Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gov Chris Christie talking up drug sentencing reform as a pro-life commitment

As reported via this entry at Mediate, last week New Jersey Governor Chris Christie connected drug sentencing reform to another social issue frequently stressed by Republican officials and politicians. Here are the interesting details:

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivered a message to his fellow members of the Republican Party on Thursday: being pro-life means reforming America’s drug laws and criminal sentencing procedures.  Christie has long advocated for drug treatment programs as a means of reforming the country’s prison system, but Christie took a new tactic on Thursday when he framed that advocacy as a pro-life argument.  

“I’m pro-life, and I believe strongly in the sanctity of life,” Christie told an audience in Jersey City on Thursday.  Addressing his fellow Republican governors, Christie said that “it’s great to be pro-life, but you need to be pro-life after they get out of the womb, too.”

“If we believe in the sanctity of life, then we need to believe in how life is precious for every moment that God gives us,” the governor continued. “If, in fact, that we believe life is precious — and I do — then the life of the drug-addicted teenager who has been arrested for the sixth time is just as precious as the life of any one of my children.”

Christie said that conservatives don’t want violent people on the street, and there is a “class of people” who deserves to be incarcerated, but there is another “class of people” who will benefit more from “help” than punishment.  “I don’t believe this is a conservative, or moderate, or liberal issue,” Christie concluded. “I don’t believe this is a Republican or Democrat issue. Because, let me tell you, I know as many drug-addicted Republicans as I know drug-addicted Democrats.”

Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

April 20, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, April 11, 2014

Is New Hampshire on the verge of becoming the next state to abolish the death penalty?

As reported in this local AP article, headlined "On revote, N.H. Senate panel endorses death penalty repeal measure," the Granite State appears to have now moved a step closer to possible repeal of capital punishment. Here are the details:

The Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday revisited the idea of repealing New Hampshire’s death penalty and recommended that it pass, setting up a potentially historic vote in the chamber next week. The bill represents the most energetic recent effort to repeal the state’s centuries-old death penalty. It passed the committee by a 3-2 vote, days after the same panel issued a tie vote that could have sounded the death knell on the repeal effort.

The House has voted resoundingly for repeal, and the governor supports it. The Thursday vote in the Republican-controlled Senate is said to be too close to call. “I think it will be a tight vote,” Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley told the Associated Press. “I think it will not break down all that much on party lines.”...

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 2-2 Tuesday with one member absent, an outcome that would have automatically sent a message to the Senate to kill the repeal measure. The committee reconsidered the issue yesterday in deference to Democrat Donna Soucy of Manchester, who missed Tuesday’s meeting due to a family medical issue. There was no debate.

Sens. Bette Lasky, a Nashua Democrat, Sam Cataldo, a Farmington Republican, and Soucy voted for repeal. Sens. Sharon Carson of Londonderry and David Boutin of Hooksett, both Republicans, voted against it.

The state is the closest to repealing the death penalty that it’s been since 2000, when both houses of the Legislature approved repeal, but then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen vetoed it. Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would sign the repeal measure, because it wouldn’t affect the death sentence of Michael Addison – convicted of killing Manchester police Officer Michael Briggs in 2006. Addison is the only death row convict in the state, which has not seen an execution since 1939.

Death penalty opponents greeted yesterday’s vote with cautious optimism. Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in separate crimes, has not wavered in his opposition to the death penalty through nearly two decades of sponsoring repeal measures.

“Everybody’s a swing vote,” Cushing said after yesterday’s vote. “It’s not a party issue,” he added. “There are a lot of senators genuinely wrestling with this.”

The House last month voted 225-104 in favor of repeal. The vote in the 24-member Senate – with 13 Republicans and 11 Democrats – could come down to a one-vote margin. A tie vote would kill the measure.

April 11, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Noting the very cautious politics still surrounding pot legalization

Today's New York Times has this interesting lengthy article discussing pot politics under the headline "Despite Support in Party, Democratic Governors Resist Legalizing Marijuana." Here are excerpts:

At a time of rapidly evolving attitudes toward marijuana legalization — a slight majority of Americans now support legalizing the drug — Democratic governors across the country ... find themselves uncomfortably at odds with their own base.

Even with Democrats and younger voters leading the wave of the pro-legalization shift, these governors are standing back, supporting much more limited medical-marijuana proposals or invoking the kind of law-and-order and public-health arguments more commonly heard from Republicans. While 17 more states — most of them leaning Democratic — have seen bills introduced this year to follow Colorado and Washington in approving recreational marijuana, no sitting governor or member of the Senate has offered a full-out endorsement of legalization. Only Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat in Vermont, which is struggling with a heroin problem, said he was open to the idea....

The hesitance expressed by these governors reflects not only governing concerns but also, several analysts said, a historically rooted political wariness of being portrayed as soft on crime by Republicans. In particular, Mr. Brown, who is 75, lived through the culture wars of the 1960s, when Democrats suffered from being seen as permissive on issues like this.

“Either they don’t care about it as passionately or they feel embarrassed or vulnerable. They fear the judgment,” said Ethan Nadelmann, the founder of the Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that favors decriminalization of marijuana. “The fear of being soft on drugs, soft on marijuana, soft on crime is woven into the DNA of American politicians, especially Democrats.” He described that sentiment as, “Do not let yourself be outflanked by Republicans when it comes to being tough on crime and tough on drugs. You will lose.”

In Washington and Colorado, the Democratic governors had opposed legalization from the start, though each made clear that he would follow voters’ wishes in setting up the first legal recreational-marijuana marketplaces in the nation. “If it was up to me, being in the middle of it, and having read all this research and having some concern, I’d tell people just to exercise caution,” Gov. John W. Hickenlooper of Colorado said in a recent interview....

Washington has yet to let its first marijuana stores open — that is expected to happen later this spring — but Gov. Jay Inslee has made his position clear. “As a grandfather, I have the same concerns every grandfather has about misuse of any drug, including alcohol and marijuana,” he said in a telephone interview, adding, “All of us want to see our kids make smart decisions and not allow any drug to become injurious in our life. “I recognized the really rational decision that people made that criminalization efforts were not a successful public policy,” Mr. Inslee continued. “But frankly, I really don’t want to send a message to our kids that this is a route that is without risk.”...

The resistance comes as public opinion on the issue is moving more rapidly than anyone might have anticipated. Nationally, 51 percent of adults support legalizing the drug, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in February, including 60 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of independents and 72 percent of young adults. Even 44 percent of Tea Party members said they wanted the drug legalized....

There is no obvious political upside to supporting legalization, analysts said, and politicians, as a rule, tend to be risk averse. “You don’t hold these positions without having a sense of your own place in history,” said former Representative Patrick J. Kennedy, who joined Mr. Sabet in founding Project SAM, which strives to reduce marijuana use by emphasizing health risks. “They can honestly see that this is not a good move, that it’s going to have huge consequences, not all of which can be foretold.”...

At this point, the prospects for other elected officials jumping on the legalization bandwagon is likely to depend on what happens as the experiments in Washington and Colorado proceed. Among the questions are whether legalization will lead to more drug abuse by teenagers and how much it will fatten state tax coffers.

“I don’t tell other governors what to do,” Mr. Hickenlooper said, “but when they asked me, I said, ‘If I was in your shoes, I would wait a couple of years and see whether

there are unintended consequences, from what is admittedly a well-intentioned law.’”

April 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Is there any likely sentencing or (private) prison reform aspect to big SCOTUS political speech ruling?

The big SCOTUS news this morning is the split 5-4 First Amendment ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC (available here). This press report on the ruling from the Los Angeles Times provides the basics: 

The Supreme Court on Wednesday freed wealthy donors to give more money directly to congressional candidates, extending its controversial 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the door for unlimited independent spending on political issues.

In a 5-4 decision, the court’s conservative majority struck down Watergate-era aggregate limits that barred political donors from giving more than $123,000 a year in total to candidates running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate. The court said this limit violated the free-speech rights of the donors, and it was not needed to prevent “corruption” of the political process. The justices noted that donors mush still abide by rules that prevent them from giving more than $2,600 per election per candidate.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the court, said the 1st Amendment protects a citizen’s free-speech right to give to candidates. “Money in politics may at times seem repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the 1st Amendment protects,” he said. If it protects “flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades — despite the profound offense such spectacles cause — it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition.”

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, speaking for the four dissenters, said the court had opened a huge legal loophole that threatens the integrity of elections. “Taken together with Citizens United, today’s decision eviscerates our nation’s campaign finance laws,” he said.

The question in the title of this post highlights that I am always a blogging criminal justice hammer seeing every important SCOTUS ruling as a possible sentencing nail. Without even reading the full opinion, I wonder if this ruling might end up helping (1) some white-collar defendants and their wealthy friends better support federal legislators and candidates who advocate sentencing reform in arenas that impact these kinds of defendants, and/or (2) private prison companies and their executives support federal legislators and candidates who advocate for continued or expanded reliance on private prisons.

As usual, I am sure I am stretching a bit to view a non-sentencing story as having significant potential sentencing echoes. But maybe readers agree that there could be something to these early post-McCutcheon speculations.

April 2, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, White-collar sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Marijuana industry finds unlikely new allies in conservatives"

The title of this post is the headline of this interesting new article in the Los Angeles Times.  Here are excerpts:

Political contributors are not the only ones taking notice of the new realities of the marijuana business, said San Francisco-based ArcView Chief Executive Troy Dayton, who estimated his group would pump about $500,000 into pot this year.  Officeholders and candidates now jostle for the stage at investor meetings, he said. "A little more than a year ago, it would have been worthy of a headline if a sitting politician came to talk to a cannabis group," he said.  "Now they are calling us, asking to speak at our events."

No clearer example of the change exists than the industry's newest full-time lobbyist, Michael Correia.  An advocate for the 300-member National Cannabis Industry Assn., he is a former GOP staffer who worked two years as a lobbyist for the American Legislative Exchange Council — the powerful conservative advocacy group that has worked with state lawmakers to block the Affordable Care Act, clean energy incentives and gun restrictions.

"People hear the word 'marijuana' and they think Woodstock, they think tie-dye, they think dreadlocks," the San Diego native said. "It is not. These are legitimate businesses producing revenue, creating jobs. I want to be the face of it. I want to be what Congress sees."

Correia doesn't like to smoke pot. It makes him sleepy, he said.  And he isn't among those who have been in the trenches for years fighting for legalization.  For him, the work is largely about the federal government unnecessarily stifling an industry's growth. Any conservative, he said, should be troubled when companies can't claim tax deductions or keep cash in banks or provide plants for federal medical research....

Correia's association ... recently formed an alliance with Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who runs Americans for Tax Reform. In the fall, Norquist stood at a news conference with a longtime nemesis, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the most liberal members of Congress, to promote a measure that would allow marijuana enterprises to deduct business expenses from their taxes.  "Grover's view is government should not pick winners and losers," Correia said. "It is a fairness issue. This resonates with him."

The Marijuana Policy Project recently purchased a building in Washington's vibrant Adams Morgan neighborhood, complete with a rooftop deck. On a recent warm evening, it hosted its first fundraiser there for a Republican, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of Costa Mesa. The next day, Rohrabacher noted the "evil weed" some loiterers had been inhaling outside the building: "They were smoking tobacco," he said.

Rohrabacher is a coauthor of a bill that would require the federal government to defer to state laws that allow marijuana sales. "If it was a secret ballot," he said, "the majority of my Republican friends would vote for it."

March 23, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Why conservatives should oppose the flawed death penalty, too"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Salon commentary authored by Susan Sarandon, Robert Redford and Alex Gibney. Here are excerpts:

For the last two decades, each of us has examined the criminal justice system in our own work. And so with the political debate over capital punishment once again intensifying, we came together this past year to explore the human dramas inside this institution – from cases resulting in exonerations to those still in limbo to those involving indisputable guilt. In the process, we discovered disturbing patterns that reveal systemic problems. These include:

Arbitrariness: A convict’s chances of ending up on death row today depend as much on the crime as on the convict’s race and geographic location. This was most recently documented by a University of Maryland study of Harris County, Texas. This one area in greater Houston has executed more people than any other state in the country. County data showed African American defendants were three times more likely to face the death penalty than similarly situated white defendants. Additionally, African Americans were more than twice as likely as similarly situated whites to receive death sentences from juries....

Law enforcement misconduct: Cases of suppressed evidence often exemplify how the quest for death penalty convictions can foster a culture of unaccountable lawlessness inside the justice system. And as we discovered in our investigation of the John Thompson case in New Orleans, such a culture can become almost impossible to curtail....

Cost: When accounting for pretrial hearings, trials, appeals, security and prison expenses, the death penalty costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Spending that much money on capital punishment costs lives. Why? Because those resources are being diverted from potentially lifesaving programs that could put more police officers on the street, investigate cold cases and prevent recidivist crime.

Failure to deter crime: If the death penalty was deterring crime, perhaps its costs could be justified. But there is far more evidence that it is failing to deter crime. For example, the aggregate homicide rate in death penalty states has been consistently higher than the rate in non-death-penalty states.Likewise, a survey of the nation’s criminologists found 88 percent saying that capital punishment does not deter crime....

As most recently evidenced by the Obamacare websites, the most straightforward government tasks often involve errors and imperfections. Even the most ardent law-and-order conservatives should be able to admit the same truism applies to the government-administered death penalty. If we cannot blindly trust the government to safeguard health, can we trust it to administer death?

Whether Democratic or Republican, legislators can no longer ignore the fatal flaw in the justice system.  At a minimum, we must insist that they find a way to hold prosecutors accountable for misconduct that canl — if intentional — amount to premeditated murder. More broadly, we should insist that lawmakers face the most harrowing question from all of our death row stories: if the institution of capital punishmentl — with consequences so final and irreversible — can never be a perfect instrument of criminal justice, is the institution itself a criminal injustice?

March 21, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

Sunday, March 16, 2014

NY Times sees "A Rare Opportunity on Criminal Justice"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this new New York Times editorial about federal sentencing reform.  Here are excerpts:

The current Congress is the place where virtually all legislation, however urgent or reasonable, goes to die.  Yet out of this stew of partisan mistrust and dysfunction there may come one promising and unexpected achievement: the first major reforms to America’s broken criminal justice system in a generation.

Two bipartisan bills now under consideration aim to unwind our decades-long mass incarceration binge and to keep it from happening again. This fact is remarkable not only because of Congress’s stubborn standstill, but because crime and punishment has long been one of the most combustible issues in American politics....

The Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced in the Senate last year by Richard Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, and Mike Lee, the Utah Republican — would halve mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug crimes, which currently stand at five, 10 and 20 years. It would also give judges more discretion to sentence below the mandatory minimum in some cases, and it would provide a chance at early release for thousands of inmates sentenced under an older law that disproportionately punished crack cocaine offenders.

The Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act, introduced by Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, and John Cornyn, the Texas Republican, would allow low-risk prisoners to earn credit for early release by participating in education, job training and drug treatment programs.

Reforms like these were unthinkable even a few years ago, when the Republicans’ longtime tough-on-crime dogma — echoed by Democrats who fearfully fell into line — drove irrational sentencing laws. Why have things changed so quickly? In a word, money — or the lack of it. The bloated Bureau of Prisons eats up nearly $7 billion a year, a quarter of the Justice Department’s entire budget. Politicians like Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, and Mr. Lee have become the public face of the conservative turnabout, and they deserve credit for their efforts, but it’s important to remember that almost none of this would be happening without the need to save money.

In fact, many of the reforms now under consideration at the federal level began in reliably conservative states, where budget crises long ago demanded sweeping and lasting change. In Texas, which incarcerates more people than any other state, lawmakers have adopted alternatives to prison, such as drug courts and improved community supervision programs, that help keep people from reoffending. The result has been a steady decline in the prison population and the closing of three state prisons, even as crime rates go down. As Mr. Cornyn told The Times, “From Texas’s perspective, the evidence is in.”

Since 2000, 29 states have moved to cut back on mandatory sentences, particularly for low-level and nonviolent drug offenders, according to a new report by the Vera Institute of Justice.

Some prosecutors and politicians warn that all this reform comes at a serious risk to public safety, but the experience of multiple states shows otherwise.  Reserving prison for the most violent offenders saves money, and antirecidivism programs targeted at low-risk inmates protect public safety.

Whether the concern is too much government, too little money, or the inherent unfairness of locking people up for years for no good reason, the energy from both the right and the left is converging, and the moment for meaningful reform has arrived.

Though I share the general perspective that there is a “fierce urgency of now" for federal sentencing reforms, I disagree that money explains these recent developments at the federal level.  States, especially red states, have been at the forefront of modern sentencing reforms because of the need to balance budgets without raising taxes, but the feds have long shown a willingness to borrow money for any and all federal priorities. Rather, I think there is a new generation of politicians and voters who no longer view crime as much more salient concern than just and effective punishment.

Younger and more diverse politicians and voters appreciate that too much government and punishment can be as worrisome as a bit more crime, and that is what I think we are now finally getting a much more balanced federal political discourse about these issues than we did a generation ago. (Notably, the Baby Boomers were the first major generation who did not directly experience/witness the harms/problems of Prohobition and totalitarian regimes, so it makes some sense that generation would embrace a big criminal justice system eschewed by their parents and their children.)

March 16, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (32) | TrackBack

Friday, March 14, 2014

"G.O.P. Moving to Ease Its Stance on Sentencing"

The title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new New York Times article, which reports on political developments that should be largely well-known to regular readers of this blog.  Here are snippets (with a key legislative development highlighted in the middle):

[L]eading Republicans are saying that mandatory minimum sentences in the federal system have failed — too costly, overly punitive and ineffective. So they are embracing a range of ideas from Republican-controlled states that have reduced prison populations and brought down the cost of incarceration.

The shift turns upside down the “war on crime” ethos on the right, and even among some on the left, an approach that has dominated the policy of punishment for more than two decades.

Religious conservatives see these efforts as offering compassion and the hope of reuniting broken families. Fiscal conservatives say the proposals would shave billions off the federal budget. The combination has made closing prisons and releasing inmates who no longer appear to pose a threat new articles of faith among politicians who would have rejected them out of hand only a few years ago....

The changes represent a rare example of both parties agreeing in a major area of domestic policy. The Obama administration is engaged and supportive of the efforts in Congress, as was evident on Thursday when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. endorsed a proposal that would reduce prison sentences for people convicted of dealing drugs, the latest sign that the White House is making criminal justice a priority of President Obama’s second term.

Bipartisan talks to move forward on a broad criminal justice bill have escalated in recent days. Republicans and Democrats are in early discussions about combining two bills that the Senate Judiciary Committee approved overwhelmingly this year. The first would give judges more discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in lower-level drug cases, cut down mandatory sentences for other drug offenses, and make retroactive the 2010 law that shrunk the disparity between cocaine and crack-cocaine sentences.

The second bill seeks to tackle the other end of the problem by establishing a skills-training and early-release system for those who already are incarcerated but are considered at low risk of committing another crime. Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, has signaled to both parties in the chamber that he will bring a criminal justice bill to the floor this year.

These proposals have united political odd couples. Senator Mike Lee of Utah, along with and Senator Ted Cruz and Senator John Cornyn, both of Texas — some of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate — are aligned with Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who are among the more liberal Democrats. The subject consumed an animated panel discussion last weekend at CPAC, the annual gathering of conservatives, with Grover Norquist, the antitax advocate; Gov. Rick Perry of Texas; and Bernard B. Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner....

Mr. Cornyn, a former judge and the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, identified another conservative ideal behind the changes: They originated in the states, where most Republicans would prefer to let policies develop and mature. “When the states take the initiative, it goes from being a theory or a philosophy or an ideological discussion to ‘What’s the evidence?’ ” he said. “From Texas’s perspective, the evidence is in.”...

Mr. Whitehouse noted how politically and demographically diverse the states were that formed the basis for the Senate’s legislative model. “The states we’d talk most about,” he said, “were Rhode Island, Texas, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Go figure.”

Some Republicans want to take the changes even further. Legislation that Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is drafting would restore voting rights for some nonviolent felons and convert some drug felonies to misdemeanors.

Mr. Paul, who is a possible presidential candidate in 2016 and has been courting constituencies like African-Americans and young people who feel alienated by the Republican Party, said it was only a matter of time before more Republicans joined him. “I’m not afraid of appearing to be not conservative enough,” he said, explaining that he got the idea for his legislation by talking with black constituents in the western part of Louisville who complained to him that criminal convictions were often crosses to bear for years, keeping them from voting and getting jobs.

“I don’t think most of the country thinks marijuana is a good idea,” Mr. Paul added. “But I think most of the country thinks that if you happen to get caught doing it when you’re a teenager you should get a second chance.” Like several of the Republicans who have changed their minds on the issue, Mr. Paul has a personal story that helped shape his position. The brother of a good friend, he said, is unable to vote today because 30 years ago he was convicted of growing marijuana — a felony.

For Mr. Portman, it was his encounters with a man about his age, a drug addict who had been in and out of the system several times but received the assistance he needed in prison to help turn around his life. “He’s got dignity and self-respect,” Mr. Portman said. “These stories are unbelievably encouraging.”

For Mr. Lee, who like Mr. Whitehouse, Mr. Cornyn and many of the other lawmakers involved in drafting the legislation has experience as a prosecutor or judge, it was seeing firsthand the inflexible nature of the federal sentencing system. “As an assistant U.S. attorney, I saw from time to time instances in which a judge would say, ‘I’m not sure this sentence makes sense, in fact I have real reservations about it. But I have to,’ ” Mr. Lee said. “Those memories have stayed with me.”

Some longtime supporters of overhauling the federal sentencing and prison systems wish Republicans had come to see their way sooner. But they still marvel at the turnaround. “It’s really striking,” said Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project. “Now they’re arguing the other way: who can be the smartest on crime.”

March 14, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (36) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Notable talk of sentencing reform at CPAC conference

LogoAs highlighted in this Washinton Post article, headlined "Conservatives try to make criminal justice reform a signature issue," this year's Conservative Political Action Conference included a notable panel on criminal justice reform.  Here are excerpts:

[Rick] Perry appeared alongside several other conservatives, including Grover Norquist, on a panel about criminal justice reform and how those reforms are being pushed by several Republican states.

While it was sandwiched between better-attended sessions, the discussion of Republican progress on reforming the criminal justice system was one of the few CPAC sessions that laid out a true pathway forward for a party that desperately wants to expand demographically....

[O]n issues of sentencing reform and prison recidivism, Republicans — especially several governors in Southern states — have been the leaders, earning praise from prison reform groups on both sides of the aisle for efforts to save money by implementing rehabilitation programs and curbing skyrocketing prison costs....

That’s why the criminal justice discussion at CPAC surpasses the practice-run stump speeches of 2016 hopefuls in importance if the GOP’s stated desire to re-brand is for real. “This is our chance to show we can provide solutions to affect significant problems,” said Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

The renewed focus on cost-s­aving reforms marks a dramatic, decade-long shift by Republican governors, many of whom previously won election by stumping on tough-on-crime platforms. But, as many of those governors have noted, one way to cut state costs is to decrease the number of people being locked up for nonviolent offenses and rid the law books of mandatory minimum sentences for such offenses.

In addition to Perry, prominent Republicans who once trumpeted tough-on-crime ­stances and now call for sentencing changes and rehabilitation programs for drug and other nonviolent offenders include former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a tea party hero, has made reform of mandatory minimum sentences a major focus in recent months. “We’re not a soft-on-crime state, you know what I’m saying? . . . We’re tough on crime,” Perry said. “But I hope we are also seen as a smart-on-crime state.”

While the room emptied out a little right before the panel — which followed a speech by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — many CPAC attendees did stick around, which should be encouraging for center-right Republicans who have called for a more solutions-oriented message from the party. On Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declared that “our ideas are better than their ideas.”

This article from The Nation provides some additional information about the CPAC discussion of criminal justice reform, and it starts this way:

Pat Nolan strode to the podium and rattled off the facts: more than 2 million Americans are in prison, meaning one in every hundred adults is incarcerated. Fewer than half of those in prison are there for violent crimes; most are drug offenders; and state budgets are badly strained by maintaining this system. Then he read a quote: “Only a nation that’s rich and stupid would continue to pour billions into a system that leaves prisoners unreformed, victims ignored and communities still living in fear of crime.”

This wasn’t an ACLU convention nor an academic confab, however — it was the Conservative Political Action Conference, the infamous annual showcase of the far-right boundaries of the Republican Party. Just before this panel on criminal justice reform began, former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was onstage accusing President Obama of lying about Benghazi and pronouncing that “the IRS is a criminal enterprise.”

But the panel was far more substantive. Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke at length about unnecessarily punitive mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, as well as the wisdom of drug courts that divert addicts out of the penal system and into treatment. During his time as governor, Perry has become one of the more aggressive prison reformers in the country. In 2011, the state actually closed a prison because it couldn’t be filled thanks in large part to the declining incarceration rate. (Before Perry, George W. Bush oversaw the construction of thirty-eight new prisons.) “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said. “Stop the recidivism rates—lower them. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.”

Then there was former New York City Police Chief Bernie Kerik, who no doubt has a unique view on the criminal justice system: aside from being police chief and running Rikers Island, he also was incarcerated for three years on conspiracy and tax fraud charges. Kerik spoke passionately about the number of people he met in federal prison who who were there for nonviolent drug offenses—people who got ten years for drugs “the weight of a nickel.”

Some older and recent posts on the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

March 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Florida conservatives now talking up nuanced positions on marijuana reform

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Conservative committee opens door to medical marijuana for Florida," a notable swing/southern state now has a number of notable legislators talking in notable ways about marijuana reform.  Here are excerpts:

One conservative Republican who has suffered from brain cancer talked about the deceit of the federal government in hiding the health benefits of marijuana for his cancer. Another legislator reluctantly met with a South Florida family, only to be persuaded to support legalizing the drug.

Then there was Rep. Charles Van Zant, the surly Republican from Palatka who is considered the most conservative in the House. He not only voted with his colleagues Wednesday to pass out the bill to legalize a strain of marijuana for medical purposes, he filed the amendment to raise the amount of psychoactive ingredients allowed by law — to make it more likely the drug will be effective.

The 11-1 vote by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, was a historic moment for the conservatives in the GOP-dominated House. It was the first time in modern history that the Florida Legislature voted to approve any marijuana-related product. “That’s because people here in Tallahassee have realized that we can’t just have a bumper-sticker approach to marijuana where you’re either for it or against it,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, the committee chairman and sponsor of the bill after the emotional hearing. “Not all marijuana is created equally.”

The committee embraced the proposal, HB 843, by Gaetz and Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, after hearing heart-wrenching testimony from families whose children suffer from chronic epilepsy. A similar bill is awaiting a hearing in the Senate, where Senate president Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and Matt’s father, has said he has heard the testimony from the families and he wants the bill to pass as a first step. “Here I am, a conservative Republican but I have to try to be humble about my dogma,” Senate President Don Gaetz told the Herald/Times....

For a committee known for its dense, often tedious scrutiny of legal text, the debate was remarkable. Rep. Dave Hood, a Republican trial lawyer from Daytona Beach who has been diagnosed with brain cancer, talked about how the federal government knew in 1975 of the health benefits of cannabis in stopping the growth of “brain cancer, of lung cancer, glaucoma and 17 diseases including Lou Gehrig’s disease” but continued to ban the substance. “Frankly, we need to be a state where guys like me, who are cancer victims, aren’t criminals in seeking treatment I’m entitled too,” Hood said.

Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said he had his mind made up in opposition to the bill, then changed his mind after meeting the Hyman family of Weston. Their daughter, Rebecca, suffers from Dravet’s Syndrome. “We’ve got a plant here on God’s green earth that’s got a stigma to it — but it’s got a medical value,” Eagle said, “I don’t want to look into their eyes and say I’m sorry we can’t help you,” he said. “We need to put the politics aside today and help these families in need.”

The Florida Sheriff’s Association, which adamantly opposes a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for medical use in Florida, surprised many when it chose not to speak up. Its lobbyist simply announced the group was “in support.” The bi-partisan support for the bill was summed up by Rep. Dave Kerner, a Democrat and lawyer from Lake Worth. “We sit here, we put words on a piece of paper and they become law,” he said. “It’s very rare as a legislator that we have an opportunity with our words to save a life.”

The only opposing vote came from Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, an advocate for the Florida Medical Association. Her husband is a doctor. She looked at the families in the audience and, as tears welled in her eyes, she told them: “I can’t imagine how desperate you must be and I want to solve this problem for you.” But, she said the bill had “serious problems.” It allowed for a drug to be dispensed without clinical trials and absent the kind of research that is needed to protect patients from harm. “I really think we need to address this using science,” Harrell said, suggesting legislators should launch a pilot program to study and test the effectiveness of the marijuana strain. “This bill takes a step in the right direction … but it’s not quite there.”

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

March 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Kentucky GOP representative sets out "conservative arguments in favor of repeal" of the death penalty

I just cam across this recent op-ed by David Floyd, a Republican member of Kentucky's General Assembly, explaining why he has introduced a bill to repeal his state's death penalty.  Here are some excerpts from the op-ed:

My initial opposition formed through a spiritual lens, so in 2007 I joined others in cosponsoring legislation to repeal the death penalty.  But I was the only conservative legislator in a group of liberals.  Over these last few years, “liberal” and spiritual arguments have failed to persuade other legislators to take up these bills.

How, then, might we bring other conservatives with us, and at last vote to abolish our death penalty?  This can be done by exploring together conservative arguments in favor of repeal.

• Conservatives value innocent life and should not support a state government program that can kill innocent people....

• Conservatives are mindful of the potential to abuse power that has been granted by the people, and should not trust the government with the power to execute a person who is safely behind bars....

• Conservatives are the first to call out government programs that fail to meet intended goals and cost exorbitant amounts of money....

• Conservatives want a government that will balance budgets, cut waste and eliminate programs that do not make fiscal sense.

Kentucky’s death penalty is a program that costs a lot while accomplishing little. We’ve spent well more than $100 million on the death penalty since 1976 — and executed three people.  Having a death penalty is clearly wasting taxpayer dollars, while a penalty of life without the possibility of parole makes much better economic sense....

Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust. We’ve tried to make the death penalty work, but we have been unable to fix its many problems and reconcile it with our conservative principles. We should repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole.  It’s the only way to ensure that no innocent people are killed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and that those impacted by the process get finality much sooner.

March 5, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Monday, March 03, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new New York Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Shortly after Senator Rand Paul filed suit last month against the Obama administration to stop its electronic dragnet of American phone records, he sat down for lunch with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in his private dining room at the Justice Department.

Mr. Paul, a Kentucky Republican, is one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics. But their discussion focused on an issue on which they have found common cause: eliminating mandatory-minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The Democratic attorney general and the possible Republican presidential candidate are unlikely allies. But their partnership is crucial to an alliance between the nation’s first African-American attorney general, who sees his legacy in a renewed focus on civil rights, and some of Congress’s most prominent libertarians, who have accused the Obama administration of trampling on personal freedom with drones, wiretaps, tracking devices and too much government.

Together, they could help bring about the most significant liberalization of sentencing laws since President Richard M. Nixon declared war on drugs. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted to abolish the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine offenses and those for powdered cocaine, a vestige of the crack epidemic. Now, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress are pushing to go even further. Mr. Holder wants to make prisoners eligible for early release if they were sentenced under the now-abolished crack guidelines. And he wants judges to have more discretion when it comes to sentencing nonviolent drug offenders....

Libertarian-minded Republicans see long prison sentences as an ineffective and expensive way to address crime. “This is the definition of how you get bipartisan agreement,” Mr. Paul said in an interview. “It’s not splitting the difference. It’s finding areas of common interest.”

Mr. Paul is backing a sentencing overhaul bill, also supported by Mr. Holder and the Obama administration, that he predicts will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans. The bill’s sponsors include Democratic stalwarts such as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the Judiciary Committee chairman, as well as Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas

Similar legislation is pending in the House, where libertarians and Tea Party conservatives will be crucial to determining its fate if it comes up for a vote. That is the same group that bucked the Obama administration and nearly succeeded in passing legislation prohibiting the National Security Agency from seizing the phone records of millions of Americans.

Some Republicans say that they are the ones being consistent on matters of protecting liberties, and that Mr. Holder’s push for changes to the sentencing laws is a step in their direction, not the other way around. “I would say Eric Holder supports me and my civil liberties bill,” said one of the House bill’s sponsors, Representative Raúl R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican who once demanded Mr. Holder’s resignation over the botched gun-trafficking case called Operation Fast and Furious....

Mr. Holder noted that a third of the Justice Department’s budget is spent running prisons. That resonates with fiscal conservatives like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah. Mr. Chaffetz once suggested that Republicans might have Mr. Holder arrested for contempt. But Mr. Holder recently had him for breakfast at the Justice Department....

Mr. Chaffetz said his conversations with Mr. Holder represented “one of the few instances I can point to where we’re starting to make some kid steps forward” toward bipartisan collaboration.... “I think there’s a realization that we’re not actually solving the problem with some of these drug crimes,” Mr. Chaffetz added. “But on the other side of the coin, there’s no trust with the Obama administration. None.”...

Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican and a former federal prosecutor, joined Mr. Chaffetz for breakfast at the Justice Department and described Mr. Holder as a gracious host. “The fact that he’s taking the time to talk to two backbenchers, he certainly didn’t have to do that,” Mr. Gowdy said.

Mr. Gowdy said he was convinced that mandatory sentences made little sense for minor offenses. But he doubts that a sentencing bill can pass the House, in part because voters in Republican districts oppose so many of the Obama administration’s policies. Mr. Holder’s push for same-sex marriage does not make it easier, he said.

Mr. Paul was more optimistic. He said conservatives and liberals would join in support of changing sentencing laws, just as they have joined in opposition of the N.S.A.'s domestic surveillance programs.... As the meeting concluded, they agreed to work together and said their goodbyes. Then Mr. Paul wryly added, “I’ll see you in court.”

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

March 3, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (26) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Curious racial politics omission in otherwise astute analysis of Prez Obama's criminal justice reform record

New York Times big-wig Bill Keller has this interesting final column headlined "Crime and Punishment and Obama," which discusses his transition to a notable new job in the context of a review of Prez Obama's criminal justice record.  Here are excerpts of a piece which should be read in full and which, as my post title suggests, does not discuss racial politics as much as I would expect: 

[W]hen the former community organizer took office, advocates of reform had high expectations.

In March I will give up the glorious platform of The Times to help launch something new: a nonprofit journalistic venture called The Marshall Project (after Thurgood Marshall, the great courtroom champion of civil rights) and devoted to the vast and urgent subject of our broken criminal justice system.  It seems fitting that my parting column should address the question of how this president has lived up to those high expectations so far....

In his first term Obama did not make this a signature issue; he rarely mentioned the subject....

In practice, the administration’s record has been more incremental than its rhetoric.

By the crudest metric, the population of our prisons, the Obama administration has been unimpressive.  The famously shocking numbers of Americans behind bars (the U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s people, incarcerates nearly a quarter of all prisoners on earth) have declined three years in a row.  However the overall downsizing is largely thanks to California and a handful of other states.  In overstuffed federal prisons, the population continues to grow, fed in no small part by Obama’s crackdown on immigration violators.

Obama is, we know, a cautious man, leery of getting ahead of public opinion and therefore sometimes far behind it.  And some reform advocates argue that it made sense for Obama to keep a low profile until a broad bipartisan consensus had gathered.  That time has come. Now that Obama-scorners like Senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee and even Ted Cruz are slicing off pieces of justice reform for their issue portfolios, now that red states like Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky have embraced alternatives to prison, criminal justice is one of those rare areas where there is common ground to be explored and tested.

The Obama presidency has almost three years to go, and there is reason to hope that he will feel less constrained, that the eight commutations were not just a pittance but, as he put it, “a first step,” that Holder’s mounting enthusiasm for saner sentencing is not just talk, but prelude, that the president will use his great pulpit to prick our conscience.

“This is something that matters to the president,” Holder assured me last week.  “This is, I think, going to be seen as a defining legacy for this administration.”  I’ll be watching, and hoping that Holder’s prediction is more than wishful thinking

This column covers a lot of modern criminal justice ground quite well, and gets me even more excited for Keller's forthcoming new journalistic venture called The Marshall Project. But I find curious and notable that this commentary does not directly address the racialized political dynamics that necessarily surrounds the first African-American Prez and AG if and whenever they prioritize criminal justice reform.

I have heard that Thurgood Marshall, when doing advocacy work with the NAACP before he became a judge, was disinclined to focus on criminal justice reform because he realized the politics of race made it hard enough for him to garner support for even law-abiding people of color. Consequently, while important federal elections in which Prez Obama is the key player still loom, I suspect the Prez and his team have made a very calculated decision to only move very slowly (and behind folks like Senator Rand Paul) on these matters.

And yet, just as Thurgood Marshall could and did make criminal justice reform a priority when he became a judge and Justice insulated from political pressure, so too am I expecting that Prez Obama will prioritize criminal justice issues once he in the last two lame-duck years of his time in the Oval Office. Two years is ample time for the Prez to make federal criminal justice reform a "defining legacy for this administration," and there is good reason to think political and social conditions for bold reform work will be in place come 2015 and 2016 (even with the inevitably racialized realities surrounding these issues).

February 25, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, February 08, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Senator Rand Paul telling fellow conservatives to focus on criminal justice reform

Regular readers know I have become a huge fan of Senator Rand Paul because he seem eager to highlight that his principled disaffinity for big government extends to modern criminal justice system.  In turn, I was excited, but not all that surprised, to see this Politico report concerning a recent speech by Senator Paul in which he preached about the importance (and political value) of conservatives giving serious attention to criminal justice reforms:

In the speech sponsored by the American Principles Project, a deeply conservative organization with a special focus on social issues, Paul offered up jokes and wry commentary. But he also sought to bridge the oft-perceived gap between libertarians and strict social conservatives.

“‘Libertarian’ …doesn’t mean ‘libertine,’” he said. “To many of us libertarian means freedom and liberty. But we also see that freedom needs tradition.”

He added: “I don’t see libertarianism as, you can do whatever you want. There is a role for government, there’s a role for family, there’s a role for marriage, there’s a role for the protection of life.” Paul stressed that the value of marriage is economic, as well as “moral” and “religious,” and that those virtues can be communicated through families and communities as well as through the government.

He also singled out criminal justice reform as one area that could help the Republican Party expand and improve its brand. “I think there are things we can and should talk about, as Christians, who believe in forgiveness,” he said. “I think the criminal justice system should have some element of forgiveness.”

Paul, who was elected to the Senate in 2010, has been a crusader on the issue of reforming sentencing for drug-related crimes and finding alternative methods for dealing with non-violent drug offenders. He noted that that’s not a typical Republican policy priority, but advocated talking “about these issues” and taking them to minority communities, where, he said, disproportionate numbers of people are hit hard by tough drug policies.

“I think these are things we can look at,” Paul said. To applause, he continued, “I’m not talking about legalization. I’m talking about making the criminal justice system more fair and giving people a second chance when they serve their time.”

Some recent and older related posts:

February 6, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Heritage Foundation apparently endorsing Smarter Sentencing Act; where do other conservative groups and media stand?

A conservative friend alerted me to this notable entry from the blog of The Heritage Foundation authored by Evan Bernick and headlined "Time to Reconsider Mandatory Minimum Sentences."   Here are excerpts: 

The Smarter Sentencing Act is narrowly tailored to address one of the most pressing problems with mandatory minimums — arbitrary, severe punishments for nonviolent offenses— while leaving for another day the question of whether mandatory minimums should apply to violent crimes....

Mandatory minimums were intended to address widely acknowledged problems with the criminal justice system. But good intentions don’t necessarily give rise to good results. In particular, some drug offenses, which make up a significant proportion of mandatory minimums, can give rise to unduly severe punishments. The difference between a drug quantity that triggers a mandatory minimum and one that does not will often produce a “cliff effect.” For example, someone with 0.9 grams of LSD might not spend much time incarcerated, but another fraction of a gram will result in a five years behind bars. It is difficult to conclude that the additional one-tenth of a gram demands a minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment in every case, regardless of its facts.

The Smarter Sentencing Act would allow judges to sentence nonviolent drug offenders below a mandatory minimum if the court finds that the defendant is not a serious offender (that is, the defendant has a limited or no criminal history, as defined by the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, and no prior firearm, racketeering, terrorism, or sex offense convictions). The act would also make retroactive the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, which prospectively reduced the disparity between the amount of crack cocaine and powder cocaine needed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences.

Mandatory minimum sentences have wrought terrible injustices in certain cases.  Granting district courts some additional limited sentencing discretion would improve the status quo without returning us to the era of unbounded judicial discretion.  It’s encouraging that, at a time when bipartisan consensus is difficult to come by, there is broad agreement that there are some problems with our federal criminal laws that ought to be addressed.  Too many mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses committed by low-level offenders do not serve the ends of justice and leave no room for mercy.

I am not sure if this blog post represents the official view of The Heritage Foundation and therefore amounts to an official endorsement of the SSA.  But I am sure that those eager to see the SSA move forward in Congress should be encouraged to see this kind of sentiment being expressed on the website of a very influential think tank which says here that its "mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." 

I am hopeful, based in part on the calls for reform represented by the votes and voices of Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, that a number of other groups and media with a mission "to formulate and promote conservative public policies" will also be vocal supporters of the Smarter Sentencing Act. If other prominent conservative groups echo the sentiments expressed above, my optimism about serious sentencing reforms being passed through this Congress may start to grow considerably.

A few older and more recent related posts:

February 2, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (41) | TrackBack

Friday, January 31, 2014

Will Tea Party players (and new MMs) be able to get the Smarter Sentencing Act through the House?

I am quite pleased and excited to see that yesterday the Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA)received significant Republican support within in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Senators Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voting in support of significant reforms to modern drug sentencing rules. Given that there are three other Tea Party Caucus Senators (Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), I am relatively hopeful that establishment Republicans may not be able to prevent the SSA's passage in the full Senate.

Unfortunately for supporters of drug sentencing reform, establishment Republicans are in control in the House of Representatives, and I assume House Speaker John Beohner and/or other House leaders could quash the SSA if an whenever they might want. But what I do not know, either practically or politically, is whether establishment Republicans in the House want to kill the SSA and/or whether Tea Party players in the House are as eager to see this bill become law as some in the Senate were.

Adding to the practical and political intrigue is the intriguing fact that, as explained in this article, there are now some new mandatory minimums travelling with the SSA thanks to an amendment by the establishment Republicans on the Senate side:

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 by a wide margin Thursday, taking a major step toward reducing mandatory drug-related sentences. Amendments attached to the bill, however, would also establish new mandatory sentences for sex crimes, domestic violence and terrorism.

The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and has significant bipartisan support. Its primary aim is to allow greater sentencing flexibility and would reduce various drug-related mandatory minimums from five, 10 and 20 years to two, five and 10 years. It would also allow prisoners with crack cocaine convictions to have their punishments revisited in light of the 2010 law that lessened penalties for the drug.

In a frustrating blow to some reformers, committee members adopted three amendments from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would add the new minimum sentences. Committee members voted 15-3 to establish a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for federal sexual abuse crimes and 15-3 to created a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for interstate domestic violence resulting in death of the victim.

Though I have a general disaffinity for any new mandatory minimums, I am ultimately pleased by additions to the SSA that Senator Grassley added if they will aid passage of the bill. The drug mandatory reductions in the amended SSA would impact tens of thousands of federal cases every year, whereas the new mandatory minimums would likely impact only a few dozen.  I am hopeful that the added minimums might make it that much easier for establishment Republicans to vote for the SSA and for House leaders to bring the bill up for a vote.  (My gut instinct is that perhaps as many as 300 members of the full House would vote for the amended version of the SSA if it gets to a floor vote, but I remain worried it might never do so because of the establishment Republican forces eager to keep this part of the federal government big.) 

Some recent and older posts about the "new politics" of sentencing reform:

January 31, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Though Prez Obama ignores sentencing reform in State of the Union, AG Holder talks it up to Senate Judiciary Committee

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, that during last night's State of the Union address, President Obama showed his distinct unwillingness to be a real leader in the arena of federal sentencing reform.  I had heard rumors that some mention of sentencing reform was possible in SOTU, but I surmise that Prez Obama cares too little about this issue to give it even a brief mention in an hour-long speech about his vision and priorities for the nation.  (In sharp contrast, as highlighted here, President George W. Bush made some quite progressive criminal justice reform comments in both his 2004 and 2005 State of the Union address.)

But while Prez Obama apparently is disinterested in these matters (or thinks they make for bad politics), his Attorney General seems to remain committed to move forward with needed federal sentencing reforms.  Specifically, consider these closing paragraphs in this prepared statement delivered today by AG Eric Holder to the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary:

[O]ur commitment to integrity and equal justice in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community ... is also reflected in the new “Smart on Crime” initiative I announced this past August — to strengthen our federal criminal justice system; to increase our emphasis on proven diversion, rehabilitation, and reentry programs; and to reduce unnecessary collateral consequences for those seeking to rejoin their communities. As part of the “Smart on Crime” approach, I mandated a significant change to the Justice Department’s charging policies to ensure that people accused of certain low-level federal drug crimes will face sentences appropriate to their individual conduct — and that stringent mandatory minimum sentences will be reserved for the most serious criminals.  Alongside other important reforms, this change will make our criminal justice system not only fairer, but also more efficient.  And it will complement proposals like the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act — introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Mike Lee — which would give judges more discretion in determining appropriate sentences for people convicted of certain federal drug crimes.

I look forward to working with Chairman Leahy, distinguished members of this Committee, and other leaders who have shown a commitment to common-sense sentencing reform – like Senator Rand Paul — to help advance this and other legislation.  I thank you all, once again, for your continued support of the Department of Justice.  And I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

A few recent related posts:

January 29, 2014 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Sunday, January 26, 2014

GOP leaders now getting what Mitt missed: drug war reform may make good politics (as well as being principled) for small-government conservatives

Jindal and perryTwo years ago, just when Mitt Romney was finally sewing up the Republican nomination and could pivot his campaign toward wooing general election voters, I wrote this post suggesting it might be shrewd for Romney to consider trying to appeal to independents, young voters and minorities by talking up sentencing and drug war reforms. I followed up these ideas via this April 2012 Daily Beast commentary suggesting Romney should consider embracing "what Right On Crime calls the 'conservative case' for criminal-justice reform, and in doing so appeal to groups of independent and minority voters (especially young ones) while demonstrating a true commitment to some core conservative values about the evils of big government."

Two years later, it is (too) easy for me to assert that Mitt Romney might be preparing his own State of the Union address now had he taken my advice on this front.  Nevertheless, I am hardly the only one who came to see that Mitt missed the boat with younger and minority voters.  Romney himself commented that his campaign "fell short ... in being able to speak openly and effectively to minority populations," and this post-election post-mortem done by RNC Chair Reince Priebus highlighted that "young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the [GOP] represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country."

These 2012 issues all came to mind again when I read this interesting new post by Alex Kriet over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.  The post is titled "More politicians backing marijuana reform," and it notes that "the past few days have seen a number of prominent Republican politicians express support for easing marijuana laws." Alex provides excerpts from recent comments by Governors Christie, Jindal and Perry and noted that they are "three Republicans rumored to be considering 2016 presidential bids [who are all] expressing support for easing drug laws."

Of course, even among leading conservative voices, these three prominent GOP Governors are coming a bit late to the sentencing and drug war reform table.  The Right on Crime movement has now been going strong for more than three years, with conservative stalwarts like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Grover Norquist signing on to this statement of principles that "we must also be tough on criminal justice spending ... [to reconsider our] reliance on prisons ... [which can] have the unintended consequence of hardening nonviolent, low-risk offenders — making them a greater risk to the public than when they entered."  And, two of the most prominent elected Tea Partiers, Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, have been co-sponsors and prominent supports of bill to reform some of the harshest and most rigid aspects of the federal sentencing system. 

Regular readers know I have long asserted that anyone truly and deeply committed to oft-stressed conservative principles of constitutionally limited government, transparency, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise should be troubled by the size and power of modern American criminal justice systems, especially at the federal level. But Alex's astute observation that many GOP leaders considered viable national candidates for 2016 are now talking up sentencing and drug war reforms suggests that Republican leaders are now getting what Mitt missed — GOP talk of serious criminal justice reform (especially at the federal level) may now be very smart politics as well as being in keeping with prominent conservative principles.

Some recent and older related posts:

January 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (22) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Maryland Gov. candidate running on "comprehensive plan to legalize and regulate marijuana"

MizAs reported in this local article, headlined "Gubernatorial Candidate Mizeur Proposes Marijuana Legalization In Md.," a relatively high-profile candidate in a relatively high-profile state has come out with a campaign message that ensures she will be endorsed by High Times.  Here are the basics:

A candidate for governor wants to legalize the recreational use of marijuana and she’s drawing passionate reaction.... It comes from Democratic candidate Heather Mizeur and would highly regulate the use of pot. She says it’s time to decriminalize it and she’s making more than just political waves.

For the first time, a major party candidate for Maryland governor wants to open the door to legalized recreational marijuana use. “We will take the underground market that exists for everyone trying to access this substance and bring it to the light of day,” Mizeur said.

Mizeur says it would only be for those over 21, illegal to smoke in public and she wants to tax it $50 an ounce, bringing in as much as $157 million a year for education. “Drug dealers on the streets are still selling marijuana to children. They’re not asking for an ID,” she said.

But critics like former addict and counselor Mike Gimbel call the controversial proposal dangerous. “It is totally backwards, irresponsible, stupid and it’s going to hurt people and nobody really seems to care,” he said.

A poll last month showed 51 percent of Marylanders support legalization and 40 percent oppose it.... Maryland is surrounded by jurisdictions that have legalized medical marijuana like D.C. and Delaware, and states considering doing so, like Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Past attempts for less strict laws have largely failed here and none of Delegate Mizeur’s opponents – Democratic or Republican – support it.

What I find especially noteworthy (and appealing) about this political development is that delegate Mizeur seems eager to make marijuana reform a centerpiece of her campaign and she has this part her official website promoting this detailed 11-page document titled "A Comprehensive Plan to Legalize and Regulate Marijuana in Maryland." Here is how that document gets started:

Marijuana's time as a controlled, illegal substance has run its course.  Marijuana laws ruin lives, are enforced with racial bias, and distract law enforcement from serious and violent crimes. Marijuana criminalization costs our state hundreds of millions of dollars every year without making us any safer.  A Maryland with legalized, regulated, and taxed marijuana will mean safer communities, universal childhood education, and fewer citizens unnecessarily exposed to our criminal justice system.

I do not know local Maryland politics well enough to have any real idea if Mizeur has any real chance to become the next governor of Maryland.  But I do have an idea that her campaign on this issue is just the latest sign of being in interesting political times concerning drug laws and policies.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

November 21, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack