Thursday, July 03, 2014

Fascinating suggestion of "Mitt Romney for drug czar"

The always brilliant and provocative lawprof Mark Osler has this brilliant and provocative new commentary in the Detroit News headlined "Mitt Romney for drug czar." Here is how it starts:

In a series of public appearances, Detroit native Mitt Romney has planted the idea that he might run for president again in 2016. He should resist the idea; that day has passed.

Instead, Romney should apply his experience and passion to public service in a different way: The Mitt Romney who founded Bain Capital and saved the Utah Winter Olympics should be Drug Czar, and use his financial acumen to destroy the narcotics trade without mass incarceration.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney was celebrated (by Republicans) and eviscerated (by Democrats) for his vocation: building up and tearing down businesses. Regardless of how one views the social utility of this enterprise, no one can dispute that Romney is a smart, passionate, well-educated man who loves public service and was very good at what he did while working for Bain Capital.

Romney’s availability matches up with a special moment for narcotics policy. There is a broad right-left consensus that the stale tactics of the war on drugs failed miserably. It wasted billions of dollars in taxpayer money while failing to limit drug use. Meanwhile, millions of Americans went to prison, and a disproportionate number of them were black thanks to harsh new laws focused on crack cocaine. There was something to offend everyone.

I like this idea sooooo much, I really wonder if it could possibly get any legs inside the Beltway. On all modern drug crime and punishment issues — ranging from marijuana reform in the states to the surge of addiction to opiods and heroin to the reduction of federal drug sentences — the country really needs to widely respected "numbers guy" who could bring a clear-headed business perspective to analyzing the pros and cons of various suggested policy initiatives.  I would trust Mitt Romney to be that guy as much, if not more, than just about anyone else President Obama might place in this role.  

July 3, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Others starting to appreciate "Rand Paul, Criminal Justice Hero"

I am very pleased to see this new Slate commentary by Emily Bazelon headlined "Rand Paul, Criminal Justice Hero: The senator from Kentucky wants to give ex-felons the vote even though they won’t vote Republican." The piece not only highlights the credit Senator Paul should be given for his principled approach to criminal justice reform, it also demonstrates why right now he is arguably the most important active criminal justice reformer in the nation.  Here are excerpts:

When libertarian Republicans go on about the “tyranny” of the federal government, as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul is prone to do, I tune out. But not today. Paul has been talking for a while about how his conception of tyranny extends to long, draconian prison sentences for mostly poor and black offenders. Now he is introducing a bill that would restore voting rights to nonviolent ex-felons in federal elections. This bill is not about to become law any time soon. But give Paul credit for standing on principle even though he and his party would hardly benefit.

If Congress really re-enfranchised ex-cons across the land, it would help Democrats. It would probably be enough to swing a close Senate race in some states—or to push Florida into the D column in a presidential election. In 2010, according to this policy brief by the Sentencing Project, 5.85 million people across the country couldn’t vote because they were either in prison or had a felony record (which in 12 states also disqualifies you at the polls)....

To state the obvious, if these ex-cons voted, they would break for Democrats. “African-American voters are wildly overrepresented in criminal justice populations. African-American voters also historically favor Democratic candidates,” says Christopher Uggen, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota. Uggen and Jeff Manza co-wrote an article for the American Sociological Review in 2002 in which they estimated turnout for disenfranchised ex-cons....

o why is Paul pushing for a bill that could actively hurt his party? “Even if Republicans don’t get more votes, we feel like we’ve done the right thing,” Paul told Politico. This sounds like Paul’s (qualified) support for immigration reform: He’s behind it even though in the short-term, it’s probably a loser for Republicans. I don’t mean to sound naive here about Paul’s motives. He sometimes cultivates renegade Tea Party independence, and I realize that he is also appealing to swing voters: moderates who like it when conservative politicians sound concerned about poor people and minorities. And maybe that’s good for the image of the Republican party overall: Rand Paul, softening agent. Uggen says he did a poll a few years ago and found resounding majority support for letting ex-felons vote. But how many of those people care enough about the issue to vote for Paul based on it? That number has to be tiny. And while it’s possible to argue that Republicans have to move toward immigration reform for their long-term survival, given the rising Latino population and the shrinking white one, felon disenfranchisement just doesn’t have the same grip....

