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September 3, 2015

Julie Stewart of FAMM goes hard after Bill Otis for being "proven wrong time and time again"

Regular readers know I often note and express respect for the work and writings of both former federal prosecutor Bill Otis, who now writes most regularly at Crime & Consequences, and Julie Stewart, who is the President and Founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.   Today I must note and express amazement at the concerted efforts of one of these two taking on the other: Julie Stewart has this notable new Reason commentary headlined "The Former Prosecutor Who Consistently Gets Criminal Justice Reform Wrong: Former prosecutor Bill Otis has been mistaken over and over again when advising legislators against reducing drug sentences."  Here are excerpts mostly from the start and end of the piece:

No one expects our elected representatives to be experts in every area of public policy. At the same time, we have every right to expect that our representatives will consult policy analysts and experts who know what they're talking about, not someone who has been proven wrong time and time again. In the world of criminal justice, that someone is former federal prosecutor and Georgetown Law adjunct William Otis.

Over the past two decades, Bill Otis has become the Paul Ehrlich of criminal sentencing reform.  He is always certain in his convictions and nearly always wrong.  Moreover, like Ehrlich, Otis likes to scare the public with predictions of certain and impending doom, and he is immune to feelings of embarrassment or humiliation despite being proven spectacularly wrong over and over again....

[W]hereas Ehrlich saw overpopulation as the culprit, Otis thinks shortening sentences for nonviolent drug offenders will be America's undoing.  Indeed, every time Congress or the U.S. Sentencing Commission has considered even mild sentence reductions over the past two decades, Otis has gone full Chicken Little.  He has been wrong every time....

The nationwide drop in crime and prison crowding should be celebrated.  Less violent crime means fewer murder victims, fewer robbery victims, and fewer assault victims. Smaller prison populations means savings for taxpayers and more money to spend on what actually does reduce crime — community policing and supervision practices like "short, swift, and certain."  None of these gratifying results would have been possible if Otis's theory were correct — or if any lawmakers outside the Beltway had heard of Otis and took his views seriously.  While Otis has been consistently wrong, thankfully lawmakers have ignored him....

Committed to his prison-is-always-the-answer ideology, Otis derided the [Fair Sentencing Act], saying it should be called the "Crack Dealers Relief Act."  When the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the crack guideline and made it retroactive in accord with the FSA, Otis predicted it would lead to an increase in crime....  On his blog, Otis cranked up the fear machine. He predicted "misery" when "thousands of crack dealers" would be "put back on the street prematurely" to terrorize their communities.

Fortunately for those of us concerned about public safety, Otis was wrong again — amazingly wrong.  Since passage of the FSA, the crime rate, the prison population, and crack usage are all down!  It bears repeating.  Otis said the changes would cause "misery" and "inevitably lead to more crime."  Instead, while thousands of offenders have received fairer sentences, the crime rate has fallen, crack use is down, and taxpayers have saved millions from being wasted on unnecessary prison costs....

Otis is impervious to facts and evidence.  He will quote Professor Steven Levitt's finding that greater reliance on incarceration helped reduce crime in the 1990s and then ignore Levitt's later conclusion that the country has gone too far and that prisons should reduce their populations by one-third.  Otis will say, as he does in National Review, that the movement for sentencing reform "is strictly interest-group — and billionaire — driven, inside-the-Beltway," which would be fine if you did not already know that the reform movement began in the states and is being promoted in Washington, DC by insiders like Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

Otis's amazing record of wrongness would be interesting and perhaps even funny if he, like fellow fear-peddler Paul Ehrlich, were exiled from the world of rational public policy making.  But media reports have suggested that some members of Congress actually listen to Otis.  If that's true, then we really do have a good reason to be scared.

Yowsa.   Because I consider both Julie Stewart and Bill Otis to be personal friends, I am going to be trying hard to stay out of this sentencing sparring.  But I am also going to try to report fairly on any rounds of this fight, and thus will be quick to post any response that Bill Otis provides in his own defense in the days ahead. 

UPDATE:  Bill Otis has a response up at Crime & Consequences: Are Sentencing "Reformers" Getting Worried?.  Here is a snippet from Bill's introduction to his brief substantive refutation of points made by Julie Stewart:

I think it unbecoming and unwise to get caught up in this sort of thing.  If you hold a controversial position, you can expect some heat.  And if you spend all your time answering your critics, you'll never do anything else.  You'll certainly abandon any hope of making your own points. Accordingly, with the exceptions noted below, I am not going to engage with Ms. Stewart. (If she seeks a live debate with me, that would be another matter).

I'm quite sure she is sincere. But, for reasons stated in hundreds of things I have said on this blog and elsewhere, I believe she is in error.

September 3, 2015 at 05:05 PM | Permalink


Here is what this pro-criminal advocate does not say. Her criticism is quite personal and inappropriate. It is below standards at Reason.

1) The criminal law is at the margins of crime, with 2 million prosecutions for 20 million FBI Index felonies each year. So a 5% change of a 10% factor is not easily discernible at the gut level or at the emotional level where this critic operates.

2) It takes 5 to 10 years for law changes to percolate to street level. We are seeing straws in the wind of coming storm. She is overly optimistic.

3) The legal system has been shielded from the consequences of its pro-criminal bias and mistakes by technology. Trauma care enhancements from war experiences. Drops in lead levels. Remote cameras to deter.

4) Social factors have also changed. Video addiction. The obesity epidemic making kids too fat to commit crimes or even go outside the house. The value of welfare is so high, the poor are too rich to bother to steal. Marijuana is now more commonly used by teens than alcohol, the most crimogenic substance on earth.

5) The decreased fecundity from the incarceration of more super predators has prevented their spawn from birthing and coming after us. That effect will dissipate as the clients of the lawyer are released by the busload, loosed onto our neighborhoods.

She does not matter. It is the lawyer hierarchy that must be arrested, given an hour's fair trial, where the sole evidence will be their legal utterances, and then executed. Once that happens, we can kill the violent career criminals, protected and privileged by the lawyer hierarchy.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 3, 2015 6:23:28 PM

You sparred with Bill Otis when he commented here & when he stopped, you continued in effect to do so via a one or more open letters challenging things he said. Good luck keeping out of a fight where the issues are basic to this very blog.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 3, 2015 6:32:32 PM

The comparison of Bill to Paul Ehrlich is apt. When you have a dog in the fight as Bill does, it's difficult to entertain any opinion that doesn't support your objective.

Posted by: beth | Sep 3, 2015 6:36:00 PM

"Otis has gone full Chicken Little."

I like that, and appropriate too is the reference to Levitt, the best empirical evidence for his position - Bingo!

Posted by: albeed | Sep 3, 2015 8:29:19 PM

Bill is for sure a very smart hard driven guy, sure in his beliefs. Hes a good guy, but I disagree with him on the ridiculous length of Federal sentences.

As a rule of thumb, Federal drug sentences are 3-5 times longer than state. What they actually serve. If you get hit with a big Mandatory, it could be 10-15 times longer.

Life for 3 drug felonies, get real. What is so terribly wrong is that judges are no longer tied to the guidelines, only the Mandatories when filed. But they still give horrid senrences.

Why does the prosecutor get to virtually assign the sentence. When he files a mandatory, he has already sentnced the dude. No one can dispute this.

For these reasons, the mandatories must be chopped down. The Feds aredrunk on extreme sentencing practices.

Go Julie go. Im right along beside you. You not only are right, but are articulate in your endeavors. Thank you. Keep chopping Julie. Now us the time.

Good old Chuck Grassley had his ear open for Bill Otis to pour in the Federal whoop la.
We need the mandatories for Terrorists and breaking down the walls the the drug king pins. Every one knows its the addicts and mules that get the long sentences. The jing pins sing loud and first, they squat compared to the ithers.. The avg drug offender gas lots of criminal history and most likely us a career driminal.

A felony in the federal system is any charge whis max sentence is 1 yr ir longer.. Even though it is 3 grade misdemeanor in the state it occured and the dude got a minimal if any jail gime.

Ghe Feds blow it all way out of proportion. Just like everything else they do.

Chuck Grassley, please retire right now. What the hell you are 86 yrs old. Think about it. Do you think Chuck could get a job on the outside if the federal govt. No he couldnt.

Please go back home Chuck. We already know your bill is going to be a half fast one at best. Stop wasteing the nations time and money.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Sep 3, 2015 9:35:40 PM

6) There was a realignment in California, not a real release. Prisoners were transferred to local prisons. So no one has seen a big effect on the public safety so far. The sole effect has been an explosive increase in murders in dozens of cities. Again, it is black little girls getting killed, skipping rope in front of their homes, so the white racist lawyer scum is still relaxed about the releases.

7) Bill was the sole licensed lawyer advocating for the substantive crime victims right, safety. That is why he was and continues to be vilified by the pro-criminal lawyer scum commenting on this blog. These are not even human beings but venomous and dangerous reptiles. We do need an executioner for this scum, but the Orkin man.

8) Criminals generate massive government make work job. Victims generate nothing and may rot.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 4, 2015 12:42:29 AM

Everything Julie says squares with my assessment of Bill's views and inclinations. And not a jot of it will prompt Bill to reflect upon or reevaluate even one of his narrow-minded, rigidly held opinions. Bill is to the criminal justice system what Dick Cheney is to politics.

And Grassley? Well, years ago a favorite writer weighed in on the burning question in Iowa at the time -- whether to put the slogan "Iowa...A State of Minds" on license plates. The writer, Donald Kaul, observed that "With senators like (Roger) Jepsen and Grassley, a more fitting slogan would be "Iowa...A State of Arms and Legs."

Posted by: John K | Sep 4, 2015 8:22:56 AM

I am calling the Orkin man. I just saw a John K crawling around.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 4, 2015 9:33:46 AM

Given the tenor of Bill's previous efforts on this blog, I think he's in a pretty weak moral position to be wielding the word "unbecoming."

Posted by: Michael Drake | Sep 4, 2015 9:53:20 AM

I honestly don't recall -- and I was a regular reader -- the breadth of these attacks, but the "unbecoming" comment was applied in part because of personal attacks of his wife etc. Again, didn't read all the threads and can have missed it, but the level of attacks suggested is unclear to me. There were shots at him, some quite visceral.

In recent threads, others have noted why he had particularly got negative replies, but shots at family and vituperative attacks (the former is crystal clearly wrong) are wrong. There is going to be some strong attacks, especially from one or two people, in blog comments. But, shots at family and personal attacks at a certain point do cross a line. I think however he left in part to focus his efforts elsewhere. If the personal attacks was a factor, so be it. That's his call. He has every right to decide it was time to go obviously.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 4, 2015 10:33:09 AM

I see however that "unbecoming" was applied to Julie Stewart.

Ugh. Never mind. On that front, yes, it's hard to take him seriously.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 4, 2015 10:36:47 AM

I see however that "unbecoming" was applied to Julie Stewart.

Ugh. Never mind. On that front, yes, it's hard to take him seriously.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 4, 2015 10:36:48 AM

I think Bill's arguments would generally gain better reception if he would discuss them less like a courtroom litigator looking to score immediate points and more in the form of a serious policy discussion that recognizes the legitimate concerns of the other side. Although he would probably say he was driven away from this blog by the attacks of other commenters, he was nearly impossible to have a constructive conversation with due to his constant resort to quibbling debater's tactics and shifting premises (how many times did he offer to bet someone about some political outcome?).

It's unfortunate because I do think that, given the rising crime rates, we are poised for a backlash against the nascent "reform" movement, and its supporters may be surprised by how rapid that is. It would better to have responsible voices from all perspectives of the debate, because there are indeed excesses and overstatements on the FAMM (and allies) side that could stand to be pushed back against.

Posted by: Jay | Sep 4, 2015 12:24:08 PM

One thing I am awfully sick of seeing from Bill Otis is his continuous rants that sentencing reform is somehow the pet cause of "inside-the-beltway elites" acting in bad faith, and it would never go through if politicians listened to the "little guy." (As if Bill is not an in-side-the-beltway guy.) This makes no sense. Unlike many other issues, well off folks have nothing in particular to gain from sentencing reforming. What do George Soros or the Koch Brothers have to gain, other than trying to do the right thing; the money for private industry is in keeping more folks locked up, after all. Instead, a broad coalition of sophisticated thinkers from points along the political spectrum have come together to advocate for a worthy clause -- in which they almost never have a person, private stake in the outcome. To me, that is refreshing and a good model for solving other problems.

That Bill has little company is no surprise and for good reason, his ideas are ludicrous -- if not racially motivated (though I will give him the benefit of the doubt on that) -- and not worthy of support. Bill wrote a post recently claiming that he was "not the last man standing" based on an OpEd by George Terwilliger. That piece actually supported sentencing reform; it simply cautioned for balance and that the notion of more rational sentences not get carried to far. Terwilliger, unlike Bill, is sensible and open-minded enough to recognize that there is middle-ground for debate. Bill seems to have a view that he must oppose all reform on some mysterious basic principle alone -- or just for spite. For example, allowing for the fact that longer sentences has led to some decrease in crime, obviously does not prove that the benefits of some sentencing reform would not outweigh any downsides. Bill cannot seem to get his mind around that.

Bill is a very smart guy. But his specialty, unfortunately, is playing the Archie Bunkerian idiot to appeal to those who lack the sophistication or are too obtuse to engage in the broad middle and solve problems. You don't see ANY advocates of sentencing reform arguing that all but the worst inmates should be released immediately -- essentially the opposite of Bill's position.

I find it quite telling that Bill know longer engages on this forum. He seems to have figured out that he exposure just undermines his positions, so he sticks to his little protected Blog.

Posted by: Mark | Sep 4, 2015 3:03:54 PM

The last two comments by Jay and Mark sum up everything that needs to be said about Bill Otis, at least in the context of discussing criminal justice.

Posted by: Ain't Nick | Sep 4, 2015 3:39:56 PM

Mark -- Yeah, CJ reform, broadly speaking, is probably the least "inside the beltway" idea to gain any traction in DC in decades. It started in state systems around the country, including places like TX and GA.

I do tend to be skeptical of expanding all of its premises wholesale to the federal system, because (as someone who works somewhere in the bowels of that system), I think the average federal prisoner is not exactly the angel some on the FAMM, etc, side make him out to be. Of course there are a lot of people who got super-long drug sentences, especially in decades past, who should have a chance to get out, either through the guideline amendments or clemency. But if you look at current federal sentencings, I things a lot of folks would be troubled by how easily defendants tend to get off for, say, fraud offenses (the country is overwhelmed with "low level" ID thefts, tax refund scams, health care frauds, etc, such that you can probably live off those crimes full time for a couple of years before you'll get caught). And the drug offenders who come into the federal system today are often much more connected to violence than their defenders want to acknowledge. So, there are multiple sides to every story.

Posted by: Jay | Sep 4, 2015 4:06:06 PM

'the average federal prisoner is not exactly the angel some on the FAMM, etc, side make him out to be.' Oh what bullshit, they are no more so than state prosecuted cases. The feds take the cases that can be easily proved and leave the difficult ones for the states to do the heavy lifting. Anything that forces the feds to get off their asses and actually justify the budgets and salaries they command is deferred to the states to go after. As far as the violence of federal vs. state offenders, going to a a state facility in more cases than not is more dangerous to your health than a federal facility. As far as Otis goes, he's a wind bag who's surpassed his Peter Principle and loves to hear himself speak and craves to have others listen. He has a big problem with people who can't agree with him completely. Someone who I'd expect to hide behind a women's skirt by saying he left this blog because of personal attacks. He got as good as he gave and I for one don't have any sympathy for the jerk that he still is. He's one old dog who'll never be able to learn any new tricks.

Posted by: Randy | Sep 4, 2015 7:10:06 PM

Of course states prosecute most violent crime, but the beneficiaries of the state level reforms weren't typically murderers, but addicts with a bunch of property crimes, low level drug offenses, DUIs, etc, who were the main users of the storied revolving prison door. There's not that population in the federal system to work with.

Posted by: Jay | Sep 4, 2015 11:03:16 PM

It's so funny---Bill Otis, because he states the obvious, that incarcerating bad guys makes society safer, is subject to calumny and BS nonsense from the FAMM chick. Whatever.

Here's the deal--we are a nation of 300 odd million people. In our midst, there are criminals. Now, in a perfect criminal justice system, each offender would get exactly the right sentence and none of this debate would be necessary. But what all you Otis-haters fail to understand is that the criminal justice system deals in bulk. And when you deal in bulk, you are going to have punishments that are overly harsh in individual cases (which is why I have advocated on this blog a more vigorous clemency system). You are also going to have overly lenient sentences. So what is a society to do? Naturally, there is going to be a ratchet that allocates the risk of error to guilty criminals, rather than innocent society. When you guys can deal intelligently with that issue, come talk to me.

The other trompe l'oeil of the let's be more lenient crowd is to point up silly overcriminalization. For example, ruining some 16 yo girl's life because she sent a sext to her bf is surpassing stupid (and evil) and, as Doug is wont to say, not indicative of a society committed to freedom. And that goes for a lot of supposed crimes. This now gives me an opportunity to call bullshit on a lot of the libs in here--you know what Citizens United was all about--criminal penalties for making a video about a presidential candidate---is that what you people think is ok, but you want to be nicer to people who peddle poison to kids? Guys, this is why I have contempt for liberals' views on crime.

Now for drugs--I get the idea--harsh drug laws incarcerate a lot of minorities blah blah blah. I grew up in NYC during Dinkins era--drug dealers terrorized neighborhoods. They were willing to commit violence to keep their turf etc. Now it's certainly possible that perhaps crack laws were too harsh or the Rockefeller laws were too harsh---but that doesn't mean there should be a wholesale reduction in penalties, nor does it mean that the criminal justice system, in reacting to public safety crisis, is to be pilloried because, golly gee, it didn't get things 100% perfect, and people like Weldon Angelos got maybe too much time.

And what we never ever ever hear from the smug "smart on crime" crowd is the fact that many many many sentences are far far too low for the evil committed. Not only does that re-victimize victims, but it results in more, and preventable, victims. One example will suffice--a black judge, Olu Stevens, in response to the victimization of a white family by two black armed adult home invader robbers, gave the perps probation. Clearly, on the scale of wrongness, that sentence is far more wrong than the sentence given to Weldon Angelos (any of you libs want to debate that one?)---so enough of these things happen, people complain to their legislatures, and guess what, the hands of idiot judges like Olu Stevens get tied. And then you libs have the temerity to blame bad guys like Otis. When you "smart on crime" folks get outraged about Olu Stevens, then maybe I'll entertain what you have to say.

And let's talk for a sec about "violating" burglars, muggers etc. for popping positive. That you people cannot understand that people who are on drugs and who have a violent criminal history aren't a good mix is beyond me--either it's willful blindness or just plum stupidity. But any idiot knows you don't want a crackhead mugger on the streets. Because guess how he's getting his money? Yep, by knocking over old ladies.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 5, 2015 10:47:07 AM

Bill Otis: the Georgetown law prof and Chuck Grassley chum who spends his days lashing out at all those inside-the-Beltway elites. Only in DC can this kind of breathtaking hypocrisy exist.

Posted by: Jim | Sep 5, 2015 10:22:55 PM

Mark. Bill no longer engages in this blog for other reasons than the one you cited. Even the personal attacks and those on his wife do not tell the whole story. Prof. Berman and Bill should discuss the matter privately.

Will you agree with me that Bill was the sole licensed lawyer commenting that advocated for the substantive victim right to stay safe, and not to just attest his pain in an unseemly public display prior to sentencing? Civilians like me are just dismissed. But he worked in the law and could not be dismissed.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 7, 2015 2:11:16 PM

'Only in DC can this kind of breathtaking hypocrisy exist.' Yeah, anywhere else they'd tell them to go pound sand and head back to Ames, Iowa.

Posted by: Dave | Sep 8, 2015 7:49:30 PM

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