Tuesday, February 17, 2015

NY Times editorial laments "The Roadblock to Sentencing Reform" ... while creating another

This lengthy new New York Times editorial spotlights and laments that one powerful Senator now appears to be the main impediment to federal sentencing reform moving forward in Congress.  Here are excerpts:  

For more than a year, members of Congress have been doing a lot of talking about the need to broadly reform harsh federal sentencing laws, which are a central factor in the explosion of the federal prison population.  It’s an overdue conversation, and one of the few in which Democrats and Republicans find some agreement — but, so far, they have nothing to show for it.

In the last session, senators introduced three bipartisan bills.  Two proposed “front end” reforms, like reducing or eliminating ridiculously long mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes.  The other focused on “back end” fixes, like increasing opportunities for good-­time credit to allow certain prisoners early release.

None of the bills got anywhere, but it was encouraging to see all three reintroduced in the new Republican­-led Senate. At least it was until they ran into a roadblock in the shape of Senator Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa.  Mr. Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wields great power over any sentencing legislation....

Mr. Grassley, for reasons that defy basic fairness and empirical data, has remained an opponent of almost any reduction of those sentences.  In a speech from the Senate floor this month, he called the bills “lenient and, frankly, dangerous,” and he raised the specter of high-­level drug traffickers spilling onto the streets.

Mr. Grassley is as mistaken as he is powerful.  Mandatory minimums have, in fact, been used to punish many lower­-level offenders who were not their intended targets. Meanwhile, the persistent fantasy that locking up more people leads to less crime continues to be debunked.  States from California to New York to Texas have reduced prison populations and crime rates at the same time. A report released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice found that since 2000 putting more people behind bars has had essentially no effect on the national crime rate.

The bill that appears to have the best chance of passing anytime soon is known as the Corrections Act — that’s actually a sprawling acronym for Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction, and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers in Our National System. Co­sponsored by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, the bill’s name is more ambitious than its goals, which include giving a narrow group of inmates the chance to participate in educational and other programs in exchange for earlier release. (The bill authorizes no financing for these programs, relying instead on, among other things, the volunteer efforts of faith­-based groups.)

Rehabilitation is a laudable aim, and it should be a part of any sentencing reform package. But the Cornyn-­Whitehouse bill would exclude nearly half of all federal prisoners — in many cases without any evidence that they pose a greater risk to public safety.

The bill also relies on an inmate’s criminal history.  This is a legitimate measure when it is used with the awareness that law enforcement disproportionately targets minorities. The danger is that white-­collar prisoners, who are most often white, will receive the law’s benefits, while, say, drug offenders, who are disproportionately African­-American, will be left out.

Finally, the bill pushes the use of data­-based risk­-assessment tools, which sound smart but again — because they rely on factors like a person’s employment history, neighborhood and education level — often have racially disproportionate effects....

Sentencing reform is a big and complicated issue, and may take some time to get right.  It would be a mistake to pass an incomplete bill and pretend that the hard work of reform is done.

Though I obviously laud the New York Times editorial board for complaining about a "roadblock" to reform created by Senator Grassley, I am troubled that this editorial goes on to create some more hurdles of its own through its (somewhat chaotic) criticisms of the Corrections Act. Every possible sentencing reform bill is sure to be an "incomplete bill" from somebody's perspective, but that should never serve alone as a reason to stall any needed reforms. The Fair Sentencing Act passed in 2010 was incomplete for only partially reducing the crack/powder disparity and for failing to make its reforms retroactive. But that reform still achieved a lot even though it did not achieve enough. Same goes, in my opinion, for all the sentencing reform bills now making the rounds.

Moreover, as a matter of substance, this editorial hammers Senator Grassley for defiance of empirical data, but that assails the Corrections Act for incorporating "data­-based risk­-assessment tools" and criminal history in its structures for back-end reform.  I fear the NYT editorial board wants policy-makers to be concerned only with the public safety data that it likes and to ignore the public-safety data that might undermine the Grey Lady's own mysterious sense of "fairness."  In this way, this editorial provides still more support for roadblocks to reform because any and everyone concerned about any part of the reform bills are encouraged to let their vision of the best reforms serve as an enemy and hurdle for any and all good and needed reforms.  

February 17, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Friday, February 13, 2015

ACSBlog conducting "symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system"

I just noticed that the ACSBlog early this week kicked off a "two-week symposium on racial inequalities in the criminal justice system" via this post titled "Pervasive Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System." Here are excerpts from this introductory post:

[R]acial inequality in this country remains tightly intertwined with economic inequality, and aspects of the criminal justice system that disadvantage poor people disproportionately disadvantage people of color. There also exists implicit racial bias, if not outright prejudice, in the hearts of some police, prosecutors, judges and jurors which can manifest itself during any phase of a criminal case.

The result is that Americans of color face disadvantages at every stage of the criminal justice system. From arrest to sentencing, obtaining bail to obtaining a lawyer, plea bargaining to jury selection, and even in being put to death, criminal defendants consistently fare better when they are white....

Whether due to racial hatred, implicit bias or economic inequality, there is overwhelming evidence that criminal defendants of color are subjected to a different criminal justice system than white defendants. For the next two weeks, ACSblog and a succession of experts will examine flaws at each stage of the criminal justice system and propose solutions so that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice under the law may be realized for every American.

Here are links to the posts in this series that have been published so far:

February 13, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

"Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System"

The title of this post is the title of this timely new report from The Sentencing Project.  Here is a partial summary of its contents from an e-mail I received earlier today:

The report identifies four key features of the criminal justice system that produce racially unequal outcomes, beyond the conditions of socioeconomic inequality that contribute to higher rates of some crimes in marginalized communities, and showcases initiatives to abate these sources of inequity in adult and juvenile justice systems around the country. In many cases, these reforms have produced demonstrable results, including:
  • Indiana amended its drug-free zone sentencing laws, which imposed harsh penalties on a defendant population that was over 75% African American in Indianapolis.
  • Multnomah County (Portland), OR, revised and removed bias in its risk assessment instrument for determining juvenile detention, reducing African American and Latino youth detention levels by half.
  • Berks County, PA, reduced the number of youth in secure detention – who were primarily youth of color – by 67% between 2007 and 2012 in part by increasing reliance on alternatives including non-secure shelters and expanding use of evidence-based treatment programs.
  • The Milwaukee County prosecutor’s office eliminated racial disparity in charges of possession of drug paraphernalia by instituting case oversight and emphasizing diversion to treatment programs and dismissals.

February 3, 2015 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Friday, January 30, 2015

Aggressive litigation prompts federal prosecutor in Chicago to drop stash house sting

As reported in this lengthy front-page Chicago Tribune article, aggressive litigation by the federal defense bar concerning aggressive federal drug-war tactics have now resulted in federal prosecutors backing off the most aggressive federal criminal charges these tactics have generated.  The article is headlined "Chicago prosecutors quietly drop charges tied to drug stash house stings," and here is how it begins:

Federal prosecutors in Chicago have quietly dropped narcotics conspiracy charges against more than two dozen defendants accused of ripping off drug stash houses as part of controversial undercover stings that have sparked allegations across the country of entrapment and racial profiling.

The decade-old strategy is also under fire because federal authorities, as part of a ruse, led targets to think large quantities of cocaine were often stashed in the hideouts, ensuring long prison terms upon conviction because of how federal sentencing guidelines work. Experts said the move by Chicago prosecutors marked the first step back by a U.S. attorney's office anywhere in the country in connection with the controversial law enforcement tactic.

In the court filings seeking the dismissals, prosecutors gave no clue for the unusual reversal, and a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to comment. But the move comes two months after the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stinging rebuke to the policy, ordering a new trial for a Naperville man who alleged he was goaded into conspiring to rob a phony drug stash house by overzealous federal agents.

The stings, led by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, have been highly criticized for targeting mostly minority suspects, many of whom were drawn into the bogus rip-offs by informants who promised easy money at vulnerable points in their lives.

The cases are built on an elaborate ruse concocted by the ATF. Everything about the stash house is fictitious and follows a familiar script, from supposedly armed guards that need to be dealt with to the quantity of drugs purportedly stashed there. By pretending the house contains a large amount of narcotics, authorities can vastly escalate the potential prison time defendants face, including up to life sentences. Earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Chicago sought to drop drug conspiracy charges in seven of the nine pending stash-house cases, leading some of the judges to quickly approve the move without a hearing.

In each case, the defendants — 27 in all — still face weapons and other charges for the alleged scheme and potentially long prison sentences upon conviction. But without the drug conspiracy charges, the mandatory minimum sentences for most of the defendants would drop to just five years in prison from as much as 25 years, according to Alison Siegler, director of the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.

The ATF investigations have also faced legal backlash around the country, including in California, where last year two federal judges ruled the stings amounted to entrapment.

Katharine Tinto, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said hundreds of people nationally have been charged as part of the drug house ruse. The ATF has been using this sting for at least a decade, she said. Tinto said she believes the decision to drop the cases in Chicago is an acknowledgment of the fact that federal agents involved in the sting set the quantity of the phony drugs, a critical factor in driving the sentencing.

The dismissal of the seven cases likely "signals that the government is starting to take a critical look both at these tactics and the immense sentencing these tactics can bring," Tinto said.  "In this tactic the drugs are imaginary, and the amount of the drugs is set by the government."

I have been preaching in recent years that I have come to believe that aggressive litigation taking on some of the worst extremes of the federal drug war and excesses of mass incarceration was more likely to "move the sentencing reform needle" as much, if not more, than legislative advocacy directed and a gridlocked Congress. This story reinforces my sense that more and more federal judges are growing more and more willing to criticize and seek to rein in what they more and more are seeing as federal prosecutorial overreach in the drug war and elsewhere.

January 30, 2015 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

Friday, January 23, 2015

"Where Do We Go from Here? Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights"

The title of this post is the title of this recent essay by Robynn J.A. Cox  from the Economic Policy Institute.  Here is the essay's executive summary:

On the surface, crime and punishment appear to be unsophisticated matters.  After all, if someone takes part in a crime, then shouldn’t he or she have to suffer the consequences? But dig deeper and it is clear that crime and punishment are multidimensional problems that stem from racial prejudice justified by age-old perceptions and beliefs about African Americans.  The United States has a dual criminal justice system that has helped to maintain the economic and social hierarchy in America, based on the subjugation of blacks, within the United States.  Public policy, criminal justice actors, society and the media, and criminal behavior have all played roles in creating what sociologist Loic Wacquant calls the hyperincarceration of black men.  But there are solutions to rectify this problem.

To summarize the major arguments in this essay, the root cause of the hyperincarceration of blacks (and in particular black men) is society’s collective choice to become more punitive. These tough-on-crime laws, which applied to all Americans, could be maintained only because of the dual legal system developed from the legacy of racism in the United States. That is, race allowed for society to avoid the trade-off between societies “demand” to get tough on crime and its “demand” to retain civil liberties, through unequal enforcement of the law. In essence, tying crime to observable characteristics (such as race or religious affiliation) allowed the majority in society to pass tough-on-crime policies without having to bear the full burden of these policies, permitting these laws to be sustained over time.

What’s more, the history of racism, which is also linked to the history of perceptions of race and crime, has led society to choose to fight racial economic equality using the criminal justice system (i.e., incarceration) instead of choosing to reduce racial disparities through consistent investments in social programs (such as education, job training, and employment, which have greater public benefits), as King (1968) lobbied for before his assassination. In other words, society chose to use incarceration as a welfare program to deal with the poor, especially since the underprivileged are disproportionately people of color.

At the same time, many communities attempted to benefit economically from mass incarceration by using prisons as a strategy for economic growth, making the incarceration system eerily similar to the system of slavery. Given all of the documented social and economic costs of mass incarceration (e.g., inferior labor market opportunities, increases in the racial disparity in HIV/AIDS, destruction of the family unit), it can be concluded that it has helped to maintain the economic hierarchy, predicated on race, in the United States. In order to undo the damage that has been done, and in order to move beyond our racial past, we must as a nation reeducate ourselves about race; and then, as a society, commit to investing in social programs targeted toward at-risk youth. We must also ensure diversity in criminal justice professionals in order to achieve the economic equality that King fought for prior to his death. Although mass incarceration policies have recently received a great deal of attention (due to incarceration becoming prohibitively costly), failure to address the legacy of racism passed down by our forefathers and its ties to economic oppression will only result in the continued reinvention of Jim Crow.

January 23, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Heroin addiction sent me to prison. White privilege got me out and to the Ivy League."

The provocative title of this post is the headline of this provocative Washington Post piece authored by Keri Blakinger. Here is how it gets started (with links from the original): 

I was a senior at Cornell University when I was arrested for heroin possession.  As an addict — a condition that began during a deep depression — I was muddling my way through classes and doing many things I would come to regret, including selling drugs to pay for my own habit.  I even began dating a man with big-time drug connections that put me around large amounts of heroin.  When police arrested me in 2010, I was carrying six ounces, an amount they valued at $50,000 — enough to put me in prison for up to 10 years.  Cornell suspended me indefinitely and banned me from campus. I had descended from a Dean’s List student to a felon.

But instead of a decade behind bars and a life grasping for the puny opportunities America affords some ex-convicts, I got a second chance.  In a plea deal, I received a sentence of 2½ years. After leaving prison, I soon got a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. Then Cornell allowed me to start taking classes again, and I graduated last month. What made my quick rebound possible?

I am white.

Second chances don’t come easily to people of color in the United States.  But when you are white, society offers routes to rebuild your life.  When found guilty of a drug crime, white people receive shorter sentences than black people. And even after prison, white men fare better in the job market than black men with identical criminal records.

It was prison that clued me in to just how much I benefit from systemic racism in our society. Until then, I hadn’t thought much about white privilege, which is exactly how privilege works — as a white person, I could ignore it.  But sitting behind bars, I saw how privilege touches almost everything, especially the penal system.

January 22, 2015 in Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

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

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

Are liberals as responsible for the prison boom as conservatives?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prior related post:

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

Friday, January 09, 2015

"How White Liberals Used Civil Rights to Create More Prisons"

9780199892808The potent title of this post is the potent title of this new piece at The Nation by Willie Osterweil, which serves as a review of sorts of a book by historian Naomi Murakawa titled The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America. Both the full Nation article and the book it discusses are worth attention, and here are excerpts from the article:

In her first book, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison in America, historian Naomi Murakawa demonstrates how the American prison state emerged not out of race-baiting states’-rights advocates nor tough-on-crime drug warriors but rather from federal legislation written by liberals working to guarantee racial equality under the law.  The prison industry, and its associated police forces, spy agencies and kangaroo courts, is perhaps the most horrific piece of a fundamentally racist and unequal American civil society.  More people are under correctional supervision in the United States than were in the Gulag archipelago at the height of the Great Terror; there are more black men in prison, jail or parole than were enslaved in 1850. How did this happen?

The common-sense answer is that launching the war on drugs during the backlash against civil-rights struggles encouraged agents of the criminal-justice system to lock up black people for minor infractions.  This isn’t wrong, or not exactly. Ronald Reagan’s infamous Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established federal minimums (a k a sentencing “guidelines”) and abolished parole in the federal prison systems, did lead to an explosion in the number of federal prisoners, particularly drug offenders.  It was one of the pivotal moments in the production of the prison-industrial complex (PIC) — the overlapping sphere of government and industrial activity that employs hundreds of thousands of guards, cops, judges, lawyers, bail-bondsmen, administrators and service employees and which sees millions of prisoners performing barely paid production labor to generate profit.  But, as Murakawa painstakingly demonstrates, the Sentencing Reform Act has a “liberal core,” and is built on the technical and administrative logic of racial fairness that structures all federal civil-rights legislation.

This is the fundamental thesis of Murakawa’s book: legal civil rights and the American carceral state are built on the same conceptions of race, the state and their relationship. As liberals believe that racism is first and foremost a question of individual bias, they imagine racism can be overcome by removing the discretion of (potentially racist) individuals within government through a set of well-crafted laws and rules.  If obviously discriminatory laws can be struck down, and judges, statesmen or administrators aren’t allowed to give reign to their racism, then the system should achieve racially just outcomes.  But even putting aside the fact that a removal of individual discretion is impossible, such a conception of “fairness” applies just as easily to producing sentencing minimums as school desegregation....

Murakawa does not simply collapse liberal and conservative into each other. She makes an important distinction between postwar racial-liberalism and postwar racial-conservatism. Race conservatives are those who don’t believe that racism is real, but that race is: they believe that black people are innately inferior to whites, and attribute their place in society to a failure of black culture. This race-conservatism is what is broadly considered “real racism.”

Race-liberalism, on the other hand, remains the dominant — and usually unspoken — American framework for understanding race.  Built on the premise that racism is real but manifests as the prejudice of white people, race-liberals argue that individuals’ racism can corrupt institutions and bias them against black people.  That bias damages black psyches as well as black people’s economic and social prospects.  Race-liberals believe that training, laws, stricter rules and oversight can eliminate prejudice and render institutions “colorblind.” Since it is biased treatment that damages black prospects, then this fix — civil rights — applied to all of society’s institutions, would eventually end racial disparity.

Both race-liberals and race-conservatives base their theories on one disastrous assumption: black people naturally produce crime.  For race-conservatives, black people are innately, genetically criminal, full stop.  For race-liberals, the psychological, economic and social damage of prejudice makes black people “lash out” violently and criminally–either in the form of individual criminal acts or, as the black freedom movement begins in earnest, as protests and rioting. Under both schema, however, the reason society must achieve racial equality is because equality will eliminate black crime.

January 9, 2015 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

"How to reduce poverty and improve race relations by rethinking our justice system"

The title of this post is the subheadline of this notable Politico commentary authored by Charles Koch and Mark Holden.  Here are excerpts:

As Americans, we like to believe the rule of law in our country is respected and fairly applied, and that only those who commit crimes of fraud or violence are punished and imprisoned.  But the reality is often different.  It is surprisingly easy for otherwise law-abiding citizens to run afoul of the overwhelming number of federal and state criminal laws.  This proliferation is sometimes referred to as “overcriminalization,” which affects us all, but most profoundly harms our disadvantaged citizens.

Overcriminalization has led to the mass incarceration of those ensnared by our criminal justice system, even though such imprisonment does not always enhance public safety. Indeed, more than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders.  Enforcing so many victimless crimes inevitably leads to conflict between our citizens and law enforcement.  As we have seen all too often, it can place our police officers in harm’s way, leading to tragic consequences for all involved.

How did we get in this situation?  It began with well-intentioned lawmakers who went overboard trying to solve perceived or actual problems.  Congress creates, on average, more than 50 new criminal laws each year.  Over time, this has translated into more than 4,500 federal criminal laws spread across 27,000 pages of the United States federal code. (This number does not include the thousands of criminal penalties in federal regulations.) As a result, the United States is the world’s largest jailer — first in the world for total number imprisoned and first among industrialized nations in the rate of incarceration....

We have paid a heavy price for mass incarceration and could benefit by reversing this trend.  It has been estimated that at least 53 percent of those entering prison were living at or below the U.S. poverty line when their sentence began.  Incarceration leads to a 40 percent decrease in annual earnings, reduced job tenure and higher unemployment.  A Pew Charitable Trust study revealed that two-thirds of former inmates with earnings in the bottom fifth upon release in 1986, remained at or below that level 20 years later.  A Villanova University study concluded that “had mass incarceration not occurred, poverty would have decreased by more than 20 percent, or about 2.8 percentage points” and “several million fewer people would have been in poverty in recent years.” African-Americans, who make up around 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for almost 40 percent of the inmates, are significantly affected by these issues.

According to Harvard sociologist Bruce Western: “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”...

Fixing our criminal system could reduce the overall poverty rate as much as 30 percent, dramatically improving the quality of life throughout society — especially for the disadvantaged.

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

January 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Congressional Black Caucus saying it will focus on criminal justice reform

I expect the next few years to be dynamic with respect to federal criminal justice reform, and this inside-the-Beltway story provides another reason why:

The Congressional Black Caucus will focus on criminal justice reform, U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina said in a speech on Tuesday at a ceremony where he was sworn in as the group’s new chairman. “There is a well-founded mistrust between the African American community and law enforcement officers,” Butterfield said in a speech. “The statistics are clear. Video clips are clear.

“We recognize that the overwhelming majority of law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to protect our communities. Unfortunately, there are some officers who abuse the sacred responsibility to protect and serve by using excessive, and sometimes deadly force when a less severe response is warranted,” the North Carolina Democrat said. “The CBC will seek legislative action to reverse this terrible trend.”

The Congressional Black Caucus also would work to try to change sentencing laws, hold prosecutors to ethical standards, and ensure that defendants have competent lawyers, Butterfield added....

The Congressional Black Caucus welcomed five new members at the ceremony where Butterfield spoke, including one Republican, conservative Mia Love of Utah, and Democratic Reps. Alma Adams of North Carolina, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, Brenda Lawrence of Michigan and Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

As I noted in this prior post, Mia Love, the first black Republican woman ever elected to Congress, could be an especially important voice on these issues if she embraces the CBC's commitment to making these matters a priority for reforms.

A few prior related posts:

January 7, 2015 in Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 05, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Emotion, Authority, and Death: (Raced) Negotiations in Mock Capital Jury Deliberations"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article discussing notable new capital jury deliberation research authored by Mona Lynch and Craig Haney and available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:

This article explores the role of emotion in the capital penalty-phase jury deliberations process. It is based on the qualitative analysis of data from ninety video-recorded four to seven person simulated jury deliberations that examined the influence of race on death sentencing outcomes.  The analysis explores when and how emotions are expressed, integrated into the jury’s sentencing process, and deployed in penalty-phase decision making.

The findings offer critical new insights into the role that emotion plays in influencing these legal judgments by revealing how jurors strategically and explicitly employ emotion in the course of deliberation, both to support their own positions and neutralize or rebut the opposing positions of others.  The findings also shed light on the various ways that white male capital jurors utilize a panoply of powerful emotion-based tactics to sway others to their position in a manner that often contributes to racially biased outcomes.

December 31, 2014 in Data on sentencing, Death Penalty Reforms, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Monday, December 29, 2014

Big talk from Charles Koch about big (money) criminal justice reform efforts

This lengthy article from the Wichita Eagle is garnering attention because of its report on who is now paying a lot of attention to criminal justice reform.  The piece is headlined "Charles Koch’s views on criminal justice system just may surprise you," and here are excerpts:

Of all the contentious history between Koch Industries and the U.S. government, the Corpus Christi, Texas, case from 1995 is the one that Charles Koch remembers most vividly. A federal grand jury indicted his company on 97 felonies involving alleged environmental crimes at an oil refinery.

Prosecutors dropped all but one of the charges six years later, after the company spent tens of millions of dollars defending itself. Ultimately, Koch Petroleum Group agreed to pay a $10 million settlement.

“It was a really, really torturous experience,” said Mark Holden, Koch’s chief counsel. “We learned first-hand what happens when anyone gets into the criminal justice system.” Holden said Charles Koch wondered afterward “how the little guy who doesn’t have Koch’s resources deals with prosecutions like that.”

No one at Koch wants to re-litigate the Corpus Christi case, Holden said. But it prompted Charles Koch to study the justice system — both federal and state — wondering whether it has been over-criminalized with too many laws and too many prosecutions of nonviolent offenders, not only for him but for everybody. His conclusion: Yes, it has.

Ten years ago, he began giving money to support efforts by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to help train defense lawyers and reverse what some see as a national trend to get tough on crime, which has resulted in the tripling of the incarceration rate since the 1980s and has stripped the poor of their rights to a legal defense. He’s going to give more to that effort, he said.

“Over the next year, we are going to be pushing the issues key to this, which need a lot of work in this country,” Koch said. “And that would be freedom of speech, cronyism and how that relates to opportunities for the disadvantaged.” The nation’s criminal justice system needs reform, “especially for the disadvantaged,” Koch said, “making it fair and making (criminal) sentences more appropriate to the crime that has been committed.”...

The Corpus Christi case led Charles Koch and his company to give money, starting about 10 years ago, to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The company and the association would not say how much Koch has given, but the amount totals in the seven figures, Holden said.

Campaigning against overcriminalization has prompted Koch to form unofficial alliances with people and organizations that usually champion liberal causes, including political activist George Soros and the American Civil Liberties Union, who are also campaigning for a reduction in prison populations....

Holden, Koch’s counsel ... said laws allow many crimes to be expunged from someone’s record. But that’s a tricky legal process, and many poor people don’t have the money to hire lawyers, he said. It makes no sense to give a life sentence like that to nonviolent offenders after they’ve served time, Holden said. “If you have a nonviolent felony and you get out of prison, we as a country can’t forgive and forget?” he asked.

Some prior related posts on Koch family efforts in support of criminal justice reform:

December 29, 2014 in Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Two astute commentaries about California's emerging Prop 47 issues

0Two local California paper have two distinct commentaries about Proposition 47 and its aftermath. Both are worth reading, and here are links and excerpts from the start and end of each piece:

Opinion by Alexandra Natapoff, headlined "Prop 47 empties prisons but opens a can of worms":

California is doubling down on decriminalization. Three weeks ago, the passage of Prop. 47 converted a half-dozen felonies to misdemeanors. In 2011, marijuana possession was reclassified from a misdemeanor to an infraction without jail time. If Rip Van Winkle fell asleep a decade ago at the height of California’s prison boom and woke up this morning, he’d quickly recognize this as a scramble to undo decades of harsh and expensive policy.

The state is not alone — we are seeing a seismic shift in how the United States handles punishment, especially with respect to misdemeanor decriminalization. Marijuana is the most famous example, but many states are eliminating jail time for other minor offenses, such as driving violations and public order crimes, and replacing them with so-called “nonjailable misdemeanors,” “nonarrestable” or “fine-only” offenses, and “civil infractions.”

There are a lot of great things about decriminalization. But it has a surprisingly punitive and racially charged dark side, and it doesn’t always work the way people think it does. The “non-jailable misdemeanor” — popular in many states — is still a crime that triggers arrest, probation and fines, criminal records and other collateral consequences. Even the gold standard of decriminalization — the “non-arrestable” civil infraction — can derail a defendant’s employment, education and immigration status, while the failure to pay noncriminal fines can lead to contempt citations and incarceration. And while decriminalization sounds egalitarian — after all, it’s a promise not to lock up people who would usually get locked up — sometimes it might actually make things worse for the poor and people of color....

It’s often hard to tell whether criminal justice reform is real progress or a shell game. Is California actually reducing incarceration, or is it quietly shifting prisoners around or repackaging punishment so as to avoid appointing lawyers for poor people? Decriminalization offers great promise, but it needs to be carefully monitored to make sure it lives up to its tantalizing name.

Editorial by Los Angeles Daily News, headlined "Prop. 47 sentencing changes are working out just as feared":

The saga of Proposition 47 and its troublesome implications is a crime story in which everybody left fingerprints except the real villains. The villains are California legislators, who kept their hands off the crucial challenge of criminal sentencing reform despite the need to address the state’s big problems with prison overcrowding and overly harsh policies that favor punishment over rehabilitation.

With lawmakers unwilling or unable to touch the issue, advocates picked it up and handed over the complex topic of sentencing reform to the public in the form of last month’s ballot initiative. Voters were asked to say yes or no to reducing felony sentences to misdemeanor penalties for many drug-possession and other criminal convictions.

The well-intended but dangerously flawed Prop. 47 passed easily with 59 percent of the vote. Now state and local legal authorities, including those in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, are having to confront the consequences....

In Humboldt County, the release of 35 percent of the county jail population has been accompanied by a reported rise in burglaries, thefts and vandalism. If that becomes a state trend, so much for Prop. 47 supporters’ title for the measure: The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act.

It’s possible Prop. 47’s troubles can be worked out and it will achieve its goals. When FiveThirtyEight.com’s data journalists analyzed outcomes in states that have undertaken similar sentencing reforms, they found more positive than negative results at reducing prison populations and incarceration costs.

But the results in California will bear watching. Gov. Jerry Brown, who had planned to issue prison-reform proposals in January, other state officials and legislators must be ready and willing to act to make this work. Of course, if lawmakers had been willing to tackle the issue earlier, we wouldn’t be in this situation now.

December 7, 2014 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

"Actually, Blacks Do Care About Black Crime"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Slate commentary by Jamelle Bouie. Here are excerpts: 

In cities across the country, crowds are protesting police violence against unarmed black men. Demonstrators want justice, not just for Michael Brown, but for Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed by Cleveland police last month.  To that end, they’ve stopped parades and blocked highways in an effort to show the value of a black life.

But to some critics, this outrage is misplaced.  “Somebody has to tell me, something somebody needs to tell me why Michael Brown has been chosen as the face of black oppression,” said MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on Monday morning, during his daily show.  His co-panelist, Donny Deutsch, agreed. “It’s not a black-white situation. It’s a thug-police officer situation,” he said. “Where are the angry crowds demanding justice for blacks such as these, who were wiped out in St. Louis by other blacks in recent memory?” wonders Deroy Murdock in a column for National Review. “One can hear birds chirp while listening for public outcry over the deaths of black citizens killed by black perpetrators. Somehow, these black lives don’t seem to matter,” writes Murdock, who doesn’t note that — in those cases — perpetrators are usually caught and convicted.  And then there’s former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who—after President Obama spoke on Ferguson — told CNN that “[Obama] also should have spent 15 minutes on training the [black] community to stop killing each other.”

This basic question — “Where is all the outrage over black-on-black crime?” — is raised whenever black Americans protest a police shooting, or any other violence against unarmed black men.  “Nationally, nearly half of all murder victims are black,” wrote conservative commentator Juan Williams after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, “And the overwhelming majority of those black people are killed by other black people. Where is the march for them?”...

[L]et’s look directly at the question raised by Murdock, Giuliani, and Williams — “Do black people care about crime in their neighborhoods?” They treat it as a rhetorical concern — a prelude to broad statements about black American concerns. But we should treat it as an empirical question — an issue we can resolve with some time and research.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. While blacks are more likely to face criminal victimization than other groups, that doesn’t tell us how black Americans feel about crime and where it ranks as a problem for their communities.  For that, we have to look to public opinion surveys and other research. And while it’s hard to draw a conclusive answer, all the available evidence points to one answer: Yes, black people are concerned with crime in their neighborhoods....

[W]hile black neighborhoods are far less dangerous than they were a generational ago, black people are still concerned with victimization.  Take this 2014 report from the Sentencing Project on perceptions of crime and support for punitive policies.  Using data from the University of Albany’s Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, the Sentencing Project found that — as a group — racial minorities are more likely than whites to report an “area within a mile of their home where they would be afraid to walk alone at night” (41 percent to 30 percent) and more likely to say there are certain neighborhoods they avoid, which they otherwise might want to go to (54 percent to 46 percent). And among black Americans in particular — circa 2003 — “43 percent said they were ‘very satisfied’ about their physical safety in contrast to 59 percent of Hispanics, and 63 percent of whites.”

More recent data shows a similar picture. In 2012, Gallup found that, compared to the general public, blacks were more worried about “being attacked” while driving their car, more worried about being the victim of a hate crime, and — most salient for our discussion — more worried about “being murdered.” Likewise, according to a 2013 survey for NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health, 26 percent of black Americans rank crime as the most important issue facing the area they live. That’s higher than the ranking for the economy (16 percent), housing (4 percent), the environment (7 percent), social issues (4 percent), and infrastructure (7 percent). And in a recently published survey for Ebony magazine and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 13 percent rank violent crime as a top issue — which sits in the middle of the rankings — and 48 percent say that the black community is losing ground on the issue.

Finally, Atlantic Media’s “State of the City” poll — published this past summer—shows an “urban minority” class that’s worried about crime, and skeptical toward law enforcement, but eager for a greater police presence if it means less crime.  Just 22 percent of respondents say they feel “very safe” walking in their neighborhoods after dark, and only 35 percent say they have “a lot” of confidence in their local police.  That said, 60 percent say hiring more police would have a “major impact” on improving safety in their neighborhoods.  And while “urban minority” includes a range of different groups, there’s a good chance this is representative of black opinion in some areas of high crime and victimization, given the large black presence in many American cities.

It’s important to note that this concern with crime doesn’t translate to support for punitive policies. Despite high victimization rates, black Americans are consistently opposed to harsh punishments and greater incarceration.  Instead, they support more education and job training.

Beyond the data, there’s the anecdotal evidence. And in short, it’s easy to find examples of marches and demonstrations against crime. In the last four years, blacks have held community protests against violence in Chicago; New York; Newark, New Jersey; Pittsburgh; Saginaw, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana. Indeed, there’s a whole catalog of movies, albums, and sermons from a generation of directors, musicians, and religious leaders, each urging peace and order. You may not have noticed black protests against crime and violence, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t happened. Black Americans — like everyone else — are concerned with what happens in their communities, and at a certain point, pundits who insist otherwise are either lying or willfully ignorant....

To that point, it’s worth noting the extent to which “what about black-on-black crime” is an evasion, an attempt to avoid the fundamental difference between being killed by a citizen and being killed by an agent of law.

December 2, 2014 in National and State Crime Data, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Senator Rand Paul links Ferguson tragedy to harms of the modern drug war

Regular readers know I am always interested in Senator Rand Paul's distinctive perspective on criminal justice issues.  This new Time op-ed, headlined "The Politicians Are To Blame in Ferguson," has Senator Paul touching on broader themes as he connects recent events in Ferguson with his belief in the need for systemic reforms to the US criminal justice system. Here are excerpts:

We are witnessing a tragedy in Ferguson. This city in Missouri has become a focal point for so much. The President and the late Michael Brown’s family have called for peace. I join their calls for peaceful protest, but also reiterate their call to action — “channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change.”

In the search for culpability for the tragedy in Ferguson, I mostly blame politicians. Michael Brown’s death and the suffocation of Eric Garner in New York for selling untaxed cigarettes indicate something is wrong with criminal justice in America.  The War on Drugs has created a culture of violence and put police in a nearly impossible situation.

In Ferguson, the precipitating crime was not drugs, but theft.  But the War on Drugs has created a tension in some communities that too often results in tragedy.  One need only witness the baby in Georgia, who had a concussive grenade explode in her face during a late-night, no-knock drug raid (in which no drugs were found) to understand the feelings of many minorities — the feeling that they are being unfairly targeted.

Three out of four people in jail for drugs are people of color.  In the African American community, folks rightly ask why are our sons disproportionately incarcerated, killed, and maimed?

African Americans perceive as true that their kids are more likely to be killed.  ProPublica examined 33 years of FBI data on police shootings, accounted for the racial make-up of the country, and determined that: “Young black males in recent years were at a far greater risk of being shot dead by police than their white counterparts — 21 times greater.”

Can some of the disparity be blamed on a higher rate of crime in the black community? Yes, but there is a gnawing feeling that simply being black in a high-crime area increases your risk for a deadly altercation with police.

Does bad behavior account for some of the interactions with law enforcement?  Yes, but surely there must be ways that we can work to prevent the violence from escalating....

Reforming criminal justice to make it racially blind is imperative, but that won’t lift up these young men from poverty.  In fact, I don’t believe any law will.  For too long, we’ve attached some mythic notion to government solutions and yet, 40 years after we began the War on Poverty, poverty still abounds.,,,

This message is not a racial one.  The link between poverty, lack of education, and children outside of marriage is staggering and cuts across all racial groups.  Statistics uniformly show that waiting to have children in marriage and obtaining an education are an invaluable part of escaping poverty....

I will continue to fight to end the racial disparities in drug sentencing.  I will continue to fight lengthy, mandatory sentences that prevent judges from using discretion.  I will continue to fight to restore voting rights for non-violent felons who’ve served their sentences.  But my hope is that out of tragedy, a preacher or teacher will arise — one who motivates and inspires all of us to discover traits, ambitions, and moral codes that have slowly eroded and left us empty with despair.

I will continue the fight to reform our nation’s criminal justice system, but in the meantime, the call should go out for a charismatic leader, not a politician, to preach a gospel of hope and prosperity.  I have said often America is in need of a revival.  Part of that is spiritual.  Part of that is in civics, in our leaders, in our institutions. We must look at policies, ideas, and attitudes that have failed us and we must demand better.

November 26, 2014 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Did Marijuana Kill Michael Brown?"

The title of this post is the headline of this provocative and interesting new piece by Jacob Sullum now up at Reason.  Here is how the piece starts and ends:

In a radio interview on August 18, a self-identified friend of Darren Wilson's reported that the police officer suspected Michael Brown was under the influence of drugs the day Wilson shot him to death in Ferguson, Missouri.  "He really thinks he was on something," the friend said, "because he just kept coming."  Wilson made no mention of that theory during his grand jury testimony on September 16, although he did liken Brown to a "demon" and Hulk Hogan, descriptions reminiscent of the evil and strength sometimes attributed to illegal drugs.

One challenge for anyone pushing a pharmacological explanation of Brown's alleged behavior: Despite speculation that he was on PCP, marijuana is the only drug that was detected in his blood.  Kathi Alizadeh and Sheila Whirley, the assistant county prosecutors who presented evidence to the grand jury, did what they could with pot, raising the possibility that Brown had smoked enough to experience "paranoia," "hallucinations," and maybe even a "psychotic episode." They planted that idea in jurors' heads mainly by presenting a toxicologist's misleading testimony about the amount of THC in Brown's blood and the possible effects of large doses....

The prosecutors spent considerable time insinuating that Brown had consumed cannabis in the form of the concentrate known as "wax," even though there does not seem to be any evidence that he did and even though it would not matter if he had.  If the issue is Brown's level of intoxication, the amount of material he burned to achieve it is irrelevant.  The testimony about wax looks like an attempt to exoticize a familiar drug that people do not usually associate with demonic rage or Hulk-like strength.

Then again, marijuana my be exotic enough as far as the prosecutors are concerned. "You explained that the Delta-9-THC has a psychoanalytic effect?"  Alizadeh said at one point. "Psychoactive," the toxicologist corrected her.  Later Whirley asked, "Could this amount of THC that was found in the blood be — is it possible that someone [could be] ingesting that amount on a regular basis and not be dead?" The toxicologist explained that "marijuana really isn't lethal."  Unless you smoke it before getting stopped by a cop, I guess.

November 25, 2014 in Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack

Rounding up some blogsphere reactions to events in Ferguson

In part because it is not a sentencing story, I have not had much to say about all the high-profile events in Ferguson, Missouri in recent months.  But, not surprisingly, a number of other notable criminal law bloggers have shared some thoughts on the no-indictment news and reactions thereto last night.  Here are some of the posts I have seen from bloggers I check out regularly (listed in alphabetical order):

November 25, 2014 in Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement"

The title of this post is the headline of this recent New York Times commentary by Brent Staples. Here are excerpts:

The state laws that barred nearly six million people with felony convictions from voting in the midterm elections this month date from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern lawmakers were working feverishly to neutralize the black electorate.  Poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and cross burnings were effective weapons in this campaign.  But statutes that allowed correctional systems to arbitrarily and permanently strip large numbers of people of the right to vote were a particularly potent tool in the campaign to undercut African-American political power.

This racially freighted system has normalized disenfranchisement in the United States — at a time when our peers in the democratic world rightly see it as an aberration. It has also stripped one in every 13 black persons of the right to vote — a rate four times that of nonblacks nationally.  At the same time, it has allowed disenfranchisement to move beyond that black population — which makes up 38 percent of those denied the vote — into the body politic as a whole.  One lesson here is that punishments designed for one pariah group can be easily expanded to include others as well....

Maine residents vigorously debated the issue last year, when the Legislature took up — and declined to pass — a bill that would have stripped the vote from some inmates, whose crimes included murder and other major felonies.  Families of murder victims argued that the killers had denied their loved ones the right to vote and therefore should suffer the same fate.

Those who opposed the bill made several arguments:  That the franchise is enshrined in the state Constitution and too important to withdraw on a whim;  that voting rights keep inmates connected to civic life and make it easier for them to rejoin society;  that the notion of restricting rights for people in prison was inconsistent with the values of the state.

A former United States marshal and police chief argued that revoking inmate voting rights would strip imprisoned people of dignity and make rehabilitation that much more difficult. The editorial page of The Bangor Daily News argued against revocation on the grounds that, “Removing the right of some inmates to exercise their legal responsibility as voters in a civilized society would undermine that civilized society.”

The fact that most states view people who have served time in prison as beyond the protection of the bedrock, democratic principle of the right to vote shows how terribly short this country has fallen from achieving its ideals.

November 20, 2014 in Collateral consequences, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack