Sunday, April 20, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Noting the very cautious politics still surrounding pot legalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 23, 2014

"Marijuana industry finds unlikely new allies in conservatives"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

NY Times sees "A Rare Opportunity on Criminal Justice"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Notable talk of sentencing reform at CPAC conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Florida conservatives now talking up nuanced positions on marijuana reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 03, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 08, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Thursday, February 06, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Sunday, February 02, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few older and more recent related posts:

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

Friday, January 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

A few recent related posts:

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

Sunday, January 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Election outcomes in Nov 2013 keep up marijuana reform momentum

Though it would be unwise jump to too many conclusions based on off-year election results, these headlines reporting on results concerning various marijuana initiative in various jurisdictions suggest a continuing affinity for responsible reform and sensible regulation of maijuana laws, policies and practices:

Practically speaking, the Colorado vote is probably the most important and consequential, as it ensures a significant tax revenue stream now flowing from marijuana legalization in the Mile High state.  But politically speaking, the voting outcomes in Maine and Michigan, though most symbolic, could still prove important if (and when?) more politicians on both side of the aisle in the northeast and upper midwest see that there could be political upsides in 2014 and beyond from supporting responsible reform and sensible regulation of maijuana laws, policies and practices.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

November 6, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Criminals and Campaign Cash: The Impact of Judicial Campaign Spending on Criminal Defendants"

CampaignCriminalCash-covThe title of this post is the title of this notable new report released today by the Center for American Progress. At this link, one can find a summary of the report's highlights, from which I have drawn this excerpt:

As state supreme court campaigns become more expensive and more partisan, the fear of being portrayed as “soft on crime” is leading courts to rule more often for prosecutors and against criminal defendants.

That is the disturbing finding of this Center for American Progress study, which explores the impact on the criminal justice system of the explosion in judicial campaign cash and the growing use of political attack ads in state supreme court elections, which have increased pressure on elected judges to appear “tough on crime.” In carrying out this study, CAP collected data on supreme courts that, between 2000 and 2007, saw their first election in which the candidates and independent spenders spent more than $3 million. This includes high courts in Illinois, Mississippi, Washington, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada, and West Virginia. For each of these courts, CAP examined 4,684 rulings in criminal cases for a time period starting five years before a given state’s first $3 million high court election and ending five years after that election.

The findings reveal a clear trend: As campaign cash increased, the courts studied began to rule more often in favor of prosecutors and against criminal defendants....

These results suggest that, just as judges are more likely to rule against criminal defendants as elections approach, state supreme courts are more likely to rule for the state as the amount of money in high court elections increases.

These findings have important implications for the debates over reforming our criminal justice system.  In the past 50 years, the U.S. government has cracked down on drug crimes and provided financial incentives for states to do the same. The so-called War on Drugs has resulted in over-incarceration and the growth of private prisons, which has given certain companies a financial incentive in maintaining this status quo. But as the financial cost of the nation’s drug war has become clear, Americans are debating whether our punitive approach is working.  The federal government is scaling back the use of harsh mandatory minimums, and some states, including Georgia, are experimenting with alternative sentencing.  If reformers want to stop over-incarceration and ensure that criminal defendants are treated fairly, they must also speak out about the politicization of judicial elections and the tarring of judges as being soft on crime in attack ads, a practice that compels courts to rule for the state and against defendants.

The enormous sums of money spent in recent judicial elections have fueled an increase in attack ads targeting judges.  State supreme court candidates raised more than $200 million between 2000 and 2009 — two and a half times more than in the 1990s.   A record $28 million was spent on television ads in 2012 high court elections, with half of this money coming in the form of independent spending, according to Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice.   These independent spenders are more likely than the candidates’ campaigns to run attack ads.

Most of these attack ads allege that a certain judge is soft on crime, telling voters that he or she ruled in favor of a violent criminal without any context or discussion of the legal issue at stake. A single ruling in a case, replete with gruesome facts, can provide fodder for an attack ad. A 2012 candidate for the Ohio Supreme Court, for example, was attacked by the state Republican Party, which alleged in an ad that the judge — Democrat Bill O’Neill — had “expressed sympathy for rapists” in one of his opinions. During the 2004 West Virginia Supreme Court election, a group funded by coal mogul Don Blankenship warned that an incumbent justice “voted to release” a “child rapist” and then “agreed to let this convicted child rapist work as a janitor in a West Virginia school.” Another campaign ad, this one in the 2012 Louisiana Supreme Court race, claimed that one of the candidates had “suspended the sentence of a cocaine dealer, of a man who killed a state trooper, two more drug dealers, and over half the sentence of a child rapist.”

These attack ads distort rulings in criminal cases to play on voters’ fears, and they create political pressure on judges to rule in favor of the state. Moreover, judicial candidates themselves are running ads that proclaim their tough-on-crime approach, even though judicial ethics rules prohibit candidates from expressing a bias for or against certain litigants, including criminal defendants.... [T]his report briefly outlines how media images shape attitudes on crime and describes how these attack ads became more prevalent. The report then looks at the special interests bankrolling these ads and profiles four of the states studied — Illinois, Mississippi, Washington, and Georgia — and the experiences of each high court with attack ads and their fallout.

October 28, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Terrific (though incomplete) analysis of the state and future of modern pot politics

Rs and potThis very interesting new piece in The New Republic authored by Nate Cohn and headlined "Marijuana is America's Next Political Wedge Issue: Pot politics, in 2016 and beyond," sets forth what strikes me as an astute (but incomplete) political analysis of modern marijuana reform realities circa fall 2013.   Here are excerpts:

We’ve reached the point where there should be no surprise if a major national politician embraces marijuana legalization. Without any large-scale campaign on its behalf, surveys show that approximately half of Americans now support marijuana legalization, including 58 percent in a recent, but potentially outlying, Gallup poll. Regardless of the exact support today, marijuana is all but assured to emerge as an issue in national elections — it's only a question of how and when.

So far, neither party wants to touch the issue. The Democratic governors of Washington and Colorado didn’t even support initiatives to legalize the possession, distribution, and consumption of marijuana, even though the initiatives ultimately prevailed by clear margins. It took the administration ten months to announce — in the middle of the Syria debate — that the Department of Justice wouldn’t pursue legal action against Washington and Colorado. And on the other hand, Republicans weren't exactly screaming about hippies and gateway drugs, either.

Despite their apparent reservation to engage the issue, it’s hard to imagine Democrats staying on the sidelines for too many more election cycles. The party’s base is already on board, with polls showing a clear majority of self-described Democrats in support....

To date, Democrats haven’t had many incentives to take a risk on the issue. Democrats are already winning the winnable culture war skirmishes, at least from a national electoral perspective, and they have a winning demographic hand. And let’s get perspective: Marijuana legalization may be increasingly popular, but it’s not clearly an electoral bonanza. Support for legalization isn’t very far above 50 percent, if it is in fact, and there are potential downsides. National surveys show that a third of Democrats still oppose marijuana legalization. Seniors, who turnout in high numbers in off year elections, are also opposed. Altogether, it’s very conceivable that there are more votes to be lost than won by supporting marijuana. After all, marijuana legalization underperformed President Obama in Washington State.

Even so, Democratic voters will eventually prevail over cautious politicians, most likely through the primary process. Any liberal rival to Hillary Clinton in 2016 will have every incentive to support marijuana legalization. Whether Clinton will follow suit is harder to say, given that frontrunners (and Clintons) are generally pretty cautious. It’s probably more likely that Clinton would endorse steps toward liberalization, like weaker criminal penalties and support for the legalization experiments in Washington and Colorado.

Republicans, meanwhile, are less likely to support legalization or liberalization. To be sure, some Republicans will. They can take a states’ rights position and the party has a growing libertarian bent, perhaps best exemplified by Rand Paul’s willingness to support more liberal marijuana laws. Republicans also have electoral incentives to lead on issues where they can earn a few votes among millennials, who pose a serious threat to the continued viability of the national Republican coalition. If the Republicans can't adjust their existing positions to compensate for demographic and generational change, which (for now) it appears they cannot, then perhaps taking a stance on a new issue, like marijuana, is the best they can do.

Of course, the problem is that a majority of Republicans are opposed to legalization. Two thirds of Republicans voted against legalization in Colorado and Washington, where one might expect Republicans be somewhat more amenable than the nation as a whole. It probably doesn’t help that marijuana is closely aligned with the liberal counterculture. It's also possible that many pro-legalization conservatives don't identify as Republicans at all, but instead might be independents....

With Republicans likely to remain opposed, marijuana could emerge as a big cultural issue in the 2016 election. In particular, Clinton would be well-positioned to deploy the issue. Her strength among older voters and women mitigates the risk that she would lose very much support, while legalization could help Clinton with the young, independent, and male voters who could clinch her primary or general election victory.

But realistically, Clinton or another Democrat won't campaign on marijuana legalization. For one, it’s most likely that the Democratic nominee will support incremental measures....

It’s easier to imagine marijuana playing a role in the 2016 primaries. Many candidates will have incentives to use the issue, whether it’s a cultural conservative using marijuana to hurt Rand Paul among evangelicals in Iowa, or a liberal trying to stoke a progressive revolt against Clinton’s candidacy. And once one party begins to debate the issue, the other will almost certainly be confronted by the same question. Marijuana won’t be decisive in a primary, but 2016’s primary battles will shape the two party’s initial positions on the issue.

Yet marijuana’s big moment will probably come later, perhaps in 2024. Legalization might eventually be popular enough for Democrats to use the issue in general elections, first at the state level and then nationally. As with gay marriage, the GOP’s obvious but difficult solution is to take their own creed on states’ rights seriously, and devolve the issue — and the politics — to the states. Compared to gay marriage, which strikes at the heart of the evangelical wing of the party, it should be easier for the Republicans to make an adjustment on marijuana. But if they cannot, the GOP will again find itself on the losing side of the culture wars.

I see lots and lots of merit to this analysis, and I find especially intriguing the cogent observation that a older female politician like Hillary Clinton might be especially well positioned to experiences far more political benefits than costs from pro-marijuana reform positions. (Indeed, I have been thinking for some time that the marijuana reform movement needs a prominent female (and motherly) face and voice comparable to Pauline Sabin, the first woman to sit on the Republican National Committee, who was a vocal advocate from repealing alcohol prohibition 80 years ago.)

But I think this commentary may be missing one key reality that I am certain will impact dramatically the politics of pot over the next few election cycles: the reality and perceptions of what ends up happening, good or bad, in Colorado and Washington as recreational pot goes mainstream in these two distinct states.  If legalization is seen as a huge success inside and outside these states over the next 12 months, especially in swing-state Colorado, we should expect marijuana reform supporters to see positive political possibilities as early as 2014 and I suspect it will become especially difficult for either party to be vocal opponents of marijuana liberalization and legalization realities.  But if things go poorly in these states, the modern reform politics neccesarily will take on a much different character. 

Labaoratories of democracy, here we come: buckle up politicians, we are likely in for a bumpy and unpredictable politicial ride.

October 26, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Federal sentencing reform: an unlikely Senatorial love story and a Booker double-dose?

O-PAUL-BOOKER-facebookThe silly title of this post is my first reaction to seeing this new report in the Wall Street Journal about the plans and priorities of US Senator-elect from New Jersey Cory Booker.  The piece is headlined "On Booker's To-Do List: Revamp Drug Laws; New Jersey's Senator-Elect Face Challenges Once He Takes Office," and here are the excerpts that caught my special attention:

Senator-elect Cory Booker sees revamping drug policies as one of the principal issues he can champion once he takes office in Washington, D.C., and he believes he can draw bipartisan support on the issue—even among those who supported his Republican challenger in the special-election race.

Mr. Booker said he has had initial conversations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid about his opinions on the issue—such as eliminating mandatory minimum-sentencing laws for nonviolent offenders and reducing incarceration rates as a way to help save tax dollars.

In the special-election race that wrapped up last week, Mr. Booker campaigned on working across the aisle despite the bitter partisan divide in Washington. Drug policy could be one area where he finds some success, according to those who work in the field. He singled out Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a libertarian, as someone who sees eye-to-eye with him on the issue.

"I want to work with him," said Mr. Booker, about Mr. Paul, during an interview Tuesday at his campaign office in the city he led as mayor for seven years. "I take everybody in the Senate as sincere people who want to make a difference."

Mr. Paul — a tea-party leader seen as a possible 2016 Republican presidential contender — endorsed Mr. Booker's challenger, Steve Lonegan, in the Oct. 16 Senate election. But a spokeswoman for Mr. Paul on Tuesday welcomed Mr. Booker's gesture.

"Senator Paul would be pleased to work with any member who believes that mandatory minimum sentencing is unnecessary," the spokeswoman said. "He looks forward to Senator Booker's assistance on this important issue."

I am very pleased to see Booker talking up federal sentencing reform as he heads inside the Beltway, and I am especially excited to see him calling for a partnership with Senator Rand. Indeed, if the two of them truly seek to make sentencing reform a priority in the weeks and months ahead, the momentum toward reform may really become unstoppable.

And, of course, the notable irony of another person with the surname Booker shaking up federal sentencing perhaps mertis some special attention by clever wanna-be-headline-writing commentators.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 23, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Is it too early want the new Senator from NJ to get going on sentencing reform?

Though Senator-Elect Cory Booker has not yet been sworn in, I am already eager to see if, when and how he might start trying to deliver on his campaign call for federal criminal justice reform. Linked via this page from his website, Senator-Elect Booker has championed an array of reform ideas in this white-paper titled "Reforming America's Criminal Justice System: Refocusing on Delivering Results, Aligning with Our Values, and Reducing the Burden on Taxpayers." Here is just a snippet of some of the sentencing-related reforms he is calling for in that document:

Increase federal funding for proven, evidence-based programs like drug and community courts, that divert low-level drug offenders from prison....

Facilitate a structured, national conversation about the decriminalization of marijuana...

Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses...

Eliminate the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine....

This all sounds good to me, Senator-Elect Booker. Feel free to let me know how I can help.

October 17, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Three myths about conservatives and criminal justice" ... which are really stories about (slowly) changing modern realities

The title of this post is drawn from the headline of this recent FoxNews opinion piece by Vikrant Reddy, a senior policy adviser for Right On Crime. Here are excerpts, after which I explain my addition to the headline:

Over the summer, Americans were embroiled in fierce debates about NSA surveillance, Syria, and — of course — ObamaCare.  Attorney General Eric Holder’s August 12th address on criminal justice reform, however, hardly made a blip on the national radar.

Observers who were surprised by this fundamentally misunderstand conservative views on criminal justice. Indeed, Holder himself quite possibly misunderstands conservative views on the subject. Three bits of conventional wisdom on this topic are completely wrong.

1. The conservative position on criminal justice is simply “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”

Prominent conservatives like Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, and Ed Meese are committed to reducing the incarceration of many nonviolent offenders while also enhancing public safety through effective community corrections and law enforcement.  After Holder’s August policy address, Grover Norquist and Richard Viguerie essentially asked, “What took you so long?”

Increasingly, conservatives argue that prisons are necessary to incapacitate violent and career criminals but sometimes grow excessively large and costly like other government programs.... Conservatives appreciate the role that prison expansion has played in reducing crime, but they also recognize that incarceration has diminishing returns....

Citing recidivism rates of around 66% in some states, Newt Gingrich and Mark Earley observed: “If two-thirds of public school students dropped out, or two-thirds of all bridges built collapsed within three years, would citizens tolerate it?”

2. “Red states” are resistant to criminal justice reform.

In just the last three years, conservative legislatures and governors in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota enacted major reforms to avert future prison growth that redirect some nonviolent offenders to drug courts, electronic monitoring, and strong probation with swift and certain sanctions to promote compliance.

In 2012 and 2013, Georgia’s conservative legislature and Republican governor, Nathan Deal, passed perhaps the nation’s most sweeping adult and juvenile correctional reform bills. In 2011, an important prison reform bill was signed by John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio.

Texas, in particular, is a national reform model. A 2007 legislative estimate projected that over 17,000 new prison beds, at a cost of $2 billion, would be needed in Texas by 2012. State legislators instead expanded community-based options like probation, accountability courts, and proven treatment programs—for a fraction of the cost of prison expansion....

3. Conservative prison reforms are just a response to deficits and will be reversed once budgets are flush again.

Prison reform makes fiscal sense, especially in the wake of a recession that severely tightened state budgets, but this is not the only motivation behind conservative reform efforts. Texas, for example, began its reforms when it enjoyed a budget surplus.

Conservatives are principally concerned with public safety.  Troubling recidivism statistics suggest that some low-level, nonviolent offenders who are incarcerated actually emerge from prison more dangerous than when they entered.  Conservatives want to ensure that non-violent offenders amenable to rehabilitation can resume their lives as law-abiding citizens, productive employees, and responsible parents.

They are particularly concerned about the effect of sentencing policies on families, the bedrock institution of society. Overwhelming social science evidence — and common sense — indicates that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to perform poorly in school, engage in juvenile crime, and be incarcerated themselves.

Addressing this problem means using prison less for some nonviolent offenders and using community supervision more — but tough supervision that requires offenders to provide restitution to their victims, get drug treatment, keep stable jobs, and support their families.

I very much like this op-ed, but it strikes me as neither accurate nor fair to call the quoted claims "myths" as much as prior realities that are slowly changing.  Indeed, the main reason so many "red states" have been leading some of the modern reform movement lately is because of the extreme and dire budget consequences now evidence in the wake of prior "lock 'em up and throw away the key" laws and practices long embraced by conservatives in these red states.

Perhaps the clearest proof that conservatives have been (and still tend to be) fans of the lock'em up approach to criminal justice comes from the latest statistics on state-by-state incarceration rates. This DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics press release about the latest official data on incarceration rates highlights the following telling data:

In 2012, states with the highest imprisonment rates included Louisiana (893 per 100,000 state residents), Mississippi (717 per 100,000 state residents), Alabama (650 per 100,000 state residents), Oklahoma (648 per 100,000 state residents), and Texas (601 p er 100,000 state residents).  Maine had the lowest imprisonment rate among states (145 per 100,000 state residents), followed by Minnesota (184 per 100,000 state residents), and Rhode Island (190 per 100,000 state residents).

Though there are lots of factors other than politics and policies that impact crime and incarceration realities in various states, these data demonstrate it is hardly mythical to believe that conservate policy-makers and opinion leaders have historically (and still today) favor lock'em up approaches to criminal justice.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 16, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Does Senator Ted Cruz agree with GOP Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul about the need for federal sentencing reform?

Senator Ted Cruz is the man of the political moment, in part because, as of this writing as reported here, he is now in his 20th hour of "speaking on the Senate floor without so much as a bathroom break to interrupt his symbolic demonstration against Obamacare." And while his high-profile efforts in opposition to recent federal health care reforms has helped make him the darling of political right, the question in the title of this post concerns whether Senator Cruz on federal criminal justices issue shares the reform-oriented views of other two others Senators who have been favorites of the tea-party wing of the GOP, namely Mike Lee and Rand Paul.

As regular readers know, Senator Lee is a co-sponsor of S. 1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act, and Senator Paul is the co-sponsor of S. 619, the Justice Safety Valve Act. Though these bills differ in various respects, both would bring big significant changes to the operation of the federal sentencing system. And both are indisputably getting huge political boosts (and clearing space for lots of other federal sentencing reform discussions and developments) because Senator Lee and especially Senator Paul has become active proponents for federal criminal justice reforms.

I have an inkling that, despite Senator Cruz's disaffinity for the GOP establishment in other respects, he is generally more inclined to favor the GOP establishment perspective (generally favoring big federal government and executive power) on criminal justice issues than the tea party perspective now well represented by Senators Lee and Paul.   And yet, Senator Cruz's home state of Texas has actually been a leader in recent years on state-level "smart on crime" reforms, and I suspect while serving as State Solicitor in Texas he saw some of the benefits of developing cost-effective, criminal punishment alternatives to imprisonment.  Indeed, I would expect that Senator Cruz's Texas experiences and his broader political philosophy should lead him to favoring placing more limits on the reach and power of the federal criminal justice system in order to enable states to develop more innovative, nimble and cost-effective local approaches to combatting crimes and imposing punishment while maximizing liberty and commitments to core constitutional values.

Though a member of the US Senate Committee on the Judiciary, I cannot find on Senator Cruz's official website any detailed discussion of federal criminal justice issues.  I want to believe that Senator Ted Cruz agrees with Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul about the need for federal sentencing reform, and that he might even at some point dedicate his resources and rhetoric toward supporting criminal justice reform efforts being sponsored by his tea-party-oriented GOP colleagues.  But perhaps others who know Senator Cruz's record or rhetoric better than I do might have a more informed understanding of just where he now stands on these (somewhat) distinct issues of federal government growth and power.

Some recent and older related posts:

September 25, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Monday, September 16, 2013

Senator Rand Paul talking up restoring voting and gun rights for felons, as well as sentencing reform

I-love-randMy (unhealthy? appropriate?) bromance with U.S. Senator Rand Paul has reached a whole new level based on this notable new article from Kentucky.  The piece is headlined "Sen. Rand Paul calls for restoring felons' voting, gun rights," and here are excerpts:

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul told a largely black audience Monday in Louisville that he will push to restore the voting and gun-ownership rights of felons who have completed their sentences — and he will urge state Senate Republicans to follow his lead. Currently in Kentucky, felons must petition the governor to get their voting rights restored.

“I am in favor of letting people get their rights back, the right to vote ... Second Amendment rights, all your rights to come back,” he said. “I know of one man who 30-some-odd years ago had pot plants in his closet in college, got a felony conviction in college, still can’t vote, and it’s plagued him his whole life trying to get work.”

The Republican’s comments came at the Plymouth Community Renewal Center in western Louisville as he spoke with community leaders about issues that affect African Americans. Additionally, as he has done in the past, he called for doing away with mandatory minimum sentences in the federal criminal justice system, saying they are often too harsh.

The Rev. Patrick Delahanty, the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky and who was not at the meeting, applauded Paul’s stance on restoring voting rights in a later interview. He said Paul’s comments could help advance the issue during the next session of the General Assembly....

Paul said during the meeting in western Louisville that he believes felons should have their rights restored automatically — either immediately after completing their sentences or at some specified point after the sentences are served. He said he plans to talk to leaders in the Kentucky Senate about their opposition and would be willing to travel to Frankfort to testify in favor of legislation to restore voting rights....

The League of Women Voters found in a 2006 study that nearly one in four African Americans is banned from the polls because of a felony conviction, compared with 1 in 17 Kentuckians overall.

Paul, who has said he is considering running for president in 2016, has been meeting with African-American groups in an effort to bridge the gap between blacks and the Republican Party. Paul also met this year with students at the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then later with students at historically black Simmons College in Louisville.

During an hourlong discussion Monday, Paul listened as black leaders talked about issues that hinder African Americans’ ability to get a leg up and fully participate in the community. Much of their concern centered around helping black men who committed crimes but have turned their lives around.

This AP article about Senator Paul's comments today also contributes to my man-love for this GOP leader:

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul drew a favorable response Monday in a mostly black Louisville neighborhood as the tea party favorite promoted the ideas of giving judges more sentencing flexibility, restoring voting rights for felons and offering tax breaks to lure businesses into struggling communities....

Paul spoke with a group of ministers and community activists during a meeting that lasted more than an hour. The senator told the group at the Plymouth Community Renewal Center that the "War on Drugs" unfairly targeted blacks. "We went crazy on the 'War on Drugs,'" the libertarian-leaning senator said. "Drugs aren't good. We should have some laws. ... We have to figure out how to go forward, so changing those laws is important."

Paul criticized federal mandatory minimum penalties that he said have clogged prisons with non-violent drug offenders. Blacks make up a disproportionately high number of those inmates, he said. "We have people in jail for life for non-violent drug crimes," he said. "I think this is a crime, in and of itself."

The first-term senator is a leading sponsor behind legislation that would give federal judges greater flexibility in sentencing. The measure is scheduled to be reviewed at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing later this week.

"Mandatory minimums have trapped a lot of people, made them felons, made it hard for them to get jobs, for non-violent crimes," Paul said. "I would just as soon take some of these non-violent crimes and make them misdemeanors so you don't get in that trap."

Paul said he's also considering legislation that would restore voting rights for non-violent felons of federal crimes. The bill is still in draft form, he said, but the restoration of rights would apply to non-violent offenders who haven't committed other crimes for perhaps five years.

Paul said such a bill would especially be aimed at people who committed drug offenses as young adults — which he referred to as a "youthful mistake." Such offenders pay for those indiscretions for decades to come, he said. "I think the biggest problem right now with voting rights is ... not being allowed to vote because the law says you can never vote," he said.

Some recent and older related posts:

September 16, 2013 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Second Amendment issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Could GOP Senator John Cornyn be the next big advocate for reducing federal prison terms?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this very interesting new piece by Greg Sargent via the Washington Post under the headline "Where are Republicans on sentencing reform?." Here are excerpts:

When Eric Holder announced recently that he is pursuing an ambitious package of sentencing reforms, including proposals to reduce “mandatory minimum” sentences, there was a widespread sense it could attract broad bipartisan support. The thinking was that agreement cuts across party lines that our decades-long experiment in mass incarceration has been a huge policy failure.

Now Dem Congressional aides are asking: Will leading Republicans step forward and support reform?...

I can report a new development on this front. I’m told GOP Senator John Cornyn is working on a separate but related package of prison-reform legislation that could help bring more attention to the overall debate.  According to his office, Cornyn is developing proposals designed to reduce recidivism rates and time served in prison. The ideas are not sentencing reform and would not reduce the sentences themselves — as would Holder’s proposals — but instead would give prisoners ways to reduce already-doled-out sentences.

The policies, which are modeled on similar reforms in Texas, would allow certain types of non-violent prisoners to do various programs — such as recidivism reduction programming, work programs, or other productive activities.  Prisoners at low risk of recidivism could trade in the time they do in such programs to convert their remaining time in prison into time in halfway houses or home confinement.

While these ideas don’t attack the problem in precisely the same way the ideas pushed by Holder and Dems do, there is overlap. As Cornyn’s office notes, their goal would be to reduce the amount of time people spend in prison, reduce recidivisim, and reduce costs. Cornyn’s office says he will try to round up Republican and Democratic support for them and possibly introduce them this fall.  If that happens, it could help ignite a conversation on the broader set of issues here....

But we have yet to hear from leading Republicans whose support would be required to push this debate forward, such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, both of whom are on the Judiciary Committee and (to my knowledge) have not seriously weighed in on Holder’s push.  The question is whether establishment Republicans are going to have a real voice on this issue this fall.  Let’s hope so.

I am pretty sure there are more than a few folks within the Justice Department who have advocated (both formally and behind the scenes) for expanding "good time" credits and creating "earned time" credits in order to make it much easier for nonviolent federal prisoners "to reduce already-doled-out sentences."  Consequently, it is not so much the specifics of Senator Cornyn's working plan that are such a big deal, but rather that someone without a obvious Tea Party history is working on a federal prison reduction plan at all.  Kudos to Senator Cornyn, and I hope joins the ever-growing chorus of GOP voices calling for federal criminal justice reforms.

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

September 11, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, August 26, 2013

Could "momentum for sentencing reform [now] be unstoppable" in the federal system?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a comment in the final paragraph of this lengthy new piece by Juan Williams appearing in The Hill. The piece is headlined "Amid gridlock, a surprising accord on drug-law sentencing," and here are excerpts (including the final paragraph):

Reporters missed a story earlier this month when Attorney General Eric Holder announced new guidelines for his federal prosecutors in handling non-violent drug crimes.   Holder said President Obama plans to “reach out to members of Congress from both parties” to begin work on legislation to revise federal mandatory sentencing rules for people convicted of non-violent drug crimes....

In this era of deep political paralysis on Capitol Hill it should have been headline news that legislation revising sentencing guidelines for drug convicts is miraculously bringing together conservatives and liberals, even Tea Party conservatives and Obama....

Conservatives, including Republicans such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who regularly use tough rhetoric about punishing criminals, have already signed on to the essence of what Holder and Obama want to see in congressional legislation.  Even hardline conservative lobbying groups seem to be on board: “It’s a step in the right direction, though about five years too late,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, in an interview with Time magazine.

My Fox News colleague, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a strong conservative Republican, proclaimed on Twitter: “Finally found something I can agree with Eric Holder on — sentencing too many people to prison for non-violent drug crimes.”

The goal is to reduce the nation’s record prison population, now 40 percent over capacity. Conservatives as well as the president and attorney general are amazingly close to agreeing on the need to permanently revise thinking born during the crack epidemic of the 1980s that still has federal prosecutors asking for heavy mandatory sentences in 60 percent of cases involving any kind of illegal drugs....

Durbin and Lee, Democrat and Republican, have introduced a bill — “The Smarter Sentencing Act” — to revise the fixed sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders.  Leahy and Paul, another pairing across political lines, have introduced a similar bill — the “Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013” — which gives judges more discretion to break away from the current mandatory sentencing guidelines.  This bill has already won bipartisan House endorsements.

After Holder’s speech, Paul seemed to indicate the administration is following his conservative, libertarian lead in wrapping its arms around the idea of reducing prison sentences and cutting the cost that comes with housing so many prisoners.  “I am encouraged that the president and the attorney general agree with me that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety,” Paul said.

In fact, Paul’s home state, Kentucky, as well as other GOP strongholds, including Arkansas and Texas, have already put in place programs to explore the impact of lesser drug sentences.  In Kentucky, as Holder told the ABA, the prison population is being reduced by an estimated 3,000 inmates over the next decade, which will net savings of $400 million. Texas, Holder said, has reduced its prison population by 5,000 in the last year with new approaches to drug treatment and parole. Arkansas cut 1400 prisoners with a similar plan. “Clearly these strategies work,” Holder said.  “They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in ‘red states’ as well as ‘blue states.’  And it is past time for others to take notice.”

Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director, confirmed to me Holder’s announcement that the president’s fall agenda will include meeting “with folks in Congress who are pursuing legislation as well as governors and mayors who have done innovative work on this issue.”

The president’s personal attention to the issue could spark some conservative opposition because of their personal antipathy to him.  But with existing support for the idea among Republicans on the Hill and in statehouses nationwide there is also a chance that a White House push on sentencing reform will raise public awareness, generate public support and gain the votes in Congress needed to enact potentially historic changes to 1980s sentencing laws that came out of the “War on Drugs.”

With the president and a line-up of his usual antagonists behind the same bill, the momentum for sentencing reform could be unstoppable. The result will be one of the biggest surprises of all the years of the Obama presidency — a bipartisan success in passing new laws to reduce the nation’s prison population.

Gosh knows I sure hope there might now be unstoppable momentum to get the Smarter Sentencing Act and/or the Justice Safety Valve Act passed in the next few months.  Indeed, right after AG Holder's big speech (which did, I think, make a few headlines), I advocated in this op-ed for the Los Angeles Times that AG Holder and his boss do everything possible ASAP to turn this reform talk and momentum into legal changes.  But the history of advocacy for federal crack sentencing reform, as well as the aftermath of the FSA, always bring me back to the real-world reality that big talk about sentencing reform is always a lot easier and a lot more common than big action.

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

August 26, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Monday, August 19, 2013

Notable inside-the-Beltway discussion of modern sentencing politics

The Washington Post has this notable new piece with lots of notable quotes and notes about the modern politics of sentencing reform.  The piece is headlined "Cuccinelli says sentencing policy should be judged, in part, on cost," but it covers both federal and state sentencing politics.  Here is how the article starts:

Five days after he announced his candidacy for governor of Virginia, Republican Ken Cuccinelli II showed a side of himself seemingly at odds with his reputation as a tough law-and-order conservative.

The Virginia attorney general stood proudly at a news conference in late 2011 announcing the exoneration of a Richmond man who had spent 27 years in prison after being falsely convicted of rape. Cuccinelli had personally championed the man’s innocence, a sign of the broad evolution in Cuccinelli’s views on crime and punishment that would also lead him to argue that a frugal government should be more discerning about whom it puts behind bars.

“There is an expectation that the generic Republican position is tough on crime,” Cuccinelli said in an interview Thursday. “But even that has budget limits, particularly on the prison side."

Two decades after Republican George Allen charged into the Virginia governorship by vowing to eliminate parole for violent offenders, a rhetorical shift among the state’s leading conservatives reflects changing attitudes toward criminal justice nationwide.

U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. underscored the new dynamic last week when he announced reforms aimed at reducing sentences for some low-level offenders and slowing massive growth in the nation’s prison population. Republicans, who have targeted Holder on other issues, were generally supportive. The attorney general urged passage of legislation that has been introduced in Congress with bipartisan support that would give ­judges more discretion in applying stiff sentences to some drug crimes.

One person who discussed the plans with Holder said that the Obama administration felt like the political terrain was safe to make those kinds of policy ­changes because of the “conservative cover." The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussion was private.

Amid fiscal problems caused in part by massive prison populations and research showing that mass incarceration causes social harm, some leading conservatives have been pushing for reforms.

A generation ago, Republicans savaged Democrats as soft on crime, until former President Bill Clinton and others joined the GOP in a crackdown that continued even as the nation’s violent crime rate plummeted to historic lows. “This is a fundamental shift in how we see criminal justice," said David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor who studies crime and police. “There is a growing awareness of the fiscal and social costs of our great experiment in mass incarceration, and the balance has shifted from trying to look unrelentingly tough to asking what works best."

In a 1994 Gallup poll, 52 percent of Americans called crime the nation’s most pressing problem. Last month, that number was 2 percent. Other surveys show that fewer Americans support mandatory prison terms for offenders than in the mid-1990s, and fewer believe courts are too lenient with criminals.

August 19, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Monday, August 12, 2013

More reporting on (and now seeking reactions to) AG Holder's big sentencing speech

I am about to head off-line for the next few hours, and the conspiracy theorist in me lead me to think that DOJ has been reading my e-mail and that AG Eric Holder specifically decided to give his big sentencing speech to the ABA exactly when he knew I would be unable to blog about it.  Man, those socialist-fascists running this administration sure our sneaky! 

Jokes aside, today's Holder speech is clearly a big deal for a bunch of reasons, and I am pleased to see that the New York Times already has up this new lengthy story based on its text, now running under the headline "Justice Dept. Seeks to Curtail Stiff Drug Sentences." Here are some more details:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., in a speech at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco on Monday, is expected to announce the new policy as one of several steps intended to curb soaring taxpayer spending on prisons and help correct what he regards as unfairness in the justice system, according to his prepared remarks.

Saying that “too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long and for no good law enforcement reason,” Mr. Holder is planning to justify his policy push in both moral and economic terms.

“Although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “It imposes a significant economic burden — totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

Mr. Holder will also introduce a related set of Justice Department policies that would leave more crimes to state courts to handle, increase the use of drug-treatment programs as alternatives to incarceration, and expand a program of “compassionate release” for “elderly inmates who did not commit violent crimes and have served significant portions of their sentences.”

The policy changes appear to be part of Mr. Holder’s effort, before he eventually steps down, to bolster his image and legacy. Turmoil over the Congressional investigation into the botched Operation Fast and Furious gun trafficking case ensnared him in the Obama administration’s first term, and more recently, controversy has flared over the department’s aggressive tactics in leak investigations....

Mr. Holder’s speech on Monday deplores the moral impact of the United States’ high incarceration rate: although it has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has 25 percent of its prisoners, he notes. But he also attempts to pre-empt political controversy by painting his effort as following the lead of prison reform efforts in primarily conservative-led Southern states.

Under a policy memorandum being sent to all United States attorney offices on Monday, according to an administration official, prosecutors will be told that they may not write the specific quantity of drugs when drafting indictments for drug defendants who meet the following four criteria: their conduct did not involve violence, the use of a weapon or sales to minors; they are not leaders of a criminal organization; they have no significant ties to large-scale gangs or cartels; and they have no significant criminal history.

For example, in the case of a defendant accused of conspiring to sell five kilograms of cocaine — an amount that would set off a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence — the prosecutor would write that “the defendant conspired to distribute cocaine” without saying how much. The quantity would still factor in when prosecutors and judges consult sentencing guidelines, but depending on the circumstances, the result could be a sentence of less than the 10 years called for by the mandatory minimum law, the official said.

It is not clear whether current cases that have not yet been adjudicated would be recharged because of the new policy....

“While the federal prison system has continued to slowly expand, significant state-level reductions have led to three consecutive years of decline in America’s overall prison population — including, in 2012, the largest drop ever experienced in a single year,” Mr. Holder’s speech says. “Clearly, these strategies can work. They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in ‘red states’ as well as ‘blue states.’ And it’s past time for others to take notice.”...

Mr. Holder’s speech marches through a litany of statistics about incarceration in the United States. The American population has grown by about a third since 1980, he said, but its prison rate has increased nearly 800 percent. At the federal level, more than 219,000 inmates are currently behind bars — nearly half for drug-related crimes — and the prisons are operating at nearly 40 percent above their official capacity.


Of course, the devil (and the real impact of all this) will be in the details. When I have the opportunity later tonight, I will be sure to post a link to the full copy of the Holder speech, and I also will try to get posted a copy of this important new policy memorandum being sent to all United States attorney offices on Monday. (I am hopeful that DOJ will post both item on this official web page shortly, as there seems to be a lot of justified media interest in these topics, and not just among sentencing addled blogges.)

As I have already said to a few reporters, what may prove most important for the impact of what Holder does may be how other important persons inside and outside the Beltway react to this speech and its various policy elements. Will members of Congress, for example, publically praise Holder for what he says and will they say additional legislation is needed (or no longer needed) in response? Will federal judges make sure to allow defense attorneys to "enforce" this new policy in some way? Will the US Sentencing Commission alter is planned priorities for the coming year for guideline reforms based on both the themes and specifics in the Holder speech?

Exciting times! (Perhaps too exciting, and perhaps it is a good thing I will be off line until late tonight!)

Some recent and older related posts about AG Holder's speech the new federal politics of sentencing:

August 12, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

"With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new NPR piece, which includes lots of notable quotes from Attorney General Eric Holder.  Here are excerpts:

Sit down with the attorney general to ask him about his priorities, , and he'll talk about voting rights and national security. But if you listen a bit longer, Eric Holder gets to this: "I think there are too many people in jail for too long and for not necessarily good reasons."

This is the nation's top law enforcement officer calling for a sea change in the criminal justice system. And he's not alone. Over the past few weeks, lawmakers have introduced bipartisan measures that would give judges more power to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent criminals and even get rid of some mandatory minimum terms altogether.

"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder said. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."

That's one reason why the Justice Department's had a group of lawyers working behind the scenes for months on proposals the attorney general could present as early as next week in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.

Some of the items are changes Holder can make on his own, such as directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute certain kinds of low-level drug crimes or spending money to send more defendants into treatment instead of prison. Almost half of the 219,000 people currently in federal prison are serving time on drug charges.

"Well we can certainly change our enforcement priorities, and so we have some control in that way," Holder said. "How we deploy our agents, what we tell our prosecutors to charge, but I think this would be best done if the executive branch and the legislative branch work together to look at this whole issue and come up with changes that are acceptable to both."

Late last week, two senators — Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee — moved in that direction. Their bill, called the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, would give judges more discretion to sentence nonviolent criminals below the so-called mandatory minimums. It would also lower mandatory minimums for several drug crimes to lower costs and cut down on crowding in a prison system that's estimated to be operating at 40 percent over capacity.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, says he'll hold a hearing on mandatory minimums next month. "They all sound like a great stop-crime idea when they were passed," Leahy said on the C-SPAN Newsmakers program Sunday. "Most of them sound better on paper than in practice."

His partner in that effort is Republican Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite from Kentucky. They've introduced their own legislation, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, to give judges more power to impose lower sentences — and not just in drug crimes. "Doing away with mandatory minimums, giving more discretion to judges, that shouldn't be Republican or Democrat," Leahy added. "It just makes good sense."

The idea has already taken off in nearly two dozen states including Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas, where it won support from prominent conservatives including Grover Norquist, part of a coalition known as Right on Crime. "It's easier to say, 'Let's spend a few dollars a day managing you at your home where you can spend time with your family, where you can work, instead of hundreds of dollars a day, keeping you in a cell,'" Norquist said in a video on the group's web site.

And the Justice Department explicitly pointed to state reform efforts in a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in July. The old system, wrote official Jonathan Wroblewski, is being replaced with the idea that budgets are "finite," prison is a power that should be "exercised sparingly and only as necessary" and that "reducing reoffending and promoting effective reentry are core goals."

August 7, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Conservative group ALEC joins the growing calls for sentencing refom

As reported in this Daily Caller piece, headlined "Conservative group advocates sentencing reform,"a notable new public policy group has joined the chorus of right-leaning advocates for significant sentencing reforms. Here are the basics:

A major conservative policy organization has endorsed criminal justice reform, lending further bipartisan support to a bill in Congress that would lessen mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent offenses.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a free-market advocacy group that works with legislators and businesses to craft model legislation, gave its approval to the Justice Safety Valve Act on Monday.

The bill would allow judges to depart from imposing mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent criminals when they believe different sentences are appropriate. Such a policy would save money by ensuring that only truly dangerous criminals spend decades in prison on the taxpayer’s dime, wrote Cara Sullivan, a legislative analyst at ALEC.

“This helps ensure lengthy sentences and prison spaces are reserved for dangerous offenders, allowing states to focus their scarce public safety resources on offenders that are a real threat to the community,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This approach, as opposed to simply throwing more dollars at corrections, reduces prison overcrowding while still holding offenders accountable.”

Many of the people sentenced under mandatory minimums were convicted of selling drugs, and committed no violence. Some were found guilty of breaking federal marijuana laws, even though they resided in states where growing and selling marijuana are legal under state laws.

While many conservative lawmakers once held to a “tough on crime” approach to criminal sentencing, the inefficiency and financial waste of imposing harsh sentences on low-level drug offenders has pushed libertarian-leaning elements of the GOP to embrace the Justice Safety Valve Act.  Conservatives are also concerned that federal laws interfering with judges’ abilities to set appropriate sentences — and states’ rights — are just another example of overreach on the part of the Obama administration....

Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a criminal justice advocacy group, praised ALEC’s decision to add its voice to the call for sentencing reform. “There is nothing conservative about inefficient, one-size-fits-all sentencing laws that cost billions in tax dollars and offer no public safety benefit in return,” wrote Greg Newburn, Florida project director for FAMM, in an email to TheDC News Foundation. “ALEC’s adoption of a model safety valve reflects the growing consensus among conservative lawmakers that mandatory minimums are ripe for reform.”

Wow.  It would now seem that  it may only be Bill Otis (and, I fear, still some members of the Obama Administration) who resistant to serious efforts to reform federal sentencing statutes.

Some recent and older related posts about the new federal politics of sentencing:

August 6, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Senators Durbin and Lee come together to introduce "Smarter Sentencing Act"

Lee official_photoAs reported via this press release from the offices of Senator Dick Durbin, another notable pair of Senators from the two parties have put aside other differences to come together to support and promote federal sentencing reform.  (Since the press release comes from Senator Durbin's office, I have Senator Lee's picture posted.)   Here are the basics:

With federal prison populations skyrocketing and nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, to modernize our drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent offenses. Making these incremental and targeted changes could save taxpayers billions in the first years of enactment.

“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”

“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said. “By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”

The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, in large part due to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster deep distrust of the criminal justice system.

This large increase in prison populations has also put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts inmates and guards at risk. There is more than 50 percent overcrowding at high-security facilities. This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing inmates. It currently costs nearly $30,000 to house just one federal inmate for a year. There are currently more than 219,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half of them serving sentences for drug offenses.

The bipartisan Durbin-Lee-Leahy bill is an incremental approach that does not abolish any mandatory sentences. Rather, it takes a studied and modest step in modernizing drug sentencing policy by:

• Modestly expanding the existing federal “safety valve”....

• Promoting sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act: The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which was authored by Senator Durbin and unanimously passed the Senate before it was signed into law – reduced a decades-long sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Unfortunately, because of the timing of their sentences, some individuals are still serving far-too-lengthy sentences that Congress has already determined are unjust and racially disparate. The Smarter Sentencing Act allows certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law....

• Increasing individualized review for certain drug sentences: The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply. The Act does not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences and does not lower the maximum sentences for these offenses....

The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the Sentencing Project, Open Society Policy Center, the American Bar Association, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Constitution Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Brennan Center for Justice, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

I am going to need to see the text of this new bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act before opining about whether it is a terrific reform proposal or just a very good one. But, even without seeing the specifics, I can note and praise the willingness and ability for these Senators, who likely do not agree on too many issues, coming together to give effect to their shared view that the federal sentencing system need to be made smarter.

Some recent and older related posts about the new federal politics of sentencing:

August 1, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?

The question in the title of this post was my first thought after seeing this post by Nate Silver at his 538 blog headlined "Senate Control in 2014 Increasingly Looks Like a Tossup." I am not counting any Senate chickens at least until this time next summer, but I also do not think it is crazy for folks who favor significant federal sentencing reforms to actually believe such reforms might actually become more politically viable if the Senate were to change political hands while Barack Obama is still the President.

A lot would depend, of course, on the circumstances and results of the 2014 election cycle and especially on who would play leadership roles in a GOP-led Senate. But if, for example, 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.

I fear that some commentors will ask what I am smoking when raising this notion, and I do fear that this post may be just some serious wishful thinking on my part. But, hey, if folks are going to start predicting election outcomes for 2014, why not have some fun speculating on what those outcomes could mean for sentencing law and policy?

Some recent and older related posts:

July 16, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Saturday, July 06, 2013

"Crime makes halting comeback as a political issue"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new AP article.   Here are excerpts:

The ad seems like an artifact from an earlier political era — a grainy mug shot of a convicted murderer, flashing police lights, a recording of a panicked 911 call and then a question about Colorado's Democratic governor, up for re-election next year: "How can we protect our families when Gov. Hickenlooper allows a cold-blooded killer to escape justice?"

The online spot from the Colorado Republican Party appeared only hours after Gov. John Hickenlooper in May indefinitely suspended the death sentence of Nathan Dunlap, who killed four people in 1993 and was scheduled to be executed in August. The governor cited problems with the concept and application of the death penalty.

Eclipsed by economic issues and other social concerns, crime is slowly re-emerging as a campaign issue. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Republicans hammered Democrats on crime for focusing too much on rehabilitation and not enough on punishment and imprisonment. That changed as crime rates plunged in the 1990s and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton inoculated Democrats by being an avid death penalty supporter, interrupting his 1992 presidential campaign to preside over an execution.

Now increasing numbers of states are turning away from mandatory prison sentences and embracing rehabilitation programs to thin out inmate populations and save taxpayer money. The shift has been particularly pronounced in conservative, Republican-dominated states like Georgia, Texas and South Carolina.

That growing consensus is facing its first test in two political bellwether states where demographics have pushed Republicans into a political corner. In Colorado, Republican Rep. Mike Coffman held his seat last year partly by attacking his challenger for failing to support a proposed state law to take DNA samples from people arrested on suspicion of committing felonies, and the GOP is hoping crime issues will help them unseat Hickenlooper and win back control of the state legislature in 2014. They have attacked Democrats for rejecting legislation to impose mandatory sentences of 25 years to life on sex offenders and for passing a law limiting prosecutors' ability to charge juveniles as adults. GOP leaders are trying to persuade the district attorney whose office prosecuted Dunlap to run for governor.

Republicans say they have no shortage of issues to run on in Colorado. But one, they say, stands out for its potency. "Crime, justice, law and order, public safety resonate in a more personal way than a chart and graph of GDP growth," said Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

In California, which has conducted the most ambitious criminal justice overhaul in the nation, Republicans are targeting Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats over the state's policy that sends lower-level offenders to local jails rather than state prisons. The law went into full effect in late 2011, but already there have been several highly publicized cases of convicts released from prison committing crimes like rape and murder. The most prominent Republican to emerge as a possible challenger to Brown, former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, in May launched a ballot campaign to reverse the prison overhaul.

Frank Zimring, a University of California-Berkeley law professor who has written widely on crime and politics, noted that crime rates appear to have leveled out after a two-decade decline. He called the recent GOP efforts "the test run as to whether there could be a resurgence in hard-right, punitive" crime politics. In California, the Republican Party has no statewide office-holders and less than one-third of the seats in the state legislature. In those circumstances, Zimring said, "you consult your greatest hits playbook from previous eras."

It's unclear if those attacks will resonate in an era that still features historically low crime rates and one in which voters have shown a willingness to reconsider tough crime laws. In California, for example, a ballot measure to roll back part of the state's controversial 1994 three-strikes law — it requires 25 years to life in prison for people convicted of a third felony — passed with 70 percent support in November.

"There certainly are signs that politicians are trying to use it as a wedge issue," said Marc Levin of Right on Crime, a Texas-based group that pushes flexible sentences and rehabilitation programs from a conservative perspective. "But I'm struggling to see a legislator who got voted out of office in the last several years for supporting criminal justice reform."...

"It used to be 'how do we demonstrate that we're tough on crime?'" said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts. "Now it's 'how do we get taxpayers better returns on their criminal justice dollars?'"

July 6, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, June 28, 2013

Effective discussion of "Responsible Prison Reform" at National Affairs

Eli Lehrer has this lengthy new piece in the latest issue of National Affairs, which is headlined "Responsible Prison Reform." As these excerpts from the start, middle and end of the lengthy essay suggest, the piece merits reading in full:

The evidence shows that this mass incarceration has performed more or less as advertised. By any measure, nearly every neighborhood, city, and state in the United States has become safer over the past two decades.  Crime rates in many categories are at less than half of their all-time highs.  But the costs of incarceration — both financial and societal — are also becoming increasingly clear.  The policies that were appropriate for a nation that had one of the highest crime rates among developed Western countries are not necessarily appropriate for a nation that now has one of the lowest.

Just as conservatives once led the way toward the tougher sentencing rules and other policies that increased imprisonment rates, they should lead the way in sensibly shrinking the prison population.  Reform of America's correctional system does not require abandoning a single conservative principle or returning to disproven and, frankly, disastrous policies that blamed society as a whole for crime and resulted in too few people held accountable for their misdeeds.  In fact, somewhat paradoxically, an increased emphasis on individual responsibility — which earlier prompted the move toward mass incarceration — also holds promise for a new conservative agenda for prison reform. Combined with a renewed emphasis on effective punishment, increased attention to circumstances within jailhouse walls, and a different social attitude toward ex-offenders, these sound, time-tested principles can shape the new vision for prison reform that America urgently needs....

Effective though mass incarceration is, however, the strategy is not without its costs. These costs can be measured in fiscal terms, in the failure of imprisonment to prevent certain repeat behavior, in the impact of incarceration on certain communities, and in the tension between high incarceration rates and democratic values.

The financial costs of large-scale incarceration are immense.  Housing an inmate for a year costs anywhere from $10,000 for a low-security inmate in a state where corrections officers are paid modestly to more than $100,000 for maximum-security inmates in states with high prison-guard salaries.  Nationwide, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated total spending on prisons and jails in 2010 to be nearly $50 billion, or nearly $500 a year for every American household.

But these costs represent only the tip of the iceberg.  Removing 2 million people from the labor force causes dislocations of all sorts.  People in prison and jail have a difficult time maintaining personal relationships.  This contributes to large numbers of children growing up in single-parent homes, or without any parents at all — which, in turn, correlates strongly with more of those children turning to crime.

The policy of large-scale incarceration has also failed to demonstrate lasting success in the area of rehabilitation.  Although recidivism has declined slightly in recent years, thanks in part to new re-entry programs, most studies show that about 40% of people who are released from prison will be re-arrested within three years.  Despite concerted efforts and millions of dollars in public spending, recidivism rates barely declined during the 2000s. Since vastly more people are serving time behind bars, this pattern of high recidivism suggests that prisons are fostering even more criminality....

Without casting aside the ethos of individual responsibility that has led to so many Americans being locked up — and without undertaking a wholesale revision of the nation's laws — the United States can and should reduce its prison population and make conditions more humane for those who serve time behind bars.  Such reforms, implemented wisely and cautiously, can mitigate the tremendous negative consequences of the explosion in the number of Americans in prison.  The United States can remain safe and, simultaneously, undo much of the social damage that results from large-scale incarceration.

Some recent and older related posts:

June 28, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Friday, June 21, 2013

"As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus"

New approachThe title of this post is the headline of this lengthy new Wall Street Journal article appearing on the paper's front page.  Here are excerpts (with two lines emphasized for subsequent commentary):

Weeks after his election as Georgia governor in 2010, Nathan Deal was pulled aside by a conservative state lawmaker with urgent business to discuss.  Rep. Jay Neal, a small-town pastor, said he had the seeds of a plan to cut Georgia's swelling prison population, which was costing taxpayers over $1 billion a year. The governor-elect didn't let Mr. Neal get far.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has led the drive to reduce prison populations in his state. "The minute I mentioned what I wanted to do, he jumped in with what he wanted to do," Mr. Neal recalled. "And it turns out we were talking about the same thing."

That pairing of a pastor with a former prosecutor, both Republicans, helped pave the way for dramatic revamping of Georgia's criminal code.  New rules enacted over the past two legislative sessions are steering nonviolent offenders away from prison, emphasizing rehabilitation over jail time, and lessening the penalties for many drug and property crimes.

Georgia is the latest example of a Republican-led state drive to replace tough-on-crime dictums of the 1990s with a more forgiving and nuanced set of laws. Leading the charge in states such as Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, South Carolina and South Dakota are GOP lawmakers — and in most cases Republican governors — who once favored stiff prison terms aimed at driving down crime.

Motivations for the push are many.  Budget pressures and burgeoning prison costs have spurred new thinking.  Some advocates point to data showing that harsh prison sentences often engender more crime.  Among the key backers are conservative Christians talking of redemption and libertarians who have come to see the prison system as the embodiment of a heavy-handed state.  And crime rates are falling nationally, a trend that has continued in most of the states putting fewer people in jail.

The movement also dovetails with the quest of some Republicans to soften the party's edges and to plunge into new policy areas that affect the poor and the disadvantaged. The initiatives have drawn praise from groups that aren't often allied with the GOP, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union.  The result is some unlikely bedfellows, with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council working alongside the ACLU.

"Criminal justice is the area where conservative thinking has most changed with the times," said Eli Lehrer, a former GOP Senate staffer and conservative activist in Washington, who has written extensively on the push for new sentencing rules.  He describes the push as "the most important social reform effort on the right since the rise of the pro-life movement in the 1970s."

Just over half of the states have embarked on criminal-justice overhauls of varying scope over the past five years, with 19 of those efforts led by Republican governors or GOP legislatures and nine by Democratic governors or legislatures.  Some of the most aggressive moves have come in states, many in the South, with incarceration rates well above the national average....

The downturn has been particularly welcome in states that had projected a continued surge in prison numbers.  Ohio, which was bracing for an inmate population of over 57,000 by the end of the decade, has seen its number fall by nearly 1% a year since 2009.

Changes to sentencing laws haven't sailed everywhere.  In Indiana, an aggressive push in 2011 by then Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels got watered down — and eventually abandoned — after it ran into opposition from prosecutors. GOP Gov. Rick Scott in Florida cited public safety last year when he vetoed a bill to cut the sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

The conservative quest to rethink criminal sentencing and rewrite state penal codes got its start in Texas, when GOP lawmakers in 2007 balked at the need to build three new prisons to house an anticipated 17,000 more prisoners by 2012. They decided instead to revamp the state's probation system and boost funding for addiction treatment and rehabilitation by $241 million.

The state prison population has declined by nearly 6,000 inmates since 2008 after decades of rapid growth and during a time when the state's own population has continued to swell. In 2011, Texas shut a prison for the first time in state history.

Behind the Texas efforts stood a conservative local think tank, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and one of its top donors, a wealthy oil man from Odessa named Tim Dunn. Mr. Dunn paid to establish a center within the foundation in 2005 to focus on overhauling the state's criminal code. An evangelical Christian with a strong libertarian bent, Mr. Dunn said he watched for years as Texas' crime rate continued to climb even while its prison population swelled. "I had come to see our justice system as imperial, as intent on maintaining the authority of the king. It was no longer communal or restorative," he said.

Under the directorship of Texas lawyer Marc Levin, the policy foundation became the hub of a national movement as requests for legislative help poured in from other states. The center adopted a formal platform in early 2010 and took its campaign national under the name Right on Crime.  It soon had the backing of a long list of conservative supporters, among them former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese, former drug czar Bob Bennett and David Keene, until recently president of the National Rifle Association.

The group and its Republican followers are sensitive to charges that they are going soft on crime, "that we want to hug a thug," as Mr. Dunn puts it.  But they insist they are moving to correct a system that tilted too far toward punishment, without any gauge for success or failure. State prison populations swelled 700% between 1970 and 2009, from 174,000 inmates to 1.4 million.

Legislatures across the country have rewritten their criminal-justice codes. A few Democratic governors have jumped in, including Arkansas's Mike Beebe and Hawaii's Neil Ambercrombie. New York and Connecticut made changes even before Texas did.  But "on balance, it has been conservatives who have been out front," said Adam Gelb, who directs a national criminal-justice initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has worked on initiatives across the country.

In many states, former law-and-order prosecutors and judges have led the effort. In others, pastors-turned-lawmakers have jumped in. Many describe eureka moments that altered their views....

For Ohio Republican state Sen. Bill Seitz, a turning point came in the late 2000s, when he watched the voters in his county, which includes Cincinnati, twice vote down levies to build a new jail. "It became all the clearer to me how we pass tough sentencing laws with a blind eye to the fiscal impacts," he said.

In Georgia, Gov. Deal and Rep. Neal arrived at their partnership via similar and very personal paths . Mr. Deal says his evolution came about largely on the streets of his hometown of Gainesville, an hour's drive north of Atlanta.  For nearly a decade, his son Jason has presided over a drug court designed to rehabilitate addicts charged with felonies and to keep them out of prison.  The future governor often went to graduation ceremonies where recovering addicts would tell their stories. "They all have their own stories, but a common thread runs through all of them," Gov. Deal said. "They had lied. They had stolen. They had alienated their spouses, their parents, their siblings. But they were given a second chance, and they had been rehabilitated."...

Supporters of the changes in Georgia and other states note that elected officials such as Gov. Deal have done little to publicize their efforts, much less campaign on them.  Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, sees that as a missed opportunity. "This is an area where Republicans can really connect with black voters," he said.

Gov. Deal acknowledges there are risks in championing prison changes. "You always worry about being accused of being soft on crime," he said.  But through a spokesman he said he now "very much wants to be seen as the face of prison reform in this state."

I concur with the sentiment emphasized above that the prison/sentencing reform movements on the right are a very important and consequential social issue shift for the GOP, and one that could have a profound long-term impact on the fate and fortunes of both political parties in the decades to come.  However, as suggested by the second highlighted point, unless and until GOP politicians believe they can secure votes and not just save money and lives through reform, this reform movement will not likely become as transformative as it might otherwise could be.

Some recent and older related posts:

June 21, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Monday, June 10, 2013

"A Conservative Case for Prison Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this op-ed appearing in today's New York Times and authored by Richard Viguerie, the chairman of Here are excerpts:

Conservatives should recognize that the entire criminal justice system is another government spending program fraught with the issues that plague all government programs.  Criminal justice should be subject to the same level of skepticism and scrutiny that we apply to any other government program.

But it’s not just the excessive and unwise spending that offends conservative values. Prisons, for example, are harmful to prisoners and their families. Reform is therefore also an issue of compassion. The current system often turns out prisoners who are more harmful to society than when they went in, so prison and re-entry reform are issues of public safety as well.

These three principles — public safety, compassion and controlled government spending — lie at the core of conservative philosophy.  Politically speaking, conservatives will have more credibility than liberals in addressing prison reform.

The United States now has 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of its prisoners.  Nearly one in every 33 American adults is in some form of correctional control. When Ronald Reagan was president, the total correctional control rate — everyone in prison or jail or on probation or parole — was less than half that: 1 in every 77 adults.

The prison system now costs states more than $50 billion a year, up from about $9 billion in 1985.  It’s the second-fastest growing area of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid. Conservatives should be leading the way by asking tough questions about the expansion in prison spending over the past three decades....

Too many offenders leave prisons unprepared to re-enter society. They don’t get and keep jobs. The solution lies not only inside prisons but also with more effective community supervision systems using new technologies, drug tests and counseling programs.  We should also require ex-convicts to either hold a job or perform community service.  This approach works to turn offenders from tax burdens into taxpayers who can pay restitution to their victims and are capable of contributing child support....

Right on Crime exemplifies the big-picture conservative approach to this issue.  It focuses on community-based programs rather than excessive mandatory minimum sentencing policies and prison expansion.  Using free-market and Christian principles, conservatives have an opportunity to put their beliefs into practice as an alternative to government-knows-best programs that are failing prisoners and the society into which they are released....

By confronting this issue head on, conservatives are showing that our principles lead to practical solutions that make government less costly and more effective. We need to do more of that.  Conservatives can show the way by impressing on more of our allies and political leaders that criminal justice reform is part of a conservative agenda.

Some recent and older related posts:

June 10, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Monday, June 03, 2013

Effort to put Maryland repeal of death penalty before state voters in 2014 fails

As reported in this local article, headlined "Petition drives to overturn Md. death-penalty repeal and gun laws both fail; Efforts don’t clear first hurdle in referendum process," it now appears that Maryland voters will not have a chance to weigh in directly concerning the recent repeal of the death penalty in the Old Line State.  Here is how the article gets started:

Two separate petition drives — one to place Maryland’s newly adopted law repealing the state’s death penalty before voters in 2014, the other to send the state’s new gun laws to the ballot in 2014 — have failed, according to the sponsors of each effort.

“We collected over 15,000 total signatures,” Del. Neil C. Parrott (R-Dist. 2A) of Hagerstown, who led the death penalty petition, told reporters in Frederick on Friday. “This amount, however is not enough.” A total of 18,579 valid signatures was due to state officials by the end of Friday for each petition drive to continue.

Parrott, chairman of the nonprofit group, began the petition effort after Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed the repeal into law May 2. collected enough signatures to take three bills to referendum in the 2012 election. None, however, was supported by voters.

On Friday, Parrott said if Maryland’s death-penalty repeal had gone before voters, it would have been overturned, citing an unsuccessful attempt in 2012 to repeal California’s death penalty through a ballot initiative.

Parrott was joined by Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger, who said he wanted to keep the death penalty for the sake of crime victims and their families. “This was a monumental task, and we fell short. We’re obviously disappointed in that,” Shellenberger said. “One day, we’re going to wake up and something really, really bad is going to happen, and we’re going to wonder why we don’t at least have [the death penalty] as an option.”

The repeal measure, sponsored by O’Malley, passed the state Senate 27-20 and the House 86-52 during this year’s General Assembly session.

Jane Henderson, executive director of the nonprofit Maryland Citizens Against State Executions, said repeal supporters are relieved and “very pleased” that the petition drive fizzled. “Most Marylanders are comfortable with [the repeal],” Henderson said. “There just isn’t much fire around this issue on the other side. It’s time to move on.”

Recent related posts:

June 3, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform

ChafAs regular readers know, I have been excited and heartened to see a number of notable Republican leaders speak out in favor of state sentencing reforms in the last few years.  Significant sentencing reform efforts at the state level have gotten a real boost from GOP governors like Chris Christie, Nathan Deal, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich.  Other high-profile folks on that side of the aisle ranging from Newt Gingrich to Ed Meese to David Keene to Grover Norquist have also been vocal in support of cost-saving sentencing reform efforts.  But this right-side movement has not gotten much attention or traction at the federal level, save for the recent work of Sentator Rand Paul advocating for reform of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

Consequently, it is now great to see that another notable GOP elected official is starting to talk up the need and opportunity for effective sentencing reforms at the federal level.  Specifically, as detailed in this lengthy new article in The Salt Lake Tribune, GOP representative Jason Chffetz is now among the Republican stalwarts urging federal sentencing reform. The article is headlined " Chaffetz unveils prison program to reduce recidivism and lower crime: Plan would put low-risk inmates in halfway houses, increase use of ankle bracelets," and here are excerpts:

Hoping to shrink the glut of low-risk federal inmates consuming tax dollars in prison, Rep. Jason Chaffetz is about to unveil a post-sentencing reform bill that would allow drug offenders and others to earn early release into halfway houses, home confinement and ankle-bracelet monitoring.

Quietly, the Utah Republican has worked Washington’s back channels for 18 months to forge bipartisan support. He insists the program — vetted by the Heritage Foundation and the ACLU — would reduce recidivism, lower crime rates and rein in spending on the federal prison system.

“There’s some really good work being done by states that we ought to learn from,” Chaffetz told The Salt Lake Tribune editorial board this week. “It’s a financial imperative, it’s a moral imperative — it just makes a lot of sense.”

The challenge, Chaffetz concedes, is assuring the political right the measure isn’t soft on crime, while convincing the left it goes far enough — short of unwinding mandatory minimum sentences. “The risk, if there is with this, is the over-simplification,” the congressman said, bemoaning bumper-sticker politics. “It does take some explanation. It does take an adult conversation to say, ‘folks, we can do this.’ ”

The proposal marks a pivot for Chaffetz, whose more partisan turns with conservative media include talk of impeaching President Barack Obama regarding recent investigations, including the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya....

The program would work by dividing federal prisoners into high, moderate or low risks of recidivism. They would be judged by level of engagement in existing programs, holding prison jobs and participation in faith-based services and educational courses.

Low-risk inmates would earn 30 days credit per month, moderate would notch 15 days, while high-risk convicts could get eight days worth of credit. Only low-risk prisoners would be eligible for pre-release custody into a halfway house, home confinement or ankle-bracelet program. Prisoners convicted of violent felonies, terrorism, rape or a sex offense against a minor would not be considered. Neither would undocumented immigrants, an “albatross” and too touchy a topic, Chaffetz says.

The measure neither reduces minimum sentence time nor impacts Truth in Sentencing requirements. That’s because 85 percent of each federal sentence still would be completed as mandated — though some of it could be outside the prison walls....

Brett Tolman, a former U.S. attorney, remembers how inflexible the federal system seemed when a young man “who had a bad weekend” with drugs was slapped with a 35-year minimum sentence.

Then there is Utah music producer Weldon Angelos, who had no prior criminal record and now is considered a casualty of the war on drugs. Convicted in 2003 while he was in his early 20s of selling small amounts of marijuana — a witness claimed he had a gun on his side — Angelos was sentenced to 55 years under federal minimums. Cassell, the judge in the case hamstrung by the law, urged President George W. Bush to commute the sentence, calling it “unjust, cruel and irrational.”...

“We’ve got to fix the front end,” said Mary Price, vice president of the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which is still reviewing the Chaffetz bill. “We’re still pouring thousands of people into prison every year for sentences that are frankly too long.”

Karen McCreary, executive director of ACLU of Utah, says she too would like to see reform to mandatory minimums but is intrigued by Chaffetz’ bill. “The drug wars have made our system so full, so this is a positive,” McCreary said. “It seems like a good step in the right direction.”...

The Chaffetz proposal is modeled partly on Texas, which became the first state to complete a so-called “justice reinvestment” process, saving the state $1.5 billion in construction costs and $340 million in averted operating costs.

Tolman told the editorial board it’s time the feds learned effective prison models from states like Texas. “We’ve always been arrogant and felt that we can do things better,” Tolman said. “Either we’re so large and cumbersome that we can’t, or we’re so ignorant and stubborn that we won’t.”

Some recent and older related posts:

June 2, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

"How America Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Marijuana"

StrangeloveThe title of this post is not only an homage to one of the greatest movies of all time, but also the headline of this new Time magazine piece by reporter Christopher Matthews.  (Among other enjoyable aspects of starting to think about Dr. Strangelove in this context, I wonder if the good doctor might well have been better able to deal with his alien hand syndrome problems with the help of high quality medical marijuana.)  Though I suspect some Americans may now still fear marijuana reform as much as they once feared "The Bomb," here are excerpts from the Time piece explaining why many have stopped worrying so much about the wicked weed:

For nearly a century, the United States has been one of the fiercest advocates and practitioners of marijuana prohibition in the world.  At the height of the America’s anti-pot fervor in the 1950s and ’60s, one could even receive life imprisonment for simple possession of the drug.

But the puritanical fervor that once dominated the national discussion surrounding cannabis has been conspicuously absent of late.  Earlier this month, the Colorado State legislature, by order of a November referendum, passed bills to implement the legalization and regulation of recreational marijuana use.  Washington State voters also approved legalization by referendum on election day....  The Organization for American States recently suggested that marijuana legalization could be a way to cut down on drug-violence in the western hemisphere.  Perhaps most important, the movement has finally found a voice on Capitol Hill, as representatives Earl Blumenauer and Jared Polis submitted legislation earlier this year that would end federal prohibition of the drug, and allow states to tax and regulate it as they see fit....

Indeed, the feeling that the further liberalization of marijuana laws is inevitable is backed up by the polling trends.  According to Gallup, as recently as 2005, two-thirds of Americans opposed legalization of marijuana.  Now 48% percent of the population supports it.  And a similar poll from Pew puts the number even higher — at 52%. But what exactly explains this sudden change in American attitudes towards pot?

Undoubtedly, part of the reason for the increased acceptance is demographic.  It might make you feel old to read this, but on Friday, both Bob Dylan and Tommy Chong celebrated birthdays, turning 72 and 74 respectively.  The aging of these counterculture icons hasn’t directly changed American attitudes towards marijuana, of course, but it does underscore the fact that the vast majority of Americans living today came of age during a time when marijuana was widely in use....

And while national political leaders aren’t necessarily falling over themselves to endorse marijuana legalization, there isn’t a lot of room in the current political climate to defend it, either.  The political right has done an excellent job over the past thirty years convincing the American public of the limitations of government.  They have argued that even when the government has the best of intentions it can be astoundingly ineffective at achieving its stated goals, and often creates unintended and pernicious consequences to boot.  This is the same argument that has led to deregulation of industry, historically low tax rates, and legislative efforts like welfare reform.  It’s only logical to extend it beyond social welfare programs to something like drug policy.

And supporters of ending marijuana prohibition do indeed point to the unintended consequences of the policy as reason to legalize.  According to the FBI, in 2011, 1.5 million people were arrested on drug charges, and roughly half of those were for marijuana, costing billions per year in law enforcement and court costs.  And that doesn’t count the human toll on those arrested, like potential loss of work, government benefits, the right to vote, and student aid.  Meanwhile, the government simply hasn’t come anywhere close to achieving the stated goal of marijuana prohibition, which is to prevent drug addiction. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, since the beginning of the so-called war on drugs, the addiction rate in America has remained steady at 1.3%, despite the fact that each year state and local governments spend more and more money — over $1 trillion in total — fighting the drug war.

What’s more, the unintended consequences of marijuana prohibition do not stop at our borders.  In fact, the brunt of the side effects may be being felt in places like Mexico....

We are in a political moment where social conservatism has been somewhat sidelined as a political force by the growing influence of libertarianism in the Republican party.  This dynamic emphasizes the tension between liberty and morality that has been with us since the founding of our country, and at this moment liberty appears to be ascendant.  But make no mistake, the puritanical impulses that once made America the leading voice in marijuana prohibition haven’t gone anywhere — and advocates of reform should know that pendulums, once set it motion, swing back again.

A few recent and older related posts: 

May 28, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Prison-Sentence Reform: A bill to give judges flexibility to impose shorter sentences deserves conservatives’ support."

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new National Review commentary by David Keene, a former president of the National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union, explaining why conservatives should support the Justice Safety Valve Act.  Here are extended excerpts:

Like many conservatives, I supported many [mandatory minimum sentencing] laws when they were enacted and still believe that, in some narrow situations, mandatory minimums makes sense. But like other “one-size-fits-all” solutions to complicated problems, they should be reviewed in light of how they work in practice.

Fortunately, Senators Rand Paul (R., Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) have crafted a smart and modest reform bill that will fine-tune these laws to eliminate many of the unforeseen and, frankly, unfair consequences of their application when the facts demand more flexibility. This bipartisan measure deserves conservative support.

The bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, maintains existing federal mandatory-sentencing laws. It enables judges to depart from the minimums in certain cases, however, such as when the mandatory sentence is not necessary to protect public safety and seems blatantly unfair in light of the circumstances of the offense. In so doing, their proposal fulfills the primary objective of criminal-justice policy: protecting public safety, while promoting our constitutional separation of powers and saving taxpayers the expense of unnecessary and counterproductive incarceration.

Many people, conservatives as well as liberals, have come to believe that most mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws should be repealed. These laws give prosecutors nearly unchecked power to determine sentences, even though courts are in a better position to weigh important and relevant facts, such as an offender’s culpability and likelihood of reoffending.

Federal mandatory-minimum-sentencing laws are especially problematic. Not only do they transfer power from independent courts to a political executive, they also perpetuate the harmful trend of federalizing criminal activity that can be better prosecuted at the state level.

For years, conservatives have wisely argued that the only government programs, rules, and regulations we should abide are those that can withstand cost-benefit analysis. Mandatory minimum sentences, by definition, fail this basic test because they apply a one-size-fits-all sentence to low-level offenders, even though the punishments were designed for more serious criminals.

Economists who once wholeheartedly supported simple pro-prison policies now believe they have reached the point of diminishing returns. One is University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt, best known for the best-selling Freakonomics, which he co-authored with Stephen J. Dubner. Levitt recently told the New York Times, “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration,” and, today, “I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.”

In other words, the initial crackdown was a good thing, but we are now suffering the effects of too much of that good thing. If Levitt’s estimate is even close, right now we are wasting tens of billions of dollars locking people up without affecting the crime rate or enhancing public safety. In fact, spending too much on prisons skews state and federal budgetary priorities, taking funds away from things that are proven to drive crime even lower, such as increasing police presence in high-violence areas and providing drug-treatment services to addicts.

The Paul-Leahy bill will help restore needed balance to our anti-crime efforts. Repeat and violent criminals will continue to receive and serve lengthy prison sentences, but in cases involving lower-level offenders, judges will be given the flexibility to impose a shorter sentence when warranted.

The Paul-Leahy bill is a modest fix that will affect only 2 percent of all federal offenders, and even they won’t be spared going to prison. They will simply receive slightly shorter sentences that are more in line with their actual offenses. The bill will improve public safety, save taxpayers billions of dollars, and restore our constitutional separation of powers at the federal level while strengthening federalism. This is a reform conservatives should embrace.

Some recent and older related posts:

May 24, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Monday, May 13, 2013

Noting some new GOP sentencing reform voices inside the Beltway

Cap hillThis notable new article, amusingly headlined "An End to the Jailhouse Blues?", authored by By John Gramlich and appearing in CQ Weekly discusses what I am inclined to call the "new right on criminal justice reform" on the Hill.  Here are excerpts:

Congressional Democrats have argued for years that too many low-level drug offenders are locked away in federal prisons and that mandatory-sentencing laws disproportionately harm minorities and tie judges’ hands.  Lately, they have been joined in those criticisms by Sen. Rand Paul, a tea-party-backed Republican with White House aspirations.  “I think the Republican Party could grow more if we had a little bit more of a compassionate outlook,” the Kentuckian says.

Paul is emblematic of a quiet but unmistakable shift among conservatives in Congress when it comes to criminal justice.  Not only are Republicans engaging in a serious debate about relaxing federal criminal penalties — an idea that was once anathema to lawmakers who worried that their next campaign opponent would label them “soft on crime” — they are leading the discussion.

The House Judiciary Committee, which has poured cold water on Democratic priorities since Republicans regained control of the chamber in 2010, last week created a bipartisan, 10-member task force that will conduct a six-month analysis of the estimated 4,500 crimes on the federal books.

The task force will examine “overcriminalization” in the federal justice system and evaluate what Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte calls an “ever-increasing labyrinth” of criminal penalties, some of them for relatively minor crimes in which perpetrators may not have realized they were breaking the law. The Virginia Republican cited the example of an 11-year-old girl who “saved a baby woodpecker from the family cat” but received a $535 fine because of a federal law banning the possession of a migratory bird.

The panel will be led by law-and-order Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner and Virginia Democrat Robert C. Scott, an outspoken critic of more-contentious criminal policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing, which the task force will also evaluate. A diverse range of groups endorses the effort, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

At the same time, the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees federal prison spending, Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, plans to work with his Democratic ranking member, Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, to create a separate task force to review all aspects of the rapidly growing federal correctional system. Wolf is outraged that federal prisoners are not provided more opportunities to gain work experience and believes the Bureau of Prisons is holding too many people, including ill older inmates who no longer pose a threat to society. A report by the Justice Department’s inspector general recently came to the same conclusion.

“If you’re 68 years old and you’re dying of cancer and your life expectancy is seven months, why do we want to keep you in prison?” Wolf says.

Then there is Paul, who perhaps more than any other Senate Republican aligns with Democrats on sentencing issues. Paul is co-sponsoring a bill with Democratic Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont that would allow federal judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences under certain conditions — a so-called “safety valve” that effectively would do away with congressionally mandated punishments in many cases. Similar House legislation is co-sponsored by Scott and another Kentucky Republican, Thomas Massie. “Some of the sentencing has been disproportionately unfair to African-Americans, and so I am for getting rid of the mandatory minimums or letting judges override them,” Paul says.

He argues that young drug offenders, in particular, are vulnerable to overly harsh punishments and points out that each of the past three presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — was “accused of doing drugs as a kid.... Had they been caught, none of them would have ever been president,” he says. “Just by luck of not being caught, they did fine. But a lot of kids don’t.”...

If Republicans sound kinder and gentler on criminal justice today than they did two decades ago, their perspective has been guided by cold, hard numbers.

Goodlatte last week cited statistics showing that Congress has added an average of 500 new crimes to the law books in each of the past three decades. Those federal crimes overlap with scores of existing penalties for the same crimes enacted by the states, which handle the vast majority of the nation’s criminal trials.

The creation of hundreds of new federal crimes, combined with mandatory minimum sentencing laws and the 1984 elimination of parole for federal offenders, has resulted in a steady and costly uptick in the federal prison population. The federal corrections system is now the largest in the country, much larger than state systems in Texas and California.

In fiscal 2006, the Bureau of Prisons had 192,584 inmates. Five years later, the number had grown 14 percent to 218,936, according to a November report by the Justice Department inspector general.

Massie, formerly the top elected official in Lewis County, Ky., says his perspective has been shaped by his experience managing a local budget, where he says his “biggest line item” was incarceration. The first-term lawmaker backs a bipartisan corrections overhaul that Kentucky enacted in 2011 and said Republicans on the federal level should embrace similar changes because mass incarceration runs counter to established GOP principles on government spending. “I call it socialism with constrained mobility,” Massie says. “You’re paying for all their medical costs. You’re paying for all their food, all their housing. You’ve got to have air conditioning. Jails are not cheap.”

While the dialogue may be changing, passing legislation, as always, is another story. Even the idea of studying the criminal justice system proved too controversial in the Senate in 2011, when a national commission proposed by former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia fell to partisan fighting.

The House task force might agree to weed out relatively minor crimes such as possession of a migratory bird — the kind of regulations Republicans tend to view as government overreach — but it may be less inclined to rethink the mandatory minimum sentences that many Democrats abhor....

While the challenges are clear, those who support the GOP-led discussion surrounding criminal justice say it is encouraging that the debate is happening at all. It’s a significant step forward that a bipartisan group of legislators is really for the first time looking in a very serious way at ways to try to get their arms around this behemoth,” says John G. Malcolm, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Some recent and older related posts:

May 13, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"The most interesting part of [Rand Paul's] speech was his widely anticipated defense of drug law reform."

The title of this post is drawn from this early report via Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post concerning Senator Rand Paul's notable policy speech today at Howard University. Here is some context and more content from Rubin's strong first-cut analysis of Senator Rand's efforts (with one particular line emphasized by me):

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) delivered an important and intriguing speech at Howard University as part of his determined effort to expand the reach of the GOP and take his message everywhere.

His remarks, as prepared for delivery, highlighted the best and the worst aspects of his thinking, and they left some question marks....

The most interesting part of the speech was his widely anticipated defense of drug law reform.  “I am working with Democratic senators to make sure that kids who make bad decisions, such as non-violent possession of drugs, are not imprisoned for lengthy sentences.  I am working to make sure that first-time offenders are put into counseling and not imprisoned with hardened criminals.  We should not take away anyone’s future over one mistake.”  He described two young men, one white and privileged and the other mixed race and modest in income, who could have had their lives ruined by a drug arrest. He concluded with a kicker: “Instead, they both went on to become presidents of the United States. But for the grace of God, it could have turned out much differently.”

He then explained his opposition to mandatory minimum sentences:

"Our federal mandatory minimum sentences are simply heavy-handed and arbitrary. 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 is enough. We should not have laws that ruin the lives of young men and women who have committed no violence.  That’s why I have introduced a bill to repeal federal mandatory minimum sentences.  We should not have drug laws or a court system that disproportionately punishes the black community."...

It was a nervy effort on his part, and a sincere one, I think, to explain his views to an audience not enamored of his party or philosophy. He should do more of it, and in more concrete terms, to persuade and explain how his philosophy works and why liberalism doesn’t.

He is a force to be reckoned with; liberals and conservatives ignore him at their own risk. If nothing else, he demonstrated that a forceful reiteration of history can illuminate the Republican Party and that conservatism deserves a fair hearing. That’s more than 90 percent of Republicans have done.

Regular readers (and certainly my dad and close friends) know that my political commitments lean toward the libertarian, and thus I was inclined to be a fan of Senator Rand Paul from the get-go. More broadly, as regular readers and others surely know, I strongly believe our modern federal criminal justice system ought not be so committed to costly big national government one-size-fits-all solutions for what seem, at least to me, to often be local small community diverse problems. Thus, I am especially excited that Senator Paul is apparently committed to bringing his libertarian perspective to the arena of federal criminal justice reform.

But the single sentence I have highlighted above reflect a different theme and one that strikes a different chord with my own philosophical commitments. Saying that "We should not take away anyone’s future over one mistake," reflects not a unique political philosophy but rather suggests a kind of personal moral philosophy grounded in a deep commitment to (1) recognizing the reality of human fallibility, and (2) embracing the potential for human improvement and achievement even after a human mistake is made.

Of course, if one really accepts this kind of deep moral commitment and wants criminal laws to reflect this commitment, there are a whole lot of important sentencing implications beyond reform of federal drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing terms. Such a personal moral philosophy, at least in my view, would necessarily call for eliminating the death penalty and LWOP for any and all first offenders, and it might even call for eliminating any imprisonment any and all first offenders. But I do not want to, at least right now, start setting out a script for just how Senator Rand Paul should seek to operationalize his political and personal philosophies. For now I just want to (a) celebrate the fact that he is really starting to talk the talk on long-needed federal criminal justice reforms, and (b) continue to get excited about how he will be soon walking the walk on long-needed federal criminal justice reforms.

Some recent and older related posts:

April 10, 2013 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Saturday, March 23, 2013

New group opposing death penalty emerges at CPAC

US News and World Report has an this interesting report on a notable new group that emerged at last week's CPAC meetings.  The piece is headlined "Small Government Conservative? Group Says You Should Oppose Death Penalty," and here are excerpts:

Squeezed amid the dozens of stalls you'd expect to find last week at CPAC — stalls that were pro-gun, pro-life and pro-liberty — sat a group that was more unexpected: Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty....

But that stereotype no longer holds true.  As Maryland prepares to become the 18th state to ban the death penalty, CCADP advocacy coordinator Marc Hyden tells [Us News] the reaction the group is getting from conservatives is: "Where have you been for so long?"

Hyden says hundreds of people at CPAC signed up to join the group, which officially launched at the conference. For those who didn't sign up, Hyden, who previously worked for the NRA, came ready with reasons why they should.  He says he sways some conservatives with the pro-life, religious argument, but more often Hyden talks about the cost.

"It is widely accepted that [the death penalty] is so much more expensive than life without parole," Hyden says.  "If there is a cheaper alternative, we as fiscal conservatives should embrace it."

It may be no surprise, then, that the group has also been greeted with open arms by libertarians, whose political stars, Ron and Rand Paul, both oppose the death penalty. Several bigger names have also jumped aboard the CCADP team, including Jay Sekulow, a top litigator of free speech and religious liberty cases.  Sekulow tells [US News] he's been concerned about the death penalty from a legal perspective for years, but that there was never one conservative group that concentrated on the issue.

"We're in the infancy stages of a movement to galvanize awareness," says Sekulow, noting that several Republican governors have come out against the issue in recent years, such as Gov. Sam Brownback, R-Kan.  "This issue now crosses political lines."

March 23, 2013 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

UN agency and former DEA officials complain about the end of pot prohibition in two states

As reported in this notable Wall Street Journal article, headlined "Government Urged to Act Over Pot Laws," there are some notable new folks making noise about the efforts by two US states to end pot prohibition. Here are the interesting details:

A United Nations agency and a group of former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration heads pressed the U.S. government Tuesday to challenge laws making recreational pot use legal in Colorado and Washington state.

The U.N.'s International Narcotics Control Board, which monitors implementation of U.N. drug-control conventions, said in its 2012 annual report that the states' pot laws violate international narcotics conventions and that it "urges the Government of the United States to take the necessary measures to ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties on its entire territory."

Separately Tuesday, eight former DEA administrators issued a joint warning that the government must act now or lose the chance to nullify the Colorado and Washington laws. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week he is in the last stages of reviewing the laws.

"We are urging Attorney General Holder, as he did in the case of the Arizona immigration law, to file a lawsuit challenging the Colorado and Washington laws without delay," said one of former DEA Administrators, Judge Robert Bonner, in the statement.

"It's not up to the U.S. Attorney General to decide that he is going to abandon the law; it is his job to enforce the law," said Peter Bensinger, another of the former DEA administrators, in an interview.

Both states are working on rules to codify how marijuana's production, processing and sale will be regulated after voters in the states last November passed ballot measures letting adults use pot recreationally.

"It doesn't change what we're doing," said Brian Smith, spokesman for the Washington State Liquor Control Board, which is formulating pot-use rules there.

"This is an over-reach by outside entities," said Colorado state Rep. Jonathan Singer, a legalization advocate. A spokesman for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the office had no comment.

As political observers know, in nearly all other settings, folks on the right side of the aisle are typically quick to complain if and whenever either the United Nations or a federal agency tries to dictate whether and how an independent US state seeks to conduct its legal business.   I sure hope, just because we are now dealing with state laws concerning the use and distribution of a plant — rather than, say, state laws concerning the use and distribution of firearms or state laws concerning the operation of the death penalty — that the folks on the right do not conveniently forget the usual states' rights mantra in opposition to UN meddling or big federal agency over-regulation of state business.

A few recent and older related posts: 

March 5, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"Republicans a victim of safer streets"

The title of this post is the headlined of this notable recent commentary by Charles Lane in the Washington Post.  Here are some excerpts:

Americans were unhappy about many issues as 2012 began. In one area, though, contentment reigned.  By a margin of 50 to 45 percent, a Gallup Poll reported, the public felt “satisfied” with the nation’s policies on crime.

It was a well-founded sentiment. In 2010, Americans were less than a third as likely to be victimized by violent crime as they had been in 1994; the murder rate had declined by roughly half.  Today we are approaching the low murder rates of the 1950s.

For the Republican Party, this is a triumph — and a disaster, as the 2012 election results proved.  It is a GOP triumph, because the enormous decline in crime over the past two decades coincided with the widespread adoption of such conservative ideas as “broken windows” policing and mandatory minimum sentences.

Whether such policies actually caused the crime decline is a separate, and much-debated, social-science question.  The important thing is that many people believe that they did.  As a result, conservative crime doctrine remains dominant in politics, with the two parties differing mainly over how to control and punish unlawful conduct most cost-effectively.

Hence the 2012 disaster for the GOP.  Beginning with Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign for president in 1968, Republicans pretty much owned the issue.  Fear of street crime — and its association, accurate or not, with post-’60s moral license, liberal Democratic policies and the rise of an urban black population — converted many a white working-class Democrat into a Republican....

As the first Democratic president since Clinton, and the first African American one ever, Barack Obama has done essentially nothing to reverse Clinton’s crime and welfare policies. He signed a bill reducing the disparity in penalties for crack and powder cocaine possession under federal law, a modest reform that enjoyed wide Republican support in Congress....

We’ll never know whether 2012 would have played out the same way if crime had staged a comeback during the recession, as many expected.  Certainly in the past, crime was as important to the Republican brand as abortion and gay rights, if not more important.  Safer streets, though, have blunted what was once a sharp wedge issue, and, perhaps, freed the electorate to consider social and moral issues in a different light.

In the crime-ravaged ’70s and ’80s, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” Callahan acted out Middle America’s fantasy of a no-holds-barred war on crime.  By the time an elderly Eastwood appeared at the 2012 GOP convention, though, violent crime was a fading specter. And when he led the crowd in a chorus of “Go ahead, make my day,” it was history repeating itself as farce.

He should have said, “We need a new issue.”

I suggest that Republicans consider for their new issue a call to end federal pot prohibition, replaced by state-level regulation and experimentation on marijuana reform.  Among other benefits for Republicans, if an end to pot prohibition really does lead to an increase in crime and related harms, it can better trade of the political rhetoric of crime yet again.

November 27, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Intriguing accounts of how California's three-strikes reform will be implemented

The San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times both had interesting pieces today on how California's ballot-initiative reform of its three-strikes law will get implemented.  Here are snippets from the San Jose Mercury News piece, headlined "California Prop. 36: Families of some three-strikers hope for early release or shorter sentences":

By an overwhelming margin, they'd passed Proposition 36 to revise the state's tough Three Strikes Law. The new law prohibits judges from imposing a life sentence on most repeat offenders who commit minor crimes. But it also includes a provision that could result in an early release or shorter sentence for ... up to 3,000 inmates ... who were sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent, relatively minor crimes like stealing a credit card....

But just how fast lifers get a resentencing hearing before a judge -- and if they get out early at all -- is likely to depend on where they were convicted. The movement on cases might go more slowly in conservative places like the Central Valley, while in relatively liberal Los Angeles County and the Bay Area, things might move along more efficiently. "We're probably less likely to see the DA acquiesce on petitions for release or resentencing in many cases,'' said Kern County's interim chief public defender, Konrad Moore.

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's public defender and a spokesman for the California Public Defenders Association, estimated it will take six months to a year in most counties. In contrast, Santa Clara County is nearly ready. The county's acting public defender, Molly O'Neal, has already drawn up a list of 127 three-strikers who may be eligible to apply for a shorter sentence or early release. "I hope we begin getting people out before the end of the year," O'Neal said. "This will right an unfairness in the system dating from (1994) when Three Strikes was passed."

The process will be much quicker in Santa Clara County because District Attorney Jeff Rosen promised well before the election that he would seek shorter terms or outright release for at least some three-strikers even if Proposition 36 lost. His office has already done much of the necessary research, cutting down on the need for lengthy court hearings in cases where he and O'Neal agree on a solution.

O'Neal said a Stanford law school graduate who worked on the university's Three Strikes Project is helping with the effort for free. The director of the project, law school Professor Michael Romano, co-authored Proposition 36.

Here are excerpts from the Los Angeles Times piece, which is headlined "Softer 3-strikes law has defense lawyers preparing case reviews":

A day after California voted to soften its three-strikes sentencing law, defense lawyers around the state Wednesday prepared to seek reduced punishments for thousands of offenders serving up to life in prison for relatively minor crimes.

The process of asking courts to revisit old sentences could take as long as two years and benefit roughly 3,000 prisoners.  They represent about a third of incarcerated third-strikers.

Proposition 36 garnered about 69% of the vote.  The initiative won in all 58 counties, amending one of the nation's toughest three-strikes laws, one that had overwhelming voter support when it was approved in 1994 amid heightened anxiety over violent crime. "People want a fair and just criminal justice system," said Michael Romano, who helped write the proposition and runs a Stanford Law School project that represents inmates convicted of minor third strikes....

Courts can reject a request to reduce a sentence if they determine the prisoner is a danger to public safety. Inmates with prior convictions for rape, murder and child molestation cannot be released under the measure.  "This is not going to open the prison floodgates," said Garrick Byers, a senior attorney with the Fresno County public defender's office.

Byers, who said he spoke for himself and not his office, received several calls from relatives of third-strikers Wednesday seeking help for loved ones and said he suspected that other attorneys around the state received similar requests.

In Los Angeles County, the public defender's office estimates 500 to 525 former clients could seek reduced sentences.  Hundreds more represented by private lawyers or the county's alternate public defender's office when they were originally sentenced under the law could also head back to court.

Although defense lawyers have plenty to do in the short term, Los Angeles County Public Defender Ron Brown said he expects the new law will have little impact on future cases. The county's prosecutors have followed a general policy of not seeking life sentences for relatively minor strikes since Steve Cooley became district attorney in 2000. "I don't see a major sea change for L.A. County," Brown said....

Mike Reynolds, whose daughter's 1992 murder led him to spearhead the creation of three strikes, said he believed many voters were misled to think Proposition 36 was a tough-on-crime measure.  He predicted the initiative would undermine an important deterrent and prevent prosecutors from locking up repeat offenders before they had the chance to hurt new victims. "This was a great day for criminals and their attorneys," Reynolds said.

November 8, 2012 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack