Thursday, August 08, 2013
A preview of (big?) sentencing news coming soon from AG Eric HolderI am intrigued to see this notable new CNN report headlined "Justice plans sentencing changes for non-violent criminals." The report appears to provide a preview, of sorts, of a big speech discussing sentencing issues that Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to be making on Monday. Here are some of the details:
The Justice Department is preparing an overhaul of how federal prosecutors deal with non-violent criminal offenders in a move that could mark the end of the tough-on-crime era, which began with strict anti-drug laws in the 1970s and accelerated with mandatory minimum prison sentences and so-called three-strikes laws.
The idea is to change the type of sentences that prosecutors seek in cases where instead of prison, offenders could benefit from alternatives such as drug court, a Justice Department official said.
While more flexible approaches to crime have long held support among liberal Democrats, fear of being tarred as weak on crime by Republican opponents has long caused moderate Democrats, particularly those running for president, to avoid the issue.
In recent years, however, some conservatives have begun pushing for some changes, using some of a few of the same buzzwords -- prison-industrial complex, for one -- to describe the inflexibility of the current criminal justice system. That's in part because reducing the prison population also could be a way to reduce budgets and reduce the size of government. More than a third of the Justice Department's annual budget is spent on prisons and detention.
Attorney General Eric Holder is expected to announce the initiative at a speech in San Francisco on Monday. Obama administration officials say the changes they are pursuing will not require congressional approval, although some lawmakers are pushing proposals to take similar steps....
The administration plans to highlight how states such as Texas and Georgia, led by Republicans, are using alternatives to prison to address the issue. By leading the effort, Holder, who has been the focus of criticism for conservatives during his more than four years in office, could find himself on the same side as many of his fiercest Republican critics.
Critics say the current criminal justice system has become bloated with many offenders locked up for non-violent drug offenses or technical probation violations such as not checking in with probation officers, not for committing new crimes.
Holder in an April speech noted the huge economic burden that incarceration carries for federal, state and local budgets: $83 billion in 2009 alone.... Holder, in his April speech to the National Action Network founded by Rev. Al Sharpton, highlighted many of the problems conservatives also cite in the criminal justice system. He noted that many prisoners aren't rehabilitated in prison and reoffend within years of serving their sentences.
Wednesday, August 07, 2013
"With Holder In The Lead, Sentencing Reform Gains Momentum"The title of this post is the headline of this notable new NPR piece, which includes lots of notable quotes from Attorney General Eric Holder. Here are excerpts:
Sit down with the attorney general to ask him about his priorities, , and he'll talk about voting rights and national security. But if you listen a bit longer, Eric Holder gets to this: "I think there are too many people in jail for too long and for not necessarily good reasons."
This is the nation's top law enforcement officer calling for a sea change in the criminal justice system. And he's not alone. Over the past few weeks, lawmakers have introduced bipartisan measures that would give judges more power to shorten prison sentences for nonviolent criminals and even get rid of some mandatory minimum terms altogether.
"The war on drugs is now 30, 40 years old," Holder said. "There have been a lot of unintended consequences. There's been a decimation of certain communities, in particular communities of color."
That's one reason why the Justice Department's had a group of lawyers working behind the scenes for months on proposals the attorney general could present as early as next week in a speech to the American Bar Association in San Francisco.
Some of the items are changes Holder can make on his own, such as directing U.S. attorneys not to prosecute certain kinds of low-level drug crimes or spending money to send more defendants into treatment instead of prison. Almost half of the 219,000 people currently in federal prison are serving time on drug charges.
"Well we can certainly change our enforcement priorities, and so we have some control in that way," Holder said. "How we deploy our agents, what we tell our prosecutors to charge, but I think this would be best done if the executive branch and the legislative branch work together to look at this whole issue and come up with changes that are acceptable to both."
Late last week, two senators — Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin and Utah Republican Mike Lee — moved in that direction. Their bill, called the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013, would give judges more discretion to sentence nonviolent criminals below the so-called mandatory minimums. It would also lower mandatory minimums for several drug crimes to lower costs and cut down on crowding in a prison system that's estimated to be operating at 40 percent over capacity.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, says he'll hold a hearing on mandatory minimums next month. "They all sound like a great stop-crime idea when they were passed," Leahy said on the C-SPAN Newsmakers program Sunday. "Most of them sound better on paper than in practice."
His partner in that effort is Republican Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite from Kentucky. They've introduced their own legislation, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, to give judges more power to impose lower sentences — and not just in drug crimes. "Doing away with mandatory minimums, giving more discretion to judges, that shouldn't be Republican or Democrat," Leahy added. "It just makes good sense."
The idea has already taken off in nearly two dozen states including Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas, where it won support from prominent conservatives including Grover Norquist, part of a coalition known as Right on Crime. "It's easier to say, 'Let's spend a few dollars a day managing you at your home where you can spend time with your family, where you can work, instead of hundreds of dollars a day, keeping you in a cell,'" Norquist said in a video on the group's web site.
And the Justice Department explicitly pointed to state reform efforts in a letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission in July. The old system, wrote official Jonathan Wroblewski, is being replaced with the idea that budgets are "finite," prison is a power that should be "exercised sparingly and only as necessary" and that "reducing reoffending and promoting effective reentry are core goals."
August 7, 2013 in Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack
Monday, August 05, 2013
Dying in federal prison, Lynne Stewart now arguing for compassionate releaseAs reported in this notable new New York Times piece, headlined "Dying Lawyer Asks Judge to Free Her From Prison," the last case being argued by a famous defense lawyer appears to be her own effort to avoid dying in prison. Here are the details:
Lynne F. Stewart, the outspoken former defense lawyer and a polarizing figure in the criminal justice system, is fighting her final battle.
In her long career as a lawyer, she came to be known as a brash and tireless champion of unpopular clients, including Mafia hit men like Salvatore Gravano and terrorist defendants like Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind cleric convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks.
It was that case that led to her own incarceration: she was convicted of smuggling messages from the imprisoned sheik to his violent followers in Egypt, and was sentenced in 2010 to 10 years in prison.
Now, 73 years old and dying from cancer in a prison hospital in Texas, Ms. Stewart has asked a judge to vacate her sentence after the Federal Bureau of Prisons rejected her request for a “compassionate release” under a program for terminally ill inmates.
“Isolated, in hospital, as I now am, I have time to contemplate life and death,” Ms. Stewart said recently in 12-page handwritten letter to the judge. “I do not intend to go ‘gently into that good night,’ as Dylan Thomas wrote. There is much to be done in this world.”
“I do know,” she added, “that I do not want to die here in prison — a strange and loveless place. I want to be where all is familiar — in a word, home.”
The release of a dying inmate must follow a request by the bureau that seeks a compassionate release from a judge. In weighing the issue, the bureau considers the inmate’s condition and whether the inmate could pose a threat outside prison, and also consults with prosecutors, said Ed Ross, a prisons spokesman.
But with the bureau’s rejection, Ms. Stewart’s lawyer, Jill R. Shellow, has gone directly to the judge who sentenced her client, John G. Koeltl of Federal District Court, asking for his help. In court papers, Ms. Shellow says that the circumstances of her client’s imprisonment — having to use a walker to get around, and being placed in shackles, a belly chain and handcuffs when she is transported to an outside cancer center — are “cruel and unusual and excessive” punishment, one of the grounds for which she is seeking Ms. Stewart’s release.
“This is not about the underlying crime,” Ms. Shellow said in a phone interview. “It has nothing to do with Lynne’s conduct. This has to do with how we as a society treat human beings who are dying.”
A spokeswoman for the United States attorney’s office declined to comment. In a brief proceeding last week, which was packed with Ms. Stewart’s supporters, a prosecutor, Andrew S. Dember, said a Bureau of Prisons decision about whether to ask a judge for a compassionate release “is totally their discretion, and is unreviewable by a court.” Judge Koeltl said he would hear arguments on the matter on Thursday....
Mr. Ross, the prisons spokesman, declined to comment on Ms. Stewart’s case, but he said that under new guidelines, prisons officials could now consider for compassionate release inmates with a “terminal, incurable disease whose life expectancy is 18 months or less.” The old policy was 12 months or less, he said.
Ms. Stewart was found to have breast cancer in November 2005; she underwent surgery and a course of radiation followed by hormone therapy that lasted for five years, her lawyer said in court papers. In July 2012, the medical staff at her prison, the Federal Medical Center Carswell, in Fort Worth, detected a mass in her left lung; doctors eventually determined that she had metastatic cancer that had spread to her lungs, lymph system and bones, the papers say.
In April of this year, she filed a formal request with Carswell’s warden for compassionate release, citing her illness and proposing that she be sent to Brooklyn to live with her son and his wife. Under the policy, the Bureau of Prisons must find “extraordinary and compelling” circumstances to justify making such a request to a judge, who has the final say.
In May, the warden recommended that Ms. Stewart’s request be granted, but it was rejected by the bureau in June. It said she was responding well to treatment, was ambulatory and was not suffering from a condition that was terminal within 18 months, the papers say.
Ms. Stewart is asking the bureau to reconsider, Ms. Shellow said on Monday. In her papers, Ms. Shellow argued that the bureau should have given Judge Koeltl the opportunity to act on Ms. Stewart’s application. The papers also cite a recent report by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General, which criticized the Bureau of Prisons for its management of the compassionate release program and said it lacked standards for how much time it took to review inmate requests.
Mr. Ross said the agency had taken steps to expedite the handling of cases. He said that in 2012, the bureau submitted about 40 requests for compassionate release to judges, and all were approved.
Two sharp crime and punishment commentaries from Andrew CohenAndrew Cohen always has sharp and important things to say on a variety of legal and criminal justice issues. But today he is in especially strong form in these two potent commentaries appearing today via The Atlantic:
The Irony of Justice Scalia's California Prison Rant; His dissenting opinion on Brown v. Plata has nothing to do with the subject at hand: prisoners and the Eighth Amendment.
On the Death of John Ferguson; When the sun rose this morning you had every reason to believe that the Eighth Amendment precludes the execution of the insane. When the sun sets tonight you have no such reason to so believe.
Though I am not sure I agree with everything that appears in both of these columns, I am sure that I appreciate the passion and forcefulness with which Andrew Cohen is writing on topics that call for considerably more attention than they are given by most of the media punditry.
Friday, August 02, 2013
To some Justices' chagrin, SCOTUS refuses to delay latest California prison release orderAs reported here by Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSblog, the "Supreme Court, over three Justices’ dissents, on Friday afternoon refused to delay a lower court order requiring California state prisons to release nearly 10,000 inmates by the end of this year, to relieve overcrowding." Here is more:
In an order containing no explanation, the Court majority denied state officials’ plea to keep the release order on hold until it could be challenged on appeal. The Supreme Court’s ruling did not even mention state officials’ plea to grant full-scale review of the order.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a bitterly worded dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, called the three-judge District Court’s release mandate a “terrible injunction” that will have the grave consequence of releasing many dangerous prisoners. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., noted simply that he would grant a postponement.
The Scalia dissent condemned what he called “the Power of the Black Robe” in broadly expanding judicial power, and then hinting at limitations “that make it seem not so bad.” He was referring to the Court’s ruling in this same case, two years ago, suggesting that the state might seek and get some relief from an earlier release order. “Comes the moment of truth,” Scalia wrote, “the hinted-at limitation proves a sham.” The District Court judges, he suggested, have now called the Court’s earlier “bluff” and ordered further releases.
State officials, the dissenters argued, had come forward with evidence that they have “made meaningful progress” in relieving the serious overcrowding in the state’s 34 adult prisons, and thus it was unnecessary for additional releases to be made....
Before the latest release order, which is expected to require opening the prison gates to some 9,600 inmates, the state already had released about 37,000 inmates. Officials claimed, in their new challenge, that the only prisoners who could be released to comply to the new mandate are those convicted of very serious crimes.
The state’s challenge to the latest order was filed with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who handles emergency legal matters from the geographic area that includes California — the Ninth Circuit. Kennedy referred it to the full Court, resulting in the denial issued Friday.
Although the voting of the Justices was not spelled out in the order, it appeared that it had been joined by Kennedy, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor.
The state’s challenge had been pending at the Court for more than three weeks; it was filed July 10. The delay in resolving it may have been due to the fact that members of the Court, now in their summer recess, have been traveling.
The brief order from the Court, along with Justice Scalia's three-page dissent, is available at this link.
"Sentencing Reform Starts to Pay Off"The title of this post is the headline of this (too short) new New York Times editorial. Here is the text:
As my many blog posts highlight, there is a lot more which can and needs to be said concerning all the topics that this editorial touches upon. But I am very pleased to see that the Times is noticing the impact of recent federal sentencing reforms and call for more.
In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the vast disparity in the way the federal courts punish crack versus powder cocaine offenses. Instead of treating 100 grams of cocaine the same as 1 gram of crack for sentencing purposes, the law cut the ratio to 18 to 1. Initially, the law applied only to future offenders, but, a year later, the United States Sentencing Commission voted to apply it retroactively. Republicans raged, charging that crime would go up and that prisoners would overwhelm the courts with frivolous demands for sentence reductions. Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said the commission was pursuing “a liberal agenda at all costs.”
This week, we began to learn that there are no costs, only benefits. According to a preliminary report released by the commission, more than 7,300 federal prisoners have had their sentences shortened under the law. The average reduction is 29 months, meaning that over all, offenders are serving roughly 16,000 years fewer than they otherwise would have. And since the federal government spends about $30,000 per year to house an inmate, this reduction alone is worth nearly half-a-billion dollars — big money for a Bureau of Prisons with a $7 billion budget. In addition, the commission found no significant difference in recidivism rates between those prisoners who were released early and those who served their full sentences.
Federal judges nationwide have long expressed vigorous disagreement with both the sentencing disparity and the mandatory minimum sentences they are forced to impose, both of which have been drivers of our bloated federal prison system. But two bipartisan bills in Congress now propose a cheaper and more humane approach. It would include reducing mandatory minimums, giving judges more flexibility to sentence below those minimums, and making more inmates eligible for reductions to their sentences under the new ratio.
But 18 to 1 is still out of whack. The ratio was always based on faulty science and misguided assumptions, and it still disproportionately punishes blacks, who make up more than 80 percent of those prosecuted for federal crack offenses. The commission and the Obama administration have called for a 1-to-1 ratio. The question is not whether we can afford to do it, but whether we can afford not to.
August 2, 2013 in New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Thursday, August 01, 2013
Senators Durbin and Lee come together to introduce "Smarter Sentencing Act"As reported via this press release from the offices of Senator Dick Durbin, another notable pair of Senators from the two parties have put aside other differences to come together to support and promote federal sentencing reform. (Since the press release comes from Senator Durbin's office, I have Senator Lee's picture posted.) Here are the basics:
With federal prison populations skyrocketing and nearly half of the nation’s federal inmates serving sentences for drug offenses, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin (D-IL), Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) have introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, to modernize our drug sentencing polices by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent offenses. Making these incremental and targeted changes could save taxpayers billions in the first years of enactment.
“Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses have played a huge role in the explosion of the U.S. prison population,” Durbin said. “Once seen as a strong deterrent, these mandatory sentences have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, judges should be given the authority to conduct an individualized review in sentencing certain drug offenders and not be bound to outdated laws that have proven not to work and cost taxpayers billions.”
“Our current scheme of mandatory minimum sentences is irrational and wasteful,” Lee said. “By targeting particularly egregious mandatory minimums and returning discretion to federal judges in an incremental manner, the Smarter Sentencing Act takes an important step forward in reducing the financial and human cost of outdated and imprudent sentencing polices.”
The United States has seen a 500 percent increase in the number of inmates in federal custody over the last 30 years, in large part due to the increasing number and length of certain federal mandatory sentences. Mandatory sentences, particularly drug sentences, can force a judge to impose a one-size-fits-all sentence without taking into account the details of an individual case. Many of these sentences have disproportionately affected minority populations and helped foster deep distrust of the criminal justice system.
This large increase in prison populations has also put a strain on our prison infrastructure and federal budgets. The Bureau of Prisons is nearly 40 percent over capacity and this severe overcrowding puts inmates and guards at risk. There is more than 50 percent overcrowding at high-security facilities. This focus on incarceration is also diverting increasingly limited funds from law enforcement and crime prevention to housing inmates. It currently costs nearly $30,000 to house just one federal inmate for a year. There are currently more than 219,000 inmates in federal custody, nearly half of them serving sentences for drug offenses.
The bipartisan Durbin-Lee-Leahy bill is an incremental approach that does not abolish any mandatory sentences. Rather, it takes a studied and modest step in modernizing drug sentencing policy by:
• Modestly expanding the existing federal “safety valve”....
• Promoting sentencing consistent with the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act: The bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 – which was authored by Senator Durbin and unanimously passed the Senate before it was signed into law – reduced a decades-long sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses. Unfortunately, because of the timing of their sentences, some individuals are still serving far-too-lengthy sentences that Congress has already determined are unjust and racially disparate. The Smarter Sentencing Act allows certain inmates sentenced under the pre-Fair Sentencing Act sentencing regime to petition for sentence reductions consistent with the Fair Sentencing Act and current law....
• Increasing individualized review for certain drug sentences: The Smarter Sentencing Act lowers certain drug mandatory minimums, allowing judges to determine, based on individual circumstances, when the harshest penalties should apply. The Act does not repeal any mandatory minimum sentences and does not lower the maximum sentences for these offenses....
The bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act is supported by faith leaders from the National Association of Evangelicals to the United Methodist Church. It is supported by groups and individuals including Heritage Action, Justice Fellowship of Prison Fellowship Ministries, the ACLU, Grover Norquist, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, the Sentencing Project, Open Society Policy Center, the American Bar Association, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Constitution Project, Drug Policy Alliance, Brennan Center for Justice, and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
I am going to need to see the text of this new bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act before opining about whether it is a terrific reform proposal or just a very good one. But, even without seeing the specifics, I can note and praise the willingness and ability for these Senators, who likely do not agree on too many issues, coming together to give effect to their shared view that the federal sentencing system need to be made smarter.
Some recent and older related posts about the new federal politics of sentencing:
- "Right on Crime: The Conservative Case for Reform" officially launches
- "NAACP, right-wing foes get friendly" when it comes to prison costs
- "Conservatives latch onto prison reform"
- NAACP head recognizes Tea Party favors some progressive criminal justice reforms (and sometimes more than Democrats)
- "Prison-Sentence Reform: A bill to give judges flexibility to impose shorter sentences deserves conservatives’ support."
- Wall Street Journal pitch for the Prez to get behind the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013
- Justice Safety Valve Act gets bipartisan introduction in House of Representatives
- "Bipartisan Legislation To Give Judges More Flexibility For Federal Sentences Introduced"
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Another notable GOP member of Congress advocating for federal sentencing reform
- "As Prisons Squeeze Budgets, GOP Rethinks Crime Focus"
- Could significant federal criminal justice reforms become more likely if the GOP wins Senate in 2014?
August 1, 2013 in Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (19) | TrackBack
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
New USSC data on implimentation and impact of retroactive crack guidelines after FSA
I just noticed on the US Sentencing Commission's website this new data report carrying the title "Preliminary Crack Retroactivity Data Report; Fair Sentencing Act." This report, dated July 2013, appears to be the latest accounting of who has (and has not) received the benefit of retroactive application of the 2011 amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines for crack offenses which implemented the new 18-1 crack/powder ratio that Congress created via the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.
Based on the information reflected in Tables 1 amd 8 of this data report, it appears that just over 7300 defendants received, on average, a 29-month reduction in their crack sentences thanks to the new FSA-inspired crack guidelines being made retroactive. Significantly, this average reduction merely lowered the average crack sentence from roughly 12.5 years to just over 10 years for the group receiving sentence reductions; this means that even the new-average-lowered sentence for crack offenses were still significantly higher that the average sentences imposed for any other federal drug crimes.
For those eager to gauge the potential economic impact of FSA retroactivity, it appears that the retroactive guidelines as implemented has now saved almost 16,000 cumulative years of federal imprisonment, with a consequent savings to federal taxpayers of approximately a half-billion dollars (based on a conservative estimate of a taxpayer cost of roughly $30,000 per prisoner for each year of federal incarceration). And for those concerned about racial sentencing dynamics, Table 5 of this data reports that more than 85% of those benefiting from reduced crack sentences have been black prisoners, demonstrating once again the historically racialized reality of federal crack prosecutions.
As I have said in prior posts, if those defendants who received reduced sentences find ways to become productive (and tax-paying) citizens, the benefits to society will profoundly transcend the saved incarceration costs. And it those defendants do not learn the error of their law-breaking ways, I both expect and hope they will really get the sentencing book thrown at them if ever up for sentencing again.
July 30, 2013 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
"Prisons are shrinking. That won’t necessarily last."The title of this post is the headline of this recent notable essay by Mike Konczal posted on-line via the Washington Post. Here is how it starts:
The Bureau of Justice Statistics on Thursday released its count of the number of prisoners in the country. There are 1,571,013 individuals under the jurisdiction of state and federal correctional authorities. However, that number represents a decline, having fallen 1.7 percent since last year — the third consecutive annual drop and the largest of the three. This multi-year falling trend is also true if you consider everyone in the correctional system, or the nearly 7 million people you get when you include local jails, probation and parole. This is after decades of rapidly expanding prisoner populations in the United States.
Meanwhile, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the nation’s leading provider of private, for-profit prisons, had a happy announcement in a recent PowerPoint presentation: State budgets will soon be no longer in crisis. One must imagine that CCA shareholders who are U.S. residents were excited that school budgets would no longer be slashed, public services more broadly would no longer be cut, and the dangerous state-level austerity holding back the economy would no longer be an issue. But the real excitement was over the idea that states could finally start arresting people again, thus filling the depleted ranks of the incarcerated.
Liberals debate the longer-term consequences of the past five years all the time. Is the financial sector well-regulated again? Did we roll back the expansive executive authority of the War on Terror, or solidify it? Did we invest enough in infrastructure when interest rates were at all-time lows? But a major question is still open for debate: Did collapse of state budgets during the Great Recession put us on a permanent path to rolling back the United States’ high levels of incarceration?
Monday, July 29, 2013
New Slate pitch for Prez to use clemency powers to address crack sentencing disparitiesThanks to the suggestions, and insights and energy of Harlan Protass, a criminal-defense lawyer in New York and an adjunct professor at the Cardozo School of Law, some ideas expressed in this recent post concerning the President Obama's words and (lack of) actions now find expression in this new Slate commentary. Here is how the piece, co-written by me and Harlan, starts and finishes:
President Barack Obama, commenting last week on George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Trayvon Martin’s death, remarked on “a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” A few months earlier, Attorney General Eric Holder similarly lamented new government data suggesting that even today “black male offenders” are sentenced to federal prison terms “nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.” These statements reveal that our nation’s first African-American president and first African-American attorney general are aware of serious racial discrimination in the administration of our nation’s criminal laws. The question is what they plan to do about it?
Neither the president, nor his attorney general, has followed-up or suggested a fix for the problem. Yet with one signature, Obama could make a remarkable difference: He could use his constitutional powers to commute the sentences of thousands of disproportionately black inmates serving excessive prison terms for crack cocaine offenses. Put bluntly, rather than dropping occasional comments about high-profile criminal-justice incidents with racial overtones, both the president and the attorney general should make a focused and sustained effort to redress longstanding criminal justice disparities....
Back in 2009, Holder famously described us as a “nation of cowards” in dealing with race issues. And while both Holder and the president seem to have the courage to speak about high-profile cases, they have yet to show the fortitude and focus needed to turn high-profile controversies into constructive opportunities. If President Obama is genuinely committed to addressing racial disparities in the enforcement of our criminal laws, he can grant clemency today, and then make a sustained commitment to addressing these issues throughout his second term. If he fails to do so, he can, justifiably, be called our nation’s “Coward-in-Chief” where race is concerned.
July 29, 2013 in Clemency and Pardons, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (33) | TrackBack
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Is 898-year federal sentence symbolic and meaningful or senseless and misguided?The question in the title of this post is prompted by this federal sentencing story out of Texas, headlined "Victim Assaulted by Fake Producer Finds Closure in Sentencing," which was sent my way by Josh Blackman. Here are the basics:
898 years is what a Gemase Lee Simmons will now have to serve for 39 counts of various bank fraud and child pornography offenses. Simmons would tell young men and women that he had a modeling agency and as part of their "sessions" would take naked pictures of some of them.
Bianca Love, a victim, told the judge in federal court that Simmons had scammed her out of money and sex.
Jailers also informed the judge that while waiting for his sentencing Simmons had managed to get other sexual predators to perform sex acts on him. According to investigators Simmons told 2 other prisoners that it was part of a test the U.S. Attorney's Office administered. Simmons told them he would help them to pass it so they would get less time.
For a much more literary account of this case, I discovered this fascinating opinion discussing the defendant and his crimes. The opinion is authored by Chief District Judge Fred Biery (WD Texas) to explain his conclusion, after a bench trial, that Simmons was guilty of all the counts against him (and likely many more). This opinion is a must read in part because, in less than four pages, it makes reference to, inter alia, The Wizard of Oz, Catch Me if You Can, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Dante's Inferno. In addition, in response to a quote from the defendant's trial testimony, the judge in this opinion drops a footnote which simply reads: "LOL".
Though I really enjoyed reading the opinion linked above and I can see why Chief Judge Biery was eager to throw the book at Gemase Lee Simmons, I still question the decision to impose a sentence of 898 years. (In addition, as Josh suggested to me, such an extreme sentence might give the defendant here a non-frivolous claim on appeal that his sentence is unreasonable.) I tend not to be a fan of legal fictions or of treating the imposition of hundreds of years in prison as just numbers on a page. While I suspect that a life sentence was not possible because none of the charges carried such a statutory term, I also suspect that a potent message without such a crazy number would have been sent had Chief Judge Biery imposed a terms of, say, 100 years.
That all said, the fact that Chief Judge Biery imposed a sentence of 898 years caught Josh's attention and mind, and perhaps that was part of what Chief Judge Biery hoped to achieve with this remarkable sentencing term. And if Chief Judge Biery were to write another sensational (and short) opinion to explain his lastest decision in this case, I might well come to the conclusion that the societal ends justify the sentencing means here.
Friday, July 26, 2013
New BJS data show continued 2012 decline in state prison populations (and continued federal increase)As detailed in this official press release from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which carries the heading "U.S. Prison Population Declined for Third Consecutive Year During 2012," the impact of tight budgets and state reforms continues to impact national prison populations in important and significant ways. Here are the basic details:
The U.S. prison population declined 1.7 percent (or by 27,770 inmates) from 2011 to 2012, falling to an estimated 1,571,013 prisoners.... Nine states had a decrease of over 1,000 prisoners in 2012: California, Texas, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, New York, Florida, Virginia and Maryland.
This is the third consecutive year of a decline in the number of state prisoners, which represents a shift in the direction of incarceration practice in the states over the past 30 years. The prison population grew every year between 1978 and 2009, from 307,276 prisoners in 1978 to a high of 1,615,487 prisoners in 2009....
California accounted for the majority (51 percent) of the decline in state prisoners with 15,035 fewer inmates in 2012 than 2011. The decline in California was due in part to its Public Safety Realignment policy, which was designed to reduce overcrowding in the state prisons by diverting new admissions of “nonserious, nonsex, nonviolent offenders” from state prisons to local jails.
The decline in the state prison population was offset by an increase in the number of federal inmates. The federal prison population grew by 0.7 percent (or 1,453 inmates) during 2012, a slower rate than the average annual increase of 3.2 percent each year over the past 10 years.
The U.S. imprisonment rate dropped to 480 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2012, continuing a decline since 2007. The national imprisonment rate for males (910 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 male U.S. residents) was over 14 times the imprisonment rate for females (63 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 female U.S. residents). The female imprisonment rate decreased 2.9 percent in 2012 from 65 per 100,000 female U.S. residents in 2011.
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 per 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).
In 2011 (the most recent data available), the majority (53 percent) of sentenced state prisoners were serving time for a violent offense, including robbery (14 percent), murder or nonnegligent manslaughter (12 percent), rape or sexual assault (12 percent) and aggravated or simple assault (10 percent). About 18 percent were serving time for property offenses, 17 percent for drug crimes and 11 percent for public order offenses, such as weapon violations, drunk driving, commercialized vice and court offenses.
White prisoners comprised 35 percent of the 2011 state prison population, while black prisoners were 38 percent and Hispanics were 21 percent. The percentage of Hispanic inmates sentenced for violent offenses (58 percent) during 2011 exceeded that of non-Hispanic black (56 percent) and non-Hispanic white (49 percent) inmates, while the number of black inmates imprisoned for violent crimes (284,631) surpassed that of white (228,782) or Hispanic (162,489) inmates.
The number of white inmates sentenced for property crime (108,560) was larger than the number of black (78,197) and Hispanic (38,264) inmates sentenced for property crime, while more black inmates were sentenced for drug offenses than inmates of other races or Hispanic origin.
All of this data, and lots more of note, can be found via this 17-page BJS report, which carries the thrilling title "Prisoners in 2012 - Advance Counts." Effective media coverage of this notable new prisoner data can be found via this New York Times article headlined "U.S. Prison Populations Decline, Reflecting New Approach to Crime."
If you have any concerns about female federal prisoners...
then you should be especially troubled by this new blog post by Todd Bussert titled "New Hardships For Female Prisoners." That post spotlights this new Slate piece by LawProf Judith Resnik, which highlights the main concern via its headline and subheading: "Harder Time: Why are the federal prison beds for women in the Northeast going to men — while the women get shipped to Alabama?". Here is an excerpt from the Slate piece:
This August, the Federal Bureau of Prisons plans to start shipping women out of its only prison for women in the Northeast, located in Danbury, Conn. — 70 miles from New York City, and in easy reach of visitors for the many prisoners who come from there.
Danbury (where Piper Kerman, who wrote Orange is the New Black, did her time) will soon have only 200 spots for women (in a separate low-security camp). The prison’s other 1,100 beds will go to men. Most of the women are slated to be sent to a new 1,800-bed facility in Aliceville, Ala. — 1,070 miles from New York City, a drive that takes nearly 16 hours.
Becoming the site of a new federal prison is good news for Aliceville, population 2,500. As a New York Times editorial explained last year, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby promoted the facility as an economic boost to the area. It cost the federal government $250 million. But as the newspaper also commented, the government bought a “white elephant.” Aliceville is hard for anyone without a car to get to. There is no train station or airport nearby. Aliceville has no medical center or university, nor many lawyers, religious leaders, or other service providers.
The federal Bureau of Prisons houses about 220,000 people. Fewer than 7 percent (about 14,500) are women, most of them sentenced for nonviolent crimes, such as drug offenses. Of the 116 facilities the bureau runs, 27 have some beds for women, and seven — counting Danbury — have been exclusively for women. Danbury is the only prison placement in the Northeast for women. The federal jails in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia are for pretrial detainees. Other federal facilities for women comparable to Danbury are many miles away, in West Virginia, Florida, and Minnesota....
Being moved far from home limits the opportunities of women being moved out of Danbury; it hurts them in prison and once they get out. Recent research from Michigan and Ohio documents that inmates who receive regular visits are less likely to have disciplinary problems while in prison and have better chances of staying out of prison once released.
The Bureau of Prisons knows this, as it recognizes the importance of “family and community ties” in its classification system. The bureau gives inmates points for family ties when assessing the degree of security in which to place individuals. Getting visits also counts toward qualifying for a transfer to a less secure facility.
Most women come to prison from households with children. According to the National Women’s Law Center, more than one-half of female federal prisoners have a child under the age of 18. Last month, the director of the federal prison system sent a memo to all inmates to announce that his staff was “committed to giving you opportunities to enhance your relationship with your children and your role as a parent.” In addition to letters and calls, he hoped that inmates’ families would bring their children to visit. “There is no substitute for seeing your children, looking them in the eye, and letting them know you care about them,” he wrote.
But for prisoners from New England and the mid-Atlantic states, the move to Aliceville closes off those possibilities. Placement in Aliceville also makes it harder for lawyers to see their clients and provide help on problems ranging from losing custody of children to challenging convictions.
What’s the justification for moving Danbury’s women to Aliceville? To make the argument for the large new complex, the Bureau of Prison claimed that Aliceville would benefit women, because the existing facilities for them were about 55 percent over capacity. What the BOP did not mention was that it planned to turn over women’s beds in Danbury to make room for lower security male inmates, also housed in overcrowded facilities.
The skyrocketing numbers of people in prison is a well-known tragedy. Adding to it is the isolation to which women at Aliceville are being condemned. The Bureau of Prisons itself describes women as mostly nonviolent and lower escape risks than men. Why not, therefore, keep Danbury open, as well as send women to community-based facilities near their families, and provide educational options, job training, and treatment programs? Instead of taking a route consistent with its own policies, and newly announced commitments to parenting by prisoners, the government is sending hundreds of women on a long hard trip to Aliceville.
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Two notable new ACLU reports on solitary confinement in US prisonsI am pleased to see that lots of criminal justice public policy groups are starting to spend considerable more time and energy raising concerns about the use and misuse of solitary confinement in US prisons. Of particular recent note are these two new ACLU reports on the topic just this week:
From the national ACLU chapter, "A Death Before Dying: Solitary Confinement on Death Row"
From the ACLU of Colorado, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Colorado’s continued warehousing of mentally ill prisoners in solitary confinement"
Monday, July 22, 2013
"Mass Incarceration and the Making of Citizens"The title of this post is the title of this intriguing essay by Benjamin Justice now available via SSRN. Here is the abstract:
In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu famously observed that the legal system of a given state ought to exist in harmony with its overall organization of power. In a republic, he argued, the people are sovereign. Thus there must be laws regulating mass education to enhance civic virtue, teaching the people to love the laws of their country above their individual self interest. The laws of crime and punishment, too, must comport with the spirit of the government they support. In a healthy republic, wrote Montesquieu, a virtuous people require little punishment.
If Montesquieu is correct, the rise of the American carceral state signals a profound challenge to the democratic nature of our government. This essay reviews three recent books on the rise of the carceral state as part of a broader discussion of the role of criminal justice in making citizens.
Notable new commentaries about realignment in California
Via two notable sources are these two notable new discussions about sentencing and corrections in California:
From The Crime Report here, "Realignment in California: The Story So Far"
From the Vera Institute of Justice here, "The unfulfilled promise of Realignment in California"
"A few shotgun shells landed a man 15 years in federal prison"The title of this post is the headline of this remarkable federal sentencing story out of Tennessee. Here are the details:
In some cases, old mistakes echo across the years. New sins carry the crushing weight of an old life. In some cases, a criminal past is not forgiven.
Months before he left state prison on burglary convictions in 1996, Edward Lamar Young told his grandmother he was going to be a different man. He would get work, get married and have a family. The 26-year-old wouldn't steal to get what he needed or wanted. And soon after he left prison bars behind he fulfilled that promise. He met and married a woman named Stacy. The couple had four children.
But in late September 2011, he went off track. He stole tools, tires and weightlifting equipment from vehicles and a business warehouse. He even had his son with him on one trip, which added a separate charge. A video camera recorded the burglaries. Less than a week later police knocked on the door of his Hixson home. He let them in. They found the tools, but they found something else too, small items inside a drawer that would escalate his punishment far beyond burglary.
Young admits he's done bad things, but he says he's never carried a weapon, never shed another person's blood. But because of what police found at his house that day -- seven shotgun shells -- his 15-year prison sentence now places him alongside lifelong killers, movie-style gangsters and drug kingpins. There are homicide convictions that carry sentences half as long in Tennessee state courts.
Laws designed for the worst of the worst, but written broadly enough to ensnare the less dangerous, subject Young to what even his sentencing judge called a Dickensian penalty. There is a bill in Congress that would give federal judges discretion, untie their hands to ensure punishments fit the crimes. But that bill is far from passage and would have to apply retroactively, a rarity in many criminal laws, to help Young.
Weeks, maybe months before police came to his home Young had helped a neighbor, a woman named Neva Mumpower. Her husband had died and she wanted to sell some of their older furniture. She told Young if he hauled it to the flea market she'd split whatever it sold for. He did, but kept a chest of drawers at his place.
A short time later he went through it and found the shells. Young didn't think much of them. He put them away so the kids wouldn't come upon them and went on with his day. He'd get them back to Mumpower later or just throw them away. Except he didn't.
Young confessed to the burglaries and faced state prison time, probably a few years with the likelihood of parole and probation. Not a proud moment but recoverable. The 43-year-old man soon discovered that the shotgun shells carried a heavier burden -- a 15-year mandatory federal prison sentence with no possibility of parole.
Standing inside the wood-paneled courtroom in the downtown federal building May 9, Stacy Young knew what was coming but held out a strand of hope. Mercy, maybe. She listened as the lawyers droned on about legal definitions, criminal histories and what was right, what was fair. Then the judge told her husband he could speak.
"I just ... I mean, it wasn't ... it wasn't my intent," Ed Young told the judge. "I did find them in the box, and I put them up until I could give them back to her, so my kids wouldn't find them. I don't think I deserve to grow up without my family, and I don't think my family deserves to grow up without me." The Youngs' oldest son, who is 16, ran out of the courtroom in tears. The crying family huddled in the hallway after the sentencing. The youngest son is 6 years old. He'll be 20 when Ed Young leaves federal prison, a 62-year-old man....
Convicted felons are told they no longer can possess firearms. Having a gun, even if the felony was a white-collar crime such as wire fraud, means prison time. What some may know but Young swears he did not, is that possessing ammunition, say seven shotgun shells, is just as bad.
There's nothing in Young's criminal record to show he's ever been accused of carrying a weapon, even in the 20-year-old burglary convictions. But those burglaries are counted as "violent crimes." And language is important. Young's criminal past classified him as an armed career criminal under federal law. That classification means he faces severe penalties for the rest of his life if he breaks any of the rules.
Young's attorney is flabbergasted. "I don't think there's anything like it at all," said Chris Varner. "Everything went wrong here." As far as his legal research shows, it is only under the Armed Career Criminal Act that Young's distant convictions can count against him, Varner said. Other federal sentencing guidelines would not have considered the past convictions because they were so long ago.
Once the charges were filed and the federal grand jury indicted Young, nothing could stop the machine that is federal law. Prosecutor Chris Poole worked the case. He declined to comment under U.S. Attorney's Office policy not to speak about active cases. Young's case is on appeal to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. But in court documents, Poole explains to U.S. District Judge Curtis Collier that by definition Young's crimes fit the career criminal law and the minimum sentence is 15 years. The maximum was life.
During the May 9 hearing Collier hinted at his thoughts on the Draconian sentence. "Mr. Young, I don't know if you read a lot, but there was an author who has written a lot of books, and has some overtones here. His name is Charles Dickens," Collier said.
The judge went on to explain the situation and his own lack of power. "This is a case where the Congress of the United States has instructed federal district judges like myself to impose a sentence of at least 180 months, that is, 15 years," Collier said. "... This sentence is not so much a punishment for the present crime as it is a punishment for your history of crimes."
The week after the federal sentencing, prosecutors in state court dismissed the burglary and related charges....
Stacy Young is now a single working mother with a house full of children. She'll haul them down to Atlanta every other week. Two of the children will visit the first day, then they'll stay overnight for the other two to see their father the second day. Ed Young writes letters nearly every day and says he'll keep writing.
Varner, his attorney, sees the sentence far outweighing the crime and worries what it says about justice. "This is not who we are, we do not do this as a nation," he said. Stacy, devastated by the outcome, living with the consequences, sees it much more personally. "I don't think he should have 15 years for seven shotgun shells," she said. "I think it's crazy."
July 22, 2013 in Examples of "over-punishment", Gun policy and sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack
ECHR on LWOP: guest post on what Vinter might mean for extradition to US
As noted in this post earlier this month, a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights involving UK nationals declared that LWOP sentences without any prospect of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. And, as discussed in this follow-up post, I am intrigued by what the decision in Case of Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom (available via this link) could mean for sentencing law and practices in the US.
Helpfully, my OSU colleague John Quigley was kind enough to write up this thoughtful explanation of what Vinter could mean for US extradition practices:
For the United States, the significance of the case is that the European Court of Human Rights has previously ruled that an extradition request must be denied if the individual would be subjected in the requesting state to treatment or punishment that would violate Article 3 if carried out by a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights. A few years ago, a man named Ralston Wellington was wanted in Missouri on a murder charge. He had gone to the UK, and US authorities requested his extradition. He argued that he might be subjected to life without parole in Missouri and fought extradition on that basis, invoking Article 3. Wellington was extradited in 2010, but only after the matter went up to the House of Lords, then the highest rung in the UK judicial ladder, where sentencing procedures in Missouri were analyzed in detail.
After the Vinter judgment, a person in Wellington’s situation would stand a better chance of avoiding extradition. Given what the European Court said, as related above, if the US seeks extradition for surrender to the authorities of a state where a life sentence may be imposed, a UK court could find the person extraditable only if it appeared that a procedure would be available (and would be made known to the person at time of sentencing) to review the sentence, and that release would be a possibility as result of such review.
While the Vinter case concerned the UK, it would apply equally to all states that are party to the European Convention on Human Rights, currently numbering 47. Thus, a fugitive from the United States in any of these 47 states of Europe could mount a challenge to extradition.
The likely outcome would be that prior to surrendering the individual, the requested state would require an assurance from the United States that the individual would not be sentenced to a life term that would violate Article 3 if imposed by a European state. The matter would be handled on the US side by the Department of State, which could decide against giving an assurance, in which case extradition would likely be denied, or decide to give an assurance, in which case a surrender would likely ensue. If the prosecution were in a state of the United States, the Department of State would doubtless confer with the authorities of that state before deciding what to do.
If the Department of State were then to give an assurance, the individual would likely be surrender and transported to the state in question. There it would be up to prosecuting authorities in the relevant county how to proceed. In a case decided in 1989 by the European Court of Human Rights, the United States gave an assurance to the UK that an individual sought on a murder charge in Virginia (and at the time under arrest in London) would not be subjected to capital punishment. Soering v. United Kingdom (also available on the European Court website). The county prosecutor in Virginia had gained an indictment for capital murder, and that indictment was still in effect at the time of the surrender. The prosecutor subsequently dropped the capital specification.
What is not clear as a matter of US law is the situation that would obtain were a prosecutor to refuse to honor an assurance given by the Department of State. Suppose the state prosecution continued, and a life sentence were imposed with no provision for a review or possible release. Such a refusal would put the United States in violation of the international commitment it made to the requested state. But it would not be the first time that state authorities in the United States put the federal government in violation of an international commitment with respect to the handling of a criminal case. See Medellin v. Texas, 552 US 491 (2008). The US Attorney General would have a basis for suing the state to force it to honor the international commitment. In all likelihood, the matter would be resolved such that the assurance would be honored. But it is not obvious just how that would come about.
Recent related posts:
- European Court of Human Rights finds UK use of LWOP sentences violated human rights convention
- ECHR on LWOP: thoughts on Vinter and possible US impact
Friday, July 19, 2013
ECHR on LWOP: thoughts on Vinter and possible US impact
As noted in this recent blog posting, a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights earlier this month involving UK nationals declared that LWOP sentences without any prospect of release amount to inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. As I mentioned in that post, I know very little about how ECHR rulings can impact domestic laws even in countries that have adopted the applicable convention.
But as my title for this post hints, I am especially intrigued by what the decision in Case of Vinter and Others v. the United Kingdom (available via this link) could mean for sentencing law and practices in the US. I suspect the simple answer is just "not much," but I am eager to cover any potential domestic post-Vinter storylines and will be posting soon some thoughts from my of my OSU colleagues on this front.
Before getting into implications, though, I thought it worthwhile to reprint this effective summary of the Vinter ruling from the heart of a brief concurring opinion by Judge Power-Forde:
[W]hat tipped the balance for me in voting with the majority was the Court’s confirmation, in this judgment, that Article 3 encompasses what might be described as “the right to hope”. It goes no further than that. The judgment recognises, implicitly, that hope is an important and constitutive aspect of the human person. Those who commit the most abhorrent and egregious of acts and who inflict untold suffering upon others, nevertheless retain their fundamental humanity and carry within themselves the capacity to change. Long and deserved though their prison sentences may be, they retain the right to hope that, someday, they may have atoned for the wrongs which they have committed. They ought not to be deprived entirely of such hope. To deny them the experience of hope would be to deny a fundamental aspect of their humanity and, to do that, would be degrading.
In addition to capturing what seems to me to be the essence of the lengthy opinions in Vinter, I think this sentiment indirectly reflects what has been moving the US Supreme Court in its recent Graham and Miller Eighth Amendment rulings. Do other agree? And do others expect, as I do, that Vinter is very likely to be cited a fair amount in the briefing (and perhaps even in some opinions) the next time SCOTUS takes up some follow-up issues raised in Graham and Miller?
Recent related post:
July 19, 2013 in Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences? | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
"Former Federal Prosecutors Endorse Safety Valve: Support Grows for Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Reform"The title of this post is the heading of this new press release from the folks at Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Here are excerpts:
A group of more than 50 former federal prosecutors and judges today sent a letter to Capitol Hill endorsing the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, legislation that authorizes judges to depart from a mandatory minimum sentence in cases where the minimum is not necessary to protect public safety and would be unjust given the facts and circumstances of the crime and defendant. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced the Justice Safety Valve Act (S. 619) in the U.S. Senate, and Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) introduced the companion bill (H.R. 1695) in the U.S. House.
“The men and women who endorsed the bill today helped to make our country safer by prosecuting and sentencing dangerous criminals,” said FAMM President Julie Stewart. “They know that to improve public safety we must focus our scarce anti-crime resources on violent and repeat offenders.”
As Congress looks for ways to improve upon recent gains in public safety, we believe that the reform in S. 619 would prove very valuable. … Under your legislation, dangerous criminals will continue to receive lengthy prison sentences. For lower-level offenders facing a mandatory minimum sentence, however, courts will be given the power to impose a shorter sentence. For example, a nonviolent drug seller facing a 10-year mandatory minimum might instead receive a sentence of seven or eight years if a court determines, after considering all the relevant facts, that the ten-year sentence is inappropriate and would punish the street seller more harshly than his more culpable codefendants. In drug cases, for example, a court might determine that a shorter prison term combined with mandatory drug treatment would be more likely to prevent an individual from re-offending. …
We also support your bill because we believe that the money wasted on keeping nonviolent and nonthreatening offenders locked behind bars for years longer than necessary could be better spent on anti-crime programs that actually will enhance public safety. This is especially true in the current budget climate. We think public safety will be improved if limited government resources are targeted on prosecuting and incarcerating violent and repeat criminals.
Some recent and older related posts:
- Justice Safety Valve Act gets bipartisan introduction in House of Representatives
- "Bipartisan Legislation To Give Judges More Flexibility For Federal Sentences Introduced"
- Rand Paul begins forceful pitch in campaign against federal mandatory minimums
- Wall Street Journal pitch for the Prez to get behind the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013
- "Prison-Sentence Reform: A bill to give judges flexibility to impose shorter sentences deserves conservatives’ support"
- NY Times editorial page gets on-board with Justice Safety Valve Act
- An argument that the "Leahy/Paul bill is a disaster" from Bill Otis