Monday, February 02, 2015

Highlighting how apathy may help the criminal justice reform cause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts:

January 28, 2015 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, January 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

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

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

Are liberals as responsible for the prison boom as conservatives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 05, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 08, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it's one more thing -- wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Criminal Sentencing Reform: A Conversation among Conservatives"

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 08, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 07, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 06, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent related posts:

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

Monday, November 03, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 01, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

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

Friday, October 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related posts on California's Prop 47:

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

Election season round-up of posts on pot politics from Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

For various reasons and in various ways, I find the politics of modern marijuana reform even more interesting than its policies and practicalities. Consequently, a number of my recent posts at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform have focused on political developments and discourse in those states with significant reform proposals on the ballot in 2014.  As this election season now kicks into its final stretch, I thought it useful to collect some of these posts in this space:

As time and energy permits, I am hoping soon to start a series of posts on pot politics circa 2014 over at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform  in order to explain why I think the results of this election season in a Alaska, Florida and Oregon are likely to have a huge impact on marijuana policy and national politics in the coming years.

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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Skewed Justice: Citizens United, Television Advertising and State Supreme Court Justices’ Decisions in Criminal Cases"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing new empirical study authored by Joanna Shepherd and Michael Kang.  Here is the study's summary:

The explosion in spending on television attack advertisements in state supreme court elections accelerated by the Citizens United decision has made courts less likely to rule in favor of defendants in criminal appeals.  State supreme court justices, already the targets of sensationalist ads labeling them “soft on crime,” are under increasing pressure to allow electoral politics to influence their decisions, even when fundamental rights are at stake.

Citizens United (which removed regulatory barriers to corporate electioneering) has fundamentally changed the politics of state judicial elections.  Outside interest groups, often with high-stakes economic interests or political causes before the courts, now routinely pour millions of dollars into state supreme court elections.  These powerful interests understand the important role that state supreme courts play in American government, and seek to elect justices who will rule as they prefer on priority issues such as environmental and consumer protections, marriage equality, reproductive choice and voting rights.  Although their economic and political priorities are not necessarily criminal justice policy, these sophisticated groups understand that “soft on crime” attack ads are often the best means of removing from office justices they oppose.

This study’s two principal findings:

  • The more TV ads aired during state supreme court judicial elections in a state, the less likely justices are to vote in favor of criminal defendants.  As the number of airings increases, the marginal effect of an increase in TV ads grows.  In a state with 10,000 ads, a doubling of airings is associated on average with an 8 percent increase in justices’ voting against a criminal defendant’s appeal.

  • Justices in states whose bans on corporate and union spending on elections were struck down by Citizens United were less likely to vote in favor of criminal defendants than they were before the decision.  Citizens United changed campaign finance most significantly in 23 of the states where there were prohibitions on corporate and union electioneering prior to the decision. In these states, the removal of those prohibitions after Citizens United is associated with, on average, a 7 percent decrease in justices’ voting in favor of criminal defendants.

The study is based on the work of a team of independent researchers from the Emory University School of Law.  With support from the American Constitution Society, the researchers collected and coded data from over 3,000 criminal appeals decided in state supreme courts in 32 states and examined published opinions from 2008 to 2013.  State supreme courts are multi-judge bodies that decide appeals collectively by majority vote; the researchers coded individual votes from over 470 justices in these cases.  These coded cases were merged with data from the Brennan Center for Justice reporting the number of TV ads aired during each judicial election from 2008 to 2013. A complete explanation of this study’s methodology is below.

The findings from this study have several important implications.  Not only do they confirm the influence of campaign spending on judicial decision making, they also show that this influence extends to a wide range of cases beyond the primary policy interests of the contributors themselves.  Even more troubling, the findings reveal that the influence of money has spread from civil cases to criminal cases, in which the fundamental rights of all Americans can be at stake.

October 21, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, October 03, 2014

Should advocates of federal criminal justice reform be rooting for Republicans to take control of Senate?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the closing paragraphs of this new National Journal article. The article is headlined "How Republicans Stopped Being 'Tough on Crime': GOP lawmakers in Congress are moving toward prison reform. Is this the final frontier for bipartisanship?". Here are some extended excerpts from an article that reinforcement my sense that reform advocate might be wise to root for Republicans to have lots of success on Election Day next month:

[M]any Republicans in Congress are moving away from the tough-on-crime philosophy that dominated the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras. At a time when people complain about historic levels of gridlock, there is more bipartisan support for reforming the criminal-justice system than there has been in the past four decades.

This newfound Republican support isn't just the product of tokenism. Among the members of Congress who have cosponsored legislation on this issue are Sens. Rand Paul, John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, Rob Portman, and Orrin Hatch, along with Reps. Raul Labrador, Paul Ryan, and Jason Chaffetz.

"This certainly is something that has gained momentum among many Republicans — not all," Lee told National Journal. "There's still a number of Republicans who don't agree with me on this, that this ought to be a priority. But I've been pleased by the number of Republicans who have joined me in this effort."

Of course, that doesn't mean the Republican colleagues always agree with each other. Grassley recently blasted the Smarter Sentencing Act, which was introduced by Lee and Sen. Dick Durbin. The bill would allow federal judges to use their discretion when sentencing some nonviolent drug offenders, instead of having to obey mandatory minimums. Grassley said the bill would "put taxpayers on the hook for close to $1 billion in entitlement spending." What Grassley didn't mention was that the bill would also lead to $4 billion in budget savings over the next 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Levin, the Right on Crime founder, says the financial burdens imposed by the justice system — which often disproportionately targets minorities and hamstrings those not wealthy enough to afford their own attorney — should especially outrage conservatives. "Look, I'm a free-market guy, so I say the fact that rich people can get a better car, nicer jewelry, that's all well and good. But here we're talking about justice," Levin said. "Conservatives ought to be particularly receptive to these things, and I think they are, because at some point it just becomes like a tax."

But Lee emphasized that sentencing reform isn't just a fiscal issue for Republicans. "There's no question that reforming our sentencing system could save us money. I want to point out, though, that that is not our primary objective in this," Lee told National Journal. "An even more important objective involves not the financial costs, but the human costs."

That human cost is very real. The violent-crime rate is the lowest it's been in 20 years, yet there hasn't been a corresponding decrease in incarceration. Nearly a third of the world's female prisoners are incarcerated in the U.S. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of children with a parent in prison increased by 80 percent—so widespread that Sesame Street recently aired a segment dealing with the issue.

The prison population is the oldest it's ever been. In West Virginia, 20 percent of the prison population is over the age of 50. This raises the question: What is the advantage of the U.S. spending billions of dollars to house prisoners who may not present any real public danger?...

Criminal-justice reform has united other odd couples like [Senators Rand] Paul and [Cory] Booker. In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill put forward by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island that would try to triage the likelihood that a prisoner would commit another crime, if released. The law would also give time credits to "low-risk" offenders and allow some to complete their prison sentences under "community supervision."

Cornyn said it's time to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to treating American prisoners. "When I went to law school, we'd learn in criminal law class that rehabilitation was always one of the goals of our criminal justice system. But honestly, in my lifetime, we've done a lousy job at rehabilitating people," Cornyn told National Journal. "Instead, they have taken an approach that's more like warehousing people."

Cornyn said he's confident that if the GOP retakes the Senate in November, prison reform will be one area where they will be able to work with the White House. Even Whitehouse — Cornyn's Democratic counterpart on this legislation — sees this as an upside to a possible Republican-controlled Congress. "Frankly, I think the biggest danger to these bills is not really on their substance. It's just the threat of partisan and obstructive mischief by the more extreme Republican senators," Whitehouse told National Journal. "The motivation for that mischief evaporates once they're in control."

There you have it — prison reform, the final frontier of bipartisan legislation. But as Levin points out, there's just one last thing for Republicans and Democrats working on the issue to sort out: "The only disagreement sometimes is who's gonna get the credit."

A few recent and older related prior posts:

October 3, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Newt Gingrich helps explain "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment"

Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr. are the co-authors of this notable recent Los Angeles Times op-ed headlined " "What California can learn from the red states on crime and punishment." Among other points, the piece makes the case for a proposition on the ballot in California (Prop 47) that would reduce the severity of a number of California crimes. Here are excerpts:

Imagine you have the power to decide the fate of someone addicted to heroin who is convicted of petty shoplifting. How much taxpayer money would you spend to put that person in prison — and for how long? Is incarceration the right form of punishment to change this offender's behavior?

Those are questions states across the nation are increasingly asking as the costly and ineffective realities of incarceration-only policies have set in. Obviously, we need prisons for people who are dangerous, and there should be harsh punishments for those convicted of violent crimes. But California has been overusing incarceration. Prisons are for people we are afraid of, but we have been filling them with many folks we are just mad at.

Reducing wasteful corrections spending and practices is long overdue in California. The state imprisons five times as many people as it did 50 years ago (when crime rates were similar). And as Californians know, the state's prison system ballooned over the last few decades and became so crowded that federal judges have mandated significant reductions.

Contributing to the growth in the number of prisoners and in prison spending has been a dramatic expansion in the number of felonies. In addition, mandatory minimum sentences have been applied to an increasing number of crimes. These policies have combined to drive up the prison population, as more prisoners serve longer sentences. On top of that, California has an alarmingly high recidivism rate: Six out of 10 people exiting California prisons return within three years.

It makes no sense to send nonserious, nonviolent offenders to a place filled with hardened criminals and a poor record of rehabilitation — and still expect them to come out better than they went in. Studies show that placing low-risk offenders in prison makes them more dangerous when they are released.

Over-incarceration makes no fiscal sense. California spends $62,396 per prisoner each year, and $10 billion overall, on its corrections system. That is larger than the entire state budget of 12 other states. This expenditure might be worth it if we were safer because of it. But with so many offenders returning to prison, we clearly aren't getting as much public safety — or rehabilitation — as we should for this large expenditure.

Meanwhile, California spends only $9,200 per K-12 student, and the average salary for a new teacher is $41,926. And as California built 22 prisons in 30 years, it built only one public university.

California is not alone in feeling the financial (and public safety) consequences of over-incarceration. Several states — politically red states, we would point out — have shown how reducing prison populations can also reduce cost and crime. Most notably, Texas in 2007 stopped prison expansion plans and instead used those funds for probation and treatment. It has reduced its prison population, closed three facilities and saved billions of dollars, putting a large part of the savings into drug treatment and mental health services. Better yet, Texas' violent crime rates are the lowest since 1977.

Another red state, South Carolina, made similar reforms for nonviolent offenses. The drop in the number of prisoners allowed South Carolina to close one prison and also lower its recidivism rate. Other states (Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi) have similarly shifted their approach to nonviolent convictions.

Now voters in California will have a chance to do the same, using costly prison beds for dangerous and hardened criminals. It is time to stop wasting taxpayer dollars on locking up low-level offenders. Proposition 47 on the November ballot will do this by changing six nonviolent, petty offenses from felony punishments (which now can carry prison time) to misdemeanor punishments and local accountability.

The measure is projected to save hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars per year, and it will help the state emphasize punishments such as community supervision and treatment that are more likely to work instead of prison time....

If so many red states can see the importance of refocusing their criminal justice systems, California can do the same. It's not often the voters can change the course of a criminal justice system. Californians should take advantage of the opportunity and vote yes on Proposition 47.

September 21, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Another drug sentencing sign of these political times in Massachusetts

This local article from Massachusetts, headlined "Candidates back reform of drug sentencing guidelines," provides more evidence that political candidates these days appear much more likely to support repeal or reform of severe drug sentencing laws rather than support increasing sentences for drug offenses. Here are the details:

Candidates for major offices this year in Massachusetts are backing the repeal or reform of mandatory minimum criminal sentences for drug offenses, according to a report released Tuesday.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums found 92 percent of the 24 candidates who responded to its survey favored repeal or reform of mandatory minimum drug sentences, with 75 percent, including Republican candidate for governor Charlie Baker, supporting repeal of such laws. "No candidate was in favor of longer mandatory minimum sentences or additional mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses," the group wrote in its report, released just over a week before the Sept. 9 primary elections.

In part as a pledge to Gov. Deval Patrick, legislative leaders vowed in 2012 to revisit criminal sentencing reform ideas in the 2013-2014 session but never got behind legislation to fulfill that promise.

In her questionnaire, attorney general candidate Maura Healey backed ending mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenses, reforming bail to ensure that indigent defendants are not in jail for lack of ability to pay, and expanding the use of drug courts, mental health courts, and veterans treatment courts.

Attorney general candidate Warren Tolman referred the group to his "Smart on Crime" plan and wrote, "I not only support repeal of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, I will lead the fight to repeal them!"

Cape & Islands District Attorney Michael O'Keefe bucked the trend, saying he would support reforms to minimum mandatory sentences but not an outright repeal, and disputed FAMM's contention that low level drug offenders are ensnared by laws intended to punish criminals higher up the food chain. "Your contention that 'non-violent/low level drug offenders are receiving the same lengthy sentences intended for kingpins' is not true yet is repeated over and over again. Please supply me the name of one case. Just one. Thank you," O'Keefe wrote, noting his involvement with a 2012 sentencing reform law....

In her response, Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor, said she supports "increased flexibility" for sentencing non-violent offenders. "I support mandatory minimum sentences for the most dangerous criminals, like murderers and those who prey on children, but I support increased sentencing flexibility for individuals convicted of non-violent crimes," Coakley wrote.

"I support eliminating or curtailing inflexible and often counterproductive mandatory minimum sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses to provide judges with wider discretion in sentencing," Treasurer Steven Grossman, who is facing Coakley in the primary, wrote.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Don Berwick and Baker both supported repealing mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. Baker's primary opponent, Mark Fisher, did not respond to the survey. The three independents running for governor, Jeff McCormick, Evan Falchuk and Scott Lively, all supported repealing mandatory minimums for drug offenders, while McCormick said he would "stand behind tougher sentencing for more violent crimes or those involving 'king pins'."

"These results confirm that drug sentencing reform is now a mainstream issue," said Barbara Dougan, director of FAMM's Massachusetts project, in a statement. "Political candidates in Massachusetts are clearly eager to take a second look at our state's sentencing policies, just as federal and state legislators across the U.S. are doing."...

The 2012 reform law lowered mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and also established a sentencing requirement that habitual offenders of certain violent crimes receive the maximum penalty. The Legislature has not returned to sentencing reform. Asked about that in July, Senate President Therese Murray said she was following the will of the members.

September 2, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Could capital reprieve cost Colorado Gov his office?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this lengthy Denver Post article, headlined "Colorado's pro-death penalty voters could make Hickenlooper pay." Here are excerpts:

The cold-blooded murders of three teenagers and a manager late one night in a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Aurora two decades ago has taken center stage in the political theater of this year's race for governor. Gov. John Hickenlooper has weathered political blows from the right since May 2013,when he granted the killer, Nathan Dunlap, a reprieve on his death sentence.

Hickenlooper's actions then reignited the hot topic over the weekend after Todd Shepherd of The Complete Colorado presented audio of Hickenlooper suggesting to a CNN film crew, in an interview for a segment of a documentary series set to air the evening of Sept. 7, that he could grant Dunlap clemency if he were to lose his re-election bid in November.

Besides reintroducing a wedge issue — capital punishment — that has a perception of marshaling Republican voters, the incumbent Democrat gave fresh life to Republicans' campaign narrative that Hickenloooper doesn't make forceful decisions. Republican nominee Bob Beauprez has repeatedly vowed on the campaign trail to execute Dunlap — an applause line for GOP voters....

Polling last April indicated Colorado voters support the death penalty 2-to-1. "This is a big issue," Owen Loftus, spokesman for the Colorado Republican Committee, said of the death penalty. "He's making it a bigger issue. The question of whether Gov. Hickenlooper is going to enforce justice or not — that gives people pause."...

When he ran for governor four years ago, Hickenlooper was vocal about being pro-capital punishment. His decision-making around the issue in 2013 has left some in his own party, and nearly everyone who opposes him, questioning his rationale.

The governor explained in his Dunlap decision that he believed Colorado's capital punishment system was "imperfect and inherently inequitable." The arguments began anew last weekend when news surfaced that Hickenlooper raised the possibility of clemency — which no Colorado governor has ever granted in a death penalty case. The governor reiterated his evolution on the issue this month when he told a television news reporter he opposes the death penalty....

Paul Teske, dean of the school of public affairs at the University of Colorado Denver, questioned whether Hickenlooper would lose any voters he might have had otherwise. "It could have a small influence, but the voters who are likely to be motivated by this issue probably weren't going to vote for Hickenlooper anyway," he said. But it could fit into a larger narrative. "I think Republicans will pair this with the gun issue to say that Hickenlooper is soft on public safety."

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli said Hickenlooper can only blame himself for repeatedly reviving an issue that repeatedly hurts him. The issue was part of Hickenlooper's tipping point in 2013, Ciruli said, when he granted Dunlap the reprieve, helping drive down his approval ratings from results above and just below 60 percent to the low 40s.

"It was the first issue that clearly put him on the wrong side of the public," Ciruli said. "He had been a pretty popular governor up to that point in his first term, and it handed a very good issue to the Republicans to hammer him with. But it had kind of gone away. But now (since the CNN interview) he's reopened it."

By saying he might grant clemency if he loses, Hickenlooper didn't portray himself as a thoughtful leader, the pollster said. "Speaking in a hypothetical about what if he loses, what he might do, that comes across as politically manipulative," Ciruli said.

A Quinnipiac University poll in February indicated Coloradans by a 36 percent to 28 percent margin disapproved of Hickenlooper's handling of the Dunlap case. Meanwhile, 63 percent favored keeping the death penalty while 28 percent supported abolishing it. "There has been strong, unwavering support for the death penalty and a sense that the governor's 'not on my watch' position on the issue could hurt him on Election Day," said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac's polling operation.

Colorado has three [defendants on death row]. Colorado has executed only one person in the last 47 years, kidnapper, rapist and murderer Gary Lee Davis, who was put to death in 1997.

August 30, 2014 in Clemency and Pardons, Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Some sentencing reminders about what stalled in the "do-nothing Congress"

I tend not to get into bashing Congress for failing to do stuff while locked into its current partison gridlock.  This is in part because I see gridlock reflecting important, real and deep policy divisions on certain critical public policy issues, and in part because I always worry federal legislation will (sometimes? often?) risk making certain problems worse rather than better through questionable one-size-fits-all approaches to governing.  (For a useful discussion of this basic perspective, I liked this recent Washington Post commentary by Jared Bernstein headlined "The do-nothing Congress is still better than the actively-do-harm Congress.")

Whatever one's broader views concerning the vices or virtues of a do-nothing Congress, proponents of federal sentencing reform cannot help but be somewhat disappointed that a lot of notable (and arguably badly needed) federal sentencing proposals are now stuck in neutral inside the Beltway.  For starters, as Bill Otis is quick to note in this new post at Crime & Consequences, it seems that all the bipartisan momentum that had built up around the Smarter Sentencing Act (and also some other reentry/back-end sentencing reform bills) has now come to something of a halt. 

For the record, I had always believed and feared that significant statutory reform to any major federal sentencing provisions would be an up-hill climb in a divided Congress, especially after seeing how hard it was to achieve (quite tepid) reform of extreme statutory crack sentencing provisions even when Congress was firmly in Democratic control.  A year ago, in this little post titled "Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?", I ruminated that if "Senator Rand Paul and other libertarian-leaning Senator were to become chairs of key Senate Judiciary subcommittees, I think the odds of significant federal criminal justice reforms getting through Congress might actually go up."  A year later, I continue to believe that folks particularly eager to see federal statutory sentencing reforms become a reality may now want to root for certain GOP members to become in charge in the Senate.

One other federal sentencing legistaive reform topic on my mind concerns federal child porn restitution awards in the wake of the mess the Supreme Court seemed to make on this front a few months ago through its Paroline decision.  Regular readers likely recall that lots of folks were advocating (some even predicting) that Congress could come up with a quick statutory fix to Paroline.  But, as of this writing, there has been little action on or serious discussion about a Paroline fix bill known as "Amy and Vicky Child Pornography Victim Restitution Improvement Act of 2014." And I definitely fear that the need for, and likelihood of, any effective statutory Paroline fix goes down a bit every month as lower federal courts get in the habit of dealing with the doctrine that Paroline left behind.

Some prior related posts:

August 6, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Conservative Townhall publication provides more signs of modern political sentencing times

Townhall Magazine promotes itself as "the hottest monthly conservative magazine for politics, investigative reporting, news, conservative humor, culture, and commentary from your favorite authors and personalities." For that reason (and others), I was intrigued to see that the August issue of Townhall Magazine has this lengthy new article headlined "Should Conservatives Oppose the Death Penalty?" The article has two Townhall editors debating "whether or not the United States should keep using the death penalty."   In addition, the columnist section of the Townhall website today has these three notable new columns on topics frequently discussed on this blog (and, especially, championing positions I have often advocated):

Jonah Goldberg:  "Liberals Come Late to the Pot Party"

Harry R. Jackson, Jr.:  "Restoring Prisons and Prisoners on Our Watch"

Jacob Sullum:  "Why Prosecutors Love Mandatory Minimums: Seeking to Shorten 'Draconian' Sentences, the Attorney General Faces Opposition From His Underlings"

I have long said on this blog that I thought a lot of my positions concerning mass incarceration, severe mandatory minimum sentencing provisions and the modern drug war ought to appeal to principled anti-big-government concervatives.  This latest collection of pieces via Townhall confirms these views for me.

August 6, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, August 01, 2014

Spotlighting that nearly all GOP Prez hopefuls are talking up sentencing reform

I have previously questioned the assertion that significant federal sentencing reform is inevitable, and the failure of the current Congress to make serious progress on the Smarter Sentencing Act or other notable pending federal sentencing reform proposals has reinforced my generally pessimistic perspective.  But this effective new article from the Washington Examiner, headlined "2016 contenders are lining up behind sentencing reform --- except this one Tea Partier," provides further reason to be optimistic that federal sentencing reform momentum will continue to pick up steam in the months ahead.  Here are highlights:

Sen. Marco Rubio hasn’t hammered out a firm position on mandatory minimum sentencing laws yet.  A year ago, that would have been perfectly normal for a Republican senator and rumored presidential contender.  But over the last months, most of the potential Republican nominees have voiced support for policy changes that historically might have gotten them the toxic “soft on crime” label.  These days, though, backing prison reform lets Republicans simultaneously resurrect compassionate conservatism and reach out to voters who wouldn’t typically find much to love from the GOP.

Rep. Paul Ryan is one of the latest potential presidential candidates to tout mandatory minimum sentencing reform as part of a conservative strategy to reduce poverty.... [H]e has debuted a new anti-poverty agenda that includes support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bill with a Senate version co-sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Tea Party favorite Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and a House version from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.  That bill would shorten some of the mandatory minimum sentence lengths and also would expand the “safety valve” that keeps some non-violent drug offenders from facing mandatory sentences.

“It would give judges more discretion with low-risk, non-violent offenders,” Ryan said in a speech at conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute.  “All we’re saying is, they don’t have to give the maximum sentence every time.  There’s no reason to lock someone up any longer than necessary.”

Ryan is the latest in a string of potential presidential contenders to get on board with prison reform.  But it’s likely the state of criminal justice reform would look different without Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In 2007, the Texas legislature adopted a budget designed to reduce the number of people incarcerated and spend more money on treatment. Since then, the state has closed three adult and six juvenile prisons, crime rates have reached levels as low as in the 1960s, and recidivism rates have dipped.

Perry has used his national platform to tout this reform — at a Conservative Political Action Conference (panel with Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, for instance, he said real conservatives should look to shut down prisons and save money — and other states have adopted reforms following the Lone Star State model.

Sen. Rand Paul, another 2016 favorite, has been one of prison reform’s most vocal boosters.  In an April 2013 speech at Howard University — a speech that got mixed reviews — he drew plaudits for criticizing mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  “Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy-handed and arbitrary,” he said, per CNS News. “They can affect anyone at any time, though they disproportionately affect those without the means to fight them. We should stand and loudly proclaim enough’s enough.”

That speech took prison reform one step closer to becoming a national conservative issue, rather than just the purview of state-level think tank wonks and back-room chats among social conservative leaders.

And, of course, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie addressed the issue in his second inaugural, connecting support for prison reform to his pro-life convictions.

None of this support means that legislation like the Smarter Sentencing Act has good odds in this Congress.  Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Lee, said that since House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s astounding primary loss, House Republicans have become more gun-shy about any sort of politically complicated reform measures.  And gives that bill a 39 percent chance of being enacted.

But that doesn’t mean conservative appetite for prison reform will abate.  Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said interest in the issue is growing. “ It can’t go away,” she said. “If Congress doesn’t fix it now, it’s still going to be a problem next year. It’s going to be a problem at the Department [of Justice], it’s going to be a problem in appropriations committees, it’s going to be a problem for the Commerce, Justice and Finance subcommittees when they’re doing appropriations bills — because there is no more money coming, and we’re just going to keep stuffing people into overcrowded prisons.”...

For now, most of the Senate Republicans publicly eyeing 2016 bids have co-sponsored Lee and Durbin’s Smarter Sentencing Act — except Rubio, who said his office is examining it. “I haven’t looked at the details of it yet and taken a formal position,” he said. “We study those things carefully.”

Some recent and older related posts:

August 1, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Making a libertarian case for "Why the Death Penalty Needs to Die"

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this notable new commentary by Nick Gillespie at The Daily Beast. Here are excerpts:

As a libertarian, I’m not surprised that the state is so incompetent that it can’t even kill people efficiently.  But I’m far more outraged by the idea that anyone anywhere seriously thinks the death penalty passes for good politics or sane policy. It’s expensive, ineffective, and most of all, deeply offensive to ideals of truly limited government.

Consider that between 1980 and 2012, California spent $4 billion administering death penalty cases while actually executing just 13 individuals, according to a study produced by Loyola Marymount Law Professor Paula Mitchell.  What’s more, Mitchell told Reason TV’s Tracy Oppenheimer, when the death penalty is in play, “the legal costs [per case] skyrocket to an extra $134 million per year, well above the cost to implement life without possibility of parole.” Given the severity and finality of the punishment, it makes all the sense in the world to make sure due process was followed in all death penalty cases. I’m sure death costs more in California (everything else does) than in other states, but there’s just never going to be a way to make it less than a huge waste of taxpayer money....

Here’s one more [reason to kill the death penalty] that would hold true even if through some miracle the government could make the finances work, guarantee absolute accuracy in convicting only guilty perps, and show that executions significantly deterred crime: The state’s first role — and arguably its only one — is protecting the lives and property of its citizens. In everything it does — from collecting taxes to seizing property for public works to incentivizing “good” behaviors and habits — it should use the least violence or coercion possible.  No matter how despicable murderers can be, the state can make sure we’re safe by locking them up behind bars for the rest of their — and our — lives.  That’s not only a cheaper answer than state-sanctioned murder, it’s a more moral one, too.

July 31, 2014 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Right on Crime: A Return to First Principles for American Conservatives"

The title of this post is the title of this new article by Marc Levin and Vikrant Reddy which I recently discovered via the Right on Crime blog. Here is an excerpt from the tail-end of the article's introduction:

The idea that conservatives are ideologically committed to mass incarceration is — and always was — a caricature.  American incarceration rates increased significantly in recent decades, and many on the right supported this increase, but conservative support for increased incarceration was linked to unique historical circumstances, not to any philosophical commitment.  Moreover, while conservatives were correct in the early 1970s that some increase in incarceration was necessary to ensure that violent and dangerous offenders served significant prison terms, the sixfold increase in incarceration from the early 1970s to the mid-2000s reached many nonviolent, low-risk offenders.  Now, as crime rates are declining, conservatives are increasingly focused on developing policies that prioritize using limited prison space to house violent offenders while looking for alternative sanctions to hold nonviolent offenders accountable, restore victims, and protect public safety.  In generating and advocating these policies, conservatives are returning to first principles: skepticism of state power, insistence on government accountability, and concern for how public policy affects social norms.

In this article, we discuss the conservative return to first principles in criminal justice.  In Part II, we explain the modern problem of mass incarceration.  Then, in Part III, we note the historical reasons behind the push to increase incarceration in the 1980s and 1990s.  In Part IV, we detail legislative reforms to remedy the incarceration problem that are consistent with conservative ideological principles.

July 29, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Senator Rand Paul and Governor Chris Christine continue to make the case for criminal justice reforms

This new CNN article details how two prominent Republicans, both of whom are thought to be considering a serious run for President in 2016, are continuing to talk about the need for significant criminal justice reforms.  Here are excerpts:

Sen. Rand Paul is proposing legislation aimed at eliminating criminal sentencing rules that adversely impact minorities, saying that "we need some fresh ideas to combat old and festering problems."

The Republican from Kentucky described the measure Friday in a speech to the National Urban League. It's part of his aggressive outreach effort to African-Americans and other voting groups who don't traditionally back Republicans. Paul is trying to expand the GOP base and lay the groundwork for a potential 2016 campaign for the White House.

His address highlighted sentencing reform, expanded voting rights, and education reform. It came one day after two other possible Republican presidential hopefuls, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, also touted similar reforms.

Sentencing reform is one of Paul's signature issues. As he's done in previous speeches, he told the audience gathered in Cincinnati that the nation's criminal justice system is still stacked against minorities. "Three out of four people in prison right now for non-violent crimes are black or brown. Our prisons are bursting with young men of color and our communities are full of broken families," Paul said....

Paul also touted that he's working with Democrats, like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, on a bill that would expunge records, under certain circumstances, of non-violent and youth related crimes. And, he's rubbing shoulders with Attorney General Eric Holder on sentencing reform as well as some Republican governors.

Paul also used his address in front of the National Urban League convention to make another pitch for expanding the voting rights of ex-cons. "Nationwide, five million people are prevented from voting because of their criminal record. It's the biggest impediment to voting in our country. I want more people to vote, not less," Paul said.

He described himself as "a Republican who wants to restore a federal role for the government in the Voting Rights Act." Paul twice quoted from Martin Luther King Jr. in his speech to the century-old civil rights organization. And Paul again mentioned King as he continued his crusade against the federal government's current surveillance activities....

Some of Paul's language sounds similar to what Christie is saying. Thursday night, he and the chairman of the Republican Governor's Association once again said that there's far too many people sitting in prisons for non-violent drug crimes and called on Republicans to focus on people not just before they're born but after as well.

"I'm pro-life and if you're pro-life, you have to be pro-life when they get out of the womb also," Christie said in an appearance at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, repeating comments he made last month at a major social conservative gathering. Gov. Christie: 'You have to be pro-life when they get out of the womb'

Christie said the justice system must stop stigmatizing the disease of drug addiction and focus more on rehabilitation. "We don't give them any kind of significant treatment, long-range treatment, and then we release them. And then we wonder why they go back and commit more crimes to support their habit," Christie said.

Some recent and older related posts:

July 26, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rep. Ryan's new anti-poverty proposal calls for federal sentencing and prison reforms

Paul-ryanAs reported in this official press release, House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan today "released a new discussion draft, 'Expanding Opportunity in America,' [which] proposes a new pilot project to strengthen the safety net and discusses a number of reforms to the EITC, education, criminal justice, and regressive regulation."  Notably, an extended section of this impressive document (Chapter 4, which runs nearly 10 of the draft's 70+ pages) is focused on criminal justice reforms.  Here are segments from this portion of the draft:

About 2.2 million people are currently behind bars — a more than 340 percent increase since 1980.  As a result, we spend about $80 billion on corrections at all levels of government — an inflation-adjusted increase of over 350 percent in that same period.  This growing cost burden on society is a cause for concern.  But perhaps what’s most troubling is the effect on individuals and families....

[Federal sentencing reform] seeks to tap this overlooked potential and ameliorate the collateral impact on children and families.  Although most offenders are in state prisons or local jails, successful reforms at the federal level could encourage states and local governments to follow their example.  This discussion draft explores a number of reforms on multiple fronts — how we sentence individuals to prison, how offenders are treated inside prison, and how society helps them to reintegrate afterwards.

Public safety is priority No. 1, so these reforms would apply to only non-violent and low-risk offenders.  The punishment should fit the crime, but in many cases the punishment of incarceration extends beyond prison time.  Once people have paid their debt to society, they should be able to move on. In that spirit, this proposal suggests three possible reforms:

• Grant judges more flexibility within mandatory-minimum guidelines when sentencing non-violent drug offenders.

• Implement a risk- and needs-assessment system in federal prisons while expanding enrollment in rehabilitative programming to reduce recidivism. Allow non-violent and low-risk inmates to use enrollment to earn time off their prison stay towards prerelease custody.

• Partner with reforms at the state and local level....

Unlike state inmates, only 6 percent of federal inmates are violent offenders, while another 15 percent are guilty of weapons offenses.  In fact, most federal prisoners—nearly 51 percent — are serving time for a drug-related offense, and data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission shows that most of these federal drug offenders are in the lowest criminal-history category.   But under current law, a single gram of crack cocaine could be all that separates a convict from a less-than-five-year sentence and a 40-year sentence. Rigid and excessive mandatory sentences for low-level drug offenders, like these, may add to an already over-crowded prison system without appreciably enhancing public safety.

There are also economic and social consequences to unreasonably long sentences. Not only do they put undue burdens on families, but they may actually make people more likely to return to crime.  As Justice Fellowship notes, “Rather than encouraging criminals to become peaceful, productive citizens, prison culture often has the opposite effect, operating as a graduate school for crime.”  The federal government should follow the lead of several states and consider how sentencing guidelines, including alternative forms of detention, can both prevent crime and steer non-violent, low-risk drug offenders away from the addictions and networks that make them more likely to reoffend....

Although crime rates have fallen since the 1980s, the unintended consequence of these mandatory minimums is that some low-risk, non-violent offenders serve unreasonably long sentences....

A major challenge of criminal-justice reform is lowering the high rates of recidivism. High rates of recidivism are not only costly to the taxpayer and dangerous for society; they present a missed opportunity to bring more individuals into society as productive and contributing members....

[Proposed] reforms seek to put a greater focus upon rehabilitation and reintegration. Although the federal government’s reach is limited, these reforms would give judges the discretion they need to prevent nonviolent offenders from serving unreasonably long sentences; they would align inmates’ incentives to help reduce recidivism; and they would partner with states and community groups to expand their life-affirming work.

July 24, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Newt Gingrich saying again that "backing sensible and proven reforms to the U.S. criminal-justice system is a valuable conservative cause"

I have long stressed my belief that many federal sentencing reform efforts can and should be viewed as a cause that ought to attract politicians and people with true conservative principles.  This recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, headlined "An Opening for Bipartisanship on Prison Reform," authored by Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan echoes this point. Here are excerpts:

Several states have passed meaningful reforms, including expanding drug courts to order mandatory drug treatment programs, increasing funding for drug and mental-health treatment, and limiting costly prison beds to violent and serious repeat offenders. These state reforms passed in part thanks to conservative support.

Right on Crime, a national organization founded in 2010 that we both belong to, is helping spread the word that backing sensible and proven reforms to the U.S. criminal-justice system is a valuable conservative cause.

On a panel at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in March in National Harbor, Md., Texas Gov. Rick Perry explained how reform worked in his state. In 2007, Texas scrapped plans to build more prisons, putting much of the savings into drug courts and treatment. The results have been impressive: Crime in Texas is at the lowest rate since 1968. The number of inmates has fallen by 3%, enabling the state to close three prisons, saving $3 billion so far. What inspired the reform, Gov. Perry said, was this: "Being able to give people a second chance is really important. That should be our goal. The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, never give them a chance at redemption is not what America is about."

In 2010, South Carolina followed Texas' example, toughening penalties for violent criminals while creating alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. These included providing community drug treatment and mental health services for lower-level lawbreakers—mostly drug and property offenders—who made up half of the state's prison population. South Carolina also increased funding for more agents to supervise offenders in the community. Three years later, the prison population has decreased by 8%, and violent offenders now account for 63% of the inmate population. South Carolina's recidivism rates also are much improved and the state has closed one prison.

Other states—Ohio, Georgia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Mississippi—have adopted similar reforms. As is so often the case, the states are showing the way. Congress should apply these common-sense reforms to the federal prison system.

The reforms have developed in the states, as conservatives tend to prefer. But now that there is proof that prison reform can work, the debate has gone from an ideological discussion to evidence-based changes that can be applied to the federal system.

Republican Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have seen the benefits firsthand in Texas, have been joined by Republican Senate colleagues such as Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Jeff Flake and Ron Johnson in backing one or more prison-reform bills. Two bills, the Recidivism Reduction and Public Safety Act (S. 1675) and the Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) have already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and await action by the full Senate.

In the House, Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz, Raúl Labrador, Trey Gowdy and others are backing similar legislation. This push for reforming the federal prison system has support on the other side of the aisle as well. Such liberal stalwarts as Sens. Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Reps. John Conyers, Bobby Scott and Jerrold Nadler have signaled their backing.

July 17, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Latest polling shows rich, white, midwestern guys aged 30-44 most likely to favor pot legalization

As this press release details, the "latest research from YouGov shows that most Americans (51%) support legalizing marijuana, while 37% oppose it."  And, as the title of this post highlights, I find especially interesting the demographics of which groups of persons are most in favor of legalization as reflected in these detailed breakdowns:

Male: 54% to 36%

Age 30-44: 60% to 28%

Democrat: 62% to 27%

White: 52% to 37%

Income $100+: 57% to 32%

Midwest: 55% to 31%

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

July 16, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, July 14, 2014

Former Rep. (and former felon) Duke Cunningham now says "my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice"

The old criminal justice saw says that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged and a liberal is a conservative who has been indicted.  The latest evidence of how personal experiences can change one's perspective on criminal justice issues comes from this recent Huffington Post piece headlined "It Took This Former Congressman Years Behind Bars To See The Need For Drug War Reform."  Here are excerpts:

A former Republican member of Congress is ready to join the fight for sentencing reform and rolling back harsh mandatory minimums for drug crimes. Only this one has a bit more experience with the federal prison system than a typical politician does.

Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Calif.), 72, is now a free man after a federal judge ended his supervised release early following seven years in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons on corruption charges. He had served in Congress from 1991 to 2005. In a letter he sent to the media when he was still behind bars in 2011, Cunningham said he planned to dedicate his life to prison reform and Justice Department reform....

Cunningham told The Huffington Post in a phone interview from his home in Arkansas' Hot Springs Village -- which is believed to be the largest gated community in the U.S. -- that he's made time to push his criminal justice reform ideas on his former colleagues back in Washington, D.C. "I'm not going to give you their names, but I've already called some Republican and Democrat friends of mine and told them that I would make myself available to testify..." Cunningham told HuffPost....

"Unfortunately, some of my Democrat colleagues were right and I was wrong on some issues as far as criminal justice," Cunningham said, specifically regretting votes for mandatory minimums for drug crimes that take discretion away from federal judges and give federal prosecutors a tremendous amount of leverage over defendants. "We have taken out of the judge's hands the ability to be merciful in some reasons or to do the right thing," Cunningham said. "I've heard case after case where the judges have said, 'I wish I could help you, but my hands are tied.' I want to untie the hands of our judges."

"I saw kids in there who are 19 to 30. They go into prison, they maybe got caught with cocaine or rock or something like that, and they give them 10 years minimum. What do they do when they get out?" Cunningham said. "There's a lot of very nice guys that got caught up."

Cunningham's new outlook on criminal justice after a prison term puts him in the same camp as former New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who has also advocated for reform after his own stint in federal prison. Even outside of those serving for drug crimes, Cunningham said, he met plenty of people behind bars who didn't deserve to be there....

Cunningham said he's still catching up on the details of some of the sentencing reform proposals floating around on the hill, and also thinks the medical care for federal prisoners needs an overhaul. "Prison medical is worse than Obamacare, and I'm not a fan of Obamacare," Cunningham said. He said three people he knew died behind bars, including a man named Felix who was only given aspirin for a pain in his side. He was later found to have pancreatic cancer, was taken out and died two weeks later.

Cunningham said he's done a "180 turn" on criminal justice, and wishes he could take back many of the votes he made back when he was a member of Congress. "My Democrat colleagues would support the lawyers. We'd support the prosecutors," he said. "I think I'd vote more with my Democrat colleagues today."

July 14, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"4 Reasons Conservatives Are Embracing Prison Reform"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary piece by Christian Piatt appearing in Time which includes a religious perspective as well as a political one. Much of the discussion will be familiar to regular readers, but here are a few excerpts of not: 

Criminal sentencing certainly has been one of those divisive social issues among Christians, with many progressives calling for more leniency on nonviolent crimes, and conservatives embracing a “zero tolerance” ethos....

Only recently have the number of incarcerated people within our borders begun to decline, and it’s in part due to a shift in the way those who have championed a hard-nosed approach to sentencing are reframing their thinking. In some respects, the reasons are logistical and economic; for others, the change of heart is informed particularly by their understanding of scripture and the mandates of the Gospel....

[H]ere are four ideas around which Christians – and non-Christians – from both the left and right are coming together.

Reform makes good financial sense. ...

Reform reduces government’s role in our lives. ...

Second Chances are Biblical. ...

Thinking on “paying our debt to society” is shifting....

Warehousing nonviolent offenders is still big business in the United States, which means that people with significant influence are intent on keeping things more or less as they already are. And certainly not all on the political and religious right agree with the points above. But enough conservatives are breaking rank to begin to form coalitions with the center and left, so that real reform becomes an increasing possibility.

July 12, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Senators Paul and Booker introducing another important bipartisan CJ reform bill

140707_rand_paul_cory_booker_gty_605As reported in this new Washington Post column, a pair of "freshmen senators eager to expand their national profiles are teaming up to introduce a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's criminal justice system that they say will cut government spending and help make it easier for nonviolent criminals to eventually secure a job." Here are the exciting details:

The proposals set to be unveiled Tuesday by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are unlikely to advance this year, but address a series of policy and political priorities for both senators. Booker previously served as mayor of Newark and has made the fate of inner city youth a key part of his public service. Partnering with Paul continues Booker's pattern of seeking out Republicans to work with as he casts himself as a bipartisan broker ahead of his election campaign in November for a full term.

Paul has openly discussed running for president in 2016 and has talked regularly about his concern that the nation's prisons are overcrowded with people serving excessive sentences for minor crimes. Such concerns are a key element of his libertarian-leaning philosophy and further cast him as a Republican eager and willing to cross the aisle -- and visit the nation's urban centers -- to seek out policy solutions and gain supporters in areas of the country often ignored by Republicans.

Most of all, aides say the legislation addresses a common concern for Booker and Paul: That the United States accounts for just 5 percent of the world's population, but a quarter of the world's prison population.

The REDEEM Act proposal would encourage states to raise the age of criminal responsibly to 18 years of age; expunge or seal the records of juveniles who commit non-violent crimes before they turn 15; place limits on the solitary confinement of most juveniles; and establish a system to allow eligible nonviolent criminals to petition a court to ask that their criminal records be sealed. Sealing the records would keep them out of FBI background checks requested by employers and likely make it easier for those former offenders to secure a job.

Currently 10 states set the age at which someone can be tried in adult criminal court below 18, a move that the senators said in their statement "sends countless kids into the unforgiving adult criminal system." In hopes of reversing the trend, Booker and Paul propose giving states that change the minimum age preference when applying for federal community police grants. The same preference would be given to states that allow nonviolent offenders to petition to have their criminal records sealed. Once the records are sealed, an offender could lawfully claim that their records don't exist.

Booker said in a statement that the legislation "will ensure that our tax dollars are being used in smarter, more productive ways. It will also establish much-needed sensible reforms that keep kids out of the adult correctional system, protect their privacy so a youthful mistake can remain a youthful mistake, and help make it less likely that low-level adult offenders re-offend."

Paul said, "The biggest impediment to civil rights and employment in our country is a criminal record. Our current system is broken and has trapped tens of thousands of young men and women in a cycle of poverty and incarceration."...

The fate of the REDEEM Act is unclear since most legislation introduced this year has failed to advance beyond the committee level, especially in the Senate, where years-long personality-driven disputes over procedure and fiscal policy have essentially driven the chamber to a halt.

But the new proposals help build out the policy portfolios for both senators. Paul unveiled a plan last month that would restore voting rights for nonviolent felons in federal elections. Booker and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) introduced a proposal in April that would help create hundreds of thousands of jobs for younger Americans, especially minorities struggling to find work.

Senator Rand Paul's press release about the REDEEM Act can be found at this link; Senator Cory Booker's press release about the REDEEM Act can be found at this link.

Some recent and older related posts:

July 8, 2014 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offender Characteristics, Prisons and prisoners, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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