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 ConservativeHQ.com. 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 MDPetitions.com, began the petition effort after Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed the repeal into law May 2. MDPetitions.com 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

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

California voters appear to be approving three-strikes reform, rejecting death penalty repeal

As of the writing of this post, Election Day has been over for three hours in my time zone and is just about to end in California.  According to the result on this official California webpage with right now just over half of all precincts reporting, Proposition 34 calling for the repeal of California's death penalty is losing the popular vote by 46% to 54% and Proposition 36 calling for the reform of California's severe three-strikes sentencing law is winning the popular vote by 68% to 32%.

Assuming that the precinct which have reported are faily representative, it looks as though the voters in California are going to keep the death penalty on the books and are going to curtail the harshest aspects of the state's recidivism sentencing law.  Though I had predicted these basic outcomes (informed by the generally on-point polling data from the last few weeks on these issues), I am a bit surprised that the death penalty repeal vote is so close and that the three-strikes reform vote is so one-sided.

Ain't democracy grand!

November 7, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

Voters call for experimenting with pot in the state laboratories of Colorado and Washington

I thought it would be remarkable and remarkably important if voters in just one state through the ballot initiative process had legalized marijuana.  But, as reported in this NBC News piece headlined "Colorado, Washington approve recreational marijuana use," it appears voters in two states are ready to experiment with ending pot prohibition. Here are the basics:

Voters in Colorado and Washington on Tuesday approved measures allowing adults to use marijuana for any purpose, NBC News projected, marking an historic turning point in the slow-growing acceptance of marijuana usage.

In Massachusetts, voters also approved an initiative allowing people to use marijuana for medicinal purposes, NBC News projected. In Arkansas, a similar initiative failed, according to NBC News projections....

The laws legalizing marijuana for recreational or other purposes could face federal challenges, because marijuana possession is still a federal crime. But so far, the Justice Department has declined to discuss how it might react if the laws pass....

Opponent Kevin Sabet, a former senior advisor to the Obama administration and an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s college of medicine, said he was expecting legal challenges at the state and federal level. “This is just the beginning of the legalization conversation, so my advice to people who want to toke up legally or think that they can buy marijuana at a store tomorrow is that we’re a very long way from (that),” Sabet said.

Proponents of the legislation also said they expected some legal wrangling. “It sets up a clear and obvious challenge with the federal government,” said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, which has fought for years to legalize cannabis.

But proponents also were celebrating what they saw as a turning point in a long-running battle to make marijuana more available to the general public. “We are reaching a real tipping point with cannabis law reform,” said Steve DeAngelo, a longtime advocate for legalizing marijuana and the director of the nation’s largest medical cannbabis dispensary, Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper acknowledged legal challenges but said the state would work to resolve the conflict between federal and state laws. "It's probably going to pass, but it's still illegal on a federal basis. If we can't make it legal here because of federal laws, we certainly want to decriminialize it,” he told NBC’s Brian Williams.

This lengthy Huffington Post article discusses these developments and the intricacies of the legal process going forward in Colorado.   This piece also includes this amusing reaction to the Colorado outcome:

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a vocal opponent to the measure, reacted to the passage of A64 in a statement late Tuesday night: "The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will. This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said, federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly."

November 7, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack

With Prez Obama projected to win second term, could sentencing reform get a boost?

All the major networks are now projecting that President Barack Obama has tonight won a second term; my first thought, of course, is to start to speculate about what this could mean for the future of sentencing reform.  For many reasons, I think the outcomes of the three state marijuana legalization initiatives and the California three-strikes and death penalty initiatives could ultimately have more national criminal justice echoes than the presidential results.  Still, with the occupant of the White House now certain again, I see two great new uncertainties concerning the prospects for future criminal justice reforms:

1.  After a pretty "status quo" first term with very little political capital or energy spent on criminal justice reform, might President Obama give more attention to criminal justice reform issues in his second (lame-duck) term?  Might he, for example, start using his clemency powers more fully or urge his Justice Department to advocate more forcefully for reductions in federal prison populations?

2.  Upon recognizing that the party's national election fate could be doomed by an enduring failure to appeal to minority and younger voters, might some of the smartest stategists within the GOP view criminal justice reform (and especially drug war reform) as a potential means to seek to reconnect with these critical voting blocks?

I fear that the answer to all these questions will end up being no, but it could become a really exciting time for sentencing reform fans if some of these questions are answered yes.

November 7, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Seeking Election Day predictions on the biggest criminal justice initiatives

Vote-buttonAs regular readers know, I will be staying up very late this evening to see election results from all the western states that have been criminal justice initiatives on the ballot today.  I have long been tentatively predicting that one of three marijuana legalizations initiatives will pass and that California voters will approve reform of its three-strikes law and reject abolition of its death penalty.  But this is guesswork, and I am eager to hear other prediction as we all await these (and other) results.

P.S.  Nobody is allowed to comment unless and until they have at least tried to vote!

November 6, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, November 05, 2012

A few criminal justice headlines on Election Eve

I may be too exhausted from fast-forwarding through a stunning number of election ads to put together a detailed SL&P election 2012 guide in the next few days. Fortunately, a lot of the highlights for sentencing fans can be found in old and new media stories, such as these I noticed this morning:

November 5, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Friday, November 02, 2012

Latest poll shows death penalty repeal leading in California

Field pollAs reported in this new front-page Sacramento Bee article, advocates for repeal of the death penalty in California have some (surprisingly?) good news in the latest polling data.  The article is headlined "Field Poll shows measure to end death penalty gaining, but still lacking 50%," and here are excerpts:

With concern over the cost of capital punishment rising, California voters may be poised for a historic vote to abolish the state's death penalty, a new Field Poll indicates.

Support for the measure, Proposition 34, remains below 50 percent. But the poll released this morning found 45 percent of likely voters favor replacing the punishment with life in prison, while 38 percent oppose doing away with capital punishment. Another 17 percent say they remain undecided.

The latest survey shows support for abolishing the death penalty rising as Election Day nears. A Field Poll released in September found 42 percent in favor of the measure and 45 percent opposed, with 13 percent undecided at that time.

"It's certainly an encouraging poll for the Proposition 34 supporters, but it still has a long way to go," Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo said. "It's got to get above 50 percent, and it's moving in the right direction." DiCamillo said many measures tend to lose support after voters take a closer look at the issues, but Proposition 34 "is actually gaining strength as voters learn more about it."

That may stem from the fact that there is an increasing number of likely voters – 53 percent in the new poll – who have concluded that maintaining the death penalty is more expensive than keeping inmates in prison for the rest of their lives. The proponents of Proposition 34 have based their campaign on that notion, saying California could save hundreds of millions of dollars by doing away with the death penalty and that the state has spent $4 billion to execute only 13 inmates since the death penalty was reinstated in 1978.

"The single issue that reasonates is cost," said Sacramento attorney Don Heller, who wrote the initiative that restored the death penalty in California in 1978 but now opposes capital punishment. "Even when you address the issue of potentially executing an innocent person, it's the cost that reasonates. All of a sudden it's being brought home, when counties are going bankrupt and cities are going bankrupt, that there's just not enough money out there."

Death penalty supporters dispute the cost savings claims and questioned the latest poll figures, especially the finding that 17 percent of voters are undecided on such an issue. "This poll shows that Proposition 34 continues to be under 50 percent," said Peter DeMarco, a spokesman for opponents of the measure. "It's never been above 50 percent since the beginning of the campaign. And I think the 17 percent undecided is significantly inaccurate for an issue that is of such familiarity in California."

DeMarco said he believes that when voters are asked to actually decide, they will trend toward keeping the death penalty in place. He noted that numerous law enforcement groups, prosecutors and political leaders have spoken out against Proposition 34....

The poll of 1,566 likely voters was taken in two waves of telephone questioning, the first from Oct. 17-24 and the second from Oct. 25-30, and the initiative gained support in the later survey period. In the first wave, the measure was nearly tied, with 41 percent saying they would vote to abolish the death penalty and 40 percent opposed. It was in the second round of interviews that support rose to 45 percent.

I think it is fair to predict that repeal of California's death penalty via voter initiative would be a transformative moment in the modern history of the death penalty in the United States.  Depite these latest poll numbers, I am still expecting/predicting that Proposition 34 will fail.  Nevertheless, I find the trends here fascinating and perhaps yet another example of Justice Thurgood Marshall's (in)famous hypothesis in Furman that the more informed people are about the actual operation of the death penalty, the less likely they are to support its administration.

Some very recent related posts (with lots of notable comments):

November 2, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

If nothing else, pot legalization initiatives in 2012 have produced serious buzz

With now less than a week to go before election day, the mainstream media is starting to discuss more broadly the possibility that one or more state will legalize marijuana.  Here is just a sampling of some of the notable recent media stories from outside the trio of states (Colorado, Oregon, Washington) in which voters are soon to have their say on state pot prohibition:

UPDATE This new AP story provides more interesting marijuana reform food for thought. It is headlined "Mexican think tank says Colorado, Washington, Oregon pot legalization would cut cartel profit."

October 31, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Three former California Govs (but not the Terminator) advocate against terminating the death penalty

As reported in this Reuters article, which is headlined "Trio of former California governors seeks to preserve death penalty," some former chief executives of the Golden State are speaking out about the state's death penalty ballot initiative. Here are the details:

A trio of former California governors urged voters on Tuesday to preserve the death penalty in the state by defeating a ballot initiative seeking to abolish capital punishment on cost grounds, and a recent poll showed the measure gaining support but falling short of passing.

The initiative, if passed by voters next week, would automatically commute the sentences of 725 death row inmates in California, which has nearly a quarter of the nation's condemned prisoners but has executed none in the last six years.

"Prop. 34 is a horrible injustice," said former Democratic Governor Gray Davis, referring to the ballot proposition.  "Like a giant eraser, it would wipe out the death penalty convictions of 700 killers on death row."

Those convicts are responsible for killing 200 children and 43 police officers, said Davis, who was governor from 1999 to 2003 and who was joined in opposing death penalty repeal by former Republican governors Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian.  "Don't let the bad guys on death row win," Davis said.  The governors were joined at a Los Angeles hotel by relatives of murder victims, prosecutors and police officers.

California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and his Republican predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, have been silent on the initiative.

The push by the former governors follows a poll of 1,504 registered voters released on Friday by USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times that showed support for repeal at 42 percent, with 45 percent opposed.  The poll had a margin of error of 2.9 percent.  Those numbers represented a much narrower gap than in a September survey by the same group that showed the pro-repeal side at 38 percent compared to 51 percent who wanted to keep the death penalty.

October 30, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Friday, October 26, 2012

Latest California polling data suggests hard-core sentencing will be up real late on election night

La-me-death-penaltya1-20121025-gI have an inkling (and certainly a hope) that we will know the outcome of the 2012 presidential election not all that long after 9pm EST on November 6th: the polls will by then be closed in the crucial swing states of Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia.  But this big Los Angeles Times article, which provides the latest poll numbers on the two big sentencing reform ballot initiatives in California, suggests that hard-core sentencing fans should plan for very late night watching election returns from the Golden State. the article is headlined "Support for end to California death penalty surges; Nearly half of registered voters still back capital punishment, but the margin has shrunk to 3 percentage points; Voters also favor easing the three-strikes law." Here are excerpts:

Voter support for a ballot measure to repeal California's death penalty has jumped dramatically, though not enough to ensure its passage, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll has found. Support for a separate measure that would ease the state's three-strikes sentencing law remained high, with more than 60% in favor of amending it.

The survey, conducted last week, showed that the gap between supporters and opponents of Proposition 34, the capital punishment measure, is now very small — only 3 percentage points — compared with last month.  Still, less than half of respondents said they would vote for the measure, which would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Forty-two percent said they would vote for Proposition 34, with 45% saying no. In September, the gap was 38% to 51%, a 13-point difference.  A significant 12% of respondents said they did not know how they would vote, nearly identical to the 11% who had not decided last month.  "There is no question there has been a sharp shift," said Dan Schnur, who heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.  The results suggest that passage is "not impossible" but still "very difficult," Schnur said.

When voters heard more information about Proposition 34, such as its financial ramifications and details of the effect on prisoners, responses flipped: 45% were in favor and 42% against — still very close to the survey's margin of error, which is 2.9 percentage points.

The latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll [with crosstabs available here] questioned 1,504 registered voters by telephone from Oct. 15 to Oct. 21, before the Proposition 34 campaign launched radio and television ads. Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm, did the survey with American Viewpoint, a Republican company. 

Proposition 34 would apply retroactively to condemned inmates, require convicted murderers to work in prison and contribute to victim restitution funds, and direct $100 million to law enforcement over four years.  It could save the state as much as $130 million a year, according to California's nonpartisan legislative analyst.  California has more than 727 inmates on death row, the most in the nation....

Natasha Minsker, campaign manager for Proposition 34, said the poll's findings prove that "this election is absolutely moving in our direction."  But Peter DeMarco, a strategist for the opposition, expressed confidence that the shift was too small to make a difference....

La-me-death-penalty-inside-20121025-g

Meanwhile, support for the three-strikes measure, Proposition 36, has held relatively steady in recent weeks, with 63% of voters in favor, 22% opposed and 15% undecided or not answering.  Last month, the initiative was leading by 66% to 20%.  "Unless the opponents can convince voters that the criminals being impacted by this measure are still dangerous, the initiative looks pretty safe at this point," Schnur said. 

The three-strikes law allows prosecutors to seek sentences of 25 years to life for any felony if offenders were previously convicted of at least two violent or serious crimes, such as rape or residential burglary. Proposition 36 would amend the law so offenders whose third strikes were relatively minor felonies, such as shoplifting or drug possession, would no longer be eligible for life terms.  Of the state's nearly 8,900 third-strikers, about a third were convicted of drug or minor property crimes.

This week, the proposition's campaign unveiled a television ad in which the district attorneys from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties tell voters that the amendment would ease prison overcrowding, save the state millions of dollars and "make the punishment fit the crime."  Opponents point out that the current law already allows prosecutors and judges to spare a third-striker the maximum sentence and argue that flexibility is needed to protect the public.

I suspect that the polling on these sorts of initiatives can be subject to lots of statistical noise, so I am quite chary about making book on these latest poll numbers.  That all said, it will be big news if either of these sentencing reform initiatives pass, and huge news if they both do.  Thus, I now have yet another reason to wish Election Day 2012 was here already.

October 26, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Latest campaign front news concerning California death penalty repeal initiative

This new local article, headlined "California's Prop. 34: Battle over fate of state's death penalty heating up," reports on the latest campaign developments two weeks before California's go to the polls to decide whether to repeal the state's death penalty. Here are excerpts:

[T]he two rival campaigns are unveiling ads this week relying on very different messages to appeal to voters being asked for the first time to abandon the death penalty since it was restored more than three decades ago. In short, the pro-Proposition 34 forces are asking voters to save California money and rid the state of the justice system's most costly and controversial law. And law enforcement foes of the measure are reminding the public of the notorious killers who wind up on death row, from Richard Allen Davis to mass murderer Charles Ng.

Proposition 34 backers on Monday launched a series of statewide television and radio ads, bankrolled by a campaign that has pulled in more than $6.5 million from a roster of the rich and famous. Actors Martin Sheen and Edward James Olmos provide the introductions to the television ad, which features a Los Angeles man who spent more than 20 years in prison for a murder he did not commit.

The radio spots focus on the central theme of the Proposition 34 campaign: that the California death penalty system is too flawed and expensive to maintain and should be scrapped to save what backers say could be a billion dollars or more in the coming decade. Don Heller, a former Sacramento prosecutor who co-authored the 1978 law and has now renounced the death penalty, anchors the radio ads. "These ads are going to be important," said former Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti, a one-time death penalty supporter now backing the campaign.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped opposition to Proposition 34, with just a few hundred thousand dollars in campaign funds raised so far, is relying on Web advertisements that offer up a new death row villain to profile every few days, highlighting victims' families and law enforcement officials who've encountered the worst killers in California. The ads thus far have included Ng and the most recent released on Monday about Tahua "Tao" Rivera, sentenced to die for the 2004 slaying of a Merced police officer.

Using what they call a "grass roots" campaign, the No on Proposition 34 leaders are also taking their show on the road. That includes a public event Tuesday in San Jose, where Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe and Marc Klaas, father of murder victim Polly Klaas, will speak out against the measure.

October 23, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rooting for crime and punishment questions at tonight's town-hall Prez debate

600x399101In this post before the first debate in Denver between the Prez candidates, I correctly predicted that there would not be a single question dealing with criminal justice issues (despite the reality that a significant portion of federal government spending and a massive portion of state government spending is devoted to these big government programs).  Tonight's scheduled town-hall tussle on Long Island is probably going to follow the same script.  But I think there is at least a slim chance that one of the real people being allowed to ask real questions might be allowed to really press the candidates on the really interesting issues for sentencing fans like federal pot prohibition or mass incarceration or even the administration of the federal death penalty or perhaps state felon disenfranchisement. 

For old-times sake, I tracked down the last memorable discussion of crime and punishment in a town-hall debate.  Specifically, almost exactly 12 years ago, on October 17, 2000 to be precise, the death penalty came up during the town-hall debate between then-Governor George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore.  Here are excerpts from this capital Q&A from a dozen years ago via this debate transcript:

Mr. ANDERSON:  In one of the last debates held, the subject of capital punishment came up, and in your response to the question, you seemed to overly enjoy, as a matter of fact, proud that Texas leads the the nation in execution of prisoners.  Sir, did I misread your response, and are you really, really proud of the fact that Texas is number one in executions?

Gov. BUSH:  No, I'm not proud of that. The death penalty is very serious business, Leo. It's an issue that good people obviously disagree on. I take my job seriously, and if you think I was proud of it, I think you misread me, I do.  I was sworn to uphold the laws of my state.  During the course of the campaign in 1994 I was asked, `Do you support the death penalty?' I said I did if administered fairly and justly, because I believe it saves lives, Leo. I do.  I think if it's administered swiftly, justly and fairly, it saves lives....

There have been some tough cases come across my desk.  Some of the hardest moments since I've been the governor of the state of Texas is to deal with those cases.  But my job is to ask two questions, sir: Is the person guilty of the crime, and did the person have full access to the courts of law?  And I can tell you, looking at you right now, in all cases those answers were affirmative.  I'm not proud of any record.  I'm proud of the fact that violent crime is down in the state of Texas.  I'm proud of the fact that we hold people accountable, but I'm not proud of any record, sir. I'm not....

Vice Pres. GORE:  I support the death penalty. I think that it has to be administered not only fairly, with attention to things like DNA evidence, which I think should be used in all capital cases, but also with very careful attention if, for example, somebody confesses to the crime and somebody's waiting on death row, there has to be alertness to say, 'Wait a minute, have we got the wrong guy?'  If the wrong guy is put to death, then that's a double tragedy, not only has an innocent person been executed but the real perpetrator of the crime has not been held accountable for it and in some cases may be still at large.  But I support the death penalty in the most heinous cases.

Mr. LEHRER:  Do both of you believe that the death penalty actually deters crime? Governor?

Gov. BUSH:  I do. That's the only reason to be for it.... I don't think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge. I don't think that's right.  I think the reason to support the death penalty is because it saves other people's lives.

Vice Pres. GORE:  I think it is a deterrence.  I know it's a controversial view but I do believe it's a deterrence.

Back to the present day, In this prior post and in many others, I have already detailed some of the federal criminal justice questions I would love to hear asked of the candidates this season.  Perhaps readers will join in my on-going (and seemingly futile?) debate game by adding some queries of interest  via the comments.

A few recent and older related posts: 

October 16, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

"Marijuana backers court conservatives with appeals on states’ rights, ineffective pot laws"

The title of this post is the headline of this new AP article, which includes these passages:

It’s not all hippies backing November’s marijuana legalization votes in Colorado, Oregon and Washington.  Appealing to Western individualism and a mistrust of federal government, activists have lined up some prominent conservatives, from one-time presidential hopefuls Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul to Republican-turned-Libertarian presidential candidate and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

“This is truly a nonpartisan issue,” said Mark Slaugh, a volunteer for the Colorado initiative who is based in Colorado Springs, which has more Republicans than anywhere else in the state.  “States’ rights! States’ rights!”  Slaugh cried as he handed out flyers about the state’s pot measure outside a rally last month by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.  Quite a few passing Republicans took the flyer....

Most Republicans still oppose legalization.  Presidential candidate Mitt Romney vows to enforce federal law.  When Ryan told a Colorado Springs TV station in September that medical marijuana was “up to Coloradans to decide,” his campaign quickly backtracked and said he agreed with Romney.

When activists make their appeal, it goes like this: States should dictate drug law. Decades of federal prohibition have failed where personal responsibility and old-fashioned parenting will succeed.  Politicians back East have no business dictating what the states do....

Tancredo launched a radio ad this week in which he compares marijuana prohibition to alcohol prohibition as a “failed government program” that, in this case, “steers Colorado money to criminals in Mexico.”

“Proponents of big government have duped us into supporting a similar prohibition of marijuana — even though it can be used safely and responsibly by adults,” Tancredo said.

Pot supporters have lined up other surprising allies this year, even as many Democrats oppose the measures.  Conservative stalwart Pat Robertson, for example, said marijuana should be legal.

In Washington state, Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Michael Baumgartner is running a longshot bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who opposes it.  “It’s taking a different approach to a very expensive drug war, and potentially a better approach,” he said.

In Oregon, at least one Republican state Senate candidate backs legalization. Cliff Hutchison reasoned that legalizing pot would “cut wasteful government spending on corrections and reduce drug gang violence.”...

Pro-pot conservatives have counterparts on the other side — Democrats who say pot shouldn’t be legal without a doctor’s recommendation.  Democratic governors in Colorado and Washington oppose legalization.  Oregon’s Democratic governor has not taken a stand. President Barack Obama’s administration has shut down medical marijuana dispensaries in California and Colorado.

Republican Colorado state Sen. Steve King is a frequent critic of Colorado’s medical marijuana law.  Conservatives abhor government, but they also fear legalization would increase children’s drug use, he said. “It’s pretty easy to come in and say, ‘Let’s decrease government.’ And I’m all for that. This just isn’t the place to start,” King said. “We have a next generation to protect,” he said.

October 16, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Monday, October 15, 2012

Will there be a "constitutional showdown" if a state legalizes pot? And would that be so bad?

The question in the title of this post are prompted by this new piece at the Huffington Post, which is headlined "States Legalizing Marijuana Will Violate Federal Law, Trigger Constitutional Showdown: DEA, Drug Czars." The piece starts this way:

On a Monday teleconference call, former Drug Enforcement Agency administrators and directors of the Office of National Drug Control Policy voiced a strong reminder to the U.S. Department of Justice that even if voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington pass ballot measures to legalize marijuana use for adults and tax its sale, the legalization of marijuana still violates federal law and the passage of these measures could trigger a "Constitutional showdown."

The goal of the call was clearly to put more pressure on Attorney General Eric Holder to make a public statement in opposition to these measures. With less than 30 days before Election Day, the DOJ has yet to announce its enforcement intentions regarding the ballot measures that, if passed, could end marijuana prohibition in each state.

"Next month in Colorado, Oregon and Washington states, voters will vote on legalizing marijuana," Peter Bensinger, the moderater of the call and former administrator of DEA during Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, began the call. "Federal law, the U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court decisions say that this cannot be done because federal law preempts state law."

Bensinger added: "And there is a bigger danger that touches every one of us -- legalizing marijuana threatens public health and safety. In states that have legalized medical marijuana, drug driving arrests, accidents, and drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed. Drug treatment admissions are up and the number of teens using this gateway drug is up dramatically."

Bensinger was joined by a host of speakers including Bill Bennet and John Walters, former directors of the While House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Chief Richard Beary of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP); Dr. Robert L. DuPont, founding director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and who was also representing the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) and several others.

The position being pushed here by past and current drug warriors seems to have a little bit of a "chicken little" sky-is-falling quality to it.  Nevertheless, the apparent urgency of these respected voices confirms my strong belief that this is a topic very worthy of discourse on the Presidential campaign trail.  I am cautiously (and perhaps foolishly) optimistic that the next Prez debate's town hall format has the best chance to bring these issues into national discourse.  But even if it does not, I hope some members of the media might follow-up on these matters in interviews with both of the presidential contenders.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 15, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (15) | TrackBack

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Noting the intriguingly unpredictable politics around Washington's marijuana initiative

This New York Times article, headlined "Marijuana Referendum Divides Both Sides," provides an intriguing reports on the political debates in Washington state over its ballot initiative to repeal the state's pot prohibition. Here is how the piece starts:

Most efforts to legalize marijuana possession have generally run aground in the face of unified opposition. Mothers Against Drunk Driving led the charge in helping to defeat a ballot measure in California in 2010. Law enforcement groups, not too surprisingly, have also been largely opposed in the past.

But in Washington State, as a measure that would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana heads toward a vote next month, the opposition forces have been divided, raising hopes by marijuana advocates of a breakthrough. A poll conducted last month by Elway Research showed that 50 percent of voters either definitely or probably were in favor of legalizing the possession of an ounce of marijuana or less.

Some former law enforcement officials have appeared in television ads in favor of the legalization. Safety concerns about drugged driving have been muted by a provision of the measure, called Initiative 502, that would create a standard to measure impairment. A promised flood of tax money to drug and alcohol treatment programs from legal marijuana sales has also kept some antidrug groups on the sidelines.

But if opponents are in disarray or disagreement, supporters of legalization are as well. And that is making the outcome hard to predict, both sides say. In fact, some of the most vehement opposition to the initiative is coming from what might seem the least likely corner of all: medical marijuana users. Organized through a group called No on I-502, they say the plan, especially the new legal standard of impairment while driving, creates a new legal risk for regular users because THC, marijuana’s primary psychoactive ingredient, can stay in the bloodstream for days after consumption, and thus be measurable by a blood test whether a person is impaired or not.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 13, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Is it really "shocking" that President Obama has not spoken out concerning state criminal justice reform proposals?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a comment in this new Fox News piece, which is headlined "High times: 3 states to vote on recreational marijuana use."  Here are excerpts:

Advocates of legalizing marijuana for recreational use may be closing in on their first statewide victory. Voter initiatives that would legalize up to an ounce of pot will be on the ballot in three states in November: Oregon, Colorado and Washington State. Polling shows the measures leading in Washington and Colorado with at least 50 percent support.

“If Washington or Colorado wins in November, and both of them have a good chance to do so, it is going to be transformative in the way we think about marijuana policy in this country and even outside,” says longtime legalization advocate Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance....

President George Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, can’t understand why President Obama is not using his bully pulpit.  “I think it’s shocking that Attorney General Holder, the Director Kerlikowski, but most of all the president of the United States, can’t talk about this,” says Walters.  “It’s about health, it’s about safety, it’s about the future of the country.”

Meantime, Initiative 502 in Washington State keeps racking up endorsements. Most elected leaders in Seattle support the measure, including the current sheriff and his opponent in the upcoming election. Former U.S. Attorney John McKay is one of its sponsors. But the most stunning endorsement came from the Children’s Alliance, an umbrella organization for 100 child welfare groups.

Jon Gould, Deputy Director of the Children’s Alliance, says marijuana laws are being enforced unevenly and that hurts minorities and the poor. “If those kids’ parents are shut out of housing, shut out of employment, shut out of education opportunities, we’re not helping those kids,” says Gould.

Legalization opponents argue very few people are locked up for marijuana possession. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that .07% of all state inmates were busted for marijuana possession only. “We need to understand that drugs and gangs go hand in hand,” says Paul Chabot, who advised Presidents Clinton and Bush on drug policy. “They destroy communities. What we have to do is work keeping people off this stuff, not liberalizing policies.”

Legal or not, young people would still be barred from smoking pot.  And critics argue more kids would try it, something the administration has always been against.  But so far this election year, instead of using the power of the office, that message has gone up in smoke.

Regular readers know I share John Walters hope that President Obama, as well as wanna-be President Romney, will address marijuana policy on the campaign trail and in the debates. But I hardly think it is "shocking" that the President has not opined on the proposals to legalize marijuana at the state level in three states, just as I do not think it is "shocking" that he has not addressed California's big criminal justice initiatives or other state-level reforms that may or may not impact federal criminal justice enforcement priorities.

Regular readers likely know that I am following the politics surrounding drug policy reform closely because I have a hard time connecting conservative talking points about freedom, states' rights and nanny-state over-regulation with the categorical opposition to state-by-state reconsideration of absolute pot prohibition.  Given that Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan has indicated that he believes states should be free to develop their own medical marijuana laws while other Republicans have endorsed pot legalization in Colorado and Washington, I am surprised and somewhat disappointed that Fox News thinks it is "fair and balanced" to assail President Obama on this front, especially given how hard his US Attorneys are going after medical marijuana facilities throughout the west.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 9, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, October 05, 2012

"Prominent Republicans in Washington state, Colorado endorse legal pot"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Reuters piece.  Here are excerpts:

Ballot measures to legalize marijuana in Washington state and Colorado gained support this week from a pair of prominent Republicans -- U.S. Senate candidate Michael Baumgartner and former Representative Tom Tancredo -- who could help sway conservative voters.

No state has ever legalized marijuana for recreational use. The federal government considers it an illegal drug, but 17 states and the District of Columbia allow it as medicine.

Baumgartner, the Republican challenger to Washington state's Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, said in a phone interview the state initiative, which would allow the sale of marijuana to people 21 and older at state-sanctioned stores, is a "thoughtful way forward."...

Tancredo, who served five terms in the House of Representatives from 1999 to 2009, this week endorsed the legalization campaign in Colorado.  He argued government should not interfere with people's choice to use pot.

In Oregon, a third state where voters this November will decide whether to allow recreational use of pot, the campaign has struggled to find big name Republican supporters.

Legalization opponent Kevin Sabet, a former adviser to the Obama administration's drug policy director, disputed the argument of many libertarians that government should not interfere in pot use by people.  "The libertarian argument is fundamentally flawed because drug use does not affect just the individual, it affects healthcare costs, criminal justice costs that we see with a legal drug like alcohol and costs to our highway safety," Sabet said.

Some recent and older related posts:

October 5, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Gov Jerry Brown's notable (wise? unprincipled? chicken$%#&?) evolution concerning California's death penalty

Today's Sacramento Bee has this intriguing front-page article headlined "Jerry Brown sidesteps death penalty discussion as California voters face choice." Here are excerpts:

Two years ago, in the waning days of the gubernatorial campaign, Jerry Brown was asked why, given his moral reservations about the death penalty, he wouldn't try to stop it anymore.  As a young man, Brown had lobbied his father, then-Gov. Pat Brown, to stay a man's execution, and he vetoed death penalty legislation when he was governor before.

"I don't know," Brown said on an airplane between campaign rallies in the Central Valley. "You want to reinvent the world. But we have the world.  And this is a matter that's been before the voters … been before the Legislature.  At this point in time, it's relatively settled."

It may still be.  Though the margin is slight, a plurality of likely voters opposes a Nov. 6 ballot measure to repeal the death penalty, according to the Field Poll.  Nevertheless, the measure, Proposition 34, is on the ballot -- and Brown wants no part of it.

The Democratic governor has declined to say how he will vote on the death penalty or other ballot measures, and he is not expected to do so before Election Day.  He said is focused solely on his own initiative to raise the state sales tax and income taxes on California's highest earners.

Brown's careful distance from abolishing the death penalty, a cause he once championed, reflects the caution of a governor who has grown more sensitive to the limitations and political hazards of his office than when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983....

Brown was 21 when, one night in 1960, he called his father to urge a temporary stay of execution for convicted rapist Caryl Chessman.  Chessman was ultimately executed, but not before his father granted the temporary stay.  The decision was unpopular, and Pat Brown later said his political career suffered badly for it.

Seven years later, when Aaron Mitchell was executed at San Quentin State Prison, Jerry Brown participated in a vigil outside the prison, and 10 years after that, Brown vetoed legislation -- overridden by the Legislature -- to reinstate the death penalty.

He called it "a matter of conscience," a sentiment he expanded upon when he was asked while running for president in 1992 if his opposition to the death penalty was absolute. "Yes," Brown said.  "When someone is contained in a cage, then to bureaucratically, coldbloodedly snuff out their life, whether by poison or by electrocution or by gas, it seems, it doesn't seem right to me."

Peter Finnegan, a longtime friend of Brown's and his debate partner in high school, recalled holding candles outside San Quentin with Brown when they were young men.  They don't talk about the death penalty anymore.  "He just doesn't want to talk about it," said Finnegan, now a retired lobbyist and political activist. "You get nowhere talking about it, really, and it's kind of behind him, and everyone knows where he is, and that's that." When Brown was governor before, Finnegan recalled, "we'd sit around until 2 in the morning (discussing) this stuff." Now, Finnegan said, "he's just more focused … . I just think he's so much more mature."...

His position has been made awkward, however, by the presence of the death penalty initiative.  One day in April, Brown called it a "very, very important issue" and said he was glad the measure would be on the ballot, before saying that afternoon that his commitment to enforcing the death penalty was unwavering.  "I will carry out the law," Brown said, "without fear or failure and with fidelity to the will of the people."

A governor's endorsement can matter in an initiative campaign, but less so in one that involves a high-profile matter such as the death penalty, about which voters typically hold highly emotional, pre-existing beliefs.  Likely voters oppose Proposition 34, the measure to replace the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole, 45 percent to 42 percent, according to a recent Field Poll.

As suggested by the title of this post, I am interested in hearing reader views as to the right adjective to describe Gov Brown's death penalty evolution. I am inclined to pick the adjective "chickenshit" because I consider Brown's effort to stay mute on such a significant and symbolic aspect of the state's criminal justice system to be an act of profound political and personal cowardice.  Moreover, I think it would be pretty easy for Brown and his advisers to develop a politically astute and personally satisfying statement on this topic. That statement could read something like:

"Though I have long been morally opposed to the death penalty, I deeply respect those with contrary moral views, and I am personally and professionally committed to vigorous enforcement of any and all duly enacted criminal justice laws reflecting the will of the people in our state.  I am thrilled that this important issue is garnering renewed attention and that our citizens will now have the opportunity to express their current position on this matter directly via the ballot box.  Based on my long-standing moral beliefs, I expect to vote for Prop. 34, and I am especially excited to learn about the views of all fellow Californians on Prop 34 come November 6."

October 5, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (23) | TrackBack

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Some questions I might ask during the upcoming Presidential debates

As this recent post noted, crime and punishment — and especially federal crime and punishment — does not seem a big concern for the electorate this campaign season.  Nevertheless, there are no shortage of timely and important sentencing law and policy questions that could usefully be posed at the big debate tonight in Denver to the two Harvard Law School graduates seeking to be the US President for the next four years.

I fear there will not be a single question focused on criminal justice issues in tonight's debate, despite the reality that a significant portion of federal government spending and a massive portion of state government spending is devoted to these big government programs.  But, in the spirit of the evening, I must articulate some serious questions on serious federal criminal justice topics that might provide an interesting window into the candidates' views:

Regular readers likely know that I could go on and on with these kinds of wonkish questions — concerning the application of the federal death penalty or the problems of federal prosecutorial misconduct or the importance of federal clemency authority — but at this point I will bring this pre-debate post to a close and welcome comments from readers on this front (which can, of course, be posted before during or after tonight's debate).

A few recent and older related posts: 

October 3, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Latest California polling shows (unsurprising?) split for two major sentencing initiatives

Lat-me-poll-three-strikesa1-20120929-gAs reported in this new Los Angeles Times article, there are new and notable poll numbers concerning the two big sentencing initiatives on the California ballot this fall.  The article is headlined " Californians back change on three strikes, but not on death penalty; Proposition 36 would ease the three-strikes sentencing law. Proposition 34 would replace the death penalty with life without possibility of parole." Here are excerpts from the lengthy article discussing the latest numbers:

California voters support easing the state's tough three-strikes sentencing law by a margin of more than 3 to 1 but are reluctant to abolish the death penalty, according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll. The poll results come as voters ponder a pair of ballot measures that, if approved, would make dramatic changes to the state's criminal justice system.

Support for an initiative that aims to replace capital punishment with life in prison without parole is trailing 38% to 51%, the poll found.  But that gap narrows to a statistical dead heat when voters learn that Proposition 34 also requires convicted killers to work while in prison, directs their earnings to their victims and earmarks $100 million for police to solve murders and rapes.

Despite voters' ambivalence over capital punishment, a ballot measure seeking to amend the three-strikes law is attracting strong support from a broad cross section, including conservatives. Proposition 36 takes aim at what critics of three strikes call its unfairest feature by changing the law so that offenders whose third strikes were relatively minor, such as shoplifting or drug possession, could no longer be sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

"We've built this society on the idea that the penalty depends on the crime," said poll respondent Hamilton Cerna, 31, a registered Republican from Downey who works as an employee relations consultant. "If you're going to take away somebody's freedom, then I feel like it should be for a damn good reason."  The measure to soften the three-strikes law was backed by 66%, with only 20% opposed and 14% undecided or not answering. Both ballot initiatives need a simple majority to pass.

The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll canvassed 1,504 registered voters from Sept. 17 to 23.  The survey was conducted jointly by the Democratic polling company Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Republican firm American Viewpoint.  The margin of error is 2.9 percentage points.

The propositions target two of California's most iconic and controversial tough-on-crime sentencing laws. The "Three Strikes and You're Out" law won overwhelming voter approval in 1994 amid heightened public anxiety over crime.  The law targets offenders who have previous convictions for at least two serious or violent crimes, such as rape or robbery. Any new felony conviction can trigger a prison sentence of at least 25 years to life. Of the state's nearly 8,900 third-strikers, about a third were convicted of drug or nonserious property crimes.

Proposition 36 would end life terms for such offenders, who would instead be treated as if they had only one previous strike and be sentenced to double the standard prison term for their latest crime.... Inmates already serving 25 years to life for nonserious and nonviolent offenses could get a reduction in their sentences if a judge decides they do not pose an unreasonable risk to the public. The proposition's changes would not apply to offenders with previous convictions for murder, rape or child molestation, or to those whose latest offense involved a sex crime, major drug dealing or use of a firearm....

More than half of voters who described themselves as conservative said they supported amending the three-strikes law, with just over a quarter opposing the measure, according to the poll.  "It's not fair to taxpayers. It's not fair to the offender," said Don Chapman of Anaheim, a registered Republican who used to oversee drivers and equipment for a distribution company before retiring.

Although the poll gives the initiative a large advantage, a 2004 attempt to amend the three-strikes law held a similar lead in polls until an advertising blitz by opponents in the final week of the campaign. That proposition lost 53% to 47%. The current measure is opposed by victims rights groups and more than a dozen law enforcement associations, including the California District Attorneys Assn. and the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers.

Opponents note that judges already have the authority to spare a third-striker the maximum sentence. They argue that the proposed amendment removes a powerful tool that has put away dangerous offenders before they could hurt more people.  Norman Tripp, a retired corrections officer and supervising prison counselor who participated in the survey, said he believes the initiative would result in more crime. "At what point does society say, 'I'm going to end this person preying on people'?" Tripp, of Susanville, asked.

Lat-me-poll-three-strikes-20120929-g

Proposition 34 offers Californians their first opportunity to decide whether the state should have the death penalty since two-thirds of voters amended the state Constitution to allow capital punishment in 1972. 

Only 13 inmates have been put to death in California since executions resumed and none since 2006.  California has more than 725 inmates on death row, the most in the nation, and they are more likely to die of old age, illness or suicide than by lethal injection.

The USC Dornsife/Times poll mirrors similar surveys finding that support for the death penalty has waned.  When voters were read the proposition language on the November ballot, 43% favored Proposition 34, with 45% against.  The margin of error for that result was 4.1%.

The escalating costs of the death penalty — an issue highlighted by the proposition's supporters — did not move respondents. After voters were told the state could save as much as $130 million annually by abolishing capital punishment, opponents of Proposition 34 still outnumbered supporters by the same margin — 46% to 44%. 

Pollsters said the overall results did not bode well for the measure and show that most voters already have firm opinions on the issue.  Susan Estabrook, 52, a teacher's aide who lives in Marysville and took part in the poll, said the cost had no bearing on her support for executions of murderers. "If someone commits that heinous of a crime, they just don't even need to be here," she said.

Some respondents who favored Proposition 34 said they were motivated as much by whether it was fairly carried out as by cost.  Kevin Calandri, 69, a retired college professor from Sacramento, said he intended to vote to abolish the death penalty because "the people who are more likely to be sentenced to death are poor minorities."

Recent related posts:

September 30, 2012 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offender Characteristics, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, September 28, 2012

"Crime not on presidential contest radar"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new USA Today piece, which includes these excerpts:

Presidents and lesser politicians have been delivered to victory more often than not for taking tough stands on crime. Yet during a year punctuated by mass shootings at a Colorado movie theater and temple in Wisconsin, crime has all but vanished from public discussion this campaign season.

In a presidential election cycle dominated by concerns for a faltering economy and unemployment, crime rated a forgettable asterisk earlier this month in a Gallup Poll, representing less than 1% of Americans who believed it was the nation's most pressing problem. "When the economy is as big a problem as it is, it kind of squashes out the others," said Frank Newport, Gallup's editor in chief....

According to polling data..., 2012 represents just one more presidential election in which the often-emotional issue of crime has ranked near the bottom of the public agenda. The last time crime rated as the top concern of the American public was in 1996, according to Gallup.

"The most important responsibility of an elected official is to provide for the safety of the people they represent, and we haven't heard much talk about that," said Jim Pasco, the FOP's executive director. "When there is the kind of violence that we have seen this summer, you do expect there to be a discussion about it," he said. "But it seems like it is the last thing on the public agenda."

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the law enforcement think tank Police Executive Research Forum, said the apparent lack of attention is "a sign of the times."

"Twenty years ago, the homicide rate was double what it is today," he said. "If we compare ourselves against ourselves, crime has declined fairly dramatically.  But if we compare ourselves to countries like the United Kingdom, that's another story." There were more than 600 murders in Great Britain last year, compared to more than 13,000 in the U.S. "The gun issue is radioactive in this country for both Democrats and Republicans," Wexler said. "No one nationally has spoken about it. It's not even on the radar screen."

Long-time readers likely recall my laments that national crime and punishment issues failed to garner any significant attention in the 2004 or 2008 campaigns. Rather than curse this criminal justice darkness, I hope this weekend to do a post with timely federal crime and punishment questions that could be interesting and revealing during next week's first big presidential debate. In the meantime, I wonder if readers are inclined to complain or cheer the failure of any significant national politicians to give any real attention to these issues.

Some recent and older related posts: 

September 28, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Arkansas Supreme Court rejects challenge to state medicial marijuana ballot initiative

Thanks to How Appealing, I see via this AP article that the "Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a proposed ballot measure that, if successful, would make the state the first in the South to legalize medical marijuana." Specifically, that court "rejected a challenge by a coalition of conservative groups who had asked the court to block the proposed initiated act from the November ballot or order the state to not count any votes cast on the issue." Here is more about the ruling and its import:

Arkansas will be the first Southern state to put the medical marijuana question to voters. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have legalized it in some fashion. Massachusetts voters are also expected to vote on the issue this fall, while the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled a medical marijuana initiative can't appear on that state's ballot.

The conservative coalition argued that Arkansas' 384-word ballot question doesn't accurately describe other consequences of passing the 8,700-word law, including a provision that would allow minors to use medical marijuana with parental consent.

Justices disagreed and said the proposed law is fairly summarized in the question that will appear on the ballot. "Here, after reviewing the ballot title of 384 words, we conclude that the title informs the voters in an intelligible, honest and impartial manner of the substantive matter of the act," the ruling said....

Medical marijuana has never come before voters in the South partly because of the difficulty of getting such initiatives on the ballot. And conservative legislators throughout the region have not backed the efforts. The Washington-based Marijuana Policy Project has provided most of the funding for the campaign in Arkansas, contributing $251,000 to the effort.

Officials with the group said they stepped in after polling showed strong support for the measure in Arkansas. Group leaders also cite a "symbolic" value in passing a medical marijuana law in the South. "I think it's a sign that marijuana policy reform is an idea that is coming of age now across the nation, rather than just in the states where we've seen it so far," said Morgan Fox, the group's communications director. "It's really an important moment."

Gov. Mike Beebe, who is opposed to the proposal, told reporters on Thursday he doesn't believe the state's voters would legalize medical marijuana. Beebe said he's asked for an estimate of how much it will cost the state to regulate the dispensaries if the measure passes. "If I understand what I think I understand about it, if it passes, it's going to require a whole of administration from the health department," Beebe said. "I don't know where we're going to get it from."

The full unanimous ruling from the Supreme Court of Arkansas is available at this link.

September 27, 2012 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"California’s Proposition 34 and Proposition 36 expose red meat in a blue state"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable commentary discussing the two big California sentencing inititative coming before voters this fall.  Here is how the piece gets started:

Don’t believe the cable-news chatter about California being some bastion of weak-tea liberal values. When it comes to our criminal-justice system — and its penchant for mandatory-sentencing guidelines, gang enhancements and the death penalty — the Golden State is as red meat as they come.  “It’s remarkably out of sync with the rest of the country,” contends University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law professor Michael Vitiello.

Which is why two initiatives on this November’s ballot are rustling some eyebrows.  The impressively funded, broadly supported Proposition 36 aims to modify a three-strikes law that voters overwhelmingly adopted way back in 1994.  Specifically, Prop. 36’s authors want to make sure that anyone going away for 25 years to life on a third-strike conviction is being prosecuted for a serious or violent offense rather than for stealing videotapes....

Proposition 34, meanwhile, is taking on the death penalty itself — not because it’s unethical for a government to execute its own citizens, but because it’s too damn expensive.  A study last year by former prosecutor and federal judge Arthur L. Alarcon says it cost California roughly $4 billion to snuff out 13 death-row inmates since voters reinstated capital punishment in 1978. Prop. 34 promises to save hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and put a chunk of that toward solving more murders and rapes.

Likewise, Prop. 36 makes its case on largely pragmatic grounds, with proponents dangling the juicy carrot of $70 million to $90 million in projected annual savings if the measure passes.

With two ballot initiatives that fly in the face of the accepted “tough on crime” paradigm, the question becomes whether California is experiencing something of a sea change when it comes to its counterintuitively hard-assed stance on crime and punishment.

The short answer is: nah.  “I see only a weak trend, not one that’s going over a cliff,” observed Vitiello, an expert on sentencing reform.

Relatedly, last week the legal newspaper The Recorder had this lengthy article on Prop. 36 under the headlined "Third Try at Shrinking the Strike Zone Likely to Succeed."

September 27, 2012 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Linking state pot initiatives to prior push back against Prohibition

Jacob Sollum has this new piece on state marijuana reform efforts at Reason.com under the headline "The Marijuana Rebellion: State ballot initiatives aimed at legalizing pot pose a new challenge to prohibition."  The piece begins with a reminder of state-level rejections of alcohol prohibition, as well as the latest polling numbers on pot initiatives:

By the time the 21st Amendment ended national alcohol prohibition in December 1933, more than a dozen states had already opted out.  Maryland never passed its own version of the Volstead Act, while New York repealed its alcohol prohibition law in 1923.  Eleven other states eliminated their statutes by referendum in November 1932.

We could see the beginning of a similar rebellion against marijuana prohibition this year as voters in three states — Washington, Colorado, and Oregon — decide whether to legalize the drug's production and sale for recreational use.  If any of these ballot initiatives pass, it might be the most consequential election result this fall, forcing both major parties to confront an unjust, irrational policy that Americans increasingly oppose.

With six weeks to go before Election Day, Oregon's Measure 80, which would establish a commission charged with licensing growers and selling marijuana through state-run stores, seems to be in trouble.  In a SurveyUSA poll this month, only 37 percent of respondents said they planned to vote yes, while 41 percent were opposed and 22 percent were undecided.

But the other two initiatives are polling strongly.  According to a SurveyUSA poll conducted two weeks ago, 57 percent of Washington voters favor Initiative 502, which would authorize private pot stores regulated by the state liquor commission; only 34 percent were opposed.  A SurveyUSA poll completed on September 12 found that 51 percent of Colorado voters support Amendment 64, which would allow home cultivation of up to six plants and create a licensing system for growers and retailers; 40 percent were opposed.

Neither of these measures is a sure thing by any means.  California's Proposition 19, a marijuana legalization measure that was ultimately supported by 47 percent of voters in November 2010, polled above 50 percent in several surveys.  But while the SurveyUSA approval number for Proposition 19 peaked at 56 percent in April 2010, dropping to 47 percent by September, support for the Washington and Colorado initiatives appears to be growing.

Some recent and older related posts:

September 26, 2012 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Prominent conservative Tom Tancredo supporting marijuana legalization initiative in Colorado

The Huffington Post via this new entry headlined "Tom Tancredo Backs Legal Weed: 'Marijuana Prohibition Has Failed Us'," has alerted me to another prominent conservative voice speaking out in support of state marijuana reform efforts. Tom Tancredo is a former Republican congressman who is now endorsing Colorado's ballot initiative to legalize marijuana.  Here is part of his explanation why in this commentary appearing in the Colorado Springs Gazzette:

Exactly 80 years ago, the people of this great state passed a ballot initiative declaring an end to the misguided big-government policy experiment that was alcohol prohibition.  One year later, the federal government followed.

This November, the voters of Colorado have the opportunity to repeat history.  On the ballot is Amendment 64, an initiative that would end marijuana prohibition in the state and regulate the production and sale of the substance.

In many ways, marijuana prohibition is very similar to alcohol prohibition.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in their impact on public safety.

In the 1920s, alcohol prohibition led to the widespread proliferation of violent criminal organizations who corrupted politicians and law enforcement officials to illegally peddle booze to otherwise law-abiding citizens.  Similarly, by keeping marijuana illegal for the last 75 years, we have created a black market that helps fuel some of the most dangerous terrorist organizations in the world....

I am endorsing Amendment 64 not despite my conservative beliefs, but because of them. Throughout my career in public policy and in public office, I have fought to reform or eliminate wasteful and ineffective government programs.  There is no government program or policy I can think of that has failed in such a unique way as marijuana prohibition.

Our nation is spending tens of billions of dollars annually in an attempt to prohibit adults from using a substance objectively less harmful than alcohol.  Yet marijuana is still widely available in our society.  We are not preventing its use; we are merely ensuring that all of the profits from the sale of marijuana (outside the medical marijuana system) flow to the criminal underground.

Regardless of what ultimately happens on the federal level, we have an opportunity to stop pouring money into a failed system in Colorado.  According to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, we current spend anywhere from $25 to $40 million dollars per year arresting, citing, processing, and prosecuting marijuana offenders throughout the state.  A recent report from the Colorado Center on Law and Policy found that savings achieved through eliminating these law enforcement costs, combined with increased tax revenues generated from the legal production and sale of marijuana, would net the state $60 million in the first year alone.

In addition to the economic and public safety arguments for ending marijuana prohibition, I also support Amendment 64 for a much broader, philosophical reason.  Marijuana prohibition is perhaps the oldest and most persistent nanny-state law we have in the U.S. We simply cannot afford a government that tries to save people from themselves.  It is not the role of government to try to correct bad behavior, as long as those behaviors are not directly causing physical harm to others....

Across the board, our current system of marijuana prohibition has failed. It has failed to protect our kids from drug dealers pushing other, far more dangerous drugs, it has failed to keep our borders safe, and it has failed to use taxpayer dollars in the most responsible and efficient manner possible.  It is time to try something new. 

September 25, 2012 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

New poll suggests death penalty repeal has a chance on California ballot

This new San Francisco Chronicle piece, headlined "Death penalty repeal close in poll," reports that the latest polling shows a close contest for the California ballot initiative calling for repeal of the state's death penalty. Here are the details:

California voters are closely divided on a November ballot measure to repeal the state's death penalty law, with significant differences in support among regions and age groups, a new Field Poll reports.

The survey found that Proposition 34, which would make life in prison without parole the maximum punishment for murder, was opposed by 45 percent of likely voters and favored by 42 percent, with 13 percent undecided. The results amounted to a statistical tie, since the poll's margin of error was 4.3 percentage points.

The poll, released Tuesday, was conducted Sept. 6-18 among a random sample of 468 voters....

Prop. 34 will be California's first vote on capital punishment since 1978, when a 71 percent majority approved expansion of a death penalty law that had been passed the previous year over Gov. Jerry Brown's veto.

Backers of the Nov. 6 measure are focusing on the economic impact of the death penalty, citing studies that found the state spends as much as $184 million a year more than it would if the maximum sentence were life without parole. Prop. 34 would transfer $100 million over four years to law enforcement programs to solve murder and rape cases.

The new poll found that Prop. 34 was supported by Democrats, 50-37 percent, and even more strongly by unaffiliated and third-party voters, 54-33 percent, but opposed 23-65 percent by Republicans.

Residents of coastal counties favored the measure 45-41 percent, within the poll's margin of error, but inland residents opposed it 34-55 percent. The Bay Area provided the strongest regional support, 57-35 percent.

Men were evenly split, while women narrowly opposed the measure. Younger voters were about equally divided, but those ages 50 to 64 opposed Prop. 34 by 39 to 51 percent, and voters over 65 opposed it 38 to 46 percent.

Recent related posts:

September 25, 2012 in Campaign 2012 and sentencing issues , Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Sunday, September 16, 2012

If money can really buy elections, the death penalty will be dead in California

The title to this post is prompted by this new article from California, which is headlined "Rich and famous in Silicon Valley, Hollywood backing campaign to abolish California's death penalty." Here are excerpts:

Proposition 34, a ballot measure that would abolish the death penalty in California, faces long odds at the polls. But it has a major advantage over the opposing campaign -- wealthy donors, from Silicon Valley executives to Hollywood actors, willing to write fat checks.

With less than two months to go before the election, Proposition 34's campaign has amassed more than $5.4 million to persuade California voters to get rid of capital punishment, dwarfing the paltry $208,000 gathered by a pro-death-penalty coalition of law enforcement and victims' rights groups.

From Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer to actor Ed Asner and rocker Jackson Browne, the Proposition 34 campaign has a glittering roster of the rich and famous putting money behind the first vote on whether to retain the death penalty in California since it was reinstated in 1978....

But anti-Proposition 34 forces say there is enough entrenched sentiment for the death penalty that they don't need as much to get the message out, as long as voters hear from police, prosecutors and victims' families.  "We know we are going to be out-raised because we don't have Hollywood celebrities and liberal do-gooders on our side," said McGregor Scott, a former Sacramento U.S. attorney heading the campaign against the measure. "Ours will be an old-fashioned, word-of-mouth, grass-roots" campaign....

Pundits say that with an issue such as the death penalty, it's hard to evaluate whether the "money talks" advantage in most political campaigns applies.  "Normally you see something like that and say it's a slam dunk," said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political-science professor.  "But in this case, it's such an emotional issue for people that I don't think they need a campaign against it.  And it's always harder to get a 'yes' vote on something than a 'no' vote."

Others agree, but say that the substantial money difference could tip the scales if the polls show a tight race as the Nov. 6 election approaches.  Indeed, the Proposition 34 campaign has plans to run statewide television ads in the final weeks before the election.

"If law enforcement opposes this and nobody knows, that would be a disadvantage," said Thad Kousser, a University of San Diego political-science professor.  "If you look at the general literature on propositions, especially in California, money matters on both sides."...

The two biggest donors to Proposition 34 so far are Nicholas Pritzker, CEO of the Hyatt hotels chain, and the Atlantic Advocacy Fund, a New York-based philanthropy established by billionaire Charles Feeney.  Both have chipped in $1 million.

Silicon Valley's wealthy are also well-represented.  They include Hastings, the Netflix CEO, who donated $250,000, and the Emerson Collective, a nonprofit headed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple's Steve Jobs.  Emerson contributed $150,000.

For his part, Hastings believes the main argument in favor of Proposition 34 -- that the death penalty is a waste of money -- is a good reason to back it. "In California, we will save tens of millions of dollars every year if we change from the death penalty to life in prison without chance of parole," Hastings told this newspaper in an email exchange. "That money would be better spent on educating kids instead."

I never cease to be amazed and, I suppose, impressed that so many persons are so willing to devote time, energy and now a huge amount of money in order to help ensure murderers spend the their full natural lives in a cage rather than be potentially be subject to execution by the state. (And given than more people die as a result of drunk drivers in California each year than are on California's death row, I cannot help but wonder how many more lives might be saved if all these "wealthy donors, from Silicon Valley executives to Hollywood actors, [were] willing to write fat checks" to MADD of California or to help fund passive ignition lock technologies.)

That said, I think rich donors eager to end the California death penalty might devise some more clever means to push their agenda. Rather than just give money to an ad campaign, perhaps these rich folks should offer to create a special private fund to help pay for the college education of children of murder victims which would make payouts only if the death penalty were repealed. Personally, I think the $5 million+ now already dedicated to try to sway voters "would be better spent on educating kids instead."

September 16, 2012 in Death Penalty Reforms, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (31) | TrackBack