Thursday, March 06, 2014

Florida conservatives now talking up nuanced positions on marijuana reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 03, 2014

"Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 08, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Thursday, February 06, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Sunday, February 02, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few older and more recent related posts:

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

Friday, January 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

A few recent related posts:

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

Sunday, January 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Thursday, November 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform

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

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Election outcomes in Nov 2013 keep up marijuana reform momentum

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

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

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

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

Monday, October 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 26, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Thursday, October 17, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Monday, September 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent and older related posts:

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

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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