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June 22, 2010

"Drug sentencing: It's a balancing act between state versus federal guidelines"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new piece from the Richmond Times Dispatch, which is principally focused on how on how crack cases are processed in Virginia's federal courts.  Here are some excerpts:

Among the weapons brought to bear against Richmond's record wave of violence in the 1990s were stiff federal laws targeting drug dealers and firearms violators. The bloodshed has subsided since 1994, when the city had 161 slayings and the highest per-capita homicide rate in the country. Last year's toll of 39 did not even lead the state.

Authorities say the decade-and-a-half effort has paid off. But according to recent figures from the U.S. Sentencing Commission and other studies, it has also left the Richmond area as a national leader in both federal crack cocaine and firearm prosecutions that lead to long prison sentences.

In the 15 months that began Jan. 1, 2009, 186 drug offenders -- most crack dealers and many with accompanying firearm convictions -- were sentenced in U.S. District Court in Richmond to a combined 2,000 years in prison plus one life sentence....

"There's no doubt to us that the city is fundamentally a safer place than it was a dozen years ago," said Neil H. MacBride, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District. He points out that since 1994, the long-term homicide trend here is down....

Learned Barry, Richmond's deputy commonwealth's attorney in charge of homicide prosecutions, said, "What has happened, especially with the help of the feds, is we are catching these guys and they're staying off the streets much longer than they did 10 years ago. "When they identify these violent drug dealers and target them -- they're gone, we don't see them again for a long time," he said.

The degree to which drug and firearms convictions reduce violence is unclear, many criminologists say.  Homicides dropped in Richmond, but they also did in some other cities where tough laws were used to a lesser extent.  And while taking drug dealers off the streets improves the quality of life in a community, taking large numbers of young men out of the community can harm it.

Todd R. Clear, dean of the school of criminal justice at Rutgers University, has studied the impact on communities where young men churn in and out of jails and prisons.  Removing killers and rapists has a high public safety payoff, but the benefits diminish as people are removed for lesser crimes, he said.  "There all these sort of ripple effects [so] that even if you did get an immediate, short-term impact on crime, you also have long-term, generational, infrastructural kinds of effects on community life that are extremely troubling," Clear said.

Those effects include more single-parent households and the loss of protection, money and child care for mothers.  Also, children with a parent or parents in prison are more likely to wind up there themselves, he said.

Then there's also the cost of imprisonment -- $51 million for just 15 month's worth of federal drug-related prosecutions from federal court in Richmond.  "It just boggles my mind.  What would happen if you had that money available for other things.  If you told the community, 'Look, we've got $51 million . . . is this what you want to use it for?  My guess is they would have other priorities," Clear said....

In 2007, the commission amended the crack guidelines, permitting sentence reductions for 19,500 crack offenders convicted since 1992.  The Eastern District of Virginia led all districts in the country with 1,499 eligible offenders, or 7.2 percent of the national total.  "That's because crack makes up such a large amount of the drug-trafficking docket in the Eastern District of Virginia, particularly in Richmond," said Michael Nachmanoff of Alexandria, the chief public defender for the district.

According to figures from the U.S. Attorney's office, of the 186 drug cases that led to prison time in the Richmond division last year and the first three months of this year, at least 113 were for crack and 36 for powder cocaine.  The average sentence for crack violators was just under 11 years; 18 of them were sentenced to more than 20 years and one to life.

Nachmanoff, like Clear, believes, "the notion that the only way to solve problems . . . we see in the city of Richmond and other urban centers is by locking up generations of young African-Americans for 10, 15, 20 years, I think was really false."...

Generally, Virginia guideline sentences for drug offenses are significantly lower than federal ones. As a result, Richmond police work closely with federal authorities and sometimes steer troublemakers into federal court where they can be locked up for longer periods.

Capt. Roger Russell, head of the Richmond police department's narcotics unit, said, "We look at what court is going to offer the best solution to the problem." "The working relationship that we have, whether it be with our commonwealth attorney's office or with our federal partners, has really had a significant impact on violent crime in this city," Russell said.

Bullard said that some critics of drug sentencing have a simplistic view of the situation that does not take into account all the facts. "Usually there's more to the story than, 'Hey, a guy with no record is given five years for 5 grams of crack,'" Bullard said. There are violent criminals who have little or no record, he said.

Because state sentences are lower than federal ones, Bullard said his office has been innovative. Among other things, city prosecutors can bring evidence of prior crimes, even in cases where there has not been a conviction, to the court's attention prior to sentencing. "Our average sentence increased by over 50 percent during 2008 and that gain was largely maintained in 2009," Bullard said. "Again, our sentences are not nearly what the federal sentences are, but that's still a significant increase and it comes from that philosophy of trying to make sure violent drug dealers are taken off the street for longer periods of time," Bullard said.

City prosecutors last year won state convictions for felony drug distribution or possession with intent to distribute against almost 400 people -- a 10-year high. The sentences added up to 850 years.

City felony drug-possession cases -- as opposed to drug-distribution cases -- fell by more than 31 percent last year, to 463, from 2008 when an eight-year high was reached.  New programs also are being tried as a way to eliminate open-air drug markets. Bullard said drug activities have horrid impacts on neighborhoods.

He said there may be low-level individuals hit with a heavy minimum crack sentence in federal court. But for the most part, he said state and federal authorities do not have the time, resources or prison space to target low-level offenders for long terms behind bars. Unlike federal law, Virginia law makes no distinction between crack or powder cocaine sentences.

June 22, 2010 at 08:37 PM | Permalink


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Congratulations to President Obama for appointing Neil MacBride, who has continued the proud bi-partisan tradition in the Eastern District of Virginia -- my old stomping grounds -- of knowing what to do with crack dealers and other violent and dangerous criminals.

Since Project Exile went into effect in the early 90's, the murder rate in Richmond and the District generally has plummeted.

The most telling excerpt is the first: "Among the weapons brought to bear against Richmond's record wave of violence in the 1990s were stiff federal laws targeting drug dealers and firearms violators. The bloodshed has subsided since 1994, when the city had 161 slayings and the highest per-capita homicide rate in the country. Last year's toll of 39 did not even lead the state."

Cutting the murder rate by three-quarters is astonishing. I'm sure we'll see the usual leftist blather that it's really all due to sunspots, but sensible people know that the incidence of crime is related to, among other things, the severity of punishment.

Dean Clear from crime-free New Jersey is welcome to give all the unsolicited advice he wants. He is not responsible for suppressing crime and, of course, has suppressed none. The United States Attorney has stepped up to the plate. More power to him.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 22, 2010 9:52:48 PM

How can removing the violent and lawless from among any community be a bad thing? I honestly have a hard time believing that the guys (and yes, I'm willing to state that the vast majority of worrisome offenders are male), are otherwise decent providers who just have a sideline hobby of drug dealing, murder and other assorted mayhem. If you credit accounts such as those Pileggi's Wise Guy it would seem that violence for mafiosi was personal was well as business. Without contrary evidence I would tend to believe the same about Virginia's criminal element. Is such a "role model" really preferable to no role model at all?

I do believe SC has a point with his rants against subsidized bastardry and crime lifestyle communities.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Jun 22, 2010 11:33:05 PM

I agree with getting the violent guys off the streets for long prison terms. I disagree with the federal government paying for it.

Why should the citizens of relatively crime-free Wyoming subsidize the state of Virginia, which is happily skimming off the federal government while refusing to spend its own money on law enforcement?

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jun 23, 2010 9:31:19 AM

Marc Shepherd --

When you have the community leaders in Richmond and Fredricksbury sitting in your office pleading for help because the local crack gangs have turned their cities into free-fire zones, and you have the power to do something about it, you can't look them in the eye and say, "Take it up with the state legislature."

Congress decided in the CSA that crack is a national problem. I am not in Congress, and it was above my pay grade to countermand Congress's decision, cf. General McChrystal.

In a world full of wildly expensive but ineffective federal "action" -- see, e.g., anything the federal government has done with this catastrophic oil spill -- Project Exile produced more bang for the buck than just about anything I ever heard of. Federal involvement in fighting crack necessarily takes place in one spot or another, and in that sense can be said to be local. But for as long as the CSA is on the books, fighting crack dealers will remain a federal responsibility, and Project Exile saved lives.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 23, 2010 10:00:40 AM

Sunspots, huh? Thanks, Bill. Hadn't considered that one.

Posted by: John K | Jun 23, 2010 4:06:50 PM

JohnK , --

I take it that means you're applauding the three-quarters drop in the murder rate? No, wait, we wouldn't want to do that. It might entail supporting the Fascist Boot at the Neck (i.e., the US Attorney's Office). Better to have the murder rate go back up!

Do you really think helping to achieve a drop in the homicide rate of that order had nothing to do with the tough federal sentencing laws?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 23, 2010 5:31:05 PM

Professor Todd Clear bemoans the "troubling, long-term, generational,infrastructural effects" imprisonment has had on minority communities.

The seminal reason for pathology in minority communities is the weakness of the family structure. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said "the richest inheritance any child can have is a stable, loving, disciplined family life."

With a non-marital inner-city birthrate exceeding 70%, poverty-both moral and financial is a given. The imprisonment of an already absent father is a red-herring issue.

Posted by: mjs | Jun 23, 2010 8:45:16 PM

Bill writes "I take it that means you're applauding the three-quarters drop in the murder rate?"

Yes, Bill, I'm foursquare opposed to murder. As you might recall me mentioning earlier, my father, whom I admired, was a celebrated, highly successful homicide detective in Southern California in the 60s, 70s and early 80s.

That said, whether harsh federal sentencing laws were solely (or even largely) responsible for the turnaround is debatable.

My father put murderers away as an employee of a city police force long before the feds commandeered the extra-constitutional role as the nation's police force.

Posted by: John K | Jun 23, 2010 9:13:37 PM

As he so often does, mjs gets to the core of the problem. The single most telling predicter of crime is not race, religion, economic standing, geography or education. It's whether the father was living in the home.

Not the boyfriend. The father.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jun 23, 2010 10:34:26 PM

What can we do to let the world see that we are still being treated as slaves,here is an example.The Supreme Court changed

the Guidelines from mandatory to advisory because they said the way that the guidelines were being applied violated our constitional rights,well if thats the case then why isn't Booker retroactive.The only people who rights were violated is the ones in jail under the mandatory guideline the ones coming in under the advisory guidelines rights never were violated and never suffered the indifference so how is it that they can say in one breath that the guidelines are broke but aren't going to fix them

for the people who it effected.Its like we messed up but we aren't going to fix it cause it will help too many people we MESSED over so live with it.This is our government talking to there citizens like this.

Posted by: AWAKEN | Jun 24, 2010 8:01:18 AM

Hi,I am a student of law in Europe(Ireland) and am never ceased to be amazed at the difference between sentencing policy in Europe and in the U.S.
Ours seems too soft-yours seems too draconian..
In Ireland we have concurrent sentencing rather than concurrent so the incentive here is to really do the dog on your crime because you will only serve the sentence for the longest one which, if it is say 10 years, you will get 25% remission for good behaviour anyway(regardless of your behaviour!)

Posted by: Terry | Jul 11, 2010 6:58:24 AM

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