Wednesday, March 04, 2015

"Do the Koch Brothers Really Care About Criminal-Justice Reform?"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Atlantic piece by Molly Ball exploring what to make of the recent emphasis on criminal justice reform coming from politically-savvy billionaires.  Here are excerpts:

Here is the thing the Koch brothers wish their critics understood: They just want to help people. "Everything we do is designed to help people improve their lives, whether you're talking about our business or our philanthropy," Mark Holden, the senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, told me recently from his office in Wichita, where the multibillion-dollar international manufacturing conglomerate that Charles and David Koch inherited from their father is headquartered.  "We think a free society, consistent with classical liberalism and individual liberties, is the key to success for everyone, and that's what drives a lot of our activities. And criminal-justice reform is good for all of us — the rich, the poor, and everyone else."

Though the Kochs are best known — and, to liberals, notorious — for the massive amounts of money they pour into politics, they have lately been calling attention to a less polarizing crusade: an attempt to address what they term "the overcriminalization of America." But not everyone is convinced that their efforts are quite so sincere.

Critics such as Robert Greenwald, director of the documentary Koch Brothers Exposed, suspect that the push to roll back the criminal code is really just the brothers' deregulatory agenda by another name.  Indeed, Charles Koch, the company's chairman and CEO, has said he became interested in criminal-justice reform after a grand jury's 1995 indictment of a Koch refinery in Texas for 97 felony violations of environmental law.  The company spent six years fighting the charges and eventually settled with the government for $10 million. Seen in this light, the criminal-justice pitch is just another attempt to manipulate the political process to advance the company's financial interests.  That's the view of the liberal group American Bridge, which maintains the anti-Koch "Real Koch Facts" website. "Their own bottom line isn't just an important factor in their activity, it's the only thing," a spokesman for the group, Ben Ray, told me.

This is the question that has always swirled around the Kochs and their political efforts — the massive juggernaut of funding for conservative activism and candidates that critics dub the "Kochtopus": Are the brothers sincere ideologues dedicated to a libertarian vision for America? Or are they simply trying to tilt the political system to favor themselves and their companies?

Various tentacles of the Kochtopus have been involved in criminal-justice issues for about a decade; during that time, Charles Koch has quietly made contributions amounting to seven figures to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, money that has been used to provide lawyers for poor defendants. In 2011, the group honored Koch Industries with its annual Defender of Justice award. "They are in complete agreement with us on the fundamental policy — to make the Sixth Amendment a reality for every person in the country," said the association's executive director, Norman Reimer.

But the Kochs' advocacy has become more vocal in recent months, from public statements to new partnerships with such groups as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even the liberal Center for American Progress. The bid for more attention for the reform effort has received overwhelmingly positive attention, and coincides with a new PR push to show Koch Industries in a friendlier light, including a "We Are Koch" national television campaign that casts the company as heartland job creators — prompting the Kochs' critics to suspect a whitewash.  After all, the investment in criminal-justice reform pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions the Kochs and their donor network have spent electing Republicans, many of whom don't share their views on civil liberties, Greenwald noted.  "Certainly the scales tip against the impact of this, except from the press point of view," he said of the reform push.

And yet the Kochs have found many willing partners on the left for this effort, even among their erstwhile critics.  In 2011, the civil-rights activist and former Obama administration adviser Van Jones cited the Kochs as emblematic of the "economic tyranny" plaguing America, declaring, "We will not live on a national plantation run by the Koch brothers." He appears in the Koch Brothers Exposed (tagline: "The 1% at its very worst").  But Jones has welcomed the Kochs' support for his new Cut50 project, which aims to halve the prison population over the next decade. At a recent panel discussion in Washington, he sat next to Holden and gave him a hug. Koch Industries has agreed to participate in an upcoming conference Jones is sponsoring on prison reform.  When I asked Jones if it made him uncomfortable to team up with people he's previously depicted as villains, he responded, "When you've got more than 2 million people behind bars, I'll fight alongside anybody to change those numbers."...

To allies like Jones, it doesn't matter whether the Kochs are acting in good faith as long as their assistance stands to help the cause.  In a neat illustration of the way this issue crosses partisan lines, the ACLU's campaign against mass incarceration is supported by both the Kochs and liberal financier George Soros's Open Society Foundation.  Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director, acknowledged that some of the group's liberal members aren't thrilled about the Koch partnership: "There's always some unhappiness whenever you work with, quote-unquote, the enemy," he told me.  But particularly with Republicans in control of Congress, he said, validation from the likes of the Kochs is the key to moving the issue forward.  "Having the Koch brothers involved fundamentally changes the landscape. It gives legitimacy to this issue as a proper field of inquiry for Republican political leaders," he said.

The Kochs' activism fits within a broader trend on the right. Where once Republicans could reliably be stereotyped as tough-on-crime and Democrats as squishy bleeding hearts, recent years have seen many in the GOP question the old dogma of lock-'em-up, spurred by the party's increasingly libertarian bent and a desire to control spiraling prison costs. The 2012 Republican Party platform discarded its old plank endorsing the War on Drugs for one that emphasized prisoner reentry and rehabilitation; at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, then-Texas Governor Rick Perry headlined a criminal justice panel at which he urged, "Shut prisons down. Save that money." As The Nation noted approvingly, Perry "has become one of the more aggressive prison reformers in the country," and he's been joined by Republican governors or former governors in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New Jersey....

Holden, the Koch counsel, is a spike-haired Massachusetts native who once worked as a jail guard—seeing youths from his blue-collar neighborhood on the other side of the bars, he says, made a deep impression. He takes issue with the notion that the Kochs only want to pad their own pockets, pointing out that they take many positions "contrary to our short-term economic self-interest."

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

March 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Two notable and timely new reform reports from The Sentencing Project

Via an e-mail from The Sentencing Project (reprinted in part below), I received this summary (with links) to two notable new reports from the group:

[Here are] two new reports from The Sentencing Project documenting changes in criminal justice policy in 2014 and successful advocacy campaign strategies in conservative state environments. The reforms highlighted in these reports represent approaches that lawmakers and advocates can consider to address sentencing policy and collateral consequences at the state level.

The State of Sentencing 2014 highlights policy changes in 30 states and the District of Columbia in both the adult and juvenile justice systems, including:

  • Scaling back sentences for low-level drug offenses

  • Reducing barriers to reentry, including employment restrictions and bans on public assistance

  • Eliminating juvenile life without parole

State Criminal Justice Advocacy in a Conservative Environment documents successful advocacy strategies employed in campaigns in Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. In these states, advocates achieved the following reforms:

  • Reduced enhanced penalties in drug-free zones in Indiana by shrinking the limit of zones from 1,000 feet to 500 feet, and eliminating all zones except those around schools and parks
  • Modified Missouri’s federal lifetime ban on food stamp benefits for persons with felony drug convictions
  • Closed two Texas prison facilities: the Dawson State Jail and the Mineral Wells Pre-Parole Transfer Facility

February 24, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, February 20, 2015

Can Senator Ted Cruz, who says "Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense," get SSA through Congress?

Long-time readers and most federal sentencing policy gurus know about the long-time discussion of the Smarter Sentencing Act.  The SSA seemingly had lots of bi-partisan support when got through the Senate Judiciary Committee in the last Congress, but the drug warriors helped ensure it did not get any further.

Now we have a new Congress with new leadership in the Senate and, as reported here, a new introduction of a new version of the SSA, the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015.  In part because new Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Grassley has been a vocal opponent of any significant statutory drug sentencing reform, I am not especially optimistic that the new SSA has a much better chance of passage than the old SSA.  But, as the question in the title of this post highlights, the new SSA appears to have an especially prominent new advocate, as demonstrated by this press release from the office of Senator Ted Cruz tited "Sen. Cruz: Smarter Sentencing Act Is Common Sense." Here is an excerpt from Senator Cruz's remarks last week during the introduction of the new SSA:

The issue that brings us together today is fairness. What brings us together is justice. What brings us together is common sense. This is as diverse and bipartisan array of members of Congress as you will see on any topic and yet we are all unified in saying commonsense reforms need to be enacted to our criminal justice system. Right now today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system, find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions. We’ve seen the impact of these kind of reforms in the states, the states are laboratories of democracy. My home state of Texas implemented similar reforms and from 2005 the state of Texas has seen a 22 percent decrease in crime and a 12 percent decrease in expenditures on criminal justice....

All of us agree, if you have violent criminals, if you have criminals who are using guns, who are using violence, who are dealing drugs to children, the criminal justice system should come down on them like a ton of bricks. But at the same time we need to recognize that young people make mistakes, and we should not live in a world of Le Miserables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.

There surely are issues about which Senator Cruz and I might not always agree (even though were educated around the same time at the same two higher-education institutions). But I completely agree with his view that the Smarter Sentencing Act is a common sense reform seeking to address the real problem that "today far too many young men, in particular African American young men, find their lives drawn in with the criminal justice system [and] find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor non-violent drug infractions."

Notably, Senator Cruz in the past has not let GOP establishment figures stop him from being an aggressive and persistent voice for legal reforms he considers important. I am hopeful that Senator Cruz will fight the good fight on the SSA and other sentencing reform measures so as not to let old establishment folks like Senator Grassley keep the SSA and other proposals from coming up for a vote in the Senate.

A few recent and older posts on the "conservative politics" of federal sentencing reform:

February 20, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Still more bipartisan talk (and even more bureaucracy) focused on criminal justice reform

This extended New York Times article, headlined "Unlikely Cause Unites the Left and the Right: Juctice Reform," spotlights that the Grey Lady never gets tired talking about lots of other people talking about the need for criminal justice reforms.  Here is how the piece starts:

Usually bitter adversaries, Koch Industries and the Center for American Progress have found at least one thing they can agree on: The nation’s criminal justice system is broken.

Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the conservative Koch brothers, and the center, a Washington-­based liberal issues group, are coming together to back a new organization called the Coalition for Public Safety.  The coalition plans a multi-million­dollar campaign on behalf of emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives. Other groups from both the left and right — the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the Tea Party-­oriented FreedomWorks — are also part of the coalition, reflecting its unusually bipartisan approach.

The coalition will have initial backing of more than $5 million, with groups also spending independently on their own criminal justice initiatives.  Organizers of the advocacy campaign, which is to be announced on Thursday, consider it to be the largest national effort focused on the strained prison and justice system.  They also view the coalition as a way to show lawmakers in gridlocked Washington that factions with widely divergent views can find ways to work together and arrive at consensus policy solutions.  “We want to both do good policy work and try to improve the system, but also to send the message to politicians that we always ask you to work together, and we are going to lead the way,” said Denis Calabrese, the president of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, who helped organize the coalition.

For groups traditionally considered opponents, working together has required something of a leap of faith. But they say that they see an opening and are giving the new coalition three years to demonstrate results.

Though I never want to criticize the folks interested in serious criminal justice reform and advocacy, I am not sure what is really need right now is yet another coalition or group advocating in general for reform. What is really needed is people working really hard in the trenches to move courts and legislators who are now standing in the way of significant reforms. I sincerely believe with a lot less money and in a lot less time, empowering and aiding the work of the best folks in the trenches could and should get some serious reforms achieved in a lot less than three years.

February 19, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Cato director explains why "2015 Can be the Year of Criminal Justice Reform"

The quoted portion of the title of this post is the title of this extended commentary by Tim Lynch, who directs the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. Here are excerpts from the start and end of the piece along with its major headings: 

Criminal justice reform appears to be one of the hot topics this year. Unlike most other policy areas, where President Obama and Republicans remain at loggerheads, criminal justice reform holds much greater promise since both political parties seem to agree that there are festering problems that need to be addressed.

Let’s explore some of the most pressing topics.

Militarized policing....

Marijuana legalization....

Sentencing reform....

Civil asset forfeiture....

Indigent defense reform....

The political climate for criminal justice reform is superb. Present low crime rates provide space for policymakers who are inclined to address this compelling need. If there is no movement on reform now, we will all look back on 2015 as a lost opportunity.

February 12, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 09, 2015

"Inside The Koch Campaign To Reform Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this new Huffington Post piece that reviews a modern sentencing-reform story that is surely becoming familiar to regular readers of this blog.  Here are highlights from the piece which seem to add a few new elements: 

Koch Industries, Inc., the corporation led by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch, is holding discussions with a coalition of strange bedfellows to tackle criminal justice reform.

In conversations with people like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and organizations like the ACLU, the Koch brothers are homing in on reducing overcriminalization and mass incarceration, as well as reforming practices like civil forfeiture.  Progressives, rather than giving the Kochs the stink eye, are welcoming their efforts.

Koch Industries general counsel and senior vice president Mark Holden told The Huffington Post that he met with Booker and his staff a few weeks ago.  The New Jersey Democrat and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are co-sponsoring the REDEEM Act, legislation that would give states incentives to increase the age of criminal responsibility to 18, among other reforms.

"We must reform our criminal justice system. It is an urgency more and more recognized by people across the political spectrum," Booker told HuffPost in an email.  "To make change in Congress and beyond I will work with just about anyone who shares my passion for this mission -- that includes Republican members of Congress and other leaders I've begun to work with like Newt Gingrich, Grover Norquist and Charles Koch's team."...

The Kochs have outlined five pillars for reform: The right not to be prosecuted for accidentally breaking the law; fair treatment under the law; competent and fair representation; mandatory minimum reforms; and restoration of rights.

When Koch Industries leaders talk about criminal justice, they at times sound like bleeding-heart progressives.  Holden, for example, called civil forfeiture practices, where police seize assets from someone accused of a crime, "a huge, grave injustice." He also praised Attorney General Eric Holder for taking a stand against the practice, and worried about the longterm consequences of the U.S. prison system.  "[S]omeone makes a mistake sometimes and it falls on the rest of their life, because they can't get a job, they can't vote, can't get a loan, that type of thing,” he said....

[O]organizations that work on criminal justice reform say they believe the Kochs' efforts are sincere and not monetary. "I think there are some people that worry perhaps the Kochs might be prioritizing things like environmental crime, or crimes more likely to impact white people with means," said Alison Holcomb, the national director of the ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration. "My experience so far has been that they are genuinely interested in the issues across the board."

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

February 9, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

A positive perspective on possible prison reform emerging from Congress

This lengthy new article in The National Journal provides an interesting and informative look at the politics and people at the center of federal sentencing and prison reform discussions. The piece's headlined highlights its themes: "This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year: Chuck Grassley's power will change the dynamics of sentencing reform. But there's still a bipartisan way forward in the Senate." The full piece is a must-read for anyone closely following congressional reform realities, and here is how the article starts:

The rise of Sen. Chuck Grassley to the head of the Judiciary Committee has made a lot criminal-justice reform advocates nervous.

Four months ago, before Republicans took back the Senate, it appeared that reducing mandatory minimums had overcome crucial hurdles.  The Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for some drug offenders, passed out of committee in January 2014 and attracted a roster of high-profile backers, from former GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan to progressive leader Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Potential 2016 presidential candidates such as Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz had decried mandatory minimums.  Even President Obama and the Koch brothers, who have spent millions against him, agreed the sentencing requirements had to be reduced.

But, like many conservatives who came to power in an era when Republicans branded themselves as the "tough on crime" party, Grassley has made it clear that he sees the steady reduction in violent crime in the United States over the last 30 years as a direct reflection of more-effective policing strategies.  And he believes that mandatory minimum laws that ensure criminals stay locked up have been key to that progress.

Grassley's posture toward mandatory minimums has given some advocates pause. "I do think we can work with him," Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said of Grassley.  "He knows some changes need to be made, but it does influence how far you can go if the chairman stands opposed."

In a Democratic-controlled Congress, many saw a clear path for reducing mandatory minimums.  A handful of vocal GOP supporters have continued to say justice reform should remain a key priority in the new Senate.  But with Grassley in charge, the path forward for criminal-justice reform will likely look very different.

And we may get our first true glimpse of it next week — when GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduces a rare bill that could actually get through Congress and be signed by the president.  That legislation would be similar to what was known as the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act in the 113th Congress.  That bill was also bipartisan but far less contentious than the Smarter Sentencing Act among the Republican rank-and-file. Even Grassley voted it out of committee last year, where it passed 15 to 2.  Many of the same members are still sitting on the committee with a few GOP additions, including Thom Tillis of North Carolina and David Perdue of Georgia.

The bill next week will focus on transitioning prisoners back into the community after they have served their time. It requires that each inmate undergo a risk assessment to evaluate his or her propensity for recidivism.  Then it allows those deemed medium- and low-risk to earn credits for participating in programs such as job training or substance abuse counseling.  Certain well-behaved and low-risk offenders could then use those credits to serve out the final days of their sentences under some kind of community supervision.

Grassley's office insists that it is early, and no decisions have been made on what bills will make it through the committee.  There is an attorney general to confirm and more on the committee's docket that comes before discussions about far-reaching justice reform.  But, shuffling down the hallways of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in January, Grassley rattled off his top three goals for the committee. "Juvenile-justice reform, patent trolling, and ... prison reform," he said.  "There are some things where there is a pretty good shot of getting some bipartisan agreement."  And, if the Senate GOP's No. 2 introduces the bill, it will make it harder for Grassley to ignore.

February 4, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, February 02, 2015

Highlighting how apathy may help the criminal justice reform cause

This new Slate commentary by Jamelle Bouie spotlights why maybe I should not complain too much about criminal justice problems not getting enough attention from the media and the general public. The piece is headlined "Why Public Apathy Isn’t All Bad: It has actually helped pave the way for significant criminal justice reform," and here are excerpts:

[A]s much as intensity contributes to politics, we shouldn’t give short shrift to its sibling: public apathy. Apathy gets a bad rap, but when you look at its full place in the world of public policy, it’s underrated.

To be clear, apathy’s reputation isn’t undeserved.  Politicians have long used voter disinterest as cover for corrupt behavior.  And on issues toward which voters aren’t attentive — but interest groups are — the public can get shafted. But the same shadows that cloak the worst of our lawmakers can also shield the best of them.  On issues with which the problems are severe and about which voters are indifferent, politicians have a chance to act effectively for the public good without watching their rears.

The best example is criminal justice reform. During the last decade, lawmakers across the country have pushed bold experiments in shrinking prisons and reducing incarcerated populations, unscathed by any kind of public backlash.  In 2010, after two decades of ceaseless prison growth, Texas officials — supported by Gov. Rick Perry — moved to counter increasing costs of prison construction and incarceration with a new regime of treatment and mental health programs to give prosecutors and judges a third option besides jail or parole.  It worked.  The Texas inmate population has dropped from its peak of 173,000 in 2010 to 168,000 in 2013, without any increase in violent or property crime. Recidivism is down, and the state has saved an estimated $3 billion.

You see a similar story in Georgia, where Gov. Nathan Deal has led the state to drastically change its approach to criminal justice. In 2012, lawmakers passed reforms that gave prosecutors non-prison options for adults arrested for minor crimes, and that gave judges more options for drug offenses, with a goal of reserving prison beds for violent offenders. And in 2013 the state passed reforms that would place minor juvenile offenders in social service programs, skipping the criminal justice system entirely....

On crime, in other words, the broad public just isn’t that interested. And as such, there isn’t a strong incentive for “tough on crime” rhetoric, crime-focused politicians, or punitive anti-crime policies.  But for those on the other side of the issue — for politicians who want fewer prisons and less incarceration — there’s an opportunity to push reform without fear of attack. And slowly, lawmakers are taking it.

Thanks in part to public apathy, the country is beginning to make progress on one of our most important problems.  But we shouldn’t get too optimistic.  Bills against asset forfeiture or for flexibility in sentencing are like the first few boards in a game of Ms. Pac-Man — easy to clear if you know what to do.  To tackle the larger problems — overcriminalization, disinvestment in prison alternatives, and robust reintegration for former offenders — you need more: more will, more skill, and more support.  You also need more money beyond the savings you gain from reform.  And in politics, the moment you ask for cash is the moment the public starts to pay attention.

February 2, 2015 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Imagining a SuperBowl party with the Koch brothers, Al Franken, Rob Portman, David Keene, Piper Kerman and Van Jones

The silly idea reflected in the title of this post is my effort to put a timely spin on what is becoming an old story: lots of folks from lots of different perspectives are coming together to talk about the need for criminal justice reforms. And, as detailed in this press piece, many of these folks got together this past week at an event. Here are the details:

Only one issue in Washington right now could bring together the Koch brothers’ top lawyer, an environmental activist, the former head of the NRA and Sen. Al Franken.  Criminal justice reform.  In a city best known for dysfunction and discord, the issue has stood out as a rare area of common ground between Democrats and Republicans.

And at a panel on reforming the criminal justice system hosted by the Constitution Project advocacy group on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, the bipartisan array of speakers seemed genuinely nonplussed by the harmony across an otherwise gaping political divide.

Van Jones, the former Obama administration official and liberal commentator, was seated next to Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ general counsel and the face of the conservative mega-donors’ efforts to lower incarceration rates in the country. (The Koch brothers are planning to spend a reported $889 million during the 2016 election cycle, a figure that puts their operation in the same financial ballpark as the two political parties themselves.)

“That should be a headline in itself,” Jones said of he and Holden sitting at the same table. “Cats and dogs sleeping together,” Holden chimed in. “I don’t know about sleeping together,” Jones quipped.

Jones said he hoped politicians would seize on this moment — when crime is down and interest is high — to reform the U.S. penal system so that the country no longer imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation.  “This is a time for real comprehensive change,” Jones said. “It’s very, very rare that we have a moment where the stars are aligned in this way.”  He later warmly embraced the Kochs' lawyer.

Lawmakers lined up to promote their criminal justice reform bills at the event, which also included remarks from Piper Kerman, the author whose memoir about her experience in federal prison inspired the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black.”

Sens. Rob Portman, a Republican, and Al Franken, a Democrat, spoke about a bill they’re reintroducing this year to provide more mental health services to prisoners and to fund special mental health courts that emphasize treatment over doing time. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said he believes lawmakers should review every federal regulation or law that carries prison time to decide if it’s merited or not. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who introduced a bill to expunge nonviolent criminal records of juvenile offenders that he’s co-sponsored with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), sat with audience members, saying he wanted to listen and learn.

Holden told the crowd that the Koch brothers have been involved in criminal justice reform for more than 10 years, after a few of their employees were prosecuted for violating environmental regulations in Texas in the 1990s.  (The charges against the employees were later dropped, and Koch Industries settled with the government.)  The Kochs have since invested in providing defense lawyers for poor people and other reform efforts, and have signaled it will be a major policy priority this year.  Their support could lend momentum to the bipartisan reform bills that have already been introduced. “What we should be using the prison system for is people we’re afraid of,” Holden said, not for nonviolent offenders.

I am always pleased to see talk of significant criminal justice reform making headlines. But as I have often said before (and as I likely will say again a lot in the months ahead), "talking the talk" about criminal justice reform is always much easier than "walking the walk" especially at the federal level.  So, if you come upon this notable cast of characters at your SuperBowl party this weekend, you should find it much easier to talk about criminal justice reform than to predict when all this talk will result in significant legislative action.

We are coming on five years since the libertarian/small-government wing of the GOP began talking a lot about significant sentencing reforms (right after the 2010 election cycle).  And yet, circa 2015, we still have not yet seen any proposals for "real comprehensive change" making the rounds on Capitol Hill.  Indeed, even (much-too) small proposed changes reflected in bills like the Smarter Sentencing Act have gained precious little momentum.

I am cautiously hopeful that the involvement of major capitalists like the Kochs will help fuel the work of major activists to turn all the talk into real action. But, ever the realistic (though optimistic) cynic, I am not expecting Congress to enact any truly landmark criminal justice reform legislation anytime soon.

January 31, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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 (2) | 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