It’s worth pointing out, though, that Paul is the sole sponsor for his bill. In Florida in 2011, Republican Gov. Rick Scott went the other way and tightened voting restrictions on former felons, in spite of criticism about the number of black people he was barring from the polls. Paul has more company from fellow libertarians Ted Cruz and Mike Lee in pushing for sentencing reform. This is the larger fight that felon disenfranchisement is a part of: addressing mass incarceration by lowering or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, especially for nonviolent drug offenders. “I’m talking about making the criminal justice system fair and giving people a second chance if they served their time,” Paul said in February at a gala for the conservative American Principles Project. Give him, and Cruz and Lee, credit for being part of this push. Sentencing reform has justice on its side and budgetary common sense, too, given the huge sums it takes to keep prisoners locked up for years. Too bad other Republicans won’t support that cause, or go for giving former felons the vote either.

June 24, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Two more prominent conservative prosecutors call for less incarceration

Ken Cuccinelli, a former Virginia AG, and Deborah Daniels, a former DOJ official in the Bush Administration, have this notable new opinion piece in the Washington Post headlined "Less incarceration could lead to less crime." In part because this piece reflects a lot of my own views on the modern need for modern reforms, I will quote it at length:

When crime rates began rising in the 1960s and too many Americans felt unsafe walking in their neighborhoods, the idea of putting more people in prison — and keeping them there longer — made sense.

For the next three decades, our nation did just that, as public unease propelled lawmakers to promote longer sentences, curbs on parole and other measures making our correctional system ever tougher.

Now more than 2 million American adults are behind bars and nearly one of every 33 is under some form of correctional control — either incarcerated or supervised in the community. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the rate was one in 77.

As conservatives with backgrounds in law enforcement, we embraced the orthodoxy that more incarceration invariably meant less crime, no matter the offense or the danger posed by its perpetrator. But crime rates have been falling since the early 1990s, and a growing body of research combined with the compelling results of reforms in many states prove it is time to adjust our approach.

In short, we must reserve our harshest and most expensive sanction — prison — for violent and career criminals while strengthening cost-effective alternatives for lower-level, nonviolent offenders. The latter lawbreakers must be held accountable for their crimes, but they pose less risk and hold greater potential for redemption.

With today’s sophisticated assessment tools, we can better sort offenders and match them with the levels of treatment and community supervision that offer the best chance for them to stay crime free. Specialty courts that use swift and certain sanctions to promote compliance with drug tests and other conditions of probation are another key plank in this approach.

Let us be clear: Society’s treatment of dangerous, violent felons should remain as punitive as ever. Communities need protection from such predatory criminals, and incapacitation — for a long time, no matter the cost — remains the proper response. Widespread incarceration has played a role in making our streets safer. Estimates vary, but many social scientists believe that expanding imprisonment can be credited for up to a third of the crime reduction of recent years, with demographics, advances in policing and a hotly debated mix of other dynamics accounting for the rest.

However, when it comes to the public safety benefits of incarceration, at least for some offenders, it is clear that we are well past the point of diminishing returns. And given that recidivism levels remained disappointingly high as incarceration rates rose, we would be foolish to ignore the need for a course correction.

The Pew Charitable Trusts recently reported that states that have cut their imprisonment rates (coupled with other reforms) have experienced a greater crime drop than those that increased incarceration. Between 2007 and 2012, the 10 states with the largest decreases in imprisonment rates had a 12 percent average reduction in crime, while the 10 states with the largest imprisonment rate increases saw crime fall 10 percent....

When you see, as we have, what reduces criminal behavior, it’s easier to accept the notion that for many offenders, prison is not the best answer. That conclusion is part of what led us to join Right on Crime, a national movement of conservatives who support a criminal justice system reflecting fiscal discipline, a belief in redemption, the empowerment of victims and reliance on solid evidence to determine the most cost-effective use of taxpayer funds to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.

Much of the talk about such reforms highlights their fiscal payoff, and we’re all for saving taxpayer dollars. But as conservatives, we also applaud such efforts because they reflect an evidence-driven approach that values results, not imprisonment for imprisonment’s sake.

Let’s resist our old incarceration reflex and support a rational system anchored in the knowledge, experience and values of today. Let’s preserve families, restore victims, help willing offenders turn their lives around and keep the public safe.

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

June 21, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Senator Rand Paul continues making the conservative case for criminal justice reform

Regular readers know of my respect and admiration for Senator Rand Paul's modern efforts to explain to lots of folks how is modern conservative values call for modern crimnal justice reforms.  This Huffington Post article, headlined "Rand Paul Tackles Prisons 'Full Of Black And Brown Kids' Amid GOP Reach For Minority Votes," reports on how potent Senator Paul's points have become as he makes the case for criminal justice reforms:

In an ongoing effort to bridge the gap between the GOP and minority voters, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) deviated from traditional party lines during a speech at the Iowa State Republican Party Convention Saturday, criticizing racist drug policies in the United States and calling for the restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts.

After conceding that his position may not "bring everybody together" and establishing that "drugs are a scourge," Paul continued:

I also think it’s a problem to lock people up for 10 and 15 and 20 years for youthful mistakes. If you look at the War on Drugs, three out of four people in prison are black or brown. White kids are doing it too. In fact, if you look at all the surveys, white kids do it just as much as black and brown kids -- but the prisons are full of black and brown kids because they don’t get a good attorney, they live in poverty, it’s easier to arrest them than to go to the suburbs. There’s a lot of reasons.

The likely 2016 presidential contender, who previously compared federal drug laws to the racist policies of the Jim Crow era, also criticized the GOP for failing to live up to its platform emphasis on family values. “If we’re the party of family values, in 1980 there were 200,000 kids with a dad in prison. There’s now two million,” Paul said, calling on Judeo-Christian conservatives to set policies by the principle of redemption.

Some related posts:

June 18, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, June 13, 2014

Will "Dave Brat, accidental tea party leader," be a principled and vocal opponent of the federal drug war?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Politico article headlined "Dave Brat, accidental tea party leader." Here are a few passages from the lengthy piece that make me hopeful that Professor Brat shares the sentiments of many other modern Tea Party leaders that the big federal drug war and big government criminal justice systems:

He may be the new tea party hero, but Brat really isn’t a tea party guy. His writings show that he’s closer to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand than tea party talking points. Indeed, he fits the ivory tower mold -- the kind of academic who makes small talk with his colleagues at the campus gym by chatting about how to create the perfect ethical system. He savors the role of an anti-politician, but this is not another Joe the Plumber. This is Dave the Professor....

His writings include plenty of tributes to free-market conservatism, and in one paper, he lays out Ayn Rand’s “case for liberty from the ground up.” But there are also some surprising departures — like one paper that suggests that states can prime their economies by investing in education and research. Another endorses the No Child Left Behind law and suggests mandatory teaching seminars so teachers don’t take black students less seriously than white students.

That background paints a different picture of Brat than one might expect from all the tea party support he won. As a candidate, Brat has talked about opposing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants, term limits for members of Congress, gun owners’ rights and returning power to the states through the 10th amendment. Brat’s hardline focus on opposing immigration reform has surprised some of his colleagues, who say he never talked about it that much on campus.

But even the way Brat talks about his solution to illegal immigration is straight from conservative theory: encourage free markets and private property rights around the world.

Students of Milton Friedman know well that he was not only an opponent of pot prohibition, but a vocal advocate of the legalization of all drugs. Here is a link to a video of Friedman discussing his views on this front, which are nicely summarized by this quote: "I'm in favor of legalizing drugs. According to my values, if people want to kill themselves, they have every right to do so. Most of the harm that comes from drugs is because they are illegal."

Long story short: if Dave Brat is as committed to free markets and as principled as the Politico piece suggests he is, he could very quickly become one of the most significant voices in the modern GOP advocating for significant reform of the modern big government federal criminal justice system.

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

June 13, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Could the Tea Party take down of Eric Cantor increase the chances of more federal sentencing reform?

The huge federal political news this week is the suprising and noteworthy primary defeat of House Majority leader Eric Cantor to relative unknown college professor David Brat, who seems to be a variation on the Tea Party brand.  This Fox News piece provides a good review of what may and may not explain Cantor's defeat and what this outcome may or may not mean for national politics.  

As the title of this post highlights, and as regular readers will not be surprised to see, I am already thinking about what the notable new GOP election news and the shakeup in GOP House leadership could mean for federal sentencing reform.  To my knowledge, neither out-going leader Cantor, nor any of the names being discussed as his possible replacement, have been vocal opponents or proponents of the Smarter Sentencing Act or other recent statutory sentencing reform proposals working their way around Capitol Hill.  But, as regular readers know well, the Tea Party wing of the GOP has emerged as a significant supporter of significant federal sentencing reforms. 

Senator Rand Paul, as this new local article highlights, continues to tour the nation talking up "criminal-justice reforms, sentencing reform, restoration of voting rights."  Another Tea Party favorite, Senator Mike Lee, is a cosponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act, and Senator Ted Cruz supported the SSA in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  In addition, most of the members of the House who have talked at all about sentencing reform have tended to be on the Tea Party rather than on the establishment side of the GOP.

Because I have never been able to understand, let alone reasonably predict, inside-the-Beltway happenings, I am not going to assert that the Smarter Sentencing Act or other federal sentencing reform proposals have a much greater chance of passage now than they did earlier this week.  But I am going to keep reminding folks that any good news for the more-libertarian-leaning Tea Party wing of the GOP is likely also good new for those eager to see changes in the federal criminal justice status quo.

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

June 11, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 31, 2014

"Why Republicans are slowly embracing marijuana"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Los Angeles Times article, which includes these excerpts:

Marijuana is a political conundrum for the GOP, traditionally the stridently anti-drug, law and order party. More than half the voters in the country now live in states where medical marijuana is legal, in many cases as a result of ballot measures. The most recent poll by the Pew Research Center found most Americans think pot should be legal, a major shift from just a decade ago when voters opposed legalization by a 2-to-1 margin.

Most GOP stalwarts, of course, continue to rail against liberalization of the laws. Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, a physician, declared during floor debate that medical marijuana is a sham. Real medicine, he said, “is not two joints a day, not a brownie here, a biscuit there. That is not modern medicine.”

But in a sign of how the times are changing, he found himself challenged by a colleague from his own caucus who is also a doctor. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) spoke passionately in favor of the bill. “It has very valid medical uses under direction of a doctor,” he said. “It is actually less dangerous than some narcotics prescribed by doctors all over the country.” Georgia is among the many states experimenting with medical marijuana. A state program there allows its limited use to treat children with severe epileptic seizures.

The rise of the tea party, meanwhile, has given an unforeseen boost to the legalization movement. Some of its more prominent members see the marijuana component of the War on Drugs as an overreach by the federal government, and a violation of the rights of more than two dozen states that have legalized cannabis or specific components of it for medical use.

Pro-marijuana groups have lately taken to boosting the campaigns of such Republicans, even those running against Democrats. A notable case is in the Sacramento region, where the Marijuana Policy Project recently announced it was endorsing Igor Birman, a tea partier seeking to knock out Democrat Ami Berra in a swing congressional district.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

May 31, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Paul Ryan joins chorus of GOP young guns supporting sentencing reform and Smarter Sentencing Act

Tucked within this interesting Daily Beast discussion of (former VP candidate) Representative Paul Ryan's war on poverty tour is the revelation that Ryan is now the latest prominent GOP official to support reform of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. As the article recounts:

I asked the representative from Janesville, Wisconsin, if he could reflect on a previously held ideological view that had changed over the course of his learning tour.

Without hesitation, Ryan delved into the need to reform federal sentencing guidelines. “I think our sentencing guidelines need to be revisited with an eye towards what actually works to make sure a person can hit their upward potential,” Ryan said. “Is it better to send someone to a successfully proven drug rehab program so they can knock the habit and get back on their feet again, or is it [better to] put them away for 16 years?”

Reflecting on past congressional efforts to limit discretion on the part of federal judges in imposing strict sentences—a reflection that will be sure to raise eyebrows in the House Republican Cloakroom—Ryan said: “I think we had a trend in America for a long time on mandatory minimums where we took away discretion from judges. I think there’s an appreciation that that approach has some collateral damage—that that approach is missing in many ways…I think there is a new appreciation that we need to give judges more discretion in these areas.”

Specifically, Ryan hailed the bipartisan work of Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) to dramatically overhaul the federal sentencing guideline structure now in place. Dubbed the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” the legislation, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this year, would cut mandatory minimum sentences in half for certain drug offenses. It also would reduce crack cocaine penalties retroactive to 2010 and expand the discretion of federal judges to sentence defendants in certain cases to less time in jail than mandatory minimum guidelines permit.

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

May 28, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"Candidates for Maryland governor seek votes by helping ex-convicts"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent Baltimore Sun article which serves as more proof that the modern politics of crime and punishment have changed. Not long ago, candidates for governor would seek votes by talking up who could hurt lawbreakers more. Now the theme is helpping, and here is how this article starts:

When Democrat Douglas F. Gansler stopped by a Baltimore sports bar recently, the ex-convict behind the bar struck up a conversation. It's a tough road, the worker told Gansler, to get any job.

"I'm trying to turn my life around," he said. "I've got a newborn son." Gansler nodded emphatically, and dove into the wonky details of a seemingly unconventional plank in a former prosecutor's platform for governor. Gansler, like all the Democrats vying for the state's top political job, has a detailed plan to ensure ex-offenders do not go back to prison. The issue resonates in heavily Democratic Baltimore.

As public perception shifts about whether the "war on drugs" has succeeded, and as prison populations rise to unprecedented and costly levels, political experts say many candidates across the country have traded a tough-on-crime attitude for a more nurturing approach.

The three Democrats in Maryland's primary race for governor emphasize proposals for programs such as job training to help inmates successfully rejoin their communities. At forums, in policy papers, to community groups and on the campaign trail, each is pushing ideas to reduce recidivism.

"Compared to the candidates four years ago, it's a very different tone," said Jason Perkins-Cohen, executive director at Job Opportunities Task Force, which tries to help ex-offenders get work. "Candidates are sensing the mood has changed."

Nationwide, re-entry has become a bipartisan talking point, though Maryland's Republican candidates for governor have not made helping former inmates a top issue leading up to the June 24 primary.

May 28, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Sentencing Debate Reveals Divide Among Republicans"

The title of this post is the headline of a recent article by John Gramlich via CQ News (which, I fear, is trapped behind a pay-wall). Here are excerpts:

A Senate proposal to cut mandatory minimum drug sentences in half has exposed a rift between senior, establishment Republicans who stress their law-and-order credentials and junior, more libertarian-minded members of the party who want to shrink the federal role in incarceration.

Sponsored by Sens. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, the bill (S 1410) is seen as a candidate for floor action following the Memorial Day recess after being approved by the Judiciary Committee, 13-5, in January. But the measure’s prospects are uncertain, with differences among Republicans becoming increasingly apparent. The bill’s six GOP cosponsors include five first-term senators: Lee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

Several of those lawmakers have strong tea party support and view the proposal through a libertarian lens. They cast it as a way to cut taxpayer spending on prisons while preserving individual liberties by doing away with tough penalties for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.

By contrast, the bill’s chief Republican opponents are a trio of establishment Republicans who have long pointed to their “tough on crime” bona fides. They are Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, a former state attorney general and judge; Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a former federal prosecutor, and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking member and arguably the Senate’s staunchest defender of mandatory minimum penalties....

Beyond the philosophical disagreement, there also appears to be a generational split among Republicans when it comes to sentencing, said William G. Otis, a law professor at Georgetown University and former special counsel to President George H.W. Bush. The average age of the Republicans who voted for the bill in committee earlier this year was 45, as Slate magazine noted in February. The average age of the Republicans who opposed it was 69.

Otis, who opposes the bill, said older Republican senators may be basing their views of the legislation on their personal recollections of the national crime wave that led to tougher criminal sentencing laws.  “For those of us that age, we remember what it was like, because we grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the experience of the crime wave of those two decades is vivid,” Otis said.  “My generation remembers that.  Rand Paul’s generation, Jeff Flake’s generation and Mike Lee’s generation does not.”...

Paul, who is perhaps the Senate’s most prominent Republican supporter of shortening criminal sentences, so far has been unable to persuade Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to back the plan....

Laurie A. Rhodebeck, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, said the two senators likely have different constituencies in mind. She noted that Paul may have higher political ambitions and has sought to broaden the appeal of the Republican Party by reaching out to minorities, who often face long criminal sentences for drug crimes. “The way I see the big picture is that Rand Paul seems to be speaking to a national audience right now, rather than a Kentucky audience,” Rhodebeck said. “I assume that’s in keeping with his possible interest in running for the GOP nomination in 2016.”...

To be sure, Democrats may not be united within their own ranks on the bill. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., both have expressed reservations about it, even though they agreed to advance the measure to the full Senate. GOP support for the proposal, meanwhile, is not limited only to first-term senators who are identified with the tea party. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is the sixth GOP cosponsor of the bill and has served in the Senate since 2005.

But the Republican split could be a consequential factor in whether the proposal reaches the floor in an election year in which control of the Senate is at stake. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has indicated he would like to bring up the proposal, but Durbin has suggested that there may be complications in rounding up the votes for passage. A divide among outside conservative advocates may be among the complications.

At a forum this week of conservatives in favor of overhauling the nation’s criminal justice policies, prominent figures including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and former National Rifle Association President David Keene made the case for a less punitive approach....

But a group of prominent former federal prosecutors, including two former Republican attorneys general, wrote to Reid and McConnell earlier this month to urge them not to bring the sentencing bill to the floor. Like Grassley and the other Senate Republicans, they warned it would threaten public safety.

I would put a slightly different spin than Bill Otis on the notable fact that the "average age of the Republicans who voted for the [SSA] in committee earlier this year was 45 [while the] average age of the Republicans who opposed it was 69." I would say that supporters of the bill understand that new political and legal realities may call for changing laws passed decades ago, whereas opponents of the bill see little need to update these sentencing laws for modern times.

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

May 24, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"[A]nybody who’s a limited-government conservative can’t ignore the decades-long record of all of this money wasted and how ineffectual [the drug war has] been"

MalkinThe quote that makes up the title of this post is one from this interesting and very lengthy recent profile of Michele Malkin from the Denver Post. The piece is headlined "Michelle Malkin: Conservative hero and marijuana advocate," and here are some excerpts:

Michelle Malkin is one of the most revered conservative voices in America, and yet the author, columnist and commentator also actively supports medical and recreational marijuana.

“The war on drugs has been a failure. Prohibition was also a failure,” Malkin said recently, drinking coffee at a diner near her Colorado Springs home. “And pointing out that mainstream hospitals are administering these far more pernicious narcotics to terminally ill patients undercuts this whole idea that marijuana is this dangerous gateway.”

Surprised to hear such progressive talk coming from a conservative? Join the club. If you’re not surprised you’ve likely been reading Malkin’s missives for years. The pro-marijuana conservative is a growing segment in the U.S. political spectrum, something we’ll see more of in the November elections. Malkin’s intensely personal story — dating from her time at the Seattle Times in the ‘90s to her mother-in-law’s current struggle with metastatic melanoma — is a potent example of why these two strange bedfellows are becoming increasingly familiar....

But Malkin didn’t always feel that way.  When she left the LA Daily News for The Seattle Times in the mid-90s, she was as anti-marijuana as most Republicans were at that time. But after a chance debate with the late Seattle medical marijuana advocate Ralph Seeley, who died in 1998 of a rare bone cancer after suing the state to allow marijuana to be prescribed medically, she changed her mind on the issue.  Seeley’s arguments were legitimate, Malkin said, and less than a year after his death Washington voters approved medical marijuana.

“People always ask me, ‘When have you ever changed your mind?’ I tell them, ‘Ralph Seeley changed my mind’,” said Malkin.... “I was on a local public TV debate, and at the time I was a fairly orthodox law-and-order, pro-war on drugs conservative columnist. I would accept at face value anything Bill Bennett had claimed about the war of drugs.”

“Of course it’s been an abysmal trillion-dollar failure, and anybody who’s a limited-government conservative can’t ignore the decades-long record of all of this money wasted and how ineffectual it’s been. But going back to the debate with Ralph Seeley: We were on the opposite side of the debate, him in his wheelchair and he had chordoma, an awful degenerative cancer in the spine. He was paralyzed with a trach. He was so articulate, and you couldn’t argue with his facts.”

Just like that Malkin — who jokingly refers to herself on occasion as a “right-wing nut-job” — switched over to the pro-marijuana side of the debate. And nearly two decades after her initial change of heart readers came across her recent “My trip to the pot shop” column on March 25, 2014....

There’s a philosophical and literary hook in Colorado’s mountainous landscape for Malkin, too.  “For Libertarians, of course, Colorado is a special place because it’s Galt’s Gulch, in the Ayn Rand novels,” said Malkin. “The appeal is it’s the last, best sanctuary of the bulwark against the meddling state. And it’s real — it’s not just a fictional sanctuary. It’s real for many people, and those stories of those families moving here from New Jersey underscores that, and it resonates with me because that’s how we feel about Colorado.”...

Marisol Therapeutics is a recreational pot shop in Pueblo West, just 47 miles from Uncle Sam’s Pancake House — and Malkin’s nearby home. (Colorado Springs doesn’t allow recreational marijuana shops.)  The shopping experience, from the initial decision to head south to the storm of comments that followed in the wake of the article, was a historic one for the Malkin family.

But what will Michelle remember the most from her first time buying legal weed? “What an incredible experience it was to walk into the shop and have the understanding and compassion of somebody in the business of providing healing,” Michelle said. “A lot of people from out of state, New York or DC, would parachute into our state and sneer at the so-called ‘medical veneer’ that a lot of these shops have.  But there’s no denying the reality that these places provide the services that people want and need, and that was the upshot of the column.”

The column created a whirlwind of activity on Malkin’s website, both positive and negative.  But the takeaways steeled her resolve and gave her a new found perspective. “When I was at the shop, I told my husband that the clerk seemed like a Libertarian to me,” Malkin said.  “What were they doing? They were complaining about the regulations, the bureaucracy, the taxes. Here’s your natural outreach into a nontraditional constituency, right?”

Malkin splits from party-line mob mentality in that she doesn’t believe that marijuana is a gateway drug — “but speaking of gateway drugs, I think this is a gateway policy issue. It’s a gateway for getting people to start moving beyond traditional right and left politics. And I think that’s a good thing.”...

On protecting the Second Amendment and decriminalizing drugs:  “There has been such an infantilization of citizens by the nanny state that it becomes easier and easier to swallow rationalizing increasing the power of government as a way to protect people from both social harm and self harm.  And for people who think about liberty and how the power of the state should be limited, it bothers me greatly that we’ve redefined what social harm is and that there’s been this encroachment on people’s ability to do whatever they want and in their own homes as long as it doesn’t impose social harm outside of your home.  As long as I’ve been thinking about these issues, dating back to my days in Seattle, it’s always seemed to me that there are similar arguments for fiercely protecting Second Amendment rights as there are for decriminalizing drugs, not just for medical marijuana but for recreational as well. And I have to say that my reservations are greater with regard to recreational marijuana, but the very simple point of my column was how grateful we were that the people of Colorado passed Amendment 64 because it provided an opportunity for us to circumvent the bureaucracy because we could just drop by and walk in. I’m absolutely against repealing it.”

On finding capitalism alive and well in the legal pot industry: “We were so sheepish at the pot shop. I’m sure we looked so goofy saying, ‘Are there brownies?’ And she whipped out the cheddar crackers.  And for me, as someone who believes in capitalism, I was just amazed at how many different companies are involved in producing these different products.  From the bakery to those (vape) pen things, some of it was a bit cliché — they had the Tommy Chong banner up top, the big ’70s heavy metal pounding when you went into the recreational side, but it also struck me how we felt safe. There were multiple ID checks and serious guards at the door — and contrast that with god knows what we would have had to do if we tried obtaining it on the streets.”...

On being pro-marijuana, cautiously: “While some people on the pro side who don’t ever want you to acknowledge that there are costs and consequences and abuses, I don’t have any problem with saying, ‘Of course we should be worried about what else can happen here.’ Of course I tell my kids, ‘Don’t you mess with this,’ as I would with any illicit, addictive substance. It’s not a weakness that there are always those concerns, and that’s why I stress the need for the cultural guardrails.  It bothers me to see Snoop Doggy Dogg and this big haze around all these kids — just how irresponsible that is.  And to the extent that the movement has grown up, it’s a tribute to people like Ralph Seeley, for whom it was a matter of individual liberty and principal all along. There will always be people on either side who exploit the extremes.

Just a few recent and older related posts:

May 21, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

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