphasized key phrases above which I believe serve as justifiable criticisms of one particular politician this election cycle: President Barack Obama.  As regular readers know, I have long been talking about what I think President Obama could and should be doing in response to mass incarceration.  On Inauguration Day 2009, in this post, I asked "Is it too early to start demanding President Obama use his clemency power?".  Similarly, in post after post and post, I have highlighted that Prez Obama and others in his administration have been much more willing and eager to "talk the talk" than to "walk the walk" when it comes to criminal justice reform.

In other words, in my view President Obama is the politician who should be getting the most criticism for, in the words of this commentary, being content to spew "bromides about wanting reform without laying out next steps, and taking them," for missing "the chance to make mass incarceration an issue in 2014," and for helping to ensure the United States still "wears the scarlet letter of being the largest jailor in the world."  And, like Inimai Chettiar and Abigail Finkelman, I want this politician to be held accountable.  And, if polling and predictions about a Republican surge on election day tomorrow are accurate, it does appear that President Obama and his party are going to be held accountable for their failings in this regard.

(Side note:  I also think Prop 47 in California as well as the marijuana initiatives on the ballot in a number of states and localities serve as another way that "prison justice" can be seen as being on the ballot this year.)

November 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Notable account of all the advocacy and interests surrounding California's Prop. 47

Today's Los Angeles Times has this lengthy discussion of the advocacy interests surrounding the big criminal justice initiative on the California ballot this election season. The piece is headlined "Prop. 47 puts state at center of a national push for sentencing reform," and here are excerpts:

The statewide initiative on Tuesday's ballot to reduce penalties for illicit drug use and petty theft is part of a multimillion-dollar campaign to revise sentencing laws in California and across the nation.

Five major foundations, headlined by a philanthropic group run by New York billionaire George Soros, have poured millions of dollars to push for changes in California's policies on crime and imprisonment.  The campaign is aimed at shaping public opinion, media coverage, research and grass-roots activism on the issue.

Proposition 47 would reclassify possession of heroin, methamphetamine and other illegal drugs, and theft of $950 or less, as misdemeanors in California. If the measure passes, California will become the first state to "de-felonize" all drug use, opening the door for similar efforts in other states.

"We hope we're setting a precedent for the nation," said Lynne Lyman, state director of the National Drug Policy Alliance, an active supporter of Proposition 47.  "We are hoping it will signal that we don't need to be so tough on crime all the time."  Proponents of the ballot measure have raised $9 million — at least $2 million of which came from two of the foundations — for their campaign thus far.  Opponents have raised just $526,000, state election records show....

Since 2011, the foundations have awarded at least $14 million in grants to almost three dozen California-based groups that are earmarked for "criminal justice reform" or to influence public opinion. Soros' Open Society Foundations in 2012 also gave a $50-million grant to the National Drug Policy Alliance to "advance drug policy reform" in states across the nation.

The coordination by a few wealthy foundations to change public policy represents a legitimate but worrying form of political influence, said Robert McGuire, who tracks such activity for the Center for Responsive Politics.  The foundation grants are not disclosed publicly in the same way campaign contributions are reported.  Foundation nonprofit tax filings often do not become public until two years after money is spent.  "Nonprofits are allowed to do this, but voters have a right to know what interest is trying to get them to vote a certain way," McGuire said.

The California effort was initiated by Tim Silard, who ran alternative sentencing programs for California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris when she was San Francisco district attorney, and Dan Zingale, who was chief of staff to then-first lady Maria Shriver....  Silard and Zingale said they sought a strategy that could break the grip of "tough on crime" politics in California....

Coalition members say they are driven by a belief that California — and the rest of the nation — locks up too many people for too long and that public safety would be better served by putting resources toward job training, mental health and drug addiction treatment.  An opening to change that trend surfaced in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2011 ruling that conditions in California's overcrowded prisons were unconstitutionally dangerous, upholding a lower-court order to reduce the prison population....

In 2013, Soros provided money to create a new organization called Vote Safe to launch Proposition 47.  Soros, a hedge fund manager widely known for bankrolling progressive campaigns and a decade-long battle against the war on drugs, has a representative on Vote Safe's three-member advisory board.  The campaign manager for both Citizens for Safety and Justice and Vote Safe is Lenore Anderson, another former aide to Kamala Harris who once ran the public safety offices in San Francisco and Oakland. Anderson said the ballot initiative was encouraged by polls that showed a softening in public attitudes toward criminal punishment.  "The whole country right now is going through transformation in attitudes on criminal justice," she said. "We felt it was a big moment."

Violent crime in California had dropped precipitously, hitting a 45-year low in 2011. In the fall of 2012, California voters passed another Soros-backed initiative to lift three-strikes penalties for nonviolent felons....

Supporters of Proposition 47 also emphasize that drug laws have a disparate impact on Latino and African American communities. Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance hammered on that point during a Proposition 47 rally at a Los Angeles church a week ago. "The war on drugs and mass incarceration is just an extension of slavery," she said.

Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

November 1, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, October 31, 2014

"Shrinking Prisons: Good Crime-Fighting and Good Government"

the title of this post is the headline of this thoughtful new piece from The Atlantic. Here are excerpts:

Liberals have long advocated prison reforms like reduced sentence lengths and alternatives to incarceration. Recently, however, conservatives have put these ideas on the congressional agenda — and their inspiration comes from that bastion of tough-on-crime conservatism, Texas.

Surprising? Perhaps. But seeing this coming didn’t require any sort of crystal ball. One had only to notice the forces driving every trend today: less money, higher expectations, and lower “weight.” Around the world and especially in the United States, both the public and private sectors have been under pressure since the Great Recession to cut costs and make the most of constrained resources. At the same time, consumers have become accustomed to expect better and better performance for their dollars. Many people have dismissed as “immature” or unrealistic the electorate’s expectation that governments provide both lower taxes and more services, but it’s not unreasonable given what the private sector has been able to deliver over the last generation.....

It’s overdue, then, for the public sector to revisit the costliest, least productive, and least “weightless” business lines in its portfolios—human services generally, and the corrections system in particular. What smacks more of outdated big government than large, costly, coercive institutions?

Incarceration as we know it today was originally a “progressive” idea. Compared to the days when every offense was punishable by execution — or at least corporal punishment — and prisons were simply a slow form of death, the modern penitentiary was conceived as a humane instrument of rehabilitation, not just punishment: The idea was that sitting alone in a cell and contemplating one’s transgressions — like a penitent — would lead to self-improvement. A close cousin, historically and conceptually, of the poorhouse and insane asylum, the penitentiary proved as much a misnomer, however, as today’s “corrections.” Nonetheless, along with the notion of redemption through hard work, the concept appealed to Jacksonian reformers and launched the first great era of prison construction in America. The second wave peaked, similarly, with the advent of the Progressive Era, which refined the concept with such additions as parole, probation, and indeterminate sentencing.

The third and latest wave of prison enthusiasm, however, was a reaction—against both liberal modifications to incarceration regimes and the social tumult of the ’60s. The War on Drugs increased the numbers of prisoners and lengthened the duration of sentences. The surge in incarceration also has been directly related to race: African-American males are jailed at about six times the rate of whites and three times the rate of Hispanics.

As a result, the United States today has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world: 743 adults per 100,000 population, or nearly 2.3 million adults, nearly one-quarter of the world’s total prison population. More than twice that number are on probation or parole, with more than 70,000 juveniles in detention, as well — roughly one in every 30 Americans is under supervision of some sort, a seven-fold increase since 1980....

Institutionalized correction, while more expensive, is less effective in reducing most crime than virtually any alternative. A 2001 report by New Jersey’s State Commission on Criminal Resentencing found that alternative sanctions and prisons have very similar effects on recidivism, while alternative sanctions free up prison bed space for more violent offenders. Similarly, a 2002 Justice Policy Institute report on Community Corrections programs in Ohio found shorter stays and lower recidivism or re-incarceration rates for clients from community-based correctional programs than for prison inmates.

As a result, many states — mostly Southern — are changing their approach, and saving money. Oklahoma, which was recently in the spotlight for its hard line on executions, has reduced its prison population by nearly 1,800 prisoners, projected to save the state approximately $120 million over the next 10 years. Georgia has become a leader in the use of “drug courts,” which divert offenders into alternatives to prison.

The Urban Institute reports that eight states — Arkansas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina — have reliable enough data to provide preliminary findings on the effects of system reforms. These show early successes in slowing and even reducing prison-population-growth rates.

But the poster child is Texas. In 2007, conservative legislators in Austin were staggered by projections for how much it would cost to run the Department of Criminal Justice if the system went unchanged. The state faced the prospect of building approximately 17,000 new prison beds within five years at a cost of nearly $1.15 billion.  Instead, the legislature budgeted approximately $250 million for community-treatment programs and increased the number of inmates served by in-prison treatment and rehabilitation programs.  In 2009, the state added reentry-program coordinators to help reduce the number of released inmates who return to prison.  Texas’s effort now forms the basis for the bipartisan prison-reform legislation moving through Congress.

This has implications beyond prison reform. Governments today face increasing pressure to cut costs, but their citizens still want and need government services. Elected officials everywhere must figure out how to square this circle—to deliver better service at lower cost.  A major part of the answer will lie in moving from costly, outdated “solutions” based on large one-size-fits-all institutions to individualized, dispersed, home- and community-based solutions that use new technologies and evidence-based strategies....

The corrections field shows most starkly that the conservative critique of liberal programs — large, outdated, costly, and one-sized-fits-all — is valid, but also that the solutions liberals have been advocating for the past several decades, with the benefits of years of experimentation and evidence, provide a path forward.

October 31, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 30, 2014

New York Times editorial makes the case for California's Prop 47

Today's New York Times has this editorial headlined "California Leads on Justice Reform: Prop 47 Could Take the State a Step Further in Reducing Overcrowding." Here are excerpts:

For a long time, the conventional political wisdom was that no one ever lost an election for being too tough on crime.  That wisdom has been turned on its head in recent years, as both politicians and the public are realizing how much damage the lock-’em-up mind-set has caused....

A familiar retort is that crime is down precisely because the prisons are full, but that’s simply not true.  Multiple studies show that crime has gone down faster in states that have reduced their prison populations.

An encouraging example comes from California, the site of some the worst excesses of the mass incarceration era, but also some of the more innovative responses to it.  For five years, the state has been under federal court order to reduce extreme overcrowding in its prisons.  In response, voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure to scale back the state’s notorious “three-strikes” law, leading to the release, so far, of more than 1,900 prisoners who had been serving life in prison — in some cases, for petty theft.

Dire warnings that crime would go up as a result were unfounded.  Over two years, the recidivism rate of former three-strikes inmates is 3.4 percent, or less than one-tenth of the state’s average.  That’s, in large part, because of a strong network of re-entry services.

The 2012 measure has provided the model for an even bigger proposed release of prisoners that California voters will consider on the ballot next week.  Under Proposition 47, many low-level drug and property offenses — like shoplifting, writing bad checks or simple drug possession — would be converted from felonies to misdemeanors.

That would cut an average of about a year off the sentences of up to 10,000 inmates, potentially saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually.  To keep people from returning to prison, or from going in the first place, the savings would be invested in anti-truancy efforts and other programs like mental health and drug-abuse treatment. Some would go to victims’ services, a perennially underfinanced part of the justice system.

Law-enforcement officials, not surprisingly, oppose the measure, warning that crime will go up.  But they’ve already been proved wrong on three-strikes reform.  Californians — who support the proposition by a healthy margin, according to polls — have now seen for themselves that they don’t have to choose between reducing prison populations and protecting public safety.

It is very rare for lawmakers anywhere to approve legislation to shorten sentences for people already in prison; it is virtually unheard-of to do it by ballot measure. California’s continuing experiment on sentencing can be a valuable lesson to states around the country looking for smart and safe ways to unravel America’s four-decade incarceration binge.

Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

October 30, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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.

October 24, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack