Sunday, November 22, 2020

"Therapeutic Discipline: Drug Courts, Foucault, and the Power of the Normalizing Gaze"

The titl of this post is the title of this notable new article available via SSRN and authored by Michael Sousa. Here is its abstract:

Drug treatment courts represent a paradigm shift in the American criminal justice system.  By focusing on providing drug treatment services to low-level offenders with severe use disorders rather than sentencing them to a term of incarceration, drug courts represent a return to a more rehabilitative model for dealing with individuals ensnared by the criminal justice system and away from the retributive model that dictated punishment in the latter half of the twentieth century.  The existing scholarship exploring how drug treatment courts function has been largely atheoretical, and past attempts to harmonize theory to drug treatment courts fail to demonstrate how these institutions normalize offenders prior to reintegration into society.  Relying on Michel Foucault’s notion of governmentality together with his concepts of “technologies of power” and “technologies of the self,” I develop the analytical framework of “therapeutic discipline” as a more robust lens through which to understand the operation of drug treatment courts nationwide.  My contribution of “therapeutic discipline” to the existing literature is bolstered by representative examples of qualitative data taken from a long-term, ethnographic study of one adult drug treatment court.

November 22, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Further reflections on reform after "war on drugs" loses big in 2020 election

Rightly so, folks are still chatting about the meaning and impact of the election results ushering significant drug reforms.  Here are some of many pieces covering this interesting ground:

November 19, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

"Drug Policy Implications: Elections 2020"

Drug-Policy-Implications-Elections-2020_for-web-email2The title of this post is the title of this panel discussion taking place (on Zoom) next Monday afternoon, November 16, 2020 from 1-2:15 pm EST, sponsored by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.  Here is the basic description of the event and the planned speakers:

The 2020 election will have a monumental impact on how the United States addresses a broad range of policy issues, and drug enforcement and policy is no exception.  Numerous states approved medical or full marijuana legalization via ballot initiative, and voters in other states weighted in on drug-related criminal justice ballot initiatives.  At the federal level, marijuana reform has been gaining momentum and federal officials will undoubtedly take cues from the nationwide election results to determine the pace of reform on an array of drug enforcement and policy issues.

Join our panel of experts for a post-election discussion of the 2020 election results and what they are likely to mean for drug enforcement and policy at both the state and federal level.

Speakers

  • John Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in Governance Studies, Brookings Institution
  • Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs, Drug Policy Alliance
  • Tamar Todd, legal director, New Approach PAC

Moderated by:

Douglas A. Berman, executive director, Drug Enforcement and Policy Center

November 10, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Noticing marijuana reform as criminal justice reform in Arizona after passage of Prop 207

Regular readers, particularly those who also keep up with my work over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, know that I strongly believe that marijuana reform can and should always be a form of criminal justice reform.  This local article, headlined "Prop 207 could have huge impact on criminal justice reform in Arizona," details part of this story in one state one week after its big reform vote:

We are learning more about how Proposition 207 will impact our criminal justice system. The proposition legalizes recreational marijuana in Arizona and will become official when election results are certified in about a month.

Steven Scharboneau, Jr. is an attorney with the Rosenstein Law Group. “Arizona is one of the only states where a drug conviction for marijuana is a felony conviction, so it has life-lasting implications," Scharboneau said....

Adam Trenk is a Rose Law Group partner and director of the firm’s cannabis law department. “I think it’s really a big deal and a really big step for our state," Trenk said. Trenk said Prop 207 is really the first of its kind. “Historically we would, we being the state’s court systems, would seal records, but they wouldn’t necessarily expunge records," Trenk said.

Starting July 12, 2021, people previously convicted of select marijuana offenses can petition to have their records expunged. Essentially, this will give people a clean slate, which is what Scharboneau said his work is all about. “If we really work hard to make the laws more fair so people can actually have a fair chance at that second chance," Scharboneau said....

Rebecca Fealk, the Legislative Policy Coordinator there, said the group is working to get the word out about this measure and the impact it will have on criminal justice reform. “If somebody had a marijuana conviction, they were often denied food stamps, they were denied Pell Grants to be able go to college and do these things that allowed them to be part of our community," she said. “And so by having the opportunity to remove those, we are allowing people to be more successful and remove the harm the criminal justice system has done."

I believe that the Montana marijuana legalization ballot initiative also included some remedial criminal justice provisions, but that such reforms will require follow-up legislative action in other states.  Still, I sense there is continuing and growing momentum in marijuana reform quarters to ensure any and all reforms come with remedial provisions.  When I wrote an article on this topic a few years ago, "Leveraging Marijuana Reform to Enhance Expungement Practices," I was eager to see these intersecting issues get more attention, and I am now quite happy that they are.

UPDATE: I just saw this official press release from yesterday that details an immediate and tangible criminal justice impact from the passage of Prop 207 in Arizona. The release is titled "MCAO to Dismiss All Pending and Unfiled Charges of Possession of Marijuana," and here is the full text:

With the passage of Proposition 207, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) will be dismissing all pending and unfiled charges of possession of marijuana and any associated paraphernalia charges that are before this office. Instead of continuing to spend resources on these cases, this office will begin implementing the will of the voters immediately.

We are instructing Deputy County Attorneys to file a motion to dismiss any charge covered by Proposition 207. If those charges make up the entirety of the charges of the case, the entire case will be dismissed. If there are other felony charges the case will remain pending, but we will file motions to dismiss the charges covered by Proposition 207. This will include all cases pending in Early Disposition Court, those currently in diversion or pending trial, and those set for sentencing or probation violation hearings.

Priority will be given to cases with court dates and those in custody. The office will also be filing motions to dismiss bench warrant cases where all the charges are covered by Proposition 207.

November 10, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Pondering marijuana reform echoes after another historic election cycle

I briefly flagged here a few days ago the remarkable success of drug policy reform ballot initiatives in red and blue states nationwide.  And the success particularly of marijuana reform initatives in Arizona, Mississippi. Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota has me thinking and writing a lot about what's next in this space over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform.  Specifically, I have been blogging reactions to marijuana's big election night via these new posts:

November 8, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 07, 2020

"Promoting Expungements to Minimize the Adverse Impact of Substance Use Disorder Criminalization"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Brittany Kelly, John Heinz, Anthony Singer and Aila Hoss now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

Research has already documented the irreparable harm of the criminalization of drugs.  In the United States, these policies have led to disproportionate rates of incarceration of black men, separated children from their parents in foster care and custody proceedings, and often left people unable to secure employment and housing.  Criminalization has also had harmful impacts from a public health perspective.  Substance use disorder is a medical condition with established criteria for diagnosis.  Criminalizing SUD instead of treating it often leaves people without access to treatment for their condition.  Criminalization of drug paraphernalia possession has also undermined the efficacy of public health strategies, such as overdose immunity laws and syringe service programs.

Many advocates and scholars across human rights, public health, and other disciplines argue that decriminalization and legalization of drugs is necessary.  While some states and localities have begun to decriminalize and legalize drugs, most do not.  And, in many jurisdictions, this would be unrealistic in the near future.  Indiana law, for example, makes possession of drug paraphernalia a misdemeanor offense.  The state legislature in fact elevated syringe possession to a felony in 2015.  What other legal strategies are available when decriminalization and legalization are not?

This article explores expungement as a tool in mitigating the harmful impacts of criminalizing substance use disorder.  It discusses the inadequacies of current criminal-based strategies for responding to the SUD crisis and the public health impacts of criminalization and describes expungement law generally and provides an in-depth summary of Indiana’s expungement laws.  Given the substantial nuances within expungement law, this article provides analysis on how they can be best structured to promote their use.  It argues that Indiana could implement a variety of strategies to promote expungement laws and thereby support individuals with substance use disorder.

November 7, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 05, 2020

An effective disquisition on the drug war's descent

This lengthy new New York Times article provides a thoughtful review of how diverse coalitions have now come together to start unwinding the war on drugs. The full title of this piece highlights its themes: "This Election, a Divided America Stands United on One Topic: All kinds of Americans have turned their back on the destructive war on drugs." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts and ends:

It can take a while to determine the victor in a presidential election.  But one winner was abundantly clear on Election Day. Drugs, once thought to be the scourge of a healthy society, are getting public recognition as a part of American life. Where drugs were on the ballot on Tuesday, they won handily.

New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and Arizona joined 11 other states that had already legalized recreational marijuana. Mississippi and South Dakota made medical marijuana legal, bringing the total to 35.

The citizens of Washington, D.C., voted to decriminalize psilocybin, the organic compound active in psychedelic mushrooms. Oregon voters approved two drug-related initiatives. One decriminalized possession of small amounts of illegal drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines. (It did not make it legal to sell the drugs.) Another measure authorized the creation of a state program to license providers of psilocybin.

Election night represented a significant victory for three forces pushing for drug reform for different but interlocking reasons. There is the increasingly powerful cannabis industry. There are state governments struggling with budget shortfalls, hungry to fill coffers in the midst of a pandemic.

And then there are the reform advocates, who for decades have been saying that imprisonment, federal mandatory minimum sentences and prohibitive cash bail for drug charges ruin lives and communities, particularly those of Black Americans.

Decriminalization is popular, in part, because Americans believe that too many people are in jails and prisons, and also because Americans personally affected by the country’s continuing opioid crisis have been persuaded to see drugs as a public health issue....

If states are the laboratories of democracy, then, as Mr. Pollan put it, some of the measures passed on Tuesday will set up interesting experiments.  Neighboring states will watch as Montana and New Jersey create regional cannabis destinations to be envied, imitated or scorned; unlike some other states, Montana and New Jersey do not directly border states where marijuana is fully legal, so they could draw more customers from out of state (though it is illegal to bring marijuana into a state where it is criminal). 

And it’s not entirely clear that marijuana is always the fiscal boost its champions say it is, even as cannabis tourism has helped states like California and Colorado. A state assessment of the financial impact of legalization in Montana, for example, showed that the state expected significant revenue — as much as $48 million a year in 2025 — but that its implementation costs would be nearly as high.

Policy wonks will assess the performance of Oregon’s health authority as it creates its program to license psilocybin distributors, an unusual function for a state department of health regardless of the drug in question.  And Americans all over the country will note — warily or hopefully — what happens in Oregon, now that possession of all controlled substances has been decriminalized.

Adam Eidinger, an activist in Washington, D.C., who proposed the ballot measure that pushed to legalize marijuana there, was also the treasurer of the campaign to decriminalize psilocybin.  (The campaign operated out of his house in the Kalorama neighborhood, home to the Obamas and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.)

Next year, Mr. Eidinger plans to campaign for an initiative in D.C. to decriminalize possession of all controlled substances, much like the one that passed in Oregon. “People want to end the drug war,” he said.

Mr. Sabet, the former White House drug policy adviser, did not expect the nation to follow in Oregon’s footsteps — at least not immediately. “I don’t know if I’d put my money on America wanting to legalize heroin tomorrow,” he said.

November 5, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

"Drugs Won Big During the U.S. Election"

The title of this post is the title of this Vice piece highlighting one clear pattern of clear winners during election 2020. Here are excerpts:

Despite the uncertainty over the outcome of the U.S. presidential race Wednesday morning, Mississippi cannabis advocate Natalie Jones Bonner was feeling “absolute joy.”  Jones Bonner, 59, was celebrating the passing of Initiative 65, a ballot measure that will establish a medical cannabis program in the state.

Mississippi is one of a handful of states to pass drug reform measures last night.  In a groundbreaking decision, Oregon voted to support Measure 110, which will decriminalize all drugs, including cocaine and heroin.  Oregon also voted to legalize access to psychedelic mushrooms for medicinal purposes.

Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota all voted to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes.  South Dakota additionally voted yes to establishing a medical cannabis regime. Voters in the District of Columbia passed a measure to decriminalize shrooms.

The outcomes are a boon for drug reform advocates and the cannabis industry, making the possibility of federal weed decriminalization more feasible.  Currently, 33 states allow medical cannabis and 11 have recreational regimes.  Several of the states that passed measures last night have historically been proponents of the war on drugs, with Black people disproportionately arrested for drug crimes....

Matt Sutton, spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance, said the support of drug reform is crucial in the context of wider conversations around police brutality and the failings of the criminal justice system.  He said Oregon’s decriminalization measure could result in a 95 percent decrease in racial disparities in arrests, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.

Sutton said it’s “remarkable” that weed legalization would pass in states like Montana, which has the highest rate of racial disparities in weed arrests, and South Dakota, where 10 percent of all arrests are tied to cannabis.

Economic gains, particularly as the pandemic is draining state resources, are in part behind the bilateral support of cannabis reform.  Sutton said he expects New Jersey’s decision to legalize cannabis to light a fire under New York, which has stalled in setting up its legal recreational regime.

Over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform I have been blogging a few reactions to marijuana's big election night via these two new posts:

November 4, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Some places to watch for results on criminal justice ballot initiatives

Images (2)The folks at Vox have created this webpage which will help track "live results" from some of the criminal justice ballot initiatives that voters are considering today around the country. Here is the set up:

In Oklahoma, voters could ban harsh sentencing enhancements that can keep people in prison longer for nonviolent crimes. In California, voters will consider three measures: one to affirm the end of cash bail, another to let people vote while on parole, and a third to roll back recent criminal justice reforms. In Nebraska and Utah, voters could prohibit slavery as a criminal punishment, including forced prison labor.  And in Kentucky, voters could approve a controversial crime victims’ rights law.

Not all of these are for reform as many people think of it today. Some of the initiatives, particularly in California and Kentucky, have been criticized by activists seeking to end mass incarceration and the war on drugs. But depending on how voters decide on these initiatives, they could continue the broader work of the past decade to fix America’s punitive criminal justice system.

The Vox page leaves out the large number of drug reform initiatives, but thankfully the folks at Marijuana Moment have created this great webpage with tracking tools to follow all the marijuana and drug reform ballot initiatives that voters are considering today around the country.  Here is how its set up:  

Marijuana Moment is tracking 11 separate cannabis and drug policy reform measures on ballots in seven states.  Stay tuned to this page for results as votes are counted.

Make sure to follow Marijuana Moment and our editors Tom Angell and Kyle Jaeger on Twitter for live news and analysis, and check our homepage for individual articles about each ballot measure as races are called.

Thanks to support from ETFMG | MJ, we have a single tracker tool below that lets you cycle through all of the key measures as well as separate standalone tools for each initiative.

And do not forget about this great web resource put together by the folks I have the honor to work with at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.  The resource collects and organizes information and links about the significant number of drug policy reforms proposals appearing on state ballots this election cycle.  

Though I am interested in all these results, I am especially eager to see how Oklahoma's novel criminal history reform measure, how South Dakota's marijuana legalization initiative, and how Oregon's drug decriminalization measure fare. The nature of the issues and the states in which they are taking place strike me as especially interesting and important.

As always, I would be interested to hear from readers about what issues or races they are following especially closely tonight.

November 3, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Digging carefully into what the FIRST STEP Act has, and has not, really achieved

Malcolm C. Young, a long-time justice reform advocate, sent me an interesting new report he has completed titled "How Much Credit Should Trump be Given for the First Step Act?".  This new report, which I recommend in full, is a continuation of some research which was recently published in the Journal of Community Corrections under the title "The First Step Act and Reentry."  That Fall 2019 article makes the case that "as a law intended to improve federal reentry, the FSA falls short."  Young's new report, which can be downloaded below, is a detailed effort to pushback on some of Prez Trump's claims about "his" achievements through the FIRST STEP Act.  Here is an excerpt from the start of the report:

Trump is entitled to take credit for signing the FSA into law and the reductions in the federal prison use that followed. But the FSA, which was drafted by legislators, is neither the first nor the largest reform in recent years.  For examples, a reform in sentences for crack cocaine at the close of the George Bush administration reduced the use of federal prisons by close to three-quarters of the reduction obtained from the FSA.  A downward adjustment in drug sentences that cleared the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) during the Obama administration resulted in nearly half-again as much a reduction in prison use (146%) as resulted from the FSA at the end of its first year.  And, finally, including the downward adjustment in drug sentences, Obama-era reforms resulted in more than double (230%) the FSA’s reduction in prison use in its first year.

As to benefits for Black Americans, the FSA’s reductions in sentences for crack cocaine benefited Black individuals disproportionally, as intended, yet very little more than did three similarly structured reforms intended to alleviate racial disparities in federal drug sentencing.  The FSA’s other provisions benefit smaller proportions of Black individuals.

As to reentry, the Trump administration's claim that, “[t]he landmark First Step Act enacted commonsense criminal justice reform that is helping prisoners gain a new lease on life and is making America safer” is, regrettably, simply not true.  These aspects of the FSA are not working.  But the fault lies more with Congress than Trump.

Download Trump and the First Step Act October 2020

October 28, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Prisons and prisoners, Race, Class, and Gender, Reentry and community supervision, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Covering just some of many criminal justice reforms stories percolating in 2020 election

Every election is important for the fate and future of criminal justice reform, but every even-year Fall it is hard not to get caught up in the notion that this year's election is uniquely significant and consequential.  As I noted in this prior post, the discussion at the last Prez debate leads me to be (foolishly?) hopeful that we will see some follow up to the FIRST STEP Act or some other form of of federal criminal justice reform in the coming years no matter who prevails at the federal level.  But surely the scope and contents of possible federal reform will depend not only on who is in the White House and who is in charge in Congress, but also on what kinds of reforms move forward and prove successful at the state and local level.   

Because the FIRST STEP Act at the federal level was made possible in part by the political and practical successes at the state level, even those focused primarily on the federal system ought to keep a close eye on state and local criminal justice reform and election realities.  Helpfully, there is a lot of good press coverage on all these topics these days, and here is a sampling:   

Some National Perspectives:

From The Appeal, "Your Guide To 30 Sheriff And Prosecutor Elections That Could Challenge Mass Incarceration: These are key local elections where criminal justice reform is on the line next month."

From the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center, "Drug Reforms on the 2020 Ballot: A closer look at drug policy reform decisions voters will make during the 2020 election"

From Fox News, "Marijuana-legalization supporters tout economic benefits in new voter pitch: Advocates argue sales and excise taxes would help bail out states crushed by coronavirus"

From Reason: "On Criminal Justice, Trump and Biden Are Running Against Their Own Records: The progressive who helped usher in mass incarceration is running against the law and order conservative who let prisoners go free."

From Vox, "How 2020 voters could change the criminal justice system, in 6 ballot measures: Voters in several states have a chance to change the criminal justice system in 2020."

From Vox, "2020’s psychedelic drug ballot measures, explained: Oregon and Washington, DC, voters may relax their laws for psychedelic drugs."

 

Some State Specifics:

From the Denver Post, "Half of Colorado’s district attorneys will be replaced after election, setting scene for future of criminal justice reform"

From Governing, "California to Vote on What’s Next for Criminal Justice Reform: The state’s Proposition 20 would expand felonies which are ineligible for parole and collect DNA samples of misdemeanor offenders. Californians must decide if it assures public safety or is backward progress."

From The Oklahoman: "Five things to know about Oklahoma State Question 805"

From Vox, "Oregon’s ballot measure to decriminalize all drugs, explained: The ballot measure is trying to move the state from a criminal justice to a public health approach on drugs."

October 25, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, October 24, 2020

"What If Nothing Works? On Crime Licenses, Recidivism, and Quality of Life"

The title of this post is the title of this interesting new piece authored by Josh Bowers available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

We accept uncritically the “recidivist premium,” which is the notion that habitual offenders are particularly blameworthy and should be punished harshly.  In this article, I question that assumption and propose a radical alternative.  Consider the individual punished repeatedly for hopping subway turnstiles.  As convictions accumulate, sentences rise — to weeks and ultimately months in jail.  At some point, criminality comes to signal something other than the need for punishment.  It signals the presence of need.  Perhaps, the recidivist was compelled by economic or social circumstances.  Perhaps, he was internally compulsive or cognitively impaired. The precise problem matters less than the fact that there was one.  No rational actor of freewill would continue to recidivate in the face of such substantial and increasing sentences.  My claim is that, in these circumstances, it would be better to just stop punishing.

To that end, I offer a counterintuitive proposal, which is to provide “crime licenses” to recidivists.  But I limit this prescription model to only a collection of quality-of-life offenses, like drug possession, vagrancy, and prostitution.  My goals are at once narrow and broad.  I present the crime license as a modest opportunity to test bolder concepts like legalization, prison abolition, and defunding police.  I situate the provocative proposal within a school of social action called “radical pragmatism,” which teaches that radical structural change is achievable, incrementally.  I draw upon successful prescription-based, radical-pragmatic reforms, like international addiction-maintenance clinics, where habitual drug users receive free heroin in safe settings.  I endorse “harm reduction,” the governance philosophy that grounds those reforms.  And I imagine our system reoriented around harm reduction, with crime licenses as one pragmatic, experimental step in that direction.

October 24, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, October 23, 2020

REMINDER Call for Papers: "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment"

6a00d83451574769e2026bde959014200c-320wiI said before that I was going to regularly remind folks of this recent call for papers relating to an exciting event I am excited to be involved in helping to plan, "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."  So, here again is the full call, which is also available as a full pdf document at this link:

INTRODUCTION
Discussion of the “war on drugs” frequently fails to examine precisely how drug offenders are sentenced — and how they should be.  Drug sentencing practices are implicated in many fundamental criminal justice issues and concerns.  Research suggests incarcerating people for drug offenses has little impact on substance use rates or on crime rates more generally.  And, despite reports of comparable use rates, people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white counterparts.  Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are applied commonly, but inconsistently, in drug cases and for persons with a criminal history that involves drug offenses.  And while states have created specialty courts to handle the cases of low-level drug offenders, the efficacy and appropriateness of the “drug court movement” has long been subject to debate.

Distinct state and federal realities complicate our understanding of the relationship between the drug war and punishment.  Nearly all federal drug defendants get sent to prison and nearly 50% of the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders; relatively few state drug offenders are sent to prison and less than 20% of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges.  But data on arrests, jail populations, and community supervision highlight the continued, significant impact drug cases still have on state and local justice systems.  The role of drug criminalization and sentencing contributes to mass incarceration, yet mass punishment can look quite different depending on the criminal justice system(s) and the drugs.


ABOUT THE CALL
These issues and others related to drug sentencing will be part of a symposium jointly sponsored by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Academy for Justice at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.  "Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment," will take place on June 10–12, 2021, at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio. As part of this symposium, we invite scholars to submit papers for inclusion in the workshop scheduled for June 12.  Accepted submissions will be paired with a discussant who will review and provide feedback on the paper during the workshop.  Each paper should reflect on some aspect of drug prosecutions and sentencing in the United States.  Participants should have a draft to discuss and circulate by May 17, 2021.  The papers will be gathered and published in a Spring 2022 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 August 15, 2021.  Final papers may range in length from 5,000 – 20,000 words.

Deadline for submission is November 1, 2020. Please submit a title and an abstract of no more than 300 words to Jana Hrdinová at hrdinova.1@osu.edu. Accepted scholars will be notified by December 1, 2020

October 23, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Recommended reading, Scope of Imprisonment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Some notable (and mostly heartening) criminal justice discussion in final Prez debate of 2020

Few months ago in this post I wished that we could somehow arrange for one of the then-planned Prez debates to be entirely about criminal justice issues.  Of course, that did not happen (and only two of the three planned debates even happened).  Still, during the final Prez debate of this election cycle, criminal justice issues received more discussion than in any other Prez debate in recent memory, and I am tempted to call the discussion heartening for a variety of reasons.

For starters, Prez Trump bragged repeatedly about his role in achieving "criminal justice reform and prison reform," and he also criticized former VP Biden for his past role in enacting federal criminal justice legislation in the 1980s and 1990s that "put tens of thousands of mostly Black young men in prison."  It was not that long ago that candidates were regularly competing to claim they were tougher than their opponents, but tonight Prez Trump assailed Biden for his tough-on-crime past while claiming credit for most progressive federal criminal justice reform in a generation (the FIRST STEP Act).

Meanwhile, VP Biden stated that the drug offense part of federal criminal legislation in the 1980s and 1990s was "a mistake," and he bragged that during the Obama administration "38 thousand prisoners [were] released from federal prison [and] over 1000 people given clemency."  And even more notable was Biden's plain statement that "there should be no minimum mandatories in the law."  Again, it was not that long ago that politicians were eager to brag about enacting mandatory minimums and about putting more people in prison.  Now the talking points focus on releasing prisoners and the pledge it to repeal mandatory minimums.

For these reasons and others, I remain mildly optimistic that we will see some measure of progress on some kind of follow up to the FIRST STEP Act or some other form of criminal justice reform in the coming years no matter who prevails in the coming election.  But I think the scope and contents of reform will surely look a look different, and the pace and implementation of any reform will surely transpire a lot differently, depending on who is in the White House and who is in charge in Congress.  Interesting times.

October 22, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Criminal justice in the Obama Administration, Criminal justice in the Trump Administration, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

"Drug Reforms on the 2020 Ballot"

2020-Ballot-Project-Header_for-web2The title of this post is the title of this great new web resource put together by the folks I have the honor to work with at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center.  The resource collects and organizes information and links about the significant number of drug policy reforms proposals appearing on state ballots this election cycle.  Here is introduction to the detailed state-by-state materials:

A closer look at drug policy reform decisions voters will make during the 2020 election

On election day 2020, voters will decide more than the next United States President. Drug policy and enforcement reforms will appear on numerous state-level ballots. Five states have qualifying initiatives that attempt to legalize marijuana for medical or adult-use consumption, including some states that will ask voters to decide on multiple pathways to a legal market. And marijuana reform is not the only drug-related issue on ballots. Initiatives in a few states and Washington, D.C. will ask voters to modify existing sentencing laws, decriminalize all drugs, or legalize psychedelics for adult-use and therapeutic reasons.

To gain a better understanding of what this election could mean for drug policy across the U.S., the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) has developed a list of key ballot initiatives reaching voters in 2020. Read on for a list of initiatives we will be watching this November in the areas of marijuana legalizationpsychedelics, and criminal justice.

Plus, don’t miss our post-election event Drug Policy Implications of the 2020 Elections on November 16, 2020. Our panel of experts will discuss the 2020 election results and what they are likely to mean for drug enforcement and policy at both the state and federal level.

October 20, 2020 in Campaign 2020 and sentencing issues, Drug Offense Sentencing, Elections and sentencing issues in political debates, Marijuana Legalization in the States | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 19, 2020

US Sentencing Commission releases its latest updated "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report"

I just noticed that the US Sentencing Commission today released this updated new version of its data report titled "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report." The introduction to the report provides this context and overview:

On December 21, 2018, the President signed into law the First Step Act of 2018.  Section 404 of that act provides that any defendant 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 is eligible for a sentence reduction as if Sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time the offender was sentenced.  The First Step Act authorizes the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the Government, or the court to make a motion to reduce an offender’s sentence.

The data in this report represents information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act which the courts have granted. The data in this report reflects all motions granted through June 30, 2020 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by October 15, 2020.

These new updated data from the USSC show that 3,363 prisoners have been granted sentence reductions.  The average sentence reduction was 71 months of imprisonment (roughly a quarter of the original sentence) among those cases in which the the resulting term of imprisonment could be determined.  Though this data is not exact and may not be complete, it still seems sound to now assert that this part of the FIRST STEP Act alone, by shortening nearly 3361 sentences by nearly 6 years, has resulted in nearly 20,000 federal prison years saved! (That is an eliminations of two hundred centuries of scheduled human time in federal cages, if you want to think of it another way.)

Of course, as I have noted before, the FSA retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act was only a small piece of the legislation. But these latest data show yet again how this small piece has had big impact in lots of years of lots of lives. And, of critical importance and note to be overlooked, people of color have been distinctly impacted: the USSC data document that nearly 92% of persons receiving these FSA sentence reductions were Black and more than another 4% were Latinx.

October 19, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

REMINDER Call for Papers: "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment"

I said before that I was going to regularly remind folks of this recent call for papers relating to an exciting event I am excited to be involved in helping to plan, "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."  So, here again is the full call, which is also available as a full pdf document at this link:

INTRODUCTION
Discussion of the “war on drugs” frequently fails to examine precisely how drug offenders are sentenced — and how they should be.  Drug sentencing practices are implicated in many fundamental criminal justice issues and concerns.  Research suggests incarcerating people for drug offenses has little impact on substance use rates or on crime rates more generally.  And, despite reports of comparable use rates, people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white counterparts.  Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are applied commonly, but inconsistently, in drug cases and for persons with a criminal history that involves drug offenses. And while states have created specialty courts to handle the cases of low-level drug offenders, the efficacy and appropriateness of the “drug court movement” has long been subject to debate.

Distinct state and federal realities complicate our understanding of the relationship between the drug war and punishment. Nearly all federal drug defendants get sent to prison and nearly 50% of the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders; relatively few state drug offenders are sent to prison and less than 20% of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges.  But data on arrests, jail populations, and community supervision highlight the continued, significant impact drug cases still have on state and local justice systems.  The role of drug criminalization and sentencing contributes to mass incarceration, yet mass punishment can look quite different depending on the criminal justice system(s) and the drugs.


ABOUT THE CALL
These issues and others related to drug sentencing will be part of a symposium jointly sponsored by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Academy for Justice at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.  "Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment," will take place on June 10–12, 2021, at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio. As part of this symposium, we invite scholars to submit papers for inclusion in the workshop scheduled for June 12.  Accepted submissions will be paired with a discussant who will review and provide feedback on the paper during the workshop.  Each paper should reflect on some aspect of drug prosecutions and sentencing in the United States.  Participants should have a draft to discuss and circulate by May 17, 2021.  The papers will be gathered and published in a Spring 2022 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 August 15, 2021.  Final papers may range in length from 5,000 – 20,000 words.

Deadline for submission is November 1, 2020. Please submit a title and an abstract of no more than 300 words to Jana Hrdinová at hrdinova.1@osu.edu. Accepted scholars will be notified by December 1, 2020

October 14, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 08, 2020

"A Willful Choice: The Ineffective and Incompassionate Application of Wisconsin’s Criminal Laws in Combating the Opioid Crisis"

The title of this post is the title of this paper recently posted to SSRN authored by Emily O'Brien. Here is its abstract:

Wisconsin’s drug-induced homicide law, known as the Len Bias law, was intended to prosecute for-profit drug dealers and was rarely charged for several decades after it was enacted in 1986.  In recent years, prosecutors have brought hundreds of Len Bias charges in response to opioid deaths.  Often, these charges are brought against overdose victims’ friends and family members — people who are also mired in addiction and who shared or helped obtain the fatal drug.  In contrast, Wisconsin’s Good Samaritan overdose law (GSOL), enacted in 2014, focuses on harm reduction.  If a person calls for help when another person is overdosing, the law provides both people with some insulation from prosecution of a range of drug-related charges.  These laws approach the problem of overdose death from very different angles: The Len Bias law punishes addicts for their role in overdose deaths, while the GSOL offers addicts protection from prosecution in order to encourage calls for medical intervention in overdose situations.  Unfortunately, the current implementation of the Len Bias law diminishes the potential of GSOL to save lives because addicts are faced the possibility of a homicide charge when they summon help for an overdose victim.

With the rise of lethal synthetic opioids in Wisconsin, the criminal justice system must adjust its current laws and practices in order to reduce overdose deaths.  The criminalization of addiction represented by the Len Bias law thwarts rehabilitation efforts, miring addicts in a cycle of incarceration and drug use that ends with death in too many cases.  This Comment proposes a solution: separating addicts from for-profit drug dealers in the eyes of the law by implementing a joint-user defense in Len Bias cases. Addicts are more likely to use opioids with other addicts than alone.  By removing the possibility of a homicide conviction, addicts will more readily utilize the GSOL and call for medical intervention when a fellow addict is overdosing. Additionally, separating addicts from dealers allows the Len Bias law to be charged in accordance with its intended purpose, while freeing up investigatory and prosecutorial resources for the more complex task of investigating commercial drug dealers and disrupting the drug trade.  This proposed solution would begin to align Wisconsin’s criminal laws with the state’s rehabilitation-focused public health efforts at combating opioid addiction in communities and reducing overdose deaths.

October 8, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 05, 2020

REMINDER Call for Papers: "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment"

I am going to regularly remind folks of this recent call for papers relating to an exciting event I am excited to be involved in helping to plan, "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."  Here is the full call, which is also available as a full pdf document at this link:

INTRODUCTION
Discussion of the “war on drugs” frequently fails to examine precisely how drug offenders are sentenced — and how they should be.  Drug sentencing practices are implicated in many fundamental criminal justice issues and concerns.  Research suggests incarcerating people for drug offenses has little impact on substance use rates or on crime rates more generally.  And, despite reports of comparable use rates, people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white counterparts.  Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are applied commonly, but inconsistently, in drug cases and for persons with a criminal history that involves drug offenses. And while states have created specialty courts to handle the cases of low-level drug offenders, the efficacy and appropriateness of the “drug court movement” has long been subject to debate.

Distinct state and federal realities complicate our understanding of the relationship between the drug war and punishment. Nearly all federal drug defendants get sent to prison and nearly 50% of the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders; relatively few state drug offenders are sent to prison and less than 20% of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges.  But data on arrests, jail populations, and community supervision highlight the continued, significant impact drug cases still have on state and local justice systems.  The role of drug criminalization and sentencing contributes to mass incarceration, yet mass punishment can look quite different depending on the criminal justice system(s) and the drugs.


ABOUT THE CALL
These issues and others related to drug sentencing will be part of a symposium jointly sponsored by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Academy for Justice at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.  "Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment," will take place on June 10–12, 2021, at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio. As part of this symposium, we invite scholars to submit papers for inclusion in the workshop scheduled for June 12.  Accepted submissions will be paired with a discussant who will review and provide feedback on the paper during the workshop.  Each paper should reflect on some aspect of drug prosecutions and sentencing in the United States.  Participants should have a draft to discuss and circulate by May 17, 2021.  The papers will be gathered and published in a Spring 2022 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 August 15, 2021.  Final papers may range in length from 5,000 – 20,000 words.

Deadline for submission is November 1, 2020. Please submit a title and an abstract of no more than 300 words to Jana Hrdinová at hrdinova.1@osu.edu. Accepted scholars will be notified by December 1, 2020

October 5, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Call for Papers: "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment"

Understanding-Drug-Sentencing_for-web2I am pleased to highlight a new call for papers relating to an exciting event I am excited to be involved in helping to plan, "Understanding Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment."  Here is the full call, which is also available as a full pdf document at this link:

INTRODUCTION
Discussion of the “war on drugs” frequently fails to examine precisely how drug offenders are sentenced — and how they should be.  Drug sentencing practices are implicated in many fundamental criminal justice issues and concerns.  Research suggests incarcerating people for drug offenses has little impact on substance use rates or on crime rates more generally.  And, despite reports of comparable use rates, people of color are far more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white counterparts.  Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are applied commonly, but inconsistently, in drug cases and for persons with a criminal history that involves drug offenses. And while states have created specialty courts to handle the cases of low-level drug offenders, the efficacy and appropriateness of the “drug court movement” has long been subject to debate.

Distinct state and federal realities complicate our understanding of the relationship between the drug war and punishment. Nearly all federal drug defendants get sent to prison and nearly 50% of the federal prison population is comprised of drug offenders; relatively few state drug offenders are sent to prison and less than 20% of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges.  But data on arrests, jail populations, and community supervision highlight the continued, significant impact drug cases still have on state and local justice systems.  The role of drug criminalization and sentencing contributes to mass incarceration, yet mass punishment can look quite different depending on the criminal justice system(s) and the drugs.


ABOUT THE CALL
These issues and others related to drug sentencing will be part of a symposium jointly sponsored by the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Academy for Justice at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law.  "Drug Sentencing and its Contributions to Mass Punishment," will take place on June 10–12, 2021, at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio. As part of this symposium, we invite scholars to submit papers for inclusion in the workshop scheduled for June 12.  Accepted submissions will be paired with a discussant who will review and provide feedback on the paper during the workshop.  Each paper should reflect on some aspect of drug prosecutions and sentencing in the United States.  Participants should have a draft to discuss and circulate by May 17, 2021.  The papers will be gathered and published in a Spring 2022 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 August 15, 2021.  Final papers may range in length from 5,000 – 20,000 words.

Deadline for submission is November 1, 2020. Please submit a title and an abstract of no more than 300 words to Jana Hrdinová at hrdinova.1@osu.edu. Accepted scholars will be notified by December 1, 2020

September 24, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Can a modest federal bail reform bill with bipartisan sponsorship become law in these crazy times?

I do not blog much about bail reforms issues, though these topics were quite "hot" even before the pandemic and these issues seem even more pressing now.  And given notable research documenting a link between federal pretrial release and sentencing outcomes, I am particular interested in the new bill filed earlier this month as discussed in this press release:

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Chris Coons (D-DE), members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, today introduced the bipartisan Smarter Pretrial Detention for Drug Charges Act of 2020, a targeted bill that would eliminate the blanket presumption of pretrial detention for most federal drug charges.  Pretrial detention rates in the federal system are at record high levels and on an upward trend across all demographic groups.  This legislation would permit federal courts to make individualized determinations regarding whether pretrial detention is appropriate for each defendant charged with a nonviolent drug offense.  Any defendant found to be a flight risk or a threat to public safety would be detained.

This supportive one-pager from the Due Process Institute provides a great account of this bill and its wisdom.  Here is an excerpt:

When a person is arrested and accused of a crime, a judge must determine whether he or she will be released with certain conditions pending resolution of their case or be detained until their conviction or acquittal occurs.  In federal court, the judge’s decision whether to release or detain someone pretrial is governed by 18 U.S.C. § 3142, which sets forth several factors for the judge to take into consideration.  The main directive of the statute is that judges should release persons accused of unproven crimes who are not flight risks and who do not “pose a danger to any other person or the community.”  The federal bail statute also, however, includes a small list of offenses for which a legal presumption in favor of incarceration is imposed based solely on the criminal charge instead of any specific assessment of the accused.  While many of the offenses included in this presumptive list might make sense given the gravity of the accusation, the list also unfortunately includes many nonviolent federal drug offenses.

Persons accused of drug offenses represent over 42% of those charged with non-immigration federal crimes.  Statistics show that for them — the second largest group of people in the federal system — it is difficult to overcome this presumption.  In fact, recent federal data show that more than 60% of those charged with drug offenses will be incarcerated before trial.  In addition, data show that pretrial detention puts these defendants at a greater sentencing disadvantage if convicted versus those who are granted pretrial release.  There is also persuasive evidence that the statutory presumption has failed to correctly identify which defendants actually even present a risk.  Unfortunately, the racial disparities we see throughout the criminal system also appear in pretrial release rates in drug cases.  Moreover, some of the most vulnerable people in our society are those currently locked inside jails amid the COVID-19 pandemic — people who have not been found “guilty” of anything and are merely incarcerated while they defend or resolve their charges.  And this pro-carceral presumption is extremely costly.

The Smarter Pretrial Detention for Drug Charges Act presents a simple, effective solution supported by leaders and organizations from both sides of the aisle.  It would merely remove the presumption of pretrial incarceration that currently applies to those charged with nonviolent drug offenses.  The passage of this bill will not mean that all, or even most, accused federal drug offenders will be released before trial.  It would, however, simply permit a federal judge to make a more individualized determination of whether to detain someone based on the same factors they use to evaluate practically everyone else.  Anyone deemed a flight risk or a danger to public safety will still be detained.  Anyone released can still be subject to multiple conditions and community supervision by pretrial services.

September 16, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

A timely reminder that the war on drugs, and even the war on marijuana, is not anywhere close to over

Just last night I flagged here a new article by Michael Vitiello about the "war on drugs" and extreme sentences for drug crimes.  And this morning I saw this news article from Kansas this past week that provides a reminder that the US drug war as operationalized through extreme sentences even for marijuana offenses remains a very current reality for far too many.  The piece is headlined "Man serving 7.5 years on marijuana case says Kansas’ sentencing laws aren’t just," and here are excerpts:

A man sentenced to more than seven years in prison on a marijuana case wants Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly to consider his request for clemency and to see the state change its drug penalty laws.  Donte Westmoreland, 25, had no prior convictions when he was found guilty of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and conspiracy to distribute in May 2017 in Riley County. Judge John Bosch sentenced him to 92 months....

Kansas has a sentencing range guideline intended to promote uniformity in penalties. Bosch gave Westmoreland the lower end of the range.  But Christopher Joseph, Westmoreland’s attorney during sentencing and his appeal, said many judges across the state depart from the guidelines for marijuana cases, instead handing down probation....

According to a motion filed in the case, probation was given in 95% of the marijuana distribution cases in Kansas involving defendants with low criminal history scores.

On March 8, 2016, police observed two vehicles traveling in close proximity to each other. Officers testified that they believed a Hyundai was an escort vehicle for a Lexus. Westmoreland, of Stockton, California, was a passenger in the Hyundai, which was stopped for an obstructed license plate and searched in Geary County.  A small amount of marijuana was found in the trunk, according to court documents.  The Hyundai was released and it continued to an apartment complex in Riley County, where the Lexus met them about 20 minutes later. Officers followed them to the apartment of Jacob Gadwood, where they searched the Lexus and found packages of drugs.

Westmoreland and the driver of the Hyundai were arrested. Three other co-defendants who fled the scene were later taken into custody. Gadwood agreed to become an informant for prosecutors and testified that Westmoreland came to his apartment to sell marijuana. The five defendants in the case faced varying charges related to possessing and distributing marijuana, court records showed.  Sentences ranged from time served to Westmoreland’s 92 months, which was the longest.

In a statement to The Star, Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson said Westmoreland went to Manhattan to sell large amounts of marijuana with three others in two vehicles, one of which was a decoy.  “These were sophisticated dealers of narcotics,” Wilkerson said. “One of the vehicles was a Lexus.  92 months was a fair sentence under the circumstances.”

In Kansas, a defendant could serve a longer sentence for marijuana crimes than violent crimes such as voluntary manslaughter. “The current Kansas law and penalties for marijuana are unjust,” Joseph said. “The law is so out of sync with reality at this point.”

Lauren Bonds, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, said Kansas is being closed in on.  Recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado in 2014.  Missouri and Oklahoma have passed medicinal marijuana laws and Nebraska has taken steps to decriminalize the drug....

Kansas Sen. Richard Wilborn, R-McPherson, chairs the Judiciary Committee and said sentencing guidelines is one of the topics “in the forefront.” He said he would take any recommendations from the Criminal Justice Reform Commission seriously, but that legislation has to be proportional with other illegal substances and not target a single issue.

Westmoreland said he supports reforms that address racial and sentencing disparities.  Twenty-eight percent of the Kansas Department of Corrections’ population is Black. According to the U.S. Census, Black people make up 6.1% of the state.

Earlier this year, Westmoreland submitted a clemency application to Gov. Laura Kelly’s office. The request included letters of support from Lansing Warden Shannon Meyer, Sen. Randall Hardy, R-Salina, and Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka....  Kelly’s office is in the process of reviewing the clemency request, spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said.

I fully understand why many advocates for criminal justice reform who are eager to end mass incarceration are now quick to stress that we need to address unduly long sentences for violent crimes.  But I see these kinds of extreme drug sentencing cases and continue to stress that we still need to make a whole lot more progress on reform for so many non-violent crimes, too, while also recognizing that it will be hard to get a place like Kansas to be less harsh in response to violent crimes if state law still provides that "a defendant could serve a longer sentence for marijuana crimes than violent crimes such as voluntary manslaughter."

Moreover, severe drug war attitudes are ultimately more enduring and perhaps even more problematic than even severe drug war laws.  That the prosecutor here is still eager to assert that such a long sentence for mere distribution of marijuana "was a fair sentence under the circumstances" showcases that many drug warriors are seemingly not inclined to rethink even the most severe weapons used to wage this unwinnable and damaging war. 

September 12, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Scope of Imprisonment, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 11, 2020

"The War on Drugs: Moral Panic and Excessive Sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this new article now available via SSRN and authored by Michael Vitiello.  Here is its abstract:

The United States’ War on Drugs has not been pretty. Moral panic has repeatedly driven policy when states and the federal government have regulated drugs.  Responding to that panic, legislators have authorized severe sentences for drug offenses.  By design, Article III gives federal judges independence, in part, to protect fundamental rights against mob rule.  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has often failed to protect fundamental rights in times of moral panic.  For example, it eroded Fourth Amendment protections during the War on Drugs.  Similarly, it failed to protect drug offenders from excessive prison sentences during the War on Drugs.

This article examines whether it is time for the Supreme Court to rethink its precedent upholding extremely long sentences for drug crimes.  In 1983, in Solem v. Helm, the Supreme Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause applies to terms of imprisonment.  There, it found the imposition of a true-life sentence imposed on a repeat offender to be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of the defendant’s offense.   Whatever hope Solem created that courts might limit excessive sentences proved to be false.  Two Supreme Court cases dealing with drug sentences, bracketing Solem, demonstrate the Court’s unwillingness to override legislatures’ discretion in imposing sentences.  In 1982, the Court upheld a 40-year term of imprisonment imposed on an offender who possessed less than nine ounces of marijuana.  In 1991, the Court upheld a true-life sentence imposed on an offender who possessed 672 grams of cocaine.  The Court’s refusal to curtail such extreme sentences reflects its willingness to accede to the nation’s moral panic over drug usage.

Since the height of the War on Drugs, Americans have changed their views about drugs.  Significant majorities of Americans favor legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational use.  Many Americans favor a wholesale rethinking of drug policy.  Despite studies in the 1950s and 1960s, demonstrating beneficial use of drugs like LSD and psilocybin, Congress yielded to moral panic and included them in Schedule I when it enacted the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Efforts are afoot at the state level to legalize the study of and to decriminalize the use of those and other drugs.

This article argues that the Court should rethink its Eighth Amendment caselaw upholding severe drug sentences.  The Court’s Eighth Amendment caselaw balances the severity of punishment against the gravity of an offense.  In turn, the gravity of an offense turns on its social harm and the culpability of the offender.  The Court upheld extreme drug sentences based on the view that drugs were a national scourge.  Moral panic led it to overstate the social harm and the culpability of drug offenders.  Scientifically based examination of drugs and drug policy should compel the Court to rethink its excessive punishment caselaw because the balance between severity of punishment and the gravity of drug offenses looks different when one has a better understanding of true costs and benefits of drug use. 

September 11, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 07, 2020

Reviewing how much and how little the FIRST STEP Act has achieved

Jacob Sullum has this great new Reason piece that spotlights key data from this recent US Sentencing Commission report on the first year under the FIRST STEP Act.  The full headline details the themes: "The FIRST STEP Act Has Reduced Prison Terms for More Than 7,000 People. While that's nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans behind bars." I recommend the piece in full, and here are snippets (with links from the original):

During the first full calendar year in which the law applied, it resulted in shorter sentences for more than 4,000 drug offenders. While that is nothing to sneeze at, it is a modest accomplishment in the context of a federal prison system that keeps more than 150,000 Americans, including more than 68,000 drug offenders, behind bars....

In 2019, the USSC report says, 2,387 already imprisoned crack offenders qualified for shorter sentences under the FIRST STEP Act's retroactivity provision. The average reduction was 71 months, making the average sentence for this group 187 months (more than 15 years), down from 258 months (more than 21 years).... The second most significant FIRST STEP Act sentencing reform in 2019 (again, measured by the number of people affected), was its widening of the "safety valve" that allows low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimums they otherwise would receive. The USSC reports that 1,369 defendants benefited from that expansion in 2019....

The law also expanded the "good time" credits that allow prisoners to be released early. Although the USSC report does not analyze the impact of that provision, the Justice Department reported last year that more than 3,100 prisoners had benefited from it. 

By the end of last year, then, more than 7,000 people either had been released from prison earlier than they otherwise would have been or were serving sentences that will end sooner than would have been the case before the FIRST STEP Act took effect. That is a meaningful accomplishment. Thousands of people will spend less time behind bars, and more time with their families, friends, and neighbors, thanks to this law, and that number will rise each year.

At the same time, the law's beneficiaries at this point represent less than 5 percent of the federal prison population, less than 11 percent of drug offenders in federal prison, and less than 10 percent of federal criminal cases each year. And while a crack offender who serves 15 years rather than 21 years in prison surely is better off, the reduced penalty is still draconian, especially if you think peaceful transactions involving arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants should not be treated as crimes to begin with.

Prior recent related posts:

September 7, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, August 31, 2020

"What We Got Wrong in the War on Drugs"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new paper now available via SSRN authored by Mark Osler. Here is its abstract:

The War on Drugs is effectively over.  Drugs won.  This essay addresses some of the mistakes we made in that futile effort.  Allowing racism to motivate action and impede reform was a primary error.  So was failing to understand that narcotics crime is simply different than other types of criminalized behavior in several fundamental ways. 

In whole, we largely addressed the narcotics trade as a moral failing rather than a market — and never got around to recognizing the size and shape of that market or to using market forces to control it.  Ronald Reagan compared the War on Drugs to the Battle of Verdun, and he was right: fortunes were spent, many lives were lost, and nothing really changed.

August 31, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Lots and lots of federal drug charges resulting from Operation Legend, which is purportedly to "fight violent crime"

Six week ago, Attorney General William Barr announced the launch of operation legend via this press release that stressed the fighting of violent crime.  Here are excerpts from the July 8 DOJ press release (with my emphasis added): 

Attorney General William P. Barr announced the launch of Operation Legend, a sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative across all federal law enforcement agencies working in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials to fight the sudden surge of violent crime, beginning in Kansas City, MO. Operation Legend was created as a result of President Trump’s promise to assist America’s cities that are plagued by recent violence....

“President Trump has made clear: the federal government stands ready and willing to assist any of our state and local law enforcement partners across the nation responding to violent crime. Operation Legend will combine federal and local resources to combat the disturbing uptick in violence by surging federal agents and other federal assets into cities like Kansas City, a city currently experiencing its worst homicide rate in its history,” said Attorney General Barr. “The Department’s Operation Legend is named in honor of one of Kansas City’s youngest victims, four-year old LeGend Taliferro who was shot in the face while sleeping in his bed.  LeGend’s death is a horrifying reminder that violent crime left unchecked is a threat to us all and cannot be allowed to continue.”

Today via this press release, AG Barr "announced updates on Operation Legend," and here are excerpts:

Since the operation’s launch, there have been more than 1,000 arrests, including defendants who have been charged in state and local courts.  Of those arrests, approximately 217 defendants have been charged with federal crimes.  These numbers exclude Indianapolis, whose operation was just announced last Friday. In addition, nearly 400 firearms have been seized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The Attorney General launched the operation on July 8, 2020, as a sustained, systematic and coordinated law enforcement initiative in which federal law enforcement agencies work in conjunction with state and local law enforcement officials to fight violent crime.... Launched first in Kansas City, MO., on July 8, 2020, the operation was expanded to Chicago and Albuquerque on July 22, 2020, to Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee on July 29, 2020, to St. Louis and Memphis on Aug. 6, 2020, and to Indianapolis on Aug. 14, 2020. A breakdown of the federal charges in each district, with the exception of Indianapolis, is below.

I am please to see this kind of accounting from DOJ about this operation, but when looking through the breakdown of the federal charges, it is remarkable how for DOJ the effort to "fight violent crime" seems to involve making a whole lot of drug charges:

Kansas City: "Forty-three defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... 17 defendants have been charged with drug trafficking"

Chicago: "Sixty-one defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... 26 defendants have been charged with narcotics-related offenses"

Albuquerque: "Sixteen defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... Six defendants have been charged with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances; Four defendants have been charged with distribution of controlled substances; Six defendants have been charged with possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance;"

Cleveland: "Thirty-two defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... 22 defendants have been charged with federal drug trafficking charges"

Detroit: "Twenty-two defendants have been charged with federal offenses ... Two defendants have been charged with possession with the intent to distribute controlled substances"

Milwaukee: "Eleven defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... Five defendants have been charged with possession with intent to distribute narcotics"

St. Louis: "Twenty-five defendants have been charged with federal crimes ... 21 defendants have been charged with drug trafficking offenses"

Though it is hard to do an exact accounting based on the DOJ reporting, it seems like roughly half of the federal charges here involve drug trafficking, not actual violent crimes.  (In addition, the vast majority of all the  other federal charges involve illegal gun possession, not actual violent crimes.)  I presume DOJ would defend its work here by asserting that drug trafficking is inherently violent or by contending that disrupting the drug trade via these arrests serves to get people prone to violence off the streets.  But I still find it quite jarring and quite telling that a federal initiative developed and promoted as a means to fight violent crime ends up bringing primarily drug trafficking charges in city after city.

August 19, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 09, 2020

Oregon drug decriminalization initiative would produce "significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities" according to state commission

Download (12)As reported in this local press piece, headlined "Oregon Criminal Justice Commission: Initiative Petition 44 Will Nearly Eliminate Racial Disparities for Drug Arrests, Convictions," a notable state commission has reported that a notable state ballot initiative will have a notable impact on equity in the criminal justice system. Here are the basics from the press piece:

Racial disparities in drug arrests will drop by 95% if Oregon voters pass a drug treatment and decriminalization measure in November.  That’s according to a new, independent government research report written by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.  Oregon voters will see a summary of the report in the voter pamphlet that the Oregon Secretary of State mails to every registered Oregon voter in November.

In addition to a reduction in arrest disparities, conviction disparities would be “narrowed substantially” if Initiative Petition 44 passes, the report said, and overall convictions would fall.  For example, convictions of Black and Indigenous Oregonians would drop by 94%....

The analysis by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission is the first one ever prepared for a ballot measure.  Lawmakers have had the ability to ask for such an analysis since 2014 and did this year after being urged to do so by the More Treatment campaign, which supports Initiative Petition 44....

Initiative Petition 44, which will soon get a ballot measure number, changes Oregon’s approach to drugs.  The initiative would expand access around the state to drug addiction treatment and recovery services, paid for with a portion of taxes from legal marijuana sales. In addition, the measure decriminalizes low-level drug possession.  It does not legalize drugs.

About 8,900 Oregonians are arrested every year in cases where simple drug possession is the most serious offense, according to the latest numbers from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission.  That’s the equivalent of about one arrest an hour.  Black and Indigenous Oregonians are disproportionately targeted....

In addition to decriminalizing drug possession, Initiative Petition 44 would specifically provide funding for treatment, peer support, housing, and harm reduction. Marijuana tax revenue that’s in excess of $45 million a year would help pay for it.  Oregon expects to collect roughly $284.2 million in marijuana tax revenue during the 2021-2023 biennium, or roughly $140 million a year.

Initiative Petition 44 has received more than 70 endorsements from organizations across the state, including the Coalition of Communities of Color, NAACP Portland, Eugene-Springfield NAACP, Unite Oregon, Central City Concern, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and more.  The MoreTreatment campaign to pass Initiative Petition 44 does not face any organized opposition.

The full seven-page analysis by the Oregon Criminal Sentencing Commission is available at this link, and here is part of the conclusion:

Overall, if IP 44 were to pass, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimates that approximately 1,800 fewer Oregonians per year would be convicted of felony PCS [possession of controlled substances]  and nearly 1,900 fewer Oregonians per year would be convicted of misdemeanor PCS.  Prior research suggests this drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement (Ewald and Uggen, 2012), which include the reduced ability to find employment, reduced access to housing, restrictions on the receipt of student loans, inability to obtain professional licensure, and others.

The CJC estimates that IP 44 will likely lead to significant reductions in racial/ethnic disparities in both convictions and arrests....

Similarly, it is estimated that disparities in arrests for PCS would fall as well. If arrests follow the same trends as were estimated for convictions, then the overall number of PCS arrests would fall from just over 6,700 to 615. In this case, the significant overrepresentation of Black Oregonians as measured by the RDR among those arrested for PCS would fall substantially, being reduced by nearly 95 percent. In addition, Native American Oregonians would go from being overrepresented, to underrepresented compared to white individuals.

August 9, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Noticing problems with crack sentence reduction retroactivity, especially when certain judges are discretionarily disinclined

The New York Times has this effective new article highlighting the ugly underbelly of the FRIST STEP Act's efforts to make sure the Fair Sentencing Act's reduction of crack sentences was fully retroactive.  The headline and subheadline of the piece serves as a summary: "Law to Reduce Crack Cocaine Sentences Leaves Some Imprisoned: Critics say the First Step Act is being applied too arbitrarily by judges who are taking a hard line when it comes to revisiting nonviolent drug sentences."  Here are excerpts from a piece worth reading in full:

By and large, the First Step Act has met its goal of reducing federal sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, addressing a longstanding disparity in which crack cocaine convictions in particular led to far harsher penalties than other drug offenses and disproportionately increased imprisonment of Black men.

Thousands of inmates across the country, predominantly people of color, have been released or resentenced under a provision of the new law that allowed changes to the sentencing provisions to be applied retroactively.  As of January, 2,387 inmates had their sentences reduced under the provision that allows some crack cocaine offenders to be resentenced, out of 2,660 that the United States Sentencing Commission estimated in May 2018 were eligible.

But the law gives judges discretion in reducing sentences, leaving some inmates like Mr. Maxwell without much recourse when their applications are rejected. In those cases, activists and defense lawyers worry that the First Step Act gives too much authority to judges to determine who does and does not deserve early release.  “It’s like the luck of the draw,” said Sarah Ryan, a professor at Wesleyan University who has analyzed hundreds of First Step Act resentencing cases.  “You’ve got people sitting in prison during a pandemic, and it’s not supposed to come down to who your judge is.  It’s supposed to come down to the law.”

The simple enactment of the bill was no guarantee for inmates.  This provision of the bill did not mandate that the judges must resentence eligible offenders; Congress specified that “nothing in this section shall be construed to require a court to reduce any sentence.”...

The section of the act that governs resentencing for crack cocaine convictions is just four sentences long.  It made retroactive the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine.  Courts have been relatively slow to determine some of the ambiguities of the act, including whether to consider behavior behind bars or other concurrent charges as factors in the decision.

Many public defenders — who handle most of these applications — in the toughest districts declined to speak on the record for fear of upsetting the judges who oversee their cases. Parks Small, a federal public defender in Columbia, S.C., said an imperfect First Step Act was still better than nothing, calling the bill a “godsend” for many inmates.  He added that judges varied as to the importance they placed on the original offense or the inmate’s behavior behind bars.  “You give it to different judges, they’re going to come up with different opinions,” Mr. Small said.  “It’s frustrating.”

August 1, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (4)

Monday, July 20, 2020

"Forgotten by the Fair Sentencing Act and the First Step Act: Federal Methamphetamine Sentencing Reform"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper recently posted on SSRN and authored by Quincy Ferrill.  Here is its abstract:

This paper explores the issue of sentencing guidelines based on outdated premises and unfair treatment and the potential impacts of drug sentencing laws and enhancements not based on empirical data.  To address this problem, this paper proposes a bill, similar to the First Step Act, to both retroactively and prospectively lessen the effect of these capricious drug sentencing guidelines.

July 20, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

"Retroactivity & Recidivism: The Drugs Minus Two Amendment"

Cover_Drugs-Minus-TwoThe title of this post is the title of this notable new US Sentencing Commission report.  A summary of the report is provided on this USSC webpage and provides these basics:

Summary

This publication analyzes recidivism rates among drug offenders who were released immediately before and after retroactive implementation of the 2014 "Drugs Minus Two" Amendment.

The report tracked the recidivism rate of two study groups:

  • Retroactivity Group: 7,121 offenders who received sentence reductions through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment and who were released early from October 30, 2015, to May 31, 2016.
  • Comparison Group: 7,132 offenders who would have been eligible for sentence reductions through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment but were released between May 1, 2014, and October 29, 2015, having served their full sentences before the Drugs Minus Two Amendment could be retroactively applied

Findings 

The Commission's report aims to answer the research question, "Did the reduced sentences for the Retroactivity Group result in increased recidivism?"  The Commission found the following:

  • There was no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of offenders released early pursuant to retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment and a comparable group of offenders who served their full sentences.
  • This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the eligibility criteria required by the Commission, and the careful consideration of those criteria by judges — particularly public safety considerations — in exercising their discretion to grant or deny retroactivity motions.

Interestingly, though apparently not reaching a level of statistical significance, the Sentencing Commission's data actually show that the group who received reduced sentences had a lower rate of recidivism.  From the Key Findings at page 6 of the full report (with my emphasis added):

There was no statistically significant difference in the recidivism rates of the Retroactivity Group (offenders who were released on average 37 months early through retroactive application of the Drugs Minus Two Amendment) and the Comparison Group (offenders who would have been eligible for retroactivity but had served their sentences before retroactivity took effect). Over a three-year period following their release from prison, the Retroactivity Group had a recidivism rate of 27.9 percent compared to 30.5 percent for the Comparison Group. This outcome may be attributed, at least in part, to the eligibility criteria required by the Commission, and the careful consideration of those criteria by judges — particularly public safety considerations — in exercising their discretion to grant or deny retroactivity motions.

The similarity in the recidivism rates of the Retroactivity Group and the Comparison Group held true across all drug types. Among offenders convicted of offenses with the same primary drug type — Powder Cocaine, Crack Cocaine, Heroin, Marijuana, Methamphetamine, and Other Drugs — offenders in the Retroactivity Group had similar recidivism rates to offenders in the Comparison Group, although the recidivism levels varied by drug type. The highest rates were observed among Crack Cocaine offenders (35.1% in the Retroactivity Group and 37.5% in the Comparison Group) and the lowest rates among Powder Cocaine offenders (19.5% in the Retroactivity Group and 22.3% in the Comparison Group).

I am quite inclined to embrace the USSC's assertion that the exercise of wise judicial discretion in deciding who should get the benefit of retroactive implementation of the 2014 "Drugs Minus Two" Amendment explains why recidivism rates were relative low for those defendants who received reduced sentences. Among other benefits of this conclusion, it should make Congress and the USSC ever more confident that they can safely (and should as a matter of fairness and justice) make any any all reduced sentences fully retroactive (subject to discretionary judicial review upon implementation).

July 8, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Prisons and prisoners, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Highlighting just one way that, even after the FIRST STEP Act, "Justice Still Eludes Crack Offenders"

Sarah E. Ryan has this notable new Crime Report commentary headlined simply "Why Justice Still Eludes Crack Offenders." I recommend the whole piece, and here are excerpts:

In early 2007, Carl Smith sold 1.69 grams of crack, less than half a teaspoon.  He also sold a teaspoon of powder cocaine.  A New Hampshire federal judge sentenced him to seventeen-and-a-half years imprisonment, the lowest end of the sentencing guidelines recommendation.

Last spring, Smith sought a sentence reduction under the First Step Act.  The district court denied the request because he was convicted under a statutory subsection unaffected by the new law. In essence, he had sold too little crack to go free.  According to an early 2020 analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the New Hampshire district courts granted just four sentence reductions under the First Step Act.  The district of Rhode Island granted four times more reductions; the district of Connecticut granted five times as many.

Nationally, the average sentence reduction was 71 months.  As a result, many defendants had served their time and could be released from incarceration.  But not Carl Smith. He remained locked up during a pandemic.  He appealed, arguing that the First Step Act covered his conviction.

After analyzing more than 500 First Step Act cases, including 90 relevant circuit court opinions, I know two things: this area of law remains in disarray and the circuit courts have largely dodged the tough issues.  They remain complicit in a decades-old mass incarceration scheme.

The now-familiar history of the crack laws omits one key fact: Congress knew early on that the drug laws were disproportionately affecting Black defendants.... In 1995, the Sentencing Commission told Congress that Black defendants accounted for nearly 90 percent of crack cocaine convictions and that most of their customers were white.  In 1996, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported the changing nature of the federal prison population using bold-faced sub-headers such as: “An increasing percentage of the Nation’s prisoners are black or Hispanic.”  In 1999, the BJS reported that the length of federal prison sentences had increased 40 percent. 

By the mid-1990s, lawmakers understood that dealers like Carl Smith were serving prison terms usually reserved for second-degree murder, or intentional murder demonstrating an extreme indifference to human life.  Yet Congress provided no relief, for decades.

In 2010, Congress raised the quantity necessary for future statutory minimum sentences in the Fair Sentencing Act; the law did not help defendants sentenced at the height of the drug war.  A few thousand people remained incarcerated under the old crack laws.  Their only hope was an historic reform amounting to an admission of Congressional guilt. The First Step Act was that law.  A bipartisan coalition heralded the First Step Act as the end of the draconian drug laws.  The Act gave sitting judges the authority to reopen the old crack cases and impose more appropriate sentences.... The intent of the law was clear, but some judges wavered.

There are two plausible ways to read the resentencing section — section 404 — of the First Step Act: as a small fix to the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 or a broad mandate to rectify thousands of unjust sentences.  The broad reading is historically, legally and morally correct.  But hundreds of hearings in, the nation’s district courts remain divided on the law’s most basic tenets, like which defendants can be resentenced or what Section 404 empowers judges to do.

Some judges apply Section 404 narrowly.  A subset dismiss cases involving too little or too much crack without a review of the other facts.  Still others review all cases implicating a Fair Sentencing Act statute, but only to perform a new mathematical calculation.  They do not consider a defendant’s post-sentencing conduct or intervening changes in the law, even favorable state and federal supreme court rulings.  Their narrow interpretations of the law unnecessarily depress the length of sentence reductions.

Other judges construe Section 404 broadly.  They view the First Step Act as a gateway to relief.  Some find that they can revisit the sentences of small-time dealers or inmates serving hybrid sentences for interconnected drug and weapons crimes.  Some believe that they may consider a defendant’s good conduct, prison coursework and recent high court rulings.  Broad-view judges find that Congress empowered them to mitigate the damage of the old crack laws.  Their proof? The text of the law, including the word “impose” as a mandate to issue an independent sentence — and the testimony of a dozen or more senators, of both parties, characterizing the First Step Act as redress for the old drug laws.

Recently, the First Circuit adopted a broad view in Carl Smith’s case [opinion here]. That appellate opinion is reason for hope that the circuit courts will raze the remains of the old crack laws.  This summer, the appellate courts should adopt a broad reading of the First Step Act.  That reading should require sitting judges to issue meaningful sentence reductions, including ‘timed served’ in many cases.

And, it should hold sitting judges accountable for the continued incarceration of non-violent drug dealers who have served a decade or more.  Amidst global protests for freedom, liberation and justice for Black citizens, and a raging pandemic, the courts must fully enact the First Step Act as Congress intended.

I am pleased to see this new commentary calling out lower courts for not giving full effect to remedial aspects of the FIRST STEP Act.  But this analysis should not leave out the problematic role of the Justice Department.  I surmise that DOJ has consistently argued for narrow and limiting approaches to the application of Section 404.  Decades ago, DOJ could reasonably contended that its arguments for severe application of federal sentencing laws were consistent with congressional intent.  Now, DOJ arguments for severe application of federal sentencing laws often clearly fly in the face of congressional intent.

July 7, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Some summer criminal justice highlights from Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform

It has been far too long since I thought to do a round-up of posts of note from my blogging over at Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform, though that is certainly not because there has been any shortage of interesting COVID-19 or social justice issues arising these days at the intersection of marijuana policy and criminal justice policy.   Rather than try to do a comprehensive review, I will be content to stoplight some favorites with an emphasis on criminal-justice-related stories in this abridged list of posts of note from recent months at MLP&R:

July 7, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Pot Prohibition Issues, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 03, 2020

"Proposition 47’s Impact on Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice Outcomes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new and timely report from the Public Policy Institute of California.  Here is its "Summary":

While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced changes to correctional systems and law enforcement’s interactions with the community, widespread protests focused on the deaths of African Americans in police custody have intensified concern about racial and ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system.  In recent years, California has implemented a number of significant reforms that were not motivated by racial disparities but might have narrowed them in a number of ways. In this report, we extend our previous arrest work to examine the impact of Proposition 47, which reclassified a number of drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, on racial disparities in arrest and jail booking rates and in the likelihood of an arrest resulting in a booking.

While significant inequities persist in California and elsewhere, our findings point to a reduction in pretrial detention and a narrowing of racial disparities in key statewide criminal justice outcomes.

  • After Prop 47 passed in November 2014, the number of bookings quickly dropped by 10.4 percent.  As a result, California’s use of pretrial detention has declined.
  • Prop 47 also led to notable decreases in racial/ethnic disparities in arrests and bookings.  The African American–white arrest rate gap narrowed by about 5.9 percent, while the African American–white booking rate gap shrank by about 8.2 percent.  Prop 47 has not meaningfully changed the disparities in arrest and booking rates between Latinos and whites, which are still only a small fraction of the African American–white gap.
  • The narrowing of African American–white disparities has been driven by property and drug offenses.  The gap in arrests for these offenses dropped by about 24 percent and the bookings gap narrowed by almost 33 percent.  Even more striking, African American–white gaps in arrest and booking rates for drug felonies decreased by about 36 percent and 55 percent, respectively.
  • The likelihood of an arrest leading to a jail booking declined the most for whites, but this is attributable to the relatively larger share of white arrests for drug offenses covered by Prop 47. When we account for arrest offense differences, the decreases in the likelihood of an arrest being booked are similar across race and ethnicity.

We also looked at the cumulative impact of reforms and prison population reduction measures in California since 2009 on racial disparities in incarceration.  We found that the sizable reduction in the overall incarceration rate produced by these efforts has led to a narrowing of racial disparities in the proportion institutionalized on any given day.  In particular, the African American–white incarceration gap dropped from about 4.5 percentage points to 2.8 percentage points, a decrease of about 36 percent.

In addition to meaningfully reducing racial disparities in key criminal justice outcomes, the reclassification of drug and property offenses led to significant decreases in arrests and bookings, and hence pretrial detention. These decreases have the potential to reduce and/or redirect the use of public resources.  However, more work is needed.  Given evidence that the reforms have led to some increases in property crime, it is important for policymakers and practitioners to identify effective programs and policies that can reduce recidivism and maintain public safety while also continuing to address racial disparities.

July 3, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, Race, Class, and Gender | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

"Judicial Authority under the First Step Act What Congress Conferred through Section 404"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Sarah Ryan now available via SSRN. Here is its abstract:

The First Step Act of 2018 promised relief to inmates serving disproportionately long sentences for cocaine base distribution. Section 404, the focus of this article, seemed straight-forward.  But in the spring and summer of 2019, district judges began reviewing § 404 cases and reaching dissonant results.  Appeals followed, focused on four questions of judicial authority: (1) Who may judges resentence?; (2) May judges engage in plenary resentencing or merely sentence reduction?; (3) May judges resentence all concurrent criminal convictions or only crack cocaine convictions?; and (4) Must judges adopt the operative drug quantity from the original sentencing?

Today, the law of § 404 remains incomplete in every circuit.  This article reviews the legislative history, text, and legal context of § 404.  It finds that Congress intended broad judicial authority in § 404 resentencings.

June 30, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 07, 2020

An initial list of federal sentencing reforms to advance greater equity and justice for congressional consideration

According to this recent Hill article, headlined "Pelosi: Democrats to unveil sweeping criminal justice proposal Monday," a federal criminal justice bill is in the works that may go beyond police reforms.  Here are the basics:

Democrats on Monday will introduce wide-ranging legislation designed to combat racial inequities in the criminal justice system, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced Thursday.  The much awaited package, currently being crafted by members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), will feature provisions designed to eliminate racial profiling, rein in the excessive use of police force and repeal the so-called qualified immunity doctrine for law enforcers, which protects individual officers from lawsuits over actions they perform while on duty.

"We will not relent until that is secured — that justice is secured," Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.  Yet the package will go far beyond that, Pelosi suggested.... Aside from the criminal justice elements of the Democrats' legislation, Pelosi said the package would also include provisions designed to raise the status of African Americans outside of the criminal justice system as well. "It is about other injustices, too. It's about health disparities, it's about environmental injustice, it's about economic injustice, it's about educational injustice," Pelosi said. 

This Politico piece suggests the developing bill is primarily focused on police reforms.  But if Congress has an interest, as I think it should, in broader criminal justice reforms to advance greater equity and justice, I have many suggestions.  Let's get started with some basic federal sentencing reforms:

1. Equalize crack and powder cocaine sentencing (finally!) Based on data showing huge unfair disparities, the US Sentencing Commission in 1995 (a full quarter century ago!) sent to Congress proposed guidelines changes to fix the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity by adopting a 1:1 quantity ratio at the powder cocaine level.  But Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation rejecting the USSC’s proposed guideline changes (see basics here and here), thereby ensuring decades of disproportionately severe crack sentences and extreme racial inequities in cocaine offense punishments.

Barack Obama gave a 2007 campaign speech assailing the crack/powder disparity, and in 2009 the Obama Justice Department advocated for "Congress to completely eliminate the crack/powder disparity."  Sadly, despite strong DOJ advocacy for a 1:1 ratio in April 2009, it still took Congress more than a year to enact any reform to the 100:1 crack/powder cocaine disparity, and then it only could muster a partial reduction in crack sentences rather than the parity advocated by the USSC in 1995 and by DOJ in 2009.  Specifically, the Fair Sentencing Act enshrined a bew 18:1 crack/powder quantity disparity ratio into federal drug sentencing statutes and guidelines, and even this modest reform did not become fully retroactive until eight years later with the FIRST STEP Act.

As the USSC said in 1995 and as DOJ recognized in 2009, crack cocaine and powder cocaine are functionally the same drug save for the fact that Blacks are far more likely to be prosecuted federally for the former.  The crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity has long been the most tangible and consequential example of structural sentencing racism, and the Minnesota Supreme Court decades ago found a lesser disparity to be unconstitutional under its state constitution.  This ugly stain still impacting thousands of Black federal defendants needs to be wiped out once and for all.

2. Repeal federal mandatory minimumsEven before its important work highlighting racial biases in the application of federal cocaine penalties, the USSC began noting the racial inequities in the application of federal mandatory minimum statutes.  In its 1991 report, the USSC noted early data showing "disparate application of mandatory minimum sentences [which] appears to be related to the race of the defendant, where whites are more likely than non-whites to be sentenced below the applicable mandatory minimum."  In its 2011 report, the USSC again documented with copious data the various ways that the effects of severe mandatory minimum sentencing provisions "fall on Black offenders to a greater degree than on offenders in other racial groups."

One need not rely on USSC data to see clear evidence of racial disparities in the application of federal mandatory minimum.  M. Marit Rehavi and Sonja B. Starr found that federal prosecutors are almost twice as likely to file charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences against Black defendants.  Similarly, Crystal Yang found that "Black offenders are far more likely to be charged with mandatory minimums than similar white offenders, and after Booker, black defendants are significantly more likely to face mandatory minimums that exceed their Guidelines minimum compared to white defendants."

Critically, mandatory minimums have all sorts of flaws, both in theory and in practice, that justify their repeal on a number of bases beyond advancing greater racial equity.  But, as is too often the case throughout criminal justice systems, a bad law for everyone often gets applied in a way that is especially inequitable and unjust for people of color.  All federal mandatory minimums ought to be repealed.

3. Create a federal expungement statute. Having a criminal record severely limits access to employment, education, housing, civic engagement, and public assistance.  As highlighted by a recent US Commission on Civil Rights report on collateral consequences, "People of color are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced more harshly than are white people, which amplifies the impact of collateral consequences on this population."

An encouraging recent study by Sonja B. Starr and J.J. Prescott involving expungements in Michigan over the course of decades found that expungement recipients had extremely low subsequent crime rates and saw a sharp upturn in wages and employment levels.  Sounds like a win-win, and ever more states are each year expanding and enhancing mechanisms for record relief.  But there is currently no general federal expungement or record sealing statute, and federal courts have no inherent authority to expunge records.  Congress should again follow the wise lead of the states by creating a robust expungement statute ASAP.

Critically, these three suggestions are really just low-hanging fruit for criminal justice reforms in the sentencing space that would obviously and easily advance greater equity and justice for all.  There are plenty of other important structural changes I would also like to see in the name of racial justice ranging from eliminating all felon disenfranchisement to decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana and lots more in between.  Indeed, any kind of wise criminal justice reform is likely to serve as a kind of racial justice reform given the consistently biased operation of our justice systems.  But for now, I will be content to advocate for these three reforms and encourage others to use the comments to indicate what they consider the most urgent forms of reform in this arena.

June 7, 2020 in Collateral consequences, Drug Offense Sentencing, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, New USSC crack guidelines and report, Race, Class, and Gender, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, June 04, 2020

"The Federal Judiciary’s Role in Drug Law Reform in an Era of Congressional Dysfunction"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article now available via SSRN authored by Erica Zunkel and Alison Siegler. Here is its abstract:

While state drug law reform is moving apace, federal drug law reform has moved much more slowly.  Many, including the Judicial Conference of the United States and the United States Sentencing Commission, have urged Congress to enact substantive federal drug law reform for years.  But Congress has not acted.  As a result, the federal system continues to single out drug offenses for harsh treatment at the front end — the bail stage — and the back end — the sentencing stage — of a case.

This article examines the judiciary’s crucial role in federal drug law reform at the front and back ends of a drug case.  On the front end, judges should encourage the release of more people on bail by closely scrutinizing prosecutors’ motions for temporary detention in drug cases and giving little, if any, weight to the Bail Reform Act’s presumption of detention at the detention hearing stage.  Data shows that the drug presumption is over-broad and does a poor job of determining who is a risk of flight or a danger to the community.  At the back end, judges should issue categorical policy disagreements with the drug sentencing guideline and the career offender sentencing guideline under the Supreme Court’s rationale in Kimbrough v. United States.  These guidelines are not based on empirical evidence and national experience, and therefore do not exemplify the Sentencing Commission’s “exercise of its characteristic institutional role.”  At both ends, judges should emphasize the evidence that the drug presumption, the drug sentencing guideline, and the career offender sentencing guideline are flawed.  While these actions are not a cure for Congress’ inaction, they send a clear message from one co-equal branch of government to another that substantive reform is urgently needed.

June 4, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Noticing COVID impacts through drug supply chains and enforcement

I doubt there is a single area of life not impacted by the global pandemic, and thus these recent next stories about impacts on the drug trade and enforcement are not shocking though still interesting:

The NPR story summarizes some of the findings in this big new "Research Brief" coming from the United Nations titled "COVID-19 and the drug supply chain: from production and trafficking to use."

May 26, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

"Evidence-Based Sentencing Reform: The Right Policy For Ohio"

The title of this post is the title of this short white paper authored by Andrew Geisler of The Buckeye Institute.  Here is how it starts and concludes:

Senate Bill 3 proposes commonsense and comprehensive reforms to Ohio drug sentencing law.  The bill seeks to hold those in the business of selling drugs accountable for their conduct, while ensuring those convicted of nonviolent drug possession get the treatment that they need.  To do that, the bill reclassifies some offenses and changes the drug quantities required to convict for others. The bill relies upon extensive data-driven research on the habits of drug users and dealers, and adopts drug-quantity thresholds largely consistent with the Ohio Criminal Justice Recodification Committee’s 2017 recommendations.  Modeled on the committee’s approach and recommendations, Senate Bill 3 takes significant strides toward making Ohio’s drug-sentencing laws more effective, flexible, and just....

Senate Bill 3 reforms Ohio’s drug sentencing laws without making it easier to traffic drugs.  The bill takes a commonsense, evidence-based approach to ensure that Ohio law adequately reflects the complex nature of addiction and drug trafficking by providing treatment for those possessing drugs and by continuing to hold drug traffickers accountable for their crimes.

Prior related recent post:

May 21, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Members of Congress submit amicus brief urging Ninth Circuit to rule FIRST STEP Act provisions lowering mandatory minimums apply at a resentencing

In this post way back in 2018 just a few days after the FIRST STEP Act became law, I took note of the notable provisions in the Act which expressly addressed just which types of offenders should get the benefit of the Act's new statutory sentencing provisions if their cases were already in the criminal justice pipeline.  In that post, I complimented Congress for addressing these issues, but I also noted that some matters left unclear such as whether "a defendant already sentenced earlier in 2018 [who has] his sentence reversed on some other ground and now he faces resentencing [could] get the benefit of any new provisions of the FIRST STEP Act upon resentencing."

Via this new press release, I now see that this resentencing question is before the Ninth Circuit and that a notable group of Senators are seeking to ensure the defendant gets the benefit of the FIRST STEP Act at his resentencing.  Here is the text of the press release:

U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Cory Booker (D-NJ), lead authors and sponsors of the First Step Act — landmark criminal justice reform legislation — today submitted a bipartisan Amicus Brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States of America v Alan L. Mapuatuli, a case related to the reduction of the second strike and third strike drug mandatory minimums.

The bipartisan Brief argues that Congress intended the First Step Act (FSA) to apply at post-FSA sentencing hearings, including when a defendant is before a court for sentencing after his or her initial sentence was vacated on appeal.  Congress intended to cover these cases by stating that the FSA applies “if a sentence for the offense has not been imposed” as of the FSA’s date of enactment.  However, the Justice Department is litigating the contrary position in United States of America v Alan L. Mapuatuli.

The Members wrote: “… the interpretation advanced by the Executive Branch and adopted by the district court in this case is contrary to Congress’s language and intent.  Reduced to its simplest form, that interpretation assumes that Congress intended to give legal effect to sentences that otherwise are void.  That assumption finds no support in the statutory text, contradicts the fundamental considerations that motivated Congress to enact the First Step Act, and produces inequitable outcomes that undermine the fairness and legitimacy of our criminal justice system.  That unquestionably is not what Congress intended.  For these reasons, amici respectfully submit that the district court’s judgment should be vacated and the case remanded for resentencing in conformity with the First Step Act.”

The full 20-page amicus brief in this matter is available at this link, and I applaud the Senators and their lawyers for urging the Ninth Circuit to ensure that the FIRST STEP Act is given the broad reach that it seems Congress intended and that its text reasonably supports.

May 13, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Implementing retroactively new USSC crack guidelines, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Sentences Reconsidered, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Can the coronoavirus finally get Ohio's bipartsan criminal justice reforms over the finish line?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Fox News piece headlined "Ohio lawmakers hope for bipartisan reform of prison system stressed by COVID-19." Here are excerpts from a long piece:

Ohio lawmakers, lobbyists and researchers of various political stripes are finding a common cause in prison reform.  Bipartisan efforts to reform the troubled system have preceded the outbreak of COVID-19, but the virus has thrown the need for change into stark relief.

Across Ohio’s prison system, more than 4,300 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 40 inmates and two staff members have died.  The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) has a current inmate population of nearly 50,000, about 10,000 above capacity.  Already cramped living conditions have been exacerbated and stressed by a virus that has forced 39,000 inmates into quarantine, according to ODRC data.

The prison system has long been scrutinized by the left for its overcrowding problem.  Now, with the system wracked by a deadly virus, conservative lawmakers are turning a critical eye to the status quo. “When you have organizations across the political and ideological spectrum saying, oftentimes, identical things about mass incarceration – it makes people take notice,” said Gary Daniels, a lobbyist with the ACLU of Ohio....

Two such displays are House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3, which would allow for intervention in lieu of conviction and reform drug sentencing laws, respectively, The bills contain changes widely agreed upon as common-sense reforms to Ohio's criminal justice system. Both would put fewer people behind bars for minor criminal infractions, allowing for rehabilitation and community monitoring for crimes that don’t merit incarceration....

Still, bipartisan acknowledgment of a problem doesn’t always prompt bipartisan legislative action. Solutions can languish in the statehouse for months while lawmakers debate the finer points. Sometimes party lines won’t be moved....

Cooperation between think tanks and policy advocacy organizations can be a prelude to lawmakers taking up a cause in committee. Rep. Diane Grendell, a Republican lawmaker from northern Ohio and former Court of Appeals judge, sits on the Ohio House Criminal Justice committee and anticipates seeing prison reform enacted reasonably soon. “We have failed in our prison system,” Grendell said. “We have more prisoners than we have jails for, we keep passing more and more laws, we have to really clean it up. And I think all sides agree on that. We just have too many people in prisons.”...

The Buckeye Institute has long lobbied for fiscally conservative policies.  Recently, those policies have included criminal justice reform like S.B. 3. Lawson said prisons are the state’s third-largest budget item behind Medicaid and education. The Buckeye Institute has backed prison reform bills alongside liberal groups like Policy Matters Ohio and the libertarian Americans for Prosperity....

Ohio Rep. Erica Crawley, a Democrat from southeastern Columbus, isn’t as hopeful about a new era of bipartisanship in Ohio, though she does recognize the likelihood of criminal justice reform. “The pandemic has really brought those concerns and conversations to the forefront,” she said. “… We are having a really substantive conversation about rehabilitation. Obviously, we can’t lock inmates up and get out of this drug problem.”

For years, Ohio has been at the center of the nation’s opioid epidemic, with the state prison and county jail systems bearing the brunt of the resulting increase in incarceration.... Crawley said current reform efforts are good, but don’t go far enough. She said the bills under consideration wouldn’t do enough to mitigate the prison population enough to matter if the state were struck with a future pandemic.

“Right now, we have over 15,000 inmates who are considered low-level, nonviolent offenders,” Crawley said. “A lot of those are drug convictions. S.B. 3 would still allow people to be incarcerated for small amounts of drugs.  Until we have consensus and local court policy guidelines, we’re going to continue to see the same problems. If we have another pandemic, we’re going to be in the same position.”

I want to be optimistic that Ohio's General Assembly might get both House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 3 to the desk of the Governor in short order.  But these bills have been "stuck" in the Ohio GA for quite some time, and Ohio's prison population has been way over capacity for even longer.  And despite a lot of public policy groups on both sides of the aisle supporting reform, many of the anti-reform usual suspects (e.g., prosecutors and police) have so far kept these relatively modest proposed reforms from becoming law.  I sure want to believe that the COVID crisis will get the Ohio GA to finally get these reforms enacted, but I never count any sentencing reform chickens before they are fully hatched.

May 9, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, State Sentencing Guidelines, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

From drug sentences to death sentences: documenting arbitrary and capricious drug war casualties

Many millions, perhaps tens of millions of persons, in the United States are involved in some federally illegal drug activity.  But only select few, roughly 20,000 per year, are subject to federal prosecution and sentencing.  The tiny percentage of drug offenders subject to federal prosecution are not quite randomly selected, but exactly who and how offenders are brought into the federal system often seems to have more to do with federal prosecutorial priorities than with offending behaviors.  (This US Sentencing Commission document shows that federal cocaine and meth cases were still more commonly sentenced than opioid cases through the height of the opioid epidemic.   Notably, those selected for federal prosecution are disproportionate persons of color: in Fiscal Year 2019, as in most prior years, only about one quarter of persons prosecuted for federal drug crimes are white.)

For those sentenced to federal prison, the vicissitudes of federal drug prosecution are now combined with the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainties of just who will get sick from the virus.  Sadly, for more than a few, the result has been an untimely death.  Of course, every unnecessary death by illness for an incarcerated person is a tragic event; but the recent death of the first female federal inmate (discussed here) struck me as an especially arbitrary and capricious drug war casualty.  And it inspired me to go though the BOP press releases about COVID inmate deaths to see how many involve drug offenders. Here is what I found (with quote about offense drawn from BOP press release):

Patrick Jones (died March 28: "49 year-old male who was sentenced in the Western District of Texas to a 324- month sentence for Possession with Intent to Distribute 425.1 grams of crack cocaine within 1000 ft. of a junior college") 

Nicholas Rodriguez (died April 1: "43 year-old male who was sentenced in the Northern District of California to a 188-month sentence for Conspiracy to Distribute a Mixture and Substance Containing a Detectable Amount of Methamphetamine and Possession with Intent to Distribute a Mixture and Substance Containing a Detectable Amount of Methamphetamine")

Woodrow Taylor (died April 2: "53 year-old male serving a 60 month sentence for Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute 500 grams or more of Cocaine")

David Townsend (died April 2: "66 year-old male who was sentenced in the Northern District of Georgia to a 240-month sentence for Possession With Intent to Distribute at least 100 kg. of Marijuana, at least 500 gm. of Methamphetamine Mixture, and at least 5 gm. of Methamphetamine Actual")

Margarito Garcia-Fragoso (died April 2: "65 year-old male serving 126 month sentence for Possession with Intent to Distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine and Possession of a Firearm in Furtherance of Drug Trafficking Crime")

Gary Edward Nixon (died April 12: "57 year-old male who was sentenced in the Eastern District of North Carolina to a 155-month Supervised Release Violation Term with new criminal conduct of Conspiracy to Distribute With Intent to Distribute More Than 5 Grams of Cocaine Base (Crack). The original offense conduct was Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute 100 Grams or More of Heroin and Possession With Intent to Distribute a Quantity of Heroin")

Alvin Turner (died April 13: "43 year-old male sentenced in the Eastern District of Michigan to a 180 month term for Conspiracy to Possess With Intent to Distribute and to Distribute Cocaine")

Michael Fleming (died April 19: "59 year-old male who was sentenced in the District of Wyoming to a 240-month sentence for Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute and to Distribute
Methamphetamine")

Arnoldo Almeida (died April 22: "a 61 year-old male who was sentenced in the Western District of Texas to a 188-month sentence for Conspiracy to Possess with Intent to Distribute a Controlled Substance Containing a Detectable Amount of Cocaine")

Oscar Ortiz (died April 24: "78 year-old male who was sentenced in the District of Idaho to a 324-month sentence for Conspiracy to Distribute Methamphetamine and/or Marijuana, Drug
Possession/Distribution, and Misprison of a Felony")

Donnie Grabener (died April 25: "65 year-old male who was sentenced in the District of Louisiana to a 120-month sentence for Conspiracy to Distribute Methamphetamine and Felon in Possession of a Firearm")

Andrea Circle Bear (died April 28: "30 year-old female who was sentenced in the District of South Dakota to a 26-month sentence for Maintaining a Drug Involved Premises")

William Walker Minto (died April 28: "73 year-old male who was sentenced in the Eastern District of Tennessee to a 240-month term for Conspiracy to Distribute and Possess With Intent to Distribute 1,000 Kilograms or More of Marijuana")

April 29, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners | Permalink | Comments (2)

The sad details of the first woman in federal prison to die from COVID-19

The federal Bureau of Prisons issued this press release last night, titled "Inmate Death at FMC Carswell," which reports these sad details:

On Friday, March 20, 2020, inmate Andrea Circle Bear was transported by the United States Marshal Service from Winner City Jail, Winner, South Dakota to FMC Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.  Per the Bureau's current COVID-19 procedures, Ms. Circle Bear was immediately placed on quarantine status at FMC Carswell.

On Saturday, March 28, 2020, Ms. Circle Bear was evaluated by FMC Carswell Health Services staff and transported to the local hospital due to potential concerns regarding her pregnancy. After evaluation by the local hospital staff, Ms. Circle Bear was discharged the same day and transported back to FMC Carswell.  On Tuesday, March 31, 2020, Ms. Circle Bear was seen by FMC Carswell Health Services staff for a fever, dry cough, and other symptoms, and was transported to the local hospital for further treatment, evaluation, and placed on a ventilator.

On Wednesday, April 1, 2020, Ms. Circle Bear’s baby was born by cesarean section. On Saturday, April 4, 2020, Ms. Circle Bear was confirmed positive for COVID-19.  On Tuesday, April 28, 2020, Ms. Circle Bear, who had a pre-existing medical condition which the CDC lists as risk factor for developing more severe COVID-19 disease, was pronounced dead by hospital staff.

Ms. Circle Bear was a 30 year-old female who was sentenced in the District of South Dakota to a 26-month sentence for Maintaining a Drug Involved Premises.  She had been in custody at FMC Carswell since March 20, 2020.

More details on what led to this tragic state of affairs can be found via this January 2020 press release from the US Attorney's Office forthe District of South Dakota titled "Eagle Butte Woman Sentenced for Maintaining a Drug Involved Premises":

United States Attorney Ron Parsons announced that an Eagle Butte, South Dakota, woman convicted of Maintaining a Drug Involved Premises was sentenced on January 14, 2020, by Chief Judge Roberto A. Lange, U.S. District Court.

Andrea Circle Bear, a/k/a Andrea High Bear, age 29, was sentenced to 26 months in federal prison, followed by 3 years of supervised release, and a special assessment to the Federal Crime Victims Fund in the amount of $100. Circle Bear was indicted by a federal grand jury on March 12, 2019. She pled guilty on October 7, 2019.

The conviction stemmed from several incidents in April of 2018, when Circle Bear unlawfully and knowingly used and maintained a place for the purpose of distributing methamphetamine on the Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation.

“It is federal crime to knowingly allow a drug dealer to operate out of your home, apartment, or place of business,” said U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons. “Don’t let yourself or your property get mixed up in the world of illegal drugs. It ends badly.”...

Circle Bear was immediately remanded to the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Though I do not know just how far along Ms. Circle Bear was on April 1 when her baby was delivered by cesarean section, I think it is a near certainty that everyone had know by the time of her sentencing in mid January 2020 that she was pregnant.  I also do not know if anyone thought to ask in January 2020 about possibly delaying the start of her prison term until she gave birth, but it is so very telling (and here proved so very deadly) that, even with a seemingly low-level non-violent drug offense, there was apparently no effort to accommodate a woman in the second trimester of her pregnancy.

Moving forward on the timeline, I do not know why it took two months to transfer Ms. Circle Bear from a South Dakota jail to a federal prison in Texas on March 20.  But recall that a national emergency was declared by Prez Trump on March 13, and we had all for a few weeks already been talking about social distancing.  I am fear little or no social distancing was possible while Ms. Cloud Bear was being transported by the United States Marshal Service to FMC Carswell in Texas.  And remember, now, Ms. Circle Bear is in her third trimester when being taking on an 800+ mile trip from South Dakota to Texas in the midst of a national pandemic.  

When Ms. Circle Bear gets to Texas, very pregnant, she is "immediately placed on quarantine status at FMC Carswell."  I am not sure if I find that detail reassuring, but I suspect that status just made being very pregnant that much harder for this young woman.  Oh yeah, BOP also now tells us that Ms. Circle Bear  "had a pre-existing medical condition which the CDC lists as risk factor for developing more severe COVID-19 disease."  So why was she moved to Carswell in the first instance after the pandemic had broken out, and why did BOP apparently do so very little to ensure her health and safety along the way?

There are so many moments these days in which I am unsure about whether I could get more sad and more angry about our COVID criminal justice world, but this story surely has made me more sad and more angry. 

UPDATE: FAMM has this new press release titled "FAMM calls for an investigation into the death of Andrea Circle Bear who died of COVID-19 in Federal Bureau of Prisons custody." Here is a portion:

FAMM President Kevin Ring issued the following statement in response to the death of Andrea Circle Bear, who died giving birth to her child while on a ventilator due to COVID-19 complications while in Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody.  FAMM is calling for an immediate investigation, and for the expansion of compassionate release and use of home confinement.

“Not every prison death is avoidable, but Andrea Circle Bear’s certainly seems to have been — she simply should not have been in a federal prison under these circumstances,” Ring said. “In fact, nothing better demonstrates our mindless addiction to punishment more than the fact that, in the midst of a global pandemic, our government moved a 30-year-old, COVID-vulnerable pregnant woman not to a hospital or to her home, but to a federal prison.

“Her death is a national disgrace, and I hope it is a wake-up call. Ms. Circle Bear was sentenced to 26 months in prison, not the death penalty. We have to do better. The Justice Department should investigate why this happened and take steps to ensure that it never happens again.”

April 29, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Impact of the coronavirus on criminal justice, Prisons and prisoners, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, March 05, 2020

Will Oregonians vote to decriminalize all drug possession this November?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this local news piece, headlined "Oregon Voters Could Decide This Year Whether To Decriminalize Drugs," about a ballot proposal that likely will be getting more and more attention in the months ahead.  Here are the basic details:

The proposed ballot measure, which has been financed by the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, would make Oregon the first state to remove criminal penalties on possession of illegal drugs....

“By removing harsh criminal penalties, we want to bring people into the light,” said Anthony Johnson, a Portland political consultant who is a chief sponsor of the measure.  “We want people to be willing to talk to their friends and families and loved ones and get the treatment they need.”

The measure, now technically known as Initiative Petition 44, would reduce possession of illegal drugs — including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine — to a non-criminal, $100 citation. And that citation could be waived if a person agrees to get a health assessment at a drug recovery center.  Drug trafficking and possession of large amounts of illegal drugs would continue to carry the same criminal penalties.

The proposed ballot measure also calls for providing a big increase in funding for drug treatment, which surveys suggest is more poorly funded in Oregon than in almost any state in the country. Most notably, the measure would divert most cannabis tax revenues away from schools and other services to provide at least $57 million a year for drug treatment. In addition, the measure calls for the state to take savings from reduced incarceration rates for drug crimes and put them into treatment programs.

Those efforts to boost treatment funding have been emphasized by measure petitioners. Several treatment advocates have endorsed the measure, including Richard Harris.  He founded Central City Concern in Portland and once headed the state’s office of Addictions and Mental Health Services. “The reality of it is that the effort to punish people because they have an addiction has always been a misplaced public policy,” Harris said.

But the initiative, which was first filed last August, has also raised concerns among many providers. Heather Jefferis is executive director for the Oregon Council for Behavioral Health, which represents many of the state’s major treatment providers. She said in a statement that, “We are not confident this proposal will address Oregon’s longstanding access crisis for Substance Use Disorder or Mental Health treatment services.”...

The decriminalization measure has met vociferous opposition from some law enforcement officials. Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote said he worries decriminalization would make it more socially acceptable to use dangerous drugs. “The trick is to not get people hooked in the first place,” he said. “If you get involved in heroin and methamphetamine, the road back is filled with failure.”

Oregon has already taken several steps toward reducing drug penalties. In 2017, the Legislature lowered several drug-possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors. And in many localities, prosecutors have increasingly focused on diverting drug offenders out of the criminal justice system and into treatment programs.

The Drug Policy Alliance, which helped fund Oregon’s 2104 cannabis legalization measure, has received major funding from billionaire investor George Soros. The group has so far provided virtually all the $850,000 donated to the measure campaign. Johnson said the campaign would be run by Oregonians and expects to attract many in-state donors.

The official website supporting Initiative Petition 44 (IP 44) is available at this link.  Here is how it describes the effort:

People suffering from addiction need help, not criminal punishments.  The Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, or IP 44, is a citizen initiative that Oregonians will vote on in November.  The idea is straightforward: instead of arresting and jailing people for drugs, we would begin using some existing marijuana tax money to pay for expanded addiction and recovery services, including supportive housing, to help people get their lives back on track.

This ballot measure doesn’t legalize any drugs.  Rather, it removes criminal penalties for small amounts of personal possession of drugs and directs people to drug treatment and recovery services.

March 5, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 28, 2020

"Changing Course in the Overdose Crisis: Moving from Punishment to Harm Reduction and Health"

The title of this post is the title of this big new Vera Institute of Justice report.  Here is part of its Introduction:

[A]long with the reports and public dialogue about the opioid overdose crisis, there is increasing recognition that relying on criminalizing drug use and enforcement-led approaches does not work.  Indeed, it is now firmly established that the long-running “war on drugs” in the United States has not only failed to reduce illicit drug use and associated crime but has also contributed mightily to mass incarceration and exacerbated racial disparities within the criminal justice system, with a particularly devastating impact on Black communities.

Researchers at the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) have long been working to provide accurate information about the latest evidence regarding justice system responses to problematic drug use and the opioid overdose crisis.  In so doing, Vera has highlighted innovative strategies that justice system actors are using to move away from enforcement-led approaches to drug use.  Furthermore, Vera, like others, has pushed for a public health approach to problematic drug use — one that simultaneously seeks to reduce contact with the justice system for people who use drugs and ensure that people who use drugs and do have such contact can access harm reduction, treatment, and recovery services to reduce the negative consequences of their drug use.

This report provides a look at the current intersection of problematic drug use and the criminal justice system. It offers practical guidance for practitioners, policymakers, and funders by compiling the wide range of interventions that communities can consider to minimize justice system contact for people who use drugs and to improve public health and safety.  In this report, Vera starts from the perspective that there is an urgent need to transform the criminal justice system’s response to drug use and to implement policies and practices that advance health.  The findings and recommendations in this report are guided by the principles of harm reduction — a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing the negative consequences of drug use without insisting on cessation of use — and by the conviction that problematic drug use should be addressed primarily as a public health problem rather than a criminal justice issue.

This report addresses the long-standing history of racialized drug policies in the United States and highlights the ways they have fueled mass incarceration and racial disparities at every point along the justice continuum.  It also shows that a new path forward requires not only bold leadership at the local level, where real change is more tangible, but also sustained investment in community organizations led by people who are directly impacted. This report is organized into four main sections.  To begin, it offers a brief overview of the context of the current drug overdose crisis and the ways that an enforcement-led approach to drug use has harmed people and communities.  The report then outlines the spectrum of community-based and justice system-based interventions that are currently applied in response to drug use at the local level.  The third section of the report describes how these interventions come together in two places: Ross County, Ohio, and Atlanta, Georgia.  These case studies describe responses in two different contexts, highlighting successes, common themes, and ongoing challenges.  The report concludes with key strategies and recommendations for changing the trajectory of justice system responses to drug use by drawing on these two case studies and interviews with advocates, scholars, and practitioners in the field.

February 28, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 27, 2020

"The Hidden Cost of the Disease: Fines, Fees, and Costs Assessed on Persons with Alleged Substance Use Disorder"

The title of this post is the title of this new paper authored by Meghan O'Neil and Daniel Strellman and available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

The age-old adage “crime doesn’t pay” is true in more ways than one. This article stems from two years of field work in problem-solving treatment courts; circuit, district, and federal courts; addiction treatment centers; and probation offices throughout the State of Michigan.  Persons experiencing substance use disorder (SUD) can rapidly amass criminal charges on any given day, given that the private use of controlled substances is illegal, as is driving while intoxicated.  These repeated behaviors can, and frequently do, culminate in incarceration, supervision (e.g., probation or parole), and hefty fines and fees.  Moreover, persons experiencing SUD are far from uncommon: overdose is now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and in 2018, focus groups with state district court judges in Michigan estimated that four out of every five criminal defendants were experiencing problematic substance use, illuminating the overwhelming degree to which SUD permeates our criminal justice system.

Practitioners, academics, and policymakers involved with the justice system ought to be concerned with the costs assessed in SUD cases because they can be potentially expensive to collect, excruciatingly burdensome on vulnerable people involved with the justice system trying to maintain sobriety and re-enter society, and present a generally inefficient method of punishment when the cost of collection outweighs the total amount which is ultimately collected by the state.  While crime doesn’t pay generally, it is particularly costly for vulnerable defendants experiencing SUD.  Identifying best practices for supervision of SUD offenders might present avenues to improve the cost effectiveness and efficiency of fines in ways that actually reduce subsequent offending — as fines were meant to do.

February 27, 2020 in Criminal Sentences Alternatives, Drug Offense Sentencing, Fines, Restitution and Other Economic Sanctions, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

"Why prosecutorial discretion must be less discreet for criminal justice"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable recent Hill commentary authored by Lars Trautman. Here are excerpts:

Although the term “prosecutorial discretion” is familiar to most people, the extent to which it influences the direction and outcomes of each case may not be.  Does an offense deserve criminal charges, and if so which charges?  Should an individual receive bail or await trial in a jail cell? Is that trial even necessary, or will a plea deal suffice? Prosecutorial discretion lies at the heart of the answer to these questions and more.

Yet legislators are in an uproar because some prosecutors have started using their discretion to presumptively dismiss or divert all cases involving certain low level offenses. In Indiana, this includes the Marion County prosecutor declining to prosecute cases involving under an ounce of marijuana.  Likely ignorant of the fact that prosecutors routinely get rid of these cases without a conviction anyway, legislators have taken this replacement of individual decisions with an office wide policy as an affront. The result is a push to let no law go unprosecuted.

That is of course impractical. There are simply too many offenses and possible offenders to actually prosecute them all.   This means that some prosecutorial discretion is inevitable.... General policies favoring alternatives to prosecution extend the benefits of this discretion universally in those cases where the consequences of a conviction are counterproductive to the aims of justice.  Such policies also recognize that scarce prosecutorial resources are generally better spent pursuing much more serious conduct. Ignoring marijuana possession to focus on violent crime should not be a controversial call.

But just because the legislature is attempting to solve a fictional problem does not mean very real ones do not exist.  Prosecutorial discretion suffers from unaccountability and lack of transparency that could undermine its potential for good.  It operates as a kind of black box that only prosecutors can see inside as facts go in, decisions come out, and explanations are rarely forthcoming.  Policies are seldom public, and prosecutors do not usually disclose why they reached an outcome in any given case.

This immunity from scrutiny becomes protection against any challenge.  After all, a bad outcome alone is standard fare in our justice system.  Without any information on why it was reached, who is to say it was not the natural and normal result?  But attempting to eliminate prosecutorial discretion does not address any of these issues.  With more than 13 million misdemeanor charges alone filed every year in the country, and annual prosecutorial caseloads exceeding a thousand in some places, the evidence suggests that discretion is probably not used enough.

Instead, legislators should work to verify that prosecutors exercise their discretion fairly.  They can do this by pushing prosecutors to release relevant policies to the public, explain individual decisions, and collect and publish data on these decisions.  Trying to remove discretion from prosecution is sheer folly.  But as a necessary force behind many of the decisions that occur in criminal justice, it should be brought further into the light.  Only then will the public be able to see that it is correcting imbalances and injustices rather than continuing them.

February 25, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Pot Prohibition Issues, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, Who Sentences | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 21, 2020

Enjoy full day of "The Controlled Substances Act at 50 Years" via livestream

CSA at 50_socialBlogging will be light over the next few days as I am in the midst of helping to conduct this amazing conference which started last night at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.  I have had the pleasure and honor of working with the amazing team at The Ohio State University's Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (@OSULawDEPC), along with the also amazing team at ASU's Academy for Justice (@Academy4Justice), to put together amazing and diverse array of panels and workshops on all sorts of topics relating to the past, present and future of the CSA's development, implementation and enforcement.

The basic agenda for the event can be found at this page, and last night  started with an amazing keynote by the amazing Keith Humphreys, Stanford University, Esther Ting Memorial Professor on "Federal Policy and the Dual Nature of Drugs," followed by an amazing response to keynote by Peter Reuter, University of Maryland, Professor of Public Policy and Criminology asking "Do Drug Problems have more influence on Drug Policy than vice versa?".

I am especially pleased and excited by this list of speakers who are participating, and today begins a series of terrific panels. and I can provide this link with its own links to the livestream for each of the panels. I think every part of the conference will be amazing, and I hope folks can make the time to tune in.

February 21, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offense Characteristics, Purposes of Punishment and Sentencing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 03, 2020

US Sentencing Commission publishes latest FIRST STEP/FSA resentencing data

The US Sentencing Commission today released the latest in a series of data reports titled "First Step Act of 2018 Resentencing Provisions Retroactivity Data Report."  The introduction to the report provides this context and overview:

On December 21, 2018, the President signed into law the First Step Act of 2018.  Section 404 of that act provides that any defendant 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 is eligible for a sentence reduction as if Sections 2 and 3 of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 were in effect at the time the offender was sentenced.  The First Step Act authorizes the defendant, the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, the attorney for the Government, or the court to make a motion to reduce an offender’s sentence.

The data in this report represents information concerning motions for a reduced sentence pursuant to Section 404 of the First Step Act which the courts have granted. The data in this report reflects all motions granted through December 31, 2019 and for which court documentation was received, coded, and edited at the Commission by January 29, 2020.

These new data from the USSC show that 2,387 prisoners have been granted sentence reductions, and that the average sentence reduction was 71 months of imprisonment among those cases in which the the resulting term of imprisonment could be determined.  Though this data is not exact and may not be complete, it still seems sound to state that this part of the FIRST STEP Act, by shortening nearly 2400 sentences by nearly 6 years, has now resulted in over 14,000 prison years saved(!).

Of course, as I have noted before, the FSA retroactivity provision of the FIRST STEP Act was only a small piece of the legislation.  But these latest data show yet again how this small piece has had huge impact that can be measure in lots of years of lots of lives.  And, of course, people of color have been distinctly impacted: the USSC data document that over 91% of persons receiving FSA sentence reductions were Black and more than another 4% were Latinx.

February 3, 2020 in Data on sentencing, Detailed sentencing data, Drug Offense Sentencing, FIRST STEP Act and its implementation, Mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, New crack statute and the FSA's impact, Race, Class, and Gender, Sentences Reconsidered | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Dispensary owner gets (within-guideline?!) federal prison term of 15+ years for marijuana sales that could be legal under most state laws

The headlined of this local article from Michigan, "Michigan medical marijuana seller gets prison: ‘Federal law has not changed,’ judge says," does not fully capture all the notable elements of a federal sentencing for marijuana sales yesterday.  Here are the details via the press article:

The former owner of medical-marijuana dispensaries in several Michigan cities was sentenced Tuesday, Jan. 28, to nearly 16 years in federal prison.  Danny Trevino, 47, of Lansing, who had Hydroworld dispensaries in Grand Rapids, Flint, Jackson, Lansing and elsewhere, had avoided state criminal and civil penalties over the years but was convicted of multiple federal charges.

“States are changing marijuana laws across the country, certainly that’s true, but federal law has not changed,” U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney said.

Trevino sought the statutory minimum sentence of five years in prison. Maloney instead sentenced Trevino to 15 years, eight months in prison - at the low end of advisory sentencing guidelines, which ranged from 188 to 235 months.

The sentence upset several family members and pro-marijuana activists who attended the sentencing in Grand Rapids. “What you saw is a travesty,” Detroit resident Richard Clement said. His shirt read: “#GETNORML,” “#WARONDRUGS” and “CANNACURES.”

He said it was difficult to reconcile what he called a harsh sentence in a state where marijuana is legal. He and others think Trevino was targeted because he is Hispanic. “This was totally racist,” a woman said, leaving the courthouse. “None of the (other dispensaries) ever get raided.” She was with Trevino’s family but refused to give her name....

Trevino, who has operated dispensaries since 2010, was convicted in an August jury trial of 10 felony charges, including conspiracy to manufacture, distribute and possess marijuana and maintaining a drug-involved premises. He was not allowed to use the state’s medical-marijuana law as a defense to the federal charges.

Nonetheless, the government said, he acted outside of the boundaries of the state medical-marijuana law. Defense attorney Nicholas Bostic called that a “fallacy.” He said that Trevino was successful in challenging state complaints after he had been arrested and the subject of several search warrants. He was arrested in April 2014 in Grand Rapids for delivery or manufacture of marijuana and maintaining a drug house but charges were dropped a month later, court records showed.

He fought forfeitures of funds seized by police that were ultimately returned by state courts. Trevino’s businesses were raided 16 times between 2010 and 2016, the government said. He provided the state with store records and tax records that showed his businesses brought in nearly $3 million.

“He thought he was legal,” Bostic told the judge. He said his client, whose previous drug convictions prevented him from being a caregiver, oversaw the operation. He said that every single sale of medical marijuana at his businesses would have been legal under laws in 33 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical or recreational marijuana. Trevino earlier told MLive: "How could I not have been in compliance if I was acquitted and found not guilty. We were winning and they didn’t charge us, so we kept going.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel McGraw said Trevino knew he acted illegally under federal law. He called Trevino “defiant, unrepentant and undeterred from committing the current federal crimes.” After federal investigators used a search warrant at one of his locations in 2016, Trevino posted on Facebook: “I guess Hydroworld is illegal. Lol OK.”

McGraw said Trevino acted as though marijuana – legalized in 2018 for recreational use in Michigan – was always legal. Trevino was “told time and time again that it was illegal and your honor, he simply didn’t care. He didn’t care. He kept operating," the prosecutor said.

The judge said his concern was Trevino’s conduct under federal law. “I fully recognize that the landscape has changed in many states in this country,” Maloney said. “The fact is, marijuana is a Schedule 1 controlled substance.” He noted that Congress has eliminated the mandatory minimum prison sentence for crack cocaine but has not acted on marijuana.

He said Trevino “had to know he was on the radar screens of federal authorities.” The judge ordered Trevino to serve four years on supervised release once his prison term ends. He also fined Trevino $11,000.

Without seeing more materials from this case, I am adverse to making too many quick judgments about this outcome. But nearly 16 years for quasi-legal marijuana sales seems pretty severe absent a lot more aggravating facts.  This article suggests that the defendant here was a "problem child" under Michigan state law, and so I suppose I can understand why the feds went after him and why the judge decided he merited a significant sentence. But if the defendant possibly believed that he was complying with state law, it seems misguided to sentence him pursuant to federal sentencing guidelines that are based around the “heartland” of a fully illicit drug dealer.

January 29, 2020 in Booker in district courts, Drug Offense Sentencing, Federal Sentencing Guidelines, Marijuana Legalization in the States, Offense Characteristics, Pot Prohibition Issues | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Different type of drug dealers get lengthy (though still way-below-guideline) sentences for RICO conspiracy to push opiods

There are nearly 400 drug dealers sentenced in federal courts every single week in the US, but a number of notable defendants were sentenced last week for their role in a somewhat different kind of drug conspiracy.  This Forbes article provides the basic details:

John Kapoor, the 76-year old billionaire founder of Insys Therapeutics, has been sentenced to 66-months in prison for orchestrating a system of bribery and kickbacks to physicians across the US in exchange for prescribing and over prescribing large amounts of the powerful fentanyl spray, Subsys, to patients with little to no need of the drug. Kapoor is the first ever CEO of a drug company to be convicted by the federal government in their fight to combat the opioid crisis.

Kapoor’s sentence was handed down by U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs in a Boston federal court on Thursday January 23rd.... It is the lengthiest prison sentence imposed on any of the seven former Insys executives who were found guilty of racketeering charges in May of 2019. In addition to Kapoor’s 66-month sentence he was sentenced to three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.

Similar sentences have been handed down in recent days to Kapoor’s seven co-conspirators.  Michael Gurry, Insys' former vice president, along with Richard Simon, Insys’ national director of sales, each received 33-months in prison; Michael Babich, Insys’ former CEO,was sentenced to 30-months; Joseph Rowan, the company's regional sales director, received 27 months; Alec Burlakoff, the former vice president of sales, was sentenced to 26 months Thursday; and Sunrise Lee, the former regional sales director, to a year and a day in prison....

The landmark case has been notable on two major fronts, the first being big pharma’s hand in the perpetuation and exacerbation of the opioid epidemic in the US and second, Insys’ systematic defrauding of the American healthcare system. From 2012 and 2015, Insys allegedly paid physicians to prescribe Subsys to patient and then went on to lie to insurance companies and defraud hundreds of thousands of dollars from Medicare from physician to physician to ensure that the expensive fentanyl-based painkiller would be covered....

Kapoor’s five and a half year sentence is considerably less than the 15-year prison sentence that was being sought by prosecutors who asserted that Kapoor was the ‘fulcrum’ of the racketeering scheme and was the only defendant who could not have been replaced by another conspirator.  Federal prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memo, "He was the principal leader, who personally approved, and thereafter enforced, the corrupt strategies employed throughout the conspiracy," continuing, "This crime would not have happened, could not have happened, without John Kapoor. It was, in almost every way, Kapoor’s crime."

Kapoor and his four co-defendants were faced with seven victims and family members of victims whose gave emotional statements about how their lives had been destroyed by Insys’ actions.  “By the grace of God, I am here to speak for all of us including the ones who lives you took,” said victim Paul Lara, who says he still suffers from being prescribed a drug that was never meant for him. Subsys, the powerful fentanyl spray is intended for terminal cancer patients to ease the pain during end of life care....

"Today's convictions mark the first successful prosecution of top pharmaceutical executives for crimes related to the illicit marketing and prescribing of opioids," U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement.  "Just as we would street-level drug dealers, we will hold pharmaceutical executives responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic by recklessly and illegally distributing these drugs, especially while conspiring to commit racketeering along the way." Lelling continued,  "This is a landmark prosecution that vindicated the public's interest in staunching the flow of opioids into our homes and streets."

Though Kapoor will now have to be in federal prison until he is in his 80s and might not live out the term, this CBS News article reports that victims are not content with the sentences imposed. The piece is headlined "Pharmaceutical executives 'got away with murder,' says mom of woman who died of an overdose," and here is an excerpt:

The prison sentence given to the pharmaceutical executive who helped fuel the opioid crisis "wasn't fair," the mother of a woman who died of an overdose said.  Deb Fuller was at the Boston courthouse Thursday, where Insys Therapeutics founder John Kapoor was sentenced to five and a half years for his role in bribing doctors to prescribe the powerful painkiller Subsys.  "I don't think it was fair. It wasn't fair to all the victims," Fuller told CBS News consumer investigative correspondent Anna Werner....

Former Insys Therapeutics Vice President of Sales Alec Burlakoff, who was featured in a video of company employees rapping about increasing sales, also was sentenced.  He got a shorter term of 26 months in prison, reflecting the fact that he cooperated with prosecutors.  Outside the courthouse, when asked if there was anything he would say to families of people who overdosed on Subsys, he said, "I'm sorry, very sorry."

Four other executives received sentences ranging from a year and a day to 33 months, not long enough for many families. "They all got away with murder because that's exactly what they did because it's more than Sarah that died from it," Fuller said.

January 26, 2020 in Drug Offense Sentencing, Offender Characteristics, Offense Characteristics, Procedure and Proof at Sentencing, White-collar sentencing | Permalink | Comments (0)