Friday, July 12, 2019

Call for Papers: "The Controlled Substances Act at 50 Years"

Call-for-PapersI am happy to highlight an exciting call for papers relating to an exciting event I am excited to be involved in.  Here is the full call, which is also posted as a pdf document at the end of this post:

Call for Papers: The Controlled Substances Act at 50 Years -- Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ

Roughly a century ago, in response to growing concerns about drug use, the federal government enacted its first drug control law in the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.  Subsequent decades saw Congress continue to pass drug control legislation and criminalize drug abuse, but by the 1960s there was growing interest in more medical approaches to preventing and responding to drug abuse.  Upon his election, President Richard Nixon prioritized the reduction of drug use: in rhetoric, he spoke of a so-called “war on drugs”; in policy, he pushed for a new comprehensive federal drug law in the form of The Controlled Substances Act (CSA), enacted as Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.

The CSA emerged from a widespread, bipartisan view that comprehensive legislation was needed to clarify federal drug laws, and its centerpiece was a comprehensive scheduling system for assessing and regulating drugs in five schedules defined in terms of substances’ potential for abuse and dependence, and possible medical use and safety.  In design, the CSA was intended to prioritize a scientific approach to drug prohibition and regulation by embracing a mixed law-enforcement and public-health approach to drug policy.  But in practice, the US Justice Department came to have an outsized role in drug control policy, especially as subsequent “tough-on-crime” sentencing laws made the CSA the backbone of a federal drug war in which punitive approaches to evolving drug problems consistently eclipsed public health responses.

Although the federal drug war has been controversial since its inception, the CSA’s statutory framework defining how the federal government regulates the production, possession, and distribution of controlled substances has endured.  As we mark a half-century of drug policy under the CSA, the Academy for Justice at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and the Drug Enforcement & Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law are together sponsoring a conference to look back on how the CSA has helped shape modern American drug laws and policies and to look forward toward the direction these laws could and should take in the next 50 years.

The conference, "The Controlled Substances Act at 50 Years," will take place on February 20-22, 2020, at Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in Phoenix, Arizona.  As part of this conference we are soliciting papers for the February 22 scholarship workshop. Junior scholars are encouraged to submit, and will be paired with a senior scholar to review and discuss the paper.

Each paper should reflect on the past, present or future of the Controlled Substances Act and drug policy in the United States.  Participants should have a draft to discuss and circulate by February 10.  The papers will be gathered and published in a symposium edition of the Ohio State Journal of Criminal Law, a peer-reviewed publication.  Participants should have a completed version to begin the publication process by March 15.  Final papers may range in length from 5,000 words to 20,000 words.

Deadline: Please submit a title and an abstract of no more than 300 words, to Suzanne.Stewart.1 @ asu.edu by August 15, 2019.  Accepted scholars will be notified by September 15, 2019.

Download Call for Papers- The Controlled Substances Act at 50 Years - Final pdf 

July 12, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 05, 2019

"The rapid expansion of the US prison population since the 1970s might have contributed substantially to the ongoing increase in overdose deaths"

The quote in the title of this post is a line from this notable new Lancet Public Health study titled "Economic decline, incarceration, and mortality from drug use disorders in the USA between 1983 and 2014: an observational analysis."  This new study, authored by Elias Nosrati, Jacob Kang-Brown, Michael Ash, Martin McKee, Michael Marmot and Lawrence King, starts with this summary:

Background Drug use disorders are an increasing cause of disability and early death in the USA, with substantial geographical variation.  We aimed to investigate the associations between economic decline, incarceration rates, and age-standardised mortality from drug use disorders at the county level in the USA.

Methods In this observational analysis, we examined age-standardised mortality data from the US National Vital Statistics System and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, household income data from the US Census Bureau, and county-level jail and prison incarceration data from the Vera Institute of Justice for 2640 US counties between 1983 and 2014.  We also extracted data on county-level control variables from the US Census Bureau, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  We used a two-way fixed-effects panel regression to examine the association between reduced household income, incarceration, and mortality from drug use disorders within counties over time.  To assess between-county variation, we used coarsened exact matching and a simulation-based modelling approach.

Findings After adjusting for key confounders, each 1 SD decrease in median household income was associated with an increase of 12·8% (95% CI 11·0–14·6; p<0·0001) in drug-related deaths within counties.  Each 1 SD increase in jail and prison incarceration rates was associated with an increase of 1·5% (95% CI 1·0–2·0; p<0·0001) and 2·6% (2·1–3·1; p<0·0001) in drug-related mortality, respectively.  The association between drug-related mortality and income and incarceration persisted after controlling for local opioid prescription rates.  Our model accounts for a large proportion of within-county variation in mortality from drug use disorders (R²=0·975).  Between counties, high rates of incarceration were associated with a more than 50% increase in drug-related deaths.

Interpretation Reduced household income and high incarceration rates are associated with poor health. T he rapid expansion of the prison and jail population in the USA over the past four decades might have contributed to the increasing number of deaths from drug use disorders.

UPDATE: I see now that this journal issue also has this related editorial titled "US mass incarceration damages health and shortens lives." Here is an excerpt:

The findings of this study support a plausible case that mass incarceration has added to the damaging effects of economic decline in increasing drug use and mortality. Incarceration can lead to drug addiction and death by feeding feelings of stigmatisation, by entrenching poor economic prospects, by breaking up families and communities, and by worsening individual mental health.

Over the past 40 years, US politicians of all stripes have sought to appear tough on crime, which has led to an over-reliance on incarceration across many types of offences and damaged public health.  Drastic changes to the justice system will be needed to seriously reduce the prison population.  Legislators need to repeal regressive sentencing laws that inflate the use of imprisonment (such as the three strikes law) and allow judges to pass sentences that are proportional to the crime.  Discriminatory policies and those that unfairly pull the poor into incarceration — such as money bail, plea bargaining, and arrests for crimes of poverty — must also be addressed.  Finally, chronic substance abuse should be confronted with treatment, not criminalisation.  As Natasa Gisev and colleagues' study shows, also in this issue, consistent opioid agonist treatment can reduce criminal involvement.  Drug misuse is a public health issue; more than a criminal one, and like many other petty crimes, it would be more effectively addressed by investment in social and community services, and not in steel bars.

July 5, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"Most US drug arrests involve a gram or less"

The title of this post is the title of this new short piece by Joseph Kennedy (which condenses some of his really important work set forth in this recent full article, "Sharks and Minnows in the War on Drugs: A Study of Quantity, Race and Drug Type in Drug Arrests"). Here are excerpts:

U.S. drug laws are designed as if every offender was a dedicated criminal like Walter White, treating the possession or sale of even small quantities of illegal drugs as a serious crime requiring serious punishment.

I have studied the war on drugs for a number of years.  Last December, my colleagues and I published a study on U.S. drug arrests, showing that roughly two out of every three arrests by state and local law enforcement target small-time offenders who are carrying less than a gram of illegal drugs.

Virtually all states treat as felonies the sale of any amount of illegal drugs.  The thinking behind these laws is that you cannot catch the big fish without catching some minnows as well.  Many states also treat the mere possession of any amount of a hard drugs, such as cocaine, heroin or meth/amphetamine, as a felony....

We wanted to find out how often the police made arrests involving large quantities of drugs.  To make things manageable, we narrowed our study to three evenly spaced years, 2004, 2008 and 2012.  The resulting data set contained over a million cases, with usable data found in over 700,000 cases.  We believe our study is the most comprehensive study of drug arrest quantity undertaken to date....

Our study found that, by and large, state and local police agencies are arresting small fish, not big ones.  Two out of three drug offenders arrested by state and local law enforcement possess or sell a gram or less at the time of arrest. Furthermore, about 40% of arrests for hard drug are for trace amounts — a quarter of a gram or less.

Because possessing any amount of a hard drug and selling any illegal drug is a felony in virtually every state, the small size of these quantities matter.  They suggest that very minor offenders face felony liability.  Felony convictions make it difficult for ex-offenders to secure good jobs.  They carry many other harmful collateral consequences.

There are few truly big, or even medium-sized, offenders in the remaining arrests.  Arrests for quantities of hard drugs above five grams range between 15 and 20 percent of all arrests, and arrests for a kilogram or more are less than 1%.

What’s more, the racial distribution of these small quantity arrests reveal importance differences between arrests for different types of drugs.

Our study confirms that blacks are disproportionately arrested for crack cocaine offenses, as are whites for meth/amphetamine and heroin offenses.  When it comes to possession of a quarter gram or less, police arrest almost twice as many blacks as whites for crack cocaine.  However, they arrest almost four times as many whites as blacks for heroin and eight times as many whites as blacks for meth/amphetamine.

Offenders of color are, by and large, not significantly more serious offenders in terms of quantity of drugs.  They just possess and sell drugs that are the most frequent target of arrest.  Our study showed about twice as many arrests for crack cocaine as for meth/amphetamine and almost four times as many arrests for crack cocaine as for heroin.

Finally, this study shows that 71% of drug arrests are not for hard drugs, but for marijuana.  The majority of those arrests are also for tiny quantities: 28% for trace amounts and almost 50% for a gram or less.  Once again, blacks are disproportionately arrested for marijuana offenses, making up about a quarter of all marijuana arrests despite being about 13% of the population.

Illegal drugs are ultimately sold in small quantities to users, so it’s not surprising that there are more small quantity offenders in the pool of drug arrestees.  But this study suggests that the majority of state and local drug enforcement resources are spent catching these small fish.  The drug war is not being waged primarily against the Walter Whites, but against much less serious offenders.

Prior related post:

June 18, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (4)

Friday, June 07, 2019

US Sentencing Commission releases data report on resentencings pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 (making retroactive provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010)

I was very pleased to receive in my email in-box this afternoon news that the US Sentencing Commission has released this short new report titled "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions
Retroactivity Data Report."  Here is how the 10-page report was summarized via the email:

Summary

The U.S. Sentencing Commission published new information on resentencings pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act of 2018 (enacted December 21, 2018).

Defendants sentenced before the effective date of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (August 3, 2010) who did not receive the benefit of the statutory penalty changes made by that Act are eligible for a sentence reduction under Section 404 of the First Step Act.

Data Highlights [FN1]

    • 1,051 motions were granted for a reduced sentence.
    • 78.9% of granted motions were made by the defendant, 11.8% by the attorney for the government, and 9.3% by the court.
    • Offenders received an average decrease of 73 months (29.4%) in their sentence.
      • The original average sentence was 239 months.
      • The new average sentence was 166 months.

[FN1] The data report includes motions granted through April 30, 2019 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the U.S. Sentencing Commission by May 17, 2019.

Importantly, the FSA retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act was only a small piece of the legislation, and yet this report shows it already has had a big impact.  Specifically, within just over four months, this part of the FIRST STEP Act has shortened more than 1000 sentences by an average of over 6 years. With six thousand years(!) of extra prison time (and taxpayer expense) saved, this report shows that even a modest reform can have a very big impact for some folks.

June 7, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 20, 2019

Guest post on the Fourth Circuit's reaction to district judge's rejection of plea bargains

6a00d83451574769e2022ad3762ba2200c-320wiIn prior posts here and here I noted the quite notable opinions by US District Judge Joseph Goodwin explaining why he was rejecting plea bargaining in fairly routine cases.  Professor Suja A. Thomas, Peer and Sarah Pedersen Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law, who is a leading scholar on juries and has written the leading book on the topic, was kind enough to put together this guest post about the Fourth Circuit's recent opinion in one of these cases:

By rejecting plea bargains, Judge Joseph Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia has been challenging the prevalent use of plea-bargaining in the federal courts.  Judge Goodwin began to do so in 2017 in United States v. Walker when he issued an opinion rejecting a plea bargain in a case involving heroin-dealing (discussed here).  He said he would continue to reject plea deals as long as the plea bargain wasn’t in the public’s interest.  True to his word he has rejected pleas in other cases including United States v. Stevenson and United States v. Wilmore.  Late last month in US v. Walker, No. 18-4110 (4th Cir. April 29, 2019), the Fourth Circuit issued its first opinion addressing Judge Goodwin’s rejection of pleas.

The facts of Walker are significant.  The government presented a deal for a plea to a single count of possession with intent to distribute heroin.  It recommended 24 to 30 months. The court rejected the plea deal and ultimately as a result of pleading guilty to three distribution counts plus a jury conviction on a gun count, the defendant received four times as much — 120 months in prison.

In Walker, Judge Goodwin described four considerations in whether a plea bargain agreement should be accepted: “(1) ‘the cultural context surrounding the subject criminal conduct’; (2) ‘the public’s interest in participating in the adjudication of the criminal conduct’; (3) the possibility of ‘community catharsis’ absent the transparency of a jury trial; and (4) whether, in light of the [presentence report], it appeared that the ‘motivation’ for the plea agreement was ‘to advance justice’ or to ‘expediently avoid trial.’” 922 F.3d 239, 245 (4th Cir. 2019).  In rejecting the plea bargain there, the judge discussed how West Virginia had been “deeply wounded by ... heroin and opioid addiction,” explained the public’s significant interest in this issue, described the importance of the jury’s determination of this matter, and concluded that the plea agreement had been improperly motivated by convenience.  Id. at 245-46.

While the Fourth Circuit addressed Judge Goodwin’s rejection of plea bargaining, the opinion is disappointing.  In upholding his decision, it focused on only Judge Goodwin’s analysis of the defendant’s criminal history and violence.  And it suggested that Judge Goodwin’s broader considerations such as the cultural context of the offenses were irrelevant.  Similarly, in concurrence, Judge Niemeyer stated that the court would have abused its discretion if it had rejected plea bargaining based on the government’s frequent use for the reason of convenience. Id. at 254.

The Fourth Circuit missed an opportunity.  It could have addressed some of the problems tagged by Judge Goodwin — that constitutionally-enshrined juries decide few cases and that the courts accept plea bargaining as necessary for efficiency — despite no constitutional backing for this proposition.

With that said, I recognize that Judge Goodwin’s actions resulted in a black defendant being sent to prison for much more time than the prosecution wanted — continuing to contribute to the problem of mass incarceration.  Additionally, a jury had some role but did not decide all counts.  Though one can argue that the Judge’s action in rejecting plea bargains is far from a perfect solution, whether you agree with the Judge or not, he has taken a bold, very courageous step of questioning our continued reliance on the system of plea bargaining.

And I share some views with Judge Goodwin.  I value the role that the jury was to play in the criminal justice system under the Constitution.  Plea coercion, as I like call it, occurs in approximately 97% of federal cases.  Most of the time the defendant is given a false choice — receive a discount for pleading guilty or receive a penalty for going to trial.  The obvious result is the system that we have now.  No one takes a jury trial; the penalty is too great.  In a book and elsewhere, I have argued that this system is unconstitutional.  Historically a penalty was not attached to a jury trial.  A defendant received the same sentence if he pled guilty or if he was convicted before a jury.

The Harvard Law Review summarized and critiqued Judge Goodwin’s opinion in Walker. 131 Harv. L. Rev. 2073 (2018).  Although an interesting analysis including a discussion of the significant impact on the defendant, the authors missed the mark when they simply stated plea bargaining is “a systemic problem that cannot be convincingly addressed by the actions of a single judge.” Id. at 2078.  They did not recognize that systemic change often begins with a single person challenging the status quo.  The judge has already sparked national media coverage and other significant discussions about plea bargaining.

With that said, what will the government do in the future in Judge Goodwin’s courtroom?  It seems like the defendant and the government will get around Judge Goodwin’s rejection of the plea deal by privately agreeing in advance to the plea.  Hopefully, the needed attention to the problems with plea-bargaining will not end there.

Prior related posts:

May 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, May 09, 2019

Spotlighting how federal drug prosecution patterns have changed in recent years

Screen-Shot-2019-05-08-at-10.43.47-AM-768x588I noted here that yesterday the US Sentencing Commission released its 2018 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics covering Fiscal Year 2018.  There are lots of interesting data to mine from this big new resource, and I am pleased to see the folks at Marijuana Moment highlighting one particular story under the headline "The Feds Prosecuted Even Fewer Marijuana Trafficking Cases In 2018." Here are the details:

Federal marijuana trafficking cases dropped again in 2018, continuing a trend that seems linked to increasingly successful state-level cannabis legalization efforts.

A report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that was released on Wednesday shows that while drug-related offenses still constitute a sizable chunk of federal prosecutions — larger than fraud and firearms combined — marijuana trafficking cases have significantly declined since states started repealing their cannabis prohibition laws.

There were just over 2,100 federal marijuana trafficking cases in 2018, compared to nearly 7,000 in 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis but hadn’t yet implemented their programs.

Trafficking cases for other drugs remained mostly stable during that period, with the exception of methamphetamine. Those cases have been on the rise, reaching about 7,500 last year.

All told, drug-related crimes represented 28 percent of federal prosecutions in 2018.  The only larger category was immigration, which accounted for 40 percent of cases.

The average sentence for marijuana trafficking cases was slightly higher in 2018 compared to the previous year, with the average offenders receiving 18 months in prison.

The reasons behind the decline in cannabis trafficking cases isn’t certain, but advocates believe that the data bolsters the case they have long made about how consumers would prefer to purchase marijuana from legal and regulated businesses instead of from the criminal market.

Technically, these US Sentencing Commission data are only specifically reflecting cases that were sentenced in FY 2018, so it is not quite right to say these data reflect precise prosecution numbers for FY 2018. (Some number of cases that get prosecuted will be dropped or will not result in a conviction for various reasons, to total number of cases prosecuted is likely a bit larger than total number of cases sentenced.)  Nevertheless, number of cases sentenced is a pretty good proxy for prosecution patterns, and the trends in all drugs noted in the graph above is interesting.  The slight uptick in federal heroin sentences and the huge uptick in federal meth sentences stand in sharp contrast to the notable declines in sentences for crack cocaine, powder cocaine, and marijuana. 

May 9, 2019 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Judge Jack Weinstein provides thorough explanation for FIRST STEP Act crack retroactivity sentence reduction

A few weeks ago, as noted here, the Justice Department issues a press release discussing the implementation of the FIRST STEP Act in which it reported that the "Act’s retroactive application of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (reducing the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine threshold amounts triggering mandatory minimum sentences) has resulted in 826 sentence reductions and 643 early releases."  These numbers are encouraging, though the US Sentencing Commission is this impact analysis reported that there were "2,660 eligible offenders ... in BOP custody as of May 26, 2018" who should benefit from Section 404 of the FIRST STEP Act making the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.  So we may be only a third of the way toward fully implementing just this one section of the new law.

Notably, a judicial legend has now added to the number of federal offenders benefiting directly from the FIRST STEP Act, as earlier this week Judge Jack Weinstein issued this extended opinion explaining the legal basis and justifications for reducing by eight months a sentence being served for a crack offense imposed back in 2009.  I recommend the 15-page opinion in full because it is a clear and effective explanation of the import and impact of the FIRST STEP Act, and here is an excerpt from the start of the opinion:

Defendant Cheyenne Simons was sentenced over a decade ago to a twelve-year term of imprisonment for his role in a criminal conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.  He now moves to have his sentence reduced pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act.  The Act permits courts to retroactively lower the sentence of a defendant convicted of certain Controlled Substances Act violations involving crack cocaine.

The United States concedes that Simons is eligible for resentencing but argues that the court should decline to revisit its original sentence.  “Nothing in the First Step Act,” it contends, “changes the court’s original assessment of the Section 3553(a) factors or suggests that a sentence should be arbitrarily reduced.” Gov’t Letter 5, ECF No. 754, Mar. 27, 2019.

The government is mistaken.  We now have two well-considered statements of federal policy by Congress since the defendant was originally sentenced — the First Step Act and the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372 (2010) (“the Fair Sentencing Act”).  Both favor sending fewer people to prison, imposing shorter sentences for drug crimes, and reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.  The court must consider this new governmental policy when deciding whether a reduction of defendant’s sentence is warranted.  See Sent. Hr’g Tr., Apr. 22, 2019, passim.

An extra year, day, or moment of freedom from prison, when warranted, is worth pursuing by a prisoner, and, if justified by the law, should be granted by the court.

Defendant’s motion is granted.  His sentence is reduced to time served.  An amended judgment and conviction shall be filed forthwith.

After serving more than 136 months of his 144-month original sentence, Simons is now eligible for immediate release.  While this decision does not substantially shorten his sentence, justice favors freedom over unnecessary incarceration.  Every day of imprisonment that can be appropriately shortened in a case like this should be.  See Shaila Dewan & Alan Binder, Just How Much of an Overhaul Is This Overhaul of the Nation’s Criminal Justice System?  N.Y.Times, Nov. 16, 2018 (“One day makes a difference because you don’t know what that one day can bring about in a person’s life,” was declared by a former inmate properly released early from federal custody after serving more than 21 years for her involvement in a crack cocaine ring).

April 24, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Some effective criminal justice coverage amid Reason's "Weed Week"

In this new post over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, I have flagged the array of new pieces at Reason in a "Weed Week" series.  Though I recommend many of the ten pieces in the series, two in particular should be of particular interest for sentencing fans.  Here are full headlines, links and short excerpts (with links from the original):

"How Even Legal Marijuana Use Can Land You in Jail: Failed drug tests can send people on probation or parole back into prison cells" by Scott Shackford

There are more than 4.5 million people on probation or parole in the U.S., nearly twice the number of people behind bars at any given time.  All of these folks are subject to incarceration if they violate the terms of their supervised release, and in most places, a prohibition on using cannabis products may be one of those terms.

"Marijuana is a big issue when it comes to parole, but it's just the tip of the iceberg" explains Tyler Nims, the executive director of the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.  "Parole is a huge issue in criminal justice reform and in particular in New York. But it's unseen and unknown."

According to analysis of probation and parole figures put together by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a little more than half of probation and parole stints end without incident.  But nearly 350,000 people get new jail terms annually because they've failed to complete probation or parole with a spotless record.  In some states, revocation of supervised release is the main driver of incarceration.  In Georgia, for example, 67 percent of new prison admissions in 2015 were due to revoked probation or parole.  The same was true in Rhode Island, where 64 percent of new prison admissions in 2016 were due to supervised release revocations.

Judges have wide discretion to set the terms for release.  That often includes prohibiting behavior that is otherwise perfectly legal. Probation and parole guidelines can limit where people go, who they can consort with, and what they may or may not consume.  Earlier this year, a judge in Hawaii told a man arrested for stealing car that he could not consume Pepsi while on probation — and put him under supervised release for four years.  While incidents like that one are relatively rare, prohibiting the use of marijuana while on supervised release is standard.

Whether marijuana use will continue to be deemed a violation is something to watch and weigh in on as state-level legalization continues.

 

"Pot Can Earn You Profits or a Prison Sentence: It all depends on where you happen to be" by Jacob Sullum

An estimated 40,000 marijuana offenders are serving time in state or federal prisons for agricultural or commercial activities that are now legal in nine states, earning entrepreneurs profits instead of prison sentences.  According to the website lifeforpot.com, more than two dozen marijuana offenders are serving life sentences or prison terms that amount to the same thing.

Life sentences for cannabis are rare, and the vast majority of people arrested on marijuana charges — about 660,000 in 2017, nine out of 10 for simple possession — serve little or no time behind bars (although they may suffer long-lasting ancillary penalties).  But some states still come down hard even on minor pot offenses.

In ... Georgia, possessing one ounce or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.  Any more than that is a felony, triggering a one-year mandatory minimum and a maximum of 10 years for amounts up to 10 pounds.  Pot penalties are similarly harsh in ArkansasFloridaIdahoOklahomaSouth DakotaTennessee, and Wyoming, where the lowest-level marijuana offense can be punished by up to a year behind bars.

Even states that are not quite so punitive can have nasty surprises in store for cannabis consumers.  In Texas, possessing two ounces or less of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.  But possessing any amount of cannabis concentrate is a felony, and the maximum penalties apply to weights above 400 grams.  The entire weight of food or beverages spiked with concentrate counts toward that threshold, which is why a teenager caught with 1.4 pounds of pot cookies and brownies in 2014 initially faced a sentence of 10 years to life.

April 18, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 15, 2019

Fascinating map and data highlighting prevalence and intensity of marijuana's criminal enforcement footprint

MIUJRLKJWJFCFOZTWYLD2U6JUI.pngOver at the Washington Post, Christopher Ingraham has this great new piece fully titled "Where the war on weed still rages: In some U.S. counties, more than 40 percent of all arrests are for marijuana possession." The title highlights the piece's themes, but the text and a map therein reinforce the point in various ways:

Marijuana possession led to nearly 6 percent of all arrests in the United States in 2017, FBI data shows, underscoring the level of policing dedicated to containing behavior that’s legal in 10 states and the nation’s capital.

But the figure obscures the considerable variations in enforcement practices at the state and local levels.  In many areas of the country in 2016, more than 20 percent of all arrests stemmed from pot possession, according to newly released county-level arrest figures from the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data.  The figure exceeds 40 percent in a handful of counties, topping out at nearly 55 percent in one Georgia county.

The data tracks arrests, not individuals, so there’s no mechanism for winnowing out repeat offenders.  Nor does it include arrests for the sale or production of marijuana. But the numbers still illustrate how marijuana enforcement continues to make up a big part of many police agencies’ caseloads.

The findings reflect, in part, a few simple realities: The federal government incentivizes aggressive drug enforcement via funding for drug task forces and generous forfeiture rules that allow agencies to keep cash and other valuables they find in the course of a drug bust.  And because marijuana is bulky and pungent relative to other drugs, it’s often easy for police to root out.

But given that recreational marijuana is legal throughout the West, and that two-thirds of the public supports legalization, critics view such aggressive enforcement tactics as wasteful, ineffective and even racially biased....

Nationwide, a few clear patterns emerge in the county-level arrest statistics from 2016, the latest year for which data is available.  A swath of mostly conservative states, running from North Dakota through Texas, is home to many counties where marijuana enforcement accounts for 10 percent or more of all arrests — well above the national average.

But those conservative states are by no means alone.  On the East Coast, New York and New Jersey stand out for relatively high arrest rates for marijuana possession. In New England, New Hampshire — the “Live free or die” state — also shows a high number of arrests relative to its neighbors.

States that have legalized marijuana, on the other hand, tend to have lower arrest rates. Colorado and Washington, where recreational use had been legal for two years at the time the data was taken, few counties attributed more than 2.5 percent of their arrests to marijuana enforcement.  Not a single county in California, which legalized the drug in 2016, met that threshold. Alabama and Kentucky — which are not known for liberal marijuana policies — also appeared to place a low priority on marijuana possession enforcement.

The data shows that Dooley County, Ga., has the highest rate of marijuana arrests in the nation. Out of 422 total arrests in 2016, 230, or 54.5 percent, were for marijuana possession.  The next highest was Hamilton County in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, where 43.5 percent of the 130 arrests logged in 2016 targeted marijuana offenders. That’s followed by Sterling (42.1) and Hartley (42.0) counties in Texas, with South Dakota’s Edmunds County (33.3 percent) rounding out the top five.

While these counties are all small and rural, some larger counties in and around big cities also reported unusually high arrest rates. In Chesapeake, Va., (population 233,000), for instance, 23 percent of its nearly 3,600 arrests were for marijuana possession. In Maryland’s Montgomery County (population 1 million), just outside of Washington, D.C., about 20 percent of its 24,000 arrests were for pot....

Another notable component of the study is what’s missing. Individual police agencies share arrest statistics with the FBI as part of its Uniform Crime Reporting Program.  But participation is voluntary, and different states use different systems to report crime and arrest data, which means that some jurisdictions have more complete coverage than others.  The map above omits all jurisdictions where the reporting rate is less than 90 percent, which eliminates large parts of some states and removes others, like Illinois and Florida, completely.

Not all marijuana arrests lead to convictions or prison time. But an arrest can be highly disruptive in and of itself: Legal fees, bail and bond costs, time lost from work and the potential for pretrial detention can take a heavy toll on arrested individuals.  In a number of cases, suspects have been inadvertently or deliberately killed while in police custody for possessing small quantities of pot.  In one recent high-profile case, a Pennsylvania man was crushed by a bulldozer as he fled from police attempting to apprehend him over 10 marijuana plants — a quantity that is legal in other parts of the country.

Cross-posted at Marijuana Law, Policy and Reform.

April 15, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Kansas doctor gets federal LWOP sentence for abusive opioid prescribing

In the wake of Paul Manafort's sentencing, lots of folks are complaining about privileged white defendants getting a different kind of justice than others.  But this federal sentencing story from Kansas, headlined "Wichita doctor who sold pain-med prescriptions for cash sentenced to life in prison," reveals that, in some cases, even some privileged white defendant will be subject to the most severe sentences possible. Here are the details:

A Wichita doctor who illegally distributed addictive prescription drugs has been sentenced to life in federal prison.

Judge J. Thomas Marten said it is “quite clear” that Dr. Steven R. Henson, 57, wrote multiple prescriptions without a legitimate medical purpose and “abused his position of trust as a licensed physician.”

“I have sentenced people to life before,” Marten said in court Friday. “They were people who took guns and shot people.”

The investigation began after a pharmacist raised concerns that a doctor was over-prescribing controlled pain medications. One man died from an overdose after getting a prescription from the doctor.

“I want this case to send a message to physicians and the health care community,” U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said in a statement. “Unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances is a federal crime that could end a medical career and send an offender to prison. We are dealing with an epidemic. Nationwide, more than 70,000 Americans died in 2017 from drug overdoses. That is more than all the American casualties during the war in Vietnam.”

Nicholas “Nick” McGovern died in July 2015 after overdosing on a mix of alprazolam and methadone prescribed to him by Henson. It was the count relating to McGovern’s death on which Henson was sentenced to life in prison....

Defense attorney Michael Thompson contended during sentencing that Henson wasn’t writing the prescriptions “to make easy money on the side” because he didn’t need to. He said that the doctor “tried to do what he thought was best for his patients.”

“I only had one goal in life as a physician,” Henson said, “and that was to take excellent care of patients and to increase their functionality,” adding that he tried to serve the under-served in the community and worldwide through mission trips.

But the judge cited Henson’s own testimony during the trial that he raised his fee from $50 to $300 to help pay rent on his medical office.

Federal investigators discovered that Henson would give pain-med prescriptions to patients for $300 in cash at a time, with few questions asked. The investigation began in 2014 with a pharmacist’s concern that a doctor was over-prescribing controlled medications. Prosecutors said Henson falsified patient records during the federal investigation in addition to obstructing investigators....

Henson was found guilty in October of two counts of conspiracy to distribute prescription drugs outside the course of medical practice; 13 counts of unlawfully distributing oxycodone; unlawfully distributing oxycodone, methadone and alprazolam; unlawfully distributing methadone and alprazolam, the use of which resulted in the death of a victim; presenting false patient records to investigators; obstruction of justice; and six counts of money laundering....

Defense attorneys asked for a 20-year prison sentence, saying that Henson led a “model life” outside of this case. “Maybe he wasn’t the best physician,” his attorney said. “He made some very serious mistakes. He wrote these prescriptions not out of greed, malice or ill intent. He was trying to help his patients. That was his goal.”

The judge said he had only met three or four people who he thought were “filled with evil and beyond redemption.”

“In some respects, what I’ve seen from you is worse, in that you don’t seem to understand,” Marten said. “I really don’t think that you get it. I think that in some respects you were numb to what you were doing over time. ... I just wonder if your practices have had any impact on you. It seems as if you’re still thinking, ‘Why am I here, what did I do wrong?’”

Just based on this news report, I think this case could probably sustain a whole book highlighting how this sentencing intersects with our modern opioid and overdose crisis and the broader debates over mass incarceration and equity and the trial penalty in sentencing.

March 10, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, March 07, 2019

"All Talk and No Action: Arizona’s Mandatory Drug Sentencing"

The title of this post post is the title of this notable new "Policy Perspective" document authored by Greg Glod of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Right on Crime initiative. The piece includes research, insights and lessons that extend well beyond Arizona, and here is the introduction and part of the conclusion:

Drug use affects millions of people, with more than 23 million people over the age of 12 in the U.S. addicted to drugs or alcohol.  Arizona has some of the strictest drug laws in the country, including mandatory prison sentencing.  Politicians and tough-on-crime state prosecutors claim that mandatory prison sentencing for certain drug offenses helps to reduce crime and drug use.  But are they really working?  Research shows that sentencing drug offenders to mandatory prison time does not reduce crime or drug use — it can actually make both worse. Prisons continue to become overpopulated with drug offenders who are better served with treatment than incarceration.

This paper will provide a brief overview of Arizona’s often confusing drug sentencing laws, discussing threshold amounts that trigger mandatory prison sentencing for drug offenses in Arizona, reasons why they are not working, and will overview what other states are doing instead.  It will conclude by recommending actions for state lawmakers to begin to reverse the negative social and fiscal impact of Arizona’s prison sentencing for drug offenses....

Arizona lawmakers have options for how to deal with the future of Arizona’s mandatory drug sentencing.  To avoid exacerbating the problems that mandatory drug sentencing schemes have created, lawmakers must stop advocating for new mandatory drug sentencing laws.  Nor should they support laws increasing or expanding existing mandatory sentencing schemes.  While every option available in other states is not necessarily appropriate for Arizona, some are, including “safety valve” and de-felonizing marijuana possession.

March 7, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, State Sentencing Guidelines | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Norfolk prosecutor appealing to Virginia Supreme Court after circuit judges denied effort to dismiss marijuana cases on appeal

In this post a few weeks ago, I report on an interesting tussle over low-level marijuana prosecutions in Norfolk, Virginia under the post title "Can judges, legally or functionally, actually refuse to allow a prosecutor to drop or dismiss charges as an exercise of discretion?".  What gives this story a bit of a "man-bites-dog" quality is the fact that a local prosecutor is seeking to dismiss a bunch of marijuana possession cases, but the local judges are refusing to do so.  Consequently, we get this week's fighting news under the headline "Norfolk's top prosecutor says he's taking fight over pot cases to state Supreme Court":

The city’s chief prosecutor said he will ask the state Supreme Court to force local judges into dismissing misdemeanor marijuana cases, effectively de-criminalizing the drug in Norfolk.  Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood on Friday sent a letter to the chief judge of the city’s highest court [available here], letting him and the seven other Circuit Court judges know that Underwood would appeal their collective decision to deny motions prosecutors have made over the past two months to abandon those cases.

Two months ago, Underwood announced he would undertake several efforts to achieve what he called criminal justice reform, including no longer prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana appeals.  But since then, at least four judges have denied prosecutors’ requests to dismiss marijuana charges. The tug-of-war adds to the confusion about whether it’s OK to have a small amount of weed in the city.  Norfolk police have said they will continue to cite people for misdemeanor marijuana possession as they’ve always done. Circuit Court judges appear determined to make sure offenders are tried, even if the commonwealth’s attorney refuses to prosecute them.

Both Underwood and the judges believe the other side is violating the state constitution’s division of powers, which mandates that “[t]he legislative, executive, and judicial departments shall be separate and distinct, so that none exercise the powers properly belonging to the others.”

Several, including Judge Mary Jane Hall, have said they believe the Norfolk commonwealth’s attorney is trespassing on the state legislature’s territory: making laws.  In turn, Underwood said the judges are preventing him from exercising the executive power voters gave him when they elected him the city’s top prosecutor.  Part of the job is prosecutorial discretion, or deciding which laws should be enforced, especially since he has a limited amount of resources....

Prosecuting people for having marijuana disproportionately hurts black people and does little to protect public safety, Underwood has said.  In 2016 and 2017, more than 1,560 people in Norfolk were charged with first- or second-offense marijuana possession, prosecutor Ramin Fatehi said during a hearing last month. Of them, 81 percent were black in a city that’s 47 percent white and 42 percent black.

This “breeds a reluctance on the part of African Americans, particular young African American men, to trust or cooperate with the justice system,” according to a Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office memo announcing the policy changes. “Such prosecution also encourages the perception that the justice system is not focusing its attention on the legitimately dangerous crimes that regrettably are concentrated in these same communities.”

The judge, Hall, admitted Fatehi made an “extremely compelling case” with his statistics on racial disparities, but said he should pitch it to lawmakers in Richmond. “I believe this is an attempt to usurp the power of the state legislature,” Hall said.  “This is a decision that must be made by the General Assembly, not by the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.”

Until there’s a resolution, Underwood said in his letter, prosecutors will not handle misdemeanor marijuana appeals when simple possession is the only charge. Instead, the arresting officers will testify against the defendant without the guidance of a prosecutor — akin to the way traffic cases are heard.  This is a common practice in the lower District Court and something the Circuit Court judges have suggested. But circumventing the commonwealth’s attorney’s role in the long term would keep marijuana possession cases alive in Norfolk, thwarting Underwood’s criminal justice reform.

Prior related post:

March 6, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 03, 2019

Notable new materials from the Drug Policy Alliance on drug decriminalization in Portugal

There is no shortage of talk about trying to move from a criminalization approach to a public health model in response to drug use and misuse, but there often is a shortage of resources examining efforts to make this move. Thus, I am very pleased to see that the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has some terrific new resources on this topic.  This DPA press release, titled "DPA Releases New Briefing Paper & Video, Drug Decriminalization in Portugal: Learning From a Health and Human-Centered Approach," provide a link, background and some details:

The Drug Policy Alliance is releasing a new video and briefing paper examining the human impact and lessons to be drawn from Portugal’s removal of criminal penalties for the possession of drugs for personal use.
 
In March 2018, DPA led a delegation of advocates from 35 racial justice, criminal justice, and harm reduction organizations across the U.S. to Portugal to learn from its health and human-centered approach to drug use.  The group included individuals and organizations representing those hit hardest by the drug war — from those who have been incarcerated for drug offenses to those who have lost loved ones to an overdose. 

Since Portugal enacted drug decriminalization in 2001, the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, overdose deaths and HIV infections among people who use drugs have plummeted, incarceration for drug-related offenses has decreased, and rates of problematic and adolescent drug use has fallen....

By contrast, in the United States, the dominant approach to drug use is criminalization and harsh enforcement, with 1.4 million arrests per year for drug possession for personal use — that makes drug possession the single most arrested offense in the United States. Disproportionately, those arrested are people of color: black people are three times as likely as white people to be arrested for drug possession for personal use.  In addition to possible incarceration, these arrests can create devastating barriers to access to housing, education and employment that systematically oppress entire populations.  Meanwhile, 72,000 people are dying every year of overdose in the United States....
 
While several other countries have had successful experiences with decriminalization — including the Czech Republic, Spain and the Netherlands — Portugal provides the most comprehensive and well-documented example. The success of Portugal’s policy has opened the door for other countries to rethink the practice of criminalizing people who use drugs.  Delegation participants generally agreed that it’s time for the United States to do so as well.
  
“I really would love to see the public health community step up and really demand that the criminal justice system separate themselves,” said Deon Haywood, executive director of New Orleans-based Women With A Vision, who joined DPA’s delegation.  “They need to divest from each other. Addiction should be handled as a public health issue.  Drug use should be handled as a public health issue.  The criminal justice system needs to let go.” 
  
As detailed in a recent DPA report, It’s Time For the U.S. to Decriminalize Drug Use and Possession, there’s an emerging public, political, and scientific consensus that otherwise-law-abiding people should not be arrested simply for possessing an illegal drug for personal use.  A broad range of stakeholders — from the American Public Health Association & World Health Organization to the Movement for Black Lives & NAACP — have taken positions in favor of drug decriminalization.

March 3, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 25, 2019

Excited for "The Prohibition Era and Policing" at Ohio State on March 4

As detailed at this link (where folks can register), the Drug Enforcement & Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has a very exciting event scheduled for next Monday afternoon (March 4, 2019).  The event is titled "The Prohibition Era and Policing"  and here are the basics:

The legal precedents created during Prohibition have lingered, leaving search-and-seizure law much better defined than limits on police use of force, interrogation practices, or eyewitness identification protocols.  Please join us as Professor Wesley M. Oliver discusses his latest book, The Prohibition Era and Policing: A Legacy of Misregulation, followed by a discussion with:

February 25, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"Mandatory Minimums, Crime, and Drug Abuse: Lessons Learned, Paths Ahead"

The title of this post is the title of this "Policy Brief" from The James Madison Institute authored by Greg Newburn and Sal Nuzzo.  I recommend the brief in full, and here is an excerpt from the final section of the paper titled "Lessons for the Future":

In the 1970s, frustrated with an intolerable crime wave and unprecedented drug abuse, New York, Michigan, and Florida tried a new solution.  Their theory was clear: harsh mandatory sentences would scare drug users into getting clean, deter would-be drug dealers from entering the trade, and incarcerate kingpins and major players who could not then continue to bring drugs into the state.  Leaders in each state were confident that their proposed solution would finally be the one that worked.

More than 40 years later, New York and Michigan recognized that the solution in which their leaders had such sincere confidence could no longer be justified by evidence, data, or experience, and repealed their mandatory minimum drug laws.  Those repeals were possible only after policymakers were honest about the failure of their solution to deliver on its promises.

In fact, dozens of states nationwide have reformed or repealed mandatory minimum laws over the past 15 years.  Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi all have exceptions to mandatory minimum drug trafficking laws.  Texas has never used mandatory minimum drug laws, and, like Florida, is currently enjoying a near 50-year crime low.  (Florida’s drug overdose death rate was 62 percent higher than Texas’ between 1999 and 2017.)  Louisiana repealed its mandatory minimum drug laws in 2017, with the support of the state’s prosecuting attorneys....

Florida, however, has so far refused to join the emerging consensus in favor of mandatory minimum drug law reform.  In spite of overwhelming evidence, Florida still clings to the same solution to drug abuse that has failed the state for 40 years, and continues to ignore the costly unintended consequences of its continued reliance on this failed strategy. Like New York and Michigan, attempts to reform Florida’s mandatory minimum drug laws are invariably met with dire predictions of doom and gloom, and Chicken Little-style warnings that without mandatory minimums Florida risks inviting 1970s-level crime once again.

February 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán found guilty on all 10 federal counts now facing LWOP sentence ... but surely could still provide substantial assistance

As reported in this NPR piece, headlined "'El Chapo,' Notorious Drug Kingpin, Found Guilty After Dramatic Trial In New York," the federal government secured high-profile drug convictions today in New York.  Here are some details:

After a long trial held under heightened security at the Brooklyn, N.Y., federal court, a jury has found Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, one of the world's most notorious drug kingpins who led Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, guilty on all ten counts related to drug trafficking. He 61-year-old faces the possibility of life in prison.

Tuesday's verdict ended a dramatic trial that started in November and was filled with explosive testimony from Guzmán's former cartel associates. It included testimony from more than 50 witnesses, many of whom described Guzmán's use of violence against his enemies.

Guzmán faced 10 charges in the indictment, including engaging in a criminal enterprise — which in itself comprised 27 violations, including conspiracy to commit murder. Other charges included using firearms and manufacturing and distributing cocaine, heroin and other drugs.

Last week, Judge Brian Cogan gave jurors about three hours of instructions for their deliberations. He said he was confident that they had followed his instructions not to read or watch news about the case. The entire jury has been anonymous for their protection. At one point, the judge told the foreperson to sign notes using her name but then corrected that instruction and told her to use her juror number instead to keep her identity secret.

The jurors — four men and eight women — deliberated for days, asking for lengthy testimonies and whether ephedrine was considered methamphetamine.

In laying out their case, prosecutors spent 11 weeks calling witnesses, while the defense took 30 minutes and brought just one witness to the stand. The prosecution and defense delivered their final arguments to the jury in January.

Jeffrey Lichtman, one of Guzmán's defense lawyers, gave an animated presentation, banging the podium, pacing before the jurors and patting his client on the shoulder.... The prosecution had produced a "scripted event," he said, with cooperating witnesses who "lie, steal, cheat, deal drugs and kill people." And if Guzmán was convicted, all of those people would be released, he said.

Lichtman cast doubt on whether some of the murders that witnesses described ever happened. He called Guzmán "the rabbit" that Mexican authorities were chasing when the true mastermind behind the Sinaloa cartel was Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada....

Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Liskamm led the prosecution's rebuttal, urging jurors not to fall for the defense's smear. "The day cocaine conspiracies are made in heaven is the day we can call angels as witnesses," she said....

Prosecution witnesses offered testimony that swung from the bizarre to the shocking. According to testimony, he had a diamond-encrusted pistol and a gold-plated AK-47; he kicked off a cartel war after a rival refused to shake his hand; he and a mistress once fled naked through a secret tunnel under a bath tub; he escaped from a Mexican prison with the help of his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro; and, in one of the most controversial allegations, he bought off Enrique Peña Nieto for $100 million — a claim the former Mexican president has denied....

Guzmán's 29-year-old wife attended the trial nearly every day, even as a mistress testified. She told The New York Times, "I don't know my husband as the person they are trying to show him as." The weeks also brought details of the sophisticated methods that the cartel used to move its contraband, from secret landing strips to container ships and submarines. People who stood in the way were allegedly bribed, kidnapped, tortured or killed....

Guzmán already had humiliated Mexico by escaping from prison twice. Once he made a getaway in a laundry cart. And then there was the mile-long tunnel that began under his maximum security prison cell's shower, a passageway that he told Penn had required sending engineers to Germany for training.

The cartel reportedly built some 90 tunnels between Mexico and the United States. After a long manhunt, he was recaptured in 2016 by Mexican authorities on the outskirts of Los Mochis and extradited to the United States the next year. He arrived on U.S. soil and pleaded not guilty to U.S. federal charges.

Guzmán showed in Mexico that he can devise ways to escape from prison, but I am hopeful US authorities will not have similar prison administration difficulties.  But, as the title of this post is meant to suggest, there is another way Guzmán could now try to work his way out of federal prison, namely by providing substantial assistance in the prosecution of others.

Ultimately, I am not sure Guzmán will be eager even at this point to cooperate with the feds, and I would be quite surprised if the feds would be willing to offer any significant sentencing discount for his cooperation.  But here it seems worth flagging the reality that, in a federal sentencing system that rewards defendants who cooperate, the greatest potential sentencing rewards can go to the most guilty of defendants who have the most potential information to offer.  Guzmán, who I believe is now facing a mandatory life sentence, would seem to be the poster child of the most guilty of defendants with the most potential information to offer.

February 12, 2019 in Celebrity sentencings, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Doesn't the FIRST STEP Act add juice to Eighth Amendment challenge to extreme stacked 924(c) sentence in Rivera-Ruperto?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by the interesting intersection of an important sentencing reform in the new FIRST STEP Act and an important Eighth Amendment case that I have had my eye on for some time  finally getting before the Supreme Court.  Let me explain, starting with the FIRST STEP provision.

For those particularly concerned about extreme mandatory minimum sentences, Section 403 of the FIRST STEP Act is a heartening overdue change to federal sentencing law.  This provision, described as a "clarification of Section 924(c)," now eliminates the required "stacking" of 25-year mandatory minimums for using a firearm during other crimes for those offenders without a prior record convicted of multiple 924(c) counts at the same time.  In other words, the extreme 25-year recidivism enhancement of 924(c) is now to apply only to actual recidivists.

The prior requirement of "stacking" 924(c) counts led to Weldon Angelos' extreme 55-year mandatory-minimum sentence for selling marijuana with his personal guns nearby (which is discussed at length here by Paul Cassell, the judge forced to impose the sentence).  US Sentencing Commission data here and here shows that well over 100 offenders each year have been subject to convictions for multiple 924(c) counts.  Just a few of many extreme 924(c) stacked sentences are noted in prior posts here and here and here and here.  Sadly, Congress did not make Section 403 of the FIRST STEP Act retroactive, and thus defendants previously subject to these extreme stacked sentences will get no direct relief from the new Act.

But there is one particular defendant with a particularly extreme stacked 924(c) sentence that I am hoping might get some indirect benefit from the new law in his on-going Eighth Amendment litigation.  Wendell Rivera–Ruperto, who was paid in 2010 by undercover FBI informants to serve as "armed security" at six faux drug deals, received a federal sentence of nearly 162 years, of which 130 years were for his six stacked convictions under 924(c).  As discussed here a year ago, in a terrific First Circuit opinion denying rehearing en banc in United States v. Rivera-Ruperto, No. 12-2364 (1st Cir. Feb 27, 2018) (available here), Judge David Barron lamented how judges "have no choice but to approve mandatory 'forever' sentences ... so long as they can hypothesize a rational reason for the legislature to have thought that the underlying criminal conduct was as serious as the large quantity drug possession at issue in Harmelin."  In so doing, Judge Barron highlights many questionable elements of the Harmelin ruling and, writing on behalf of the entire First Circuit, suggests SCOTUS take up Rivera–Ruperto to reconsider the "three-decades old, three-Justice concurrence in Harmelin."

As of a few days ago, as revealed in this SCOTUS docket sheet, all the cert papers have been finally filled in Rivera–Ruperto, and the Justices will consider the case at their February 22 conference.  Notably, and not surprisingly, the feds now say in opposition to cert that passage of the FIRST STEP Act reduces the important of the case: "future defendants in petitioner's position will not be subject to mandatory consecutive sentences of at least 25 years [and the] question presented by his case therefore has diminishing significance."  But, as the title of this post is meant to suggest, the fact that the Eighth Amendment is supposed to take guidance from an "evolving standards of decency" and be responsive to a "national consensus" against a sentence, I strongly believe the enactment of the FIRST STEP Act primarily operates to make Wendell Rivera–Ruperto's constitutional claim even more substantively potent. 

As I explained here, I see Justice Anthony Kennedy's departure as creating a new window of opportunity for advocates to urge overturning (or cutting back) the terrible Eighth Amendment precedent that is Harmelin.  Thus, I am rooting super hard for the Justices to grant cert in Rivera–Ruperto.   I am fearful the Court will remain fearful of taking on these issues and thus leave the (now-even-stronger) Eighth Amendment claim in this case to be considered anew through an inevitable 2255 motion.  Still, my fingers are crossed to support the cert chances of potentially the biggest non-capital Eighth Amendment case in a generation.

A few prior related posts:

February 10, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Gun policy and sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

"White House Opioid Plan: Recycled ‘War on Drugs’?"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective new Crime Report commentary authored by Roman Gressier discussing the recently released “National Drug Control Strategy” report from the White House Office of Drug Control Policy. I recommend the whole commentary, and here is how it gets started:

With the federal shutdown temporarily at bay, it’s back-to-school time for the White House, which recently released a drug policy report strikingly reminiscent of former President Reagan’s “Just Say No” response to the so-called “crack epidemic” of the 1980s — and of the hardline rhetoric of the Nixon administration.

The “National Drug Control Strategy” report issued last week by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) asserts that the current opioid crisis is “unprecedented,” while seeming to undercut claims by President Trump and his advisers that the “Wall” is critical to stopping the flow of illicit drugs into the U.S.

According to some critics, the report is simplistic.  The 20-page report reads “like a book report from a student who may or may not have read the book, and who may or may not have wrote his report on the bus ride to school,” carped Reason.com.

The report’s “policy priorities” will surprise no one who has advocated for focusing policymakers’ attention on an epidemic held responsible for 130 overdose deaths a day.

  • Reduce the size of the drug-using population through education and prevention programs;
  • Remove barriers to long-term recovery programs; and
  • “Aggressively reducing the availability of illicit drugs in America’s communities.”

But it rachets up the rhetoric, noting that “the drug crisis our country faces today is unprecedented,” warning that it has “evolved over the past several decades and has steadily worsened with time,” directly affecting every state and county and “every socio-economic group.”

February 5, 2019 in Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, January 20, 2019

"Sharks and Minnows in the War on Drugs: A Study of Quantity, Race and Drug Type in Drug Arrests"

The title of this post is the title of this important new article authored by Joseph Kennedy, Isaac Unah and Kasi Wahlers now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

Conventional wisdom has it that in the war on drugs you have to catch small fish in order to catch big fish.  But what if the vast majority of drug arrests were for very small fish, and disproportionately brown ones at that?  This Article is the first to conclusively establish that the war on drugs is being waged primarily against those possessing or selling minuscule amounts of drugs.  Two out of three drug offenders arrested by non-federal law enforcement possess or sell a gram or less at the time of arrest.  Furthermore, about 40% of arrests for hard drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and meth/amphetamine are for trace amounts — a quarter of a gram or less. These findings are the result of a first of its kind study of drug arrest data from National Incident-Based Reporting System (“NIBRS”) that analyzed all drug arrests reported for the years 2004, 2008, and 2012.  The resulting data set contained over a million cases, and useable quantity data was found in over 700,000 cases, making this study the most comprehensive study of drug arrest quantity undertaken to date by orders of magnitude.

This Article also challenges assumptions that the disproportionate representation of offenders of color among those incarcerated for drug offenses results from their greater involvement in selling larger quantities of drugs.  Offenders of color are by and large not more serious offenders in terms of quantity.  They just possess and sell drugs that are the most frequent target of arrest.  Blacks are disproportionately arrested overall because we arrest more for “Black drugs” than for “White drugs.”  Racial disparities might vanish or reverse if we were to make as many meth/amphetamine and heroin arrests as crack cocaine arrests.

After confirming that felony liability is typically triggered for selling — and in the case of hard drugs even possessing — such minuscule amounts, this Article argues that such offenses should be downgraded to misdemeanors for political, criminological and philosophical reasons.  Such liability is doubly unjust in light of the racial disparities revealed in the patterns of arrest.  A drug war premised on hunting great white sharks instead scoops up mostly minnows, and disproportionately ones of color. Felony liability for the two-thirds of offenders arrested for these gram-or-less amounts should be eliminated.

January 20, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Spotlighting continuing important debates over marijuana, mental illness and violence

Regular readers know I am quite interested in the intersection of marijuana reform and broader criminal justice issues (which partially accounts for why I have this other blog and this academic center).  So, it should come as no surprise that I have been following with interest the discussions and debates being stirred up by Alex Berenson's new book, "Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence."  The publisher's page about the this book highlights reasons why it is getting a lot of attention and a lot of push back:

An eye-opening report from an award-winning author and former New York Times reporter reveals the link between teenage marijuana use and mental illness, and a hidden epidemic of violence caused by the drug—facts the media have ignored as the United States rushes to legalize cannabis....

THC — the chemical in marijuana responsible for the drug’s high — can cause psychotic episodes. After decades of studies, scientists no longer seriously debate if marijuana causes psychosis.

Psychosis brings violence, and cannabis-linked violence is spreading. In the four states that first legalized, murders have risen 25 percent since legalization, even more than the recent national increase. In Uruguay, which allowed retail sales in July 2017, murders have soared this year.

I have not yet had a chance to read Berenson's book, but I have had a chance to cover some of his commentaries and now others' commentaries taking issue with many of his claims over at  over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  I thought it worthwhile to flag that coverage now over here, in part because I would not be surprised to see this important debate mentioned at some point during the confirmation hearing for AG nominee William Barr if he gets asked about federal marijuana laws and policies:

An especially helpfully addition to this discussion this morning comes from The Marshall Project, which has this great new piece with great contributors under the headline "How Dangerous is Marijuana, Really? A Marshall Project virtual roundtable."

January 15, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 13, 2019

"Mandatory minimum sentencing policies and cocaine use in the U.S., 1985–2013"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new research published in the journal BMC International Health and Human Rights and authored by Lauryn Saxe Walker and Briana Mezuk. Here is its abstract:

Background

As of May 2017, the United States federal government renewed its prioritization for the enforcement of mandatory minimum sentences for illicit drug offenses.  While the effect of such policies on racial disparities in incarceration is well-documented, less is known about the extent to which these laws are associated with decreased drug use.  This study aims to identify changes in cocaine use associated with mandatory minimum sentencing policies by examining differential sentences for powder and crack cocaine set by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act (ADAA) (100:1) and the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which reduced the disparate sentencing to 18:1.

Methods

Using data from National Survey on Drug Use and Health, we examined past-year cocaine use before and after implementation of the ADAA (1985–1990, N = 21,296) and FSA (2009–2013, N = 130,574). We used weighted logistic regressions and Z-tests across models to identify differential change in use between crack and powder cocaine.  Prescription drug misuse, or use outside prescribed indication or dose, was modeled as a negative control to identify underlying drug trends not related to sentencing policies.

Results

Despite harsher ADAA penalties for crack compared to powder cocaine, there was no decrease in crack use following implementation of sentencing policies (odds ratio (OR): 0.72, p = 0.13), although both powder cocaine use and misuse of prescription drugs (the negative control) decreased (OR: 0.59, p < 0.01; OR: 0.42, p < 0.01 respectively).  Furthermore, there was no change in crack use following the FSA, but powder cocaine use decreased, despite no changes to powder cocaine sentences (OR: 0.81, p = 0.02), suggesting that drug use is driven by factors not associated with sentencing policy.

Conclusions

Despite harsher penalties for crack versus powder cocaine, crack use declined less than powder cocaine and even less than drugs not included in sentencing policies.  These findings suggest that mandatory minimum sentencing may not be an effective method of deterring cocaine use.

January 13, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Noting the notable "new crop of reform-minded prosecutors"

Though I do not expect a new wave of progressive prosecutors to radically change American criminal justice system, I do hope they can and will be important contributor to whole new conceptions of how to approach crime and punishment in the USA.  This new AP piece talks about some of the notable new folks taking office this year, and here are excerpts:

To get elected as a district attorney, sounding tough on crime used to be the most effective campaign strategy. But in recent years, district attorneys have been winning elections by sounding big on reform.

Next month, at least eight new reform-minded prosecutors will take office in cities around the country after winning their local elections by promising to be more compassionate toward drug addicts and more evenhanded in the treatment of minorities. Some won their races against long odds and deeply entrenched tough-on-crime attitudes.

In Chesterfield County, Virginia, a Democratic defense attorney who promised to eliminate cash bonds for nonviolent offenders won a traditionally conservative district held by a Republican for 30 years.

In Massachusetts, a lawyer who pledged to stop prosecuting a list of more than a dozen nonviolent crimes became the first African-American woman to win the district attorney’s office in Suffolk County, a district that includes Boston.

And in Dallas County, Texas, former Judge John Creuzot won after promising to reduce incarceration rates by 15 percent to 20 percent and to treat drug crimes as a public health issue. “Justice is HEART work” was part of his campaign slogan.

For decades, that kind of mantra by someone running for district attorney would have been seen as soft on crime and a turnoff for many voters. But a shift began in some communities several years ago when candidates began tapping into public frustration over high incarceration rates, disparate treatment of minorities, and the decades-old war on drugs....

This new crop of prosecuting attorneys is facing resistance to proposals for sweeping reforms, mainly from police and prosecutors in their own offices who are accustomed to decades-old policies of locking up defendants as long as possible....

Rachael Rollins, who won the District Attorney’s seat in Boston, raised the ire of everyone from police to retail store owners when she promised to stop prosecuting crimes such as shoplifting, resisting arrest, larceny under $250, drug possession and trespassing. She pledged to dismiss the cases or require offenders to do community service or complete education programs. “Accountability does not necessarily have to equal incarceration,” Rollins said. “There are many different tools we can use to hold people accountable.”

Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney and public defender in Philadelphia, won a longshot bid for the District Attorney’s office in 2017. During his first year in office, Krasner has let go about 30 assistant prosecutors — 10 percent of the 300 lawyers in his office — and made it mandatory that he personally has to approve any plea deal that calls for more than 15 to 30 years in prison.

One of the challenges he’s faced and the newly elected DAs will likely face is an institutionalized belief that prosecutors should always seek the most serious charge and longest sentence possible. “I think resistance comes in many forms,” Krasner said. “There’s definitely a resistance that comes from the court system itself.”

Many of the new prosecutors have pledged to treat drug cases less like crimes and more like a public health problem. Scott Miles, a longtime defense attorney, won the Commonwealth’s Attorney job in Chesterfield County, just south of Richmond, Virginia, after promising to reduce felony drug offenses to misdemeanors in simple possession cases. Miles promised to “replace our outdated war-on-drugs approach to addiction.”

Kevin Carroll, president of the Chesterfield Fraternal Order of Police, said he is concerned that Miles will go too easy on drug offenders who often commit other crimes to support their habit. “If you’re not going to get in trouble for it, what’s the fear?” he said. “The truth of the matter is, unfortunately, for a lot of the people who are addicted to drugs, their ability to understand the difference between right and wrong is compromised. The fact is they’ll do what they need to do to get the drugs, and if they have to steal, they’ll steal.”

Lucy Lang, executive director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the new batch of reform-minded prosecutors represents a shift in the public’s attitude toward the criminal justice system. “It’s a little hard to say whether this reflects a massive sea change,” Lang said. “But I do think that this reflects an increase in awareness on the public’s part of the civil rights crisis we have found ourselves in as a result of overpolicing and mass incarceration over the past 50 years.”

January 2, 2019 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, December 21, 2018

Some holiday season highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

Though it has been well over a month since I did a round-up of posts of note from my blogging over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, but this is not because there have not been lots of noteworthy marijuana reform developments.  Rather, so much is going on in this space, I cannot come close to keeping up.  Still, here are just some of my recent posts from MLP&R that may be of particular broader criminal justice interest:

December 21, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Even more great clemency news in Oklahoma in wake of 2016 sentencing reform ballot initiative

In this post a few month ago, I noted the important work of lawyers and law students in seeking commutations for dozens of Oklahoma inmates in the aftermath of the state's passage of Question 780, which  made nonviolent drug possession offenses and low-level property offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies.  And last month in this post I reported that the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board had recommended commutations for a sizable group of offender, and this past week Governor Mary Fallin officially approved 21 commutation requests.  This local article reports on these development, and here are excerpts (with some emphasis added): 

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has approved commutation requests for 21 non-violent offenders. The 21, whose names were read off one-by-one Wednesday by the governor, made it to the final step in a three-stage process by receiving a favorable vote from at least a simple majority of the five-member Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board.

"We can keep people who are dangerous to society locked up, for those who have addiction issues that are non-violent, low-level offenders, there's a better way of doing this in our nation," Fallin said.  "On a personal note, this is just me saying this but, as we prepare for the Christmas holiday season, let's not forget there is a God of second chances."

Those being assisted through the commutation campaign are serving 10 years or longer for crimes that now carry lesser punishments following recent reforms approved by voters and legislators.

One of those was Juanita Peralta. Her daughter, Destiny Pinon, told News 4 that her mother was serving a 15-year sentence after she was arrested for a DUI while in a drug court program. Peralta has served about two years of her sentence in Taft, Oklahoma. "It’s unreal. I mean, it’s a good unreal feeling," Pinon said.  "When they said her name, it was just a rush of emotions."...

The 21 offenders were sentenced to a cumulative 349 years of incarceration. Wednesday’s action shaved 306 years off those incarcerated.

Richard Quillen, along with other parents and family members, was able to break the news over the phone to his daughter, Peyton Quillen. She had been serving time in Tulsa for a drug-related offense. "Governor Mary Fallin just signed your release papers and, as of this moment, you are a free woman," Richard told his daughter over the phone. "Okay, I love you."

Edmond resident Alyshea Rains, the mother of commuted offender Alexis Rains, told News 4 that the past two years without her daughter has been nothing short of tough. Alexis, now 24, was sentenced to 10 years for drug possession. She will return home to her now 5-year-old daughter....

News 4 spoke with Kayla Jeffries on Wednesday moments after she was released from the Kate Barnard Correctional Center. Her 20-year sentence was commuted after she was arrested for drug infractions at the age of 18. Jeffries served two and a half years at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center and six months at the Kate Barnard Correctional Center. “It’s surreal. I’m praising God. I’m thanking God every step I take,” she said. “I had my youngest daughter at Mabel Bassett, so I haven’t really had any bonding or or one on one time with her so I’m really looking forward to that and to just being a good mom and telling my story.”

Next Wednesday, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board will consider sending eight more commutation applicants to the governor.

Prior related posts:

December 8, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 07, 2018

"George H.W. Bush’s biggest failure? The war on drugs."

The title of this post is the headline of this Washington Post commentary authored by historian Matthew Pembleton.  Here are excerpts:

And Bush’s complicated legacy does include much good, from his handling of the end of the Cold War to his support for climate science and the Americans With Disabilities Act. But it also includes some bad — specifically, a profound escalation in the War on Drugs. Ronald Reagan may have reoriented public attitudes about drugs when he pronounced in 1982, “Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them . . . And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” But, it was Bush — and later, Bill Clinton — who put real resources into the effort.

When Bush took office, the federal drug control budget was around $5 billion. When he left office in 1993, it was over $12 billion. This was the sharpest escalation in the history of the drug war and it locked the country into a strategy of punishment, deterrence and intolerance. Based on instinct rather than evidence, Bush’s approach did little to alleviate the public health crisis of addiction or halt the flow of drugs to American shores. And we remain trapped within this largely punitive approach today. So while we remember Bush as a “gentle soul,” we should also remember his role in fomenting a drug war that harmed millions of American citizens, particularly in communities of color.

In a tale retold quite a bit over the last few days, one of those citizens was an 18-year-old D.C. resident named Keith Jackson, who was arrested as part of a White House publicity stunt. In September 1989, Bush astonished the American public by brandishing a bag of crack cocaine during a nationally televised address. The drug, a seemingly bemused president remarked, “looked like candy, but it’s turning our cities into battle zones, and it’s murdering our children.”

Rather than address the underlying poverty, despair or thrill-seeking that drives destructive drug use, Bush sought to wipe out the drug menace by punishing everyone involved to the fullest extent of the law and doubling down on policing. The solution, Bush said, was “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors,” and a $1.5 billion increase in federal police spending, the greatest single increase in the history of drug enforcement.

Jackson, meanwhile, was a hapless pawn in Bush’s theatrics. When the DEA learned that Bush’s people wanted to use crack seized near the White House as a prop for the speech, they lured the local high school student to Lafayette Square, even giving him directions to get him there. An obvious setup, the case was subsequently thrown out by two juries, but Jackson was eventually sentenced to a mandatory 10 years for selling to an undercover agent in the months leading up to his fateful September arrest.

Bush was widely mocked for the incident but remained unrepentant and paid little price. That’s because the fundamental strategy of escalating the War on Drugs enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, including significant buy-in from the black political class.... The instinct to punish drug users, particularly the poor, runs deep in American political thought, and the consensus supporting these tough-on-crime attitudes continued to harden as Bush championed the growing War on Drugs. On the first anniversary of Bush’s speech, Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates told the Senate that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.” This wholly punitive approach reached its apotheosis with the 1994 Clinton crime bill and its notorious “three-strikes” provision.

December 7, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Despite push by Prez and VP and support of at least 70 senators, odds of a Senate vote on FIRST STEP Act still reportedly "less than 50/50"

Politico has this lengthy report, headlined "White House makes last-ditch push on criminal justice reform bill," on the state of debate among Senate Republicans concerning the FIRST STEP Act.  Here are details:

The Trump administration and a bloc of Republican senators are making a last-ditch attempt to pass a criminal justice reform bill in the lame duck session.

In a closed-door party lunch on Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence made a strong endorsement of the bill to Senate Republicans, senators said, emphasizing that the GOP could take a clear win in the lame duck with passage.  And supporters said they picked up votes during the discussion; one supportive GOP senator said they’ve accrued more than 20 hard “yes” votes and that another dozen or so GOP senators are gettable, which would likely be enough to easily pass the bill — if leadership will bring it up.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) maintained his poker face at the meeting, other than to reiterate the Senate’s short calendar.  Asked to assess the prospect that McConnell will put the sentencing and prison reform bill on the floor, one attendee said: “Less than 50/50.”...

“A lot of people like me are still trying to understand what it does,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who characterized Tuesday’s critical meeting as a “higher level discussion of whether we should attempt to do it.”

As they assess the bill‘s prospects, GOP leaders are also asking senators whether they'd prefer to deal with the bill next year after Democrats take over the House, according to two sources familiar with the matter.  That would dismantle a fragile bipartisan agreement and require Republicans and Democrats alike to essentially start over.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is still trying to garner more support for the bill, which would lower mandatory minimum sentences for some drug-related felonies, expand a program for early release, promote training programs in prison and require inmates be placed in prisons closer to their homes. He and other advocates say they are open to changing the bill’s treatment of some criminals in order to win new supporters.

“We’re still working on getting additional yeses or additional cosponsors,” Grassley said, noting that the only way to overcome opposition from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and others was to increase co-sponsorship. He added that “we’re talking about no announcement before a couple days.”

McConnell is loath to take up the bill on the floor to prevent a circular firing squad among Republicans. But that’s already happening both in public and private: After trading blows on Twitter in recent days, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Cotton each gave opposing speeches about the bill in the lunch.

But supporters said they have the momentum and estimated only a half-dozen Republicans will be difficult to convince: Cotton, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.).  “Over half of the Republicans are for it, and maybe 80 percent, 90 percent, maybe all of the Democrats support it,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) said. “Things are all moving in the right direction.”

Still, Sen. Marco Rubio said that he is skeptical of the bill, particularly when it comes to classification of crimes and said he is “not sure there is anything” that could win him over. And a small bloc of Republicans, led by Cotton and Kennedy, are vocally going after the bill.  Kennedy called it “ass backwards” in an interview and said he had “serious philosophical problems with the criminal justice bill.” It “takes all our authority and gives it to a bunch of bureaucrats,” he said.

The Senate also needs to pass a spending bill by Dec. 7 to avoid a partial government shutdown, and lawmakers are trying to wrap up negotiations around the Farm Bill. The criminal justice bill is regarded as a “maybe” that could potentially wait until next year. A version of the bill has already passed the House.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that the bill “is still being evaluated and people are still trying to figure out where they stand.” He said McConnell has made no final decision....

But no matter what, there will be detractors.  Cotton told reporters Tuesday that while the House’s version of the bill was “fixable,” the Senate’s draft of the legislation has “gone consistently to the left.” 

If only a handful of Republicans supported this bill, I could understand why (but would still be frustrated) the Senate Majority Leader would not want to bring forward a bill favored more by his opposing party than by his own party.  But this Politico report reinforces my sense that a majority of GOP Senators would vote for the FIRST STEP Act and that a super-majority of all Senators (representing a super-super majority of the nation's population) want this legislation enacted.  That a few Senators from a few states can, in essence, exercise a heckler's veto highlights why thoughtful federal criminal justice reform has been so very hard.  Sigh.

Some of many prior related posts:

November 28, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (6)

Monday, November 26, 2018

An notable debunking of "Three Myths From Critics of Criminal Justice Reform"

Ken Cuccinelli, the former Attorney General of Virginia, has this lengthy new commentary at The American Spectator headlined "Three Myths From Critics of Criminal Justice Reform: They need to be knocked down." I recommend the piece in full, and here are some excerpts:

Criminal justice reform — thanks, in part, to an overwhelming 360-59 vote in the House on the FIRST STEP Act — has quickly gained momentum, championed by conservatives as a down payment towards ensuring that prisoners re-entering society do so with the tools they need to succeed. President Trump, who campaigned on restoring law and order, has been a vocal supporter of prison reform since earlier this year, and has recently signaled support for various sentencing proposals, as well.

But not everyone agrees. Senator Tom Cotton, a long-time skeptic of criminal justice reform, penned an article in the Wall Street Journal this summer in which he generally praised rehabilitation efforts in federal prisons but took sentencing reform to task, calling it a “foolish approach” that would “endanger communities.”  Meanwhile, now-former Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been critical of reform efforts as well, claiming that changes in drug sentencing risks allowing violent crime to run amok.  Research and, most importantly, experience — particularly in southern red states — inform us that both arguments lie on shaky, outdated foundations.  As the Senate appended modest sentencing proposals to the FIRST STEP Act, it is worthwhile to separate facts from fiction.

Myth #1: Drug crimes are inherently violent.

Among the subtler tactics that critics of federal sentencing reform employ is a simple progression: begin with discussion of America’s real, ongoing problem with drugs; immediately shift the focus to violent crime, as if the two issues are self-evidently identical; and then argue that the reason for America’s historical reduction in violent crime can be traced to the adoption of lengthy mandatory sentences for drug dealing.

This may make for a neatly packaged argument, but reality spins a far more complicated tale. First, plain observation of drug overdoses and violent-crime trends simply doesn’t lend itself to correlation. Between 1999 and 2016, drug overdose death rates increased by over 200 percent, while violent crime rates fell by over 26 percent. These skyrocketing overdose deaths occurred despite an entire bevy of mandatory sentencing tools available to federal authorities that were ostensibly enacted to curb the worst consequences of drug crimes. Instead, such sentences have had no discernible effect on deaths caused by drugs....

Myth #2: Longer prison sentences equals less crime....

While a simple fact is that research has yet to pinpoint the factor(s) most responsible for our historic reduction in crime, the weight of evidence is clearly against those theories which emphasize imprisonment — particularly imprisonment meant to discourage drug use.

According to a comprehensive analysis of the dramatic rise of incarceration rates and its affects by the National Research Council, there is an outward “plausibility to the belief that putting many more convicted felons behind bars would reduce crime.” However, the authors explain that even a cursory examination of the data reveals the “complexity” of drawing meaningful correlations between crime and incarceration rates:

Violent crime rates have been declining steadily over the past two decades, which suggests a crime prevention effect of rising incarceration rates. For the first two decades of rising incarceration rates, however, there was no clear trend in the violent crime rate — it rose, then fell, and then rose again. While incapacitation effects may be effective when targeted towards “very-high rate or extremely dangerous offenders,” the authors conclude that the “incremental deterrent effect of increases in lengthy prison sentences is modest at best.”...

Criminal justice reform is engineered to incentivize participation in substance-abuse treatment and other recidivism-reduction programs, or otherwise to curb overly-punitive sentences which may extract their pound of flesh but also rapidly lose their effectiveness as one moves down the offense severity ladder.

To summarize, weightier factors besides simply “locking up” criminals must be at play to account for crime reduction. Ascribing that reduction solely to lengthy sentences is a theory that doesn’t play well with the data — especially given the fact that thirty states have recently experienced crime rate reductions while simultaneously reducing their prison populations.

Myth #3: No one goes to federal prison for “low-level, non-violent” drug offenses.

It is easy to produce a statistic that there are relatively few people incarcerated for federal drug possession offenses and then brush one’s hands together with satisfaction, believing that the “we overincarcerate” canard has just been dispelled. But while this immediate fact is indeed true, putting it into context makes this line of argument less salient.

First, consider the composition of all federal drug offenders. In 2017, about 48 percent of drug offenders sentenced at the federal level — a majority of whom are trafficking offenders — were in the lowest criminal-history category, having been previously sentenced for, at most, one low-level offense.  Roughly 60 percent were in the lowest two categories.  To be sure, drug trafficking, which includes street-level dealing, involve more serious offenses.  Even so, there are still tens of thousands of federal inmates being incarcerated — for historically longer periods of time — for lower-level drug offenses.  Recidivism is a real problem, but federal prison is a big stick, and shouldn’t be the front-line corrective for every offense. Too often it is, even for simple possessors (over 80 percent of whom receive a term of imprisonment)....

We must begin shifting the paradigm away from using mandatory sentences as the obvious tool against lawbreaking — as states such as Florida, South Carolina, and Texas have done. Crimes should be punished, but the law loses its legitimacy when it punishes disproportionately.  The FIRST STEP Act — along with modest sentencing reforms — will help regain the law’s moral force and make us safer at the same time.

November 26, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Notable account of Acting AG Matt Whitaker's sentencing work as US Attorney in Iowa

The Washington Post has this interesting new piece about the current Acting US Attorney General's sentencing record as a chief federal prosecutor in Iowa. The lengthy piece is headlined, "As U.S. attorney, Whitaker imposed longer-than-usual drug sentences," and merits a full read. Here are snippets:

Raeanna Woody’s crimes hardly seemed like they would add up to a life sentence in prison. She had two nonviolent drug convictions, for possessing marijuana and delivering 12 grams of methamphetamine. But when she was arrested in a third drug case, she said, the office of U.S. Attorney Matthew G. Whitaker decided to make an example of her.

Under Whitaker, who is now acting attorney general, Woody was given a choice: spend the rest of her life in jail, or accept a plea bargain sentence of 21 to 27 years, according to court records. She took the deal.

Federal Judge Robert W. Pratt in the Southern District of Iowa later accused prosecutors of having “misused” their authority in her nonviolent case. He urged President Barack Obama to commute her sentence — and Obama did shorten her term , after she had served 11 years.

Woody’s case highlights one of the most controversial if little-known aspects of Whitaker’s career: his efforts to obtain unusually stiff sentences for people accused of drug crimes. Whitaker spent nearly five years as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. His office was more likely than all but one other district in the United States to use its authority to impose the harshest sentences on drug offenders, according to a finding by a different Iowa federal judge, Mark W. Bennett, who it called a “deeply troubling disparity.”

“If the president can look at my case and he can see that what I had done wasn’t severe enough to warrant that many years, then why was I given that many years to begin with, why was that much of my life taken from me?” Woody, a 57-year-old mother of five, said in an interview. “I blame Whitaker’s office and everybody underneath him.”...

The rate at which Whitaker’s office and another one in Iowa imposed the harshest possible sentence was a “jaw-dropping and deeply troubling disparity compared to the vast majority of federal courts in the nation,” Bennett said in a statement to The Washington Post. Whitaker never appeared before him, and he declined to comment about Whitaker’s term as U.S. attorney.

Whitaker’s Southern District of Iowa used enhanced sentences in 84 percent of relevant cases, compared with 26 percent nationwide, Bennett’s finding said. Bennett concluded that a defendant in the Northern District of Iowa — which had a rate of filings similar to Whitaker’s district — was 2,532 percent more likely to be subjected to an enhanced sentence compared with someone convicted of a similar offense in a Nebraska district. “I found their harshness in filing 851 notices inexplicable,” Bennett said....

In Raeanna Woody’s case, the filing was used as leverage by Whitaker’s office. Woody, whose last name at the time was Paxton, appeared before Judge Pratt in the Southern District on July 10, 2008. Her previous drug convictions resulted in little or no jail time. Her third offense occurred when authorities determined that she drove a car in which another individual was pursuing a drug deal.

Woody said a prosecutor from Whitaker’s office, Jason T. Griess, had informed her that, as a third-time offender, her sentence could be “enhanced” to mandatory life in prison under an 851 filing. She said she had no choice but to make a plea bargain that resulted in the sentence of 21 to 27 years. “I remember them saying through Jason that he wouldn’t budge, and ‘me and my office are going to make an example out of you.’ ”...

Pratt [later] then wrote a letter to Obama’s pardon attorney expressing his displeasure with how the case had been handled by Whitaker’s office. Pratt wrote in the May 13, 2016, letter that he was forced to impose a sentence that “was entirely disproportionate” to her crime.

The “most compelling reason” that the president should grant clemency, Pratt wrote, was that Whitaker’s office “misused” its power by threatening Woody with a life sentence by using the 851 filing, “effectively removing my discretion” to give Woody “a fair sentence.” Pratt stressed that Woody “was and is a nonviolent offender. She was not a significant player in the overall ‘conspiracy’ in this case. . . . This was not a conspiracy that involved ‘drug kingpins.’ It was a situation where methamphetamine-addicted individuals resorted to selling the drug to support their own addictions.”

For me, this story is not as much about the work of a particular US Attorney as it is yet another tale about the need to reform federal sentencing laws to reduce the sentencing powers now given to federal prosecutors rather than to federal judges.

November 21, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 19, 2018

"Drug-Induced Homicide Defense Toolkit"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new document now available via SSRN and authored by Valena Beety, Alex Kreit, Jeremiah Goulka and Leo Beletsky.  Here is its abstract:

In response to the growing opioid crisis, many prosecutors are treating overdose deaths as homicides.  Since 2010, drug-induced homicide prosecutions have increased at least threefold.  Criminal defense attorneys and defendants' families have asked for help in understanding these cases and how to defend them.  This Toolkit is an effort to provide that help.

And here is an introductory paragraph from the first part of the document:

This Toolkit is intended to serve as an informational guide for defense counsel and other interested parties working to mount a defense for individuals charged with drug-induced homicide or similar crimes resulting from overdoses.  The creation of this toolkit was spurred by two related trends: (1) information from parents, news reports, and other sources about pervasively inadequate defense being provided to many individuals charged with these crimes, and (2) widespread efforts by prosecutors to disseminate information and tools that aid other prosecutors and law enforcement in investigating and bringing drug-induced homicide and related charges, including presentations at conferences, continuing legal education modules, webinars, and the like.

November 19, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Four changes to the FIRST STEP Act sought by Senator Tom Cotton

As regular readers know, Senator Tom Cotton has been the leading vocal advocate against significant statutory federal criminal justice reform in recent years (see, e.g., Cotton commentary covered here in 2016 regarding the SRCA and more recently here and here on the FIRST STEP front.)  I have recently been informed by knowledgeable authority that Senator Cotton's office made the following offer to the bill's proponents concerning modifications to the House-passed version of the FIRST STEP Act that would lead Senator Cotton to be supportive or neutral rather than in opposition to the bill.  It is my understanding that these suggested modifications were generally rejected (though I think #1 may have been partially adopted in the latest version of the bill now being discussed in the Senate).

1.  Add an exclusion from the early-release credits for heroin and fentanyl traffickers.  The rationale is that there are already 57 exclusions based on the severity of the crime or the likelihood that the offender could engage in that conduct from home, and trafficking those particular drugs fits both those criteria.  It's consistent with what the President has called for.  These offenders would still be eligible for expanded good time credits, and for an expanded home confinement allowance under other sections of the bill (which TC doesn't like, but he's moderated his ask.)

2.  For changing the good-time credits from 47 days per year to 54 days per year: make that change prospective, instead of retroactive. It's not a huge difference in time — likely a few weeks or a couple months — but if the change is prospective, then we would avoid releasing ~4,000 offenders the day the bill is passed before they have gone through any of the anti-recidivism training.

3.  Add Senator Cotton, Graham, and Kennedy's bill to adjust the weight for applying section 841 punishments to fentanyl trafficking to reflect fentanyl's potency.  Right now, the weights are grossly skewed and do not treat fentanyl with the same level of harshness as heroin (proportionately), even though fentanyl is far more deadly.  The President endorsed this bill when we introduced it, or he at least spoke favorably about it.

4.  Add Senator Cotton & Hatch's fix to the Armed Career Criminal Act.  This fix would impact about 300 three-time + repeat offenders per year; it would revert back to the status quo when the ACCA passed unanimously, after being [supported] by Ron Wyden; and [a fix has] been called for by even Elena Kagan [recently] at SCOTUS.  It's also a huge priority for federal prosecutors because dealing with Johnson's fallout has been a massive time-suck to their ability to do their jobs.

He has other concerns with the bill, but recognizes that he can't get everything he wants.... To give you a sense of how modest #3 and #4 are, 267 traffickers were charged with fentanyl trafficking in FY 2017, and #4 would likely affect about 300 offenders per year.

That's 567 of the most dangerous and repeat offenders who could face harsher sentences under this compromise, while the vast majority of other federal offenders and the ~180,000 federal prisoners would be newly eligible for at least some relief.

We think this would be better policy, better politics, and could pass easily without forcing Republican Senators to choose between supporting the criminal justice bill or supporting law enforcement and their voters who do not favor a criminal justice bill that solely reduces punishments.

As regular readers know, I already think the FIRST STEP Act falls far short of needed reforms to the federal criminal justice system, and so I am not especially keen on additional carve outs.  But if additional carve outs are needed to get a bill to the desk of the President, I am so very eager to see a deal get done.  There has been significant talk of significant bipartisan support for reform now for the better part of a decade, and yet no consequential statutory reform has made its way through Congress.  it seems we are really close, but it has seemed that way before, too.  And if Prez Trump really wants to see this get done, and if he is really the great deal-maker he claims to be, there surely has to be a viable path forward to legislation completion (or so I want to believe). 

November 18, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Senator Tom Cotton, rather than argue against FIRST STEP Act, makes case for what should be in a SECOND STEP Act

Senator Tom Cotton, who has been the main and most vocal opponents of federal criminal justice reform, has this notable new USA Today commentary.  I was expecting the piece to argue against the FIRST STEP Act that has been endorse by Prez Trump and has wide bipartisan support.  But, as these excerpts highlight, Senator Cotton in this piece primarily articulates what further statutory reforms are needed to fix a broken federal criminal justice system:

Here’s what genuine criminal-justice reform would do: reduce arbitrary government power over lives and protect us from the drug epidemic ravaging our community. Congress can take three simple steps to achieve these goals.

First, we need to clean out the federal criminal code. Today, no one even knows for sure how many federal crimes are on the books. One estimate found between 10,000 and 300,000 regulations that can be enforced criminally, in addition to the more than 5,000 federal criminal laws.

Many of those federal crimes would be funny, if they weren’t so dangerous to our liberty. For example, there’s a federal law against selling “Turkey Ham” as “Ham Turkey.” Think such laws are never enforced? Think again. Gibson Guitars was prosecuted under a century-old law at a cost of millions of dollars to the taxpayers and the company because it allegedly transported wood in a way that may have violated laws of India. We should scrub the federal criminal code and remove such outdated and arbitrary laws. And we should create a transparent database of this shorter, more concise criminal code.

Second, many federal crimes do not require mens rea, or a “guilty mind.” Mens rea, a common element of most state crimes, means that the offender must have a certain state of mental culpability to be charged with the crime. Coupled with the vast and confusing criminal code, the lack of mens rea leaves Americans at risk of arbitrary prosecution for trivial conduct. Senator Orrin Hatch has been a champion for mens rea reform to ensure that, at a minimum, a defendant should have known his conduct was wrong before facing criminal charges. Congress should incorporate these concepts into criminal-justice legislation.

Third, the federal criminal code hasn’t kept up with the opioid crisis, allowing the epidemic to spread across the country.  For example, current law doesn’t reflect the potency of fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid responsible for killing tens of thousands of Americans each year. A trafficker can carry enough fentanyl to kill 5,000 Americans before the lowest mandatory minimum sentence applies, and these traffickers receive a mere five-year sentence for distributing enough poison to kill more Americans than died on 9/11.

Unfortunately, the legislation moving through Congress includes no mens rea reform, no reduction in the criminal code, and no crackdown on deadly drug traffickers. Astonishingly, the bill goes soft on some of the worst crimes — trafficking heroin and fentanyl — by allowing most traffickers to spend up to a third of their sentence at home, where many of them will no doubt return to dealing drugs.

At this point, it’s best for Congress to pause on criminal-justice legislation and take the time to reform our criminal code, include mens rea as an element of most crimes, and strengthen the sentences for dangerous drug crimes. Congress can also focus on how to rehabilitate felons to help them get off on the right foot after serving their sentence. What Congress ought not do is rush through flawed legislation in a lame-duck session.

I agree with Senator Cotton that we need to reduce the number of federal crimes, include strict mens rea protections in all federal criminal provisions, and better respond to the opioid crisis (although I think history has shown that increased federal mandatory minimums are an ineffective way to respond to drug problems). For that reason, I sincerely hope Senator Cotton is busy drafting bills to address these matters that Congress can and should consider swiftly after the passage of the FIRST STEP Act.  But, as the name suggests, the FIRST STEP Act does not claim to fix all the myriad problems of federal criminal law, and so Congress can and should address Senator Cotton's (second step) concerns right after they take a critical first step.

November 15, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (5)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Latest push for passage of FIRST STEP Act with sentencing reforms now afoot

The New York Times and CNN are reporting this evening on the latest chapter in efforts to enact significant federal criminal justice reforms.  This lengthy New York Times piece is headlined "Bipartisan Sentencing Overhaul Moves Forward, but Rests on Trump," and here are excerpts:

A bipartisan group of senators has reached a tentative deal on the most substantial rewrite of the nation’s sentencing and prison laws in a generation, giving judges more latitude to sidestep mandatory minimum sentences and easing drug sentences that have incarcerated African-Americans at much higher rates than white offenders.  The lawmakers believe they can get the measure to President Trump during the final weeks of the year, if the president embraces it.

The compromise would eliminate the so-called stacking regulation that makes it a federal crime to possess a firearm while committing another crime, like a drug offense; expand the “drug safety valve” allowing judges to sidestep mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders; and shorten mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, according to draft text of the bill obtained by The New York Times.

It would also retroactively extend a reduction in the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine signed into law in 2010, potentially affecting thousands of drug offenders serving lengthy sentences....

The support of the famously mercurial Mr. Trump is by no means guaranteed.  But if they can secure an endorsement, senators say they can move quickly on the kind of bipartisan achievement that has eluded Mr. Trump — and bedeviled senators and outside advocates of the overhaul for years....

If Mr. Trump supports the package, senators will still be up against a rapidly closing legislative window — Congress is set to break in mid-December — and certain opposition from conservative Republicans in both the Senate and the House. Democrats could also throw up roadblocks if liberals think they could get a better deal once Democrats take control of the House....

Lawmakers may have also gotten a boost with the departure of Jeff Sessions as attorney general last week. Mr. Sessions had used his post to order federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest possible charges and sentences for crime suspects, reversing Obama-era efforts to ease such penalties for some nonviolent drug offenders.  And he vigorously opposed legislative compromise, going head-to-head not only with Mr. Grassley but also with Mr. Kushner.

Mr. Kushner has had several meetings with Matthew G. Whitaker, the new acting attorney general, who has signaled that he is open to the changes.  The effort could be revived in the next Congress if he and allies are unable to succeed in the short term. Mr. Kushner has also traveled with Vice President Mike Pence in recent days to brief the vice president on the latest developments, the administration official said.

This CNN report is headlined "Senators, Kushner prepare to launch sentencing overhaul push in lame duck session," and starts and ends this way:

White House officials and a bipartisan group of senators are mounting an ambitious effort to push criminal justice legislation through Congress by the end of the year, four sources close to the process told CNN.

But first, Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, who has been leading the White House's prison and sentencing overhaul push, must ensure the President is on board with the latest version of the measure.  Kushner is slated to meet with Trump on Tuesday to press him to back the legislation, a senior administration official said....

One person close to the matter said that while the prospects for the measure several weeks ago seemed glum, its odds of passing now are above 50%.  The White House and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill agreed in August to postpone the legislation until after the midterm elections.

One source close to the process said that after the midterms -- which will bring shifting partisan dynamics to Congress in January -- White House officials working on the effort recognized they needed to move forward now.  "It's the lame duck or never strategy," one source close to the process said.

November 12, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

More encouraging clemency news in Oklahoma in wake of 2016 sentencing reform ballot initiative

In this post a few month ago, I noted the important work of lawyers and law students in seeking commutations for dozens of Oklahoma inmates in the aftermath of the state's passage of Question 780, which  made nonviolent drug possession offenses and low-level property offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies.  A helpful reader alerted me to notable additional news on this front reported in this two local articles:

"Board recommends clemency for 22 drug possession offenders." Excerpts:

Nearly two dozen offenders were recommended for clemency Wednesday, the first wave of hopefuls for early release from lengthy felony prison sentences for simple drug possession two years after voters approved turning that crime into a misdemeanor. State Question 780 isn’t retroactive, so Project Commutation sought deserving prisoners who were considered ideal candidates to have their sentences drastically shortened in line with the sentencing reform measure.

Kris Steele, chairman of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, is spearheading the movement and a member of the board voting on the commutation requests. Steele said a governor’s staff member was present for Wednesday’s all-day proceedings and expressed to him that Gov. Mary Fallin is committed to signing off on the cases before the new year.

The commutations modify sentences but don’t erase convictions. Fallin has final authority to approve, deny or modify the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendations within 90 days. “Gov. Fallin has been monitoring these cases closely and has taken an interest in trying to expedite the process of the governor’s approval, with the intent, as I understand it, to get these individuals home together with their families by the end of the year,” Steele said.

Twenty-three offenders had their cases for commutations heard Wednesday by the five-member pardon and parole board. Only one offender failed to garner a simple majority vote, with concerns about misconduct in prison perhaps influencing decisions. Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform launched Project Commutation in partnership with the Tulsa County Public Defender’s Office. Another eight applicants — the final ones in this commutation campaign — will be on the docket in December.

Starting July 1, 2017, State Question 780 made nonviolent drug possession offenses and low-level property offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies. The maximum sentence for simple drug possession now is one year in jail.  Sentences considered Wednesday were for between 10 years and 40 years long, with time served from five months to nearly three years.  “Twenty-two of 23 of the people that we helped with applications were mothers in prison serving decades had they not gone through this process,” said Corbin Brewster, Tulsa County chief public defender.  “The impact beyond the incarceration on their families is just enormous.”...

University of Tulsa law students helped to interview and whittle down a field of 700 applicants to 49 for the first stage of the commutation process. There are 31 who made it through to the second and final stage before the governor’s desk.

"Oklahoma group wants to build on success of commutation project for prisoners with drug possession charges." Excerpts:

During commutation hearings last week, offenders offered numerous reasons for why they were unable to succeed in alternative drug courts. Failing stuck them with lengthy prison sentences for possessing drugs.

Project Commutation has been an opportunity for a handful of convicts to earn another shot at a new life, advocating for clemency after State Question 780 turned simple drug possession into a misdemeanor rather than a felony.  But Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform wants more — the advocacy group intends to encourage lawmakers in the upcoming legislative session to apply the law retroactively.

“The Legislature will kick off in early February, and we are urging them to look at these sentences,” said Danielle Ezell, an OCJR board member, as she stood outside the correctional center where the commutation hearings took place Wednesday. “There’s over 1,000 folks in for simple drug possession that, if charged today, would not be incarcerated. And we would like to see those charges (retroactively addressed).”

Prior related posts:

November 12, 2018 in Clemency and Pardons, Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 09, 2018

Despite Issue 1's overwhelming defeat, Ohio leaders still talking optimistically about state criminal justice reforms

I have been worried that this week's overwhelming defeat of the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot in Ohio, known as Issue 1, could mean that long-stalled major reform efforts in Ohio would remain stalled.  But this local article, headlined "After Issue 1 fails, state leaders vow to take up criminal justice reform," provides an encouraging outlook on the prospects of reform in the Buckeye state through the usual legislative channels. Here are excerpts:

After voters statewide rejected Issue 1 this week, state lawmakers are ready to move forward on criminal justice reforms, legislative leaders said Thursday.

Ohio’s “big three” political leaders — Senate President Larry Obhof, House Speaker Ryan Smith, and Gov.-elect Mike DeWine — each applauded the failure of State Issue 1, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have changed criminal sentences. Voters rejected it 36.6 percent to 63.4 percent, according to unofficial results. Judges and elected Republicans largely opposed Issue 1, saying it was a flawed proposal that didn’t belong in the Ohio Constitution.

Obhof, R-Medina, said Thursday he will introduce a bill in the upcoming weeks that calls for reducing low-level drug felony offenses to misdemeanors; install a presumption for probation over prison if the offender agrees to drug treatment; allow people currently incarcerated for certain drug crimes to petition the court to be re-sentenced.

The bill will be based on a proposal developed by Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien, a Republican, and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein, a Democrat. The two ran against one another in 2016.

Obhof wants to take quick action on the bill, before Gov. John Kasich leaves office and the current legislative session ends. However, if it doesn’t get through by the end of the year, he plans to bring it back next year.

DeWine said criminal justice reform would be a priority for his administration, which starts in January, but he did not provide details of how that might take shape.

For the past year, policy leaders have been doing a deep dive into Ohio’s interconnected criminal justice issues: prison overcrowding, the opiate crisis, mental health treatment, falling crime rates, rising murder and assault rates, recidivism rates and more. A final report will make recommendations for lawmakers to consider in 2019.

Nearly 60 percent of all felony sentences in Ohio are for drug and property crimes, according to the Council of State Governments analysis of Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification data.

And while Ohio’s recidivism rate — those returning to prison within three years of release — is lower than the national rate, it crept up 1.5 percentage points to 30.73 percent, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “That concerns me but it’s good that we’re still substantially better than the national average. I still think that our prison population is too high,” Obhof said.

November 9, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Method matters: initial thoughts about Issue 1's big loss in Ohio

Regular readers know I had been following closely the debate over the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot in Ohio known as Issue 1.  A variety of factors had led me to expect that Issue 1 would lose, but surprisingly strong polling and all the "blue wave" talk had me thinking it might have a shot.   I certainly did not expect that it would get crushed, going down to defeat 63.5% to 36.5%. 

Issue 1's huge 27%-point loss is startling given that Ohio's Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown won re-election by 6% points and its Democratic Governor candidate Richard Cordray, who endorsed Issue 1, lost by only 4% points.  This means that a huge number of progressively minded voters decided to vote for liberal candidates and against Issue 1.  (A county-level analysis highlights this reality in various ways: e.g., in Lucas County (where Toledo is located), Senator Brown prevailed by 33% points, but Issue 1 still lost that county by 4% points.)

Issue 1's huge 27%-point loss is even more startling given that a somewhat similar ballot initiative in 2016 passed in Oklahoma with flying colors, winning by 16% points with a margin of 58% to 42%.  Given that Oklahoma is a seemingly much "redder" state than Ohio and that 2016 was seemingly a somewhat "redder" election than 2018, the 43% difference in outcomes in these initiatives leads me to the (obvious?) conclusion that just how a criminal justice reform is pursued through a ballot initiative can make a VERY big difference.

Of particular significance, it seems, is both the form of the initiative and who is part of the reform team.  In Oklahoma, the 2016 initiative sought a fairly modest statutory change; in Ohio, the 2018 initiative pursued a fairly aggressive set of reforms that would be locked into the state constitution.  Perhaps even more importantly, legislative "insiders" and other state GOP leaders were integrally involved in drafting and getting the Oklahoma initiative on the ballot in 2016.  The same type of insiders seemingly had no role in the Ohio campaign, and thus nearly all of them -- most notably, all the GOP candidates and many prominent judges, prosecutors and police -- actively campaigned against Issue 1.

I am hopeful state-level reformers in Ohio and elsewhere will continue to see the potential that direct democracy provides.  But reformer can and should learn from losses as well as victories, and there seems to be a lot to learn after a big loss in Ohio.

November 7, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Criminal justice reform ballot measures passing in Florida and Louisiana, but losing badly in Ohio

As noted in prior posts here and here, a whole lot of criminal justice matters were before voters this year. And though results are not yet official, it seems there are a few notable winners and one big loser:

Florida's Amendment 4, which would restore people’s voting rights after they finish their sentences (with a few exceptions), and Amendment 11, which enables the repeal or reform of criminal laws to be applied retroactively, both appear on pace to pass.

And Louisiana's Amendment 2, eliminating non-unanimous jury verdicts in felony trials, also looks to pass.

But Ohio's Issue 1, which sought to reduce all drug possession offenses to misdemeanors and enhance sentence reductions for prisoners participating in rehabilitative programs, has been soundly defeated.

November 6, 2018 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Buckeyes take the field to make forceful case for criminal justice reform through support for Issue 1

Download (23)Regular readers know I am following closely the debate over the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot in Ohio, now known as Issue 1.  (The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has been hosting public panels about Issue 1 under the title Ballot Insights, and has created a Resources Page for Issue 1 and a Commentary Page on Issue 1.)  Regular readers also know that I am a sports fan who is always intrigued and excited when prominent athletes take an interest in criminal justice reform issues. 

For all those reasons, I am especially drawn to this new commentary authored by Malcolm Jenkins and Austin Mack under the headline "Vote Yes on 1: Why We Must Treat and Not Jail Addiction."  I recommend the commentary in full and here are excerpts:

Mass incarceration is the most urgent civil rights issue of our time.  America’s stubborn commitment to the failed war on drugs, tough-on-crime policies, and lengthy prison sentences has resulted in the caging of a breathtaking number of black and brown people.  These policies have not made us safer, and they have not addressed the underlying causes of crime, such as poverty, mental illness, a lack of access to health care, and relatedly, substance abuse.  Instead, these policies have ripped apart families and neighborhoods, leaving a blight on communities of color that will last for decades unless we immediately reverse course.

These ineffective policies have been on full display in Ohio, which has an incarceration rate higher than any other country in the world (other than the United States).  It has the fourth highest total prison population in the U.S. and its prisons sit at 130 percent capacity.  Ohio’s zest for incarceration is costly  —  the prison’s budget is $1.8 billion a year. While other states are starting to reduce both their crime rates and prison populations through evidence-based reforms, Ohio has largely stayed the course of mass incarceration, cramming more and more people into eight by ten cells.  The population is projected to keep growing, costing Ohioans more and more.

But this November, we have a chance to change direction and be a leader in the criminal justice reform movement.  On the ballot is State Issue 1, which will convert many crimes of addiction from felonies to misdemeanors. Instead of going to state prison, people convicted of low-level drug possession will receive treatment, supervision, or county jail. They would not be saddled with a felony conviction, which can mean a lifetime of barriers to employment, housing, and more. Instead, they would have access to critical treatment.  And Ohio would invest the money saved in people — in badly needed treatment and in services for crime victims.

This will make us safer.  Prosecutors and law enforcement can focus on more serious offenses like drug trafficking, which remains a felony. Meanwhile, people who suffer from addiction can stay out of prison and receive the treatment and services they need. In the long run, this will mean more jobs.  And more jobs means less crime.  Voting in favor of Issue 1 is, in this way, a no brainer....

Righting the harsh injustices of the failed war on drugs is long overdue.  Drug arrests and prosecutions consistently affect black communities at an alarming rate that is far greater than white communities. In 2006, for example, police arrested black Ohioans at nearly 6 times the rate of white Ohioans.  85 percent of those arrests were for use, or possession, offenses. Issue 1 can’t right our past wrongs, but it can prevent some of them from happening in the future.

As student athletes (and a proud alum) at the best university in this country and in one of the greatest states, we know Ohioans want what is fair for all communities.  Some use fear mongering to divide us, but we know Ohioans know better than that.  We can do better  —  we can lead in reform, rather than fall behind.  We can be fair and compassionate, rather than pursuing the same old policies that crowd our jails and prisons and make us less safe. O-H-I-O.  Vote yes on Issue 1 this November.

For those who do not recognize the names of these authors of this commentary, here is the "About the Co-Authors" description:

Malcolm Jenkins is the Co-Founder of the Players Coalition, a 2018 Super Bowl Champion Safety for the Philadelphia Eagles and an alum of The Ohio State University.  Players Coalition is an independent 501c3/501c4 organization led by professional athletes to impact social and racial inequality.  Visit www.players-coalition.org for more information and follow us at @playercoalition.

Austin Mack is a Wide Receiver for the football team and President of “Redefining Athletic Standards” at The Ohio State University. This Op-Ed is supported by its fellow members.

Prior related posts:

November 3, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Power and Prejudice of DAs on Drugs"

03c3e6a3-d023-4cc0-aef0-579709278f31The title of this post is the title of this interesting investigation by Rory Fleming published at Filter, which is a relatively new resource seeking "to advocate through journalism for rational and compassionate approaches to drug use, drug policy and human rights." I recommend the piece in full, as well as these associated "Interactive Graphics," and here is how it gets started:

Public opinion is souring on the criminalization of drug use. But what prevents this from translating into practice?

While politicians makes laws and police officers can arrest whoever they find in possession of drugs, it’s prosecutors who turn arrests into criminal charges. Prosecutors have the final say in who to charge with a crime, which charge to use, and what punishment will be sought. In short, they’re in a position to inflict great harm.

Amy Weirich, district attorney for Shelby County, Tennessee (which includes Memphis), charged women with child abuse for being dependent on drugs while pregnant. She justified this by stating that she uses the “velvet hammer” of drug court to force them into treatment.

In Tucson, Arizona, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall sent the ACLU a cease-and-desist letter to try to stop the organization from talking about her support of mandatory minimum prison sentences for drugs.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond Morrogh of Fairfax, Virginia went to Washington, DC to accuse former US Attorney General Eric Holder of trying to reward drug prisoners with “lighter sentences because America can’t balance its budget.”

There are over 2,000 elected local head prosecutors, most commonly known as district attorneys, in the United States. And overall, these powerful individuals do not care what people think about the War on Drugs. They are going to fight it anyway, and hope that the voting public doesn’t notice.

That is the conclusion of an exclusive investigation from Filter, which surveyed the top prosecutors of the nation’s 50 most populous counties. (We included incumbents, outgoing incumbents, incoming DAs and challengers, making 61 individuals in total.) ...

After collecting public statements and reviewing cases, we emailed each prosecutor a short questionnaire about their positions on four key issues: marijuana legalization, drug-induced homicide prosecutions, mandatory minimum sentences for drugs, and the criminalization of relapse.

Around half of their offices never responded, even after a round of reminders. We telephoned 10 offices, which listed no email address for a media representative on their government websites.  One of them — that of Wake County, NC District Attorney Lorrin Freeman—hung up immediately on hearing the word “reporter.”

Many of the prosecutors surveyed have stated publicly that we must treat drug use as a “public health issue,” rather than a criminal justice one. But our findings show that the vast majority nonetheless support or implement practices that drive criminalization, inequality and large-scale human suffering.

November 3, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Latest analysis and discussion of Ohio criminal justice reform ballot initiative known as Issue 1

I have blogged here and elsewhere about the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1.  The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has been hosting public panels about Issue 1 under the title Ballot Insights, and has created a Resources Page for Issue 1 and a Commentary Page on Issue 1

The last pre-election DEPC public panel on Issue 1 is taking place tomorrow, November 1 at 10 am (register here), at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University.  The all-star panelists who will be speaking are:

Kyle Strickland, Senior Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute will be moderating this great panel. I know Kyle will also be bringing an informed perspective to the discussion because he is a co-author of this great new report titled "Race & Criminal Justice: Ohio Issue 1 and Beyond."  Here is part of the conclusion of that report: 

Many communities are rightfully asking the question of why is the opiate epidemic the catalyst for modern criminal justice reform?  At the core of this question is the notion that broad-sweeping reform efforts are much more politically feasible when the issue also impacts communities with privileged identities — whether that be race, economic status, or party affiliation.  In the future, we should not wait for collective tipping points to address systemic inequities because policies that disproportionately harm marginalized communities harm us all.

Now that reform efforts are in motion, it is critical that a racial lens be applied to policies moving forward.  A reduction in racial disparities in the criminal justice system should not be an assumed outcome of reform.  Disparate outcomes will likely re-emerge in the health care system, community based corrections, and all other institutions without intentional effort paid to undoing our legacy of racism and discrimination.  A more equitable system will require explicit interventions to address systemic discrimination and interpersonal biases at every level.

Regardless of the outcome in November, communities must demand that those implementing Issue 1 or other criminal justice reform efforts be held accountable to reducing racial disparities and repairing the intergenerational harm caused by mass incarceration and decades of disinvestment.

Prior related posts:

October 31, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Guest post series on Chicago "stash-house sting" litigation: Part 3 on "A Path for Future Litigation"

6a00d83451574769e2022ad3762ba2200c-320wiIn this prior post, I explained that Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic (FCJC), sent me an extraordinary update on the extraordinary litigation her clinic has done in response to so-called "stash house stings" in which federal agents lure defendants into seeking to rob a (non-existent) drug stash-house.  (In this post last year, I highlighted this lengthy Chicago Tribune article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," providing an overview on this topic.)  As explained in the prior post, Alison's update is so detailed and interesting, I have divided it into three posts to cover all she has to report.  The first post covered "Sentencing Victories," the second covered "Legal Victories" and this final one set out "A Path for Future Litigation":

A Path for Future Litigation

The new legal standards forged by these three courts of appeals [discussed in this prior post] make it markedly easier for criminal defendants to obtain discovery in support of racially selective law enforcement claims, which in turn makes it possible for defendants to win motions to dismiss on the merits.

The lower discovery standard also supports a lower merits standard for motions to dismiss for racially selective law enforcement than the standard set in Armstrong.  Under Armstrong, a defendant must provide “clear evidence” of discriminatory effect and discriminatory intent to prevail on a selective prosecution claim on the merits.  Armstrong, 517 U.S. at 465.  As Sellers notes, the Supreme Court explicitly rested that merits standard on “the presumption that prosecutors ‘properly discharged their official duties.’” Sellers, 2018 WL 4956959 at *6 (quoting Armstrong, 517 U.S. at 464).  Courts have made clear that such a presumption simply does not apply in the selective law enforcement context.  See, e.g., Davis, 793 F.3d at 721; Washington, 869 F.3d at 220–21; Sellers, 2018 WL 4956959 at *6.  Accordingly, there is no basis for applying the “clear evidence” standard to a motion to dismiss for selective law enforcement.  Instead, courts should apply the ordinary preponderance of the evidence standard.

In our Motions to Dismiss, the FCJC asked the district court judges to apply a preponderance of the evidence standard rather than a clear evidence standard.  See, e.g., Defendants’ Amended Reply in Support of Motion to Dismiss for Racially Selective Law Enforcement at 2­–4, United States v. Brown, 12-CR-632 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 6, 2017) (Dkt. No. 630).  Although the only judge to issue a merits ruling rejected our proposed lower standard, see Brown, 299 F. Supp. 3d at 995–97, Sellers supports the FCJC’s position that the standard for obtaining dismissal based on a selective enforcement claim must be less onerous than the merits standard for a selective prosecution claim.

Lawyers in other jurisdictions can use the litigation and precedents discussed above and in Parts 1 and 2 of this guest post series to fight race discrimination by law enforcement in their own cases.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Hire experts and gather data about racial disparities created by law enforcement in fake stash house robbery cases, gun cases, and others.
  • Litigate motions to obtain discovery regarding selective law enforcement in stash house cases and others, and ask district court judges to apply the lower evidentiary standard set by the Seventh, Third, and Ninth Circuits.
    • Appeal denials of selective enforcement discovery motions and advocate for other courts of appeals to adopt the lower discovery standard.
  • Litigate motions to dismiss for selective law enforcement in stash house cases and others, and ask district court judges to apply a preponderance of the evidence standard rather than a clear evidence standard.
    • Appeal denials of such motions to dismiss and advocate for other courts of appeals to adopt a preponderance of the evidence standard on the merits.
  • Use the plea agreements in the Chicago cases to advocate to U.S. Attorney’s Offices to dismiss mandatory minimum charges in fake stash house robbery cases.
  • Use the example of the Chicago U.S. Attorney’s Office to convince other USAOs to cease bringing fake stash house robbery cases altogether.
  • Use the time served sentences imposed in the Chicago cases to advocate for lower sentences in stash house cases elsewhere. Sentencing memoranda prepared by the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic in several of the Chicago cases can be found at these links:

Prior related posts:

October 31, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Guest post series on Chicago "stash-house sting" litigation: Part 2 on "Legal Victories"

6a00d83451574769e201b7c9134b4d970b-320wiIn this prior post, I explained that Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, sent me an extraordinary update on the extraordinary litigation her clinic has done in response to so-called "stash house stings" in which federal agents lure defendants into seeking to rob a (non-existent) drug stash-house.  (In this post last year, I highlighted this lengthy Chicago Tribune article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," providing an overview on this topic.)  As explained in the prior post, Alison's update is so detailed and interesting, I have divided into three posts all she has to report.  The first post covered "Sentencing Victories," and this one covers "Legal Victories":

Legal Victories

The FCJC’s stash house litigation has also changed the law in a way that makes racially selective enforcement challenges easier to litigate going forward, which in turn will result in better outcomes and lower sentences for clients around the country.  Last week, the Ninth Circuit built on the framework created in a stash house case litigated by the FCJC and became the third federal court of appeals to institute a lower standard for defendants seeking discovery regarding racially selective law enforcement.

In United States v. Davis, 793 F.3d 712 (7th Cir. 2015), a stash house case that was litigated and argued by the FCJC on appeal, the en banc Seventh Circuit became the first court of appeals in the country to relax the legal standard for defendants seeking discovery to support a race discrimination claim against law enforcement officers.  Davis eroded the onerous standard for obtaining discovery regarding racially discriminatory practices set by the Supreme Court in United States v. Armstrong, 527 U.S. 456 (1996).  Davis went to great lengths to distinguish racially selective law enforcement claims from the racially selective prosecution claim in Armstrong, holding, “[T]he sorts of considerations that led to the outcome in Armstrong do not apply to a contention that agents of the FBI or ATF engaged in racial discrimination when selecting targets for sting operations.” Davis, 793 F.3d at 721.  Davis represented a sea change in the law — for the previous 20 years, courts had routinely denied the claims of defendants seeking discovery in support of selective prosecution and selective law enforcement claims alike.

Last year, the Third Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit in drawing a distinction between the two types of claims.  See United States v. Washington, 869 F.3d 193, 216 (3d Cir. 2017). But the Third Circuit took this distinction even further, definitively eliminating two requirements that had made it virtually impossible for defendants to obtain discovery in the twenty years since Armstrong.  Specifically, Washington jettisoned both (1) the requirement under the discriminatory effect prong that defendants provide some evidence that “similarly situated persons of a different race or equal protection classification were not arrested or investigated by law enforcement,” and (2) the requirement that defendants “provide ‘some evidence’ of discriminatory intent. Id. at 221.  The Third Circuit’s elimination of these onerous standards represented an enormous development in the law of discovery for selective enforcement cases.

In United States v. Sellers, 2018 WL 4956959 (9th Cir. Oct. 15, 2018), the Ninth Circuit built on the framework created in Davis and extended in Washington.  Interestingly, the Ninth Circuit joined the Third Circuit’s holdings without emphasizing or even mentioning that those holdings had dramatically lowered the legal standard.  First, the Ninth Circuit joined the Third in eliminating the biggest barrier to proving the first prong — discriminatory effect — by holding that a defendant could obtain discovery in support of a selective enforcement claim without providing “evidence that similarly-situated individuals of a different race were not investigated or arrested.” Id. at *6.  Second, the Ninth Circuit held that a defendant need not present evidence of both discriminatory effect and discriminatory intent to obtain discovery, but may simply present “some evidence” supporting one prong or the other. Id.  Sellers thus significantly expanded district court discretion to grant discovery.  Judge Nguyen’s concurrence went still further, explaining that evidence that law enforcement was targeting neighborhoods of color is itself proof of discriminatory effect. Id. at *11 (Nguyen, J., concurring).

Prior related post:

October 28, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 26, 2018

Guest post series on Chicago "stash-house sting" litigation: Part 1 on "Sentencing Victories"

6a00d83451574769e201b7c9134b4d970b-320wiI recently received a kind offer from Alison Siegler, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Chicago Law School's Federal Criminal Justice Clinic, for an update on the extraordinary litigation her clinic has done in response to so-called "stash house stings" in which federal agents lure defendants into seeking to rob a (non-existent) drug stash-house.  In this post last year, I highlighted this lengthy Chicago Tribune article, headlined "ATF sting operation accused of using racial bias in finding targets, with majority being minorities," on this topic.  Alison's update is so detailed and interesting, I will need three posts to report all she has to report.  This first one covers what she calls "sentencing Victories":

The Federal Criminal Justice Clinic that I founded and direct at the University of Chicago Law School has engaged in systemic litigation against fake stash house robbery cases in Chicago. Our litigation has resulted in dramatically lower sentences for scores of clients and is changing the law around the country.

Sentencing Victories

Several years ago, the Federal Criminal Justice Clinic (FCJC) filed pretrial Motions to Dismiss for Racially Selective Law Enforcement on behalf of 43 defendants charged in the 12 pending fake stash house cases in Chicago, alleging that the ATF had unconstitutionally discriminated on the basis of race in targeting people of color.  The FCJC approached the legal issue of racially selective law enforcement in an innovative fashion by coordinating across cases and bringing empirical evidence to bear.  See ATF Sting Operation Accused of Using Racial Bias in Finding Targets—the Majority of Them Being Minorities, Chicago Tribune (Mar. 3, 2017).  Last December, the 9 federal judges presiding over these cases held a joint evidentiary hearing on our motions, an unprecedented occurrence. See Was Racial Profiling Behind ATF Stash House Stings? Chicago Judges to Take Up Landmark Case Today, Chicago Tribune (Dec. 13, 2017); Court Decision Could Force Changes to ATF’s Undercover Operations, NPR: Morning Edition (Dec. 15, 2017).

When the FCJC began this litigation, our clients were facing 15-to-25-year mandatory minimums and far higher sentences under the federal Sentencing Guidelines.  In the wake of the hearing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago made highly unusual plea offers in all of the cases, offering to dismiss all of the remaining mandatory-minimum gun and drug charges. See Under Pressure by Judges, Prosecutors to Offer Plea Deals in Controversial Drug Stash House Cases, Chicago Tribune (Feb. 21, 2018).

Of the 43 clients who participated in our selective enforcement challenge, 34 have now been sentenced.  Fully 27 of the 34 received sentences of “time served,” despite requests by the government for within-Guidelines sentences that ranged as high as 12 years.  The remaining clients received significantly below-Guidelines sentences.  The chart linked here depicts these incredible outcomes and is being filed publicly with the judges to show that time-served sentences are now the norm in these cases.  As a result of the plea offers and time-served sentences, clients on bond were allowed to remain in the community, clients in custody were promptly released, and our clients collectively were spared hundreds of years in prison.  These remarkable results are attributable to the tremendous efforts of everyone in the FCJC: Professor Erica Zunkel (the Associate Director of the FCJC), Professor Judith Miller, and the many students who worked on the litigation.

These extraordinary sentencing outcomes show the power of litigating creatively and demonstrate that sometimes the fight alone can bring about systemic change, regardless of the legal outcome.  The FCJC did not win the motions to dismiss, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the ATF have entirely stopped bringing fake stash house cases in Chicago, even as those cases continue to be prosecuted elsewhere.  The FCJC’s litigation also changed the judges’ perspective on these cases.  Although Chief Judge Castillo “reluctantly denied” the FCJC’s Motion to Dismiss in his two stash house cases, he wrote: “Our criminal justice system should not tolerate false stash house cases in 2018.”  United States v. Brown, 299 F. Supp. 3d 976, 984 (N.D. Ill 2018).  In particular, he said, “The inherent problems of this District’s false stash house cases must be seen through the lens of our country’s sad history of racism,” id. at 985, and implored the government to “relegat[e]” them to “the dark corridors of our past,” id. at 984; see also Editorial: Even Fighting Capone, Feds Knew Better Than to Resort to Cheap Tricks, Chicago Sun Times (Mar. 13, 2018).  In another FCJC case, Judge Gettleman issued a sentencing opinion “express[ing] this court’s disgust with the ATF’s conduct in this case.” United States v. Paxton, 2018 WL 4504160, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 20, 2018).

October 26, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Another big accounting of the big failings of the global drug war

As summarized in this CNN piece, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC) has produced a big new report saying "the United Nations' drug strategy of the past 10 years has been a failure." Here is more:

The report claims that UN efforts to eliminate the illegal drug market by 2019 through a "war on drugs" approach has had scant effect on global supply while having negative effects on health, human rights, security and development. According to the report, drug-related deaths have increased by 145% over the last decade, with more than 71,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017 alone. At least 3,940 people were executed for drug offenses around the world over the last 10 years, while drug crackdowns in the Philippines resulted in around 27,000 extrajudicial killings.

The IDPC, a network of 177 national and international NGOs concerned with drug policy and drug abuse, is urging the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs to consider a different approach to narcotics strategy for the next 10 years in the run-up to a March 2019 summit in Vienna, Austria. "This report is another nail in the coffin for the war on drugs," said Ann Fordham, the Executive Director of IDPC, in a prepared statement.

"The fact that governments and the UN do not see fit to properly evaluate the disastrous impact of the last ten years of drug policy is depressingly unsurprising. "Governments will meet next March at the UN and will likely rubber-stamp more of the same for the next decade in drug policy. This would be a gross dereliction of duty and a recipe for more blood spilled in the name of drug control."

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, responded to CNN's Richard Richard on Monday. "Obviously, there have been significant successes and failures in dealing with the problem of drug trafficking, and we've made that clear over the many remarks we've made about the drug problem each year," he said....

In 2017, Mexico, for example, recorded its most murderous year on record due to soaring levels of drug-related violence. As previously reported by CNN, the Mexican National Institute of Statistics and Geography revealed that there were 31,174 homicides over the course of the year -- an increase of 27% over 2016. In addition to fueling violence, the existing policy of criminalizing drug use has also resulted in mass incarceration, the report said. One in five prisoners are currently imprisoned for drug offenses, many on charges related to possession for personal use....

"What we learn from the IDPC shadow report is compelling. Since governments started collecting data on drugs in the 1990s, the cultivation, consumption and illegal trafficking of drugs have reached record levels," wrote Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, in the report's foreword. "Moreover, current drug policies are a serious obstacle to other social and economic objectives and the 'war on drugs' has resulted in millions of people murdered, disappeared, or internally displaced."

The full report is available at this link.

October 23, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentencing around the world, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Should a state judge be campaigning against a state criminal justice reform initiative when talking to potential jurors?!?!?

I have been more than a bit troubled by the fact that Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor has been serving for months as the campaigner-in-chief against an interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1 (and the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at OSU has been hosting public panels about Issue 1 under the title Ballot Insights, and has created a Resources Page for Issue 1 and a Commentary Page on Issue 1).  One of my concerns has been that her visible role has put her in lock-step with advocacy by Ohio's prosecutors, and also seemingly has made many Ohio state judges feel comfortable speaking out against Issue 1 while making it hard for other state judges to feel comfortable speaking out for Issue 1.

Whatever one thinking about a judge or justice discussing their views on a ballot initiative in public, I am especially troubled by this story out of Cleveland that prompts the question in the title of this post.  The piece is headlined "Cuyahoga County judge politicks against Issue 1 to potential jurors inside courthouse," and here are the details:

A Cuyahoga County judge who is a vocal critic of a sentencing reform initiative on the ballot for the Nov. 6 election has taken his opposition to residents forced to show up for jury duty at the Justice Center.

Multiple times in recent weeks, Common Pleas Court Judge David Matia has used the time usually reserved for a judge to welcome the hundreds of potential jurors to their mandatory civic duty to instead deliver a spiel in which he explicitly urged them to vote against Issue 1.

Administrative and Presiding Judge John J. Russo does not object to Matia's actions, which Matia insisted in a Monday phone interview did not violate any judicial ethics rules. Judges are allowed to take public stances on issues that "directly affect the administration of justice," and it is up to a particular judge to determine when and where it is appropriate to make those comments, according to a 2002 advisory opinion by the Ohio Supreme Court's Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline.

"Whether it's a group of jurors or a bingo hall, it doesn't matter," Matia said. "The opportunity to educate the public should not be ignored by members of the judiciary."

But Matia's choice to deliver the message as part of the regular duties of his seat on the bench -- to a group of people with no choice to leave -- raises serious ethical questions, a legal expert said. "He's got a right to announce his views," Charles Geyh, a law professor at Indiana University, told cleveland.com. "What I don't like is he is using his judicial office as a vehicle for addressing a captive audience. That's where he's abusing the prestige of his judicial office."...

Matia said he has spoken to potential jurors three times. He said he has done so in addition to the judge on the schedule twice, and spoke on Wednesday in place of the judge who was supposed to address the room when that judge did not show up. He said he hit the usual talking points he hits when he speaks in public about the issue, and urged a "no" vote. "It's not a political issue," he said. "This is a matter directly affecting the administration of justice, and frankly it's our duty to educate the public on this issue and how it will affect the administration of justice."

Russo said in a statement through a spokesman that he "was made aware that his colleague has been speaking to jurors" about the measure. "Judge Matia is an elected Cuyahoga County official and is speaking to constituents about an issue that impacts the administration of justice in the state," Russo said in the statement.

Rick Dove, director of the court's Board of Professional Conduct, said this situation is not explicitly spelled out in any judicial ethics rules, or addressed in any advisory opinions. Dove pointed to the 2002 opinion, which came in response to a complaint filed over a judge's public endorsement of a proposed constitutional amendment that dealt with expanding the use of drug treatment in sentencing....

The board wrote that judges could address certain legal issues that affect the administration of justice, and that it was not inappropriate for judges to do so in newspaper editorials, radio and TV ads, public forums and other mediums. "No rule within the Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct, provides a list of appropriate forums for judicial speech," the board wrote. "A judge must exercise his or her discretion regarding appropriate forums for speaking to the public regarding the law, the legal system, and the administration of justice."

But Matia's advocacy did not occur at a forum or a public meeting where people came voluntarily to hear thoughts about the issue. It came inside the courthouse, to a group of people who had been summoned to perform a mandatory government duty. Matia carried the authority of being a judge inside the courthouse and acted within the scope of his judicial office when he took the stance, all to an audience who was not free to leave, Geyh argued. "He seems to be exploiting his role as judge to create this opportunity to vent his ideological point of view with respect to this view of legislation," Geyh said.

Matia called his advocacy at the courthouse "a non-issue, ethics wise." He sent a copy of the 2002 opinion to cleveland.com Monday in a text message after the phone interview for this story. "Just remember to vote no on [Issue] 1," Matia wrote, adding a smiley-face emoticon.

I am squarely with Professor Geyh on this one, and I have concerns about Judge Matia's actions that go beyond the specifics of talking about Issue 1 to a captive audience inside a courthouse. At least some of these prospective jurors are going to be asked to participate in cases that might involve applications of the laws and policies that are the subject-matter of Issue 1, and I worry about how the judge's comments may be impacting the jury pool beyond how the judge has become a campaigner for a partisan position in the courthouse.

Prior related posts:

October 23, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 19, 2018

Rastafarian musician gets eight-year sentence after being found with 2.89 pounds of marijuana in car

I sometimes see reporters and others suggest that personal marijuana possession and use has already become essentially de facto legal throughout the country.  This story of a sentencing in Mississippi this week, headlined "Jamaican-born musician sentenced to 8 years in prison for marijuana he legally obtained," puts the lie to this suggestion. Here are the details:

A Jamaican-born musician convicted of drug trafficking in Madison County for marijuana he said he obtained legally in Oregon for his personal use received an eight-year prison sentence without parole Monday. Madison County Circuit Judge William Chapman said Patrick Beadle, 46, of Oregon, faced a maximum 40 years in prison after a jury convicted him in July under the state's drug trafficking law.

Beadle, who performs under the name BlackFire, was charged with drug trafficking, although he said the marijuana he had with him was for his personal use and was obtained legally in Oregon where medical marijuana was legalized in 1998. Oregon voters approved recreational use of marijuana in 2014. Prosecutors admitted there was no evidence to prove Beadle was trafficking in drugs other than the amount of marijuana, 2.89 pounds, and that it was concealed in his vehicle.

Chapman departed from giving Beadle the 10 to 40 years under the drug trafficking law, but he wouldn't reduce it to simple possession because he said the jury convicted Beadle under the drug trafficking law. Chapman said Beadle would have to serve the eight year sentence day-for-day since the law doesn't allow for parole or probation....

Patrick Beadle said he has a medical marijuana card from Oregon to treat chronic pain in both knees where cartilage has worn down from his years of playing college basketball. Marijuana use is also common among Rastafarians.

Beadle said he was traveling March 8, 2017, southbound on I-55 after entering Madison County and at about 10 a.m., he was pulled over on I-55 near Canton by a Madison County deputy for the alleged traffic violation of crossing over the fog line, the painted line on the side of a roadway. He disputes the deputy's assertion that he crossed over the fog line. He said his dreadlocks and out-of-state auto tag made him a target for racial profiling....

In the Beadle case, then-Deputy Joseph Mangino found no large sums of money, drug paraphernalia or weight measuring scale to substantiate the trafficking charge. "This is not the typical defendant you see. "He is not a drug dealer," said Randy Harris, who was Beadle's trial attorney.

This lengthy (pre-sentencing) article from another local paper provides a few more details and some context about this disconcerting case:

Beadle was southbound on I-55 and had crossed from Yazoo into Madison County. A few seconds later, a Madison County sheriff’s deputy pulled him over.  A search of Beadle’s car revealed 2.8 pounds of marijuana.

Following a trial in July, a jury took 25 minutes to find him guilty of charges that could land him in prison for up to 40 years without parole.  Beadle, who is African American, and his allies say the fact that he was pulled over is a clear case of racial profiling while law enforcement officials maintain that a traffic violation led to the stop....

In Madison County, drug dispositions between 2013 and 2017 -- that is, drug charges settled in those years -- neared 1,000, based on data provided by the Administrative Office of Courts. Of those total charges, only two people were found guilty by a jury as Beadle was, Mississippi Today found.  Out of all the drug dispositions, about three in five were faced by African Americans.

That discrepancy goes up when looking only at guilty pleas.  The majority of defendants pled guilty to over 600 charges in Madison County during that timeframe. About 66 percent of those individuals were black -- though black people make up only 38 percent of the county’s population -- while 32 percent were white.

October 19, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Examples of "over-punishment", Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Some prosecutors and some conservatives push back on momentum for federal criminal justice reforms

As highlighted via recent posts here and here, momentum seems to be picking up again for the passage of a version of the federal FIRST STEP Act that would reform federal prison practices and tweak federal sentencing rules.  Perhaps prompted by these realities, a new poll and new letter has emerged to push back on reform efforts. 

The poll comes from ORC International and was commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice, a group which represents the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.  This press release reports on the heart of the poll:

A new survey of American adults, commissioned by the Foundation for Safeguarding Justice (FSJ), confirms that Americans overwhelmingly oppose sentencing and prison and “reforms” that would reduce federal criminal penalties for drug traffickers and allow the early release of prisoners to “home confinement.” Three out of four Americans surveyed (74 percent) said that they oppose proposals that reduce penalties for criminals involved in the trafficking of heroin, fentanyl, and similar drugs....

Public opposition to criminal leniency is deep across the American population and holds true regardless of race, gender, or party affiliation, the FSJ survey results (detailed below) show. The survey results represent an objective barometer of public opposition to criminal leniency for drug traffickers, in sharp contrast to the skewed results of a recent Kentucky poll touted by criminal leniency advocates....

The survey, conducted from September 13-16, 2018, interviewed 1,004 American adults, and was administered by ORC International, a nationwide polling firm. Full study results and methodology are available here.

Employing similar rhetoric and expressing similar concerns(and citing this poll), an assortment of conservative leaders have sent this letter to Prez Trump urging him to oppose FIRST STEP Act. Here is part of the letter:

Now, a leniency-industrial complex is urging you to support a bill that would reduce the sentences for federal drug traffickers, and allow large numbers of those same traffickers to “serve” their sentences outside prison in “home confinement.”

Mr. President, don’t do it. Trust your instincts. America seems, to many of us, to be plagued with different applications of justice. The public is losing faith in the rule of law and reforms are needed. But, here [we present] just four of many reasons why you should oppose this emerging new bill....

But this bill is not prison reform — it’s prison release. It’s not sentencing reform — it’s sentencing reductions. Contrary to what jailbreak supporters tell you, these policies are far from popular.  Proponents inadvertently acknowledge how unpopular their proposals are by disguising what they’re doing with buzzwords and abstract concepts.

Given how momentum for federal reform has built, slowly but surely, over much of 2018, I would be surprised if this new poll and letter significantly changes how important political players' are dancing with the FIRST STEP Act. But they both show that seemingly ever-growing consensus in support of federal reforms does not include everyone, and they also help highlight why even relatively modest reforms like the FIRST STEP Act can be a challenging political lift.

October 13, 2018 in Aspects and impact of Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, October 12, 2018

Highlighting how constitutional problems with death penalty also apply to drug prohibitions

Over at Marijuana Moment, Kyle Jaeger in this post is quick to note interesting implications of key statements by the Washington Supreme Court in its big opinion yesterday striking down the state's death penalty as "unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner."  The post is titled "Successful Constitutional Case Against Death Penalty Works For War on Drugs, Too," and here are excerpts:

The movement to restore civil liberties and resolve systemic racial injustices in the criminal justice system scored a major victory on Thursday. And no, this time we’re not talking about ending the war on drugs.  Or at least not yet. Washington became the 20th state to abolish the death penalty, with the state Supreme Court ruling that capital punishment is unconstitutional because “it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner.”

If you’re already seeing parallels to arguments for ending drug prohibition, you’re not alone.  Many of the same points the court made in their ruling against the death penalty ring true for the war on drugs, too.  For example, the court argued that death sentences have been disproportionately carried out against black defendants, at a rate more than four times higher than it is for white defendants....

Similarly, drug reform advocates have long maintained that prohibition is racially discriminatory given disproportionate rates of enforcement and arrests for drug-related offenses.  Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested for a drug-related crime, compared to white Americans.  That’s in spite of the fact that rates of consumption are roughly equal among both groups...

The Washington court said another factor that contributed to their decision concerned “contemporary standards and experience in other states.” “We recognize local, national, and international trends that disfavor capital punishment more broadly.  When the death penalty is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner, society’s standards of decency are even more offended.”

The parallel here couldn’t be more clear.  If such trends demonstrate a need to review and reform an existing law, the same rationale could theoretically apply to drug prohibition.  A majority of states have legalized cannabis for medical or adult-use, and national interest in changing federal marijuana laws has steadily grown in recent years.  Beyond marijuana, a broader drug reform push has included calls to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses.

Of course, marijuana is already legal in Washington, and no other states have yet legalized drugs, so this part of the ruling’s applicability to a potential case seeking to strike down broad drug prohibition in the state might not be quite ripe yet.  While it’s unclear whether the constitutionality of prohibition could be reasonably challenged on similar legal grounds, the similarities are striking. 

The justification for capital punishment was another point of interest for the justices, who noted that the system failed to achieve its “penological goals” of “retribution and deterrence.”  For all intents and purposes, drug prohibition too has failed to achieve similar goals.  Decades of drug war have not appreciably deterred consumption.  From 2001 to 2013, the rate of marijuana use among American adults almost doubled, for instance.  The Cato Institute analyzed the impact of the drug war in a 2017 report. It concluded that prohibitionist policies “fail on practically every margin.”...

A last note from the Washington Supreme Court justices: “Under article I, section 14, we hold that Washington’s death penalty is unconstitutional, as administered, because it is imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner,” the justices wrote.  “Given the manner in which it is imposed, the death penalty also fails to serve any legitimate penological goals.”  Now swap “death penalty” with “drug prohibition” in that last quote.  Fits like a glove.

Prior related post:

October 12, 2018 in Death Penalty Reforms, Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Set your DVR for HBO's showing of documentary "The Sentence"

1468824_CC-CSR_NYLFF_TheSentence_v02_x1aThe folks at FAMM have been hosting advanced screenings of a new documentary about the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing, and in a few days HBO will make it possible for everyone to see "The Sentence."  Here is how HBO describes the film:

First-time filmmaker Rudy Valdez’s The Sentence tells the story of his sister Cindy Shank, a mother of three who received a 15-year mandatory sentence for conspiracy charges related to her deceased ex-boyfriend’s crimes. The documentary offers a searing look at the consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing and received critical acclaim when it premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The Sentence draws on hundreds of hours of footage shot by Valdez, who initially copes with his sister’s incarceration by filming the family moments Shank misses in prison. In the midst of Shank’s sentence, Valdez discovers his voice as a filmmaker and activist.

During the last months of the Obama administration’s clemency initiative, the family starts to fight for Shank’s release. The aching question at the core of this deeply personal portrait is whether their attempts to free Shank will succeed.

This lengthy Newsweek piece provides more details and context about the movie and the issues it raises. Here is an excerpt:

The Sentence, which won the Audience Award at Sundance and airs October 15 on HBO, tells Shank’s story. Filmmaker Rudy Valdez, her younger brother — at the time a pre-K assistant teacher — began making home videos of his nieces on a spare camera, as a way to record Shank’s children growing up. Before long, he began to see it as an opportunity to tell the story of mandatory minimum sentencing through “the people left behind,” says Valdez. His sister was eager to cooperate: “Tell everyone,” she told him. “Please, somebody see us.”...

Through Shank, Valdez exposes a broken justice system, one that began with the Reagan administration’s war on drugs. Mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent cocaine and marijuana crimes were introduced as part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 — an attempt by Democrats to respond to the crack cocaine epidemic following the highly politicized, fatal overdose of college basketball player Len Bias. Mandatory sentences are lengthy for drug offenses; in 2016, the average carried 7.8 years — more than double the average sentence for a drug offense without a minimum. As a result, defendants are encouraged to consider accepting a plea bargain — the option Shank rejected — to receive a lesser sentence than the minimum.

In theory, plea bargains — ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1970 — offer leniency to criminals who accept responsibility for their actions, allowing the accused and the state to avoid a time-consuming and expensive trial. In reality, defendants, even if they proclaim their innocence, are often pressured to plead guilty; go to trial, they are told, and you will likely get a much longer sentence. Such bargains have now become the norm: A 2017 New York Times investigation found that 98 percent of felony convictions occurred after a plea deal. And according to annual reports published by the Administrative Office on the U.S. Courts, total jury trials for U.S. criminal cases had dropped by roughly half between 1997, when there were 3,932 cases, and 2017, when there were 1,742.

The system “allows prosecutors to hold all of the cards,” says litigator Marjorie Peerce, co-chair of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers Sentencing Committee. "Even if the government doesn’t have sufficient evidence, people will still plead guilty, for fear that they’ll be convicted and then sentenced with a mandatory minimum. People should not be penalized for exercising their constitutional right to trial.”

And of those penalized, the majority are black or Latino. A 2014 study found that black offenders were 75 percent more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than a white offender who committed the same crime. In 2016, Latinos represented the largest racial group in federal prison convicted of an offense that came with such a sentence. (Shank is Latina.)

October 11, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Offender Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Despite fear-mongering opposition ads, drug sentencing and prison reform initiative polling strong in Ohio

I have blogged here and elsewhere about the interesting and intricate drug sentencing and prison reform initiative on the November 2018 ballot here in Ohio.  Originally called the "Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment and Rehabilitation Amendment," the initiative now is just known within Ohio as Issue 1. The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law has been hosting public panels about Issue 1 under the title Ballot Insights, and has created a Resources Page for Issue 1 and a Commentary Page on Issue 1

I have not previously noted here the notable fear-mongering about Issue 1 that has emerged in recent months focused particularly on its effort to reduce drug possession offenses to misdemeanors and to allow prisoners to earn more time off their prison sentences.  In late August, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor wrote a public letter warning of “catastrophic consequences" for Ohio if Issue 1 passes, and last week Gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine began running a campaign ad involving local sheriffs stating "If you’re not scared [by Issue 1], you should be."  Lots of other judges and prosecutors and law enforcement official have used similar language their advocacy against Issue 1.

But, perhaps signalling just how strong the public supports significant drug sentencing and prison reform, the first big public poll on Issue 1 was released today and it shows the initiative with a nearly 18 point lead.  Here is a basic report on this poll:  

A criminal justice reform question on the Ohio statewide ballot has support from nearly 48 percent of likely voters while 30.5 percent oppose it and 21.7 percent aren’t sure how they’ll vote on the matter, according to a new poll released Tuesday by Baldwin Wallace University Community Research Institute....

The Baldwin Wallace poll, which was conducted Sept. 28 to Oct. 8, shows DeWine has 39.7 percent, Cordray 37.1 percent, Libertarian Travis Irvine has 4.3 percent, Ohio Green Party candidate Constance Gadell-Newton has 3.4 percent and 15.4 percent of voters are undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

Notably, the full poll results indicate women voters favor Issue 1 by a 22 point margin (49 to 27) and Democrats favor Issue 1 by a 35 point margin (57 to 22). Assuming this poll numbers are solid, this results suggest to be that Issue 1 is quickly likely to pass if it turns out that women and/or Democrats end up being those especially motivated to show up to vote this November.

 Prior related posts:

UPDATE: Another (smaller) poll was released on October 10 concerning Issue 1, and it showed a much closer contest. This press article provides these details:

Ohio voters support a constitutional amendment to reduce penalties for some drug crimes and make other criminal justice reforms, according to a new poll released on the first day of early voting.

Issue 1 has the support of 43 percent of likely midterm voters surveyed in a Suffolk University/Enquirer poll; 38 percent oppose the measure. Nearly one in five said they had not yet decided how to vote....

The poll surveyed 500 likely Ohio voters by landline and cell phone from Oct. 4 to 8. The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points....

Issue 1 backers didn’t intend for the measure to become partisan but it has become a dividing line in the race for governor. Democrat Rich Cordray supports it as a way to reduce overcrowded prisons and funnel more money toward drug addiction treatment. His Republican opponent, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, has said Issue 1 will allow drug dealers to avoid prison time and lead to more drug overdose deaths.

Among likely Cordray voters, 53 percent said they also support Issue 1 compared to only 33 percent of DeWine voters. 

October 9, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Prisons and prisoners, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 04, 2018

"The Cure for America's Opioid Crisis? End the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper now available via SSRN and authored by Christine Minhee and Steve Calandrillo.  Here is its abstract:

The War on Drugs.  What began as a battle waged on morals has in fact created multiple public health crises, and no recent phenomenon illustrates this in more macabre detail than America’s opioid disaster. Last year alone amassed a higher death toll than the totality of American military casualties in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars combined.  With this wave of mortalities came an accompanying tidal crash of parens patriae lawsuits filed by states, counties, and cities on the theory that jurisdictions are entitled to recompense for the costs of addiction ostensibly created by Big Pharma.  To those attuned to the failures of the Iron Law of Prohibition, this litigation-fueled blame game functions merely as a Band-Aid over a deeply infected wound.

This Article synthesizes empirical economic impact data to paint a clearer picture of the role that drug prohibition has played in the devastation of American communities, exposes parens patriae litigation as a misguided attempt at retribution rather than deterrence, and calls for the legal and political decriminalization of opiates.  We reveal that America’s fear of decriminalization has at its root the “chemical hook” fallacy — a holdover from Nancy Reagan-era drug policy that has been debunked by far less wealthy countries like Switzerland and Portugal, whose economies have already benefited from discarding the War on Drugs as an irrational and expensive approach to public health.  We argue that the legal and political acceptance of addiction as a public health issue — not the view that addiction is a moral failure to scourge — is the only rational, fiscally responsible option left to a country that badly needs both a prophylactic against future waves of heavy opioid casualties, and restored faith in its own criminal justice system.

October 4, 2018 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)